As long as I’m obsessively blogging about gender issues, I thought I might weigh on the conversation Valerie Dorazo and Dirk Deppey are engaged in. Dorazo argues that more gay characters in comics would be a good thing and that someday gay characters will be (or at least should be) as well, um, integrated into mainstream titles as black characters now are. Deppey responds by saying, eh, who cares?
What strikes others as semi-homophobic callousness still strikes me as the mere inability of semi-competent commercial writers to cope with subjects outside their narrow capes-and-tights comfort zones. It either winds up in cheesy “Kid Flash lectures” or in determined attempts to write characters that are Just Like Everybody Else, which invariably ends in stories that downplay what make gay characters genuinely different from others and howls of half-cocked outrage when they get kicked around the same way that everybody else gets kicked around in these things. This goes beyond gay-related issues and speaks more to the limits of both genre and its practitioners in general: Did Brian K. Vaughan turn into an instant homophobe by putting gay Marvel characters briefly in danger, or was that week’s outrage just another example of how ludicrous the standards of online discussion have become? I’d have objected to that “I Am Curious Black” issue of Lois Lane, too — not because I object to women’s equality before the law but because it’s difficult to advance the concept before readers who are too busy with giggling fits to ponder the question.”
I think this is basically an argument about tokenism, which makes it also an argument, to some degree, about segregation and isolationism. Dorazo believes that, overall, any more or less positive representation is good. It combats prejudice, normalizes marginalized groups, and leads to greater peace, equality, and happiness for all. And if I got a little sardonic there…well, it’s hard to take it entirely seriously when the model for success in comics is black folks, who remain massively underrepresented as characters, and even more underrepresented as creators. In fact, its hard to think of another segment of the entertaiment industry other than country music in which people of color are so thoroughly absent and marginalized — and this despite the fact that mainstream comics has been engaging in various forms of tokenism for the last what? 40 years or so?
Dirk’s essay, on the other hand, reminded me of a speech I saw by Aaron McGruder at the University of Chicago. McGruder was answering a question about why he had cut all the female characters out of his comic. He said that he had done so because he knew more about male characters. He also said that he didn’t think it made sense to insist that every creator represent or talk about every demographic. He added that in general he would just as soon not have clueless white people trying to write blacks. As an example, he pointed to Smallville, in which Superman’s best friend is black. “What on earth is a brother doing in Smallville?” he sneered.
It’s a pretty funny point, but also a big more double-edged than McGruder may have intended. It’s true that black people are more likely to live in cities than in small towns — but that’s not an accident. Nor is it due to the fact that African-Americans like cities better than do Caucasians or Jews. Rather, black people live in cities because of a history of segregation and racism. As James Loewen quite conclusively argues in “Sundown Towns,” blacks in the north used to be fairly evenly distributed in urban and rural areas. Then in the post-Reconstrution era, race relations became much worse, and blacks in a huge number of small towns were forced out by threats, lynchings, race riots, and other forms of violence. In defense, blacks congregated in cities, where the more anonymous nature of urban living and their relatively large numbers made them impossible to dislodge (though some cities did try.)
In other words, McGruder is mocking the idea of enforced integration, and using as his argument an example which points back to a history of enforced segregation. I think Dirk is doing something similar when he defends super-heteroness on the grounds that, hey, who wants to hear clueless straight dudes talk about gayness anyway? On the one hand, of course, he’s absolutely, and clearly, right. But why are comics writers so especially clueless about this issue? After all, there are a lot of super-hero comics about, say, environmental concerns which, while not especially or necessarily great, aren’t noticeably dumb by the genre’s standards of story-telling.
It seems to me that super-hero comics — in their content and demographics — are especially ill-suited to deal with gender and sexuality. Masculine bonding and masculine fantasy are at the core of what super-hero comics are about. I think that’s why tokenism is going to generally feel like tokenism. To deal with gay issues, you’d really have to work against genre expectations in some fairly conscious and intelligent ways.
So I guess I think that Dorazo is right in suggesting that the exclusion of gays in super-hero comics is telling and kind of icky. And I think Dirk is right in saying that tokenism is not likely to help matters much.
Further natterings on these issues: