Carleton University

Time Machines, Refrigerators, Supers and Sex An Analysis of Comic-book Troupes Through Barbara Gordon

Original Essay written for a university course on Disability and Sexuality-

Using popular culture to analyze a moment in time from the dominant societal perspective can be a powerful tool of cultural analysis and comic-books are arguably one of the most lush bodies of this kind of evidence. Comic-books have been criticized for the sexist and racist imagery over the course of their existence and yet there is very little scholarly critical analysis of the medium. Yet when exploring the cultural analysis surrounding comic-books, bloggers and online reviewers are diving into the deep intersectional problems and triumphs of their beloved literature. When considering sexuality and disability within comic-books, one character is commonly regarded as the treasured disabled heroine: Oracle. Irwin and Moeller identify the top ten stereotypes used commonly in the media to depict disabilities including the object of violence, the “super crip”, the nonsexual and the invalid (3). By exploring Oracle’s complex history we see various troupes which weaken disability stereotypes and perpetuate them, including sexy heroines, women in refrigerators, the “super crip” and the magical time machine.

Sexism within comics-books has been a large issue since their inception, however it is only with feminist critical analysis that we see the complex role that women play within comics and furthermore, how disabled women are used. Heroines often become sex objects throughmalegaze-comics the heteronormative male gaze of comic-books and while female readership is increasing, the depiction of women in comics is still reliant on male readers wanting sexy heroines. Whether it be the provocative costumes, poses and interactions with other characters in the story, women are often melted down into super sex symbols. These female heroes are meant to be sexually accessible by not only male characters but also by the male reader. At times, the only reason why a female hero is introduced into a story is to add sex appeal and a motivating factor; you can see this often times with the various women moving through playboy super hero Bruce Wayne/ Batman’s life. While these women are often powerful, they serve a purpose which lies within a patriarchal system of objectification and disempowerment. Barbara Gordon is one such character that was created to diversify audiences and add sex appeal to the Batman crime fighting team. Starting out as a teenager, Gordon became Batgirl and the love interest of co-sidekick, Robin. While extraordinary for her physical prowess and intelligence, Batgirl was not a well liked character because of her one dimensional construction. It was only when she was shot and paralysed in 1988 by the Joker in The Killing Joke does her character get a dramatic restyling and growing fandom. Her role as a heroine and sex symbol was extremely complicated by the violence she endured. Furthermore, her role as a sex symbol was forever changed because it was implied that she was also raped repeatedly after the attack, which effectively destroys her “super” status as a sex symbol, an innocent girl and a superhero. Her various statuses were effectively melted down to victim and her character dismissed by The Killing Joke writer Alan Moore. Yet, it is fascinating to look at how disability is factored into the sex symbols that heroines are often portrayed as.AR6mvUi

A popular and damaging stereotype of those with disabilities is that they are asexual due to their disability, and characters like Oracle complicate this stereotype significantly. Often those with disabilities are burdened by an asexual stereotype which “relies on impressions of disabled people as undesirable; disqualified for marriage or any sexual partnership and reproduction,” essentially a dehumanizing construct (Kim, 482). In Kattari’s article, she notes that “sexuality… love and [expression of] various desires is not usually recognized as a valid expression for people with disabilities” (501). Furthermore, Kim argues that the process of desexualization effectively “separates sexuality from disabled bodies, making it irrelevant to and incompatible with them” (483). While we can see evidence of desexualizating the disabled body in various other popular culture, comic-books and specifically Gordon’s transformation from Batgirl to Oracle, on and off the page is especially complicated. After The Killing Joke, writer Alan Moore had dismissed Gordon’s character, simply using her as motivation. However, writers Kim Yale and John Ostrander chose to takeover Gordon’s character in an attempt the correct the injustice they felt Moore had done to her character. Yale and Ostrander created Oracle, a disabled heroine who became extremely influential due to her technical abilities and strategic intelligence, arguably Oracle became a more powerful heroine then Batgirl ever could. In the hands of writers like Alan Moore, Gordon would have remained a footnote and arguably would have embodied the desexualized stereotype as her status as a sex symbol was forever compromised by her disability. Yet with Yale and Ostrander, they chose to complicate Oracle’s character as she suffered from PTSD, and continued to be a sex symbol for readers. Her relationship with Robin grew as they both took on new names and roles, further
complicating the asexual troupe as she was constructed as sexual, date-able and capable. As a character, Oracle became a triumphal representation of the disabled community with a complex storyline, character development and sex appeal, yet in some senses the win for disability is a win for sexism as well in this case. Further complicating the Oracle character is the objectification and male gaze still used when she is depicted and how the women in refrigerator troupe is a problem for disability and sexuality.

The women in refrigerators troupe in Gordon’s story combines objectification and the use of disability to create more complicated storylines for male characters like Batman, Robin and later Nightwing. Gail Simone describes this disturbing troupe as “super-heroines who have been either depowered, raped, cut up or stuck in the refrigerator,” to motivate or 152make more complex story arches for male characters. Simone published an online list in 1999 of all of the female characters in comic-books who were used for this purpose and recorded almost two hundred at the time. Feminist critics like Anita Sarkeesian with her YouTube channel Feminist Frequency popularize the critique of the women in refrigerators troupe for today’s readers. Barbara Gordon is a classic example of this troupe as she was used to motivate Batman to seek revenge after the Joker shot Gordon, and because Gordon’s original use was to motivate without gaining any of her own complex storylines. Yet Gordon’s character is even more complicated because of the direction that writers Yale and Ostrander chose to take. Their choice to make Gordon’s character into Oracle falls more actually into what many would expect male superheroes images (5)to experience: dead man defrosting troupe. John Bartol describes this troupe as “cases where male heroes have been altered or appear to die, they usually come back even better than before, either power-wise or in terms of character development/ relevancy to the reader”. Yet this greatly depends on whether one takes the dominant perspective on disability which is usually abliest or whether one chooses to view disability as not a kind of death sentence. Essentially, by seeing Barbara’s attack as a women in refrigerators troupe, one acknowledges dominant abliest ideology which constructs disability as the end of someone’s life or the end of their usefulness. Much like how Moore perceived Gordon’s character, disability becomes a tool to end a woman’s life or usefulness in favour of a man’s storyline. Yet, if one chooses to see Gordon’s fate as the dead man defrosting troupe then disability is no longer a personal disaster but is instead how Gordon becomes the more powerful and complex character Oracle. From this perspective, Oracle exemplifies how disability is not a death sentence in the literal and symbolic sense but can actually be a doorway to empowerment.

Yet even viewing Oracle as an empowered heroine embodying the dead man defrosting troupe is filled with tension as arguably this triumph can turn into another negative stereotype of disability: the “super crip”. The “super crip” “stems from the belief that life with a disability must necessarily be horrific and unsatisfying, and as such, we must admire persons with disabilities for being able to live “the way they do”” (www.trinimex.ca). In the case of Gordon, her ability to overcome her disability and excel despite her body makes her a figure to be admired and arguably her greatest super-ability is her tenacity to be able to live with her disability. In a sense, taking the dead man defrosting troupe too far and creating a superpower through admiration of being able to live with a disability, turns a possible positive to a negative. Her extraordinary “super crip” status allows her to remain sexually accessible to readers because admiration for heroes and admiration for heroism because of disability can be a fine line. Irwin and Moeller suggest that “those characters with physical disabilities that possessed special abilities were portrayed in such a way as to explain how a person needed to be exceptional to overcome the perceived barriers of physical disability” (4).Exploring the tension which rests between seeing empowerment due to disability or empowerment despite disability is especially complicated by the Oracle character because her original purpose was never to inspire any kind of admiration but merely to act as a plot device. Furthermore, exploring how the return of Batgirl and Gordon’s ability to walk adds another layer of disability and sexuality.

Batgirl_by_Nowlan

Batgirl’s return in all of her able-bodied glory marked a dramatic twist for fans and comic-book characters alike as the presumed permanency of Gordon’s disability was erased and her former sexually immature self comes back into the foreground. Despite the large fandom that the Oracle character had gathered over the twenty years she was in action, DC Comics choose to erase Gordon’s disability and bring back the iconic Batgirl in 2011. They originally choose Gail Simone who noted the women in refrigerator troupe to write the comic, later fired and then rehired her after fan outrage. This relaunch of the Batgirl character comes after the New 52′ initiative was started across the DC universe. A rather sudden, and slightly muddled turn of events saw Barbara Gordon “restored” to her former able-bodied self. While many fans were stunned by DC’s decision to “cure” Gordon’s disability according the multitude of blog posts and online forums, some were excited to see how the more mature and influential Oracle character would be channelled into the side-kick Batgirl. While opinions seem to be mixed according to my online research, it appears that Gordon lost her influence when giving up the wheelchair and donning the cape. The choice to change Gordon back into Batgirl and to remove some of her technological prowess is questionable at best. Arguably, becoming Batgirl is, in a sense, a way of “going back” to the “good old days” of able-bodiedness, a time machine if you will. As Gordon was shot at the age of eighteen, her sexual and personal maturity was greatly different then what fan have grown to love of Oracle. Essentially, the rebirth of Batgirl marks a negative turn back towards the medical model of disability where the focus is on curing and personal disability rather than societal based inaccessibility. While Oracle was arguably an empowered heroine, becoming Batgirl once again is perpetuating the idea that wanting to be “normal” and able-bodied is the ultimate goal. Yet, by going back to Batgirl, Gordon exhibits the kind of lack expected of those with a disability because she is no longer as influential nor can she erase the years living with her disability. While blogger fans have noted that Simone’s focus on Gordon’s PTSD and the repercussions of regaining her able-bodiedness is positive, the loss of Oracle as an active and powerful disabled heroine is mourned by many.

Barbara Gordon’s character transformation from Batgirl, to Oracle and to Batgirl again marks the tension which rests between many disability stereotypes and troupes, while also negotiating objectification and sexism within comic-book storylines. The story both on the pages and off of them of the development of Gordon’s character allowed for empowerment of a disabled superhero while arguably those wins where undermined by the women in refrigerator and the “super crip” troupes. While the scholarship on comic-books is dismal, the importance of analyzing today’s dominant perceptions of those most marginalized is extremely important and comic-books are the gateway to that kind of analysis. How the new change to Gordon’s character and the “miracle” of able-bodiness will effect the interaction between sexuality, gender and disability is yet to be fully realized.

Bibliography

Sarkeesian, Anita. #2 Women in Refrigerators (Tropes vs. Women). Video. Feminist Frequency. Uploaded Apr 6, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DInYaHVSLr8

Kim, Eunjung. “Asexuality in disability narratives” Sexualities 14(4), (2011) p. 479-493.

Kattari, Shanna. “Sexual Experiences of Adults with Physical Disabilities: Negotiating with Sexual Partners.” Sexuality and Disability 32.4 (2014): 499-513. Web. 12 Feb. 2015

Irwin, M., & Moeller, R. “Seeing different: Portrayals of disability in young adult graphic novels”. School Library Media Research Volume 13. Chicago: American Association of School Librarians (2010). Web. 8 Mar. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/aaslpubsandjournals/slr/vol13/SLR_SeeingDifferent.pdf.

See short Cultural Artefact analysis here

 See a related story here

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Prof. Karaian on “Selfies, Sexuality and Teens: A Canadian Study” – Interview

Lilith interviewed Dr. Lara Karaian who is recently working on a project named “Selfies, Sexuality and Teens: A Canadian Study” at Carleton University. She has looked at the legal regulation and construction of sex, gender and sexuality; feminist, queer and transgender legal theory; risk management and regulation; (self)surveillance; the intersections of criminal and constitutional law; law and morality; critical criminology, cultural criminology, and porn studies.

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Lilith interviewed Wilder and Alex from Carleton University about the current #UpForDebate campaign calling for a national debate on women’s issues. Our wonderful guests are from Oxfam!

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Black History Month Interview

Lilith chatted with the new program coordinator at Carleton University’s REC Hall and the person behind the various events happening during Black History Month: Kareen Onyeaju. Tune in for a discussion on the necessity for BHM, race politics today and the various exciting programming happening this month!

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Carleton University Black History Month

Kigali to Canada- Interview on Kigali, Post- Genocide

Lilith interviews undergraduate student Mel to talk about her experiences during a study abroad program in Kigali and the resulting events at Carleton University discussing Kigali post-genocide (Kigali to Canada). Her personal experience is visceral and engaging as she spoke to both sides of the Rwandan conflict which brought her to the understanding that the genocide was and still is: not simply black and white/ good or bad. Mel also speaks the the perceptions of the genocide from a Western prospective through the media.

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Politics of Black Love- Interview

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Defining the British Self Through the Racial Other in Greene & Fleming

Defining the British Self Through the Racial Other

in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana and The Human Factor, and Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die

(A Submitted Essay)

Identity building is an especially hard task and cultures of whiteness and constructions of Otherness impose much of its own perceptions about who one should and should not be to further complicate this process. Within British spy fiction, Britain’s colonial history saturates how white characters interact with racialized characters. These racialized characters become Others within the language of whiteness as they are constructed as completely opposite to the more respectable and “Enlightened” English men in these novels. Using stereotypes and binaries of difference, these Others are portrayed as criminal, sexually perverse and pitiful within British spy fiction. Ian Fleming in his 1954 novel Live and Let Die features James Bond as a symbol of white Britishness against the Other crime-lord Mr. Big. In Graham Greene’s novels Our Man in Havana (1958) and The Human Factor (1978), the Other is used to highlight what British white men are not by comparison with racialized Others and the constructed “natural” difference between them. Fleming and Greene’s novels display how in a culture of whiteness the binary of difference created between the Other who is beastly, depraved and pathetic are used to construct the British man as intelligent, powerful and heroic.

Whiteness and the binary construction of the Self and the Other in Western society is largely facilitated by the historical events and ideologies of imperialism and colonialism. British spy novels act as a cultural indicator of the anxieties within these cultures of whiteness. To understand how whiteness and Otherness functions within Greene and Fleming’s novels, one must first explore what these terms are and how they create a culture of binary difference. Whiteness itself is a flexible state of being which is neither explicitly nor solely connected to white skin but is instead a way of performing racial superiority in “a position of social dominance” (Levine-Rasky). Whiteness allows for a privileged access to “power, resources, rewards, meaning, status and futures,” which is used to further solidify superiority (Levine-Rasky, 18). As Tim Christensen notes: “the limitations of essentialist notions of identity from a performative notion of identity becomes the exclusive privilege of whites” (11). Western culture in many ways exists on differences within a system of binaries, which essentially limits identity and social interaction, for example: male and female, black and white. Whiteness and Otherness are constructed as complete opposites and each identity must rely on each other to exist; however, within cultures of whiteness, there is massive power imbalances which leads to the perception that whiteness is in fact better than Otherness. Stereotyping is a pervasive tool of whiteness which allows for institutionalization of discriminatory practices of difference while also normalizing it. Tim Christensen writes that:

The stereotype therefore sets a process of misrecognition into motion, through which the racial self is uneasily and re-iteratively created in opposition to the racial or colonial other, whose imagined characteristics conceal the lack of self-consistent being at the centre of the white, or English, self. (12)

The stereotype thus becomes a tool of self-identification and Otherness-naming while functioning as acceptable and in some cases true. Whiteness then becomes a symbol of normality, and being natural, along with being “identified with cleanliness, an idea that penetrates to behaviour, progress and morality” (Levine-Rasky, 46). Whiteness has the power in many ways to refuse to be “named and arrogates to itself the power of the norm and the universal” (Tsou, 585). Otherness and its stereotyping relies on exoticism, infantilism, and hypersexualization, while whiteness is connected with power, rationality and enlightenment (Levine-Rasky, 46). Creating a disproportionate power dynamic dictated by difference facilitates exploitation, conquest and discrimination. As Levine-Rasky argues, “whiteness and Englishness became conflated in London popular culture and in elite discourse of religion, politics, science, and philosophy” (27). England’s colonial history specifically saturates the British spy genre and the binary of difference between the British self and the Other is based on whiteness and the power inherent in being able to define who is the Other.

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming depicts the black Other as a fundamentally unintelligent criminal in opposition to the constructed wit and heroics of James Bond. The Bond series is extremely important as a cultural indicator, as it explores the anxieties created by “social, cultural, and political changes Britain underwent in the 1950s and 1960s” (Bererich, 14). Mr. Big is the main antagonist who “is probably the most powerful negro criminal in the world,” regardless that “they don’t seem to take to big business” (Fleming, 16). Mr. Big is a powerful, intelligent and wholly unique black Other within Bond’s world and his black attributes largely outweigh his white heritage which allows for him to operate intelligently. How Mr. Big is described by Bond’s first person narrative in dehumanizing terms where he is melted down to a beastly “it” creature who has “a great football of a head, twice the normal size and very nearly round… it was hairless” (60). Furthermore, Bond must remind himself of Mr. Big’s human existence when he reflects that “he had heard its heart pumping in its chest, had heard it breath, had seen sweat on the grey skin” (209). Mr. Big’s appearance groups him with the “clumsy black apes,” according to Bond, as Mr. Big cannot escape his black heritage. Likewise, Mr. Big uses his Otherness to his advantage as he employments “the fear of Voodoo and the supernatural, still deeply, primitively ingrained in the negro subconscious,” to control his employees (20). Mr. Big is further dehumanized as the dangerous black Other when rumours establish him as the “zombie or living corpse of Baron Samedi himself, the dreaded Prince of Darkness” (19). Mr. Big uses stereotyping and the anxieties about the black and specifically male Other to further his criminal objectives. The characterization of Mr. Big relies on many perceptions of the specifically black Other, yet his intelligence and visibly grey skin positions him as partially white and illustrates what an aspect of whiteness is.

live-and-let-die-50-years-of-bond

In Fleming’s book, he portrays Mr. Big as a legitimate challenge for Bond and Britain to overcome as he is far more intelligent then constructions of the Other should allow, and this is because he is partially white. Firstly, Bond is the image of the British self and his “strait-laced, stiff-upper-lipped Englishness can be upheld only by comparison with his enemies, who, mostly and emblematically, are not English” (Bererich, 26). Throughout the novel, readers are struck by the “black” language Fleming uses to show difference and ultimately stupidity as “guess ah jist nacherlly gits tahd listenin’ at yuh,” is highlighted as black Otherness speech (43). All of the distinctly black characters other than Mr. Big and Solitaire speak this kind of broken English; whereas Bond and his partner Leiter speak flawless English in opposition to the Other. The reason why Mr. Big is such a threat to Bond and he is able to communicate in sophisticated and flawless English is because he is not entirely black. Mr. Big has a grey muddled complexion and his “nose was wide without being particularly negroid, the nostrils did not gape at you” (60). Mr. Big’s ethnic and racial heritage also complicates his Otherness as “he’s not pure negro. Born in Haiti. Good Dose of French Blood,” which is why he is intelligent regardless of his blackness (16). In essence, it is Mr. Big’s small amount of whiteness which allows him to become a more realistic and challenging opponent for Bond, as Bond is above dealing with petty and unintelligent criminal Others as equals. Bond’s character attempts to solidify British superiority and “advocate British dominance over the rest of the world,” as he ultimately overcomes all foes, Others or not (Bererich, 24). Mr. Big and Solitaire both act as racially complicated characters which highlight both the blackness of the Other and the whiteness of Bond.

live-and-let

Solitaire in Fleming’s novel exists within a space of anxiety where she is the black Other through her supernatural abilities steeped in Voodoo, and her white appearance. Fleming and Bond both use Solitaire to illustrate and understand the black Other without allowing for an intimate and dangerously sexual relationship to develop with that black Other, as she is ultimately white in her loyalties and appearance. She is described as being pale, blue-eyed “with the pallor of white families that have lived long in the tropics” (Fleming, 66). Kissing “her white throat,” Bond is instantly sexually attracted to Solitaire, and while he reads about Voodoo and Mr. Big from files and books, Solitaire attempts to act as a safe interpreter of Otherness (105). Her instant trust and attraction to Bond as well as her white appearance allows her to identify within a space of whiteness, and thus she can be an appropriate sexual companion for Bond. She looks to Bond as a protector and saviour as he had saved her from being Mr. Big’s captured fiance as: “I’ve been shut up with him and his nigger gangsters for nearly a year” (92). She is much more white than her captor, Mr. Big, as her allegiance is solely with Bond and “she felt indifferent to the fate of those she judged to be evil, very few of them were white” (114). Bond in fact re-imagines Solitaire’s connection with whiteness as steeped in colonial history as he sees her face as “the face of the daughter of a French Colonial slave-owner” (66). He even recognizes his “romantic picture,” of Solitaire’s past and yet adheres to the idea that she has been in a position of power through her white colonial past and thus is like Bond himself (95). Yet Solitaire is not entirely white which gives her the ability to function within both white and Other spaces. Being born in Haiti already places her as not entirely white, but it is her relationship with the supernatural and Voodoo aspects of the black Other which further identifies her as different. Mr. Big finds her “doing a telepathic act,” just as Bond encounters her doing a visceral Voodoo dance to drums (65). As she can act as grateful interpreter for Bond, she attempts to “explain to someone with that certainty of spirit, with that background of common sense, brought up with clothes and shoes,” what the black Other thinks and will do (101). In fact, Solitaire has a great amount of difficulty in explaining the Other to Bond as “what could this man know of these things (Voodoo) or of her half-belief in them,” as he is so entirely white and functions within a space of whiteness (102). Solitaire and Mr. Big illustrate through their racial difference and likeness to Bond how whiteness and Otherness functions within Fleming’s story and how they are not mutually exclusive identity traits.

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In Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, the racialized Other is stereotypically homogenized as a beastly sexual being, where Havana is featured as the space of the Other and sex as the currency. The prerogative of whiteness is to label Otherness according to what one does not want to be and in Our Man in Havana, the main protagonist Wormold appears to be almost asexual; whereas the ethnically unspecific Others around him are hypersexual as a sign of both their difference and Wormold’s status as a white man in Havana. The economy of Havana, according to Wormold, is largely run by uncouth or sinful occupations and hobbies such as prostitution, pornography, gambling, alcoholism and the lottery which “was a serious trade uncorrupted by tourists” (Havana, 34). Greene writes that “the sexual exchange was not only the chief commerce of the city, but the whole raison d’etre of a man’s life, one sold sex or one bought it,” and those who do not partake are essentially outsiders within the Other’s space (Havana, 56). While the Other’s space is portrayed as functioning on sinful activities, the white or more specifically British space is ran on bureaucracy, extravagance and “appropriate” activities, so much so that explaining free drinks to Londoners would be “tedious, if not impossible” (Havana, 153). Wormold recognizes the “English snobbery,” and the “kinship and security the word English implied to him,” as he is ultimately an English man in the Other’s space (Havana, 173). For no matter how long Wormold has been a part of the Havana community the “pimps accosted him automatically… they had never got used to him, in their eyes he never became a resident; he remained a permanent tourist” (Havana, 32). Wormold, along with his obvious white skin, is further shunned by the Other community because he does not partake in the economy of Havana and this is confusing to the locals. When Wormold is offered a packet of pornographic postcards he rejects them and in response, the unnamed Other draws out another packet of pornographic cards in the hoping of please him (Havana, 124) Likewise, Greene implies that Wormold is too good for the usual product that the Other enjoys as Raul notes that “for an Englishman in your position places like the San Francisco are unsuitable, even the Mamba Club,” to get prostitutes from (Havana, 56). In fact, the type of prostitutes that Englishmen supposedly look for is also different than the Others as “you are not a Cuban: for you the shape of a girl’s bottom is less important than a certain gentleness of behaviour” (Havana, 56). The economy of Havana simply does not translate between British whiteness and racialized Otherness as “a notice in Spanish and bad English forbade the audience to molest the dancers” (Havana, 124). Even in the context of simple language translating, English and the Other simply do not function or communicate in the same way. By highlighting the difference between Wormold and the racialized Others around him, it illustrates the complex binary relationship that whiteness along with its opposite creates. While the Other is distinctly defined within its own space as depraved through their economy of sex, the British self represented through Wormold is also constructed through perceptions of whiteness and privilege.

While the Other in Havana and the space that it occupies is clearly set and is not explored as explicitly constructed according to the author, the identity of the white British self is questioned and consistently re-imagined, not necessarily for truth but is a necessity. Greene explores the anxiety of white British identity as distinctly malleable yet essential when being confronted by political and racial Others, especially within the space of the Other. By constituting and solidifying what a British man looks and acts like, the dangers of being in the space of the Other seems less threatening. Firstly, one has to consistently verify their allegiance with Britain and the white values that come with that. Wormold is asked repeatedly if he is a legitimate British man with a passport to confirm his trustworthiness as “one likes to do business with a British firm, one knows where one is, if you see what I mean” (Havana, 8). Being a recognizable British and white ally gives Wormold capital within cultures of whiteness and gives him access to the British world of spies. The label of Britishness in itself is cultural capital and allows for a certain level of white privilege as a female Other points out to Beatrice that “we Britishers have to stick together,” yet Beatrice has a name and the woman is called a Negress (Havana, 99). In this case, Britishness as a label does carry cultural capital but the Other can only access the privileges of that in small ways, as visibly racialized individuals cannot truly be British. What British means is complicated and as Greene describes the formulation of Wormold as a British subject according to his superiors, we see the depth of re-imagining and the links with colonial history. Wormold is described as:

Our man in Havana belongs—you might say—to the Kipling age. Walking with Kings—how does it go? –and keeping your virtue, crowds and the common touch. I expect somewhere in that ink-stained desk of his there’s an old penny note-book of black wash-leather in which he kept his first accounts (Havana, 46)

While ultimately, Our Man in Havana is a satire, Greene explicitly connects Wormold with real legendary Imperialist writer Rudyard Kipling. Regarding the formation of Wormold as a good British citizen, connecting him with Kipling, highlights colonial ideologies of difference and Wormold’s place within whiteness. Wormold’s superior takes a limited amount of information about Wormold and creates a romantic image of him, and understands the fictitious nature of his creation and notes that “details don’t matter,” as he is speaking in metaphors to communicate an idea (Havana, 46). While being identified as a British man and thus having access to privileges of whiteness, Wormold is still not beyond constructions of identity. He is expected to be a “patriotic Englishman,” (Havana, 26). By adhering to binary conceptions of whiteness and Otherness, Greene illustrates the problematic nature of racial and ethnic identity as constructions of opposites. Where the Other is positioned in their own space in Our Man in Havana, Greene explores how racial difference and ethnic awareness outside of one’s space affects racial identity in The Human Factor.

our-man-4

In The Human Factor, Greene depicts the African Other as an object of pity as being an Other and being impoverished according to stereotypes. The book is set during the South African apartheid and much of the plot and characters have personal experiences of the apartheid. The focus on the racialized Other is largely who the Africa Other is and how being African is an all-consuming identity. This African Other is a constructed identity of difference, where Britishness is conflated with comfort, abundance and saviour-hood, the African Other is poverty, political injustice and pitiful. Africa in itself is a constructed place where white British men can dictate what Africa was as: “my Africa was a sentimental Africa… How easy it was in the old days when we dealt with chiefs and witch doctors and bush schools and devils and rain queens” (Human, 65). The imagining of Africa is just as fictitious as the poverty-stricken Africa as “my Africa was still a little like the Africa of Rider Haggard. It wasn’t a bad place,” before (Human, 65). A distinct image which appears repeatedly in Greene’s text is “the memory of a famine photograph… a small corpse spread-eagle on desert sand, watched by a vulture” (Human, 27). Africa becomes a romantic image of “the bush” where “the cook would now be plucking a chicken behind the rest-house and the pie-dogs would be gathering in the hope of scraps” (Human, 241). This Africa is a place where a black mistress dies from blackwater fever and where poverty is idealized as an authentic African experience (Human, 248). Just as Fleming had dehumanized Mr. Big, Greene dehumanizes the African Other by creating an object of pity steeped in homogenized perceptions of poverty, which ultimately overrule any other experiences of the African self. The “little black babies,” are always in danger within Africa because they are African, and being a racialized Other living in poverty is perceived as being especially victimizing and in need of a white saviour (Human, 116). Those few who can escape the inevitability of the poverty-stricken African Other are portrayed as incredibly unique as if a man “picked out one piece of achieved sculpture from the all the hack carvings littering the steps of an hotel for white tourists” (Human, 22). Yet ultimately, portraying the African Other as an object of pity or a victim of their own racial identity is dehumanizing. It reinforces a binary of difference where the British white self is superior and feels pity for the Other, while also in a position of power to be a saviour.

The anxieties about political allegiances and how white guilt and sympathy makes the British self untrustworthy is at the core of the Greene’s novel. In The Human Factor, allegiances and ideological position is extremely important and while Castle should be trustworthy as a longstanding white colonial-steeped British man, his supposed romantic and sympathetic feelings for the plight of South African Others marks him as questionable. While Castle “daydreamed of complete conformity,” within the British Intelligence Agency and within the domestic sphere, his relationship with his wife Sarah and her son Sam disrupts that vision (Human, 15). Sarah as an African Other unintentionally corrupts Castle’s whiteness and white image as Castle notes: “I became a naturalized black when I fell in love with Sarah” (Human, 151). Ultimately, it is Castle’s relationship with Sarah that calls his loyalty into question and leads to his discovery as the leak (Human, 247). Whether Castle would betray his country for Sarah, and “her people,” is questioned in terms of romantic sympathy where “the romantic idea of breaking what they think is an unjust law [] attracts them just as much as a black bottom” (Human, 127). Even Sarah questions Castle’s motives and loyalties, as: “I wonder whether you love me only because of my colour,” she highlights the uncertainty and untrustworthy nature of a romantic and sympathetic man (Human, 223). Castle deceived both BOSS and his agents in South Africa posing as a writer of a sympathetic book on the apartheid and he was perceived as “one of those idealistic types who want to change the nature of human beings” (Human, 128). Those around Castle fear he will seek “validation of his actions by empathy with an oppressed race,” rather than upholding his duties as a British white citizen (Snyder, 33). This novel is arguably a “cautionary tale demonstrating how a compunction fuelled by guilt (or sympathy) can lead to morally ambivalent outcomes” (Snyder, 29). While pitying the impoverished African Other is a sign of white superiority, sympathizing and possibly acting against your country in the name of injustice is not acceptable British white behaviour. The white man can only be a saviour in so far as helping the Other in minor ways; however, the white man can not help to make the Other equal within the culture of whiteness. There must remain an imbalance of power for whiteness to still be a privileged and sought after identity.

The construction of the British self with the culture of whiteness is dependent on the likewise construction of the Other. Both identities are intimately linked, as it is through the representation of both the white and Other self that difference and privilege can be analyzed. In Fleming’s novel Live and Let Die, the Other is depicted as beastly, unintelligent and superstitious while the British white man is sophisticated, intelligent and logical. The characters of Mr. Big and Solitaire each carry significant traits of the white and black Other and it is ultimately through these characters that the binary of difference is established within the novel. In Greene’s Our Man in Havana, the Other within its own space deals in sex as an intimate part of its culture, where the British white self cannot fully participate nor fully understand. The main protagonist Wormold highlights the constructed British white self as he is re-imagined to fit an appropriate character of whiteness. In Greene’s other novel The Human Factor, the African Other is explicitly connected and constituted by the perceived poverty of both Africa and the African self. While creating a dehumanizing culture of pity, the British self is restricted in the amount of sympathy and help it can offer the African Other, as the imbalance of power must be maintained. Each novel discussed illustrates the various ways that both the British self and the Other are constructed and how those constructions are dependent on a binary relationship of difference.

Bibliography

Berberich, Christine. “Putting England Back on Top? Ian Fleming, James Bond, and the Question of England.” The Yearbook of English Studies 42 (2012): 13-29. Web. JSTOR.

Christensen, Tim. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Misrecognition, Pleasure, and White Identity in Kipling’s Kim”. Collage Literature 39.2 (2012): 9-30. Web. Project Muse.

Fleming, Ian. Live and Let Die. Las Vegas: Thomas & Mercer, 2012. Print

Greene, Graham. Our Man in Havana. London: Vintage, 2004. Print

Greene, Graham. The Human Factor. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1978. Print

Levine-Rasky, Cynthia. Whiteness Fractured. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013. Print.

Snyder, Lance Roberts. “’He Who Forms a Tie Is Lost’” Loyalty, Betrayal, and Deception in The Human Factor.” South Atlantic Review 73.3 (2008): 23-43. Web. JSTOR

Tsou, Elda E. “‘This Doesn’t Mean What You’ll Think’: Native Speaker, Allegory, Race.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 128.3 (2013): 575-589, 855-856. Web. MLA International Bibliography

Anonymous Writer, Published with Permission.

(Note) This essay is open for all to read however, plagiarism still counts- if individuals are caught using this essay as their own they can face consequences.

Oracle- Sexy and Disabled? A Cultural Analysis

An Essay for a Disability and Sexuality Course at Carleton University

Description:

My Cultural Artefact is a comic stripe featuring a disabled character named Oracle, entering the shower in three panels. Oracle, also known as Barbara Gordon and formerly the superhero Batgirl was paralysed in the 1988 comic The Killing Joke and from that point was established as the technological, strategic genius, Oracle. This character became a disability champion to many readers craving alternative superheros in comics and her popularity grew dramatically after 1988. In this specific artefact, Oracle is featured as stripping away her clothing and entering the shower in hopes of being on time for dinner plans. I choose this piece of a comic stripe because the representation or lack thereof of superheroes with disabilities allows for a unique analysis of both the visibility of the disabled community and the objectification and de-sexualization which comics have largely been criticized for.

Context:

In regards to the context and impact the creators had on my artefact, we must explore the very first appearance of Barbara Gordon in DC comic and the consequent plot-point which saw her being disabled later on. The original creators of Barbara Gordon and her super, alter-ego Batgirl were Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino, and later Alan Moore took the mantle. Batgirl was used periodically in the comics, so when Alan Moore wrote The Killing Joke in 1988, he and editor Len Wein felt that her character was disposable enough to end her crime fighting career permanently. Moore and Wein were critiqued by many for their treatment of the Barbara Gordon character as excessively violent and lacking female perspective. Furthermore, the creators of the Oracle character: Kim Yale and John Ostrander noted the use of Batgirl as an example of the “Women in Refrigerators Syndrome” within comicbooks and videogame storytelling where: “severe injury or death of a female character [occurs] as a means to antagonize a male superhero.” Later on, Yale and Ostrander took the depressed Barbara Gordon and turned her into the techno-genuis Oracle. In this context, the origin of Oracle as a disabled character lies in the laziness of ableist and sexist storytelling but was then reclaimed and embraced as a symbol of alternative heroes and a champion of disability representation within comics.

Critical Analysis

My initial analysis of this cultural artefact is one of mixed feelings, where the visibility of this disabled female superhero is a positive example of progress and yet there are issues of ableism and sexism in the objectification of Oracle within this particular three panel excerpt. Upon viewing the panels themselves, one sees a disabled woman provocatively undressing to enter the shower. The symbol of her disability, the wheelchair, is prominent within the first two frames but increasing the chair becomes invisible as her sexual appeal becomes more emphasized. She embodies the stereotypical sex symbol as she is soapy and wet from the shower and her privacy becomes invaded by the voyeuristic male gaze. Interestingly, she becomes objectified completely, after her wheelchair has disappeared from the frame. The sexism which pervades comicbooks is evident here as Oracle, a powerful, intelligent and independent woman is reduced to her sexual appeal, yet it is the intersection of her disability which is truly engaging.

This grouping of panels shows how ableism and sexism can interact in interesting ways, as the objectification of Oracle is counter to the stereotypical idea that those with disabilities do not have a sexuality and do not feel desire, nor are desirable. In Kattari’s article, she notes that “sexuality… love and [expression of] various desires is not usually recognized as a valid expression for people with disabilities” (501). Therefore, society sends messages of normality and abnormality in regards to sexual identity and expression, where those with disabilities “should be viewed as, asexual and/or deviant, lacking a capacity to be sexual and desirable” (501). Often times, those with disabilities are labelled by damaging stereotypes which hinder their participation in society, including within sexual cultures, such as: objects of pity, curiosity or violence, the “Super-Crip”, as a tool to create atmosphere or laughter, as non-sexual or sexual deviant and a burden on friends, family, society and themselves. Many of these stereotypes are damaging because they create a culture of dis-humanizing and Othering based on ableism that many argue is “natural” due to the construction of physical or intellectual disabilities. Yet, in this representation of Oracle, she is both sexual and disabled. I argue that she is able retain her sexual identity and appeal because she was physically disabled later in her life. As apposed to those who are born disabled, Oracle can be sexual because she was not born “abnormal”, but was instead disabled by an external factor. In essence, she can legitimately keep ties to her femininity and sexual accessibility because she is not a representation of the “horrifying erotic,” but is instead a symbol of the “Super-Crip” (Titchkosky, 78). As a “Super-Crip”, Oracle was physically disabled by an external factor and was able to excel despite her disability. A disability happened to her, and it was entirely out of her or her parent’s control, unlike the perceptions around those born with disabilities where the blame of entire Otherness can be placed on a lack of effort or poor parenting. Oracle was shot at the age of 18, and while she can be an example of an object of pity, her ability to overcome her disability and excel despite her body creates a sexual accessibility to the viewer, as she is different, but only to an extent. Furthermore, because she is extraordinary in her ability to overcome her disability, she gets back to the bar of normality, as her place in society (if she were a “normal” disabled individual) is lower but her “super” status regains some of her lost status as an able-bodied woman. Yet, how to negotiate her ability to retain her sexuality and sex appeal and the obvious disappearance of her wheelchair from the frame within my cultural artefact? While her disability is acceptable to able-bodied readers, the chair is still a symbol of difference. Titchkosky sees the universal sign of accessibility in public spaces as an indicator that for “a sign to point towards access, there must be an assumption of a general lack of access,” and her statement also applies to the wheelchair in the sense of sexual access. Oracle’s wheelchair is a sign of sexual inaccessibility and the increasing disappearance of it in her showering scene, shows the points of sexual access to her body, as if the chair is the embodying of sexual barriers. In this scene, Oracle is not exempted from the sexism which sees “normal” female comicbook characters objectified because her status as a “Super-Crip” and her increasing disappearance of the wheelchair makes her an object of sexual accessibility.

It is also important to note the triumph of having a female super-hero who is disabled within comics and how this cultural artefact may be a positive representation of disability. Oracle herself is a character which has a complex and wonderfully deep, real story as her struggle with depression, identity and a want for revenge after being shot and disabled is refreshing as a counter to the use of disabled individuals as atmosphere or tools for laughter. Furthermore, Oracle is portrayed as still incredibly independent and intelligent, where her disability takes her from being the sidekick of Batman to a super-hero in her own right. As a representation of the disabled community, Oracle is wonderfully empowering. It is important to note that Oracle as a character runs the risk of being tokenized as the sole representation of the disabled community and what other characters and people with disabilities should be considered by. Yet, even within this cultural artefact she is portrayed as living a full and interactive life as an independent woman, even to the point where she is contemplating modding her bathroom to be more wheelchair accessible. Even the consumers of comics have had a largely positive reaction to Oracle as a disabled super-hero as there is many blogs speaking to the positive inclusion of disabled bodies with the creation of Oracle.

My analysis of this cultural artefact is highly informed by a conflict of sexism and ableism as Oracle is a complex object of the male gaze in her objectification and yet is physically disabled and thus counters the construction of disabled individuals as non-sexual or deviant. Her role as a disability role-model or representation within comics is important and yet her ability to “Super-Crip” her way to sexual accessibility shows the progress still left to be made.

Bibliography

Kattari, Shanna. “Sexual Experiences of Adults with Physical Disabilities: Negotiating with Sexual Partners.” Sexuality and Disability 32.4 (2014): 499-513. Web. 12 Feb. 2015

Titchkosky, Tanya. “Disability Images and the Art of Theorizing Normality.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 22.1 (2009): 75-84. Web. 12 Feb. 2015