comicbooks

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

Advertisements

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

Sexism in the Depiction of Female Superheroes

I love comics in a lot of ways. The beauty of story-telling is wonderfully alive within the medium and the art form continually gets more and more beautiful. Yet, there are problems with it. Sexism, racism, ableism, and homophobia have been issues in comics for a long time. This is not to say that all story lines, characters or publishing houses consistently struggle with these issues. Overtime there has been much progress in expanding who is represented in comics: from women, to disabled individuals, to racialized and sexually marginalized groups. Yet the issue of sexist depictions of female superheroes is still an issue, especially when looking at the angles and male gaze which objectify some characters. The gallery shown below is not a full representation of the progress eliminating sexism and the ways it still needs some work. There is arguably no way to compile a full list as comics have such a rich and full history that is continually growing. As a feminist, I will always love comics, which doesn’t mean I can’t critique them.

Lilith Out!