‘Batgirl’ #37 Criticized For Transphobic Content; Creative Team Apologizes
DC's new take on Batgirl has been one of the pioneers of a new movement towards mainstream comics for a progressive young female audience -- a movement whose other flagbearers have become a mantra of sorts in 2014; Lumberjanes, Ms. Marvel, Gotham Academy, etc. In the hands of creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, Batgirl offered a satisfyingly contemporary and feminist take on Gotham superheroics.
So it came as a particular disappointment when last week's Batgirl #37 contained themes and imagery that were transphobic and transmisogynistic, leading several critics to call out the creative team for their insensitivity. This weekend the creators offered a statement of apology, saying, "we want to acknowledge the hurt and offense we've caused."
Batgirl #37 resolved a thread established in the first two issues of the current creative team's run, in which an impostor Batgirl was at large in the hero's adopted hometown of Burnside. This story revealed that the impostor was a male artist named Dagger Type, and in the moment of revelation the character was presented with distorted features and ruined make-up, and Batgirl/Barbara Gordon reacted with amazement and the unfinished but unambiguous statement, "But you're a--".
Mey, writing at Autostraddle, was among the first to raise objections to the portrayal, noting, "If you pull the wig off of someone who you thought was a woman, it is 100% transmisogynistic to yell in shocked horror that they are a man." Rachel Stevens at Women Write About Comics emphasized that the contents of the issue are transphobic regardless of intent, adding, "You can’t tell me that this comic won’t leave a mark on any young, questioning trans women who read it. You can’t tell me that this comic can’t do any harm."
Writing on her blog, Sarah Horrocks explained; "not only do they drop a 'But you’re a—' shocker, they also do the monstrous shapeshift that happens once a transperson’s 'true' identity is revealed. Crazy hair and makeup, crazy eyes, danger to women -- it’s a story as old as Psycho."
Psycho is a useful reference point; neither Norman Bates nor Dagger Type are trans characters, but as writer and critic Natalie Reed noted on Twitter, "Villain-Who-Deceptively-Crossdresses" is a transmysognitic trope. Reed described the story as, "Bad Guy Deceptively Dresses As A Woman and does 'creepy'/'pervy' things while presenting as a Woman and attempts to undermine and destroy 'real' women'."
"Murderous or deceptive men disguising themselves as women has been a trope in fiction long before the creation of cinema, and it’s shown up too many times to list or even count. The trope isn’t even subverted here, which is the hell of it," said Stevens. "Batgirl has been praised for being a breath of fresh air compared to the rest of DC’s material, both visually and in its writing. It’s been celebrated as feminist and gotten plenty of people interested in comics. The fact that it used a tired transphobic trope in the new creative team’s third issue shows that it isn’t nearly as groundbreaking as many hoped and believed."
That the trope was revived in Batgirl specifically is also especially troubling, Mey notes, because, "Barbara Gordon was one of the few characters I love who I didn’t have to imagine as being trans positive. I knew she was. It was canon."
Under previous writer Gail Simone, Batgirl offered one of the few positive portrayals of a trans woman in contemporary superhero comics with the character Alysia Yeoh. Alysia remains a presence under the current team, but has thus far remained in the background of the book. Barbara's friendship with Alysia was a testament to Barbara's identification as a trans ally. Barbara's response to Dagger Type was at odds with that identification. "That’s not the Barbara Gordon we’ve come to know and love," said Mey, "and so this issue seems like a total betrayal of her character."
Stewart, Fletcher and Tarr did not immediately respond to the criticism, but issued a statement of apology on Saturday, which is reproduced here in full:
You can read Mey's comments in full at Autostraddle, and Rachel Stevens' comments in full at Women Write About Comics. We will have further commentary on this story, and the pervasiveness of transphobia in media, from LGBT activist and writer J. Skyler on the site tomorrow.