Give ‘Em Elle: Queer Subtext Through The Years
Welcome to Give ‘Em Elle, a weekly column that hopes to bridge the gap between old school comics fandom and the progressive edge of comics culture. This week I'm thinking about queer subtext. Okay, full disclosure, I am literally always thinking about queer subtext. When I was in grad school, I taught a film class about queer subtext and how to find it. So that's where I'm coming from. But I'm especially thinking about it in comics thanks to this tweet I got last week:
It’s a cliché of course, but the classic example is Batman. A few years ago, our own Andrew Wheeler wrote the definitive essay about queerness and Batman, which I will do my best not to rehash here. Glen Weldon also covered that angle extensively in his excellent book The Caped Crusade, which quoted Andrew’s essay and also Grant Morrison, whose oft-repeated belief that there’s something “very very gay” about Batman is particularly interesting because he actually got to write the character for so long.
It was Andrew who changed my thinking about the importance of Batman to gay men. Specifically, that a gay reader who sees something in Batman comics is not looking through Batman’s eyes and fantasizing about Robin. He’s looking through Robin’s eyes and fantasizing about Batman. This is something a lot of readers, including Frederic Wertham, have gotten wrong. If it’s Batman’s fantasy, it’s not healthy. But if it’s Robin’s fantasy, it’s perfectly normal. We all had crushes on adults when we were teens, after all.
Some people object to a gay reading of Batman and Robin because they see them as adoptive father and son. But that’s not the only way to interpret their relationship. After all, Dick Grayson had a father who he remembers and didn’t lose until adolescence. It’s fine if you see Bruce as Dick’s father figure, but clearly people who read them as romantic do not, and you can’t layer your reading on top of theirs and then call them perverse because of that juxtaposition.
Then of course there’s everything else that’s queer about Batman. Sublimating your emotions and expressing them by donning a fantastic costume, whether brightly colored spandex or black rubber, has always been a pretty queer impulse. Add in a whole theatrical troupe of colorful, flamboyant villains and a healthy dose of camp (conscious or unconscious, depending on the decade) and you’ve made a pretty gay soup. The female villains, often with muddled feminist goals, pull things in a particularly queer direction. It’s no coincidence that so many of them have come out of the closet in the last five years.
Jack Halberstam pointed out in a 1992 issue of On Our Backs that even Batman’s sexual relationship with Catwoman is hardly heterosexual:
When Batman and Catwoman try to get it on sexually, it only works when they are both in their caped crusader outfits. Naked heterosexuality is a miserable failure between them... When they encounter each other in costume however something much sexier happens and the only thing missing is a really good scene where we get to hear the delicious sound of Catwoman's latex rubbing on Batman's black rubber/leather skin. To me their flirtation in capes looked queer precisely because it was not heterosexual, they were not man and woman, they were bat and cat, or latex and rubber, or feminist and vigilante: gender became irrelevant and sexuality was dependent on many other factors… In other words, the sexual encounter is queer because both partners are queer and the genders of the participants are less relevant. Just because Batman is male and Catwoman is female does not make their interactions heterosexual--think about it, there is nothing straight about two people getting it on wearing costumes, wearing eyemasks and carrying whips and other accoutrements.
But as we get closer to the 21st century, subtext tends to become more intentional, especially in superhero media, in which the writing became increasingly layered as the presumptive readership has gotten older. So in the last 30 years a lot of what is technically subtext reads much more like text.
For example, when John Byrne introduced Maggie Sawyer in the 1980s Superman comics, it wasn’t permissible under the comics code to say outright that she was a lesbian. But she was a lesbian, being deliberately written as one, and any adult (and probably most older kids) who were reading the comic could tell. There were even subplots about her coming out and ending her marriage and worrying about losing her job, all without ever saying it.
Basically, Maggie Sawyer’s queerness is subtextual in the same way that the queerness of the Gems in Steven Universe is only subtextual. Technically it’s the case, but the subtext in these instances is so close to text that it’s a whole different conversation than what it means when Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson wake up in bed together.
Another important subtextually queer character from the 1980s had a much bigger impact on me personally, despite the subtext being considerably less overt than it was with Maggie Sawyer. And if you know me, you’ve guessed by now that it’s Kitty Pryde. There’s a great essay on this subject called "Kitty Queer," by Sigrid Ellis, which I will direct you to instead of rehashing every point again here.
But basically it comes down to the emotional attachments that Kitty forms with other girls and women, especially her roommates. Even as she flirted with the considerably older Colossus in her X-Men days, she was having tickle-fights with his younger sister, who was also her roommate, Magik. Their bond was so close that Kitty is the only other human who can wield Magik’s soul sword. If you’ve ever watched Revolutionary Girl Utena, you know that being able to pull a magical sword out of someone’s body is a pretty loaded metaphor.
Later Kitty moved to England to join Excalibur, where she formed a similar bond with Rachel Summers (who Chris Claremont once admitted on a podcast he considered the love of Kitty’s life). And she had that one really memorable date with Courtney Ross. Although it wasn’t technically Courtney Ross, but that’s a whole messy Excalibur plot thing that I’m not going into.
The point is, there were massive hints stretched across a decade or more of comics, that Kitty Pryde was bisexual. Claremont himself did his best to make it canon in the Mekanix miniseries, but everyone (especially everyone who’s written for Marvel since) ignored that.
I would love for Kitty Pryde to be acknowledged as bisexual. I have similar hopes and dreams for Storm, Marvel's Hercules, and of course Wonder Woman, among others. But in the absence of text, subtext has always been incredibly important to underrepresented readers. It’s a shame that underrepresentation continues to be such a problem today, but nevertheless here we are.