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By Laura Hudson
THE CHANGING FACE OF HOMOSEXUALITY
“This abrupt and wholesale revision of my history—a history which, I might add, had already been revised once in the preceding months—left me stupefied.” So says Alison Bechdel in the autographical Fun Home, a “family tragicomic” that serves as both an epitaph for her complicated, closeted father, and a memoir tracing the thread of her sexual identity from her earliest memories to the realization that she was gay—an event that only narrowly preceded her father’s suicide.
These twin upheavals, inextricably linked but utterly opposite, not only changed her life, but rewrote its history as she understood it. The moment of her realization was not physical, but verbal. Her sexual self-discovery occurred not through any physical encounter or carnal attraction, but rather in the library, as she explored the novels of Kate Millett and Colette.
In one of the books she reads, a woman is asked how long she has been a lesbian. “I never understood what that means,” the woman replies, “because as far as I’m concerned, I was born that way.” Like most people who experience great revelations of self, Bechdel did not actually become someone different, she merely realized who she was all along.
In his preface to the Gotham Central trade Half a Life, where policewoman Renee Montoya is outed as a lesbian, writer Greg Rucka discusses the accusation leveled by some fans that he “made” Montoya gay. “As far as I’m concerned, we did no such thing,” Rucka said. “She was always gay. We were simply the first story to say so.”
Originally a character in Batman: The Animated Series, and later New Batman Adventures, Renee Montoya was many things before she a lesbian: a cop, a Latina, a survivor and a tough, beautiful lady. Her sexual orientation, like many aspects of her personality, grew out of her character, not the other way other around.
The fan accusation that Rucka references was, in essence, that he was “retconning,” or retroactively altering history to suit his purposes. But Rucka says that he knew as early as the 1999 Batman Chronicles story “Two Down” that Montoya would eventually come out as a lesbian, and that he wrote her with that in mind until her outing in 2003.
Those who thought that Montoya had been retconned felt betrayed by what seemed a sudden revision of her character. But did Rucka really change her, or did he simply help us to know her better? The revelation that she was a lesbian caused Montoya’s conservative Dominican parents to disown her, but brought her closer to her lover, Daria. If after her outing we found that we no longer liked her character, or that we loved her more, then at least we too came by it honestly.
It is not an easy thing to know ourselves. And it is harder still sometimes, to know the ones we love. Not simply because they keep themselves from us, or we from them, but because the truth is an elusive substance. Those who seek it often find it eludes them, and those who hide from it are often doomed to find it.
Montoya buried the truth until it was foisted upon her, but Bechdel was brave enough to dig it up in the wake of her father’s death, after learning not only that he was gay, but that he had slept with teenaged boys, including his male students. But the “revision” of her family history was not really a revision of history, but of perception. It was not that her father changed, or that her family changed, it was that she had never truly known them as they were.
Death, particularly sudden, tragic death, tends to leave life in fragments and littered with questions. Fun Home is more than anything an internal detective story, the tale of how Bechdel’s life unraveled the moment her father stepped in front of a Sunbeam truck, and her need to solve the mystery of why in order to weave it back together. With what she calls her “compulsive propensity to autobiography,” Bechdel scours her old diaries and the labyrinth of childhood memory to fit the pieces of herself, her past, and her father together into a cohesive truth.
One of the larger themes of Fun Home is that she and her father were not simply opposites, they were inversions of each other, and like any polar opposites, defined each other just as much as they defied each other. While Bechdel sought personal truth, her father spent most of his life hiding from it, concealing it beneath various facades. She saw the same impulse at work in his obsession with historical restoration, in the “meticulous period interior that were expressly designed to conceal,” as well as his passion for fiction, particularly The Great Gatsby.
Bechdel compares her father several times to Gatsby, both men more concerned with the superficial than the genuine, both men who remade themselves into something both more and less than they were. “Like Gatsby,” said Bechdel, “my father fueled this transformation with the colossal vitality of his illusion… Such a suspension of the imaginary in the real was, after all, my father’s stock in trade.” And if Montoya’s revelations bear some similarity to those of Bechdel, then it is hard to contemplate her father’s disingenuous approach to identity without considering Batwoman.
OUT OF THE SILVER AGE CLOSET
In the event that you’ve been living under a rock, let me be the first to tell you: Batwoman is coming back… as a lesbian. And not just any lesbian, but a hot femme socialite lesbian who wears a costume complete with high heels and (I am not making this up) bright red lipstick. Oh, and it just so happens that she used to be involved with Renee Montoya.
The new, refurbished Batwoman, a.k.a. Kate Kane, bears very little resemblance to her Silver Age self, or Kathy Kane, as she was originally called. Although the DC event Crisis on Infinite Earths technically voided the original Batwoman from DC continuity, the irony of her recent “retcon” is too absurd to escape mention.
The original Batwoman appeared not long after the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, a 1954 book by a psychologist named Frederic Wertham, which accused comics books of manifold social deviance, including sublimated sexual messages and themes meant to corrupt America’s youth. Batman and Robin were clearly gay lovers, said Wertham, and their father-son cohabitation was actually “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”
Wertham argued further that, “In these stories there are practically no decent, attractive, successful women. A typical female character is the Catwoman, who is vicious and uses a whip. The atmosphere is homosexual and anti-feminine.” The nationwide outcry that followed Seduction lead to the formation of the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulatory body intended to sanitize comics of violent and deviant content, and caused sweeping changes in the way comic books were written.
Not long afterward, Batwoman burst onto the scene. Instead of a utility belt, she sported a Bat Purse, which contained weapons resembling feminine accessories like lipstick and charm bracelets. Despite proving herself an capable superheroine, Batwoman’s effectiveness seemed a source of chagrin to Batman, rather than an asset.
After discovering her true identity, Batman ultimately forced her into retirement by tracing her to her secret hideout and lecturing her about her potential vulnerability to supervillains, lest they too ever find her out. Ever the lady, she acquiesced without making much of fuss: “I—I never thought of that! I guess you’re right! I-I’ll quit my career as Batwoman!”
Bechdel’s less traditionally feminine behaviors also met with disapproval and correction from the main man in her life, but her tomboy tendencies were not just poorly received by her father, they were often in direct response to the lack of masculinity she perceived in him. He, in turn, tried to push Bechdel towards the more womanly ideals of beauty he idolized and envied. “While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him, he was attempting to express something feminine through me,” she said.
The original Batwoman was very much a compensation for Batman’s perceived or least suspected unmanliness. Batwoman’s femininity not only defined her, it defined Batman; her sex was her raison d’etre, her entire reason for being. She was a response to the question that dared not be asked, but demanded to be answered. The modern Batwoman is in many ways an inversion of her former self with a very different answer to that question, but one wonders if her reason for being might not be all that different.
PUTTING ON LIPSTICK
Fans are excited about Batwoman—very excited. Not excited in the way they might be for a long-delayed issue of The Ultimates, or a signing by their favorite author, but excited in the way 16-year-old boys are for a movie where their favorite actress takes off her top. The reality is that the comic book audience is overwhelmingly male, and that any industry will reflect and serve the needs—and desires—of its consumers. In some ways, comic books cannot help but skew themselves towards the predilections of a predominately male audience.
Just ask Judd Winick, the writer of Green Lantern who scripted an arc where Kyle Rayner’s assistant, Terry, was critically injured in a gay-bashing. Many fans reacted negatively to a storyline focusing primarily on gay issues. In a New York Times interview, Winick described the negative reactions of many fans as fairly predictable in their intolerance: “You always have the same 15 arguments come up. I could’ve read the letters before we got them.”
He compared the controversy over Terry to his experiences writing Exiles, which included a lesbian character named Sunfire. “[The fan response] has been heaven,” said Winick. “It feeds into the fact that she’s a lesbian. People don’t have a problem with it. I think there’s a double standard.”
Comics are, in a sense, about suspending your disbelief. They are about the fantastic, about men and women and events so astonishing that they strain any notion of credulity. And yet these characters, these worlds mean so much to so many because they manage to work the magic of any great form of art that seeks to mean something real: they make us believe.
In the end, I’m willing to believe that Superman is an invincible flying alien that can shoot heat beams out of his eyes because I was first made to believe in him as a person who loves, struggles, agonizes, and yes, occasionally bleeds. If superheroes are not made small as well as large, if they are not made people, their battles are no more meaningful than action figures being smashed together by a five-year-old. They become little more than myths, unrelatable figures that exist only on the most archetypal and abstract level. Or worse, in the case of women: they become fantasies in the worst sense, objects of desire that exist only to titillate.
In the same preface to Half a Life, Greg Rucka says that, “For any story to be successful, it must reflect the truths of our own world, the things we all share—love and loss and pain and fear and even the smaller things, the frustration of losing our car keys, the joy at finding a forgotten twenty in a coat pocket.” The stories only mean something because of that balance—the larger, fantastical notions are grounded in the smaller realities of life.
Perhaps this is why it felt disconcerting when Montoya’s once average-sized breasts swelled to the size of water balloons on the cover of 52 #4. Or in 52 #2, when Montoya was shown lying in bed with a super-sexy woman for several pages, both of them entangled while clad in lacy lingerie. (FYI guys: women don’t actually sleep in that kind of lingerie in any venue outside of your fantasies, or possibly media that is enacting your fantasies.) The introduction of a lesbian Batwoman in the same book might rightly be cause for more than slight trepidation.
There was no media blitz to announce Montoya’s sexuality to the world, and it was never glamorous—life after her outing seemed to be nothing but a gauntlet of mockery, humiliation, and loss. It’s hard, now, to hold up everything we’ve heard and seen about the new Batwoman next to the Renee Montoya of Half a Life and not fear that she will pale in comparison, if not actually cheapen Montoya retroactively. There were no lipstick lesbians in Gotham Central. But then, Gotham Central got canceled.
THE MAIN THRUST
DC Executive Editor Dan Didio claims that “this isn’t about a lesbian superhero. It’s about a superhero, who also happens to be gay,” and more amusingly that “her sexuality is not the main thrust of the character.” All giggles aside, it would be nice to believe that the motivation behind the new Batwoman did not orbit entirely around the sun of her gayness, that it was more an enriching afterthought during the creation of her character, and not its genesis.
If DC really wanted to convince us that Batwoman’s sexuality was ancillary to her character, they could have tried, say, not making a incredibly big deal out of it, as they have done rather successfully. Hulkling and Wiccan from The Young Avengers recently managed to come out to their families and teammates without any particular fanfare, and also without making it feel like a Very Special Issue about Homosexuality. Overall, it was handled in the organic, matter-of-fact way that DC would like to pretend that they are handling Batwoman, allowing the characters to simply be gay, instead of Gay with a capital G.
But maybe it doesn’t matter—it could be argued that whatever else Batwoman is, she is a gay character playing a major role in one of the most popular comic books on the shelves. Whether that’s a step in the right direction will depend largely on the type of character she becomes. Perhaps her glamorous, provocative character will challenge lesbian stereotypes, or perhaps it will pruriently indulge them. It’s probably too soon to say for sure.
There maybe even be every reason to hope; one of the 52 scribes is, after all, Greg Rucka, the man who made Montoya what she is. Maybe they’re going to surprise us and knock this one out of the park. Maybe they’re going to make us all believe.
Here’s hoping that they do, because the notion of watching Renee Montoya reenact some inauthentic affair with a hollow lesbian bauble is more than offensive, it is destructive; it negates the integrity of a character who has already paid a rather high price for her integrity, a character who deserves a great deal more. It would be better to pretend that 52 had never happened, that Montoya were still drinking herself to death in her apartment, because that’s still easier to deal with than something that reads like a lie.
On more than occasion, Bechdel mentions her father’s “preference of fiction to reality,” both in his professional life as an English teacher, and his personal life as a self-hating homosexual. She describes a scene in her father’s beloved Great Gatsby where a guest at one of Gatsby’s grand parties examines the books in his library, and seems shocked that they are not simple hollow replicas. “What thoroughness, what realism! Knew when to stop, too. Didn’t cut the pages!”
It remains to be seen whether the new Batwoman, like Montoya, will “cut the pages,” and transcend her origins to become someone real to us; whether the creative team behind 52 will have more in common with Bechdel, who found that the rewriting of her life brought it closer to the truth, or her father, who “used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not.”
Bechdel also learned from her father a gradation of honesty between authenticity and lies, a fictional kind of truth that emerged from his consummate artifice. “Perhaps affectation can be so thoroughgoing,” she muses, “so authentic in its details, that it stops being pretense, and for all practical purposes, becomes real.” From the ostentation of the 19th century décor that was his all-consuming passion, to the picture-perfect family life he cultivated alongside his underaged affairs, most of his external life “was a fantasy, but a fully operational one.”
Perhaps most of comics is a fantasy, but a fully operational one. Comic books have always been about fantasy, some might say. And they’d be right: for every kid who wanted to fly, for any person who ever wanted to be bigger or stronger or better than they are, superheroes are all about wish fulfillment. At their best, they’re supposed to be about more than that, too—they’re supposed stand for something, and I don’t think that something is hot lipstick lesbians. But then, I’ve never been the target audience.