Wednesday 4 September 2013

Transgender superheroes

If you haven't read the original novel Watchmen, which planet have you been living on? It's one of the finest pieces of fiction I've ever read. But don't take my word for it: it made it to Time magazine's 100 greatest novels list. Not graphic novels. Novels.

Did the costumes make it good?
There is a powerful scene where Laurie Juspeczyk and Dan Dreiberg (both costumed heroes) attempt to make love in Dan's apartment, but Dan is unable to perform. They go down to the basement, where they don their costumes and take Dan's "owlship" out for a flight. As it happens, they end up rescuing some people from a building on fire. Afterwards, with the owlship hovering over the city, they make love again in the owlship, with the illustrated result. That's supposed to be a flamethrower, by the way.

A presumably somewhat breathless Laurie remarks: "Did the costumes make it good? Dan...?"

Wow! Where to begin with this? Watchmen has been described as the moment comics came of age, and this is the sort of thing which reminds people of that. The main plot involves a villain, and a group of costumed heroes in pursuit. But that's where the novel departs from the cliches. It tackles head-on the ideas we have all had about costumed crimefighters: doesn't it make you feel silly? What happens when you get old? What happens if the public turns against you? What makes someone want to put on a costume and fight bad guys? This scene is one which hints at the notion that it's sometimes about the costume, though there are other parts of the book which give different interpretations.

Princess Koriand'r
The subtlety and sophistication of the story is just dazzling. Among many brilliant aspects of it is the utter abandonment of moral certainty. In the old days, the good guys were good, and the bad guys were bad. End of. Why were the bad guys bad? Who cares? They were just there to give the good guys something to do. Watchmen shows us good guys which are not quite as good as we might wish; and bad guys... well, you'll just have to read it. Incidentally, the film is also excellent, being as it is basically a love-letter to the book (though the dialogue in the owlship scene is different).

As someone who is very interested in the power of costumes (and was really into comics for a while there), I can't help drawing a parallel between costumed heroes and crossdressing. Crossdressing makes me feel different on a fundamental level. It allows me access to a range of emotional expression which is usually denied me. I have discussed elsewhere that perhaps costume, the temporary assumption of some other identity, is powerfully alluring all of its own, even aside from crossdressing.

Superheroes (at least as they are drawn in comics) are inherently profoundly sexist. Comics basically exist to provide eye candy for nerdy geeks (like me). Comics can illustrate anything; special effects are no object. There is a tendency to depict both male and female heroes as athletes at the pinnacle of human achievement (for the purposes of this discussion, let's stick to human beings!). Nonetheless, where male heroes tend to wear whole-body costumes (think of Batman, Spiderman, Superman), female heroes tend to wear next to nothing, and be displayed in alluring poses. One of my favourites (though there is no shortage of other examples) was for a while Princess Koriand'r, shown here. Maybe it was the green eyes.

So the women are all drawn, more or less, the same: beautiful, incredibly buxom and curvaceous, with long flowing hair (impractical though this may be when fighting crime), and with some sort of revealing, bikini-like costume (where do you keep your gadgets? Your keys?), and in poses which accentuate the inherent sexuality of their costumes.
Batgirl, issue 19.

Male heroes, on the other hand, are ridiculously well-muscled. Square of jaw, steely of gaze, tousled of hair. There isn't a hint, from any of them, that they are anything less than uber-masculine. The occasional slim wiry one may be allowed, rather than the brute. For an amusing take on the sexism inherent in comic illustration, I refer you to The Hawkeye Initiative, where artists, some professional, and some amateur, redraw published comic illustrations of female heroes with a male figure, Hawkeye, in the same pose. There's even a dude out there taking photos of himself, with the same intent.

So where are the transgender superheroes? The answer is: it's pretty hard to find any. Quite understandably, they don't really belong, in a universe of such powerful male or female archetypes. And in addition, open depictions of homosexuality, bisexuality and transgenderism were overtly banned in the USA (which means the world, in comic book terms), until 1989. And yet, among comic-reading audiences, there is a powerful mix of people of all stripes, and since 1989 there has been a bit of catching up to do for comic book writers, incorporating LGBT characters into their storylines. Some well-known characters have been updated to incorporate same-sex relationships; for example, Batwoman is now depicted as a lesbian.

But don't get mixed up between Batwoman and Batgirl. Batgirl, whose mild-mannered alter-ego is Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner James Gordon. It's here we find the first mainstream transgender comic character, Batgirl's flatmate, Alysia Yeoh. What's the background to Alysia? No idea. From the little I have read, she seems to be a full-time male-to-female character, but beyond that, there seems to be nothing solid. She seems also to have no super powers, but of course, they are only a zap with some novel kind of radiation away. The character has only existed for a few months, and it remains to be seen how she will develop. Will she end up looking like Princess Koriand'r? Or perhaps like The Thing? It's impossible to tell.

Let me say now that I welcome this development. It's an acknowledgement that trans people exist, even in the uber-sexist world of comics. For them to be accepted openly (as Batgirl does), is a powerful statement of welcome. Alysia weeps at Batgirl's immediate acceptance of her.

But how about transgender superheroes? The character of Maidman can be found in the pages of Empowered, a comic-book series which has been going since 2007, authored by Adam Warren. Part of the theme of Empowered is to deconstruct comic book stereotypes in a humorous manner, so Maidman, a costumed hero whose superpowered costume is a French Maid outfit, is deliberately poking in the eye of the traditional costumed hero:
Maidman: I'd be far more embarrassed to dress up like, say, an animal. Now that would be silly. Face it. The hundreds of would-be badass capes who practice species crossdressing as various theoretically intimidating animals? That's one step removed from being a furry. Talk about embarrassing.
Maidman is depicted as clearly a man (including his blue chin and muscly physique) but wearing a ridiculous frilly maid outfit, and carrying a feather duster and broom (which are of course supergadgets in their own right). Check out those shaved legs and combat stilettoes. Does Maidman count as a transgender superhero? I don't think so. Although in the Empowered universe, Maidman is depicted as a powerful hero, whom the bad guys clearly fear, it is clear in the real universe that Maidman is a caricature, designed to look ridiculous as a means of poking fun at costumed superheroes in general. The pink speech bubbles which he has, suggest that he affects a sexy feminine voice too. Does he poke fun at crossdressers? I personally don't find it in the least offensive, although perhaps you have different views. For me, the point (as expressed eloquently by Maidman himself) is that it's no more weird for a man to dress as a maid to fight crime than it is for him to dress as a bat, or a spider, or any one of a hundred other odd themes.

No, for a real transgender superhero, we need to turn to the world of children's entertainment. I am indebted to Ralph for drawing my attention to this character, the superhero SheZow!

SheZow is a Canadian-Australian co-production, a series of (so far) 26 short cartoon episodes aimed at kids between the ages of 6 and 11. The basic premise of the story is that Guy(!) Hamdon, a typical 12-year old boy, finds a magic ring which turns him into the superhero SheZow. In the universe, the character is well-known, admired and popular. Guy is initially reluctant, but after discovering the supercool car (the "She-hicle"), and the hi-tech underground batcave, with its supercomputer, "Sheila", he comes to embrace the role. Nobody knows his secret identity except his sister and best (male) friend.

SheZow has the hair, the eyeshadow, the costume (thankfully non-revealing, but nonetheless pink and sparkly) and the heels. She also has super-strength, and a light-sabre-like weapon, laser lipstick. She is resolutely pink, girly and uber-feminine. This, I suppose, is one of the essential points of the show: making SheZow as feminine as possible to highlight Guy's discomfort at assuming the role. The show is essentially light-hearted and comic in tone. To drive up the femininity, the dialogue is full of excruciating puns, such as "she-vitalised", "she-riffic", "she-S-P" (SheZow's "spider sense"), and even "she you later!". Guy can assume the identity of SheZow by reciting the magic phrase "You go girl!".

SheZow seems naturally invulnerable. Her kryptonite is her hair: for her hair to become disarrayed leads to loss of her super powers, though they can be restored by the use of "she-lac" hair spray from her utility belt.
SheZow, mighty SheZow!

My two youngest kids are between 6 and 11, and so I sat them down to watch it with me. We watched for over an hour, which was about half a dozen episodes. As a fairly conservative parent myself (believe it or not!), there was nothing in it to trouble me. There is nothing overtly sexual or suggestive. Beyond the basic premise, there is nothing untoward: the good guys are resolutely good, the villains resolutely dastardly, the predicaments humorous, and the outcomes predictably favourable. I enjoyed it very much. A special mention to the actress who voices the computer Sheila, in a very sexy, British accent. Hell-low!

I think from the point of view of a child, it’s no more bizarre than any other superhero cartoon. In many ways, it echoes other fiction I have come across. The novel Boy2Girl, by Terence Blacker, and the comic strip Cuckoo in the Nest (from an obsolete girls’ comic) both explore the situation of a boy, reluctantly compelled by circumstance to adopt the role of a girl, who is initially unwilling but ultimately finds unexpected advantages or insights in doing so. Both of those are aimed at children (and are explored more here on my blog). SheZow is very faithful to that trope.

So then, is it good? Does it do our sons good to consider aspects of femininity to be positive? I suppose so, although I don’t really think it does any better than She-Ra (or my personal favourites, Jana of the Jungle, and Cheetara). Girls can be superheroes too, but I’ve known this since childhood anyway. Does it give confidence or esteem to girls? I don’t really think so. Does it make children more trans-friendly? I guess so, though one cartoon will not be enough to overcome their own upbringing, whether hostile or accepting.

Does it do harm? I can’t honestly see how. If it’s OK for kids to watch Batman punch the villain’s lights out, then it surely should be OK to watch a boy putting on a magic ring and becoming a girl. Is it going to make our sons grow up gay, or camp, or effeminate? Gracious me, no!

What did my kids think of it? My youngest son watched it with interest, although he hasn't been bothered about it since. My youngest daughter enjoyed it more, and has since spoken about it, and asked to see more of it. I asked her: How do you like the show? "It's cool". Is it OK for girls to be superheroes? "Yes." Is it OK for a boy to be a girl superhero? She paused: "I don't know". I get the impression that, from her point of view, SheZow is just a cool girl. The fact that SheZow is a boy seems to be incidental.

However, almost inevitably, the show has attracted criticism from the usual suspects, people who are convinced this show will institute moral collapse on a national, perhaps global, scale. I suspect (as is usual in these sorts of instances), just about everyone who protests hasn't even sat down and watched the show.

So, for a fairly thorough trawl through the potential places to find transgender superheroes, we come up pretty short. SheZow gets the prize: cool, powerful, and unavoidably transgendered. But surely we can do better? Surely trans people can be powerful and cool too?

Addendum: 18th October 2013

I came across this article from journalist Kasey Edwards, discussing SheZow. The article is interesting and provocative, written as it is by a woman, and a mother. Overall, Edwards seems to basically agree with my angle.

My thanks also to Grok, for drawing my attention to Captain Cross-Dresser, an amusing (and sadly one-off) animated short. I wasn't able to follow Grok's link, but I was able to find the whole ten minutes on YouTube, split up into three parts. It has some very clever and amusing points to make, although (unlike SheZow) I wouldn't try showing it to young kids. I quote:
This is just what our city needs: a superhero for the 21st century!
 Addendum: 2nd October 2015

I came across this excellent article by Cindi May in Scientific American. Entitled The Problem With Female Superheroes, it points out that female superheroes have gone "from helpless damsel to powerful heroine, but [are] still hypersexualised". Well worth a read.