Is the DC Relaunch Sexist?

You’d have to have been hiding under a boob shaped rock to have missed the controversy swirling around two of the DC “new 52” books in recent weeks. It all kicked off with the release of Catwoman #1 which opened with a montage of shots of the title character’s breasts and finished with a slightly BDSM inflected sex scene between Selina and Batman. Not long after that a similar salvo was fired at Red Hood & The Outlaws #1 over its portrayal of Starfire as an emotionless, amnesiac, sex addict. The whole saga culminated with a post on Michele Lee’s blog entitled “A 7 Year Old Responds to DC Comics’ Sexed Up Reboot of Starfire.” In which the author’s young daughter explained how DC had spoiled her role model. The blog spread like Reboot Flavour Starfire’s legs throughout twitter and soon every site seemed to be talking about it. But how much of the criticism is justified?

Let’s start by taking a look at Catwoman as that’s where the troubles first appeared. There’s no denying that Catwoman #1 is about as cheesecakey as a mainstream comic gets. Artist Guillem March appears in many cases to have ignored the script in favour of simply cramming in as many butt and boob shots as humanly possible. The decision to not even show the main character’s face (but instead introduce her via an image of her breasts) is particularly troubling as it serves no narrative purpose whatsoever other than to reduce the character to a faceless sex doll.

This clearly isn’t a very good depiction of women in comics, but let’s not start pretending that this is somehow a huge departure for the character. One only has to take a look at Adam Hughes’ covers to see that Catwoman has been far from the Virgin Mary for many years now. While the script of Catwoman #1 does portray Selina as something of a fickle sex chaser, it’s not nearly as bad as the art makes it seem. Not every character has to be a perfect role model and we should be careful not to shy away from that all the time. After all, we want to be Gail Simone, not Mary Whitehouse.

Overall however I think the art here does still damn the book overall. It’s cynical, frankly kinda creepy. Catwoman #1 feels like it was drawn from the back of a shabby van via a pair of binoculars. The real crime here is that it’s not even particularly sexy. For all their cleavage, Hughes’ covers did have a touch of the genuinely erotic about them. Not so with this book. By half way through we’ve seen so much T&A that the image of Batman penetrating Catwoman on the final page feels like two souless porn stars going through the motions to pay their bills. In many ways to call it sexist and imply that it is somehow an assault on female self image is to give it too much credit.

So what about Starfire? Well, I think the issue is a little more hazy here, or at least I did for a while. The basic problem that a lot of people are having is that Starfire, a character who has existed since the 1980s and is supposed to draw her powers from pure emotion, is now portrayed as a mindless sex robot who will bang pretty much anything because you know…she’s an alien. This is made worse by the fact that her team mates, Jason Todd and Arsenal,  appear to be basically using her as a sex toy and high fiving about it behind her back.

I’ll start off by saying that I have almost no prior experience with Starfire as a character and so I went into Outlaws willing to take her as a totally new idea. To begin with I actually thought (shameless bikini scene aside) that we may be looking at quite an interesting idea. To my mind Jason Todd and Arsenal were meant to be seen as a pair of adolescent morons who were playing around with an alien they didn’t really understand. To me, Starfire’s advances weren’t meant to be sexy but rather to be creepy and alien. Here is this character who could fry both her team mates with a thought and who has almost no sense of empathy whatsoever. I liked the idea that this was all going to blow up horribly in the frat boy heroes faces when they realised that their orange bed buddy had the same attitude towards killing that she did towards sex. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (I am) but I was almost starting to see the whole thing as a cautionary tale about the dangers of careless sex.

Sadly, I have a feeling I’m pretty far off base with this analysis. In a direct response to the comments of their 7 year old critic, DC recently tweeted:

“We’ve heard what’s being said about Starfire today and we appreciate the dialogue on this topic.
We encourage people to pay attention to the ratings when picking out any books to read themselves or for their children.”

That’s the response. Not “wait and see, we’ve got plans!” But “well, don’t let your kids read it then.” To me, that’s not a great response. When it all comes down to it, Starfire IS a kids character. Her only mainstream exposure has been via the Teen Titans cartoon and so it’s a fair bet that the majority of her fans fall within the teen bracket. I’m not saying that Teenagers can’t cope with complex stories but DC’s response to the criticism doesn’t seem to imply that this is what we’re dealing with.

I’ll probably stick with Outlaws for another issue or two and see where it goes but at this stage I’m not confident. I hope that I’m proved wrong and the book turns into the interesting character analysis that it has the chance to be, but in all honesty, when you’re relaunching your books to appeal to younger readers and a 7 year old is picking legitimate holes in your handling of her favourite character, something’s gone badly wrong.

So is the DC relauch sexist? No, of course it isn’t. Two bad bananas are not enough to spoil the whole bunch. With books like Batgirl, Wonder Woman and Batwoman (to my mind the three best books of the relaunch) tearing up the shelves it’s unfair to say that DC doesn’t know how to handle female characters. Indeed, the very fact that Catwoman and Outlaws have drawn so much flack is partly because the other portrayals of woman characters have been so damn good.

Are Catwoman and Outlaws bad books? Probably. But in all honesty, when can you remember a time that bad female superhero books were in the minority and not simply the norm? DC has taken huge strides over the course of this relauch and we shouldn’t allow a couple of missteps to take away from that.

Go out, vote with your money and tell DC that they’ve almost got it right. Buy Batgirl, buy Batwoman, buy Wonder Woman and leave the cheesecake sitting on the shelf where it deserves to be. We’re in virgin territory here and it’s up to the fans to tell the publishers what we want. After all, we can’t let the 7 year olds fight all our battles can we?


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