Batwoman and Harley Quinn: DC’s Message to Women and Minorities

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Yesterday it was announced that J. H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman, the creative team behind DC’s Batwoman, will be leaving the series after issue #26. In a post titled ‘Heartbroken’ on Blackman’s personal blog, the writer explained that the pair’s reasons for walking away from the comic were related to heavy-handed and oppressive interference from DC and the comic’s editors, who forced planned storylines to be either rewritten or completely discarded at very late points in the creation process. One of these particular planned stories was the wedding of Batwoman – aka Kate Kane – and her girlfriend, Detective Maggie Sawyer. In a tweet, Williams clarified the issue, “We fought to get them engaged, but were told emphatically no marriage can result.” Naturally, this caused a stir among both fans of the series – Williams and Blackman have been repeatedly cited as two of the best of DC Comics, the DC Women Kicking Ass Tumblr referred to them as “one of the most consistent creative teams since the start of the new 52” – and supporters of LGBTQ rights – DC Comics won a GLAAD award in 2010, with Batwoman specifically mentioned as being a factor in the decision process – most of whom had been looking forward to the event since Kate Kane popped the question back in issue #17. Finally, it seems, we understood why DC never publicised the proposal in the first place, because they never planned on the wedding ever happening. Many readers and prominent critics have, as a result, taken to social media to question DC’s decision, criticise the editorial interference, and declare the removal of their support for the Batwoman comics, effective from Issue #27.

Today, rather than attempting to respond to criticisms, set the record straight, or even just keep quiet until the storm blew over, DC Comics seemed eager to put their foot in it again by advertising for new artists for the upcoming Harley Quinn #0. The competition, titled “Break into comics with Harley Quinn!” gives aspiring artists the chance to submit a page for the issue, have it judged by the creative team, and then ultimately, if they win, published in the actual comic. The post gives instructions for what should appear in each of the page’s panels, each depicting Harley Quinn in a variety of ridiculous and dangerous situations – Harley surrounded by alligators, Harley surrounded by forked lightning – until the final panel, which stands apart. Here’s the description:

“Harley sitting naked in a bathtub with toasters, blow dryers, blenders, appliances all dangling above the bathtub and she has a cord that will release them all. We are watching the moment before the inevitable death. Her expression is one of “oh well, guess that’s it for me” and she has resigned herself to the moment that is going to happen.”

This is a panel in which Harley Quinn is about to commit suicide. Her death is described as “inevitable” and “going to happen.” It is also a panel that has a high chance of being sexualised. The fact that she is specifically described as being naked in the bath, combined with the fact that nerd culture, and society in general, is generally very good at objectifying women’s bodies leads me to believe that this could very easily be drawn in a sexual way if the artist wanted to. It is also a panel which would never, ever have been commissioned if the villain being drawn were male. When you put all of that together, we have a panel in which a mentally ill, naked female character is about to commit suicide in an incredibly violent way and seeming very bored at the idea. What we have is DC asking artists to draw and submit a panel that could potentially sexualise women, sexualise violence against women, normalise violence against women, sexualise mental instability, and glorify suicide all in one.

DC, I have an important question for you: are you really going to commission a panel that sexualises mentally ill women committing suicide, yet ban any attempts by your artists to depict the marriage of two of your only lesbian characters?

Harley Quinn’s writer, Jimmy Palmiotti, has responded to criticisms on Twitter with comebacks such as “when did everyone become the morals police? Lol” and “I think we should be more concerned with war… just my opinion,” before defending his ideas by saying they should be depicted in a manic, unrealistic, “Looney Tunes” style. There are three problems with that idea. The first is that the rules for the art competition do not at any point stipulate a particular art style, instead asking for the artist’s “original artistic interpretation.” Why would Palmiotti not consider it important to include details on a particular art style he wanted to utilise, yet defend the decision to specifically request that Harley be naked in the suicide panel, lest the artist put clothes on her? The second problem is that the Looney Tunes are a product of ideologies that are nearly a century old – the earliest of the cartoons were aired in 1930 – and contain punchlines that would not be considered socially acceptable today. Even as early as the 1970s, Warner Brothers were editing out depictions of suicide from reruns of earlier Looney Tunes cartoons. For Palmiotti to claim that his depiction of suicide is a homage to those cartoons is not only untrue but also ignorant of WB’s own attempts to erase suicide depictions from its library. The third problem is that even if Palmiotti and his artist do employ a cartoonish, unrealistic art style for Harley Quinn, they will still be depicting a vulnerable woman violently committing suicide, it’s just that they will be doing so in a way that also trivialises the issues of self-harm and violence towards women and, worst of all, reduces them to a punchline. I am not saying that serious topics such as suicide, mental illness, and how society treats women should never be explored as topics in comic books, just that the issues need the tact and thoughtfulness of someone who understands their seriousness, not the insensitivity of the Acme Corperation.

DC’s astounding ignorance of these important social issues and Palmiotti’s surprise at the reaction to such an inflammatory page commission for Harley Quinn are mirrored by the events of the day before, in which the strong reaction to the banning of Batwoman’s marriage left the few defenders of the decision drowned out and DC apparently speechless, as they have barely commented on the issue since. Despite the fact that, as many have pointed out, previously well-established relationships have not fared well in New 52 anyway – Superman and Lois Lane to name just one pair – and the fact that both Williams and DC Comics have taken to Twitter to clarify that the decision was not a homophobic one, it is difficult to separate the decision from the current events of our society. With certain countries baby-stepping towards equality – California’s Prop 8 was finally defeated in June, and gay marriage is on the horizon in the UK despite a massive Tory rebellion – and other countries furiously stomping the other way – Russia’s recent crackdown on gay “propaganda” has led to protests ahead of them hosting the Winter 2014 Olympics – the issues of gay marriage and LGBTQ rights are just as relevant and important to our cultural narrative as they were when Batwoman won DC the GLAAD award in 2010. So when DC decides to ban the marriage of its most prominent gay superhero, it is not merely an editorial decision in line with its other superheroes, to keep them all detached, no matter how hard it wants it to be. It is a ban on the marriage of a member of a minority group which faces prejudices across the world, which fears violence and backlash based on what should be no-one else’s business, which has to deal with people who think they know better deciding whether or not they are worthy of what many straight people take for granted. It is a ban on the marriage of a woman who many people still believe, because of her sexual orientation, cannot be in a loving, committed relationship. DC can tweet to the contrary all it wants, but when it actively blocks something that consumers are so regularly denied – a successful and well-fleshed out depiction of a member of a minority group – you can’t help but wonder if they believe that, too.

DC’s decision to ban art of the wedding of two women who love each other whilst simultaneously advertising for art submissions of a naked, suicidal woman about to kill herself are just the latest ill-timed, contradictory decisions in a long history of poor treatment for women in comic books. In a recent discussion panel, comic creators Todd McFarlane, Len Wein, and Gerry Conway dismissed the idea that comics needed more female protagonists by stating that “comics follow society, they don’t lead society” whilst, in a different interview on the same day, Kick-Ass creator Mark Miller was justifying the amount of rape and violence against women in his comics by arguing that “comics are ten years ahead of everything else.”

This constant goalpost-moving by fans of the status quo often leaves women and members of minority groups – myself included – wondering: is there a place for us in this subculture? DC seems to be trying its hardest to tell us no, so, like many other Batwoman fans, I will be seriously reconsidering my subscription to the series after the departure of its signature team. DC needs to think about whether it wants to target any audience other than the straight white male club; because if it is willing to sexualise and glorify violence against women but not willing to get over its prejudices and depict, for one of the few times in the media ever, two women as together and happy, it’s not going to be winning any more awards for equality, and it’s not going to be winning any more support from people like me.

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