Disappointment Again: Batgirl #37 is Transphobic

cover, Batgirl 37, Babs Tarr, Brendan Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, DC Comics, 2014

Batgirl #37 is transphobic. I wish that I could leave it at that. I wish I could make my feelings come across with those simple words and get people to understand. I wish that people wouldn’t defend it as unintentional, focusing on the possibility that there wasn’t malevolence in the creation and distribution of the issue. It remains transphobic regardless.

panel from Batgirl 37, Babs Tarr, Brendan Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, DC Comics, 2014The antagonist of the issue is a mentally ill male artist named Dagger Type, who disguises themselves as Batgirl, engages in flamboyant criminal acts, appears in social media, and then attempts to kill and replace the real Batgirl under orders from somebody else. When Dagger is unmasked during a fight with Barbara, he is, of course, shown with smudged makeup and depicted as looking extremely unstable. His costume is otherwise perfect; he is as curvy and feminine as Barbara Gordon herself is, and he passes for a woman while masked. The disguised Dagger is actually the one who shows up on the cover of the comic. It’s his gold, sparkly costume.

Barbara is startled by her impostor being male, but is cut off before she can explicitly say that. Dagger is later arrested by the police at a show after revealing that he’s Batgirl and the crowd laughs at him, prompting him to pull out a gun and start firing wildly. As he’s being taken away, he says that he’ll have to tell Kanye (presumably the one and only Mister West) that they won’t be able to collaborate like they planned — the punchline to a setup earlier in the issue.

Batgirl 37, Alysia Yeoh, Babs Tarr, Brendan Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, DC Comics, 2014
An appearance from Alysia

This comic book is targeted towards a younger audience than the rest of DC’s books. The book is filled with people in their twenties, pop culture references, the use of modern technology and social media. This comic book supposedly has a transgender woman, Alysia Yeoh, in Batgirl‘s supporting cast — one of Barbara’s roommates — but she’s rarely been around since the creative team changeover, and doesn’t feature prominently. You can’t tell me that this comic won’t leave a mark on any young, questioning trans women who read it. You can’t tell me that this comic can’t do any harm.

Murderous or deceptive men disguising themselves as women has been a trope in fiction long before the creation of cinema, and it’s shown up too many times to list or even count. The trope isn’t even subverted here, which is the hell of it. Batgirl has been praised for being a breath of fresh air compared to the rest of DC’s material, both visually and in its writing. It’s been celebrated as feminist and gotten plenty of people interested in comics. The fact that it used a tired transphobic trope in the new creative team’s third issue shows that it isn’t nearly as groundbreaking as many hoped and believed. Its fans are going to miss that or defend the book anyway.

panel from Batgirl 37, Babs Tarr, Brendan Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, DC Comics, 2014A transphobic comic book was scripted, drawn, colored, lettered, printed, and distributed. Honestly, it’s business as usual, all things considered. Something that’s half joke, half rule of thumb: trans women look for art and media that’s less transphobic than others, not content that isn’t transphobic. You might as well be talking about petting a fucking unicorn in the latter case.

I’ve had people get grumpy at me for dropping television shows or criticizing media for their transphobia (Arrested Development, Community, Chew), as if not wanting to surround yourself with material that’s actively hateful to you or at least apathetic to you as a person is an unreasonable desire. I do have to wonder if they’d begrudge racial minorities if they stopped reading a book with stereotypical portrayals, if they’d side-eye a gay man who protested homophobic tropes in cinema, if they’d expect cisgender women to not have anything negative to say about period jokes. If you understand the reasoning for being upset about those, and don’t understand why a transgender woman would be sick and tired of “crazy,” murderous deceivers pretending to be women in media, or other transphobia, I want you to ask yourself why.

Batgirl, Alysia Yeoh, Gail Simone, Javier Garron and colorist Romulo Fajardo Jr, DC COmics, 2014
Alysia under Gail Simone’s pen

I’m disappointed and disgusted that I have to criticize a comic for being transphobic less than a month after I wrote a plea begging for better portrayals of trans women in media, let alone a comic I referenced in the very same piece. The kicker to it is, Gail Simone at least tried to have a decent example in the case of Alysia Yeoh. I’ve been fuming all day since I read Batgirl #37.

Educate yourself on transgender issues. Listen to transgender people. Critique transphobia in media. Yell from the goddamn rafters that you’re not going to accept transphobic characters or events in media. Make inclusive art. I try to read comics to escape from how awful the world is around me, and have since I was a little kid. I don’t need to be constantly reminded that I’m feared, hated, and mocked for who I am. I don’t need to be reminded that people who cross gender lines are considered crazy and not to be trusted. I need something more.

Rachel Stevens

Rachel Stevens

Staff Writer. Rachel J Stevens is a transgender woman living in Seattle, Washington, originally from Michigan. She loves science fiction, music, bright colors, and combinations thereof. She spends entirely too much time reading on the internet and thinking about robots.

22 thoughts on “Disappointment Again: Batgirl #37 is Transphobic

  1. Reading this, I almost wonder what these writers can do to make up for it. Obviously, what was written and drawn can’t be changed now, and it’s extremely unfortunate. My only thought is that they should bring back Alysa into the story, showing her as a positive force in Barbara’s life and others. If they are really sorry, they should probably find a way to show that in action rather than just words. Apologizing and brushing it under the rug like it never happened wouldn’t be the smartest choice, but it might be what they end up doing. If they can find a way to show a trans character in a positive light, that might redeem this situation. Key word being “might”.

    1. When they took over and said that Alysa is no longer Barbara’s roommate, on tumblr they assured fans that their story will have more LGBT representation than ever. I asked specifically about trans representation and they never replied :/

      I think more trans representation would be a good start, not just Alysa but maybe have a major story where Batgirl is helping out Alysa and her trans activist friends.

  2. I still do not know how I feel about your claim here, Rachel. I had the chance to read and then re-read this issue yet I still do not understand how this was transphobic? I don’t want to sound insensitive or show disrespect but I think you may have jumped the gun here. There is a big difference between drag culture and the transgendered community and I think you may be generalizing here.

    1. I think it’s important that the difference between drag culture and being trans is emphasized…but what also must be understood is that this isn’t a drag vs trans issue. We live in a society that conflates both communities, and which has pushed a lot of problematic harmful narratives around queerness, abnormal gender representation, and gender non-normative people’s status as sexual predators and immoral deceivers. If you happen to have access to academic databases, i highly recommend reading Talia Mae Bettcher’s “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion”, which I feel makes the social history and impact of these narratives very clear.

      The fact is, it doesn’t matter if a character is trans or not in regards to its potential to be transphobic. There are social stigmas attached to the trans community, and to a lesser extent the drag community, and when those stigmas get validated as the primary form of representation of a subgroup of people, it’s a problem. And when people raise up the “well, it’s drag culture, and not specifically linked to trans people” remarks, they’re ignoring the history of what these narratives have fostered in society and the violence those perspectives have caused. Additionally, it’s an argument that reveals a lack of awareness of social and political understanding. I grew up in a very liberal area in Canada, with very liberal LGB friendly folk in my friend and peer groups, a good number of them gay and bisexual, and over half of my friends needed months of relearning to understand that trans women were different from drag queens. Even more than that to actually start to understand what those differences were. RuPaul is still a popular media persona that’s approached on trans issues that he largely isn’t involved with on a day to day basis, because people often conflate drag performers with trans folk. Thankfully this is becoming less of a thing now that we have people like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox and whatnot, but it’s still an issue. So raising the drag culture context makes little sense on that level as well, since society at large makes little to no distinctions, not at a core level.

      It’s not uncommon for cis privilege to blind people to the underworkings of these social processes, so I don’t blame people for not seeing it initially, but as trans people who are largely offering a resounding ‘No’ to this sort of treatment in the media (same for a few months back with Boxtrolls, and plenty of other content before that), we deserve to be listened to and be given the benefit of the doubt when we say someone’s done something transphobic. At least value our voices over cis commenters.

      And when we bring up the tired, harmful, offensive narratives tropes revolving around deception politics, narratives that have allowed murderers to go free through trans panic defenses that won over sympathetic juries, it’s hardly jumping the gun. These narratives should not be supported in any form of media until the social stigmas related to hundreds, if not thousands of deaths, are eliminated. Deaths that still happen because trans people are viewed as deceivers and freaks and worse, ad it’s stories like this that normalize those sorts of reactions, and has people sympathizing with the hero and feeling disgust or amusement at the crazy person dressing up as/trying to be a woman (sometimes these villains are trans men, but most often they’re women, in order to create more conflict through breaches of heteronormativity and the assumption of gender presentation being linked with a sexed body). And if that doesn’t make the issues Rachel speaks of visible to you, then I’m sorry. I know it can be difficult to step away from a world view you’ve been entrenched in for so long, but there’s really no getting around this comic having utilized transphobic narratives.

      1. I’m definitely one of those people blind to their privilage. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to change perspectives and teach empathy like you’re doing here. This article and your comments alone have opened my eyes to trans representation in media. The only thing more gross than how misrepresented trans people are is how little I have questioned it. I guess I’m just replying to thank you. Know that your words aren’t falling (entirely) on deaf ears. You and Rachel have at least changed one person’s perspective and hightened my awareness of problems facing trans-gendered folks. Thank you so much!

  3. You know, I have a confession to make. I came to your website to read the full story after reading some excerpts on BleedingCool and although I did so hoping to find the reason why Batgirl #37 would be considered transphobic, I had already mostly made up my mind why I didn’t think it was transphobic.

    It’s wasn’t until I read the sentence ” If you understand the reasoning for being upset about those, and don’t understand why a transgender woman would be sick and tired of “crazy,” murderous deceivers pretending to be women in media, or other transphobia, I want you to ask yourself why.” that the penny dropped for me.
    Truth is I never have to deal with the crap (and everything that comes with that) of people unjustly and simply calling me “a man in a dress” who is upset for no reason. And I guess that means that I simply didn’t see the problem at all because of it.

    On some level I somehow still don’t quite think that the story is transphobic and I don’t think the creators are either, but I do completely understand why a trans person would be upset and outraged about the story, as well as the portrayal of the character and in that, both me and the creators of the story have failed.

    The reason why I didn’t think the story is transphobic is because I just read it as some crazy guy in a dress (drag) being a villain doing crazy things, but then, again like I said, I never have to deal with the crap of people unjustly calling me “a man in a dress” who is upset for no reason instead of simply respecting me for who I am or at the very least try to understand my issues. So yeah, lesson learned (although still a long way to go) and thank you for showing me that I was wrong. I just hope others will come to understand it as well.

    1. I’ll make a similar confession. I’m a cis gendered, straight, white male, so I’m the very definition of privilaged; but I’ve always thought myself a progressive thinker who wants to be open and accepting of anybody different from me. But when I read about the response to the Batgirl issue (and by extension, the creative team), I thought it wasn’t fair. Of course, I was dead wrong.

      I simply can’t imagine how I’d feel if every time I saw part of myself represented in media, it was as a villain. If part of my identity was constantly looked at with disgust. I can’t imagine how much it would hurt. I was so close to joining others (including somebody in this comment thread) in saying that this was just one story, or that trans folks should be able to be villains too. All the while I’d be ignoring that this isn’t one story; that it joins a chorus of horrible representation of folks just being themselves.

      I can completely understand that, apology or no apology, people are going to be upset with this issue, and they have every right to be. The only thing I’ll say about making an actual apology instead of an empty one, is that it doesn’t distract from the discussion that’s coming from the critisism of the issue.

  4. The Creative Team apologized for the reaction to the issue. But I don’t see Batgirl’s reaction as transphobic. It’s not shown or stated that Dagger is transgendered. At the art show there is a huge billboard of Dagger in a v-neck t-shirt, clearly male, and described in the text as “he” and “him”. Later when Barbara unmasks Dagger on the bridge, yes he has “breasts” because the costume is padded to appear female. At the end of the issue when Dagger unmasks himself at the concert he is clearly male. He uses a huge golden bat to hide the fact that he has no breasts.

    If anything, and this is also an assumption because it is never made clear, he may be a cross-dresser but that is not specifically stated either. He may have been just dressing female as “Batgirl” because that is what he was paid to do.

    1. Maybe if you relax your hold on your own perspective, and really listen to Rachel’s, you’ll start to see?

  5. They apologized! Like an *actual* apology, it’s great! You don’t have to drop the comic after all! Seriously, they don’t even try to justify it, they just apologize and promise to be better

    1. While it’s good that they did issue some semblance of an apology, they did go into this issue’s release with the perspective that it was their “Newsroom” issue. That alone tells me they knew it could have been really really shitty, but did nothing about it until people confirmed that it was really really shitty.

      Fact is, a 15-30 minute assessment of the storyboarding early on by some random trans folk would have fixed this. If they’re only willing to listen to us when they’ve made mistakes, and are unwilling to learn from the past about what mistakes not to make, we’re going to keep seeing people screw up.

      The fact is, running the deceptive trans/queer villain narrative is not acceptable in any media format. It’s just not, and if these writers had paid attention to all the past films, shows, books, comics, etc. that had run this sort of filth and gotten pushback, they would have been able to predict that the plot for their issue needed to be reworked, and that a lot of how they handled the characters in this issue was intensely problematic.

      So yeah, they apologized. It’s a PR formality at this stage. The fact is, that if they respected trans people at all, this issue’s story wouldn’t have made it past the brainstorming stage. If they only listen when we’re hurt and angry, and even then only to the general sense of hurt and anger instead of addressing the reasons why, then it’s an apology without the intent to improve.

      Maybe they’ll be better in the future, but their vague ‘apology’ really didn’t strike me as sincere or aware enough of their failings.

  6. Hey,

    This is the first time I read your website. I saw this post on tumblr and saved it for later for when I had the chance to read this last Batgirl issue. As soon as I finished, I realised how awful that was.
    I’m quite new to the comic book world. And this was such a disappointment for me. I absolutely loved Batgirl numbers 35 and 36. It was nice, refreshing, the drawing was adorable and the writing was fun. I can’t believe in what I read yet. And then I read your article and I’m just… really disappointed. I knew there was a problem, but reading it was like it was official. And I hate it. Babs is one of my favourite comics character and that was so… unecessary. Obviously, any kind of transphobia is unecessary but really? After all you’ve been doing with Batgirl, you do this? In your *third* issue? I read your article and I feel so ashamed, I want to put myself on trash. I’m so sorry you have to deal with this.
    Honestly, we’re in 2014. It’s time for people to have respect on transgender people. I’m so angry. And, most of all, I am so, so sorry you had to read this issue. I’m so sorry for all you have to go through. :/

  7. Don’t generally comment on sites anymore, but wanted to thank you for having the courage to write this, given you know going in folks are gonna be defensive because we’re all supposed to like a book that doesn’t deserve it, because “it’s different from the norm.” That isn’t shorthand for good.

  8. so how long before the mary sue posts an article about how this is fine and trans women should shut up

    1. Ha, was thinking this exact thing when I read this article.

      Batgirl was one of the only DC books I was still reading. Haven’t picked up my copy of #37 yet but I guess it’s dead to me under current authorship.

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