Burnside or Elsewhere, We Need a Bi Batgirl!

We need a bi Batgirl? I don’t mean that; it’s too specific, but that alliteration was impossible not to use. What we need is a queer heroine, and not just any sort of heroine. She needs to be different.

The last little while has been good (read: better than horrible) for queer women in mainstream comics. Marvel and DC have outed a few of their leading ladies, and while the process hasn’t always been flawless, progress is progress. We’ve had Valentine’s awesome and far too short run on Catwoman show Selina enter a troubled will-they-or-won’t-they with her temporary replacement, the recently completed Angela Saga (stretching over three titles, Asgard’s Assassin, 1602 and Queen of Hel) followed her quest to save her girlfriend, Harley Quinn was finally officially outed as bi by the writers of her unstoppably successful series over twitter. That’s not mentioning lower profile alternative universe books like DC’s Bombshells and Grant Morrison’s Wonder Woman: Earth One, both of which introduced queerness to previously straight characters. This is a good time for women loving women who love comics too.

DC Bombshells

And yet, I’m not happy.  

The thing is that all of these series have something in common: they’re for grownups.

Black Canary & Starling, Gail Simone probably, Birds of Prey? DC Comics

I don’t mean that they’re universally grim-darkly morose. Angela’s been one of the most consistently hilarious books out since it launched, and Harley’s all about humour. In fact, they’re all awesome and highly recommended. This is in no way a criticism of them. But with violence, death, sex jokes and suffering, they’re clearly out of the all-ages bracket.

Harley Quinn, 2013-ongoing, Written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti and illustrated by Chad Hardin.
And drunk fondling: for grown-ups

Marvel and DC have been pushing things recently by including more young heroines (including Squirrel Girl, Moon Girl, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Gwen, Steph Brown, Cass Cain and Barbara Gordon’s revitalised Batgirl among them) in their lineups, along with more cheerful, artistically varied books to match. While it’s really great to see companies treating women and girls as a valuable audience, when it comes to dating these characters are all either resolutely straight or completely disinterested. It would be nice to imagine that that means they’re ace—asexual—but in our hetero-centric world, and without confirmation of anything else, it’s more likely that their comics just haven’t covered romance yet; that if they do they’ll inevitably be un-outed (inned?) as straight. The only young queer leading lady is Marvel’s wonderful America Chavez, and she’s typically featured in conceptually complicated books (Young Avengers and the Ultimates) not suitable for younger readers. She’s also an old veteran who’s been hero-ing since she was six and so has a serious, adult attitude. While that would be fine if there were any more light hearted young queer heroines in the spotlight, with only her it sends a clear message:

Girls who don’t just like boys are women. Non-straightness is only okay if you’re willing to grow up.

It’s sad, but we’re used to treating anything subversive to our society’s standard heterosexuality as being Not For Kids.

This isn’t new. It’s sad, but we’re used to treating anything subversive to our society’s standard heterosexuality as being Not For Kids. Non-straightness is seen as inherently more sexual than straightness: one has innocent ten-year-old ‘dating’ and the other has lust.  Picture that older relative you’ve got who sees commercials with pre-teens in couples and thinks they’re adorable. Now, try to imagine them reacting that way to queer kids. They wouldn’t, because we’re hardwired by life to link gay-ness to sexy-ness. Because of this it’s seen as a complicated, daring, dangerous subject not fit for mainstream consumption, and because of that, queer characters are still horrendously rare, especially in anything for children.

Even when queer people do get to appear in mainstream media there’s a long, long history of making their narratives tragic. From early lesbian pulp fiction to film embracing AIDS as a way to relate to gay men, there’s always a subtext (with varying levels of ‘sub’) of punishing queer people for their sexual transgressions. As has been made very obvious recently by the spotlight shone on TV’s lesbian cull, we still haven’t got past that today.

So with queer ladies always sexy and/or doomed, of course Marvel and DC’s characters are adults. What can they do? Change a cultural narrative?

The Legend of Korra, Book 4, Episode 14, 2014

Well, yes. Despite setbacks the past couple of years have been groundbreaking for queer women in fiction aimed at, or suitable for, a younger audience. Indy game mega hit Undertale can get dark, but it contains nothing that’s unsuitable for kids and has a gay female relationship as the only romance in the plot. TV’s done even more. When Korra and Asami joined hands and set off into their life together at the end of Legend of Korra they kicked a tiny hole in the wall that stopped Adventure Time’s Marceline and Bubblegum from becoming overt and undeniable canon. Now we’ve got Steven Universe gaying it up all over the place, with Gravity Falls and Clarence following suit. Smaller comics too have been pushing all-ages queerness forward with titles like Lumberjanes, Help Us! Great Warrior, Princeless, Jem—it’s amazing that I can’t list them all without overburdening this sentence. And these characters and their relationships aren’t sexual or depraved: they’re largely innocent, sweet, and happy in the all the ways that their straight counterparts have enjoyed for years.

The point is that Marvel and DC are ideally placed for joining in. Both companies have been making an effort to open their gates recently, as the previously mentioned expanding roster of girl heroes shows. Introducing sexual diversity is the natural, obvious next step. We’ve had creator Kate Leth teasing it for her character Patsy Walker, but there’s so many to choose from. Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl series itself has had ups and downs in its LGBTQ+ representation despite its big queer audience; the character’s own sexuality developing would fix a lot of problems while tying to her self-discovery narrative. Steph Brown and Cass Cain are finally back together in Detective Comics. And as one of comics’ most popular femslash ships, maybe it’s finally time to make their romance canon? Perhaps the way to settle Kamala Khan’s love triangle is for her and her rival Mike to date instead. Squirrel Girl, rather than developing her briefly hinted at crush on Chipmunk Hunk, could realise that fighting crime’s what she’s really into and come out as ace. Alternatively, she could smooch her BFF Nancy. We have options.

That’s what this really comes down to. Options. I don’t think that the creators on these series are consciously deciding to cut queerness out. Several—James Tynion IV, Robbi Rodriguez, Ryan North, G. Willow Wilson, Sana Amanat among them—have proven that they care about progressive representation in general or queerness in particular. It feels unlikely that that there’s widespread maliciousness in the continual defaulting to straight. It comes from those higher up not recognising that it’s not the only way, of not recognising that it’s a choice.  

In the end it’s inevitable that either DC or Marvel is going to realise that there’s a space for a happy, young, all-ages queer heroine. It’s the road we’re on. Every little girl and woman out there, who’s been told that they only exist to titillate or die, deserves it—and they deserve it sooner, rather than later.

3 thoughts on “Burnside or Elsewhere, We Need a Bi Batgirl!

  1. Great piece! This line in particular was like whoa: “Now, try to imagine them reacting that way to queer kids. They wouldn’t, because we’re hardwired by life to link gay-ness to sexy-ness.” It got me thinking about how queer relationships in material for younger folk aren’t prevalent because gay=sex, not attraction or intimacy, but actual sex.

  2. THANK YOU!!! It’s like you wrote down what I had in my mind. Not only agree with you with the heroines but also with male heroes. It’s time that companies like DC and Marvel show their audience that they understand the diversity of human beings. We aren’t all heterosexual! It not only would be progressive but also educational. It can show younger teens or children that our society doesn’t just accept heterosexuality and that it’s okay to like someone that is your same sex!

    I can imagine why those “higher up” would oppose to having these younger queer heroines/heroes. It’s sad but some “parents” will probably make a big deal about the whole thing. Regardless they should make the leap to show how progressive the company is.

    Also….why isn’t one of the robins gay or bi? I need this in my life! And a page with robin (whichever one) telling Batman about his sexual preference and another with Batman hugging him and telling them it’s okay, and how he didn’t need to hide anything!!!!

  3. I’m hoping a little of the queerness will rub off on the girls of Gotham Academy during the Lumberjanes cross-over. 🙂

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