Birds of Prey Reboot Features Potential Lesbian, Is Also Potentially Problematic

So, one of DC’s newest reboots in The New 52 series is Birds of Prey, which features an all-female cast, and one possible queermo lady. Ev, codename Starling, is the one with biker jacket, tattoos and Betty Page haircut:

No — damn you, lesbian ambiguity

I see alternative lifestyle haircuts. I see the shortest fingernails ever. I see gentle hand-holding. I see ladies not wanting to see each other but really needing to see each other. I basically see some dykes here. And while we know that DC has been pretty good on the representations-of-lesbians front with the new Batwoman comics, here’s hoping that Ev is another queer for the team — she’s hard-drinking, she likes to shoot things with her guns, she calls the other ladies in the team “sweetie” and “babe” and when the main character, Black Canary, or Dinah Lance (who I think is straight, despite having the gayest first name ever) gets hit on by cute boys, Dinah shrugs them off by thinking to herself, “He asks you out, you tell him you’re dating Ev.”

How has Dinah not gotten on this yet?

Now, while I’m pretty excited about another possible main-character lesbian lady in the DC universe, I do have some problems with the Birds of Prey reboot. I definitely think that having characters that are casually revealed to be lesbians is a great idea, unless this whole lifestyle haircut / gentle hand-holding panel ends up turning into a “she’s my BFF and/or my sister-cousin!” cop-out storyline to get people to buy the next issue (which comes out on February 15).

The problem? What the latest Batwoman comics have been doing right, Birds of Prey has been doing wrong. All of the basic foundational stuff is there — Birds of Prey stars female characters who are hard-hitting and “independent,” and so does Batwoman, at least in concept. But while Batwoman has been regularly passing the Bechdel test, has strong female side or minor characters, contains story arcs that revolve around people of color and individuals who aren’t necessarily male and features illustrations of women who aren’t contorted into the horrible tits-and-ass shot, Birds of Prey consistently lacks these things.

I can see all of the boobs and some of the bootys: The Tit & Ass Shot

I ended up reading all five of the currently-released Birds of Prey comics, and one of the things I noticed is that while there’s often at least one female character in every panel, many of the main story lines and character development-related plots feature male characters as their central points. The main plot in the first two issues is about a male reporter (props for him being a person of color, DC), who inner-monologues about how “gorgeous” Ev is, and even goes about asking her for her number even though he’s married. The Japanese member of the group, Tatsu Yamashiro (codename Katana), has a dead husband she believes lives on in her sword, and she constantly talks to “him” and asks him for advice. In one weird and out-of-place plot point, Dinah gets grossly mouth-kissed by a rando bad guy during a fight.

What else? Ev is constantly trying to set up Dinah with cute science researcher Trevor, who can’t possibly be so accomplished or knowledgeable at age 22 or however old he looks in this comic — and his first words to Dinah are “Huh? Wow,” at her sexiness before he addresses her as a person. Ev faints into men’s arms and feigns feminine delicacy to distract guards. And Poison Ivy’s main information-sapping tactic is a creepy plant seduction technique where she interrogates all of the informants (who happen to be all men) with phrases like, “I need you, can’t you see that?” and “I want you. Want you more than you could possibly imagine,” and “I love you. More than anything’s ever loved anyone.”

Creepy sexy times

I see what the writer, Duane Swierczynski, is trying to do with quirky, strong-headed female characters, but I also see the problem of promoting “female sexual empowerment, yay!” without thinking it all the way through. As Laura Hudson points out in her article, ” The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and Their ‘Liberated Sexuality,'” there’s a common argument that these women are doing what they want to do, and using their bodies and sexualities in ways they want to get power and agency. However, as Hudson writes,

“This is not about these women wanting things; it’s about men wanting to see them do things, and that takes something that really should be empowering — the idea that women can own their sexuality — and transforms it into yet another male fantasy. It takes away the actual power of the women and turns their ‘sexual liberation’ into just another way for dudes to get off.”

We have to remember that the writer of Birds of Prey is a guy — we’re reading female characters written by men for men. Many character moments in the comic don’t ring true, and there’s often a thin veneer trying to hide the comic’s contrived plot twists and poor characterization that likely plays to a male-identified fanbase.

OY VEY.

For instance: Dinah keeps turning down Trevor to emphasize how much she doesn’t need a boyfriend, but her identity as “boyfriend-less” is just as defined by men, and relationships with men, as its opposite. The weird mouth-kiss between Dinah and that rando bad guy is clearly nonconsensual (Dinah punches him afterward), but the kiss still gets a giant panel in full, uncomfortable detail.  And Dinah and Ev get a few “accidentally” homoerotic panels and Ev calls Dinah cuddly pet names like “honey” and “girlfriend,” but it feels more exploitative and femmeslash-y than sexy.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t read Birds of Prey — it’s full of cute one-liners and action and lots and lots of boobs (seen through sheer, tight clothing). It has a lot of kinks to work out, though, and while generally any of the dialogue / monologue that comes out of Ev’s mouth is funny and pretty appealing, Swierczynski’s underlying plot motives and efforts to stuff random men into all of the spaces between the female main characters are a little too transparent for me.

WAIT, EV — LET ME COME WITH YOU.

My vote: Read if you like hard-drinking, Betty-Page-looking, gun-shooting, possible lesbian characters and a storyline you probably don’t want to take too seriously. The platonic, slightly gay camaraderie that happens between Dinah (I still can’t get over her coincidental name) and Ev is pretty charming, too, but don’t expect anything to come out of that.

And I’ll keep up with the next issue of Birds of Prey and keep you updated on what happens with the possible lesbian storyline between Ev and The Girl with the Lesbian Lifestyle Haircut — just so you don’t have to. Or do have to. Whichever.

 

Thanks for the tip, Abby a.k.a. yodelmachine! 

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Whitney is a lover of food, books, comic books and journals made for left-handed people. She is a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University, where she studies video games and new media. She is also a graphic designer, writer and editor who has worked for places like Opium Magazine, Literary Death Match, Publishers Weekly and The Feminist Press. Check out her blog at whitneypow.com and follow her on Twitter @whitneypow.

Whitney has written 51 articles for us.

27 Comments

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      Yes! And I watched every minute of that shit. One of the best things about that series was Mia Sara as Harlequin. She was THE big villian of the series and played her as more of a calculating Chessmaster than the goofy deranged version we are used to seeing in the comics and cartoons. I really loved that she tried to do something different with the character but still keep her identifiable as Harlequin. I’ll never forget that ridiculously over-the-top final action sequence with the girls fighting to Tatu’s “All the things she said”. I mean come on that was hilarious.

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    For Halloween, my friends and I dressed as variuos DC comics female superheroes..And looked pretty damed bitchin’…After a few drinks..Ok, more than “a few”..We attempted to get a photo akin to that absurd cover..You know, the weirdly contorted T&A shot..We couldn’t make it happen..Despite my limber yoga friendly body, that is simply not a thing the body wants to do

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    Someone already mentioned the TV series to go along with the subtext. But totally forgot to mention it actually did have a lesbian. She was more of a side character that we saw two or three times through out the series. Gabby, or something? She’s the high school friend of Dinah. It’s been so long since I’ve watched it, but if I remember correctly, they kinda just down played it in the end of an episode with a few lines.

    Anyone else remember this, or am I just making things up? >_<

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    From dcwomenkickingass on Tumblr, “The writer, Duane Swierczynski said in the interview with him last week for the podcast that Ev is bisexual.” YAAAAAAAAAAY BISEXUALS IN COMICS

    I agree that the current run of BoP is kind of problematic, though. It’s gone kind of far from the good Gail Simone days.

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    This is an interesting critique of a series, as an “old” BoP fan, I’ve become suprisingly fond of.

    The cover art (when not done by the interior artist) has been abysmally awful, and something I hope DC will amend as it’s really underselling the run. However, the interior art is excellent imho and Jesus Saiz has a beautiful, clean, illustrative style with a great sense of anatomy and movement.

    I agree it’s problematic, and that the focus has moved away from a series driven by female relationships to DC’s “Black Ops” concept team. Characters like Ivy (especially, horrifically) and Katana, even Ev and Canary, are also intentionally, intrinsically problematic and based on solicits the book plans to mine that tension in future issues (especially with the introduction of Batgirl to the team). But I’m fairly sure it passes the “Bechedel Test” on a regular basis. I certainly think it’s a huge missed opportunity that, as a completely new character, they didn’t choose to make Ev a PoC.

    I agree the “Dinah needs a new boyfriend” shtick is grating, and I hope the story will avert that trope. Also Dinah was/is notorious for being very strongly, subtextually, bisexual and in love with ex-Batgirl Barbara Gordon aka “Oracle”, now rebooted as Batgirl once again. Gail Simone tells that she intended to out Dinah in her BoP run with DC’s blessing but, of all things, a printing error got in the way. Purely on the weight of history with BoP I am almost certain the subtext is entirely intentional; Gail Simone embraced it and went out of her way to support it, within the (unfortunate) limits of writing a marquee character, like Barbara Gordon, for a major publisher.

    I think Laura wrote an excellent article and, as ever, ymmv with stories and I can relate to anyone who feels burned by the poor treatment of Queer and PoC characters in the media. I do think BoP could be doing better. But from reading the comic myself I don’t remotely have the sense this is being written “by men for men”, nor do I see the sense in singling out the fact Duane is a guy (except that there should be many more female writers at DC) when so are writers like Greg Rucka and the team currently behind Batwoman. It seems to me that the story is about a conspiracy and the efforts of a group of women with chequered pasts trying to stop it. Ev has been confirmed to be bisexual, as mentioned. The writing/characterisation may be a little weak in places, and it’s possible my history with the characters is filling in the blanks new readers will notice.

    All the same, it’s an interesting read: thank you for the article.

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    Really enjoying the Batwoman run, but Birds of Prey hasn’t caught my attention for anything but non nutritional art candy. This confirms my non inclusion of the book on my reading list. Anyone have a Demon Knights opinion? It’s one of my favorites of the 52 and seems to be circling some medieval style gender issues. I’m getting the find and read my Camelot 3000 graphic novel urge.

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    Poison Ivy had been a villainess–often a rather murderous one–for at least forty years of DC continuity before the recent “New 52″ reboot. The fact that most of her new teammates were appalled at the idea of adding her to the group makes it clear that she has an established history as one of the official bad guys in this revamped version of the DC universe as well. So she’s kind of a weird candidate for membership in a superheroic team (except that at least two other New 52 Birds of Prey are currently on the shady side of the law, with Dinah Lance/Black Canary, the team leader, having been framed for murder, and Ev/Starling apparently being wanted by certain factions of the federal government for insubordinately independent-minded behavior while employed by them as a spy). In any case, since Ivy’s ability to mess with and/or control the minds of men (and the occasional woman–she did it to Catwoman in the year-long “Hush” Batman event) via her hyped-up mutated pheromones is a long-established part of her criminal M.O., I think this technique has probably been employed here less as some kind of alleged attempt to depict female sexual empowerment than as something that can titillate the shallower straight male fans, while simultaneously inviting more serious-minded readers to ponder the question of whether even the virtuous end of foiling an evil conspiracy justifies the use of an inherently unethical means like mind control.

    Poison Ivy started out as a Batman villainess who, like Catwoman and Talia al Ghul, among others (http://www.sequentialtart.com/article.php?id=554), was at least as romantically interested in Batman as she was in her alleged criminal objectives. Unlike Catwoman and Talia, Ivy seems to have gotten over her obsession with Batman relatively early in her career, which increasingly involved pro-plant/anti-human acts of literal eco-terrorism, rather than conventional crimes or attempts at personal revenge. Interestingly, in the relatively short-lived “The Batman” animated TV series that aired in the early 2000’s, which reversed tradition by making teenage Batgirl Barbara Gordon Batman’s sidekick even before the several-years-younger Robin was added to the team, Poison Ivy was reimagined specifically as Batgirl’s foe, rather than Batman’s.

    In this version of the animated Batverse, Ivy and Barbara were high school best friends and fervent environmentalists who jointly committed several acts of sabotage against local corporations guilty of crimes such as pollution. During their last such property-damaging protest, Barbara, the daughter of the Gotham City police commissioner, developed serious qualms about going through with Ivy’s plan to blow up the entire research and development lab of a corporation currently testing chemicals designed to induce virtually instantaneous plant growth. While the two girls were arguing about the appropriate course of action, they were spotted and attacked by the corporation’s security team. In the ensuing struggle, Ivy fell into a vat of the experimental chemicals in question. These turned out to be highly mutagenic, instantly turning her skin green, as well as endowing her with the ability to control plants and make them sprout to gigantic size out of nowhere and entangle foes in their vines.

    Ivy promptly employed her new abilities to wreck the factory and battle both the company security team and the somewhat late-arriving Batman. When Barbara sided with Batman, begging her friend to turn herself in and get medical treatment for her chemically-induced condition, Ivy felt deeply personally betrayed, and focused her ire primarily on Barbara/Batgirl in the one subsequent episode in which she returned to fight the Bat-team.

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      In both the “mainstream” DC universe depicted in pre-New 52 DC comics and the relatively long-running 1990’s Bruce Timm-helmed “Batman: The Animated Series” cartoon, Poison Ivy was frequently depicted as being BFFs–and possibly lovers–with the Joker’s goofy female henchwoman/girlfriend(?) Harley Quinn. (In one comic-book story, Harley tells Batgirl that Ivy, whom she first met when Ivy saved Harley and nursed her back to health after the Joker flew into a rage and nearly killed her, had injected Harley with an antidote immunizing her against the hypnotic pheromones otherwise activated by Ivy’s touch or kiss, “so we can play.”) So in the previous comic-book continuity, as well as both cartoon continuities, Poison Ivy has significant female-bonding elements in her backstory that lend themselves to femmeslash. This may have at least subliminally contributed to the current creative team’s decision to include her in DC’s only all-girl super-group. However, in the current DC continuity, it remains unclear whether Ivy has ever so much as met either Batgirl or the now much more conventionally sexed-up and T & A-costumed New 52 version of Harley Quinn, currently appearing in the much-reviled “Suicide Squad” title.

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    The thing with Birds of Prey is that it was always a subtext book. And so far I think it’s one of the books gaining momentum as it nears the end of it’s first arc.

    For one of my favorite lesbian comics- check out Witchblade Volume 7 which introduces Dani and Finch’s relationship and spins off into the Angelus miniseries. I thought the relationship was interesting and the art is stunning. Be prepared to be surprised, tho. :)

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