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:
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.”
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 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.”
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.
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.
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!