“But you’re a —!” With three words and a shocked expression, Batgirl #37 let us all down. Just three short issues into the new creative team of writers Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher and artist Babs Tarr’s run after taking over from the amazing Gail Simone, they’ve already undone a lot of the trans-positive momentum the book, and DC Comics, had been building. In this latest issue, not only do the writers play with some very dangerous transmisogynistic tropes, but they toss Barbara Gordon’s character development out the window and turn her from being the close friend and ally to a trans woman to an outright transphobe. Since I’m talking about an issue that came out just a few days ago, this article will contain spoilers.
In this issue, there’s a fake Batgirl going around town, wearing an amazing bedazzled costume, helping criminals rob from celebrities (á la Pretty Wild or The Bling Ring) and posing for art exhibits. Of course, Barbara Gordon herself, the real Batgirl, wants to put an end to this. She goes to an art exhibit featuring photographs of this new Batgirl set up by the artist Dagger Type and finds a message in them telling her to go to the Burnside Bridge that night. Once there, during her battle with this impostor, she manages to pull of fake-Batgirl’s mask, and also their wig. In what ends up being a fairly disturbing scene, Batgirl sees that the impostor is in fact, Dagger Type himself. Batgirl freezes and her jaw drops as she yells “Dagger Type? But you’re a —” clearly about to say “a man” before she has to dodge a bullet from Dagger’s gun.
Now, at this moment, Batgirl had no way of knowing Dagger Type’s gender. She’s seen one picture of him and an artist’s bio once and then she’s seen him dressed up as Batgirl multiple times. So she’s seen Dagger Type presenting as a woman way more than presenting as a man. Why does she assume he’s not trans? If you pull the wig off of someone who you thought was a woman, it is 100% transmisogynistic to yell in shocked horror that they are a man. If Barbara didn’t know any trans people or have a shown history of being a great trans ally, this behavior might make sense (although it would still be offensive). However, that’s the exact opposite of what the case is. I mean, just imagine if Alysia Yeoh had seen Barbara react this way. She would have sat her down and called her on her bullshit.
Barbara Gordon was one of the few characters I love who I didn’t have to imagine as being trans positive. I knew she was. It was canon. Her roommate and one of her best friends was Alysia Yeoh, a queer trans woman of color like me. If you’ve read Batgirl #19, you know that Barbara reacts pretty much perfectly when Alysia comes out as trans to her. She reacts pretty much the opposite way she does in this comic, and it’s one of the best moments in all of comics in the past five years. While she does seem a bit surprised at first, she immediately segues that into a hug and an “I love you.” So in Batgirl #37, we see Barbara turned from an ally who had a great reaction to Alysia coming out into someone who sees someone else, who based on what she sees, is very likely a trans woman, and reacts with surprise and even disgust. What if this had happened between Alysia and Barbara before Alysia came out? Would Barbara have accidentally pulled off Alysia’s wig (if she wore one) and shouted “you’re a man!”? I really don’t think so. That’s not the Barbara Gordon we’ve come to know and love, and so this issue seems like a total betrayal of her character.
All of this isn’t even bringing up the fact that the both the “deceitful trans woman” and the “villainous trans woman” are dangerous tropes that feed transmisogyny and anti-trans violence. Now, I personally don’t think Dagger Type is a trans woman at all. I think it’s pretty clear that he’s just an asshole over-the-top hipster performance artist. In fact, the person he reminded me of the most was Dennis from the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode where he and Charlie sing “Day-man” for the first time. But that doesn’t mean he’s not playing to these classic anti-trans woman tropes. Just like the serial killers in Dressed to Kill and Psycho, we are shown an evil criminal who isn’t actually trans, but for all intents and purposes, is portrayed in very much the same way trans women are often portrayed in media.
What makes this even worse is that a few days ago, Batgirl co-writer Cameron Stewart tweeted out “Batgirl 37 is the one we’re all most excited for and also most nervous about.” While he didn’t give any more details, after someone said they’d be fine as long as they didn’t “do an Aaron Sorkin” (referring to the recent rape victim-blaming episode of The Newsroom), he tweeted “damn, internally we refer to this one as the “Newsroom” issue.” So, even though Stewart definitly had a joking tone, it seemed like he had some idea that the issue might offend some readers.
I was really rooting hard for this new team, and especially excited for Babs Tarr. I love Gail Simone, and I loved her run on the series (and especially the introduction of Alysia Yeoh and all the stuff she got to do), but I was also excited to see this new, stylish, fun and fresh take on the character. Many readers were worried that without Simone and with Batgirl moving out of her apartment that she shared with Alysia and into Burnside, we would stop seeing Alysia and lose the most mainstream trans woman in comics. While she has been seen on a few pages of the new run, including a few in this issue, it seems that things are worse than we thought.
Ultimately, this issue left me feeling sad, hurt and betrayed. They even included Alysia in the issue, which in hindsight, seems like a way to say “Hey look! We’re not transphobic! We’ve got a trans character!” As I was reading this issue I was having a great time. It’s funny, it’s clever and youthful, it’s got a super diverse cast and the art is absolutely amazing. There are great references and a bunch of fun cameos. But then, in one little panel, Batgirl reminded me that no matter what I do and no matter how great of a trans ally I think they are, many people will still see me a as a man and be shocked when they find out I’m trans. Batgirl #37 really hurt me and insulted me, and it will take a while for the book to earn my trust again.
Update: Yesterday, writers Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart and artist Babs Tarr posted a very genuine and meaningful apology to twitter. They truly understand what was wrong with the issue and why it was offensive. They offered a real apology (not a “we’re sorry if we offended anyone”) and promised to do better. It’s incredibly refreshing and encouraging to see creators react this way and it gives me a lot of hope for the future of the book. This is how you react to being told you’ve done something transphobic the right way. On twitter, Stewart and Fletcher said “We made mistakes. We’re deeply sorry. We will do better” and the released the following statement that was cosigned by them and Tarr.