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The Cold Shoulder - Saving Superheroines from Comic-book Violence

by Shannon Cochran

Originally published: Bitch magazine, Spring 2007

The Cold Shoulder

There's a new Bat in Gotham City. Like Bruce Wayne, she's a rich socialite by day and a black-clad vigilante at night. And, also like Bruce Wayne, in both incarnations she's apt to sweep the ladies off their feet. Kate Kane, the new, revamped Batwoman, isn't the first lesbian character to debut in the DC Comics universe, but she might have the highest profile. Last June, DC Executive Director Dan DiDio issued a press release saying the move was intended "to get a better cross-section of our readership and the world."

But the new Caped Crusader may find Gotham City a hostile work environment. Many of the series' previous female characters met with unfortunate fates. An earlier Batwoman was murdered, a female Robin was tortured to death with a power drill, one Batgirl was crippled by the Joker, and another one was turned to villainy. In fact, it's so common for female superheroes to be killed in gruesome ways, comic-book fans have a term for it: "women in refrigerators." The phrase was coined in 1999 by comic-book writer Gail Simone, whose many credits include a stint on the Superman title Action Comics as well as current authorship of the Birds of Prey series.

The women-in-refrigerators syndrome got its name from a 1994 Green Lantern story arc, in which the titular hero's girlfriend is strangled and later discovered in a fridge. In an e-mail interview, Simone explains: "I and some male friends started making a list of the characters that had been killed, mutilated, or depowered (also a telling trend, as the more powerful a female character was, the more likely it was that she would lose those powers). It was shockingly long, and almost no one in the already small pool of valid superheroines escaped the wave of gynocentric violence."

But so what? Don't superheroes die all the time in comic books, regardless of their biology? Sure, but as Simone says: "First, there's [always been] a larger selection of male characters, so a handful killed made barely a ripple. Second, they didn't seem to be killed in the same way-they tended to die heroically, to go down fighting. Whereas in many cases, the superLADIES were simply found on the kitchen table already carved up." Furthermore, she points out, most of the men recovered with lightning speed. Take Batman and Batgirl: "Both had their backs broken [Batman broke his in a dramatic Batcave confrontation with the villain Bane; Batgirl broke hers when she was ambushed in her home and shot in the spine by the Joker, never given a chance to fight]. Less than a year later, Batman was fine. Batgirl-now named Oracle-was in a wheelchair and remained so for many years."

Alan Moore, the writer responsible for the story arc that crippled Batgirl, provides some insight into the editorial perspective behind the decision. As he told the industry magazine Wizard: "I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon-who was Batgirl at the time-and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project, and he said, ‘Hold on to the phone, I'm just going to walk down the hall and I'm going to ask [former DC Executive Editorial Director] Dick Giordano if it's alright,' and there was a brief period where I was put on hold and then, as I remember it, Len got back onto the phone and said, ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.'"

Moore later regretted the story arc that retired Batgirl, stating in several interviews that he felt the decision was shallow and ill-conceived. However, Barbara Gordon was far from the only victim of the women-in-refrigerators syndrome. The list Simone created in 1999 included more than 90 female characters, among them Aquagirl, Hawkwoman, Elasti-Girl, Nova, Lady flash, and at least two different Supergirls. In the eight years since, few of the list's characters have returned to life or regained their powers.

Simone also contacted other comic creators, both male and female, asking for their reactions to the list. Her letters were circulated on message boards and fan sites, provoking widespread debate and discussion in the comic-book world. Simone and her compatriots decided to create a website detailing the women-in-refrigerators phenomenon, (now archived at http://unheardtaunts.com/wir/). The site includes Simone's original list, along with a number of the responses it sparked.

For female fans like myself, Simone had pinpointed a problem we felt keenly but had not been able to articulate. "WiR syndrome" was the terminology we needed to make our discontent with the industry's sexism coherent, and Simone's list was the ammunition behind our arguments. And it seemed that her observations impacted the industry. "For whatever reason," Simone notes, "the next generation of writers paid a great deal more attention to making fun, entertaining, kick-ass superheroines." Notable examples include characters like Mark Andreyko's Manhunter at DC, or over at Marvel, Brian Michael Bendis's Jessica Jones, Tamora Pierce's White Tiger, and Dan Slott and Juan Bobillo's She-Hulk (thankfully reinvented as much more than a green slice of cheesecake). According to Simone, these characters have generated more female fans.

But many female fans are still angry over treatment of past characters. Although Stephanie Brown might not be well known to casual fans of the Batman mythos, readers of DC's Batman titles knew her for 12 years as Spoiler, a young and impulsive vigilante with a sunny optimism that made her an endearing foil to Batman's endlessly brooding ways. Robin's girlfriend for many years, Stephanie eventually filled out Robin's tights herself when the former Boy Wonder resigned his post.Shortly after, in 2004, Stephanie met her grisly end by the aforementioned power-drill torture by the supervillain Black Mask. The sequence spanned multiple issues and featured graphic artwork that blatantly sexualized the teenage heroine during her bondage and torture. An action figure of Black Mask, complete with power drill, was subsequently issued. No action figure of the Girl Wonder was ever made.

It felt like comics were backsliding badly. Before Stephanie Brown took over for Robin, I'd gone years without reading a Batman comic. It was a cover picture of Stephanie in action under the brassy logo "Robin: Girl Wonder" that had reinvigorated my interest. Soon I was buying four Batman-related titles every month and splurging for the occasional Teen Titans crossover. Stephanie's brutal death felt like a kick in the gut. I'd been a rube to fall for a promise that DC never intended to keep.

And I wasn't the only one angry about it. Mary Borsellino, a graduate student in cultural studies at Melbourne University, posted a rant on her blog that articulated her "rage and disgust" at Stephanie's treatment. Within two hours, her post had gathered about a hundred comments from like-minded fans.

"I felt like this was a sign," Borsellino wrote in an e-mail exchange, "that this was something that needed to be sustained. So I registered Girl-Wonder.org that evening."

Project Girl Wonder was initially dedicated to protesting the treatment of Stephanie Brown, but quickly took on a life of its own. While Stephanie remains the site's official symbol, Girl-Wonder.org's mission has expanded into a campaign demanding better treatment for all women in comics. As the site proclaims: "Batman and other superhero stories are the modern age's fables, and if we don't stop the spread of this rot now they will be irrevocably corrupted by it. Stephanie Brown is a symbol of the need for change. And we're going to see that the change begins." The site attracted more than 100,000 visitors in its first couple months, with hundreds of registered users filling the message boards. In the years since, Girl-Wonder.org has organized a letter-writing campaign, distributed literature about the WiR problem to conventions and local comic stores, and sparked a new wave of debate within the industry.

For Borsellino, the Girl Wonder campaign is fueled not only by depictions in the comics, but also by the apparent disdain shown by industry editors toward their female audience. In an e-mail interview, Borsellino wrote: "Less than a week [after Stephanie's death], [DiDio] started shooting his mouth off in an interview, and described Stephanie's death-by-torture as having a ‘major impact' on the lives of heroes." This statement bothered Borsellino because it was untrue (Stephanie's death didn't seem to impact male superheroes) and because of what it implied. "It completely failed to acknowledge that anybody could possibly have the girl as their hero. No, the girls are the ones who die and thereby make the boys, the real heroes, sad. It's pathetic." DiDio provoked another wave of outrage when, in response to a question from a fan at a comics convention, he allegedly intimated that Stephanie Brown deserved her torture and death because she had failed to obey Batman's orders to stay out of the fight with Black Mask.

Simone believes the anger against DiDio may be misdirected: "I'm not against shock and repulsion as story elements at all, in fact. I think comics that are slightly lurid are wonderfully compelling, and my own work regularly contains things that are simply inappropriate for anyone, thank God. And thankfully, Dan is dead serious about more diversity in both the characters and creators. It's not just more good female characters we need-it's more good gay characters, more good Asian characters, more good African-American characters, and on and on."

But the reality isn't so rosy. A former industry employee who maintains a blog at occasionalsuperheroine.blogspot.com recently removed all of her previous posts and replaced them with a 12-part "Goodbye to Comics," in which she referenced the sexual harassment that had been a daily part of her job until she was driven to resign.

DiDio and other industry honchos might make the right noises about increasing diversity and female audiences, but even in death, Stephanie Brown has been treated unfairly. While another fallen Robin (Jason Todd, now resurrected as Red Hood) was honored with a permanent memorial in the Batcave, no sign of Stephanie's service has been installed. According to Coordinating Editor Jann Jones, no plans for a memorial are in the works. For the boys: glorious deaths and dramatic returns. For the girls: punishment, torture, and forgotten fates.

Meanwhile, Girl-Wonder.org has expanded to include three regular columnists who keep tabs on the ongoing portrayals of female superheroes in the mainstream and alternative comics; they also recommend comics featuring strong female characters. Academic papers with titles like "The Secret Origins of Jessica Jones: Multiplicity, Irony and a Feminist Perspective on Brian Michael Bendis's Alias" or "Wonder Woman: Lesbian or Dyke? Paradise Island as a Woman's Community" are archived on the site. Two independent web comics are hosted by Girl-Wonder.org, and Borsellino says she'd like to see the support for creators expand: "Someday I'd love to generate the funds to get more female creators to conventions, so their work can be seen by editors, and to perhaps have a Girl-Wonder.org publishing imprint to get titles into stores, even if only in small numbers."

The future will belong to those creators. "We are making strides at DC," Simone affirms. "I write a book with an Asian lead [The All-New Atom], another with a nearly all-female cast [Birds of Prey], another with a cast of senior citizens [(Welcome to) Tranquility], and another with an openly lesbian couple, among others. That would have been almost unimaginable a few years back. We've got a lot to do, but I'm very optimistic and excited to be part of it."

Borsellino is also looking forward to a brighter future for female characters and fans, but she thinks that groups like hers will be necessary to keep the industry in line. "I want Girl-Wonder.org to stand like a watchdog. We're working on forging contacts with media groups, so that the next time DC or Marvel try to do something as sickening as [the arc in which Stephanie Brown was murdered], they'll have to consider that there's this group of very noisy, very angry feminists watching their every move and hitting their speed-dial as they do it."

Both Simone and Borsellino are optimistic about DC's new Batwoman. "I think it could be an amazing book," Simone says. But Borsellino notes that her presence has come with a price. "To get Kate Kane, we lost Cass Cain, Stephanie Brown, and Leslie Thompkins entirely [the latter, though not killed, was exiled to Africa]. Barbara Gordon and Helena Bertinelli were permanently relocated to Metropolis. Onyx has vanished without any follow-up. So that's six female characters-one Asian, one poor, one elderly, one disabled, one Italian, and one black-traded off the team in order to get one rich, white, young, pretty, gay woman."

Hopefully, Batwoman will be strong and capable enough to navigate the streets of Gotham City on her own. But it can't hurt that there's a legion of real-life Girl Wonders to watch her back. We've lost enough of our heroines already.

Shannon Cochran is a writer and comic-book fan living in San Francisco.

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