The US national sex ed standards state that by the end of fifth grade, students should be able to “[d]efine sexual orientation as the romantic attraction of an individual to someone of the same gender or a different gender.” Unfortunately, many of the country’s school districts are still stuck in the 1950s, teaching abstinence-only education that completely ignores same-sex attraction.
In one such school district, a substitute librarian defined “LGBT” for her fifth and sixth graders when they asked her what it meant. Within an hour, the substitute was dismissed for the remainder of the week for which she’d been scheduled to sub. She was given an “Unsatisfactory Substitute Evaluation” by the principal of the school, which led to a meeting between the substitute and the school district’s Library Services and Human Resources.
The substitute librarian in question, an acquaintance of mine, provided screenshots of the emails discussing the incident, and I’ve included them here with identifying information blocked out for privacy purposes. (Blocked out in rainbow colors, of course!)
This is just one example of a larger problem: the abysmal state of sex education in so many of our public schools. For instance, only “13 states require that [sex ed] instruction be medically accurate.” Only “12 states require discussion of sexual orientation.” Of those twelve, nine states require inclusive information, while the remaining three “require only negative information on sexual orientation” (emphasis added).
This particular incident took place in Nevada, a state which requires sex and HIV education, but does not require that education to be medically accurate. (There is also no regulation in Nevada that sex ed “be culturally appropriate and unbiased,” nor any restriction on sex ed promoting religion.)
Before you read the below emails, I want to state that I agree that the substitute librarian should not have told students about Maya Christina Gonzalez’s parents disowning her. Without knowing the home lives of the students in that library, she could not have known the distress it could have caused some of them.
However, I stand by the substitute’s decision to honestly answer children’s questions of the definition of a word, or in this case, an acronym. Yes, LGBT rights are (unfortunately) controversial. But so is immigration, and I’m certain that if she had defined “immigrant” to her students there would not have been a problem.
The difference is that a large portion of our society still think of LGBT issues as sexual issues, when they are simply relationship issues. They are human issues.
In her summary of the meeting, the Library Services Coordinator states that “[p]arent permission is required for all parts of the [sex ed] curriculum, and that only specific [school district] employees are to teach such curriculum.” But peer pressure is also an aspect of the sex ed curriculum, and again, I am certain there would not have been a problem if a substitute discussed peer pressure with students when asked.
The rules of this specific school district are against this substitute librarian, but that does not change the fact that this is a clear case of discrimination.
The admin in one of my Facebook groups recently posted a writing prompt on star-crossed lovers. I’m not always big on prompts because if it doesn’t speak to me I don’t want to force it. But this prompt just so happened to come on the day that I revisited Tahoe’s Moon, which I’ve been meaning to do for a long time.
I read through the last few pages before I picked up where I’d left off, and realized that my main characters fit the star-crossed lovers mold better than I’d previously considered. I’ve never been much of a fan of that phrase, because it reminds me of Romeo and Juliet. I hate Romeo and Juliet.
But I guess I wrote some star-crossed lovers into my novel anyway. Go figure.
Of course, the book is about much more than romance. But for the sake of this writing prompt, I’ve decided to share an excerpt that will give a glimpse of the difficulties Tahoe and Jonathan face in their relationship.
Once everyone’s plates were empty, I figured there was no longer a reason to wait. “Can I open my present now?” I asked.
They all agreed that it was a fine time, and I pulled the gift bag out. I ripped out the tissue paper and reached inside to pull out… a tee-shirt? I unfolded it and saw the words “Nevada Wolf Pack” across the back of the shirt. It was an oddly average present, especially after the thoughtfulness he put into the last gift he gave me.
I looked up at Jonathan, confused, and saw my parents’ expressions across the table. Bapuji looked shocked, and Biji had her quiet rage face on. What could have possibly caused them to look that way? I turned to Jonathan for explanation, but he was staring at my parents, fear creeping into his eyes.
Although Biji was looking at Jonathan, Bapuji had his eyes on the tee-shirt I was still holding. I turned it around so I could see the front… and my stomach dropped. That’s why my parents looked so upset.
On the front of the tee-shirt was the fierce-looking wolf that was on most UNR paraphernalia. But that was not the problem. The problem was the words circling the image: “Raised by wolves.”
“Tahoe,” Biji said quietly, “would you care to explain?”
“Well, see, Jonathan and I are UNR students, and that’s where we met, and UNR’s mascot is the Wolf Pack, so—”
“Tahoe.” This time, Biji used her Mukhiya voice. It was no use trying to laugh this off.
“I told him.”
“How could you?” Biji switched the conversation over to Hindi so that Jonathan could not understand what we said.
“I’m sorry,” I responded, in Hindi as well. “I didn’t think you’d understand. I had to be honest with him. And he took it really well, like I knew he would.” Not exactly true. I’d hoped he would take it well, but I had not known what to expect.
“If you had come to me first, if I had met him first, I could have given you permission to bring the matter before the Jhund.”
“You know how they are. It would have been mob mentality. They would not have trusted him.”
“It should have been the decision of the entire Jhund, not one young girl. And clearly, they would have been right not to trust him. Look, already he would have you wear your secret on your chest for all to see.” Biji gestured at Jonathan as she said this, and he flinched.
Up until now, he’d been silently watching the exchange like a tennis match. His head turned back and forth rapidly, eyes wide.
“I’m sorry,” he said, noticing the pause in our argument. “I just thought it was funny. I didn’t mean to cause a problem. Tahoe, I just wanted you to know that it doesn’t bother me that you turn into a wolf.”
“Doesn’t bother you?” Biji was outraged. “Why should it bother you? It is a gift. You should love Tahoe because she is Santaan Raksha, not despite of it.”
Jonathan looked terrified now. “That’s not what I meant. I do love her because of who she is. I just— She was worried— When she showed me, she was worried that I’d—”
“You showed him?” Biji stood up out of her chair.
“He would’ve thought I was crazy otherwise…”
“Do the traditions of the Jhund mean nothing to you?” Biji had switched back to Hindi.
“Rajnisha,” Bapuji said. “May I?”
Biji turned to him, as though surprised to find him sitting next to her. She gave a tight nod, her lips pursed thin.
“Jonathan,” Bapuji addressed my boyfriend softly from across the table, “I remember being in your place, years ago. It is scary at first.”
“Harshad.” Biji turned her anger to Bapuji.
“It is, Nisha. I thought I was going to pass out the first time I saw you Change.”
“It is not scary. It is a gift.”
“It is a gift,” Bapuji said. “But to someone who has never seen such a gift before, it is terrifying.” He turned to Jonathan again. “I understand. But Tahoe and Rajnisha don’t. This is all they’ve ever known. When Tahoe started school, we had to teach her that her wolf form was a secret. She did not realize that other little girls could not turn into wolves.”
I smiled. I remembered my parents breaking that news to me. I’d felt so sorry for all the other little girls who would never know what it was to run through the trees under Shashi’s light.
“So I understand,” Bapuji continued, “that your present for Tahoe was well-meant. But we need you to try to see this from our perspective too. Like I said, this is all Tahoe and Rajnisha have ever known. Just like seeing Tahoe Change was scary for you, seeing our way of life threatened scares Rajnisha.”
“Bapuji,” I said, “you know what it was like to see the Change for the first time when it was the entire Jhund Changing at once. I just wanted to ease Jonathan into it.”
“If the you believe the tradition is flawed, you should have spoken to your biji about it. You should have spoken to your Mukhiya about it.”
Biji added, “You had no right to go behind our backs.”
“I’m sorry. I was just trying to make the news easier for him to swallow.”
“As for the shirt,” Biji went on, “I suppose Harshad is right – it seems to have been well-meant.” Her voice had a grudging tone. “But you cannot wear it, Tahoe. We cannot risk our secret getting out.”
“Biji, no one’s going to think of it that way. Lots of UNR students wear shirts like these. Anyone outside of the Jhund who sees it… the last thing they’ll think is that I was literally raised by wolves. No one in their right mind would jump to a conclusion like that.”
“It doesn’t matter what the likelihood is. Any possibility of exposing the Jhund is out of the question.”
The best thing about the recent live-action Beauty and the Beast is that watching it has caused my three-year-old son to become obsessed with the classic animated movie. Because that’s the one we own. And to be honest, it’s the only one I ever want to watch again.
Okay, yeah, it’s pretty cool that Emma Watson’s Belle invented a rudimentary washing machine so she could spend her laundry time reading and teaching other young girls to read. And that extremely brief glimpse of two men dancing together at the end (which if you ask me had been blown way out of proportion by so many critics) is admittedly an important step for Disney to have made.
But the pacing, character development, and action sequences that make the original a timeless classic, in the remake just completely miss the mark. The overall feel of the live-action movie is just wrong.
Still, let’s start with positive changes the live-action version made. Its take on drag, for instance.
The animated B&tB would have us believe that dressing a man in women’s clothing is humiliating and horrific.
But in the remake, three men are dressed in beautiful gowns and one of them, Stanley, appears to enjoy it. Stanley is later seen dancing with LeFou at the celebratory ball when the curse on the castle has been lifted.
As for LeFou himself, I personally struggled a bit with his character arc. Like many of you, I heard the news that LeFou would be gay long before this movie was released. So I was disappointed to see that his relationship with Gaston was still that of a bully and his lackey.
The way I saw it, LeFou had not changed at all. He didn’t want Gaston – he wanted to be Gaston. No different from the animated version.
It wasn’t until I read an interview with the director Bill Condon that my opinion on LeFou changed.
“LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston. He’s confused about what he wants. It’s somebody who’s just realizing that he has these feelings.”
LeFou is me, ten years ago. Because when you’re so repressed that you can’t accept wanting to kiss a person of your same gender, you over-correct by wanting to be that person. Leading to self-hatred because you’re not that person, and you never can be.
At least, that’s how it was for me. Even now that I’ve completely embraced my sexuality, remnants of that self-hatred still haunt me. But now it manifests as a knee-jerk reaction to hate fictionalized characters whom I see myself in.
So you can imagine how I felt when I read the above quote. Suddenly, LeFou was not just a lackey, or a villain, or even comic relief. Suddenly, LeFou became a reflection of myself – an insight to the vulnerability and brokenness of my own relationship to sexuality.
If you are where LeFou is at the beginning of the live-action Beauty & the Beast, where I was ten years ago, I see you. Your feelings are valid, and you can heal your psyche. Once you stop fighting who you are and start embracing and loving every aspect of yourself, you will find that you can be happy.
Almost exactly six years ago, my Women & Literature professor challenged our class to choose a contemporary woman in the public eye, and write about the ways in which she represents the average, modern American woman.
I wrote about Carrie Fisher.
I did not grow up on Star Wars, but for whatever reason, Wishful Drinking grabbed my attention. Before I’d even finished reading it, Carrie Fisher became my hero. Here was a woman who had battled body-image issues, bipolar disorder, and addiction. And she came out the other side laughing. Even as I read about her most difficult times in life, I was awed and inspired by her ability to keep her sense of humor.
I’m not so good at that. When depression strikes, I tend to lose my ability to laugh at all. So you can imagine that I’m not in the mood to laugh right now. But I think she’d want us to.
Because my sense of humor is MIA right now, here’s some of Carrie Fisher’s. I hope it helps you smile even if you feel like crying.
“I have a sense you will be going to outer space very soon, so here’s why you cannot wear your brassiere, per George [Lucas]. So, what happens is you go to space and you become weightless. So far so good, right? But then your body expands??? But your bra doesn’t—so you get strangled by your own bra. Now I think that this would make for a fantastic obit—so I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra” (Wishful Drinking, 88).
“Drowned in moonlight,” just sounds so poetic and magical, and when you follow up with laughter in the face of overwhelming pain, like “strangled by my own bra,” you get Carrie Fisher.
I wanted to meet her. More than I’ve ever wanted to meet a celebrity. I wanted to see her one-woman show and maybe wait outside afterwards so I could tell her how much her memoir meant to me. So I could tell her to her face that I did not love Carrie Fisher because of Princess Leia, but that I loved Princess Leia because of Carrie Fisher.
Not all Trump voters use vulgar speech to objectify, belittle, or humiliate women. Not all Trump voters are members of the KKK. Not all Trump voters are violent, and many even follow a God whose highest commandment (after loving Him) is to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Let’s remember that we’re in this together – we have to be if we want to rise above the fear that is holding us down as a country.
I understand that you voted the way you did because you felt it was the right decision. But I need you to meet me halfway. I need you to understand something too.
Violence against minorities has skyrocketed. This is not your fault, because you’re not violent or xenophobic or misogynistic. But it is your responsibility to inform your fellow Trump supporters that their violent actions are unacceptable. Because it is every human being’s responsibility to stand up against violence, wherever they see it.
People are afraid. Not just about losing their health insurance or their ability to feed their family. Not just about whether their marriage will be torn apart or their children carted off to foster care because of who their parents love.
Your fellow Americans – your own family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, people you know and love and see every day – are afraid that they will be next. And the way things are going, they might be.
Look around at the people in your life. How many of them are women, Muslim, immigrants, LGBTQ, differently abled, or otherwise marginalized? Now imagine someone attacked them because of this.
Are you willing to protect the people you love?
Do what your president-elect has failed to do: Take a stand against discrimination and hate crimes.
Be an ally. Attend rallies and protests. If you see someone being attacked – physically or verbally – step in. And even before it comes to that, stand with those of us who are in danger, and vow to protect us from the extremists who threaten us and our loved ones. Offer to walk with someone to a safe place. Make conversation with the scared person sitting next to you on the bus. Call or write your legislators and demand action against hate crimes.
Educate yourselves as well as your friends and family. Read books about and written by people of various backgrounds, and teach your kids that differences are to be celebrated not feared. Actively seek out ways to help, rather than waiting for someone to ask you for help – because until they know you, they might be afraid of you.
Here’s the thing. A lot of us “bleeding heart liberals” feel betrayed by you. You may not have voted the way you did because your candidate uses hateful speech and actions against women, Muslims, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, differently abled people, etc. But the hatred he spewed was not enough for you to look at his name on the ballot and say to yourself, “Oh hell no.” You were willing to look the other way when we were threatened.
It’s time to stop looking the other way.
You cannot change your vote, but you can take accountability and start to heal the betrayal that more than half the country is feeling.
I’m not asking you to support same-sex marriage. I’m not asking you to be pro-choice. I’m not asking you to welcome immigrants or provide them a reasonable route to citizenship.
All I’m asking is that you defend human beings’ right to live, and live with dignity.
With the release of the newest DC animated movie Batman: The Killing Joke just around the corner, I’d like to share an essay I had published a few years back. The paper is all about Barbara Gordon – who she was before, during, and after the comic The Killing Joke. Once the movie of the same title is released, I’ll post here again with a brand new analysis, so keep an eye out.
Like the Brushfire (in which I had Just the Way published), the Stellaria does not have online archives. So I decided to do the same as I did with Just the Way, now with my Batgirl paper: post it here.
From Batgirl to Oracle
Barbara Gordon Fighting Crime in a (Bat)Man’s World
The comic book genre of fiction is unlike any other. In most genres, we only know characters within limited plotlines. In comic books, however, one character can exist for half a century or more, encountering new storylines constantly. And because the writers attempt to maintain continuity throughout all those decades, characters may change dramatically from the time of their conception until the present.
Barbara Gordon is one such character. Having first appeared in the late 1960s, she has now been in comics for almost fifty years. Her character has gone through many changes, the most life-altering of which being a sexist and violent attack resulting in her paralysis. After the attack, her superhero alias changed from Batgirl to Oracle. As Batgirl, Barbara was a character that conformed to rigid gender norms, perpetuating them in the process. However, as comic book continuity progressed, and Barbara became Oracle, she became a hero in her own name instead of simply a female version of her male counterpart. DC Comics writers took a misogynistic and tragic incident, and created a more feminist character through it.
Barbara Gordon as Batgirl
When she was first introduced in comic books, Barbara Gordon was a young, naïve college student dressing up as a female version of Batman for Halloween. She came across a kidnapping in progress, and helped stop it. She continued fighting crime after that, in the style of her trainer and mentor, Batman, while wearing a costume similar to his, and protected the helpless of Gotham as Batgirl. Barbara was also the daughter of Commissioner of Police, James Gordon. During those issues of comics, what made Barbara Gordon powerful and worth mentioning was directly related to men who were powerful before her. Had her father not been commissioner, or had Batman not already created a name for himself, Barbara might never have become a superhero. Still, not every aspect of her character was as sexist as those of other female superheroes, even in her early years.
Barbara Gordon did not appear in comics until after World War II had ended. This resulted in a few positive aspects in her character regarding feminism. For instance, Barbara Gordon missed the propaganda that other female superheroes were subject to during the war. 1941 saw the first two female superheroes in comic book history, but both were depicted as “variations of the Betty Grable pin-up… thin, attractive, and… easily applied to the victim role in the manly cartoons of the day” (Scott, 328). While writers felt the need to come up with excuses for Clark Kent serving the war effort on the home front (so as to not raise child readers’ hopes for the easy victory America would have with Superman fighting overseas), there was no such reason given for female superheroes remaining at home. Instead it was simply considered a given: “The possibility of women in combat, even comic book ones, was difficult to grasp” (Scott, 333).
Having made her debut in 1967, Batgirl was instead a part of a new era of comics, commonly referred to as the Silver Age. During this time, comics were making a shift to a more adult audience, so there would be less of a need to censor themselves (Růžička, 48). Therefore, Barbara Gordon, aka: Batgirl, began as a more mature character and avoided many of the sexist attributes applied to other female superheroes of the time.
When her character first appeared, it was as Dr. Barbara Gordon, having gotten her Ph.D. in library science. However, her position as head librarian seemed to be merely a part of her secret identity – her career was less important to her character and more of a way to hide who she really was. And of course, her job as librarian, even one with a doctorate, was safely within the realms of femininity of the time.
Batgirl’s first appearance is an occurrence which at first seems to be a feminist one. For one thing, her Halloween costume borders on drag. She dresses up as a male superhero, without sacrificing her femininity to do so. She also successfully stops an attempted kidnapping. However, the person she saved from being kidnapped is actually Bruce Wayne. Although Barbara has no idea, the reader is well aware that Bruce Wayne is secretly Batman, and has the ability to quite easily escape from virtually any entanglement. Presumably the only reason he allows himself to be rescued is that he could not rescue himself while maintaining his secret identity. So while Barbara is able to congratulate herself on her successful heroism, the writers and readers of the comic understand that her actions are unnecessary. She is not the real hero.
This mentality of Batgirl’s usefulness (or lack thereof) continues throughout the first decade or so of her existence; Batgirl was merely something of a guest star within Batman’s comic books. During an interview, Mike Visser (a fan of comic books and a college graduate with a degree in English), explains Batgirl’s early role in the Batman comics: “Unlike Robin, Batgirl wasn’t recruited by Batman… she was an unwanted volunteer… a lot of it had to do with the fact that she was a woman” (Leeder, 2011). In most plots, Batgirl would come in to help Batman and Robin, “but then she’d end up causing more trouble for [them] and they would have to rescue her… in the first few stories she was just a nuisance” (Leeder, 2011).
Barbara Gordon’s character in those early comics exemplifies what Lynn Peril describes in her book, Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons. According to Peril, “pink think” is the mentality built up over decades regarding how women in our society “should” act. In many cases, a woman’s success in her gender is linked to how well she does her make-up or catches a husband. For instance, in an article printed three years before Batgirl’s first appearance in comic books, women were advised “to stow a purse-sized mirror and lipstick near the front door (‘lifesavers when the bell rings unexpectedly’) and in the car (‘mighty handy when you have to rush to meet the 6:10’)” (Peril, 172). Since stashing secret make-up in one’s private space wouldn’t be enough, women of the time were also told to keep “‘a first-aid beauty kit in her bottom desk drawer or in the back of the filing cabinet’” (Peril, 172).
For most women, desks or filing cabinets would be reasonable places to hide make-up during work hours. For Barbara Gordon, however, there are no such convenient hiding places while fighting crime as Batgirl. But does that stop her from keeping her make-up fresh?
In this early Batgirl Comics cover, we can see Batgirl verifying pink think. Even as Batman and Robin fight, clearly outnumbered, Batgirl is preoccupied with her make-up. This Barbara Gordon sends the message to young female readers: no matter what your job is, there is no excuse for not looking your best! After all, you never know when you might meet your potential future husband.
Barbara Gordon as a Plot Point
The main cause of Barbara’s transformation into Oracle is tragic. The Joker, arguably Batman’s most dangerous nemesis, goes to Barbara’s home and shoots her in an attempt to drive her father, Police Commissioner James Gordon, insane. Alan Moore, although highly respected as a comic book writer for his ability to make readers consider the intricacies of morality, was obviously not as aware of gender issues when he wrote The Killing Joke in 1988. Batgirl’s only purpose in this comic was to be an effect on her father’s sanity. And thus Batgirl continues the female superhero’s legacy as “the victim role” (Scott, 328) in the medium of comic books.
In The Killing Joke, the Joker sets out to prove that just one bad day is enough to drive any person insane. He does so by first shooting Barbara in her home. He then strips James Gordon naked before binding him and putting him on an amusement park ride, where he is forced to see pictures of his daughter, paralyzed, bleeding, naked, and helpless.
“The Joker didn’t blink at shooting Barbara Gordon through her spine and stripping her bare. He wasn’t ‘out to get her.’ He simply had made up his mind that he wanted to prove a point, and she was a useful object to help him make that point, no more or less meaningful to him than the amusement ride he later used for the same purpose” (Robichaud, 73).
Since it is obviously a sociopathic serial killer who makes these judgments, it could be argued that the writer is making the point that only villains have such mentalities. The message, therefore, could be that the reader, if s/he is a good person, should not think of people in this way. However, what were Alan Moore’s reasons for this particular plot?
According to Visser, Moore’s only reasons were in regards to the male characters of the comic: “When Alan Moore wrote The Killing Joke… he didn’t have any intentions for what to do with [Barbara] after that. He was just trying to put Jim Gordon through hell” (Leeder, 2011). The validity of this statement can be seen in the fact that Moore did not write any comics involving Barbara Gordon after The Killing Joke. Barbara Gordon continued to appear in comics only when Kim Yale (DC writer/editor) and John Ostrander (DC writer) realized that there was still potential in her character, even if she was paralyzed.
The plot of The Killing Joke contains an element which has been used in fiction for centuries: the damsel in distress. Sometimes the plot is as simple as the female character being in jeopardy, and the male hero having to prove his love and valor by rescuing her. In comic books, this element is extended so that super villains will not only capture a female character, but even kill her, leaving her body for the male hero to find. There are so many cases of women in comic books who are “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or [who] had other life-derailing tragedies” that Gail Simone (another one of the few female DC Comics writers) has created a website listing them (Simone, 1999). (There are men in comic books who have the above tragedies inflicted on them, though not nearly as many as women.) On the list are at least 110 women, and Simone admits that she may have missed a few.
Barbara Gordon is, of course, one of the women on the list. She, like so many other female superheroes, was used purely for the effect she would have on the male hero of the story. However, out of the tragic and misogynistic events that paralyzed her, Barbara Gordon became a new hero.
Barbara Gordon as Oracle
The Joker’s bullet wound did not kill Barbara, but in a way killed Batgirl by paralyzing Barbara. At a time when it seemed that she would never be able to fight crime again, she created a new identity. As Oracle, Barbara used her vast knowledge of science and math as tech support for Batman as well as other superheroes. She even became the leader of an all-female group of superheroes called the Birds of Prey. Barbara’s transformation into Oracle is especially significant because she does so in a world where a body in peak condition can be one’s most valuable asset.
In mainstream comics, the depiction of superheroes’ bodies is an exaggerated form of society’s perception of what a body should look like – men have broad shoulders, narrow hips, and extensive and chiseled muscles; women have slim waists, and large chests and hips.
In this the Birds of Prey cover featuring Oracle, Barbara Gordon is certainly in a position much more suited for fighting crime than she was in her previous Batgirl cover image. Here, Oracle holds her weapons at the ready, her facial expression is one of determination – she appears to be a competent superhero that is ready to throw down. However, even in her obvious battle-ready position, there is unnecessary focus on her chest.
While the exaggeration of male superheroes’ bodies aid them in their crime fighting (with their overly-toned muscles they are stronger and have an advantage in combat), the exaggeration of female superheroes’ bodies does not aid them in crime fighting. Although the female superhero’s thin waist could be justified with her need to stay in shape in order to hold her own during battle, her overly well-endowed chest does not give her any advantage. Quite the contrary, her chest would actually make crime-fighting more difficult. In reality, if a female superhero did happen to have disproportionately large breasts in comparison to her waist, she would bind them while in costume in order to keep them out of her way. (This would have the bonus result of further concealing her secret identity!)
This depiction of bodies can be seen in our society’s values as well. Men and women both have rigid expectations for what their bodies should look like. The expectations are especially prevalent for women, since our society also perceives women to be their bodies, and nothing else. In her article, “Woman as Body: Ancient and Contemporary Views,” Elizabeth V. Spelman examines the effects of Plato’s philosophy on our modern society. According to Plato, the distinction between the body and the soul is synonymous with the distinction between rationality and irrationality (Spelman, 36). Women, then, correspond with the body, while men correspond with the soul: “[t]o have more concern for your body than your soul is to act just like a woman” (Spelman, 37).
Kristen Lindgren also writes about Plato’s philosophy on women’s bodies in her essay, “Bodies in Trouble: Identity, Embodiement, and Disability.” While Plato views the body “as a tomb… a grave or prison… or as barnacles or rocks holding down the soul” (Spelman, 36), he views a disabled body as even worse than an abled one: “If the healthy body, with its unruly needs and appetites, inevitably distracts the philosopher from the pursuit of knowledge, then the diseased body, even more unpredictable and unruly, must surely halt the project of philosophy altogether” (Lindgren, 145).
As women are believed to be “more embodied than men” (Lindgren, 147), it follows that disabled women are even more stigmatized than disabled men. As is the case for Barbara Gordon, “[w]hen a body is both female and diseased or impaired, it can be viewed, and experienced, as doubly corporeal, doubly devalued, and… doubly shameful” (Lindgren, 147). This concept continues in our society today due to the respect we hold for Plato, and, as a result, women are viewed in regards to their bodies. While this perception is not specific to comic books, it is exaggerated in them.
Barbara Gordon exists not only in our world, which perceives women to be their bodies and disabled bodies as “shameful,” but also in a world of superheroes in which anyone of consequence has an “ideal” body. The loss of the use of her legs should have excluded her as a character, or at least as a superhero. Instead, Barbara redefines what it means to be a superhero. She defies Plato’s philosophy, and our society’s gender norms that came from it, by not allowing herself to be restricted by her “dis”ability.
In her book, Take Up Thy Bed and Walk: Death, Disability and Cure in Classic Fiction for Girls, Lois Keith examines the extensive works of fiction containing disabled characters during the last 150 years. What appears to be overlooked by most scholars is that overcoming disability is a widely established (as well as harmful) theme in classic literature designed for young girls. Since the mid nineteenth century, “there were only two possible ways for writers to resolve the problem of their characters’ inability to walk: cure or death” (Keith, 5). The cure option always requires the disabled character to change something about her/himself, which tends to be a trait which is not among traditionally “feminine” qualities (Keith, 5-7).
For Barbara Gordon, cure would be a relatively easy route to take. Many of the superheroes she knows (such as Dr. Fate, Dr. Mid-Nite, or Zatanna) would be able to heal her spine with the use of magic or medical miracles. Curing Barbara Gordon would certainly make more sense than Katy Carr curing herself by simply “learn[ing] to be less boisterous and more womanly” (Keith, 6). Still, DC writers chose to have Barbara remain in a wheelchair. The message sent by Barbara Gordon as Oracle is the first step in a battle against the message sent by classic literature for little girls. Girls’ literature sends a message that says,
“there is nothing good about being disabled… disabled people have to learn the same qualities of submissive behavior that women have always had to learn… impairment can be a punishment for bad behavior… disabled people should be pitied rather than punished, [but] never accepted… [i]f you want to enough, if you love yourself enough (but not more than others), if you believe in God enough, you will be cured” (Keith, 7).
Oracle’s story sends a message that says the complete opposite. Girls reading Oracle’s comics will see that cure is not the only way for a happy and fulfilled life.
As Batgirl, Barbara Gordon was as feminist a character as one can be when she carries a man’s name. Although she fought against certain gender norms by even being a superhero, as a concept she could never have existed without her male counterpart. As a character she first created more problems for the “real” superheroes of her comics, then became nothing more than a plot point. But it was because of that plot point that Oracle was able to emerge.
Without the bullet wound that resulted in her paralysis, Barbara Gordon might never have shed the name of the male superhero that came before her. By remaining in her wheelchair, while still not relinquishing her desire to fight crime, she became an inspiration. DC writers have taken the opportunity that the comic book genre affords them and allowed a character to evolve with the rest of the world and become something more than how she began. Barbara Gordon now sends the message to readers that being paralyzed does not mean being inferior, that no person is just her/his legs, that no woman is just her body.
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