Batgirl has a special place in my heart. She combines my fondness for intellectual women, redheads and bookworms so expertly it makes me want to cry sometimes. As a young girl who was continually harassed and called a dyke for having an affinity for flannel shirts and kung fu, I took comfort in heroines such as Batgirl. She is a wonderfully well-rounded character, becoming so much more than just the tired “strong powerful woman” trope that seems to be the comic universe’s answer to feminism. It’s fair to say that Batgirl, and the entire world of Gotham in general, has had a heavy influence on my life. My mother is even engaged in an active campaign to convince me to name my first born daughter Barbara Gordon Murphy. So when someone takes issue to call my beloved Batgirl transphobic, I feel further investigation is necessary.
In Batgirl #37, we discover the true identity of a mysterious villain who has been committing crimes dressed as Batgirl. After a bit of a chase and a struggle, Batgirl manages to rip off the impersonator’s mask and wig to reveal that it is none other than avant garde artist Dagger Type. A shocked Batgirl exclaims, “But you’re a …” and we’re left to wonder what her thoughts of the masked crusader truly were.
We had been introduced to this character when he hosted a gallery show displaying photos of the Batgirl doppleganger, in a zodiac killer-esque tactic to taunt authority. Now, secret identities and deceit are nothing new in the DC universe, but many have taken issue with the way Dagger Type has been portrayed.
Many have called out the issue as transphobic, and at the very least, problematic. Some have pointed out that Dagger Type’s over-the-top gold bedazzled costume seems reminiscent of the most tired drag queen stereotypes. Others have taken issue with the fact that Batgirl has no way of knowing Dagger Type’s gender identity, so reacting in shock when it doesn’t match her perception of what it should be is the very definition of transmisogyny. In a fairly heartbreaking turn, some have even said that in this one scene, the writer’s have betrayed the comic’s history of positive transgender representation by playing into villainous, deceitful stereotypes.
I want to say first and foremost that when it comes to issues of oppression, I believe it is best to sit down and listen closely when members of the community say there is a problem. There is life experience that those of us outside of the community will never have, and we can never learn if we don’t shut up for a minute and let people speak. There is no good to come from telling oppressed groups that their opinion regarding their own oppression is wrong. That being said, I don’t believe the conversation should end with a single opinion. This comic is problematic on many fronts, but I don’t believe it’s an open and shut case.
Are Dagger Type’s over-the-top bedazzled costume, vivacious attitude and pop culture references a homophobic stereotype? Or is it par for the course of extravagant villains of Gotham city? Is it necessarily wrong to portray a queer antagonist? The eccentricities of his persona don’t seem that out of the norm when compared to the other villains of Gotham. Aside from the cross dressing, Dagger Type’s penchant for fantastic costumes, over-the-top violent reactions and manipulation of our main character are pretty basic villain characteristics. While stereotypical, ultimately Dagger Type’s presentation seems to be one in a sea of many troublemakers vying for most flamboyant evil doer.
But what if Dagger type does identify as transgendered? Is it inherently problematic to write a gender queer character that is anything but heroic? Positive representation of minorities is extremely important for helping to change societal attitudes, but can we ever come to a point where it isn’t harmful to create an antagonistic character who is a member of an oppressed group? Jack Pula, MD, a psychiatrist who specializes in transgender issues, believes that it is a possibility, but we must tread carefully:
“I personally think villainizing gender is a huge problem in our culture across the board. For writers in a medium such as this, it creates a real challenge over how to depict a villain. Since we all, and they all, have gender, naturally you will need to depict it. But I think when writers focus on it is the crucible that brings identity and villainy together. It is really problematic.”
I believe it is possible to successfully write a queer villain, as long as they are written as a three-dimensional character, developed beyond their gender, sexuality and associated stereotypes. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Dagger Type.
The issue of Dagger Type’s mental stability is a real sticking point with me. After revealing his identity to a crowd of people, Dagger Type is greeted with boos and responds with wild gunfire into the audience. In the DC universe, this may play as just another Arkham Asylum escapee overreacting accordingly to a reality that doesn’t fit with their fantasy. But in our universe, it plays into a much more troubling stereotype: that transgendered individuals are mentally ill, unstable and potentially harmful. We still live in a world where accusations that transwomen are sexual predators affect our laws. We still live in a world where violence against transgendered individuals is prevalent, deadly and rarely met with the justice it deserves. We will always live in a world where media shapes our cultural perceptions.
Batgirl’s reaction to Dagger Type’s reveal is baffling to me, to say the least. When the veil is lifted and she discovers the identity of the imposter, she appears stunned and gasps, “But you’re a …” and is cut off by Dagger Type inserting his own label of “genius”. The overwhelming assumption (and I have to agree) is that Batgirl was likely to finish her thought with a shocked exclamation that Dagger Type is a man masquerading as a woman (an extremely beautiful and curvaceous one at that).
There are two ways to interpret Batgirl’s reaction.
One is to say that after a lengthy stretch chasing her impersonator, Batgirl had a reasonable expectation that the person behind the mask was likely a woman. I’d dare say if I were chasing a Molly impersonator, my first assumption would probably be that she was a woman, and I would be a bit confused upon discovering that a man was running around town as a much more glamorous version of myself.
The other possibility is that Batgirl cannot accept the idea of a man presenting as a woman. It seems many people have fallen on the side of “Batgirl can’t accept a queer villain.” If this is the case, it is not only insensitive, but also a betrayal of Barbara Gordon’s character. She is not naive. She fights crime in Gotham city. The idea that she would be so taken aback by your run of the mill gender bending seems ludicrous. Personally, I don’t think she needed to say anything about Dagger Type’s gender, but if the writer’s felt compelled, I think a simple shrug and knowing grunt would’ve been just fine.
The transgressions of Batgirl #37 may seem confusing, especially when it comes to Barbara’s history of being such a great ally to Alysia Yeoh. When Alysia came out as transgendered to Barbara, she reacted with love and understanding, as one would expect between two friends. It was a huge moment for transgender representation in the comic universe. This story arc set a standard for how Batgirl would handle the issue of gender and sexuality, and Batgirl #37 failed to live up to that. But it’s not necessarily Barbara Gordon’s place to play the part of ally to Dagger Type. While there are certainly better ways to react to someone revealing a personal secret, on top of a building while your enemy is shooting at you isn’t exactly the time to have a heart to heart about gender identity. In fact, the person shooting at you is probably the wrong person to have the conversation with altogether.
While it’s reasonable to expect a certain level of sensitivity (or at least not blatant transmisogyny), it’s setting an unreasonable bar to expect Batgirl to have the same sort of compassion for an identity-theiving criminal that she does for a close friend. However, I believe this could be taken as a great learning opportunity for Barbara. Who’s to say she’s beyond the trap of feeling total enlightenment just because she’s had one positive, progressive experience with a gender queer individual? I would really like to believe that Barbara Gordon isn’t the type of woman who believes she’s beyond offense just because she has a queer friend, but who knows? Perhaps she really does need a lesson about acceptance that goes beyond her loved ones.
I will give credit to Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart for taking a big bite of humble pie and issuing a genuine apology for the issues with Batgirl #37. While most writers take the victim blaming approach of “sorry to anyone who was offended,” these guys actually listened to the criticisms regarding the character of Dagger Type and his story arc. And I for one am grateful to not have to listen to yet another four-second-long fart noise pseudo admission of regret. But a genuine acknowledgement of failure is only the first step. The guys have to walk the walk.
We live in a world of increasing visibility for gender queer individuals, and for this I am incredibly grateful. But with this increased visibility comes new complications regarding acceptance and understanding, and we are all learning how to navigate a more progressive world everyday. Nobody is 100 percent sensitive all the time, but we are all capable of learning from our mistakes. Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart have a fantastic chance to learn from their mistakes. I just hope they take it.
Molly Regan is an improviser and writer in Baltimore. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.