Back in September 2011, DC Comics announced that they were going to be re-launching the company and taking on a new direction for the future. This meant that every superhero within the DC canon was re-vamped and re-introduced – and everything prior to this new direction was going to exist in the old DC Universe (i.e. forgotten about) as the DC Comics’ direction changed and New 52 was introduced.
The plight of the female superhero
Since its inception, DC Comics have come under a great deal of scrutiny, particularly with regards to confusing and blurred timelines, as well as the overall representation of some of the most beloved characters in the canon.
All of my favourite female comic book characters happen to exist within the DC Canon, and since its re-launch, I feel that each have been brutally misrepresented and that their stories have been entirely re-written, much to their detriment. So, in this blog, we’re going to explore the plight of the female superhero in New 52’s somewhat dire re-launch.
If you read the blog regularly, you’ll know that I have written about Wonder Woman before, but given that she is my favourite hero of all time, I feel that her misrepresentation in the New 52 timeline still requires discussion.
Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang created 35 relatively inoffensive issues of the New 52 Wonder Woman comics, before handing over to David and Meredith Finch. While the first 35 were still steeped in a relatively worrisome glow – sleeping in the nude, confusing storylines and bastardised origin story – this was nothing in comparison to the direction the Finches took when making their initial remarks about assuming creative control of the project:
“…we want her to be a strong – I don’t want to say feminist, but a strong character.”
“I’m visually very attracted to Wonder Woman.”
“…women tend to react in a different way… going from your heart sometimes more than your head.”
Unfortunately, these comments exhibited the most viscous ignorance, showing that neither were aware of Wonder Woman’s impressive history, and that neither understood the very reason behind her creation; as ‘psychological propaganda for the new type of woman, who should, I believe, rule the world’ (creator, William Moulton). This avoidance of her blatant feminist roots and suggestion that she is ruled entirely by her emotions is so wildly misrepresentative of the Amazonian Princess who has been – for decades – symbolic of strong, independent and feminist women everywhere.
The change audiences have seen since Harley Quinn’s New 52 makeover has been drastic. Since 2011, she has no longer donned her signature red and black suit, topped with harlequin hat and exaggerated black eye make-up. Instead, her new style proffers a highly sexualised and somewhat impractical Harley Quinn in tiny shorts and barely there lace-up corset – a seeming indecent exposure conviction waiting to happen, given Harley’s penchant for acrobatics.
As the only female member present in the rebooted New 52 Suicide Squad comics (the Suicide Squad movie offers a couple more ovary-owners), Harley Quinn’s role in the squad is obvious; no one is supposed to take her seriously – she is hyper-sexualised and that’s it; there’s no development in her character – she became a prop for the male gaze, and seemingly nothing more.
Her origin story boasts that she was once a renowned and incredibly intelligent psychiatrist, who was worn down and emotionally manipulated by the crown prince of darkness, her puddin’ the Joker – yet in the New 52 comics, her origin sees her seduced by the concept of power; a bimbo and whimsical fool to be used as a prop for jokes about her stupidity. Her intelligence and inception forgotten, she is now a character who is used to propel other characters – such as Deadpool – and what makes Harley Quinn truly unique and special has been forgotten, something that infuriates and disappoints me to no end.
Almost as soon as Catwoman #1 was released, this character was steeped in an unfortunate controversy, namely with regards to the blatant misogyny being represented on paper.
Looking at the comic book’s cover alone, in what looks like a totally natural, post-heist, arm above head lounge (as you do), Catwoman has discarded her hat – and for some reason, her bra – and is pouring diamonds on herself in what looks like a post-coital bliss. The cover screams sexual overtones, and it has even been suggested that from an artistic perspective, the white translucent gems she is pouring on herself is reminiscent of semen – something that I find hard to truly disagree with.
The story inside immediately establishes itself as a comic book less interested in engaging plot lines, and more interested in the curvature of Selina Kyle’s breasts. In fact, for more than two pages, audiences are given extremely detailed shots of her breasts and derriere in black latex and lacy red underwear, accompanied by her half open pout suggestively tugging at latex – but we don’t see our main protagonist’s face.
This blatant hyper-sexualisation continues with what looks like a fan’s most intimate wet dream; Batman and Catwoman embroiled in a sexual liaison, but there is no context offered and no development of Catwoman’s opening storyline, other than the fact that she’s blatantly banged Batman.
I was initially going to refer to her as Batgirl, but given the multiple inceptions thereof and Gordon’s eventual transformation, I am focusing on Barbara Gordon specifically; a character whose storyline has been entirely bastardised by the New 52 re-boot of 2011.
Until 1988, Barbara Gordon’s alter ego was Batgirl; however, in The Killing Joke, she was shot in the spinal cord and disabled for life by Joker. She later returned as Oracle in Suicide Squad #35, and for the following 20 or so years, she established herself as one of the most vital characters in the DC universe, even leading Birds of Prey and helping other DC female superheroes who find themselves in need of an empowerment boost.
Her New 52 inception, however, ignores the entirety of Barbara Gordon’s origin story, focusing on returning Batgirl to her former glory – after rehabilitating surgery in South Africa, she would return as an able bodied Batgirl and Oracle would be somewhat forgotten.
With this re-boot, even though her skills are still intact, Barbara loses everything she built for herself as Oracle; an independent heroine, unaffiliated with a male leading hero. Instead, this is given up in order to build a story for Batgirl that sees her impressing Batman. New 52 robs Batgirl of her independence, making her a female sidekick of Batman and Robin.
Furthermore, Batgirl’s story arc sees her as a heroine suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and survivor’s guilt following her encounter with the Joker and his henchmen. An entire turnaround from Oracle’s inception as someone who refused to be a victim; jittering at men with guns and feeling guilty about surviving when others haven’t delegitimises the hard work put into the original creation of Batgirl as a strong and independent heroine.
Barbara Gordon’s independence and strength has been negated, and her intelligence and vitality established as the Oracle has been completely removed; she is now Batman’s apprentice and nothing more.
New 52: verdict
While I understand that my views are entirely subjective, what I have taken from the New 52 reboot of my favourite characters is, that they are hyper-sexualised and their stories diminished in favour of gratuitous boob shots, although I understand from the original re-boot that the concept is they’re supposed to be strong, sexually liberated and powerful. However, the truth of the matter is – they’re not; they are puppets from which the male gaze is the primary focus. DCU’s most iconic women have been hyper-sexualised, which is a regression from the progress that truly phenomenal writers and creative artists made over the last few decades.
To me, the New 52 comics aren’t about creators wishing to see these women do great things; it’s about them wanting to see them do things on their terms – not just the women mentioned in this particular post, but throughout the New 52 female character development – as sexual objects, or as victims.