Masked Men and Mutants: Queer Coded Clowns

“Can’t Take A Joke?” by Andy Fairhurst (http://andyfairhurst.deviantart.com/)

For Part 1 of this series about queer theory and comic book history, click here.

We can’t talk about heroes without talking about villains. And we can’t talk about villains without talking about Queer Coding.

In academic theory or analysis, “Queer” is vaguely understood to be The Other in regards to societal expectations of sexuality/gender.  This is different from casual usage of the word queer, which is used as a slur by some, and increasingly commonly as an umbrella term for gender and sexual minorities, by members of that same community (such as yours truly).

We can’t talk about The Other without acknowledging what is in opposition to The Other. So in queer theory, this can be vaguely understood to be the societal belief that heterosexual and cisgender experiences are The Norm, normative, etc.

For this reason, it is not necessary to “prove” that a character engages in same-sex behaviors or attractions in order to argue that a character is “queer coded” by the choices made by storytellers. Instead, what is being argued is that storytellers are using deviant (which in this academic sense just means not-normative) sexual or gender behaviors as an allusion to criminal and/or amoral motivations.

There are many examples of queer coded villains out there: Scar, Rattigan, Hades, and Jafar of the Disney universe, or Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates of live-action thrillers, or countless video game bosses such as Sephiroth or Vega or Vamp. All of these villains have different goals, motivations, and outcomes, and they perform different evil acts in pursuit of them. But they all share a certain…swishiness in common with one another. A wimpy, un-manly, un-masculine way of carrying themselves. A way that is often deliberately contrasted with their normative foils, the hero who defeats them.

In comic books, there’s no example I love more than The Clown Prince of Crime himself, The Joker.

Batman has an entire Rogues Gallery, but The Joker is his oldest foil. If Batman is a symbol of conquering fear to fight crime, Joker is a symbol of using fear to fight society. If Batman is Order, Joker is Chaos. If Batman is dark and brooding and serious, Joker is bright and garish and absurd. And while Batman believes he has conquered his traumatic past, Joker believes his own traumatic past has conquered whoever he may have once been.

These are what are generally acknowledged to be the intentional themes of Batman and Joker’s dynamic throughout the ongoing (and often-regenerated-but-tweaked) nature of comic book storytelling. But there are many unintentional themes as well, and those are what often make Joker queer coded among various storytellers through his history.

As mentioned before, if our hero is being intentionally envisioned as incredibly masculine and heterosexually virile, then it can become easier to get that across in contrast to a feminized antagonist, rather than solely through the hero himself. This is why I don’t think it is coincidental that the more aggressively masculine iterations of Batman (Frank Miller, for example), are nearly always paired with an equally exaggerated Joker. While less extreme portrayals of Batman usually have less intentionally-feminine portrayals of Joker.

In The Dark Knight Returns, one of the best selling Batman graphic novels of all time, Batman and Joker have been unseen for decades. In the pseudo-1980s apocalyptic “future”, the two men are nearing the end of their lives, surrounded by a world that has forgotten them, and each are pulled back into their public lives for one last push against what society has become in their absence.

For Batman, this means establishing Order by any means necessary. Gone is the friendly childhood Batman who would never dream of killing or even seriously maiming another human being. Instead we have a heavily armored and heavily armed stormtrooper with pointy ears, who defiantly tells the reader “Rubber bullets. Honest.” A Batman who constantly scoffs at progressiveness and civil rights and criminal reform as the source of the societal scourge he must force himself to defeat in spite of his age.

For Joker, who has been in a catatonic state since the disappearance of Batman, his motivations are summed up in a series of increasingly close-up panels of his mouth as the news reports of Batman’s first sighting. His pale unmarked lips finally speak the word, “Darling,” in response. His ability to return to his life of crime is preceded with an intimate portrayal of him applying bright red lipstick, which is complimented by his bleeding-heart liberal TV-therapist, right before The Joker murders him and an entire studio audience.

Joker’s use of make-up on top of his disfigurement, his flamboyant gestures and theatrical presentation, and especially his use of romantic pet names for Batman; are all relatively unique details added by Frank Miller to what we already knew or assumed about The Joker. These are therefore deliberate and intentional choices, even if the intent itself might not be consciously recognized by the storyteller or the reader.

I mention this graphic novel specifically, because it can be argued the current cinematic versions of Batman have heavily borrowed from it’s costume design, it’s themes, and it’s general aesthetic as the quintessential “grownup” or “edgy” version of Batman; and arguably even Zack Snyder and DCU’s entire filmography. (Which is how we wind up with his and Frank Miller’s version of Xerxes in 300.)

So does this mean it’s Uncool to ever make a villain act in a way that isn’t super-duper cisheteronormative? Not necessarily. I don’t think there’s an inherent problem in having queer villains, by which I mean villains who are literally gender/sexual minorities. I think the problem is using deviant gendered behavior/expressions as a shorthand way of portraying the villain as antisocial.

Hell, I think The Joker would actually manage to be even more fun if his queer coding was allowed to surface as an actual queer person, baiting Batman with taunts about how they’re more alike than he’ll ever care to admit. But that is likely to remain relegated to headcanon and fanfiction.

Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, also of Batman’s universe, are decent examples of villains who are queer, not queer-coded. These two women are, have been, and will continue to be romantically involved with one another. While this was originally “subtext” or maybe even “fan service”, it has since become acknowledged by storytellers and is officially “canon” now.

And believe me when I tell you, most of my favorite Batman stories are when these two ladies doing villainous shit together in a romantic/sexy kind of way  and are loving the hell out of it.

Masked Men and Mutants: Queer Coded Clowns
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Patriot

AP Image
A close-up of the Statue of Liberty’s face.

I spent Sunday with my mother, as I try to do at least once a month if life permits. We went out for lunch, shopped lazily through the crafting store, and popped into a thrift store on the way back home. While doing so we discussed, as we always have, politics.

My mother and I have been talking politics since I was ten-years-old, “campaigning” for Bill Clinton in my elementary school’s “election day”. She was the one who helped me join Amnesty International when I was in middle school so I could paper my small-town Arkansas town with anti-capital punishment literature. She supported my right to sit during the pledge of allegiance and told me I was brave for doing so. She drove me to my first anti-war protest in the wake of 9/11. My mom is a self-declared “mad dog liberal” and she did a damn good job raising me to be my own “radical commie queer” brand of political.

It was this slight difference in our approaches which created an awkward moment where my mother said, in response to my desire to hang an upside-down American flag outside my home with “Well it’s not like you’re not patriotic.”

I sucked in the air slowly into a humorously awkward pause, then laughed and said, “I like where I live in the sense that it’s got My Me and My People there. But, you know, Fuck The State.” To which my mother admitted, growing up exclusively in Post-Reagan Brutal-Capitalist America would make the idea of patriotism off-putting.

But I understand what my mother meant in her mild protest. While I have become increasingly Anti-Capitalist and Anti-White Supremacy  the older I get (and therefore pretty damn anti-american politicoeconomic state in general) I still get teary eyed when I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty on my childhood pilgrimage to my ancestral home. However, the country I live in wants nothing to do with tired, hungry, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We are the country of #ICantBreathe and that is not a new phenomenon, it is our foundation.

There is a picture of Captain America on my desk with the caption “Punching Nazis is an American Tradition”. But of course, it is impossible for me to be proud of the same country that was interning Japanese descendants for the same sort of excuses the Nazis gave for their camps.

The musical Hamilton gives me complicated feelings of pride as the hardworking offspring of Polish “Immigrants, we get the job done!” Complicated because I can’t pretend to forget how many millions of American and African indigenous people had to be slaughtered and/or enslaved to make the young scrappy and hungry nation.

And I remember, oh yeah, America Has Never Been Great. Unless you’re a white land-owning male.

I realize now it is the mythical America I have loved, while becoming increasingly disgusted with the literal America. And no matter how much those two clash, I still want to believe in the America that’s never actually existed. An America of take-all-immigrants who take care of each other with New Deal Socialism rather than Cut-The-Bootstraps Poverty. Then I hear my mother’s last thoughts on the subject, “Well, you and I can’t leave. So we have to make the best of it.”

And she’s right.

I am no patriot by any stretch of definition. But this is where I live. And that means shit being done in my house is my responsibility to deal with whether I like it or not. It doesn’t matter if this is arguably the most powerful government in recorded history.

We must provoke outrage, outright. And make it impossible to justify the cost of the fight. But not while losing sight of how we fucked it up for people who aren’t white.

Patriot

Masked Men and Mutants: The Golden Age

Superheroes and comic books have been an important touchstone in my life since I saw Tim Burton’s Batman when I was not even five-years-old. From there I moved on the Bruce Timm’s Batman Animated Series and later to the mid-1990s X-Men cartoon. I grew up from a wee fangirl to an assistant manager of a comic shop when I left high school, where I stayed for nearly five years. This is where I eventually transitioned, surprised but pleased to find fellow nerds could readily accept someone growing tired of juggling dual identities.

The two managers of Lone Star Comics, back in 2008? Maybe?

During my years of slinging comics, it was non uncommon for me to give presentations about the history of comic books and their cultural relevance to American Arts. Comic Books, Cinema, and Jazz (among all other Black-Created “American” music styles), are some of the only American claims to cultural fame. And being American, comic books have an entangled history with many forms of our cultural expectations, as well as struggles against oppression.

From their birth, comics and their predecessors, pulp novels, were looked down upon for the people reading them (children, non-english fluent immigrants, and less-literate working class), which meant the views of people creating them weren’t much better. The comic book industry in its infancy mirrored many other problems in industries of that era. With little oversight or regulation, plagiarism and theft and non-payment for creators was extremely commonplace. Workers had little to no rights whatsoever about their creations or intellectual property. Writing for comics might be seen as a humble stepping stone to more lucrative copy work, but certainly not something any creator should actually aspire to.

A panel from Will Eisner’s “The Dreamer” a semi-autobiographical work about his early days in the Comic Book industry.

While this might have put off more socially privileged writers from joining the medium, it unwittingly created something of a haven (or maybe a trap) for minority writers who might not otherwise be able to get regular work. Black creators, Jewish creators, immigrant creators, women creators, communist creators, and queer creators all became the soul of American superheroes under the guise of “who cares it’s just harmless kids stuff”. They wrote about what they knew and experienced. They wrote about tenements and slum lords and wicked bosses and exploitation of the Little Man. And they created heroes who would listen to them and defend them. Perhaps the most notable example is a certain white-passing immigrant raised by Americans to believe that he too could stand for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, created by two young Jewish immigrants.

The cover page for Action Comics #1, the debut of Superman

In Part 2, I will begin discussing the intertwined history of queer subtext and comic books, starting with Masked Men and when staying in the closet was the noble thing to do.

Masked Men and Mutants: The Golden Age

2017

I’ve had a rough year.

I realize we all have.

I’ve survived toxic relationships, abusive situations, and physical recoveries. I’ve witnessed political despair, queer-antagonistic massacres, and state brutality with the rest of the world.

However I also got a new nephew and started antidepressants for the first time, and I have even started to become active in queerlesque and found the time and space to develop other new talents and hobbies. (Such as renovating tiny houses for plastic people.) Despite the struggles, there were also small comforts. Time makes fools of us all. Perhaps especially the worst of times.

I primarily focused on survival in 2016, rather than living. Which is one of the reasons my writing has dribbled to a stop in my usual history of being a somewhat reliable, if not prolific, writer. When struggling with self-worth and executive function, it can be hard to believe my voice or my words have any reason to exist. That anyone would want to read what I have to say. This is a lifetime struggle for me as a writer, an activist, and a person fighting for their right to exist in a hostile environment. But this is a time for marginalized voices to speak out and create, not yield.

I realize that new year resolutions, and apparently even the concept of breaking time into manageable-socially-agreed-upon yearly increments, has fallen out of favor recently. But I want to do everything I can to not just survive 2017, but to fight for the space for myself and people like me to create. To communicate. To share thoughts and frivolity and pain and questions and observations. I will not let the antagonists of the world restrict my creativity.

So I’m promising myself and my readers that this year will have a lot more angry rants. A lot more queer dystopian escape fantasy. A lot more retorts to poor representation. A lot more snark. A lot more outrage. I do this with the trust that those who wish to read my writing will do so, and others will see themselves out.

Like many of you I am still tender. I am still recovering. I am still grieving.

But I am here with you now. And I promise to be with you more in the coming year.

2017

Beyond the Swagger: The Serious Play of Lesbian Expression

The appearance and gender expressions of sexual-minority women, and lesbians in particular, has been of academic interest for a considerable time (Clarke & Spence, 2013; Esterberg, 1996; Hutson, 2012; Huxley, Clarke, & Halliwell, 2013). Are there noticeable differences between heterosexual and homosexual female expression? And if so, what are the explanations and functions for deviant expressions among lesbians? By analyzing an inter-disciplinary collection of studies on lesbian gender expressions, I hope to begin to draw some patterns and new insight into what makes a lesbian “look like” a lesbian, and why she may (or may not) adopt such an expression.

Continue reading “Beyond the Swagger: The Serious Play of Lesbian Expression”

Beyond the Swagger: The Serious Play of Lesbian Expression

Dichotomous Deviants: Relationships Between Gender and Sexuality Binaries

Social dichotomies are constructed binaries used to categorize groups in opposition to one another, typically due to believed mutually exclusive behaviors or characteristics. Two of the more pronounced dichotomies of our society are related to gender and sexuality: Male/Female and Heterosexual/Homosexual.

Although gender and sexuality are not directly related, both of these dichotomies share similar uses and histories in our society. For example, both dichotomies have a privileged/deviant model in terms of one group having the majority of sociopolitical power. Because the privileged groups, Men and Heterosexuals, have more to lose by being seen as members of the deviant groups, Women and Homosexuals, they are frequently defined in direct opposition to the deviant. In other words, one of Heterosexuality’s key characteristics is not being homosexual (Seidman, 2015). The same can be said for Maleness not being female or feminine. In this way, deviant groups tend to have more freedom of expression than their dominant counterparts, if only because they have no social power to lose if their identity is not validated. A straight man has much more to lose if his identities are not validated compared to a lesbian being mistakenly viewed as male or straight, for example (Seidman, 2015; Epstein, 2002). Continue reading “Dichotomous Deviants: Relationships Between Gender and Sexuality Binaries”

Dichotomous Deviants: Relationships Between Gender and Sexuality Binaries

Underdogs Hijacked: Stonewall Riots’ Commemorability

The Stonewall Riots of 1969 and their annual commemoration, in the form of Pride Parades, are arguably the most well-known queer rights events of the 20th century. But what makes Stonewall unique compared to similar demonstrations of the same decade, and what factors combined to ensure its commemoration continued over 40 years later?

I would argue the unique combination of an oppressive environment, a memorable resistance to that oppression, and community access to resources for future commemoration of the event, all worked together for the Stonewall Riots in a way that had not been replicated before. Two previous events demonstrate the importance of an environment oppressive enough to spark a memorable resistance from deviant minorities. Continue reading “Underdogs Hijacked: Stonewall Riots’ Commemorability”

Underdogs Hijacked: Stonewall Riots’ Commemorability

Passing Privilege

CN: Rape Mention

For most trans women, “passing” refers to the ability to be perceived and treated by strangers as a cis woman. This can be determined by any number of things, including physical traits, gender expression, vocal pitch/tone, sexuality, and more.

Continue reading “Passing Privilege”

Passing Privilege