Captain America, Actual Social Justice Warrior

In a note of hideous irony, I started this article immediately before the news dropped about Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 (Steve Rogers Is HYDRA!). I rather lost heart in writing this blog post at that point.

However, in light of recent events and the fact that Marvel is still beating this terrible idea of a plot, it seemed important to come back to the point in the title of this article. It seems to be something Marvel in general has forgotten, and may need to be reminded of, particularly those who thought the choice to make Captain America a Nazi (expy) was a good and sensible idea – or even quality storytelling.1  

Though he’s an iconic and instantly recognizable character, there are a lot of people who don’t know much about Captain America. He is frequently characterized as boring or simplistic, and (more often lately) as a jingoistic fantasy, the uberpatriot aligned with conservative values and blindly loyal to the American government.

That’s not Captain America.

When Sam Wilson, formerly known as Falcon, became Captain America in 2015, outcry followed. Fox News was particularly outraged by the first story arc of Sam Wilson: Captain America, which featured the superhero battling the xenophobic, anti-immigrant Serpent Society. Part of the outcry ran that Marvel was making Captain America too political – the political in question here meaning “political in a way that does not align with my values.” This criticism conveniently forgets that Captain America has not only always been political, but has frequently been political in ways that align him with decidedly non-conservative values – neither political nor social.

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What to Do With the Time That Is Given to Us: Processing Reality Through Pop Culture

So, three weeks ago the world imploded for a lot of people. Donald Trump became the president-elect of the United States, defying poll estimates and data guru predictions. Two weeks out, I’m still processing my own grief, and the waves of bad news that have followed only make that harder – antisemitic white nationalist Steve Bannon as chief advisor, climate change denier Myron Ebell nominated as head of EPA, out and out racist Jeff Sessions as attorney general pick. It looks ugly. And the left has been doing a lot of soul-searching – or, alternately, a lot of infighting – about what went wrong, and what we do now.

This conversation has gone a lot of directions, but the one I want to focus on now is the only one I feel somewhat equipped to write about: the argument about pop culture as a distraction. Opiate of the masses. Etcetera.

The basic gist of this point of view is that by engaging with literature and other media as a point of contact with reality – dystopian fiction has been a particular target of this conversation – people are creating distance between themselves and the horrors of the real dystopia that lives all around us. People of color in particular have written about the ways in which dystopian fiction is a white fantasy about a world that already exists, where the violence against black and brown people in the United States is suddenly extended to white people as well.

Additionally, as Claire Fallon writes in the article linked above, comparing fiction with reality (i.e. comparing Donald Trump to Voldemort or President Snow, in two popular examples) can breed complacency and inaction.

In Harry Potter, evidence suggests, children learn to practice empathy for those unlike themselves. But it’s also, ultimately, a comforting children’s saga. In the series, there’s a clear villain, Voldemort, and a small clutch of heroic figures battling against him. Voldemort doesn’t win in the end. If Trump, as some have rather glibly put it, is Voldemort, then it’s hard to imagine Trump winning in the end either.

If we assume that the narrative will provide a hero to save us, she argues, then what motivation is there to act to save ourselves?

It’s not a new argument. In 1944 theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote in Dialectic of Enlightenment that what they called “the culture industry” produces standardized culture as a factory produces standardized goods, for the express purpose of manipulating the masses into passivity.

To be entertained means to be in agreement…amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display. At its root is powerlessness. It is indeed escape, but not, as it claims, escape from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality.

I think there is certainly something to all of this. For people scared for their lives, references to “Dumbledore’s Army” can feel flippant, trivializing. And it is certainly worth discussing the homogeneity of many of these narratives. And if people experience catharsis through a fictional story about the overthrow of the First Order, perhaps they will lose the sense of urgency that drives rebellion in real life. It is also worth considering the typical frame of “good vs. evil” in these comparisons, a simplification that is vastly more complicated in the real world.

But I don’t think that’s the end of it, and ultimately I don’t think it’s helpful to be so blithely dismissive of the role culture plays in politics (and politics plays in culture). All culture, like it or not, is political, and our interactions with it are politically driven – even if that interaction is simply “I want to not think about reality for a while.” And that’s not how I’ve seen fiction being used in the aftermath of this election.

Fiction can be a way of understanding and mediating reality – of processing catastrophe or pain. Turning to a familiar story can be, rather than an opiate, a way of making sense of what’s happening – a way of providing a framework for a world that seems to have been shaken to its roots. When reality is terrifying and strange, it is human to search for ways to make sense of it, and pop culture is everywhere, a deeply embedded part of our daily lives. We know those stories. They make sense.

The day after the election, I spent most of the day sobbing, and I know I wasn’t alone. The place I found comfort was in poetry – first, Mary Oliver (“Wild Geese” is a poem I always come back to for comfort) and then, J.R.R. Tolkien. I read, repeatedly, a poem Sam Gamgee recites at one of his darkest moments. The portion that spoke to me most:

Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.

I saw numerous people on social media sharing other quotes from Lord of the Rings as well, movies and books – the quote the title of this post is taken from frequently among them. People reaching for a familiar script for comfort, and more than that, for understanding.

Lord of the Rings is frequently framed as a simplistic story of good conquering evil. As anyone who makes the mistake of bringing up Tolkien around me learns, however, the truth is far more complicated than that. There are two warring impulses in Tolkien, constantly in tension – a deep pessimism and a need for hope. It is often forgotten that Frodo’s victory – if it can be called his victory – costs him everything. He returns to the Shire a shadow of his former self, and ultimately has to leave the mortal world forever. In The Silmarillion, the cost of the victory over Morgoth is the destruction of huge swaths of the world. The battle against evil is neither easy nor simple, and Tolkien acknowledges that. The story that underlies Lord of the Rings isn’t one battle, good vs. evil, good victorious. It is a constant uphill slog, unrelenting and often thankless.

Much like politics. Maybe now’s a good time to quote from another pop culture touchstone: Captain America. In 2012’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which an American icon destroys a government agency corrupted by Nazi expies, Steve Rogers breaks in to appeal to the good people still left.

If you launch those helicarriers today, HYDRA will be able to kill anyone that stands in their way. Unless we stop them. I know I’m asking a lot. But the price of freedom is high. It always has been. And it’s a price I’m willing to pay. And if I’m the only one, then so be it. But I’m willing to bet I’m not.

Hey, will you look at that. A call to arms to act against a government betraying the people it promised to protect.

All right, maybe now I’m being flippant. But the point is: people use fiction to make the insensible sensible. That’s one thing, and that has value of its own. Fiction can be a powerful interpretive lens and means of understanding oneself, the world, and others. People also use fiction to inspire themselves, to reflect, to find role models both positive and negative.

I am not arguing that consuming a piece of media, or drawing lines of comparison between media and real life, is somehow on par with direct action. It isn’t. But acting as though people using pop culture as a way of making meaning are universally anesthetized to reality, as though Hunger Games comparisons at Vox are a symptom of the rot at America’s core, as though young people rallying around a fictional organization is meaningless or actively harmful, as though “politically useless but personally uplifting” renders an interaction worthless or worthy of condemnation-

That just seems unnecessary.

Further Reading: Harry Potter and the Conscience of a Liberal” by Laurie Penny on The Baffler, “Donald Trump’s Dystopias” by Sophie Gilbert from The Atlantic, “Harry Potter is Actually a Great Narrative Frame for Good and Evil” by Emily Temple on LitHub.

And for something completely different: “Look, All I’m Saying is Let’s At Least Give Nyarlahotep A Chance” by Andrew Paul on McSweeney’s.

 

It’s in a Word, Or It’s In a Look: Mental Illness and Horror

For someone who would describe herself as a fan of horror, there are remarkably few titles I can actually list as favorites. Both in movies and books, I feel like I’m often disappointed when it comes to the available offerings. There are a few reasons for this – the perennial problem of the disappointing reveal is one. For instance, I was really enjoying the movie The Conjuring until the explanation came around. It probably says a lot that my favorite works are those that explain nothing – even as they leave me frustrated they’re also much scarier as a result (Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree comes to mind – I’ll be talking about her more later on.). Another is what I’d call “great concept, lackluster execution” – where I can feel the seed of a good idea but the way it plays out is either cliche, or boring, or falls back on tropes I dislike.

But another thing I run into problems with on a relatively consistent basis is the relationship between horror as a genre and mental illness.

This blog post was shamelessly inspired by the op-ed that ran in the New York Times on October 26th, titled “Mental Illness is Not a Horror Show.” The author, Andrew Solomon, discusses a VR attraction that took place in an asylum, featuring “the world’s worst psychiatric patients”.

Oh, dear.

Of course, asylum-based horror is nothing new. Endless video games take place in asylums haunted by the ghosts of malevolent former inmates; the movie Grave Encounters featured ghost hunters who encountered evil inside an abandoned asylum. Some takes on this genre, to be fair, draw on the documented atrocities and cruelties perpetuated by staff of psychiatric institutions (some of which are far from solely historical) – but they also tend to feature inmates in starring roles as monsters.

Nor is this kind of role limited solely to asylum-based horror media.The specter of mental illness lurks in the “mad” monsters of many a horror movie – Michael Myers of Halloween is an escaped mental patient, and even movies that don’t make the connection explicit often do so by means of coding characters as insane, or linking (for example) demonic possession with mental illness.

So, what’s the problem with this? It is well documented that people with mental illnesses are on the whole more likely to be the victims of violence than the other way around. By portraying mental illness as linked to evil and violence, a stereotype is being perpetuated that designates the mentally ill as inherently more dangerous than others, predisposed to “snap” and murder people, more akin to demon than human. But I’m not just writing this article to castigate horror for the way it deals with mental illness – many others have dissected that connection. I’m here to think about alternatives.

Just as discussion of “feminist horror” has opened up, I’d like to talk some about a horror that doesn’t exploit the mentally ill and what that might look like. There’s one easy way to avoid it that maintains the spooky-scary feel of an abandoned asylum from the 19th century: pointing the horror in the other direction, where it isn’t about the inmates but about the system.

Solomon makes a point when he observes that one of the reasons mental illness is so scary is the permeability of its boundary – people are constantly aware that they, too, might be betrayed by their brains. The lack of understanding we have of the causes of mental illness only amplifies that fear, and by otherizing the mentally ill perhaps that fear can be assuaged, marking a clearer line between them and us, the healthy and sick. 

But why not direct that fear differently, looking instead at the long and true horrifying history of the treatment of the mentally ill? Instead of pointing at a group as an example of what people fear to become, why not point at what could happen to any one of the 57.7 million people (in the US alone) diagnosed with some kind of mental disorder? After all, if we fear losing our minds, how much more frightening is the idea of someone attacking you at your most vulnerable, or those who are meant to help turning on you instead?

But even more appealing than that alternative is a concept I think was best explored in two of my favorite pieces of horror media: The Babadook and The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan. In the former, Amelia, whose husband has recently died struggles to raise her son, Samuel. Amelia is exhausted and beleaguered, isolated and lonely, frustrated by her son’s erratic behavior – and haunted by the Babadook, a peculiar creature that seems to have emerged from a mysterious picture book.

The titular being could be seen as representative of a number of things, but one of the most resonant for me was the idea of the Babadook as a form of mental illness (right down to the ending – the Babadook lives in the basement, seemingly domesticated but still present, accepted and recognized.). Much of the horror in The Babadook relies on the fear of the unseen and Amelia’s uncertainty about what is happening, whether any of her experience is real or an artifact of her struggle to cope. It is exacerbated, too, by her lack of support from relatives and community.

Unlike other movies involving possession or mental illness (frequently dissociative identity disorder, sometimes called “schizophrenia”), we never lose sight of the fact that Amelia is the protagonist. Even when she is possessed by the Babadook, the viewer is as terrified for her as of what she might do. At one point, she even says to her son, “I’m sick, I need help,” acknowledging that she is aware of her own loss of control. Rather than turning to the trope of “and they themselves were the murderer the whole time!”, The Babadook keeps its sight on the idea that the Babadook is at once a part of Amelia (when she is possessed) but also a kind of external opponent. As the article linked at the end of this post explains:

With the Babadook being a reality within the film, we as the audience cannot dismiss it as fantasy. This is something that is key to much of Western society’s treatment of mental illness, particularly depression. It can, bizarrely, often be dismissed as fantasy because there are no physical symptoms, and sufferers expected to “man up” or “get a grip”. […] The Babadook using the monster to represent Amelia’s mental breakdown gives a fresh and realistic portrayal of mental illness, as within the film it hasn’t been “made up”, and is a tangible, frightening, and very real threat, despite its physical ambiguity.

In The Red Tree, writer Sarah Crowe moves to an isolated house after the suicide of her long term girlfriend, and becomes obsessed with a tree in the yard. The novel remains ambiguous throughout, even to the ending, about if there is anything truly supernatural going on or if it is rather a development of her trauma and loss. Is her obsession with the old oak a sign of its malevolent influence, or is she seeing malevolent influence as a way of externalizing her inner demons?

My experience of mental illness bears some similarity to both Sarah’s and Amelia’s, albeit with less supernatural strangeness. Sometimes it feels like my brain is trying to kill me, or that I can’t trust my own perception and beliefs. I can simultaneously know that something I’m thinking is incredibly distorted and also believe it with complete conviction; or anxiety kicks in and my heart pounds and I can’t breathe even as I know I’m completely safe. My thoughts seem unreliable and I’m not sure I can trust myself at all. It’s terrifying.

A horror that relies on this kind of uncertainty – the inability to trust one’s own perception, the gnawing anxiety that your experience may not be what you think it is – is where horror lives for me, and where I see potential for horror that doesn’t exploit the mentally ill but can still exploit the horror of mental illness. It puts the viewer in a position to create sympathy for those who might regularly experience that kind of instability, rather than provoking disgust or revulsion. It positions mental illness as a quality that need not be equated with evil or violence, and the mentally ill as potential protagonists rather than monsters or murderers.

It may not provide a convenient opponent for the hero to kill, but in my opinion it makes for a much scarier – and richer – story.

Note: The header image is from Neverending Nightmaresa horror game drawing on the creator’s experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Further Reading: Mental Illness and ‘The Babadook’ by Hannah Spencer, Why is Mental Illness Scary? by Praveen R.Krambam, and Nobody Wins When Horror Games Stigmatize Mental Illness by Ian Mahar

Who’s Entitled?: On the Narratives of Fan Entitlement

There is a problem in geek culture, and that problem, apparently, is “fan entitlement.”

Fan entitlement drove Leslie Jones off Twitter. Fan entitlement is demands for a queer Disney princess. Fan entitlement is what’s breaking fandom. The idea seems to be that increased contact between creators and fans, as is made possible by the internet (particularly personal blogs and Twitter), is a problem.

This discussion, however, seems to be lumping two phenomena together under the same broad, unhelpful umbrella of “fan entitlement.” The first is a phenomenon exemplified by the reaction of fans of the 1986 Ghostbusters to the new movie, most particularly its casting women and lack of substantial male characters (wow, I wonder what that’s like). This is a phenomenon that frequently manifests with pleas to an original, or a “good old days” being trampled on by political correctness. There is frequently a sense of loss, a sense that something has been taken away and they want it back.

The second can be seen in hashtags like #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend and #AbbieMillsDeservesBetter (the second referring to the main character in Sleepy Hollow, who was gradually sidelined and eventually killed off – literally sacrificed, no less, for her male lead). This is a different kind of backlash – a demand for something new, a change to the material, usually to push a certain agenda (frequently of representation of various kinds). To put it very simply, the former is looking backward, and the latter is looking forward.

These are not the same thing.

Let me be perfectly clear, and it is a sorry thing that it needs to be said at all – threatening people on the internet is never acceptable. Death threats are never called for. Someone being driven off a social media website is not a cause for celebration, no matter how obnoxious or provocative they may be. But. But. When sweeping claims are made that “fan entitlement” is all created equal, it erases the important distinction that the voices are asking for different things. To make a wildly overblown comparison (it’s my blog, I can do that), it’s a little like comparing #BlackLivesMatter to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.

There is an important difference between the voices of the historically underrepresented asking to see themselves in media (and asking to see themselves positively in media) and those demanding that the status quo remain the same. There is a difference between anger about a black woman being written out of her own story and anger about casting a black man as a lead actor in Star Wars. One of these is targeted at reinforcing structural inequality. The other is responding to it.

Honestly, it feels like that should be the end of it. It seems to me it should be a distinction that’s relatively obvious – and the umbrella term “fan entitlement” obscures that. Entitlement is simply defined as “the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment”, but its usage tends to carry the baggage of “inaccurate belief”.

Who is really acting entitled, here? People who finally have the chance to make themselves heard, and want to see their stories told and their identities respected in the media they love? Or people who want things to stay the same, inequalities and all, for the sake of their comfort?

The Problem With Watchmen

The first time I expressed interest in comics, having read Sandman and not sure where to go next, there was a chorus of recommendations that amounted to “read Watchmen.” I read it, and found myself decidedly unimpressed and uninspired. Fearful of expressing such an opinion, however, given that this seemed to be a universally lauded work and part of the generally agreed upon comics canon, I kept that to myself.

Fast forward several years to now, where I have read a fair amount of comics across imprints and houses (primarily Marvel and Image, but a little bit of sampling the others as well) coupled with extensive reading of secondary sources and the small and largely disappointing field of comics scholarship, I now feel relatively confident in saying that I still don’t like Watchmen, but now I understand why.

I don’t like Watchmen because I’ve been reading comics in a post-Watchmen universe.

When Alan Moore wrote Watchmen, it was responding to a particular moment in time, both in history and in comics. The unfortunate thing since Watchmen’s publication, however, is that the premise has been removed from its original context and stretched to expand into a general philosophy of comics and storytelling. Shorthand for this philosophy is the portmanteau “grimdark”: a term that generally is used to mean stories that wallow in misery or “gritty realism” – here meaning a fixation on violence (frequently sexual) and a seeming inability of anyone to be happy. In a grimdark world, there is no such thing as heroes, morals are a mark of the weak, and women die in droves. “Grimdark” fiction purports to show the world in its unvarnished state, but more often than not what it really shows is a reality distorted through a cynical and limited lens that substitutes shock value for good storytelling.

Cynicism has its place, and I’m not saying everything needs to be sunshine and roses all the time. But there is such a thing as too far, and too much, and the one note storytelling that infected comics in the wake of Watchmen was it. When that’s the comics environment you’re familiar with, Watchmen doesn’t feel like something new or revolutionary: it feels like more of the same.

Moore wrote Watchmen with a specific aim: examining contemporary political anxieties (as in his other work, most obviously in V for Vendetta) and deconstructing the idea of the superhero. Moore said that Watchmen was about”power and about the idea of the superman manifest within society”, and critic Bradford Wright describes it as an “admonition to those who trusted in ‘heroes’ and leaders to guard the world’s fate.” This particular political pessimism springs from the era of Reagan and Thatcher, the disillusionment of radical politics in the 80s.

This kind of deconstruction, however, need not be a repudiation of the medium from which it springs, or a wholesale denouncement of the possibility embodied by superheroes. The ending of the series might gesture toward this, with the massive destruction by Adrian Veidt perpetuated with the goal of creating a new unity. The divided, gritty world of Watchmen is no more sustainable than the pure idealism of Silver Age comics.

Moore has discussed the impact Watchmen had on comics as a whole, such as in an interview with AV Club in 2001.

I think that what a lot of people saw when they read Watchmen was a high degree of violence, a bleaker and more pessimistic political perspective, perhaps a bit more sex, more swearing. And to some degree there has been, in the 15 years since Watchmen, an awful lot of the comics field devoted to these very grim, pessimistic, nasty, violent stories which kind of use Watchmen to validate what are, in effect, often just some very nasty stories that don’t have a lot to recommend them.

In the same interview, he continues: “The gritty, deconstructivist postmodern superhero comic, as exemplified by Watchmen, also became a genre. It was never meant to. It was meant to be one work on its own.”

Those who followed Moore seem to have taken his deconstruction of the superhero comic at face value, without looking at the nuance underlying it. This is the source of the idea that the idea of the superhero as heroic is somehow outdated or irrelevant, that there’s no such thing as a good person. While flaws are important to the construction of a compelling character, the extreme of grimdark storytelling makes a character out of nothing but flaws: no striving to be better, no room for idealism. The world can only be saved by killing everyone in it. The solitary (invariably male) hero is all.

An example of this, almost parodic and now ascended to the status of meme, is Frank Miller’s notorious All Star Batman & Robin. In the comic, Batman is violent and cruel, a sadist who even extends his abuse to innocents, slapping Dick Grayson (the first Robin) across the face and withholding food, telling him to eat rats if he is hungry. The most notorious, and most parodied line is Batman’s response to Dick Grayson’s demand to know who his near kidnapper is. “What are you, dense? Are you retarded or something? Who do you think I am? I’m the goddamn Batman.”

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This may be an egregious example, but it is far from the only one of its kind.

The problem with grimdark storytelling is not just a matter of boring homogeneity or the misogyny that often comes along with it – it is the stripping of the possibility of joy and wonder, an excising of the ability of characters to form relationships and interact meaningfully with others. It limits and stifles narratives, locking everything into blacks and grays. This not only creates a world devoid of happiness – it also devalues its tragedies.

Thankfully, comics in recent years have started to turn around, as exemplified by playful titles like Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur that aren’t afraid to use bright colors and exuberant writing. Nothing exemplifies this paradigm shift quite as much as DC’s Rebirth initiative, which foregrounds in its first issue the relationships, familial and romantic, that were lost in the widely derided New 52 reboot. To make the repudiation of the ethos of the New 52 almost anviliciously obvious, the reveal of the villain at the end of issue #1 uses the smiley face splashed with blood: Watchmen’s most iconic image.

Further Reading: When Were Superheroes Grim and Gritty? by Jackson Ayres, On Grittiness and Grimdark by Foz

Why You Should Be Paying (Some) Attention to Marvel Comics

Note: I wrote this post a few days before the list of post-Civil War II titles came out, which noticeably lacks some of the series I praised in this essay. Complete solicits are still forthcoming, so it is possible titles that did not appear in that release may yet emerge, but it does add a touch of irony to this piece.

The website http://www.hasmarveldonesomethingstupidtoday.com counter is set to 0, though it may not have been updated in a while. Anger over their latest stunt (the “reveal” that Steve Rogers aka Captain America was a member of Marvel’s Nazi expys of choice HYDRA all along – except oh wait, it was fake memories, despite vows to the contrary) has yet to subside. Recently, they killed James Rhodes (War Machine), one of few black superheroes, in order to generate angst for Tony Stark and Carol Danvers in their newest big summer event, Civil War II.

Still, news at Marvel isn’t entirely fuck-ups as usual.

As news begins to drop about Marvel’s post-Civil War II plans, and even in the midst of the mixed bag that has been the so-called All-New, All-Different Marvel post-Secret Wars, there are some bright spots that deserve highlighting.

Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Black Panther series continues to outsell almost every other Marvel title, excluding Civil War II and Deadpool. The Mighty Thor series, with Jane Foster as the titular character, is outselling Invincible Iron Man. As of June 2016, there are 15 solo female led titles and one all female team book, compared to five in June 2014 and eight in June 2015.

Carol Danvers, despite naysayers when she received the name in 2012, remains Captain Marvel, with Kamala Khan taking up the title of Ms. Marvel. Laura Kinney, formerly X-23, has moved into the role of Wolverine and Jane Foster is Thor. Among Marvel’s leaked post-Civil War II titles was Hawkeye #1, which will solo star Kate Bishop. And most recently, and perhaps most significantly, the news dropped that the new Iron Man will be Riri Williams, niece to James Rhodes.

It isn’t just the name on the cover that matters, of course – the content inside is good stuff. Of course, I’m biased, but almost the entirety of my pull list is female-led titles, and my top five series that I anticipate are all female solos (Black Widow, Mockingbird, All-New Wolverine, Scarlet Witch, and Ms. Marvel). The stories being told are fantastic, too: Mockingbird mocks female cheesecake with two issues in which the titular hero rescues men from dire peril, who subsequently spend the entire issue in their underwear. Scarlet Witch finally (finally!) allows its heroine to move beyond the events of Avengers Disassembled and House of M and strike out on her own. In All New Wolverine Laura Kinney mentors a young clone of herself, and Ms. Marvel continues to tell stories that resonate both with humor and themes of family, integrity, and growing up. In Black Widow Natasha Romanov returns to her spy roots in an espionage thriller story where Mark Waid frequently allows Samnee’s art to tell the story, showcasing the power of visual storytelling in comics.

The presence of big name writers on the covers of some of these titles – Waid on Black Widow, Jason Aaron on The Mighty Thor, and Brian Michael Bendis writing Invincible Iron Man in the fall – demonstrate a commitment by Marvel to put some weight behind these titles, even as others bring lesser known (at least in superhero comics) female creators on board, like Chelsea Cain on Mockingbird and Kelly Thompson on A-Force. It’s a small improvement of behind the scenes diversity – female creators are still the minority, and that’s not even getting into the whiteness of Marvel’s creative teams – but it’s still an improvement.

Comics change slowly. Painfully slowly. And that change, more often than not, comes with a lot of kicking and screaming from those who see a loss for themselves in those changes. However, it is heartening to see that diversity in comics continues to make news: that a conversation is happening, and continues to happen. The promotion of Sana Amanat to Director of Content and Character Development in February 2015 seems like a good sign, for one. The fact that Women of Marvel panels have become a staple at major conventions is another.

I’m not saying to stop criticizing Marvel – lord knows they deserve it, and it’s important to hold them accountable for their mistakes. Nor am I saying everything is good – now more than ever seems like a good time to look behind the scenes and insist on showcasing diversity not just in the pages of their comics but in Marvel’s offices as well. And again, that’s not even touching on the many dimensions of Marvel’s race problem.

At the same time, however, it can be easy to lose sight of the positives, and forget to note that all is not entirely awful.

I try to be cynical: all too often, the comics industry disappoints. But hope is stubborn, and it looks like a eighteen title pull list without a single white male lead.

A Few Thoughts on Trigger Warnings

Trigger warnings were one of last year’s hot topics, with a piece on the issue appearing in almost every major news outlet. It remains to be seen whether they will occupy the same amount of column space this year, but I doubt the conversation is over – and I expect the debate will continue on college campuses in particular.

This post is primarily an attempt to put my own thoughts in order, and find a way to express the strong emotional reactions I have surrounding the trigger warning debate in a more articulate way. One thing that has been frustrating to me about the entire back and forth that has been the online discussion has been the mockery and denigration of student voices: the majority of thinkpieces took the position that college students asking for trigger warnings were overly sensitive at best and attempting to censor professors at worst, with a few exceptions. As a recent graduate of a college which has seen intense intra-community debate over this very issue, I wanted to deposit my two cents on some of my problems with the anti-trigger warning voices.

First of all, I would like to acknowledge that I understand the anxiety professors feel over what might seem like a demand that they limit their teaching and self-censor, especially among professors of gender or race studies for whom triggering subjects are endemic to their field. I can even understand the fear that by giving students trigger warnings – or, to use my preferred terminology, content warnings – colleges might cripple students’ ability to deal with the real world. (Though I disagree profoundly with this idea – the very dividing line between “college” and “real life” that is so frequently drawn acknowledges that college is an artificial environment, and academia has to acknowledge that its primary goal is hardly to give its students practical survival skills.)

However – and this is a big however – both of these reasons ultimately come from fear rather than logic. For instance, the majority of requests for content warnings are not requests to remove controversial material from syllabi, but rather requests to note such material ahead of time. More alarmingly, however, the dismissal of all discussion of content warnings as coming from students’ desires to be “coddled” or “protected” is to ignore the very real issues at hand.

Content warning opponents claim, among other things, that discomfort is an important and necessary part of learning and growing. There is undeniable truth to this: being uncomfortable is a sign that one’s limits are being pushed, after all, and it is only by testing limits that we can find them, and perhaps more importantly, can challenge our preconceived notions of the world. (A white person coming to understand white privilege for the first time, for instance, will undoubtedly feel uncomfortable.) However, what this seemingly simple statement masks is that for a number of students, there is a difference between “uncomfortable” and “unsafe.” Certainly a good learning environment may productively make students uncomfortable; perhaps it even should. However, I can think of no circumstance in which feeling unsafe is conducive to education.

For the student suddenly confronted with discussion of rape as metaphoric violence against the state, for example,”uncomfortable” may not be sufficient to describe their reaction. Whether or not they are clinically triggered (and more on the rehashing of what constitutes PTSD or a clinical trigger later), that student may find themselves in a state of distress that renders them incapable of focusing on the material at hand, let alone engaging with it or learning from it. In such a situation, advance warning could make the difference in this hypothetical student’s ability to participate.

To figure a request for content warnings as a desire to avoid “discomfort” is to pretend that all discomfort is created equal, and that there is no difference between the uncomfortable sensation that comes with a preconception being challenged and the uncomfortable sensation that comes with a reminder that you are not physically or mentally safe.

Adjacent to this is the idea, frequently brought up, that content warning proponents are unaware of clinical definitions of PTSD, or must demonstrate a certain level of reaction for a subject to qualify as a “trigger.” Even without acknowledging that people may have very different looking responses, many of which are not outwardly visible, this criticism assumes an ability of these critics to adjudicate what qualifies as “real” or “authentic” trauma. It is very nearly a demand to prove it: demonstrate your suffering or we will not believe it is real. Of course, that very attitude is far from conducive to creating an environment in which students would feel capable of volunteering themselves to be examined for whether or not they fit proper victim criteria.

Doing so becomes more difficult still with recognition of the power dynamics between students and professors. Writing on the topic of content warnings often seems to assume that students have immense power – that looming on the horizon is a student takeover of the classroom, that college students are a sort of creature under the bed, constantly lurking and ready to tear vulnerable professors to shreds.

Of course, in reality the dynamic is quite a bit more complicated. Professors retain a great deal of power and authority over students, if only by virtue of age and position. Professors and students are not on equal footing. Acting as though they are – or even as though students occupy a more powerful position – is both disingenuous and dishonest. This imbalance is one of the main problems with the suggested approach some content-warning opponents propose: that students simply approach professors one-on-one to request assistance or raise concerns about a course and its content.

Doing so may require revealing information about past trauma that the student may wish kept private – or else assumptions about personal history that may or may not be accurate. It may also, depending on the professor, be an intensely anxiety-provoking process. Furthermore, the ability of students to even have face to face access to their professors varies wildly. It is incredibly unlikely that all students have equal access and ability to discuss sensitive material with their professors, let alone inclination to do so. As mentioned above, accusations of oversensitivity and coddling run rampant hardly create an environment in which someone is likely to feel comfortable requesting accommodations.

What all of this comes down to, however, at least for me, is that content warnings are a band-aid solution for two reasons.

The first is the fact that, content warnings or not, student safety and comfort in the classroom has far more to do with professorial attitude and classroom dynamics than it does with the content of the lessons alone. The gap between a classroom that allows debate over the morality of rape as an abstract concept versus one that acknowledges upfront a commitment to respectful conversation while discussing the rape of Lucretia in Livy is as wide as a chasm (both real examples, by the by). A gender studies professor discussing violence against women in the context of historical oppression may feel very different from a professor who discusses violence against women as an abstract or metaphorical part of literature, disconnected from history and reality.

The ability of students to not only respect but trust their professors, and believe that their words will be taken seriously, is a large part of the antidote to the communication breakdown between the two sides of the content warning debate. Equally important is the willingness of professors to listen to what is really being said by advocates for content warnings, rather than leaping to worst conclusions or going on the defensive. These are sensitive subjects, obviously, often touching on discriminatory or oppressive structures that are deeply embedded in our culture and therefore in our education. Intellectual freedom is vital to the continued health of universities and colleges, but intellectual freedom should not mean an absence of compassion.

Really, though, in my opinion the increased visibility of the content warning/trigger warning debate is a symptom of a larger problem: academia remains extremely white and male, and still hostile to those who do not fit that template. Higher education is still adjusting to the reality that their students come from more diverse backgrounds, and that an education tailored to a wealthy, white, and male audience may no longer fit – and might hurt.

As Roxane Gay wrote in an article on student activism:

“American colleges and universities have always been incubators for the privileged, and the only people who continue to operate there with some guarantee of physical and emotional safety are white, heterosexual men. Is it any wonder, then, that students are demanding a basic guarantee of safety?”

Ultimately, of course, content/trigger warnings cannot encompass all experiences. As many writers have noted, triggers often have little to do with the traumatic event and can be smells or sensations that might seem totally innocuous to others. There is no way to prevent harm to every student in every college – but there is a relatively simple means of potentially minimizing that harm. The system is far from ideal, and has many potential problems, but I, at least, would rather have some system in place than none. To make a comparison: mental health facilities have become more common at colleges in the past decade. Many are still understaffed, underfunded, or function poorly. However, that they are present at all seems better than to go back to a time when students struggling with depression, anxiety, or other illnesses had no recourse but to drop out.

The people most likely to want or need content warnings, it seems to me, are precisely those people most vulnerable and least represented in higher education.

The Dark Phoenix Saga and Powerful Women in Comics

To distract myself from criticism of modern comics and the recent debacle with Steve Rogers, I’m going to go back to criticism of older comics! Namely the Dark Phoenix Saga and the question of what to do with Jean Grey.

I picked up the Dark Phoenix Saga mostly because of the X-Plain the X-Men podcast, as well as my continual quest to read as many comics as I can shove into my brain. At the end of the final episode about the arc, the question of whether it is an example of a woman being punished for sexuality/power, and the answer I think the podcast came down on was “no.”

For the most part, I tend to agree with the analysis in X-Plain the X-Men. And I I can see that point, within the context of this individual comic. Jean Grey’s choice to die was hers alone, and made in full consciousness of what she was doing. Her power isn’t taken away by force (by someone else), and she’s not insane when she decides to sacrifice herself.

However, the problem is that this isn’t the kind of story that can be looked at in isolation.

The amped up language of sensuality and sexuality when Jean becomes the Dark Phoenix clearly connects “powerful woman” and “out of control sexuality” in a trope as old as time. The art reinforces this, both in the way Jean’s expression is drawn and the style of her clothing. The Black Queen persona is flirtatious and aggressive, wearing fetish clothing. When she decides to sacrifice herself, Jean changes back into her Marvel Girl costume, signifying a return to youth, innocence, and commensurate sexual purity.

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Jean Grey as the Black Queen vs. Jean Grey as Marvel Girl. (Panels from X-Men #130 & #137)

When it comes to power, there are frequent references to “lust” in ways that emphasize both potential meanings of the word. There are also many declarations that Jean cannot handle the power she’s taken into herself – that it is driving her mad, or she can’t control it. This is a trope that has cropped up in multiple superheroines (Scarlet Witch comes immediately to mind); I can only think of one male superhero who has the same experience (Sentry). There is also the fact that for very little of the Dark Phoenix Saga is Jean actually under her own control – she spends a large portion of it being manipulated by Mastermind.

So we have a woman with power she can’t control, and an aggressive sexuality linked to that power. Dressed as her girl self, Jean is returned to innocence through her demise. If this were just about Jean, it might not be a problem. But it isn’t just about Jean.

It fits a narrative that doesn’t just belong to comics and superheroes: one that requires that women who grow too powerful have to be punished, and one that links power to sexuality. The powerful woman is the sexually predatory woman, and both have to be punished.

The Scarlet Witch has only just begun to crawl out of the same trap, kicked off in Avengers Disassembled in 2004, which saw her lose her mind and control of her powers, leading to the deaths of multiple Avengers and the dissolution of the group. Furthermore, Wanda is a woman of Romani descent, a group commonly stereotyped as having loose sexual morals, whether that characterization is positive or negative. For many, Wanda Maximoff is still an icon of the insane, out of control woman. Similarly, the Jean Grey most remember isn’t the heroic martyr who chose humanity over godhood, but the out of control Dark Phoenix.

Telling a story almost never happens in isolation. Frustrating it may be, but even with the best of intentions, your story may end up playing into and reinforcing a narrative that goes back to Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and that is still with us today.

Flipping the Script: Gendered Trauma in Jessica Jones

Traumatic pasts are part and parcel of character backstories almost across the board. It’s harder to think of a well known character who had a happy childhood, for instance, than ones who dealt with some tragedy or another in their past. As in many situations, there is an expected code meant to communicate a character’s tragic backstory to the viewer, particularly in cases where the damage from the trauma lingers. And as with almost everything in (Western, American) culture, that code is very gendered.

It goes something like this: the man who has gone through some kind of traumatic experience will frequently be stoic, have difficulty connecting to other people, frequently turn to violence or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Traumatized men in fiction are frequently abrasive or aggressive, self-isolating loners.

Women who have suffered a traumatic experience, on the other hand (and a sidenote that it is far more likely that theirs will be somehow sexual in nature) are usually shown breaking down. They cry, or curl up couches in their nightclothes, staring into the distance. Frequently, there is something almost voyeuristic about the visual cues of their trauma that is linked to the long history of the aestheticization of women’s suffering/death (cf. this article on ad campaigns that glamorize rape or abuse).

It should go without saying that both of these depictions are oversimplifications that represent only a portion of possible reactions to trauma, divided along essentialist gender lines. By presenting only a single script for each gender, however, the implication becomes that this is the “right” way for people of that gender to respond or behave. People may judge real life survivors according to these examples and find them lacking. For instance, in rape cases there is frequently confusion about the reaction of victims. Denial that rape actually happened sometimes hinges on the victim’s not acting sufficiently upset or “traumatized” in the way people expect.

All this brings me to Jessica Jones, the Netflix series released by Marvel in November. The series follows the eponymous character, a private investigator who happens to have powers that give her enhanced physical abilities. Based on the series Alias by Brian Michael Bendis, Jessica Jones, when we are introduced to her, has already been through her own private hell: as we learn, she was controlled by a man called Zebadiah Kilgrave, who can force anyone to do his will simply with his voice. Kilgrave forced Jessica into a “relationship” with him, a compulsion she only manages to escape after murdering a woman at his command.

While the element of superpowers is new, this part of the story is not revolutionary: a woman is trapped in a relationship with an abusive man but manages to escape. Where Jessica Jones does enter new territory, however, is with the depiction of how Jessica reacts to her violation.

She drinks, a lot – there is a list of all of the different alcohol she imbibes over the course of the first season. We learn she has pushed away her closest friend, Trish Walker, refusing to contact her. She is abrasive and harsh with almost everyone she meets, emotionally closed off – even Krysten Ritter’s body language communicates tension, hunched in on herself. When she walks her shoulders are up and tight; for the most part she’s very contained – with the exception of moments when she loses her temper, which she tends to express physically.

In short, Jessica Jones is stoic, aggressive, and occasionally violent. She acts in ways most frequently coded in media as “male.”

This was, for me, one of the most exciting aspects of a show I loved in general (the friendship between Trish and Jessica alone probably would have sold me on it). I was concerned that in the transition from comic to TV the Jessica Jones I knew might get toned down – that fear of making her “unlikable” would lead to a softer, kinder Jessica. That was not the case – the Netflix series showed the “hard-drinking, foul-mouthed mess of a woman” in all her glory, and I loved it. How refreshing, to have TV give me a female protagonist who is angry, who is allowed to suffer in ways that are messy and ugly and real.

And the viewer sympathizes – or is meant to sympathize. Even when her behavior is harsh or morally dubious, Jessica is not meant to be vilified for her response. The show presents it as just a reaction to her horrific experience with Kilgrave – not just being coerced into a farce of a romance, but made to like it. We see the aftermath, and it isn’t pretty, and there’s no man who magically heals Jessica’s wounds. Her abortive affair with Luke Cage ends when he learns that she was responsible, under Kilgrave’s control, for the death of his wife. Ultimately, Jessica saves herself, snapping Kilgrave’s neck in a powerful moment of catharsis.

Too often, the suffering of women in media only serves to advance the story of male characters. Alternately, a female character can be provided a tragic backstory, but not permitted to react to it – see the sparse treatment of Black Widow’s violent past in Age of Ultron. Finally, women’s trauma can sometimes feel as though it is meant to provide voyeuristic pleasure to the viewer. Jessica Jones gave us something different.

None of this is to say that this depiction is the only “right” way to show trauma’s aftermath – far from it. As in almost every aspect of media representation, the most important aspect is variety: showing a range of people that doesn’t limit anyone to a single model. No one character should be forced to represent an entire category of people. Nor am I saying that Jessica Jones was a perfect show – others have written intelligently on the issues of race, for instance. But it did do some things right, and more interestingly, it did things new.

Further Reading: Race and Inequity in Jessica Jones by Cameron Glover, Netflix, Uncovering Cycles of Abuse and Chill: Jessica Jones and Domestic Violence by Shaadi Devereaux, Jessica Jones is a Show About Trauma That Doesn’t Skip Over the Complexity of PTSD by Katharine Trendacosta

Growing Up Bisexual

My sexuality adventure started in middle school, maybe around fifth or sixth grade, when I told my parents that I thought I might be attracted to girls.

I grew up in a very liberal community – or at least, a community that called itself very liberal. I knew one or two kids who were out (gay men, mostly), but me and my friends still joked about people we knew, were-they-or-weren’t-they. Still, I had a language to describe what I was feeling – or what I thought I might be feeling. My parents, when I announced that I thought I might be gay, hastened to tell me that it might just be a phase.

I am sure they had the best of intentions for doing so – in fact, I know they did. Likely they thought I was scared of this development, or worried about it, which indeed on some level I was. I wasn’t sure what it might mean. I wasn’t even sure if it was true. However, the effect of this assurance was mostly to leave me even more uncertain. Was what I was feeling real? If it was a phase, when would it stop? How would I know?

And didn’t the fact that I was at least sort of interested in boys mean I couldn’t be gay?

Move forward a little bit and witness me playing spin the bottle with a group of (all female) friends, or truth-or-dare, where we kissed each other, clumsily, awkwardly, giggling and a little unsure. Experimenting, as the parlance goes. It was fun, and a little thrilling, and thinking back it’s hard to untangle how much of my intense, close friendships with women had a certain element of a crush to them. I assumed everyone felt the same way I did. It was just a phase.

Throughout middle school, I had an intense and unrequited crush on a boy. I desperately wanted him to notice me. I had vague fantasies about dating. I pined – and with my slight flair for the melodramatic, I was damn good at it. I cried when he stopped talking to me after I kind of, sort of, through a third party, admitted I was into him. At the same time, when my friends were swooning over Gerard Butler I found myself more interested in Emmy Rossum’s breasts. I looked at women all the time, and I told myself I wanted to be them but at least some of the time I think I just wanted them. I made out with a female friend of mine in the back of a movie theater – looking back, a number of our interactions were sexually tinged. Were we flirting with each other or just – that word again – experimenting?

Around this time, a guy confronted me in class to claim he knew I was a lesbian. He seemed to expect this to shame me. I laughed him off, mostly amused because the girl he claimed to have seen me kissing wasn’t the one I’d actually made out with.

Later on, in high school, I asked a guy to the Tolo dance (women ask men) and I remember feeling weird – in a good way – when we got to the slow dancing part. I dated a man very briefly in my senior year, though it’s hard to say if I actually liked him or was just flattered by the attention. Sometimes my friends and I talked about women – “she’s hot” or complimenting each others’ asses – which left me even more sure that, and stop me if this phrase is familiar to you, “everyone’s a little bit bisexual.” I was straight. I just sometimes thought women were attractive.

(That makes sense, right?)

I’m not actually sure when I first heard the word “bisexual.” I think I was sort of peripherally aware of it in high school, but it was never really something I thought was real – people were either straight or they were gay. As for what I was – I didn’t know. I couldn’t label it. (There’s another line: “I don’t like labels.”)

It wasn’t until mid-college I started to think: okay, you know what? Why don’t I put a name to this thing and see what happens? I started with queer: nice and ambiguous and blanket, let me admit that I wasn’t really straight but I didn’t really know what to call myself. It was also in college that I first heard discussions of pansexuality and asexuality. That I learned, and acknowledged, that sexuality is a spectrum experienced differently by different people. It was also in college I first heard that bisexuality excludes trans and genderqueer people, because it implies a gender binary of male/female.

I slid toward “bisexual” sideways. I didn’t officially claim the name for myself until maybe three years ago – a year into a relationship with a delightful (gender-nonconforming) woman. Calling myself a lesbian felt dishonest. Calling myself queer didn’t feel quite right either – though I still use it sometimes. Bisexual was right there. Had always been there, but for so many reasons it had never seemed like an option.

Our cultural narrative has started to make room for more of the range of sexuality and gender that is human experience. Still, often sexuality still ends up divided into “straight” and “gay”. Characters that date a man and then a woman tend to end up labeled “straight” or “gay” depending on who they’re with at the time. Orange is the New Black’s nominal protagonist Piper repeatedly responds to claims that she is “a lesbian now” and similar by saying that she doesn’t like labels. The b-word is a taboo. This is bisexual erasure, and it plays into the idea that bisexual people are just confused, or don’t know what they want. Words like “bi-curious” and “heteroflexible” play with this idea, even as they might be useful for those whose sexuality is fluid: the notion that bisexuality is a phase, a transitory state, an experiment.

Then there’s another idea, somewhat related: bisexual people are sluts. The promiscuous bisexual trope is one of the few roles bisexual people have taken in media. Think Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood, or Maureen Johnson in RENT, or Oberyn Martell in Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire. The joke goes that bisexual people are greedy – by being attracted to more than one gender, we’re playing the field, willing to have sex with anything on legs. Bisexual characters are also often sexually aggressive, almost predatory.

On top of the negative – or nonexistent – portrayal of bisexual people in media – tropes that carry over into real life – there’s the reception by people in your life, too. In LGBT circles, bisexual people in heterosexual relationships are frequently unwelcome, while bisexual people who were in a heterosexual relationship can be seen as tainted goods. Being bisexual leaves you open to claims of transphobia (bi means two!) despite the fact that the bisexual community has long identified that “two” as meaning “your own and other genders”. Things are a little better if you’re bisexual and in a same-gender relationship, like me: people will just call you a lesbian and laugh it off when you correct them. Or else maybe your wife will think you’re secretly soliciting sex with men. If you’re a woman, there’s the added likelihood that people will assume your interest in women is insincere, or just a phase, or that you’re a “college lesbian” who is just screwing around. If you’re a bisexual man, you’re especially vulnerable to hostility from within the LGBT community and also exposed to homophobia from others. And if you’re trans or nonbinary and bisexual…well, you probably just don’t exist.

Is it any wonder I resisted claiming my identity for so long?

Why write all this, you may ask. Why does this matter? Mostly it matters to me because my bisexuality is a part of me, and a part that I spent an agonizingly long time struggling with. If I had known there was an identity I could claim, a way I could quantify what I felt – what would be different?

Sometimes I’m tired. I don’t want to insist, or I don’t want to talk about it, or I don’t want to try to explain to people that yes, I am in a relationship with a woman; no, I’m not a lesbian. Sometimes I don’t want to deal with accusations of transphobia or discussions of privilege that revolve, at their heart, around erasure. But ultimately, it’s a label I want to claim for myself, and I’m trying to learn to hold onto that.

Further Reading: The Invisible Bisexual Man, Bisexuality and the LGBT Community