So a character in Batgirl just came out as transgender. Pop culture takes another step towards representing more of the society that we see in real life. I’m happy about this. No, really, it’s great, so don’t get me wrong when I say that I’ve got some reservations.
I’m relatively well informed about what’s going on in the comics world, and I’ve noticed something a little disturbing about this new character: I literally don’t know anything about her other than the fact that she’s trans, although Comic Vine tells me that her powers are "attractive female."
Now, it’s a privilege to make this argument, since until recently there just wasn’t that much representation of the LGBT community in mainstream comics (especially DC) to critique, but in the admirable pursuit of more representation of diversity in comics I sometimes feel that we’re putting labels above story and character.
Of course, this may just be the media overlooking Gail Simone’s storytelling in favour of a headline, but I tend to think that’s only part of it.
Reportedly, the seeds for this character, Alysia Yeoh, were sown when Simone said to Greg Rucka that it would be a big deal if there were an openly gay male superhero on a comic book cover (perhaps forgetting that Northstar came out in 1992 in Marvel's Alpha Flight) and Rucka said it would be an even bigger deal if the character were transgendered. Fair enough, but does anyone else get the sense that rather than an important character who happens to be transgender, we’re getting a transgender character who happens to be a plot point?
In a fantastic essay for the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot discusses how the pursuit of sexual labels, rather than freeing those so labeled, can sort people into ever more narrow boxes of identity where what we are can come before who we are. This is the danger of identity politics. Rather than meaningfully including characters of all backgrounds into a story arc, DC could just as easily tick the transgender character box and call it a day. Not that that will necessarily happen, but it wouldn’t be the first time.
It’s telling, too, that there was more discussion, more outrage, more crap-giving when DC made the choice to undo Barbara Gordon's (Batgirl, formerly Oracle) status as a paraplegic, something that was canon since 1988's The Killing Joke, and which established an important, respected DC character as disabled, and that was only the beginning of her story.
So, hooray for inclusion, but let’s not pat ourselves on the back too hard, Alysia Yeoh has only been around for sixteen issues. We'll see where her story takes her from here.