The queer community fights on for correct representation in comic books and in Hollywood…
I simply couldn’t write an article on queer representation in comic books without getting the editor, Steph, involved. She’s far too outspoken in these matters to sit on the sidelines. But, she actually has volunteered at a queer homeless youth charity, so she knows what she’s talking about… Most of the time.
In 2012, Archie Comics created a story in which an interracial same-sex marriage took place. In the same year, Marvel Comics made a same-sex marriage happen twenty years after it was revealed that the superhero Northstar was gay. But it’s not just the men making leaps and bounds in queer representation. In 2016, at the age of 75, Wonder Woman came out as bisexual.
But, should comic books have shown more queer diversity before? Should there have been more queer villains? And most importantly, are they doing enough right now?
In 1954, the Comics Code Authority was created in order for comic books to self-regulate. There were three rules brought in that would be looked at now as discriminative towards the queer community.
The first was: ‘Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at or portrayed. Violent love scenes, as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.’
The second was: ‘The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of home and the sanctity of marriage.’
Finally, the third was: ‘Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.’
Alan Kistler is a writer for TheMarySue.Com and in his article, A Little History: LGBT Representation in Mainstream American Comics, Part 1, he explains how detrimental these rules were. “Combined, these three rules could prohibit any LGBT content,” he explains. “What constituted ‘sexual abnormalities’ and ‘sex perversion’ was up to the judgement of the Comics Code Authority Administrator. You could try arguing, but the CCA was a stubborn and strange lot. For instance, they sometimes sent publishers notes asking to tone down the smoke of a firing gun, because too much smoke increased the level of violence.”
“What constituted ‘sexual abnormalities’ and ‘sex perversion’ was up to the judgement of the Comics Code Authority Administrator”
There was clearly queerphobia running throughout the regulation of comic books. It mirrored society and the general attitude towards the queer community at the time. Whether it still exists now is a complicated and controversial subject, with the majority of comic book fans having their own opinion on the matter — many differing from the next.
Porle Miller wrote the Student Radio Award nominated comic book radio drama, Midnight Louis, and while he doesn’t think enough representation is out there, he does believe the industry is trying. “I think on the whole, we’ve come a short way on a long journey,” he says. “But that’s not to say nothing has occurred — on the contrary, it has. America, arguably the biggest source of comic books on the planet, has gradually shed its conservative, dictatorial views on non-heterosexuality en-masse. If we look back at how knee-jerk panicked some people became over Frederic Wertham’s text, Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, where he pointed the finger at comic books as the predominant influence in the ever-declining social standards — we can be thankful that views and perceptions have evolved much more intelligently since.”
Nathan Best is the owner of Comicbookmovie.com, a website exploring and celebrating all things comic book. He also shares some of Porle’s optimism, stating: “I think they do pretty well when representing different sexualities. Just as there are lots of different characters of various ethnicities, there are also many with different sexualities.”
With the likes of Batwoman, Green Lantern and Iceman all identifying as queer, there are certainly an abundance of non-heterosexual characters. From those names, they aren’t small, insignificant and created purely to be shoved in the background either.
But, Steph Farnsworth, a queer activist and journalist who has volunteered at a queer homeless youth charity, believes simply having the characters come out isn’t enough.
“Anything other than being straight is still treated as different,” she says. “Even when the writing for some characters is superb, the chances are they’re the only queer character among a world of cishets. This is not the case. The queer community is huge. To only have the odd gay, bi or queer character every so often isn’t really representative. It’s perfectly normal to see a comic with zero queer representation but yet it would be treated as outrageous to have a comic as 100% queer.”
LGBT Foundation carried out their own research through their Exceeding Expectations programme in Manchester, where they found that “95% of pupils hear the word ‘gay’ being used as an insult or something they don’t like.” They also found that “Over half of pupils had witnessed homophobic bullying in school.”
While children are growing up in environments full of negativity towards any kind of queer representation, surely comic books should be giving their fans sexually diverse characters. They may be surrounded by negativity towards the queer community while at school, but fictional worlds have the means to offer inspirational characters of all sexualities.
Miller doesn’t see that happening any time soon with the copious amounts of film adaptations Hollywood is currently creating. “I am, perhaps wrongly, still of the cynical attitude that diverse sexualities on film and TV productions made for a mainstream, commercial audience are there to tick a box and, perhaps looking at this with a sensationalist viewpoint, are there for novelty value,” he explains. “There’s no substance in the inclusion; we’re a while away a gay, male super hero ruling his own movie and bursting the bank at the box office.”
“There’s no substance in the inclusion; we’re a while away a gay, male super hero ruling his own movie and bursting the bank at the box office”
In the current DC Cinematic Universe and Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are no openly queer superheroes or villains. Although this isn’t to say none of them are queer, and it’s possible we’ll find out in future films that certain characters do identify as queer, right now no characters are open about it. Although Wonder Woman is bisexual in the comics, there was no mention in the most recent film, Wonder Woman (2017). Loki is also represented as genderfluid and bisexual in the comics, but again, this isn’t mentioned in any films he has been involved in.
Best believes there’s a significant difference between the way in which films are representing sexuality, to the way in which TV is doing so. “Comic book films haven’t done a great job regarding different sexualities,” he claims. “TV on the other hand has almost gone to the other extreme and has introduced several gay or bisexual characters. There’s at least one on every show. Maybe TV is less concerned with alienating or angering viewers than film?”
Farnsworth agrees that TV and film isn’t as diverse with sexuality as the comic books themselves. “Comics get diluted down quite a lot for TV and film,” she begins. “TV execs and Hollywood don’t think their audiences want to see queerness. In Riverdale (2017), there was total erasure of asexuality and aromanticism. Even with Black Panther, a film that is exciting fans everywhere because there will finally be a lead person of colour, there’s been accusations of queerbaiting because it was expected that Ayo and Okoye would enter into a relationship. On small screens and the silver screen you might get a queer character or a black character but you almost never get both.”
Despite the issues surrounding the way in which different sexualities are being represented through comic books and their film and TV adaptations, Porle does have a couple of favourite queer superheroes and villains. “Northstar from Marvel Comics was way up there as queer back in 1979. Also, Daken — Wolverine’s son, who we met back in 2007,” he says.
Best also has a couple of favourite queer superheroes and villains: “I’ve always liked Batwoman and Iceman since I was a kid. Villain-wise, I’d have to say Loki and Mystique.”
Farnsworth struggled with choosing her favourite superheroes as she prefers villains, but she did mention a few that she liked, as well as her favourite queer villainous characters. “I’d probably say Batwoman or Deadpool,” she says. “Also, not a classic villain but probably Luci from WicDiv. Luci is angry, loud and embraces destruction — and is also unapologetically queer.”
Comic books are certainly trying to embrace a more realistic and open take on sexuality. There are characters coming out as queer left, right and centre. But the real problem lies in the film and TV adaptations. The characters are clearly there to be explored on the big screen, but creators are still too scared to represent different sexualities. If Hollywood listened to their fans a little more, they’d hear them screaming for more diversity.
Can you hear us yet, Hollywood?