What’s Love Got to Do With It? : Starfire in the New 52
I wasn’t going to do it. I wasn’t going to write about Starfire. After all, there have been at least three brilliant articles written about Starfire’s portrayal by DC in the newly-released comic Red Hood and the Outlaws, not to mention ComicsBulletin.com’s own take on the controversy, with input from quite a few contributors. I didn’t think I had anything to add to the conversation.
Then I realized what was really bothering me about Starfire’s portrayal.
About halfway through the issue, Roy, who knows that Jason has had sex with Starfire, asks if he’s worried about what will happen when Starfire finds out about Jason and “her ex.”
“You mean on account of the times I tried to kill him — and how Grayson tried to send me away for life more than once?” Jason replies with a casual smirk, “Unfortunately, it is a non-issue. Turns out Tamaraneans don’t see humans as much more than sights and smells. And they have a terribly short attention span about all things Earth. Seriously, when you get a chance, ask her about the gang you used to hang with. Nothing.”
You know how I read those lines?
Starfire is mentally impaired.
The scene continues. “Interesting,” says Roy, a speculative look in his eye. A page or two later, he gets to test this assertion. “You don’t remember anyone named Dick?” he says to Starfire.
“Garth? Dustin? Vic?”
“I can’t recall.”
“You are boring me.”
Regardless of whether the reader recognizes the names he lists off, it’s clear that Roy does— and he thinks Starfire should. He’s just confirmed what Jason told him: Starfire has no long-term memory to speak of when it comes to Earth, be it of friends, sexual companions, etc.
Here’s where things get icky.
“Um, Jason’s over there, talking to himself,” says Roy as Starfire suggestively shoves her breasts in his face.
“And we’re here. Do you want to have sex with me?”
Roy chokes on his drink, then recovers. “Um, but– uh– aren’t you– um, sorta– Jason’s girl?”
“Absurd. I am free to do what I want when I want. If you are not interested, I can probably–“
“No, no– happy to oblige. So, is there anything I need to know about making love to a Tamaranean?”
“Just that love has nothing to do with it.”
There are a couple of different ways to interpret Starfire’s memory issues. Taking Jason’s explanation at face-value, what we would interpret as mental impairment is a trait of Tamaraneans. However, some readers have suggested that Starfire’s amnesia has an external cause, and that it will figure into future plots.
The explanation behind it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter whether Starfire’s mental impairment is the result of biology that Scott Lobdell made up or because some unknown person slipped a roofie into her drink. What matters is that both Jason and Roy recognize that she is impaired, and neither of them have the slightest hesitation in accepting her offer of sex.
Can a person who has serious long term memory issues understand the consequences of their actions? Can a person who can’t understand the consequences of their actions actually give consent?
I have a friend who used to work with mentally and physically disabled individuals, so I asked her about it. She told me the story of a man she once knew who was mentally impaired. He was desperate for a girlfriend, and would come on to every woman he met. Some women were kind to him. Some were cruel. A few took advantage of him. They would string him along as he bought them expensive gifts with what little money he had.
Does a mentally impaired adult deserve to have a loving, sexual relationship with someone?
Of course. Everyone does.
Does a mentally impaired adult deserve to be taken advantage of?
Of course not. No one does.
Legally, sexual consent is a gray area, depending on factors like whether the individual in question has been consigned to someone else’s care and the extent of the impairment. Morally, it’s less questionable. People who take advantage of mentally-impaired individuals are scum. Right?
So, what does that make Jason and Roy?
Jason makes it clear early in the comic that he has no problem using Starfire. As she destroys tanks and soldiers alike at his bidding, he explains her background to the reader: “Born a princess. Raised a slave. The Citadel were a militant race. She was traded into slavery by her sister– an effort to buy peace from a race of marauding aliens. So she’s not a big fan of soldiers…on any world. It’s a feeling I thought I could use to my advantage today.”
Once upon a time, Jason Todd was written as a character who hated people who abused or took advantage of others, especially women. But then, once upon a time, Roy had a daughter of his own named Lian.
For the record, I don’t think Lobdell set out to write Starfire as mentally impaired. I think the amnesia was a convenient plot device. But the amnesia and the fact that Starfire has very little voice of her own– she has fewer thought boxes and less dialogue than either of the male characters– combined to create a portrayal that left me feeling distinctly icky. And I’m not the only one (Red Hood is the third to last entry).
What boggles my mind is that, if rumors are to be believed, Lobdell thought he was writing a strong, liberated woman. Even setting aside the messy, complicated issues of Starfire’s apparent mental impairment and questionable ability to give consent, her portrayal is in no way that of a strong woman in control of her own destiny.
The lip-service paid to being free to do ‘what she wants, when she wants’ is a veneer of liberated woman painted so thin as to be as transparent as the bikini Starfire almost wore. The words come across like a man playing with a puppet of a girl he likes, right before he uses that hand to masturbate himself.
Red Hood #1 isn’t Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It’s a letter to Penthouse Forum.
You’ll never believe this, but I swear it really happened. My friend J has this girl, totally hot, orange skin, HUGE rack. One day we’re hanging out by the pool, and she leans over me (pushing those gorgeous breasts, right in my face!) and says, “Do you want to have sex with me?”
“What about J?” I ask, even though I’m instantly hard.
“I’m free to do what I want, when I want,” she says. Score!
The disconnect here is so str
ong that it reminds me of DC’s recent “Ape-controlled Africa” controversy, if the writer in question were claiming that the term somehow empowered the African people.
Comic books are, at their core, about wish-fulfillment. Male comic book characters are written as wish-fulfillment for men. After all, who wouldn’t want to be Superman? Female comic book characters are also often written as wish-fulfillment for men. Not for women.
Even though he acts like a jerk through most of the book, I can see a guy wanting to be Jason. Jason gets to be “cool,” he rescues Roy, he shoots up a bunch of tanks, he boasts that he’s slept with Starfire and apparently has her at his beck and call.
I can’t see many women wanting to be Starfire as she’s portrayed in Red Hood. Look like her, maybe. But be her? Starfire gets to…blow up tanks because Jason tells her to? Have almost no personality whatsoever? Have meaningless, emotionless sex with the two lead males, both of whom act, as one person put it, “like douches?” Spout artificial dialogue about how “free” she is? Pose for the reader in awkward positions and almost no clothing? Have long-term memory issues? Have the inability to remember past friends and lovers?
DC’s pulled some real boners recently, but it’s also brought out some great books with strong, interesting female characters in the past few weeks. Batwoman showed that two women could get undressed on-panel without pandering. Superboy actually had two non-sexualized women having a conversation about something other than a man, despite the fact that it’s not a female-led title – a rare event in comics. (It’s also by the same author as Red Hood, which I find almost impossible to believe.) Batgirl was handled with a deft and delicate touch by Gail Simone. I haven’t had time to read Supergirl, Birds of Prey, or Wonder Woman yet, but I’ve heard that all of them are quite good. Demon Knights looks to have some pretty interesting female characters, too, and I’m looking forward to reading more of it.
I wish I could put Red Hood in the same category. I wish I could give it to my daughter to read, as I was able to do with Superboy. She’s watched every episode of Teen Titans, Go! multiple times and read every issue of the associated Teen Titans, Go! comic books. It breaks my heart that I can’t give her Red Hood to read, almost as much as it breaks my heart to hear that comic book shops have had to stop sales to younger girls who want to buy Catwoman.
Companies like DC deserves praise– and sales– when they get it right. They also deserve to be criticized, and to lose sales, when they get it wrong, especially as wrong as they got Red Hood and the Outlaws. A comic about Jason Todd was a great idea, particularly following the recent release of Under the Red Hood on DVD, a movie that introduced a lot of new female fans to the character. Between that and Teen Titans Go! fans of Starfire, DC had a huge opportunity to bring in a whole bunch of new fans whose previous exposure to the characters was limited to television. But the execution was so poor as to be actively offensive.
What a damned waste.
Usually, for the Final Squeak sections of my columns, I like to bring in something I’ve found that’s funny and/or interesting and that’s relevant to the discussion. I have a great comic for you folks today, one by a fantastic and popular web comic artist! But first, I’d like to share something else with you.
I’m a writer. Sometimes writers, when they read something that bothers them, will re-write the scene in their heads. I’ve done this with two scenes from Red Hood and the Outlaws. These aren’t perfect, they’re not in true comic book script format and they’re not meant to match up with the existing panels. They are the writer’s equivalent of quick doodles. If were a fabulous artist like Kate Leth, I would have drawn them…but unfortunately, I’m drawing-impaired, so you get these instead.
Re-imagined scene #1: The first appearance of Starfire
Roy stares. “Is that-“
“Whoa,” says Jason.
My name is Starfire. I am not from around here.
I come from a planet called Tamaran. I was born a princess. I was raised a slave.
The Citadel were a militant race of marauding aliens. My sister traded me into slavery in an effort to buy peace with them.
The two men exit the car. She hovers before them.
“You saved our lives,” says Jason.
“I have no love of soldiers…on any world.”
There is a beat of silence as they take each others’ measure.
“Us neither,” says Jason. “Want to come with?”
“Where are you going?”
“Away from here.”
Starfire considers for a moment, then nods and begins rising higher. “I will go on ahead. I saw more soldiers and tanks from the air.”
“Thank you,” Jason calls after her.
Starfire is already gone, but her reply hangs in the air behind her. “Don’t mention it.”
Re-imagined scene #2: Starfire propositions Roy
“Do you want to have sex with me?”
To her amusement, Roy chokes on his drink, then recovers. “Sex? With you?”
“Yes.” They are allies, after all, if not friends.
He opens his mouth and closes it again, frowning. Finally, he speaks. “Yes. But–“
Her own brows draw together. “But?”
His frown deepens, and he looks away. “Dammit,” he mutters quietly, then goes on in a normal tone, “Look. You don’t have to…traveling with us, it isn’t…conditional on that.”
She cocks her head at him. “I do not understand.”
He looks at her again. He’s no longer frowning, but his eyes are serious. “You don’t have to have sex with either of us to stay with us.”
“Of course. Why would I think that?”
He scrubs a hand over his face. “You told us you were a slave…” he starts, then trails off.
She had seen no reason to try to hide the truth from them. They were allies, and they could not help each other if they did not understand each other. “I was.” His point is still not clear. The things her captors did to her were not “sex.” They were something else entirely. She searches for the English word. Ah, “rape.”
“I just didn’t want you to feel as though you had to, is all,” he says.
A sudden warmth fills her, making her smile. It has been a long time since anyone showed such care for her feelings. She reaches out and touches his face lightly. The two men are still hard for her to tell apart, without glowing eyes of different shades and subtle differences in the orange tone of skin. Roy’s face still shows evidence of his own captors’ torment, though the bruises are faint shadows, now.
“I do not feel that I have to,” she says quietly. “I wish to, because you are my ally. My…friend.”
He nods, relaxing. “Okay. That’s okay, then.”
Humans are so strange. She laughs and leans forward and kisses him.
And finally, a recent comic by Shortpacked, who very kindly gave me permission to include it here!
You can listen to the audio version of this post below:
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