The Case For Queer Superhero Films
There's been a groundswell of LGBT storylines in comics over the past few decades, but gay superhero narratives haven't quite made it to the big screen — and that's a huge problem, because queer people deserve to see ourselves doing the impossible, too.
I was obsessed with Greek mythology when I was in middle school. Still am, really. (A lot of this had to do with the 1997 release of Disney’s Hercules.) For months, I made frequent trips to the library to chip away at every book under Dewey Decimal call number 753: “Symbolism, Allegory, Mythology, Legend.” When I was a preteen, mythology was my sacred text. I was raised Baptist but craved worship elsewhere. And in the far corner couch of a library in suburban Illinois, I worshipped.
I learned how the arc of a narrative works, and I learned how the planets got their names. I learned that gods, too, could make mistakes, and that falling in love sometimes led to your untimely death.
But there’s one thing in Greek mythology I’m indebted to now in particular. I was on my go-to couch at the library reading the “Apollo” section of some mythology encyclopedia when I came across a passage that rerouted little Fran’s life course. There, squished in the prose as if it were nothing, was the sentence, “Apollo had a young and beautiful lover, and his name was Hyacinthus.”
I remember thinking it was some kind of typo. I remember feeling the ground shift. I read the sentence again, this time carefully, only to find I had not misread it. Even though the concept of “gay” doesn’t quite apply to same-sex relationships in Ancient Greece, a 13-year-old latent homosexual saw himself reflected for the very first time. Gay people existed. Or gay somethings existed. And not just that, but they could be heroes. They could kill monsters, rescue lovers, smite humans — all sorts of cool things.
I was searching for a queer champion who picked up a sword and actually, literally slayed something.
And so began my hunt. I searched high and low for the fabled gay at the places you usually do: late-night episodes of Will & Grace, clandestine copies of Out magazine, and every gay YA novel I could get my hands on. As I grew older, I came out with varying degrees of success, and my search deepened. I spent years in college researching a high volume of gay genres in media and literature, made it the pounding question and white-hot center of my work.
But as I pored over Capote and Ginsburg and Frank-N-Furter and Hedwig, I couldn’t find the hero I was looking for. And I don’t mean a hero in the way Harvey Milk or Audre Lorde were heroes — they were living heroes and legends in their right. I was searching for a queer champion who picked up a sword and actually, literally slayed something. Where was my gay Odysseus? Where was my lesbian Wonder Woman?
And more importantly, why? Why had this longing stayed with me for almost a decade? And why is it I really have yet to find what I’m looking for?
Google “gay superheroes” and you’ll unearth a short ledger of gay characters conceived by Marvel and DC Comics all the way back to their first, Northstar from Uncanny X-Men, in 1979. These characters have always fallen short for me somehow. Throughout the '80s, Northstar’s sexual identity was a victim of subtlety. Creator John Byrne’s editor restricted him from explicitly mentioning Northstar’s sexuality outside of implied hints; Northstar wasn’t even allowed to utter the words “I am gay” until 1992. Later, in a 2006 resurrection of the Batwoman series, Kathy Kane was deemed a lesbian and given a prominent, recurring romantic narrative. Promising! Very shortly after she proposed to her girlfriend, though, her series was canceled before they could even tie the knot.
Then, three years ago, Green Lantern was reintroduced as a gay man in a series called Earth 2, a spin on original versions of classic DC characters placed in a new and different world. Although Green Lantern did have an unapologetic gay narrative, it’s a bit demoralizing that his gayness was only possible in a “parallel universe.”
And it was only this year, after almost 40 years of novels, that the Star Wars book series introduced its first major gay character. In 2015, Midnighter become the first gay male character in comic history to have an ongoing solo series — 36 years after the very first LGBT character was introduced.
“People deserve characters, not caricatures,” Midnighter writer Steve Orlando told BuzzFeed News. Since its solo debut, Midnighter has received lots of praise from gay media — a difficult audience to please. “To break the stereotype of anachronistic gay representation, you have to show queer people doing things that aren’t related to relationships, that aren’t related to sexuality," he said. "It’s important to show the coming-out story, the personal tragedy, the personal loss. That happens to people, but not to everyone. You have to change that narrative."
And though the “mainstreaming” of gay characters in comic books is ever on the rise, the actual consumption of comic book culture has yet to really become mainstream. While comic books are a huge industry — at least 47 million people read comics as of February 2014, according to Facebook — they aren’t found in the majority of bookstores. And the number of comic book readers can’t even come close to those who regularly watch films, which is basically everybody — over two-thirds of Americans and Canadians go to a movie theater at least once a year.
Although three of the top 10 highest-grossing U.S. films of all time come from comic books, none of these Marvel or DC blockbusters centers on an LGBT hero. After remaking tired narratives like Spider-Man, Daredevil, and (oh god) The Fantastic Four, the superhero TV/movie industry has not told the stories of women superheroes beyond terrible attempts such as Jennifer Garner’s Elektra or Halle Berry’s Catwoman — both characters with queer histories desperately in need of fleshing out.
We’re continually led to believe that the archetype of a “hero” is a straight, white, cisgender man with a perfect body, little emotional complexity, and a passion for crushing stuff.
Catwoman’s interest in women is only a recent development. Since her narratives had often flirted with same-sex relationships, reading her official “coming-out” kiss with Eiko Hasigawa this year in Catwoman #39 didn’t quite feel like a coming-out at all, but rather an effortless, leather-clad slink into the LGBT world. Elektra had a lesbian relationship in the Punishermax series, but in her movie, Jennifer Garner's Elektra was only given a relatively platonic, highly eroticized same-sex kiss from Typhoid that seemed to serve the straight male gaze more than anything. Just from watching the clip on YouTube (don’t watch the whole movie, just...don’t), any gay person could tell this scene was directed by a straight guy.
Straight guys, of course, have always been catered to when it comes to superhero narratives. In the landscape of contemporary masculinity, it’s easy to look at the superhero films of the last year or so and see what we’re supposed to regard as a “hero.” The superhero film industry has largely failed to represent women, trans and gender-nonconforming people, and people of color. Though we’ve had some small steps like Michael B. Jordan in the latest Fantastic Four flop, and token female characters in ensemble narratives, like Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, these steps are not nearly big and bold enough.
With Batman v. Superman in production, along with another X-Men and another Captain America, we’re continually led to believe that the archetype of a “hero” is a straight, white, cisgender man with a perfect body, little emotional complexity, and a passion for crushing stuff. As the industry is discovering more and more that the money is in the sequels, it's retelling superhero stories that are easy to universalize rather than reinventing the unsung myths of our queer forebears (and god forbid we come up with an original gay hero). The “riskier” storylines have barely been given thought.
“If you don’t have any queer representations, yet you still have all the hetero-panic about gay people, even as a joke in the mildest way possible, then that’s kind of a failure,” Zan Christensen, founder of Northwest Press — a publisher devoted to putting out LGBT comics — told BuzzFeed News. He discussed how gay people in films often function as the butt of a joke, thrown into background scenes to add edginess.
Ultimately, the case for fully realized queer superheroes goes beyond representation for representation’s sake. Including queer characters in modern-day adventure movies would fundamentally influence the way the next generation thinks about queer people — the same way my own view of the world shifted when I learned a Greek god could have a boyfriend.
“Maybe that is elementary for you and me and for anyone else in the queer community, but for people who are largely isolated—they need that,” said Orlando. “They need to see how we can fall into a society when we’re not this weird other group.”
It’s simple. At a young age, if you see yourself reflected in popular narratives, you feel less like an anomaly. When you see someone like you accomplishing something great, you too feel capable of great things.
Theorist Judith Halberstam writes in her book The Queer Art of Failure, “Queer studies offer us one method for imagining, not some fantasy of an elsewhere, but existing alternatives to hegemonic systems.” If most of the existing queer narratives — the Brokeback Mountains and the Blue Is the Warmest Colors — must function on a plane of hegemonic systems (oppression, hate crimes, trying relationships), we have much to explore with this new terrain of the “elsewhere.”
Most superhero narratives and adventure stories take place in that elsewhere — a fantasy time and space. People can shoot lasers out of their eyes. Hydras exist. Presumably, this fantasy land would mean expanding the scope of what a gay character could accomplish, because she/he/they wouldn’t have to prescribe to what is currently considered “normal.” A fantasy narrative, for all intents and purposes, could serve as a clean slate upon which the queer character could write a different kind of history.
When you see someone like you accomplishing something great, you too feel capable of great things.
Adventure narratives radically remove us from our own worlds and legislations. Instead of fretting about internal conflict, or about the problems associated with our actual lived reality, the adventurer is far more concerned with launching a thousand ships, beheading a lion, saving New York City, etc.
“Young Avengers was an opportunity,” Kieron Gillen, a GLAAD award–winning writer on the comic, which has included numerous LGBT characters, told BuzzFeed News. “There were so many narratives out there where it’s all tormented, but I wasn’t going to make this misery porn. Here’s a fantasy you could lose yourself in without being drowned in the social realism.”
A gay superhero story can go two ways: a fantasy divorced of reality’s social inequalities, or a fantasy littered with softcore misery porn as a result of those social inequalities. We see the latter in a botched gay comic character — Iceman — who was forced to come out in All-New X-Men #40 this past spring. As two characters from the original 1963 series share a private conversation, Jean Grey accuses Iceman of homosexuality with “You are!” and Iceman denies it like a good, stock closeted boy with “I’m not.” Iceman is subjected to hetero-realism and the stigma that comes with his orientation. Because of that, the character’s narrative must come to a screeching halt upon interrogation — a halt which disrupts the hero’s opportunity to define himself as a hero.
Adventure theorist Paul Zweig defines a hero using the term "the incident.” The incident is when all of a hero’s life “must be translated into action.” When the physical incident— slaying dragons and shit — is the No. 1 priority of a story instead of internal conflict (Why am I gay?), the narrative doesn’t have to be disrupted or rerouted by bigotry or its repercussions, as we saw with Iceman.
For Orlando, writing Midnighter meant that he wouldn’t need any sort of permission. The series’s critical acclaim often cites the title character’s sheer freedom to exist outside of sexual oppression.
“We have to do it in such a way where the story isn’t stopping and staring at these things and putting undue stress on queer themes,” Orlando said, describing his best practice in constructing LGBT narratives. "Despite the fact that it comes from a point of saying 'Look how OK with this we are,' it's also pointing a finger at it, saying, 'Look how normal this is.' Well, that's not how we want things to be, either."
If we were to take gay characters outside the context we associate them with and place them into this new space of action-adventure, we could foster entirely new conversations when it comes to the mainstreaming of LGBT characters.
There are more than a few ways to spark these conversations. Whether the queer character is slipping into an otherwise completely unrelated narrative without disruption in a leather catsuit, or is so loud and bombastically gay that queer themes guide his/her/their story, narratives about queer people hold value when there are lots of them to choose from — when one character doesn't stand in for all of us. Piece by piece, we’re fixing a diversity problem. We’re working against the erasure of queer people from our books, our movies, our news, our history, our cereal advertisements. Action-adventure stories give LGBT characters agency, the opportunity to exist outside their usual context. If I could go back in time and sub out some identity-mulling and oppression narratives for bravery, strength, and bomb-ass sword-fighting, a 15-year-old me would’ve felt much less lost in the far corner of the library in Christian suburban Illinois.
By upping queer representation, we’re creating mirrors. These mirrors reflect back upon a generation that so desperately needs to feel the OK-ness you feel when intimately relating to a fictional character — when you turn the page of a book or watch a scene of a movie and there, you see yourself, conquering.