Gender and superheroes

My Open University mate Helen Owton and I just got together to write a piece about gender and superheroes in the run up to the new Batman v. Superman movie (with huge thanks to Joseph de Lappe for his expert input)…

Why is Wonder Woman only playing a secondary role in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice?  This article looks at the role of gender in superhero films. 

The new Batman v Superman film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is coming out on 25th March 2016 so we thought this would be a good chance to reflect on superhero movies: particularly the place of gender in them.

 

We’re particularly interested in the role of binaries and hierarchies in these kinds of films. Batman v Superman pitches two well-known superheroes against each other in a binary way, and – of course – the superhero genre as a whole is based on the linked binaries of hero v villain, good v bad, and right v wrong, with the former winning out in the end. More recent versions of superhero movies trouble these simple distinctions somewhat. For example, The Dark Knight version of Batman is less clear cut, and the two groups of X-men can be seen as more about assimilationism v radical approaches to activism. However, audiences may well not pick up on such nuances.

An additional binary and hierarchical consideration in Superhero movies is needed. Characters are male or female, with predominantly male characters, and masculinity is privileged over femininity in various ways.

Currently, we are living through a golden age of comics, with a vibrant independent comic and graphic novel scene which includes strong representations of womenExternal link  and LGBT+External link  characters, much of which has been taken up by mainstream superhero comicsExternal link  too. Nonetheless, there is a serious disparity between this shift in comics, and the continued limited representation in the movies which are based on these comics.

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Non-Binary Feminism: The personal is still political

Content Note: There’s mention in this article of the heated debates around feminism and trans, of societal gender inequalities, and of gender-related bullying in schools. I’m using non-binary and genderqueer interchangeably here to mean genders outside of the male/female binary.

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Tensions between trans and feminism rarely seem to be out of the news these days. The so-called TERF wars (where TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist) smolder on and on, flaring up again every so often, as with the latest spate of articles about Germaine Greer’s inflammatory comments about trans women. The TERF wars fit well into the tired old media trope of feminist infighting, where conflict between feminists tends to be reported far more than, for example, areas of agreement between feminists, key developments in feminist thought, or campaigns about continued societal gender inequality. Unfortunately this kind of reporting seems to be a rather good way of discrediting feminism and keeping people’s eye off the ball of social injustice more broadly.

Over the last couple of weeks attention has turned to non-binary trans with Laurie Penny’s article on being a genderqueer feminist and Suzanne Moore’s response. This is interesting/challenging timing for me as I agreed to speak to my feminist reading group at work about non-binary gender this week. I had already been wondering what wider debates were likely to be swirling around us as we had our discussion, and how I could articulate my own thoughts clearly through all of that. I decided – as I often do – that blogging about it first might help me to figure out what I wanted to say.

What’s at stake here?

Reading Laurie Penny and Suzanne Moore’s articles helps to get to the heart of some of the deep feeling that’s in play in these discussions. This can aid us in understanding why they become so fraught, and why there can be such a temptation to polarise into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘them’ and ‘us’ – mapping those onto other perceived divisions (e.g. older and younger, authentic and inauthentic, natural and unnatural, etc.)

As I’ve said before, I think it’s useful to recognise the ways in which these kinds of tensions echo and reverberate up and down our multiple levels of experience: in our wider culture, in our communities and organisations, in our interpersonal relationships, and in our internal conversations. I’m struck by the looming, potentially explosive, cloud of emotion which seemed to be present as I read the social media responses to these two articles, and which has also been there each time I’ve been at a feminist event where these kinds of tensions have played out in person. I feel the same roiling, sparking thunderhead settling over one-on-one conversations when these issues come up. Also – like Laurie and Suzanne I suspect – I feel it inside myself as I try to make sense of my own experience of these matters, and to articulate it. This fact was underlined for me by the fact that I just spent 30 minutes staring at my computer screen wondering how to begin the next paragraph!

I think that one of the main things at stake here is the concern that non-binary people – particularly those who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) – are somehow betraying women and/or feminism in their rejection of the category of woman. Laurie explicitly addresses this in their own retaining of the political identity of woman, in additional to her identity as genderqueer (whilst acknowledging that any genderqueer folks who don’t do this are equally legitimate). Jack Monroe – who also recently came out as non-binary – reports that they have been called a ‘traitor to women’. Suzanne hints at the sense of betrayal with her concerns over young ‘sexual tourists’ adopting ‘pick and mix’ and ‘hall of mirrors’ identities. She questions why AFAB genderqueer people could not use identity terms that retain their womanhood (e.g. butch dyke) or recognise that no women feel ‘at one’ with all of what being a woman entails (physically and socially).

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Coming out day: Non-binary gender Q&A

Today is international coming out day. I wasn’t planning to write anything for the occasion because I’m in the extremely fortunate position of already being out about everything about myself that matters. It’s a real privilege that I don’t face any threats to my employment, relationships, or physical or mental well-being for being out about my sexuality, gender, relationships, and emotional struggles.

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That hasn’t always been the case for me, and it’s also vital to remember that it very much isn’t the case for everyone. Part of the reason that it’s important that people are out about their experiences in these areas (and others) is that it helps to create the circumstances in which it is safer for other people to be open about all that they are too. Nobody should ever be pressured to be out when it doesn’t feel safe enough for them.

However, I have noticed recently that – despite me being open about it – some people seem to struggle to remember, and to understand, my non-binary gender. So here’s a Q&A to make it clearer.

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Non-binary genders

Here’s a talk about non-binary genders that I did at the excellent Pink Therapy conference on trans* earlier this year. Thanks so much to Alex Drummond for her great editing and for getting it up on youtube.

Here are links to the other blog posts I’ve written on this topic:

DIVA article on non-binary gender

Facebook gender explosion

Here is Trans Media Watch’s guide for media on non-binary gender:

TMWNon-Binary

There’s now a great set of resources on non-binary gender over at:

beyondthebinary.co.uk

Including me being interviewed about my own experiences here.

DIVA article on non-binary gender

I wrote an article for  DIVA magazine last month (the September 2013 issue) on non-binary gender. DIVA kindly allowed me to reproduce the article here:

Beyond the binary: Gender outside of the two-box world

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Last month, when I flew to the states, the flight attendants frequently referred to me as ‘Sir’ when they appeared behind me with the drinks trolley. Once I’d spoken they’d correct themselves, flustered, ‘I’m sorry Madam’. Neither word really feels like it refers to me.

Once out in America a waitress greeted me and my friends (a cis lass and a trans guy) as ‘ladies’: a term which none of us related to.

Later on it felt good to share stories about the confusion and discomfort we’d received from department store staff when shopping for clothes. The group I hung out with included transmasculine folk, butch women, and people who identified as non-binary.

This latter term is one which I increasingly relate to myself. So what is it like if neither of the accepted gender labels fit?

DIVA spoke to several non-binary people, as well as to professionals who work across the gender spectrum, to find out how it is to occupy a place outside the binary. The main message is that, like bisexual or gay people, non-binary people are ordinary folk who should be treated with the same respect as anybody, rather than as some kind of special case.

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