Monday, May 13, 2013

Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)

Maybe you’ve heard the term phrase "Woman in a Refrigerator" if you’re a comic book fan. It refers to the unfortunate tendency for female characters to have no real substance other than to serve as plot points for the hero of the story by being killed off. The term refers to a VERY questionable decision on the part of a few DC writers to kill off Green Lantern Kyle Raynor’s girlfriend in the most gruesome and unnecessary of ways.

The backlash of this has been interesting. After all, those of you who grew up in the 90’s and the 2000’s sort of know that pop culture has gone the other way with all of that. Today, pop culture is all about empowering women. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wonder Woman, Xena. Everywhere you look there’s tough, beautiful women who kick ass and don’t let anything get in their way.

Of course, the problem is that’s kind of just another shade of the same problem. The market is FLOODED with female protagonists, but only a few of them (like Buffy, for example) seem to have a lot of depth or character development. We live in a time when female characters are put on pedestals, but sometimes aren’t given the same painstaking care to be developed and understood as well as their male counterparts. I suppose that was a long-winded way of introducing the controversial character I’d like to discuss: Stephanie Brown, aka Spoiler, aka Robin IV, aka Batgirl III.
It was an interesting move, making Batman’s sidekick a young woman. Frank Miller had teased us with the idea in Dark Knight Returns and it worked. Batman isn’t any more "fatherly" with a female Robin than he is with a male one. His job is to teach the people he worked with how to survive and if he goes easy on them they could end up dead. I’ve already mentioned how dangerous it is to bring anyone into Batman’s world, let alone a kid. Stephanie seemed destined to get involved with Batman whether he liked it or not. She was the daughter of a somewhat obscure DC villain, she was bright and resourceful and she had a lot of attitude.

Here's the thing that really defined Stephanie though and I actually give DC a lot of credit for going with this: she lacked talent. She wasn't Barbara Gordon and she wasn't Cassandra Cain. She had a way of coming through in a pinch but a lot of times it just seemed like luck. She wasn’t a martial arts prodigy and she tended to muck things up. She really didn’t have any business being Robin, but if Batman didn’t do something to train her, she was going to end up dead.

Stephanie was, at least, a character who had trouble accepting her limits. I like this because she has a flaw. And oh so few female characters actually have a flaw, which is oppressive in its own way, actually. But the point of all of this is that it really drives home an interesting thought: running around half-cocked with a big attitude and hope alone does not mean you should be fighting crime. Stephanie is the kind of anti-female protagonist that I think comics kind of needs right now, but the thing is, it hurt so bad to watch.

That’s the thing. We should be able to tell stories with female characters that invoke the same range of emotion that stories with the male characters do. You should feel hopeful, desperate, hurt and invigorated, instead of just the static badassness that so many women in comics exude. It was a gutsy move keeping this character as exactly that: a flawed character who wasn’t getting better at being Robin.

Maybe what was most dissatisfying about Stephanie’s "death" however was that it didn’t serve (to me) to teach us anything about Batman that we didn’t already know. Instead, I sort of see the whole thing as a meta-commentary on how to use a female character in comics, to tell you a story with her that surprises you a bit. Of course, maybe because of all of that, a lot of people have decided that they actually want Stephanie around. And nowadays, she’s alive and well and actually took up the mantle of Batgirl for a time. She's already seemed to me to start transitioning into the awesomeness that most female characters eventually assume.

Still, I’d like to think what makes her interesting is that her past experiences were informed by what we were just saying. Stephanie was in over her head and had trouble seeing it. Being a hero is sometimes about knowing your limits and that's the part of the character that needed to grow. The point wasn’t to make her more hardcore, it was to make her recognize "hey, there’s some things that maybe I’m not cut out for." Don’t misinterpret--this isn’t a veiled attack on women as superheroes or something sexist like that. What I’m saying is, what Stephanie needed to learn as a character was different than so many other female characters you’ve read. And that, for me, puts her on the map actually as an underrated endeavor by DC.

And that’s one compliment I have to hand to DC, actually. They don’t always do what readers like, but they often do things with purpose and that lends a lot to their stuff.


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