Retroactive Continuity: She-ra and the Princesses of Power S1E7-8

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In past entries on She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, I’ve largely focused on the other princesses, in large part because that’s what the episodes focused on. In “In the Shadows of Mystacor” and “Princess Prom,” however, the focus of the show returns to its main character, Adora. Specifically, these two episodes address the fact that she and Catra grew up being abused by their adoptive mother Shadow Weaver, and examine the impact that abuse has had on them.

The focus of “Shadows of Mystacor” is Adora’s (and, to a lesser extent, Catra’s) fear of Shadow Weaver. In this, she is contrasted very effectively against both Angella and Castaspella. The former doesn’t actually appear in the episode, but she is evoked by Glimmer’s response to Adora describing how, in addition to providing for basic physical needs, Shadow Weaver taught her tactics and combat: “Right, Mom stuff.” Like Shadow Weaver, Angella is stern, demanding, and prepares her daughter for a life of violence and leadership–but she worries about her daughter’s well-being, and her responses to rule-breaking are typically parental, such as punishing her daughter with grounding. Castaspella, meanwhile, is not a parental figure for Glimmer, but she is quite passive-aggressive (which is a form of manipulation), and habitually ignores Glimmer’s words and preferences.

Angella expects a great deal of her daughter and is trying to prepare her; Castespella is self-centered and unpleasant. Neither, however, is abusive, and thereby contrast just how much worse Shadow Weaver is. For example, Glimmer clearly doesn’t want to spend time with Castaspella, because she finds it uncomfortable–but we’ve seen that when Shadow Weaver lashes out angrily in Catra’s presence, Catra recoils in outright fear. In “Shadows of Mystacor” we see why, as Shadow Weaver’s proxies work to frighten Adora so she has difficulty sleeping, then show themselves only when no one else is around, so that the others think Adora is imagining things. This simultaneously isolates her and makes her doubt her own perceptions, two standard abuser tactics, designed to make her more dependent and therefore more controllable.

This is, perhaps, the most crucial, defining feature of the abuser, regardless of the type of relationship within which the abuse is occurring: the desire for nonconsensual control, the imposition of the abuser’s will on their victim. What’s clever here is its contrast with non-abusive ways in which someone who feels a need for control can express that need. In the case of Angella, her desire for safety for her daughter leads to her to try to control her daughter’s behavior through punishments, which is fairly typical–and necessary–for parenting a child. Castaspella’s desire control seems to be more about her own easily wounded feelings, and a lot less healthy, but she also isn’t very good at exerting that control, and merely self-centered rather than actually malicious. Shadow Weaver, by contrast, when she finally realizes that she cannot control Adora, attempts to kill her, just as she will later in the series with Catra. Her “children” have no value to her as people in themselves, only as objects that she can use.

“Princess Prom” shows us the consequences of Adora and Catra’s upbringing. First, Adora is badly stunted in her social development, which is not at all uncommon for sufferers of complex PTSD, which in turn is common in survivors of child abuse. Admittedly, I don’t care for parties either, especially not this kind of party, but Adora actually seems to enjoy the concept, but is intimidated by it. Her decision to treat the party as a military campaign is telling: it terrifies her, because it is a social situation with a large number of arbitrary rules in which she has no power, a recreation of her time in the Horde, and so she deals with it by reverting to the behavior and relying on the skills that were rewarded in her time in the Horde.

Catra has been damaged in a subtly different way than Adora, however: where Adora fled, Catra has decided to seek the same kind of control herself, to move up in the Horde so that she can become biggest bully on the block. She doesn’t want to be free of Shadow Weaver, but rather to replace her, and in essence become her. The fight on the rooftop epitomizes that: literally, Adora might be referring to getting out of their precarious position dangling off the side of a tower when she says “I can get us out of this,” but Catra’s reply of “Oh, Adora, I don’t want you to!” is about much more than that.

Already here it is clear that Catra felt hurt and abandoned when Adora left, and now she intends to make sure no one can ever hurt or abandon her again. We will see more of this when the show finally does an episode focused on her.


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You have to trust (Old Wounds)

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It’s October 3, 1998. Monica tops the charts with “The First Night”; Aerosmith, Bare Naked Ladies, Jennifer Paige, and Edwin McCain round out this spectacularly 90s top 5. At the box office, Antz debuts at number one and What Dreams May Come at number two. Rush Hour and A Night at the Roxbury are at third and fourth, marking the first chart we’ve come across where I’ve actually seen all of the top four movies.

In the news, Europol is established and “pro-market social conservative” John Howard becomes Prime Minister of Australia, so the catastrophic rightward shift in the political winds that started in the late 70s/early 80s is still ongoing.

Speaking of catastrophic shifts, we have the episode The New Batman Adventures has been building to all season, the reveal of how Dick Grayson parted ways from Batman and became Nightwing. That, however, is not the catastrophic shift most highlighted by this episode, as the reason is more or less what one would expect: Batman being controlling, Dick rebelling, Batgirl caught in the middle between her lover at the time and lover to be.

The far more interesting catastrophic shift is that in Batman’s behavior. Since that change was introduced alongside with the changes in his relationship to Nightwing, occurring somewhere in the gap between the end of Batman: The Animated Series and the beginning of TNBA, it was natural to assume that it coincided with the breakdown of their relationship. But it didn’t; if anything, it precipitated that breakdown. The Batman we see in “Old Wounds” (colored, admittedly, by the narration of the very much not impartial Nightwing) is the same as throughout TNBA: cold, distant, manipulative, and calculating. Batman was, of course, capable of being all these things as part of his “I am the night” persona, but privately he displayed warmth, playfulness, and humor. And he still does in TNBA, in his relationships with his family–but “professionally,” so to speak, he is now all Dark Knight, never Caped Crusader.

So, we have to ask, what happened? And a clear answer shows itself almost immediately: Superman happened.

This is true on multiple levels. Extradiegetically, Superman is warm, playful, and funny in Superman: The Animated Series, so to differentiate the characters, Batman is made colder, more stern and serious. Diegetically, the emergence of Superman is part of a general shift into a world where both the characters and the threats they face are more fantastic, more powerful, and more alien. Batman’s world has changed from one where, once he kicks the gun out of an enemy’s hands, all he has to deal with are punches, to one where his enemies’ punches can potentially flatten skyscrapers–and with no guarantee that he’ll be able to tell who can do it, given that Clark Kent of all people is the physically strongest person in the world by several orders of magnitude. He is, in short, scared, and he deals with that fear by distancing others and becoming more hostile and work-focused.

But we are most interested in neither of those levels, but rather in readings that pass between and beyond them. Superman’s arrival wasn’t just Superman; it was apocalypse, revolution, and reinvention. Harley blew up Krypton, and Krypton was the world. The New Batman Adventures isn’t set in Bruce Wayne’s world, but in Harleen Quinzel’s, a place at once lighter and more dangerous, stranger and more open.

And that has Batman scared, because a world that is open is a world less controlled. Though in the past he was warmer and kinder, he was always in control of himself and often of his environment. He was, in most of the senses that matter, Alfred’s son, but he was also always Alfred’s boss. He was Dick’s father, but he chose that role because he saw something of himself in the angry, grieving little boy. He craves control because of that terrible moment when his life was entirely outside his control, and he exerts control by maintaining law and order (read: authoritarian control) in “his” city. He and he alone sorts the city into its four-caste hierarchy: the general populace, weak and helpless; the criminals who prey on them; the police who enact violence against the criminals; and the Bat who hangs over them all.

That his coldness and distance is a response to feeling out of control is demonstrated by his relationship with Batgirl. Theirs is a relationship of power exchange, of control, and with her he is still warm, even teasing. Likewise with Tim, still young enough to be unable to do much without Batman’s approval, and Alfred, to whom he can directly give orders. The only one he can’t control anymore is Dick, and Bruce doesn’t know how to love someone he can’t control.

Which is not to say he doesn’t still love Dick. Of course he does! But love isn’t just a feeling, it’s a process and a relationship, and Bruce is very bad at it with people he can’t control. His only familial relationships are with children he “rescued” and adopted and an employee; his romantic relationships are all with “bad” women that he tries to make “good,” most obviously Catgirl and Talia al-Ghul, but that’s also the role Batgirl takes when she plays the BDSM “brat” in their relationship. The last time he loved someone he couldn’t control, she abandoned him to become the Phantasm; the last time before that, they were gunned down in an alley. Batman is his own protector fantasy, and so his great nightmare is of caring for someone that won’t let Batman protect them.

He simply does not know how to handle Dick slipping out of his control, and reacts poorly, which drives Dick further away. The choice not to tell Dick about Batgirl’s secret identity is a bad one, but it’s understandable in this context: it’s a point of leverage, a way of trying to bring Dick back under control by telling him that he’s replaceable, and to undermine his independence by knowing something crucial about his life that he doesn’t.

The hardest thing to do, when you’ve been hurt, is to allow yourself to be hurt again. To drop the barriers and let go control, to trust another person, depend on them, permit them the power to hurt you as you were hurt before. This is the pain that causes Batman to go down this darker path, one that will keep him isolated and dark, driving away everyone he cares about, right through to his bitter old age in Batman Beyond. He is wrong, and getting wronger, but through this episode we understand why, and can feel for him.

“Old Wounds,” from a synopsis alone, sounds like an origin story for Nightwing. Which of course it is–but he’s the hero of the story, and as is often the case in BTAS and TNBA, the hero is not the emotional center. As a result, this isn’t just an origin story, or even primarily an origin story. It’s something else, something that BTAS in particular always excelled at.

“Old Wounds” is a sympathetic villain story.


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Crisis on N Earths: Animosity vol. 1

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks as always for backing, Shane!

And now a third take on animals attacking humans.

We’ve seen violent animals as the grotesque, a worrying violation of the social order that unsettles and disturbs us. We’ve seen violent animals as throwaway victims of human control, depicted as less grotesque because “only” their behavior, rather than their bodies, has been violated. Now we have animals as an oppressed underclass.

This is not the first time animals have been depicted as such. War with the Newts, by Karel Capek of R.U.R. fame, depicted the titular species of intelligent amphibians as victims of human colonization and exploitation, who then turned against and conquered the colonizers, only to repeat the cycle. Similarly, the animals in Animosity vol. 1, by Insexts writer Margeurite Bennett, are suddenly granted not only intelligence, but human intelligence and understanding–and more to the point, the animals we see (all of them American) seem to share a basically Western outlook. The result is, inevitably, violence, as humans and animals alike seek to draw lines against the Other.

Against this backdrop, the comic centers the close relationship of the bloodhound Sandor and the young human girl Jesse, whom he is determined to get across the country to her older brother in San Francisco, after (it is heavily implied) either killing her parents or persuading her that they’re dead in revenge for his abuse at the hands of her father. Jesse is a kind and giving child, and Sandor is fierce in his love for her, which (much like the relationship at the heart of Insexts) helps carry a comic that could otherwise be a bit didactic.

Which is a good thing, because the lessons here need badly to be learned. As is often the case with oppressed classes, animals outnumber humans massively, and once they attain consciousness of who they are and how they’ve been treated, humans have no chance of stopping them. Happily, the comic isn’t that focused on said treatment–this isn’t Grant Morrison writing yet another “animal rights” screed–but rather on how the survivors feel about it, and what they do with that anger. The comic is, in other words, less interested in the rather silly question “What if animals are people?” and much more interested in “What if animals became people?”

As Sandor describes and the negotiations in New York confirm, the animals mostly don’t actually care much about what happened beforethe Wake; what matters is that in the moment of acquiring consciousness, they became an oppressed class, and at the same moment realized their power and acted to end that oppression.

But, again, the consciousness they attained was a basically Western one rooted in the us-them divide. Animals became the new Other to humans, and humans the Other to animals. When Sandor acts to protect Jesse in the chaotic massacre the New York negotiations degenerate into, Oscar doesn’t see a member of his family protecting his daughter from a dangerous killer; he sees an animal killing a human, and reacts violently, treating Sandor as a threat rather than a protector.

Meanwhile, by defining themselves as an in-group, animals immediately begin othering each other. The mutinous members of the Animilitary justify themselves by demanding meat instead of substitutes, but the one who declares this is a koala, an entirely herbivorous species. Their rebellion is against Mimico, who is insufficiently revolutionary in their eyes, a difference which marks her as Other and therefore as an enemy in their eyes. It’s a pattern I’ve seen played out again and again in leftist and queer spaces, gatekeeping turned to Othering of those who don’t make the cut, turned to infighting that leaves all involved more vulnerable and less able to resist the real oppressor. The result is sadly predictable: the animals fight each other, and the humans fight them, and a scant few escape with Jesse and Sandor.

The arc closes out with a look at Jesse’s brother’s experience, which goes the other way: instead of degenerating into a chaotic free-for-all, the animal takeover in San Francisco was orderly and thorough, with humans like Adam who are “vouched for” by an animal–in his case, by a seal whose life he saved on the day of the Wake–essentially tagged and kept as prisoners. This is the War With the Newts outcome, the straightforward reversal of fortune, with the oppressor becoming the oppressed and vice versa.

Of course, those are always the arguments made against revolution: that it will lead to chaos worse than the current order, or that it will result in mere inversion and a new underclass. By using animals as a stand-in for all oppressed classes and marginalized identities, and realistically depicting the resulting problem that carnivores must choose between murder and starvation, the comic acknowledges that there is no perfect solution. Someone will always oppress someone else.

The question–the big one, the only political question really worth asking in the long run–is whether that oppression can be minimized and made temporary.


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Twip (Animal Act)

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It’s September 26, 1998. The top song is Aerosmith with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”; Monica and Jennifer Paige also chart. The top movie is still Rush Hour, with Ronin and Urban Legend opening at second and third, respectively.

In the news, English-language media report that the President of Iran retracted a fatwa on author Salman Rushdie, ending that country’s official support of and call for his assassination. By failing to translate the word, said media perpetuate the common, but Islamophobic, misunderstanding of what a fatwa actually is: it is a judgment on a point of religious law, and thus almost never a call for assassination. (Indeed, whether it can legitimately be used to call for assassination is a matter of some debate among Muslim scholars.)

There are days when I really regret committing myself to doing a chapter for every single episode of every single DCAU show, and this is one of those days. “Animal Acts” is not, despite Bruce Timm’s claims, one of the worst episodes of Batman: The Animated Series or The New Batman Adventures; however, it is exceedingly mediocre, and those are always the hardest episodes to write about.

This episode’s purpose seems mostly to be as set-up for “Old Wounds,” reminding us that Nightwing exists and is Dick Grayson, former acrobat. Things are suitably tense between him and Batman, but he is clearly bonding with Robin. He also makes some snide remarks to Batman that imply he sees being Robin as less than healthy for a young boy, which of course it is; thus, in the next episode he will launch into the story of how he left as a kind of warning to Tim.

This is also the second episode in a row to feature animals as the villain’s primary muscle, but in a very different way than the previous episode. Farmer Brown’s genetically engineered livestock were grotesque; these animals are physically ordinary, with only their behavior surprising. Both Brown and Mad Hatter use their technological and scientific expertise to acquire their minions, but what Brown does to the animals is framed as inherently horrifying in a way that what Hatter does isn’t.

This is a very strange decision. Brown, ultimately, doesn’t actually violate any living thing: he uses and exploits them, but he is a genetic engineer; everything he does to his animals is done before they’re alive. The Mad Hatter, meanwhile, controls living animals, forcing them into unnatural behaviors in ways that are likely physically painful, and almost certainly psychologically damaging. And of course, at the episode’s climax he falls back on his old standby, controlling people. Surely, in any remotely moral accounting, he is far worse than Brown?

But this is the old familiar problem of substituting Us and Them for right and wrong, now projected onto the body instead of onto others. The “natural” body and “natural” behaviors are good and right, in this view, and “unnatural” is wrong, with “natural” inevitably being defined as whatever is most familiar. The animals and even people under Mad Hatter’s control are not abject; they remain intact bodies, under the control of a different mind from the usual, but then we are used to thinking of bodies as being distinct entities under the control of minds. Hatter’s control doesn’t force us to confront that we are bodies; we can continue to pretend that we are something else that merely inhabits a body, and is momentarily displaced by his technology. It’s wrong, but not inherently distressing in the manner of the grotesque.

To put it simply, the Mad Hatter’s treatment of animals doesn’t seem as bad as Farmer Brown’s because we’re used to seeing animals perform under human control. The circus environment in particular is one where animals are forced, often under extremely poor conditions, to act for human gain and amusement. It is familiar, and therefore non-threatening; he simply does with technology what Miranda does with a whip. At least the technology probably involves less pain and fear.

But then, what of the humans he controls? But again, this is a circus–show business, as Dick reminds us at episode’s end. We are used to seeing people perform here, too; Mad Hatter simply does with technology what the circus does with a paycheck and tradition. What any job does with a paycheck and social norms, the carrot and stick by which we are all conditioned to perform.

That really is all there is to it. The Mad Hatter ultimately violates neither the social order nor the body; he is a loathsome little parasite guilty of, at minimum, sexual assault, but he is not a threat to order. Batman and company take him out with absurd ease once he reveals himself, and everything is returned to normal: animals in their cages, people performing their roles.

As Dick observes Tim, tricked into mucking out the animal’s cages, he says he misses it. The implication is that at least part of him would rather be knee-deep in gorilla shit than out fighting crime as Nightwing. For all its mediocrity, this episode is the perfect setup for “Old Wounds,” because it shows us the source of Dick’s angst. He loves the safety and stability of even the nastiest parts of the social order, which is why he works to preserve it as a superhero; but as a superhero, he is necessarily on the fringes of that order, rather than inside it. He is a guard, but he would rather be inside the cage.


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Crisis on N Earths: She-Ra S1E6: “System Failure”

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In some ways, the sixth episode of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power continues the pattern previously established in episodes four and five of introducing a princess who is initially unhelpful, but roused by She-Ra to become an ally against the Horde. And this is what happens in this episode, but with a major difference: up until this point, every episode has climaxed in a battle with Horde soldiers, and has a B-plot involving Catra and the other Horde characters. In this episode, however, no Horde characters or soldiers appear at all.

Instead, the A-plot follows Adora and Glimmer as they meet Entrapta, Adora gets infected by the virus afflicting Entrapta’s robots, and the trio has to fight the robots until they can defeat the virus. Meanwhile, the B-Plot follows Bow as he meets Entrapta’s servants, exhorts them to stand up for themselves against the robots, and leads them to save Adora, Glimmer, and Entrapta. We have, in short, what appears to be an episode without villains, since the virus hardly counts.

Or do we have villains?

The character of Entrapta has been somewhat controversial. She is quite popular, likely thanks to the combination of her unflappably positive attitude, eccentricity, and humorously odd priorities, placing her curiosity above the well-being of others. Disability advocates and some autistic people, however, have argued that her hyperfocus to the point of being a danger to herself and lack of empathy combine to form a negative stereotype of autistic people.

Fans of the character argue that, in the words of io9’s Beth Elderkin, “Entrapta is not a bad person.  She only cares about the pursuit of knowledge, to the point where the people  around her are only worth the data they provide.” But that’s just it: Entrapta does not care about others, except in terms of what they can do for her. Her attitude toward other people is entirely instrumental; if there is such a thing as a “bad person,” surely that would be its definition.

Consider again how this episode is structured. We naturally assumed, since it involves the main character of the show and takes up more story time, that Adora, Glimmer, and Entrapta’s scenes comprise the A-plot. But if we reverse the two plots, Bow is the one recruiting people to the Rebellion, people who are at first highly reluctant, but gradually convinced to embrace their own power and aid the Rebels, just as Perfuma and Mermista were in the prior episode. Bow is playing the role of Adora and friends in prior episodes; therefore, we can expect the other plot to follow the pattern of past episodes and place some other characters in the position of Catra and the Horde.

This other plot, of course, is the one that follows Entrapta–who, like Catra, is selfish and dismissive of the needs of others, but nonetheless sympathetic. Entrapta is responsible for this episode’s entire conflict, her recklessness creating an army of evil robots for the heroes to fight. And at the end, she’s learned nothing; instead, the ending of the episode has her scheming to do the same thing all over again.

Entrapta, in short, is the villain of this episode, albeit a villain whom the heroes accept as a friend. Her moral ambiguity, lack of empathy, hyperfocus, and scientific acumen all derive from the same source, the “mad scientist” archetype. That, too, is why she reads as a negative, ableist stereotype: because the “mad scientist” is rooted in just such a stereotype.

“Mad scientists,” generally speaking, come in two varieties. The more traditional type, epitomized by Victor Frankenstein, is arrogant, vengeful, and if not outright villainous, at least prone to creating villains and monsters. The second variety, most common in comic books and related media, combines elements of the “absentminded professor”–good-natured but distracted by their own creative genius and therefore forgetful–with the amorality of the “mad scientist”; their creations are usually “good,” but they are prone to obliviously and inadvertently harming others.

It is to this second group that Entrapta belongs, and it is here that the ableism enters her character. To create a character in a villainous role readable as a friend, the show uses the latter type of “mad scientist” but has her obliviousness extend to the point of seriously endangering others without caring. The result is that those relatively benign traits of the “absentminded professor,” itself rooted in a lesser form of ableism, become amplified and vilified.

Later in the series, Entrapta will actually straight-up join the Horde. This will be framed as the result of her accidental abandonment by the heroes; however, that abandonment is a direct result of her skewed priorities. We will examine that more in the episode in question; for now, we can leave it at this: Entrapta becomes a villain because she values information too much and human life–her own and others’–too little.

Or, rather, that is why she is villainous from the start.


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Fixed your (Critters)

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It’s still September 19, 1998, so nothing has changed in news or charts. In The New Batman Adventures, however, we have something new on a couple of fronts: a new episode, obviously, with a rare case of a more-or-less entirely new villain: Farmer Brown is original to the DCAU, and this is his only appearance.

Rather understandably so, as it turns out: the episode is basically an excuse for mediocre action sequences with giant animals and silly, not particularly funny gags. There are sight gags like a giant bull attacking a china shop or a stereotypical “farmer’s daughter” hefting giant sacks of feed or large men like they weigh nothing, dialogue gags like referring to said bull as “Ferdinand,” and (in the closest thing the episode has to a genuinely clever joke) even a joke courtesy of one of the DCAU’s unsung (pun intended) heroes, Shirley Jackson. The go-to composer for most of TNBA, she gave Brown a leitmotif of violin double-stops that sounds fiddle-like enough to fit his general American Gothic theme, but which actually comes from Camille Saint-Saens’ Dans Macabre. It is one of the composer’s most familiar works, rivaled only by his equally famous comedic chamber-music piece, The Carnival of the Animals.

Like most villain origin stories, there is at least a whiff of sympathetic villain here: we are told why Brown turns to crime, at least, and shown that he and his daughter do seem to have a bond. But his character as revealed in the recounting of his origin is a libertarian fantasy, a solitary genius and entrepreneur who developed an amazing new technology nipped in the bud by government regulators, so he sought vengeance using that same technology.

In this, he returns us to a familiar space for the DCAU: the equivalency of the grotesque and evil. His creations are monstrous because they are “unnatural,” familiar creatures distorted in size, in proportion, and by incorporating structures from other animals. But they are not the only “monsters” in this episode: Brown is as much a chimera as his toothy-mawed chickens, a hybrid of two stock characters almost never seen together, the “mad scientist” (who is almost always highly educated and from the upper class) and the “redneck farmer” (who is almost never either). Emmylou is likewise “distorted” by her superhuman strength, which is another product of her father’s work.

Emmylou is probably the more interesting of the two, because her generic Timm attractive-young-woman (blonde) design immediately recalls another recently introduced young woman who lives on a farm and has immense strength, Supergirl. Supergirl, however, is never framed as monstrous, her strength never framed as a joke; she is practically a pinup straight out of Timm’s Good Girl Art influences. Why the difference in treatment between the two characters?

The answer, simply, is that which underlies the concept of the grotesque, which we’ve also discussed before: abjection. The abject, the “unnatural,” is a violation of How Things Should Be, and therefore wrong, disturbing, frightening. Supergirl is not abject (or rather, since in a sexist society the female form is always treated as an abjection of a supposed masculine ideal, less abject), because she is natural; it is a “normal” and expected thing for a Kryptonian to have super strength in yellow sunlight. Her body is behaving as bodies like hers typically behave, which is to say that there are no reminders that it is a body, material, mundane, and malleable. By contrast, Emmylou is the product of “mad science,” an “unnatural” creation that was not conceived with the potential for super strength, but had it induced “artificially”–that being more or less the same argument the government regulators used against Brown’s creations.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, bupkis. There is reason to be leery of creations like Brown’s, not because they’re “unnatural,” but because they were clearly produced without safety precautions or any care for the well-being of the animals involved. Hubris is a myth invented by the powerful as an excuse to punish the powerless for trying to rebel; the problem is playing with complex, living systems incautiously and without compassion, not that it’s fundamentally wrong to “play God.” Nature, after all, invented pain, hunger, and death; it is our opportunity, and hence our duty, to improve upon it.

Which, ultimately, is why Brown is entirely unsympathetic, to the point of being boring: nature is evil enough as it is, and doesn’t need his or anyone else’s help being even worse.


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Bad enough She-(Where There’s Smoke)

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It’s September 19, 1998. Not much has changed since yesterday.

In more ways than one, as Superman: The Animated Series decides to regress and introduce Volcana in pretty much exactly the same way Batman: The Animated Series did Poison Ivy years ago, as a straightforward and unironic femme fatale. Here her association is not with the vagina dentata that was so blatantly used in “Pretty Poison,” but rather with fire and heat, which of course are so common as metaphors for sexual desire that they cross into cliches.

But there is a key difference here, one that resonates well with Insexts vol. 2 (once again, the timing for my Insexts commissions always works out to be weirdly apropos): this episode was written by a woman, Hilary J. Bader to be precise. So while the story she is telling is the familiar tale of the woman who refuses to be a princess/victim and therefore becomes a witch/monster, the perspective she brings to it is far more sympathetic to that woman. The episode never loses sight of its real villains, the SHIELD-analogues of Project Firestorm. (They’re a clandestine government agency headed by a man with an eyepatch, whose main muscle is a man with a bowler hat and handlebar mustache. There’s no way that’s not a reference to Marvel’s SHIELD.)

For a moment, the episode even flirts with the idea of stepping outside of the normal limitations of the genre, as Superman appears to be fighting against the government, as he angrily tears apart a secret facility already in the process of being abandoned. Of course it would not be the first time a superhero fought the government without crossing into genuinely revolutionary territory, and that’s what proves to be happening here: Project Firestorm (its name another comics reference, to any of several fusion-themed DC superheroes by that name, none of whom ever appear in the DCAU proper) is a rogue operation. Superman isn’t really fighting against the government, he’s fighting against corruption, maintaining the implication that the system is fine, it’s just that some people abuse it.

But the mere presence of Volcana pushes back against that implication. She remains the woman who had power, and whom men therefore tried to make a monster–and who, when they succeeded, turned that very monstrosity against them. Set free from our culture and its patriarchy, she ceases to be a femme fatale as well. Even though her expression of sexuality is still there at the end, it is no longer framed as manipulative, but rather as playful banter of the sort Lois Lane and Clark Kent frequently exchange. She uses her fire, but flirtatiously, to make a little heart she blows into Superman’s cheek knowing he won’t be burned by it.

Except of course that she isn’t free. Her exile to a tropical island is framed as an alternative to prison, but in truth even an outdoor tropical prison is still prison, and solitary confinement at that. She has not attained freedom, which is to say the space in which to be her own best self unhindered by but participating in the culture around her; she has no culture. She has not been accepted but rather Othered completely, Othered so far that, as far as the culture is concerned, she no longer exists.

Meaning, in the end, we are back to the same old choice, which has always had three options, not two: princess, witch, or nonexistence. Utena even admitted that, by having Utena leave Ohtori rather than destroying it; from the perspective of Ohtori, she never existed. Only the destruction of Ohtori, by Anthy’s refusal to participate any longer and insistence on finding Utena, is enough to truly break the princess/witch, victim/monster, Madonna/whore binary.

So, despite ending on friendly terms with Superman and seemingly done with stealing, it should be no surprise that Volcana will return as a villain–eventually.


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Retroactive Continuity: Insexts Vol. 2

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I am, it seems, destined to reading Insexts volumes at oddly apropos times. I read the first volume, about monstrously feminine interiority that bursts outward into horrifying beauty, intense love, and righteous wrath, mere days before realizing I was a woman. Now I find myself having read the second volume within hours of being catcalled for the first time–treated, in other words, as an object that exists for the pleasure and entertainment of a strange man.

Insexts vol. 2 is, pretty explicitly, about the goddess/monster binary, which is of course the infamous Madonna/whore binary. It is about a cult of men who objectify women, literally, feeding them into a gaping maw in the form of a mirror so that they are transformed into works of art–static, passive, depicted by and for men as victims, monsters, or perfect goddesses upon pedestals, but never with any interiority of their own.

This is as subtle as the first volume, which is to say not at all, but again, the opposite of “subtle” is “gross” and a synonym for that is “grotesque.” Horror, and especially body horror, is so well-suited to morality tales because it is so rarely anything approaching subtle. And there is, in truth, nothing subtle about patriarchy; like the smell of garbage fifteen minutes into a visit to the dump, it turns invisible from familiarity, not because it is at all hard to notice to begin with.

The book’s epilogue is particularly trenchant here: it follows the first-person perspective of a voyeur as he pursues Mariah and the Lady onto a ship, and peeps into their cabin to watch them having sex. Previous sexual encounters between them always involved some degree of monstrosity, such as a passionate embrace while the Lady had the jaws and limbs of a preying mantis, but here we get nearly a full-page spread of the two lovers in fully human form, their bodies positioned so as to hide neither of them. But running down the side of the page are the panels in which they spot the voyeur and–still depicted from his first-person perspective–berate him for thinking they existed for his pleasure, then stab him in the eyes.

The whole comic, in other words, is about the male gaze in media. By transporting it into the belle epoque–the so-called “golden age” before World War I, which is of course also the era of robber barons, colonial genocides, and industrialization, but also the height of first-wave feminism–the comic reminds us that the male gaze is not only or even primarily a problem of popular media; it is endemic to art. For much of our history, women were actively erased from creative roles in the arts; they could only be models or muses, depicted but forbidden from depicting. History itself gazes with a male gaze, because almost all other stories were deliberately erased.

And, simply put, representation matters on both ends. First, because, as Phoebe laments at length, you cannot be what you cannot see: the deliberate erasure of trans women from history and the arts led her to question if she is alone, and ultimately even whether she existed at all. But the comic is more concerned with the other end: ultimately, a man can tell a story about women, but he cannot tell a story of women. Nor can a white person tell the stories of people of color. You must know a story before you can tell it, and so the stories that are never told can only be learned by living them.

As witness the cis women who write and draw Insexts trying to tell the story of a trans woman. What they end up telling is the version that gets told: Phoebe always knew she was a woman, and said so from early childhood, but at the same time she was originally “one of” the cult of men who objectify women into art, for which she has repented. To put it in terms endemic to cis accounts of transition, she “lived as a man” and “had male privilege” before she transitioned. Her transition is thus framed as an act of repentance; her happy ending is to magically become a cis woman, killed by a goddess-turned-monster and reborn into a conventionally female body crafted from stone by her mother. She is thus thematically connected to Pygmalion’s “perfect woman”; but because she is created by a mother seeking a daughter rather than a man seeking a perfect object, she is alive and vibrant, her own person.

It is not, so far as it goes, a bad story; but it is not the story of this or many other trans women. Ironically, the story of Lady and Mariah feels more like mine than Phoebe’s does. I, too, was repelled by and constrained within my body my entire life, feeling constantly on the verge of erupting into something horrific and grotesque. I, too, discovered that, once I let it out, it was both monstrous and divine, wonderful and powerful, full of rage and beauty and love.

And yet today I met a man, a stranger, who looked at me and saw an object for his enjoyment. He called out in appreciation, yes, but not appreciation of me–he does not know me and therefore cannot appreciate me. He didn’t even appreciate my body. The comic suggests that that is what men want from the women they objectify, but it’s not really true in the comic or in real life: the men here rob women of their bodies as well as their personalities, minds, and lives, transforming them into paint on canvas or stone. And the truth is, no catcaller expects the women he accosts to touch him.

Instead, as the comic notes, what patriarchy appreciates about women isn’t even their bodies. Bodies are real, and patriarchy doesn’t value the reality of women, only the simulation thereof: images and ideas unconnected to women themselves. What patriarchy appreciates about women is its power over us, and key to that power is the power to define us, as goddesses when we submit and conform and keep quite, and as monsters when we fight back.

This happens to all the women in the story, but especially to the unnamed Indonesian goddess that manifests for most of the volume as Medusa, and ultimately leads the other women in vengeance against the men who stole her from her home and imprisoned the others in art. Fighting back violently against the oppressors of women, she soon turns her gaze to Phoebe–and now it is the cis gaze rather than the male one, which looks at a trans woman and sees a man trying to hide in femininity. The goddess is, essentially, a TERF, convinced that trans women are really men and therefore to be attacked and driven from female spaces. Phoebe’s return as a cis woman places her in a position to be listened to by the TERF goddess, as she persuades her that she must be more than a monster–and so she must be, able to temper her rage and direct it at the targets that deserve it.

But to be more than a monster, a monster-plus, one must be partially a monster, and so we circle back to the comic’s epilogue. We are our bodies, but those bodies are ours; they are as dread and as powerful, as monstrous and divine, as grotesque and beautiful, as we are. We are more than monsters, more than goddesses, more than bodies, and yet we are all those things at once. We are people. We are not perfect.

We’re better than that.


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Like you, alone (Cult of the Cat)

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It’s September 18, 1998. Aerosmith tops the charts with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”; Monica, Jennifer Paige, and Usher also chart. At the box office, buddy-cop comedy Rush Hour opens at number one; There’s Something About Mary, Saving Private Ryan, and Blade are lower in the top ten.

On The New Batman Adventures we have the final televised appearance of Catwoman in the DCAU, the rather lackluster “Cult of the Cat.”

Catwoman stories tend to fall into two broad groups. The first consists of episodes which depict her as one half of a complex BDSM-tinged psychodrama, a skilled manipulator whose genuine (and requited) affection for Batman is complicated by her criminal impulses, such as “The Cat and the Claw” or “You Scratch My Back.” The other group depicts her as just a cat-themed thief, physically skilled but prone to bizarre predicaments, such as “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Tyger, Tyger,” and, well, this.

If you’ve been following along, you can guess which depiction I prefer.

“Cult of the Cat” is very much an episode that exists. It is not, by any means, a bad episode. It is competently executed, but it has no particular ambition and no particular point to make. It takes no risks and attains no heights. It is about as comfortably middle-of-the-road as TNBA episodes get, which in itself serves as a clear signpost that it’s time to move on. When a Catwoman-centric episode about a secret cult of cat-worshippers who capture Batman with her help elicits no more response than “meh,” there is a good chance the show is running on fumes. There just isn’t that much to say about Batman or his supporting cast anymore–at least, not without extensively recontextualizing them.

Which of course is exactly what happens–but other than the occasional mention, that recontextualization more or less necessarily leaves Catwoman out. Diegetically, there’s no reason she couldn’t have appeared in Justice League or Justice League Unlimited; unfortunately, due to the infamous Bat Embargo (about which more when we reach the shows impacted by it), JL(U) had to be extremely judicious about its use of the Batman supporting cast, and Catwoman never made it in.

So we have here, possibly unintentionally, her sendoff, and viewed that way the episode actually becomes mildly interesting. After all, though I pegged it as a bizarre-predicament Catwoman episode, there are hints of the other Catwoman as well. She and Batman both spend some time in bondage, and he gets slashed up quite a bit–enough to destroy clothing, but never break his skin, which is likely due to network censorship but nonetheless only makes the violence seem that much less serious, and therefore kinkier. She tricks and manipulates him to keep the cult from suspecting her intent to rob them, then rescues him so that he can cover her escape–and she ultimately does, with piles of jewels. She wins–and then she leaves for Paris, never to return.

Especially coming right after “The Ultimate Thrill,” this episode stands out as a rare happy ending for a Batman villain. Recall that, as most villains are created to be villains, they are most interesting as villains. Generally, then, the two end-states they can achieve are to reform, which makes them less interesting as characters, or to remain villains, which is depressing and implies that criminality is a character trait rather than an action.

Here, Selina Kyle does neither. She remains proudly free forever, in Paris enjoying her ill-gotten loot. Like Roxy, she is a thrill-seeker; she will steal again. But she’s beaten Batman and gotten away with it. He has been repeatedly stated and shown to be the ultimate crimefighter; if he can’t contain her, no one can. She’s going to keep getting away with it, offscreen somewhere with Isis.

And that’s glorious. From the start, before the Harlequinade, before Poison Ivy rejected her femme fatale role, there was Catwoman, topping Batman, their dance injecting a decidedly feminine sexual energy to the series that pushed back against its early boys’ club tendencies. When Harley shattered that world, she left cracks and openings through which others could slip. One such was Supergirl, but she is a constrained and contained sexuality, a Good Girl pinup presented for the male gaze to consume. Catwoman eludes that gaze, however. Even as she moves sinuously across the screen, she does not allow herself to be dismembered; she owns the camera when she’s on it, commands the gaze, and will happily interrupt it with a whip or slash if it lingers too long.

Or she’ll just pick the gazer’s pocket and slip away.

Where Supergirl is a Good Girl pinup slipped in through a crack, Catwoman is an adult woman slipping out through the same. The two reflect their associated heroes: one sunny, conventional, innocent; the other shadowy, deviant, jaded. Supergirl pushes back against the show’s constraints with varying success, but Catwoman escapes them entirely. No one else really achieves this. Harley comes closest, but even she ends her story within the confines of the show. She is still Harley, and can only ever be Harley. (Perhaps that is the price she paid for her magic. Perhaps it was worth it. We cannot know.)

But Catwoman isn’t even Catwoman in the end. She’s not even Selina Kyle! Her altered hair style and color in the final scene suggest that she shed that identity as she left the show. She has, Utena-like, left the world and its rules about who and what she can be, to ascend to someone and something else. But that necessarily means she is gone from this world, fading to an empty costume and a photo in a file. That’s the price she pays for this magic. She seems pretty clearly to feel it’s worth it–but for us, it remains a loss.


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Good bad (The Ultimate Thrill)

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Yesterday was last week’s NA09, this is this week’s.

It’s September 14, 1998. In the two months and change since the last episode of The New Batman Adventures, the permanent International Criminal Court was established. The U.S. will eventually sign the treaty, but then refuse to ratify it, because nationalism. The Second Congo War begins. Its eventual death toll of 5.4 million people will make it the deadliest war since World War II; it will go almost entirely unmentioned in the U.S., because nationalism and racism. And on September 4, Google is founded, because capitalism.

The top movie was briefly The Mask of Zorro, which would have been deliciously apropos, but alas, no episodes of TNBA aired around July 17-19. Saving Private Ryan had a solid run before being displaced by first Blade and then There’s Something About Mary, which is quite possible the most 90s sentence I’ve ever written. This weekend, the top movie was Rounders, which I’ve never heard of.

The top song was “The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy & Monica through August, before being supplanted by Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which debuted at number one September 5. Monica, Jennifer Paige, and Usher also chart.

Sometimes, working on a project like this, you start to wonder if you’ve gone too far out on a rhetorical limb. Is that metaphor getting overstrained? That reading too tenuous?

And then, sometimes, the work will just hand you a big steaming platter of text, an episode you don’t remember but that is nonetheless basically textual confirmation of what you were talking about.

That’s “The Ultimate Thrill.”

On one level, Roxy Rocket’s return is disappointing. The whole point of her character, back in Batman Adventures Annual #1, was to be the one villain that successfully reformed. But here she is, back to theft. It seems even creating a villain specifically to reform is not enough to escape the gravity of the classification. Once the narrative has othered you and defined you by crime–once you have been placed in the class “criminals”–there is no escape.

But her reason for returning to crime is so refreshingly different that it’s worth it: Roxy Rocket is a fear fetishist. She gets what is clearly, blatantly a sexual thrill from risking her life and safety; she is committing her crimes because the risk of being caught excites her. All while gripping a powerful, fast, phallic cartoon rocket between her legs. Except, that is, when she thinks she and Batman are about to die. Then she turns around, grips him between her legs, and cries out in pleasure.

This is all text. Nobody ever uses the word “sex,” but practically every sentence out of Roxy’s mouth is a sexual innuendo, and she specifically describes impending death as “the ultimate thrill” before, as already mentioned, dry-humping the Batman. And given that text, Batgirl flirtatiously claiming that Roxy won’t settle for any thrill less than Batman now that she’s experienced him is pretty clearly yet another pointer at their relationship, though it won’t be confirmed for a few years yet.

But Roxy isn’t entirely one-note, either. While practically everything she says is an innuendo, it’s also almost always a one-liner of the type one might expect from an action hero. In another context, she could easily be read as a heroic thief like Robin Hood or (arguably) Indiana Jones. But in Batman’s world there are no heroic thieves, only criminals and those who fight them, and Roxy lies in the former category.

And she quite probably knows it. Half her comments suggest that she believes herself to be just performing, a character in a movie–which, of course, she essentially is. As is often the case in BTAS and TNBA, Batman flits around the edges of the narrative, lurking in shadows, and freeing her to take the center, which she does. She steals basically every scene she’s in–charismatic, energetic, always moving, always teasing.

Frankly, she’s sexier by far than Poison Ivy’s seductions or Harley Quinn trying to get the Joker’s attention, in large part because she is complete in herself. She desires nothing except to do what she is doing, the pleasure of her own actions the only motivation she needs to take them. She is neither tortured nor haunted; nothing drives her; no trauma lurks in her past. She just thinks it’s hot, and that’s wonderful.

The only character to really compare her to is thus, perhaps oddly, the Joker. Not the Joker as we have come to know him after four seasons—a misogynistic sadist whose “chaos” is really just a flattened pyramid with himself on top—but as he appeared in “Christmas with the Joker,” the trickster who takes over the fringes of the narrative and forces Batman to the center, thereby emboiting him and his show. Roxy, to be clear, does not do that. She seeks the center, the position of gravity. She wants not to absorb the narrative but to live it—the thrilling life of the adventurer, the constant peril, the narrow escapes, all on the strength of her athleticism, wit, and a few choice gadgets. She wants, in short, to be Batman, main character of The New Batman Adventures.

Not, to be clear, Batgirl. They have quite a bit in common: both redheads, though Roxy’s hair is darker, both brave and agile, both seemingly free of trauma. And, of course, both with decidedly kinky attractions to Batman. But Roxy is no one’s sidekick–which is, ultimately, what dooms her. His name is in the title of the show; she may occupy the center for an episode, but she cannot overcome his main character status. The narrative must deform to lead to his victory, because that is the type of story this is; inevitably, his nerve outlasts hers in their final game of chicken.

At the end of the episode, she is cuffed, downcast, her rockets destroyed. She is in the center at last—but, for the only time in the episode, she is held still. Getting what she wanted means losing her defining trait–as it often is, the real thrill was in the chase.


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