Crisis on N Earths: Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Clinton impeachment

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

Sorry this is late. Snow days screwed with my sense of time, which is pretty tenuous to begin with.

It’s January 21, 1998, and the Washington Post just broke a story that will devour the airwaves for months on end: in 1995-7, President Bill Clinton had an affair with a then-22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. This is going to be a strange year: journalists, news anchors, and comedians will spend much of it discussing blowjobs, semen stains, and alluded-to but ultimately unspecified acts involving a cigar, while Congress launches an investigation into same.

Rewind a little: in the 1994 midterm election, Republicans won control of both houses of Congress, which they retained throughout the Clinton administration. The resulting tensions combined with the rise of right-wing talk radio and the burgeoning Internet (the right-wing gossip site The Drudge Report had actually broken the story of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair three days before the Post) to create an environment of high partisanship, which is to say more or less the political environment we still have.

A few months earlier, in May 1994, a woman named Paula Jones filed a lawsuit alleging that, in 1991, then-Governor Clinton had exposed himself to her and propositioned her for sex. As Jones was an Arkansas state employee, Clinton was her boss, making this a case of workplace sexual harassment. The resulting legal battle went to the Supreme Court, who ruled that yes, a sitting President can be sued for conduct that occurred before he took office, and ultimately resulted in a settlement in November 1998.

In the course of that lawsuit, Jones’ lawyers sought to establish that Clinton’s behavior toward Jones was part of a pattern of abusing authority and seeking sexual contact with employees (which it very likely was), and therefore subpoenaed women with whom Clinton was suspected of having affairs; in the course of his testimony, Clinton denied having had sex with Monica Lewinsky specifically.

Meanwhile, Congress had hired independent counsel Ken Starr to investigate the Clintons for alleged criminal involvement in a real estate deal gone bad. (Repeatedly. No matter how many times the investigation turned up no wrongdoing on the Clintons’ part. See the climate of rising partisanship mentioned above.) Starr had received permission to expand his investigation into other allegations against the Clintons, and so he was the one who received the recordings made of conversations between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, who had made the recordings on advice of a literary agent, and appears to have gotten close to Lewinsky specifically to get dirt for her own enrichment.

Clinton was impeached late in 1998 on charges of perjury. Interestingly, charges of abuse of power were mooted in the House, but ultimately did not get enough votes to be included in the impeachment proceedings. He was acquitted the following February.

Very few people come out of this looking good. Tripp appears to have been an archetypal snake in the grass. Clinton was pretty clearly a sexual predator, and he very obviously lied under oath, but after a year of wasting time and taxpayer money, not to mention destroying Lewinsky’s life, Congress still ultimately didn’t do anything about it. Not that they ever actually cared about either sexual predation or lies, given several prominent Republican Congresspeople caught in both; Congress was pretty obviously acting out of pure partisan spite and an early prominent example of what would become the endemic right-wing inability to conceive of the legitimacy of any power other than their own.

Lewinsky is really the only person who did no significant wrong in all this. She did submit a false affidavit in the Jones lawsuit, denying the affair with Clinton, but she was young, in her first job after college, and under pressure to protect her boss, who was incidentally the most powerful man on Earth. And it was Clinton, not Lewinsky, who abused his status and power to take advantage of a much younger and more vulnerable woman; Clinton who broke his promises of fidelity to his wife; Clinton whose history of sexual predation gave rise to the investigation in the first place. So, of course, it was Lewinsky who was tainted for life; in two heartbreaking articles for Vanity Fair penned years later, she discusses the humiliation she experienced, the depression and suicidal ideation that followed, and the PTSD that she still struggles with to this day. She also discusses the way it has followed her ever since, interfering with job prospects, isolating her socially and especially romantically.

We have seen this story before, more than once. It is the story Batman told about Harley Quinn in the Mad Love comic, claiming that she took advantage of her professors by sleeping with them, despite the power dynamics involved virtually guaranteeing any advantage-taking had to happen in the opposite direction. It’s even closer to the story Akio pushes on Utena, blaming her for his decision to cheat on his fiancee:

Akio: You didn’t reject me, even though I have a fiancee. That’s a sin, isn’t it?
Utena: This isn’t fair..!
Akio: Unfair? Isn’t turning away from the truth and blaming others even more unfair? Isn’t it unfair to pretend only you are noble and in the right?

Of course the power differential between a 22-year-old White House intern and the President of the United States is not as extreme as the differential between a 14-year-old girl and the Acting Chairman of her school, who is also the ruler of her home and the home of everyone she knows, as well as the demiurge of her world. The point nonetheless remains: the wrongdoing is clearly on the part of the powerful older man, but he deflects it onto the young woman.

I have, elsewhere, described that scene from Utena as gaslighting, and that is exactly what happened to Lewinsky. The President, Congress, the Starr investigation, and the media all collaborated to humiliate a young woman, to persuade her that she had done wrong, that she was somehow dirtied or tarnished by acts which, insofar as they involved any wrongdoing, did so only on the part of someone else. They conspired to convince her that, even though she was the clearest victim in the scandal, nonetheless she was the one to be punished.

This is just one instance of a pattern repeated again and again: when the abuser is powerful and privileged and the victim is not, it is the victim who is punished. To a lesser degree, the other person obviously a victim in all this, Hillary Clinton, was punished as well, or at least her “inability to keep her man” came up in the quarter-century-plus of relentless right-wing attacks against her character that began pretty much the instant she arrived on the national scene. (But she’s also on the record blaming Lewinsky rather than Bill, so fuck her. But as a woman in politics she is constantly balancing on a knife edge that requires some conformity to popular narratives, but… and around and around we go.)

The use of “gaslighting” to describe social processes like this is somewhat controversial. Strictly speaking, gaslighting is a process of undermining a victim’s sense of reality, getting them to question things they know are true and doubt their own perceptions, thus increasing their dependency on the abuser. But Lewinsky herself describes her experience as gaslighting, and it is a key part of how the culture of abuse controls its victims: by teaching us to accept the harsh and unjust judgment of society over our own senses of self-worth and of right and wrong, our own values.

The techniques of interpersonal abuse, carried out on a culture-wide scale. Lewinsky is far from the last woman to have experienced such; we will be seeing this phenomenon again.


Current status of the Patreon:

Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby E9 “Go to Hell, You Mortals”

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

One of my mother’s favorite jokes is about a trial where the prosecution presents five people who saw the defendant commit the crime. So the defense presents ten people who didn’t.

As I write this, it’s September 28, 2018, and the farcical confirmation process of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States is on pause. He is probably a rapist, and he will almost definitely get the job. (Note from the future: he did.) Part of this farce was my mother’s joke, played out in real life: he was accused of attempted rape, so his supporters put out a letter signed by 65 women that he is a good person who totally would never do that kind of thing. People, in other words, who didn’t see it. So, I come at this episode with a certain bitterness, centered as it is around Miki’s decision to post a defense of Akira that amounts to “he’s always been nice to me, therefore he can’t have killed people as has been credibly claimed.”

Miki’s a Christian, of course. She believes in sin, in the toxic doctrine that good and evil are not adjectives, but substances. That evil acts stain a person, making them evil people; ultimately she believes in the toxic logic that leads to the conclusion that there are no crimes, only criminals. That it doesn’t matter what Kavanaugh does; he’s a “good person,” not a “criminal,” and therefore will be confirmed to the highest court in the land.

Of course, there’s a pretty big difference between a job interview and a murderous mob coming to your house. That part of the episode felt disturbingly real. The responses to Miki’s post are juxtaposed with Akira placing himself between a group of humans falsely accused of being demons and an angry mob about to stone them. When Akira begins crying for the victims, the mob starts laughing at him, taking pleasure in his pain; at the same time, commenters lash out at Miki for protecting Akira.

Akira is, as we’ve discussed, defined by his compassion. But to feel compassion is to share another’s suffering, to feel pain because they are hurting. The mob feel no compassion, and therefore do not hurt when Akira does; instead his pain is funny to them, and their decision to cause pain righteous. They can do this because Akira isn’t a person to them; he’s a demon. By publicly siding with him, Miki sees to be a person in their eyes, too; she’s a witch.

Demon, witch, criminal, sinner; they all mean the same thing: a person-shaped object made of evil. Not a person whose suffering matters; just pure evil. They, the good people of the stone-throwing mob, the Internet hate machine that doxes Miki, the neighbors who converge on her house to murder her and her friends, they’re not criminals, or demons, or witches; they’re good people and therefore what they do is good. Even when it’s murdering a houseful of people, then setting the house on fire to dance around the flames.

It’s the same logic, in the end. If good and evil are substances, then a good person is obviously innocent of any wrongdoing, no matter what they do, just as an evil person is guilty of any and all crimes, no matter what they do. There is infinite forgiveness for the good, and infinite punishment for the evil.

Disgusting.

Consider instead what Akira represents. Compassion that places itself between the victims and the attacker, no matter who they are. Violence to protect the victims of violence, rooted in compassion for those victims. Compassion is a form of suffering, and many other feelings can rise from suffering: fear, sadness, despair, rage, determination. Akira burns with all of these now.

We, if we are compassionate ourselves, can only hope the world burns with him.


Current status of the Patreon:

Perfectly creepy (Love Is a Croc)

It’s July 11, 1998. The top song is “The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy & Monica; Shania Twain, Next, Usher, and Madonna also chart. At the box office, Lethal Weapon 4 knocks Armageddon out of the top spot; further down in the top 10 we have Mulan, The X-Files, and The Truman Show, which confirms Batman Forever‘s discovery that Jim Carey actually can act if forced to stop being a rubberfaced fartsmith* for five minutes.

In the news, Japan launched a Mars probe on July 4, becoming the third nation to explore extralunar space. The probe is intended to reach Mars orbit in 1999; it will end up taking until 2003 and never actually achieve orbit. That’s about it news-wise.

Baby-Doll and Killer Croc’s introductions were two of our go-to examples of sympathetic villain episodes, so an episode that pairs them into a relationship makes some sense. At the same time, it’s an episode about the Bonnie-and-Clyde affair between a giant lizardman and a woman stuck in the body of a toddler, so “sense” is relative.

But why? What’s strange about that? Baby-Doll is a woman, that’s the whole point of the episode. For all that she is small and behaves intensely childishly most of the time, she is an adult woman with an adult woman’s needs–namely, respect, companionship, and love. The episode is written to make it nearly impossible not to squirm in discomfort at her affection toward Croc, but because she acts like a child, not because she looks like one. Her mind, her pain and her rage, they are as fully adult as his.

But he doesn’t see that. He treats her the same way everyone does, the same way everyone treats him: he sees only the difference of her body, its otherness, and he is repulsed. It is classic abjection; Baby-Doll and Croc differ from the bodies we are used to, and in so doing remind us that our bodies could be other than they are. In turn, we are reminded that we are bodies, that we could be other than we are, that we will never be anything but dreaming meat. Caught between our subjective awareness of ourselves as people and the objective fact that we are sacks of skin stuffed with flesh, blood, bone, and bile, we project that feeling of abjection onto the experience which caused it, the appearance of their “incorrect” bodies.

Or, at least, some part of us does. Not everyone reacts the same way, but everyone has internalized social norms; everyone has some idea of what a “correct” body is, and some degree of negative reaction to “incorrect” bodies. Ideally that would correlate to harm; the only incorrect body would be one which is suffering, and the negative reaction it engendered would be empathy.** But that is not the nature of our society, and therefore not what we learn; we learn to abjectify them as people, to deny their subjectivity and treat them not only as objects, but objects of disgust.

Even if we ourselves have bodies labeled as Other, we nonetheless learn to abjectify Othered bodies, often including our own. We’ve seen that with Baby-Doll before: the climax of her titular episode showed her reaching out to the normative adult (conventionally attractive, white) woman’s body she feels she was denied. She loses that fight because she abjectifies herself; in “Love Is a Croc,” she loses because Croc abjectifies her.

Croc is a terrible partner. He physically abuses Baby-Doll, cheats on her, and lies to her. Her attempt to murder him and all of Gotham City is melodramatically over the top, of course, because this is Batman, but the feelings underneath are genuine. She thought she could find love in someone who was othered the same way she was, and he betrayed her.

He isn’t the only one, and she isn’t the only one betrayed. People look at Mary-Louise Dahl and see Baby-Doll, the cute, funny eternal child. Yet no matter how much she acts like that, they refuse to give her what she needs, what everyone needs. They even use her behavior–the behavior she was taught that they expected!–as a reason to punish her and deny her. The same goes for Killer Croc; people look at him and see a monster. Yet when he acts like the creature they expect, they use that a reason to punish him and deny him what he needs.

This episode hurts.

It hurts to watch, to think about, to write about. It stabs at old, deep wounds–the feeling of being physically unlovable, wrong, broken, cursed. Of not being a real self, but a twisted object, cut off from everyone around me and therefore from myself. Suffering more the more I act as I’m expected to act, and yet not acting as I’m expected to act just marks me still more as an Other. No matter what identity I perform, I’m doing it wrong.

And I’m one of the lucky ones. I came out to a staggering outpouring of acceptance and love from the people close to me! It feels ungrateful and whiny to complain about all the people standing just a bit further away with torches and pitchforks. But it’s hard not to be aware–indeed, hyper-aware–of their presence.

They’re dreaming meat, too. The difference is that their dreams, their meat, are billionaire playboys who fight crime in cosplay. Ours are freaks and monsters.

The episode opens with a bit of the past, a clip from Dahl’s old TV show in all its painful black-and-white 1950s white suburbinanity. That transitions almost instantly into a couple–notably with the same voices as Dahl’s TV parents–who encounter her working at a hotel, where the very drunk husband physically assaults her and demands she entertain him. He treats her just as the TV show treated her, as a curious object presented for amusement–because of course her body, safely contained in a proscribed role, ceases to be dangerous, but remains a violation of the norm, and benign violation is the essence of humor.

At the end of the episode Baby-Doll threatens the nightmare scenario that lurked beneath that same 1950s inanity, nuclear devastation. The episode is bracketed by a past of bland sameness and a future of bleak wasteland, because those are the same thing. Those are our options. To cling to our norms, to side with the torch-wielding mob, is to choose wasteland–or a future of freaks and monsters. And frankly, I’d side with them even if I had the choice to do otherwise. I always will.

But Batman–or, rather, the Batman we know, the Batman who is Bruce Wayne–is the dream of that mob. He will always side with them and against us. The only path to the good future, the dark and monstrous future, lies over his broken body.

*Thank you, The Onion, for that astoundingly accurate description.

**Negative in the sense of being unpleasant to experience, not in the sense of being wrong.

Retroactive Continuity: Kill 6 Billion Demons

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

Commissioned post for Aleph Null.

There are other worlds.

We know that in our bones. Our reality is not the only one; it cannot be. There are other modes of being, other modes of existing. We come close to touching them, sometimes–when we dream, when we meditate, when we alter our consciousnesses.

It’s not true, of course. Bones are not to be trusted. They’re too solid.

I’m so tired.

Kill Six Billion Demons is a webcomic by Abaddon. Kill 6 Billion Demons is a graphic novel collecting the first story arc of a comic by Tom Parkinson-Morgan.

Kill Six Billion Demons and Kill 6 Billion Demons are almost, but not quite, the same thing. The implication, therefore, is that Abaddon and Tom Parkinson-Morgan are almost, but not quite, the same person.

Fluids change shape to fit their containers.

The third eye is traditionally the hardest to open. It’s the one that sees into other worlds, but normally its gaze is turned strictly inwards. But that’s okay–there’s as many in there as there are outside.

Open it. See all of the many worlds. Be all of the yous in all of the worlds.

Allison’s key is shoved into her third eye. It is unlocked, and through it, the worlds are unlocked. There are wonders there, and horrors. Angels and devils and witches and lost boyfriends.

Mostly there are horrors.

You only have two eyes.

Reality (ha!) is an ocean. An infinite flux, the chaos primordial. All the worlds all at once. All the possibilities.

The Sea of Dirac they call it, and other things beside. It is much much much too big. It’ll never fit in our tiny heads. Slice it up! The gaze is a sword. To perceive the ocean is to carve it: me from not-me, then you from not-us. This from that. Time and space from here-now. Matter from void.

You cannot carve the ocean, and only a fool would try. The only alternative is to drown, but it’s okay.

You never existed to begin with.

Allison starts with a key to all the worlds in her eye. She ends with a sword to slice them away.

To gaze is to carve.

God is dead. Allison met him.

But he is really just a demiurge. Ialdabaoth and all the aeons gibber and dance at the heart of creation, the depths of the ocean. They understand nothing, see nothing. They do not gaze, do not carve.

They have drowned.

They are free.

There is no point. Only a blade and an ocean, a mind and an eye.

Angels have bodies of void in shells of ash. Devils inhabit flesh and wear masks. The witch has something in her third eye just like Allison, but red, not white.

The Red Queen goes faster and faster to stay in the same place. The White Queen believes six impossible things before breakfast. Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today. Carve as finely as you like, but you’ll never carve down to the here-now.

Alice takes the place of the White Queen’s daughter Lily. But the White Queen lives backwards in time, and the child is the father of the man.

Alice-son.

(You can’t carve the ocean. All of it is the here-now.)

Kill Six Billion Demons and Kill 6 Billion Demons have the same art, the same dialogue. But they tell different stories. Only the latter has the sword manual.

(Yes, yes, to gaze is to carve.)

Words. Pictures. Data on a screen, or perhaps printed out to a page, but data nonetheless.

A datum is a single point, the tiniest unit of facticity, one dot on a graph. Data is the plural of datum. Sand is sand, but it is also many grains. We can say the grains are covering the beach, or we can say the sand is covering the beach. Grains are plural, but sand is singular, because sand is a fluid. Like water, it cannot be carved. The water is rising.

To be fluid is to be singular and plural at once. Not many, but much.

We used to say “data are,” because the graph has many points. (Statisticians still do.) The greatest spiritual discovery of the digital age is that data flows. Data is a fluid.

Fluids change shape to fit their containers.

Once upon a time, there was time. But that was then, and this isn’t now.

I don’t know why I’m bothering. You’re not even here.

A pearl in her forehead and a sword in her hand, she fights for love.

She fights for him.

She fights for herself.

(Who?)

Before I was born, I saw a seahorse. I tasted the ocean.

Seawater is poison, and so, I died.

The six billion demons are, obviously, us. We broke the worlds. We carved the ocean. We cleaved God in two, and two again, and then into hundreds and thousands and billions.

Into us.

We are the demiurge, who sees without understanding, who shapes a world and thinks it adequate. Who splits day from night and self from sea. We are monsters, with our keys and our swords, our divisions and our gateways. Simply to be is to tear the world asunder, but to not be is to kill the worlds within.

How many times and how many ways can I say the same thing?

None. [rimshot.wav]

What is real?

Whatever you can touch.

But  you can’t touch anything. The repulsive force between the electrons in  your hand and the electrons in the thing approaches infinity as the  distance between them approaches zero.

That’s what touching IS, stupid!

Who are you talking to?

And they were enlightened.

…Why did you just say that?

Everything is as it is supposed to be.

That sentence was in the passive voice. Actively, it is: Everything is as we suppose it to be.

That is what “good” means, and “real.”

It is never ever ever ever true.

You already have a key. You already have a sword. You already have six billion demons to slay.

There is nothing I can give you, not even a quest(ion).

Dance like no one’s watching. Scream for help like no one’s listening.

Spoilers: no one is. God is dead and the demiurge is lost.

No one’s listening, not even you.

Seven crowns on seven heads on one dread hill. How trite.

Hollowing them out to use as apartment buildings is new, though.

A sleeting curtain of inspiration. A susurrus of ideas. A door without a key.

There are clawmarks in the wood, and my fingernails are worn to the bone.

In the name of the moon and the revolution of the world, grant me the power to punish you!

This is nonsense.

This is profundity.

This is pretentious crap.

This is old hat.

This is contained in your mind now.

This is fluid.

I’ve got six billion of these. I could do this all day!

Don’t listen to your bones. They don’t have anything to say.


Current status of the Patreon:

It’s just to scare the bad guys, really (Torch Song)

It’s June 13, 1998. The top song is “The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy & Monica; Next, Shania Twain, and Mariah Carey also chart. Top at the box office is The Truman Show, a story about a man trapped in a perception of reality he was taught from birth; Can’t Hardly Wait and The Horse Whisperer are also in the top ten.

In the news since last episode, on June 7 James Byrd, Jr was beaten to death by a trio of white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, and the Guinea-Bissau Civil War started; yesterday, France won the World Cup.

“Torch Song” represents an interesting evolution in the DC Animated Universe’s depiction of stalkers. Including this episode, we have had at least three supervillains’ origin stories begin by depicting them as stalkers: the Mad Hatter in “Mad as a Hatter,” Edward Lytener/Luminus in  “Target,” and now Firefly. Laid out this way, there is a distinct progression in the episodes’ choice of focus.

“Mad as a Hatter” centers Tetch’s descent into villainy in a sort of parody of “sympathetic villain” episodes. Tetch is entitled, aggressive, and hateful, but the structure of the episode means that his self-deception that he is a “nice guy” who has been mistreated is centered in the same way that Mr. Freeze’s much more justifiable claims. By contrast, “Target” centers the recurring threat against Lois, making it clear that Lytener’s rationalizations are just that. On the other hand, Lois is placed in peril and rescued by Superman throughout the series, so “Target” comes across as just a sequence of such moments in a life full of them, not a particularly traumatic episode for Lois.

Not so “Torch Song.” Cassidy is a one-off character who never appears again, so the choice to center her is an unusual one–typically The New Batman Adventures will center a recurring character or villain, but victims-of-the-week almost never get that treatment. The episode thus signposts clearly that it is Cassidy’s experience that is the focus of the story, and Cassidy’s experience is a fascinating one.

An up-and-coming rock star, Cassidy is the picture of performative femininity. She dresses in a way that is as attention-grabbing as Leslie Willis in Livewire, but in the opposite direction: where Leslie wore deliberately shabby clothing–baggy pants and ratty shirts–to emphasize her rejection of social norms around feminine dress and behavior, Cassidy spends most of the episode in a backless black minidress, heels, and long black gloves, essentially eveningwear, but showing a lot of skin for eveningwear. She is presenting herself as formal yet sexual, a “good girl” who can function in polite company but nonetheless is very clearly a physical, sensual presence. She is the essence of the Good Girl Art aesthetic of Bruce Timm just as much as Supergirl is.

Her body language in the scene where she tries to hire Batman as a protector is similar. She is coy, flirtatious, deliberately making herself appear small as she approaches him. This is a woman who has spent her life fitting herself into the spaces she can find, performing whatever she needs to be in order to survive. If all anyone wants of her is her body (and her music as shown in the episode really is not very good), then she will offer up her body how and when it is wanted. She will perform the role she is given–on stage and off.

But the performance is never enough. It is not possible to be everything for everyone, and yet that is what is demanded of her. On stage she must be the innocent-yet-sexually-available ingenue and the powerful performer who holds the audience enthralled; in her everyday life she must deal with the demands of the men around her, from her pyrotechnician/ex-boyfriend turned arsonist/stalker to her manager to, yes, even Batman. And while her performativity clearly works well in her career, fitting herself into the spaces left by others gives her very little leverage to actually get what she wants: her manager doesn’t listen to her, Batman refuses her offer to hire him, and Firefly plans to destroy the city and disappear with her, regardless of whether she wants to be with him.

The result, inevitably, is trauma. Helpless and alone, she is trapped in fire while Batman–who, remember, refused her offer to hire him as a protector!–fights Firefly. Neither seems particularly interested in her impending death until the very end of the fight. She is, in other words, placed in terror for her life with no support of any kind, and afterwards returns immediately to her existence of pure performance, with no one to whom she can express her honest feelings about the experience.

This is a perfect recipe for trauma, and at episode’s end we see that she is indeed traumatized: her terror at the flambe at the next table and the reflection of the flames in her eyes imply that her mind has been plunged back into the fire she very nearly didn’t survive. The episode ends before we see her outward reaction, if any; we do not know if she tries once again to continue the performance, to bury it and shrug it off, or reaches out for support, nor do we know if she receives that support.

We can’t know, because trauma is the heart of Batman; to depict its healing is to call into question his very reason for being. If this one-off character can find support and healing, why can’t he, the main character around whom the narrative bends itself?

These are not questions the show is prepared to answer–and yet it is already setting itself up for its own replacement, which might be able to. Batman is unable to face Firefly on his own, in his normal gear, so he wears armor that is at once reminiscent of the Batman Beyondbatsuit and of the “mecha” batsuit depicted in that series as Wayne’s final, failed attempt to remain Batman despite advancing age. The world is evolving, and the spaces in which he exists and performs his role are squeezing gradually shut.

Bruce Wayne, age eleven, might have to actually grow up.


Current status of the Patreon:

His partner. His girlfriend? Whoa! (Over the Edge)

It’s May 23, 1998. Tomorrow, I turn 17.

Topping the charts, we have Mariah Carey with “My All”; Next, Janet featuring BLACKstreet, and Savage Garden also chart. In the movies this weekend, Godzilla (the bad American one) opens at No. 1; Deep Impact, The Horse Whisperer, and Quest for Camelot also make the top five.

In the news, on May 11 and 13 India conducted its first nuclear tests in nearly 25 years. In response, Pakistan will detonate its own test devices on the 28th. In Indonesia, a week after riots against Chinese-Indonesian people killed around a thousand people, long-reigning President Suharto resigns on the 21st. He is succeeded by his Vice President, B.J. Habibie.

Batgirl’s greatest fear is that her father will learn the truth about her.

That’s not subtext. It’s text. Even the way she tries to tell her father at the end plays like a coming out: “Dad, have a seat… this is important. It won’t be easy for you to hear…” Gordon’s response strongly resembles a (more or less good) parental response to the same: “Sweetheart, you’re capable of making your own decisions. You don’t need me to approve or even acknowledge them… All you need to know is I love you. All of you.”

Barbara Gordon is not, as far as we know, any flavor of queer–all of her relationships are with men, and there is nothing to suggest she isn’t cis. She is, as established earlier this season, kinky, but that’s more queer-adjacent than queer. Nonetheless, there is a powerful reading there of the superhero’s obsessive defense of their “secret identity”; we have generally viewed it as a trauma metaphor, but it works well for being closeted, as well.

I am far from an expert on the closet. I spent the first 36 years of my life so deep inside it, I didn’t even realize the closet existed. Once I did, I was fully out barely six months later.

But I spent those 36 years convinced there was something inside me. Something terrible, that could ruin everything, something that must be kept contained and hidden at all costs. The truth of my monstrosity. (The monster’s name is Jenny, and she turns out to be awesome.)

But we’ve talked about monsters, and queerness, and we know that heroes are monsters facing out. It makes sense that superheroes have their queer readings as well. Far more interesting are the details of Barbara’s fear: that her father’s discovery of her monstrosity will lead him on a trail of vengeance against her lover. In reality, he sees her as a grown woman capable of her own decisions, but her fear is (understandably, seeing as he’s struggled with this in the past) that he will seek a man on whom to blame her choices, and then seek vengeance against that man.

Her fear, in short, is that she will not only die but be fridged; that her death will be an excuse to create conflict between male characters, and opportunities for them to emote, while her character and her agency are effaced from the narrative. “It was all just a dream” is unfairly maligned as a plot device, and “Over the Edge” is an excellent example of why. First, the “just a dream” informs Barbara’s character and pushes her toward taking a major step, one which in turn illuminates Commissioner Gordon’s character as a better father and less clueless than we’d previously been led to believe. But more importantly, it emboits the fridge within her nightmare. It turns what is inherently a sacrifice of a woman to advance men’s characters into a sacrifice of men to advance women; without Barbara, Commissioner Gordon and Batman destroy each other, and the fear and pain engendered by their deaths is what drives Barbara to confess.

To be clear, simply making it a dream does not undo that it’s a fridging. All fiction is equally fictional; the story-within-a-story that is the dream is still a story told by the writers. They still started this story by fridging Batgirl. But its emboitment transforms it; the fact that Barbara’s death was just a dream does not unfridge her, but the fact that her father and lover/mentor are killed as well, and her actions at the end of the episode are motivated by this death, makes it much more interesting. Or to put it another way, this story inverts both aspects of a fridging: at the end of the story no one is dead, and a woman’s story has been advanced via her emotional response to the deaths of two men she was close to.

There is, of course, still the issue that seemingly every story about Batgirl has to be a psychosexual drama of some kind. If it’s not about tensions between her current lover and his estranged, adopted son who happens also to be her ex, it’s about tensions between her lover and her father. Certainly there’s plenty of psychosexual drama to go around in stories about Batman, too–pretty much any time Catwoman or Poison Ivy is around, for instance–but Batgirl seems to get little else. Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures stories are, as we’ve observed before, rarely about Batman; the pattern shared by Batgirl, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and hell, let’s throw in Harley Quinn, too, is that the stories turn sexual when women are involved. The DCAU has come a long way from the misogynistic, gynophobic femme fatale depiction of Poison Ivy in her introductory episode, but it still struggles to position women as anything other than sexual objects, even when it’s about them.

This is, unfortunately, a problem it will never entirely overcome.


Current status of the Patreon:

Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby E8 “I Must Know Myself”

Content warning: Discussion of transphobia, TERFs, and abusive parents

There are two ways you can go with the revelation that devils are people.

Last week (as of this writing), Lisa Littman, an assistant professor at Brown University, published a methodologically questionable* paper on “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” essentially a transphobic claim that kids are “catching the trans” the same way homophobes in the 90s claimed that kids were “catching the gay”. The “theory” originates with transphobic parents of trans children convincing themselves that their children’s dysphoria does not arise from actually being trans, but is rather a kind of “social contagion” caused by exposure to media that positively portrays trans people and friendship with other trans children.

Of course, as a working scientist at a reasonably prestigious institution, Littman presumably knows what a methodologically sound study looks like. She is an excellent example of what I know as Fred Clark’s Law, named for the blogger behind Slacktivist, a community in which I used to be quite active. The law can be phrased as such: “sufficiently advanced malice is indistinguishable from incompetence, and vice versa.” In other words, Littman’s hatred of trans people is so great that she conducted a worthless study and her worthless study led her to write a paper that will be used to hurt trans people.

She, of course, will insist that this is an unfair characterization. She doesn’t hate trans people at all, her defenders will declare. Perhaps she even has trans friends. She’s just trying to protect the children.

But she isn’t. She’s protecting the children’s parents, from the realization that their children are a thing they hate. (“But more than 80 percent of study respondents say trans people should have the same rights as everyone else!” Yeah, but what does that mean? Does it include a right to transition? To have one’s gender identity recognized and affirmed? I doubt it, because they don’t see the privilege in having their own gender recognized without debate.)

Look at her choice of language: “social contagion.” Being trans is declared a contagious disease, caused by seeing trans people accepted or associating with them as friends. I am a disease, apparently.

Well, and in a sense I am. I am absolutely in favor of destroying cisheteronormative, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal kyriarchy. I am actively trying, every day, to get other people to also favor destroying the kyriarchy. The eventual goal is, from the perspective of Littman and her ilk, outright apocalypse: a world in which it is an obvious, mainstream idea that a parent who doesn’t accept their child’s self-declared gender identity is engaging in abuse.

The kyriarchy, however, is the grandest of grand narratives, the super-superstructure that supports all of our cultural superstructures, the meta-metanarrative. It is everywhere, and that makes it so easy to build our own narratives on top of it; for example, by incorporating its transphobia into an otherwise feminist narrative. It infiltrates everywhere, but not as a contagion; it is more like a pollutant, present in the groundwater of ideas before we even grow them.

But as a grand narrative, it shares the weakness of all grand narratives: it cannot abide alternatives. It insists that it is the only way, and so the presence of another way damages it. It tries to defend itself, to use the Dan Turpins and Maggie Sawyers and Lisa Littmans to attack the new narratives. (“Trans people should have the same rights as everyone else!”)

We who don’t fit in, who don’t follow the rules, who chafe at authority and question society; we are what they call “contagion”. We gather, we share our stories, we present alternative ways of being, and in so doing, shake the very foundations of society, because this society’s foundations are so rotted and so narrow that any alternatives at all are anathema to it.

We are monsters, here to destroy society. We who are dissatisfied with society, are devils.

And of course Littman is just a recent example of personal import to me. People like her are fighting to prevent a world in which I could have realized my gender and come out as a child, saving me decades of unnecessary suffering; but to them my suffering is necessary, to preserve their cisnormative narrative. Other people fight, in other ways, to ensure the continuation of the suffering the kyriarchy engenders; some because they derive value from that suffering, but most because they value the comfortable stability of grand narrative more than the well-being of people unlike themselves.

As I said, there’s two ways to go. If you have compassion, real compassion, radical compassion that values people wherever, however, whoever they are, you say “Devils are people, so we must make room for them. We must try to understand them. We must treat them, always and without fail, as people.”**

On the other hand, if you value society over people, if you are a hard-edged “rationalist” who rejects the infinite multiplicity and complexity of human experience, a traditionalist or authoritarian–if, in short, you are a Ryo or a conservative or a TERF–you say “Devils are people, so some people are devils. We need to kill them.”

Or, since real life is not usually a deliberately over-the-top horror anime, you use terms like “social contagion” or “illegal” instead of “devil,” and you leave the second sentence out while endorsing policies that ensure the suffering and death of the people you don’t like. It’s not any less transparent to the people you’re abjectifying, but it apparently makes it easier to sleep at night.

*Read “methodologically questionable” as a polite way of saying it’s bullshit. Julia Serrano covers a few of the most egregious of the many, many ways in which the paper’s methods fail any reasonable standards of rigorous science, and thereby creates a serious threat of harm to an extremely vulnerable population.

**Note: There are circumstances in which violence against people is justifiable. There are many more circumstances in which it is not. Laying out the details of which circumstances are which lies beyond the scope of this essay.


Current status of the Patreon:

Your other reason (The Demon Within)

It’s May 9, 1998. The top song is still Next with “Too Close”; Mariah Carey, Shania Twain, the Backstreet Boys, and Savage Garden also chart. At the box office, Deep Impact opens at number one; with Titanic and Les Miserables also in the top ten, apocalypse and revolution are clearly in the air.

Alas, not so in The New Batman Adventures, which airs a depressingly insipid introduction to Etrigan the Demon. There is seemingly much that could be done with an immortal Arthurian knight turned sorcerer who has a literal inner demon, especially paired up with someone like Batman, but the show chooses to do precisely nothing with this potential, keeping the two of them as separate as possible. Pairing him with and against two exemplars of youth–Robin the Boy Wonder and Klarion the Witch-Boy–likewise seems like a recipe for an interesting exploration of agelessness, but nothing comes of that, either. And, finally, an episode in which a man has to figure out how to fight evil despite being stripped of his inner demons, in a show about Batman of all people, seems rife with possibility–but again, nothing is done with this.

All these possibilities, all this magic, and the episode is instead just a series of action sequences in which Batman dodges Klarion’s and Etrigan’s attacks while Jason Blood sits in a room and mumbles vaguely magic-y words.

There is very little to say about this episode, so let’s focus on the title instead. We have, after all, been spending quite a lot of words lately on the topic of the monster without, the fear of the grotesque Other; let us therefore turn to the demon within, the grotesque Self–or, rather, the Self become grotesque Other.

There are bad things inside us, which must not be let out. This is literally, physically true: we contain viscera and blood, which are repulsive and cause bad things to happen to us if we let them out (or let the wrong things in). This is the underlying form of abjection: our instinctive disgust at the breaching of the inside the body/outside the body distinction. Indeed, it is the origin of the term; the abject is that which is neither subject nor object, but rather breaches the barrier between the two in a way that feels wrong, hence the ab– prefix.

Metaphorically, this self-abjection becomes the “inner demons”: the parts of ourselves that disgust us, prompting us to try to reject them, to treat them as an Other distinct from the Self. And just as, when we erect a circle of normality as the defining border of an Us, we uncritically mix the genuinely harmful or wrong with the merely different, so too when we abjectify a part of the self, we mix parts of us that perhaps should be kept inside with parts that could be rechanneled toward good ends and parts that are just straightforwardly good.

The demon within, in other words, could be a Man-Bat, animalistic and destructive–or it could be an Etrigan, evil in origin and yet turned to doing good.

Or, to turn personal for a moment, it could be a Jennifer.

I spent most of my life convinced there was something unutterably foul inside me. It felt like an ocean of old, fetid emotions, buried until they decayed into a rotted sludge of despair, self-loathing, and rage. And then, one day, in a flash of rainbow light provided by a friend, I saw it for what it really was: a part of me that was nearly the whole of me, that I’d been told to reject, told to be disgusted by, but was actually–once I dug it up and rinsed it off–beautiful.

And monstrous. Because again, that is what the monstrous is–the projection outward of the demon within, the Other created by the process of abjectification. To be queer is to be monstrous–to be, to paraphrase El Sandifer, part of a wound torn in the vast space of human experience by the declaration that some things are normal, and all else is abnormal, and therefore unacceptable.

Simply by existing–happily, angrily, openly, and unapologetically–I force a confrontation with that wound, which is, like all wounds, grotesque. I am the monster that refuses to abjectify itself any longer. I am here to destroy the world.

Because “the world” is that circle of normality, both inside us and without. It is our shell; by breaking it, we birth ourselves. True apocalypse, true revolution, is simply to live honestly as one’s own best self, come what may.

I am a monster, and I am good.

And another word for “good monster” is…


Current status of the Patreon:

Retroactive Continuity: Emara, Emirates Hero Eps 3-5

Commissioned post for Aleph Null.

Female heroes get mind-controlled a lot.

Oh, superheroes in general are prone to being mind-controlled. It’s a great way to turn a physically unimposing villain into a serious threat, by essentially giving them access to the hero’s powers in the form of the hero themselves. It’s an excuse to force a look at that eternal (and eternally obnoxious question) of superhero fandom, “Who would win?”

But (and I admit I have done no actual survey of this or seen statistics) it certainly seems like female heroes are particularly prone to being mind-controlled. Of course, it’s possible I just feel that way because I saw Episode 3 of Emara, Emirates Hero just a few days after Incredibles 2, which also features a woman most prominently out of multiple mind-controlled superheroes.

Either way, seeing Emara controlled rankles, especially so early in her run. Her very existence challenges cultural boundaries and social norms, yet almost immediately she is forced under the control of what appears to be a man in a puppy mask made from a paper bag–another woman just doing what a man wants.

But in so doing, she becomes monstrous, sprouting gigantic robotic arms from her shoulder blades and rampaging unstoppably through the headquarters of whatever organization it is that Dhabian is working for. Controlled Emara, like controlled Ali a couple of episodes later, is a horrifying creature: grotesque, with her glowing eyes and massive extra arms belying her otherwise human frame, which dangles like an afterthought from her shoulders. Her behavior in this state is equally horrific, as she flings Dhabian around like a ragdoll and tears off his prosthetic limb.

Contrast “Little Girl Lost.” There, Superman’s controlling attitude toward Supergirl was depicted as natural, part of his parental (that is, patriarchal) role in Supergirl’s life. She rebelled against it, but that rebellion caused as much trouble as it solved: it is Supergirl’s fight against the new Intergang that causes Granny Goodness to summon the Female Furies who capture Superman, and Supergirl who destroys the comet-summoning device before it can be used to repel the comet. Much of the episode’s action–her heroism–consists of fixing her own mistakes, mistakes borne of not obeying Superman’s restrictions.

Here in Emara, however, the man controlling the woman is villainous, and the image of a woman controlled is monstrous. By her very nature as a superhero, Emara is extraordinary, which is to say she lies outside the circle of normativity. She is a violation of “the rules”–of who gets to be a superhero, and of what young brown girls can do. Yet she is not depicted as grotesque until she becomes obedient; the grotesque, in other words, exists not because of deviance but because of normalcy.

This reading is reinforced in Episode 5, when Emara fights controlled Ali, who has likewise transformed into a monster. She again transforms into the glowing-eyed, multi-armed “monster,” but now she is the monster that fights monsters, which as we have observed before, is the definition of a hero. It is a moment not of horror, like her previous transformation, but of excitement, an escalation of her valiant effort to save Dhabian.

The same form is horrifying or exciting, not because it becomes more or less “normal,” but according to whether it is a threat or an ally. The flipside of the grotesque is the exotic; we can fear the tentacle or fuck the tentacle. Fear the outsider or wish to learn about them. Shun the Other or embrace diversity.

But in Emara we see a third path: we can do both and neither. We can fear behaviors that are legitimately dangerous to us, and be excited (intellectually, emotionally, sexually, whatever) by behaviors that are surprising to us, without having to thereby judge the entirety of a person as “normal” or “deviant,” “grotesque” or “exotic.” We can simply recognize difference and accept it: Dhabian has fewer limbs than I do. Emara has more. That changes the worth of neither of them.

This is not to say that difference doesn’t matter. Ignoring for the moment that they are fictional characters, there are things I can do that Dhabian can’t without his prostheses, and things they let him do that I cannot. Emara is a Muslim woman raised in a culture very different from mine; that gives her a perspective I lack. But I can value the things that perspective lets her see that I cannot, while pointing out the things my perspective lets me see that she cannot, and all without declaring myself “normal” and her “Other”; I can see that we are different from each other, without needing to declare either of us (or anyone else) a normative baseline.

Remembering that Dhabian and Emara are fictional, we can also talk about them as representation. It is important for people who frequently feel Othered to see people like them depicted as a norm, yes, but it is also important for people who frequently see themselves as the norm to see someone they frequently Other depicted as a norm. To make people who feel Othered feel less so, and people who feel normal to feel less so, until both concepts dissolve entirety into a recognition that there are countless human communities, that everyone not only belongs somewhere but belongs multiplesomewheres, and yet no one belongs everywhere.

The name for this rejection of the singular normal/Other binary (and its implied singular community operating according to a singular narrative) in favor of a multiplicity is paralogy, and it raises a major challenge to the concept not just of the superhero, but the hero. Namely, if there aren’t actually any monsters, just different communities, what are heroes for?

The answer to that question is the answer to our main question, too: if we know what the new hero is for, than we can construct what that hero needs to be.

We will be coming back to this, many times, before we are through.


Current status of the Patreon:

Finally meeting cheerleaders (Little Girl Lost)

It’s May 2, 1998. The top song is Next with “Too Close”; Shania Twain, Montell Jordan, K-Ci & JoJo, and Madonna also chart. The top movie is He Got Game; City of Angels, Titanic, and Lost In Space are also in the top ten. According to my extensive research of the news for this period (skimming the Wikipedia page for “1998”), the only newsworthy event is the death of musician Hideto Matsumoto, a.k.a. hide.

As I said the last time we discussed Superman: The Animated Series, this episode, despite being ostensibly the end of the second season, “Little Girl Lost” functions more like a season premiere: after a few months without any STAS, we get the introduction of a new recurring character intertwined with a continuation of the Intergang/Apokolips story arc that ended its first phase with “Apokolips… NOW!”

Supergirl herself is the focus of this two-parter, however, much as Batgirl was introduced in a Batman: The Animated Series two-parter. Supergirl is peculiarly framed, however: she is introduced as a literal anti-fridging, both in the sense of a reveal that she is alive when all Kryptonians and Argosians (other than Superman and denizens of the Phantom Zone) are presumed dead, and in the sense that she has been frozen and must be thawed.

When next we see her, she is awash in warm sunlight, playfully zooming about the Kansas sky in a scene that at once calls back to and contrasts heavily with Superman’s first flight in “Last Son of Krypton.” Superman’s flight was depicted as a culmination of a series of increasingly prodigious leaps–a feat of strength, in other words. Supergirl, by contrast, is depicted as looping and curving through the air, playing with geese and water, while music swells–a display of innocent grace that resembles nothing so much as the buildup to a Disney princess about to sing her “I want” song.

And much like the princesses of the Disney Renaissance, Supergirl is a complicated cluster of competing creative impulses. She shares the same pinup Good Girl face and body as every young woman Bruce Timm designs, and this first flight of hers exemplifies that aesthetic: she is clearly being presented for the male gaze, barelegged, -armed, and midriffed as she arches her back and stretches out her limbs, but diegetically she is simply flying with no intent of appearing sexualized. She is an ingenue balanced carefully between sexuality and innocence, trying to appeal to and convey both at once. At the same time, she is immensely physically strong, on par with Superman himself, but subordinate to him, both in the sense that she is younger than him and in the sense that this is his show.

She is full of tensions: between appealing to the male gaze and avoiding the ire of censors, depicting a competent superhero with exciting adventures and preserving the fragile egos of male superhero fans, and most of all between her Madonna-like framing and her strength. After all, as Utena told us, “a girl who cannot become a princess is doomed to become a witch.”

Supergirl definitely cannot become a princess–her people and her world are gone, after all. This episode, however, expands very slightly from the Madonna-whore binary Utena explores, merging it with the “triple goddess” archetype to give us three different women: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Other–that last combining elements of Crone and whore, while the other two both take on different aspects of the Madonna, one being the Virgin and the other, well, the Mother.

The Mother gets the least time, as Lois briefly occupies the role early in Part One, acting as a parental guide-and-setter-of-limits on Jimmy, a deliberate parallel to Superman’s strict limitation of Kara. Kara, meanwhile, is a Maiden trying to break out of that inherently infantilizing role: as long as she remains at the Kents’, she can only play with her powers, never genuinely explore the potential she possesses. But Superman sees only the danger to her, fencing her into a cage–a sun-dappled cage full of rolling hills and wide blue skies, but a cage nonetheless.

The only one who recognizes Kara’s strength is the Other, Granny Goodness, a withered old hag possessed of great power, a servant of the devil (or Darkseid, which is close enough) who corrupts the young and turns them into less Crone-like, more whore-like Others themselves, the Female Furies. Unlike Granny, they are sexualized (especially Lashina) while at the same time retaining elements of the grotesque–Lashina’s mask, Mad Harriet’s catlike features, Stompa’s size–that clearly mark them as women who cross boundaries.

But so too is Supergirl. She says it herself, when Amy expresses awe and a little horror at the idea of weapons from another planet: “Hey, I’m from another planet. It happens.” She is inherently Other; as I said above, she cannot ever be a princess, and therefore must become a witch–or else break out of the narrow, confining narrative trap in which we place women. That, then, is another tension within her: between Other and other, between being an outsider that doesn’t challenge the way we construct “inside” and “outside,” or one that does.

None of this is actually resolved within the episode. Supergirl remains a point of enormous tension, never quite resolving one way or the other. She is too active, too resistant to Superman’s attempts to control her “for her own good,” to quite be a maiden, but too much the ingenue to be the Other. Yet she is too much of both those familiar archetypes to break free of archetypes altogether.

She is, in short, aptly named. In the episode, questioned on being Supergirl, she points at the logo on her chest and says “Super,” then simpers and says “girl.” She has so much potential to transcend the limitations placed on her, but ultimately is still trapped within limiting, sexist narratives of what a young woman can be and who she is for.

And yet she is able to remain. She strains against the narrative and it strains to contain her, but still it holds. A woman who is powerful and good, who defies the rules placed on her without being vilified, can exist within the confines of this world, without being reduced to a femme fatale like Poison Ivy was. The price, unfortunately, is that this world is strong enough to contain her without breaking: she is contained, and remains still mostly a Madonna-figure, without challenging that binary.

Somewhere, Harley is laughing.


Current status of the Patreon: