|Cover by Guillem March|
Gotham City Sirens #25
Writer: Peter Calloway
Penciller: Andres Guinaldo
Inker: Lorenzo Ruggiero
Colorist: J.D. Smith
Letterer: Travis Lanham
“How can you read something so sexist?”
My mom posed this accusatory question to me after she overheard me describe the title and plot of today’s comic book to a friend.
I blurted out (even after looking at the cover and Catwoman's ridiculous outfit again) rather lamely, “It wasn’t that sexist.”
“But even the title. ‘Sirens.’ Come on.”
My mom had a point.
Immediately following this conversation with my mom, I worried that I had just become so used to traditional and stereotypical comic book tropes that I wasn’t even bothering to question them anymore. Did I purposely overlook certain elements or simply say that that’s the way it is in comic book land and move on? Have I been brainwashed into an indifferent zombie like so many of my favorite comic book heroes have before?
These are all very troubling questions to which I really have no answers. I do think that as I have read more and more comics, I have developed an immunity to overtly stereotypical elements. This is not say that I am unaware that they exist. Let’s look at today’s comic, Gotham City Sirens #25. When I was reading it, I wasn’t that thrown but after my discussion with my mom today, I have to really reconsider what it means to be a feminist and also be aware of so many sexist and degrading tropes out there and still be a comic book fan at the same time.
To start with, my mom accused the title of less than savory implications, and I realized that she has something there. The Sirens of ancient mythology were three extremely dangerous women who lured unwitting sailors to their shipwrecked deaths through their enchanting songs. They were portrayed multiple ways, sometimes beautiful, sometimes birdlike. Furthermore, the term siren has become a euphemism for “temptation” and an extremely dangerous if not false one at that. So right in the title we have the classic WOMEN ARE DANGEROUS DO NOT TRUST THEM motif. We’re all familiar with this: femme fatales, vixens, crazy ex-girlfriends, we’ve seen them all in pop culture. I don’t even need to read this comic to know how these women are going to be portrayed or what their plans are. But I read it anyway.
Our three sirens are Poison Ivy, Catwoman and Harley Quinn: the three biggest names in Batman female villains. Actually, I’m hard pressed to name a solid number of other female Batman villains. I know they exist but let’s face it, it’s really just Ivy, Catwoman and Harley running the show. Anyway, the plot revolves around Ivy plotting her revenge against both Catwoman and Harley. While she has no qualms with killing Catwoman, she has a great deal of trouble determining just what to do with Harley. She rationalizes that she should kill Harley for abandoning her once against for the ultimate in abusive boyfriends, the Joker, but then again, Harley was the only person who ever humanized Ivy through her friendship. What to do, Ivy, what to do?
While I did not necessarily dislike Ivy’s inner monologue and in fact, I felt that Calloway did a pretty decent job crafting her voice and making her struggle at least somewhat three-dimensional, I was questioning his use of such themes as back-stabbing women and their desire to both love and hurt one another. As I read Ivy’s inner monologue deciding whether or not she should kill Harley regardless of the years of friendship they’ve shared, I kept thinking of that exchange from one of my favorite films, Heathers: “I just killed my best friend.” “And your worst enemy.” “Same difference.”
This comic also seems to have watched a lot of teen movies because this was basically a superhero version of high school catty bitchiness which of course, only happens when you get a group of women together.
I would be very intrigued to see Catwoman, Ivy and Harley all interact together but I just wish it wouldn’t be so catty (and God, I hate using that term but that’s what was presented to me). Why are we still relying on this? When Batman, Scarecrow and the Joker get together in one room, they’re not waxing poetically about their lost friendships or how it will hurt them to hurt one another (although the Joker can be really bitchy sometimes, which is another entry entirely). You know why? Because they’re men and men don’t act like this, decreed the comic book gods. But women do, even powerful, deadly ones like Catwoman, Ivy and Harley. It’s inescapable, apparently.
Look, I’ve read a lot worse when it comes to portrayals of women and I’m not throwing Calloway under the bus for writing a totally ridiculous female-centered comic (no, I only do that to Fabian Nicieza). All I’m saying is that even when it’s not in-your-face offensive, sexism or at least unnecessary and dated stereotypes are still there. And I shouldn’t just let it go but question it instead and try to find ways comic books can be improved. This is a medium that I really love and there’s a growing influx of amazing women writers, artists and characters so I have definitely not lost hope. I know comics can be amazing and even inspirational so I refuse to give up, no matter how many times I catch myself side-eyeing.