Uh oh, here it comes again. We’re still not over the whole “LeFou looked excited to dance with a man so he’s The First Gay Ever and we’re So Progressive” campaign that Disney ran for Beauty And The Beast, and now Lionsgate is getting in on the action with their “First Gay Superhero” reveal in Power Rangers. How groundbreaking!
Don’t get me wrong: I understand that this how the entertainment hype industry works, and that any amount of representation is better than nothing (the fact that it’s a female character this time and that she actually says the world “girlfriend” out loud is of particular interest). But if you’ll permit me, I’d like to take the opportunity to highlight a pet peeve of mine, both in how these “First [Blank]” articles are packaged and in how stories are often aggregated from website to website.
Observe. From The Hollywood Reporter, who first ran the story:
LGBT representation in superhero films has trailed that of comic books, where heroes and villains such as DC’s Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Batwoman and Harley Quinn, as well as Marvel’s Ice Man, are among high-profile examples of LGBT characters. But so far, when these characters have been translated to the big screen, they have been portrayed as straight. X-Men’s Northstar, the first openly gay character from either DC or Marvel, was introduced in the comics in 1992.
LGBT superheroes have been a mainstay in comic books in recent years, with Wonder Woman, Batwoman and Iceman each appearing as gay or bisexual at some point during their runs. But depictions of LGBT superheroes have been largely absent from film. Marvel’s antihero Deadpool, who identifies as pansexual, was one recent prominent big-screen exception - although he wasn’t shown having a non-heterosexual experience in the film.
One would think superhero machines DC and Marvel would have put a gay superhero in the movie theaters by now. Sadly, the LGBTQ characters of the comic book world (such as Wonder Woman and Catwoman) can’t seem to make it past print and TV screens.
LGBTQ representation on the screen has lagged behind comics. Characters like Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Batwoman, Harley Quinn, Deadpool, Northstar, and Ice Man have all been shown to be LGBTQ on the page, but not as much on the big onscreen.
LGBTQ representation has been a sticking point for the superhero genre. Progress has come slowly to comics. Marvel’s mutant Northstar became the first openly gay character in either a Marvel or DC comic when he came out in 1992. Since then, new LGBTQ characters like DC Comics’ Batwoman, Apollo and Midnighter and Marvel’s Wiccan, Hulking, and Miss America have been introduced but have not appeared in live-action. Other more established characters like Marvel’s Iceman and DC’s Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, and Catwoman have been portrayed as LGBTQ in the comics, but have always been represented as straight on the big screen.
Secondly, hi hello everyone, while you were all fawning over Iceman did you all forget about Mystique standing right next to him? Yeah? Cool, cool.
While she’s only been depicted in the movies as being interested in men like Charles or Magneto, Mystique’s been romantically connected (albeit subtly, so as not to arouse suspicion from comic censors) to her companion Destiny ever since their first appearance in X-Men together. Sure, they didn’t sign the Brotherhood Of Evil Mutants up for the Gay Pride Parade and jump up and down with “FIRST WLW IN MARVEL COMICS” signs, but if you’re not the type of person to immediately dismiss two women holding hands as “gal pals,” it was pretty obvious. I mean, they were literally foster parents together.
It was obvious to the Shadow King, too, because the word “leman” is an old term meaning “lover” or “mistress.” Hooray for sidestepping the Comics Code Authority!
(While I’m at it, it would be hypocritical of me not to point out that DC’s John Constantine has also been canonically, casually bisexual since Hellblazer #51 in 1992, right around the time that Northstar came out. This was never depicted in the recent NBC television series, because producer David S. Goyer didn’t very much feel like engaging with that aspect of the character. Big surprise.)
So why are Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Wonder Woman the poster children for ignored cinematic bisexuals instead of Mystique or Constantine? My guess it’s the way that they, along with Deadpool, and Iceman, were all outed — unequivocally, very recently, and with great fanfare. Their comic panels are obsessed over and celebrated online, sometimes before the issue is even released; then the creators double down in tweets and interviews and panel discussions, and the end result is that everybody knows Iceman is gay, even if they have no idea who he is.
But that’s also part of the problem with these kinds of stories that boast “First [Blank] Character In A [Blank]!” as their headline. Even when they’re written by knowledgeable people with the best of intentions (I myself am complicit, I’ll admit), they tend to downplay what came before in favor of a narrative which allows creators — and, more accurately, publishers and producers — to pat themselves on the back for what they’ve done. That’s why Northstar, the first openly gay male superhero, and Batwoman, the highest-profile gay character in comics today, almost always get mentioned (although in Batwoman’s case I suspect that some are mistaking her for Batgirl), but the undeniable queer subtext Claremont was working with back in the ’70s and ’80s almost certainly does not. It’s nice not to have to settle for subtext anymore, but let’s not forget it was there, okay?
Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating a recent “First!” But when Firsts becomes the de-facto narrative, it makes the fight for representation and equality seem new and flashy, which in turn makes it seem like a fad both to bigoted detractors and to “progressive” companies who seek to capitalize on it. We should feel free to celebrate every win, but let’s not allow anyone to forget that they are but small victories in a much larger struggle. And knowing your history makes that struggle much harder to ignore — especially when those companies try to backtrack on themselves. Looking at you and your most recent Hercules comic, Marvel.