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The Question of Gender and Sexuality

The lesbian-Latina Renee Montoya has addressed numerous issues of gender and sexuality throughout her publication history. From her controversial coming out that garnered both awards and criticism, to her transition from police officer to “legacy character” vigilante, the character has inspired discussion, sometimes deep, often times heated, from both fans and scholars.

The following conversation is an attempt to continue those discussions and initiate new ones. Far from being the final say on the character and the issues addressed throughout her publication history, this discussion will hopefully inspire others to consider taking a deeper look at Renee Montoya.

Contributors:

SCOTT ANDERSON

I’m Scott Anderson. I’m not sure I have any “areas of expertise” relevant to this topic, but I did major in English and history, I’m one of the foundering group of guys of the Gay League, which I believe is the largest English-speaking gay comic readers group in the world; although, Joe Palmer could tell you more about the Gay League than I can, and I do work for Prism Comics as one of their message board moderators, the editor of their webcomics page, and one of the writers of Queer Eye on Comics column. I have also had articles printed in Prism Comics: Your LGBT Guide to Comics. The 2008 edition is coming out soon with an article of mine looking at mad scientists. My blog, which frequently discusses comic and social issues related to being gay, is read by more people than I ever expected, which is to say more than just me. Whether all that makes me an expert or just a busybody, I don’t know.

I’ve been reading comics for as long as I could read and I’ve been looking at the pictures for longer. I’ve been reading comics for as long as I could read, and before that, I was looking at the pictures.

JOE PALMER

I’m Joe Palmer and writing introductions is something I rarely look forward to doing. I have a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My two primary focuses were printmaking and Japanese art history. Mounting debt from school loans and massive cuts to the school’s budget in state funding as punitive action to a student’s art piece scuttled my plans of going on to grad school.

I’ve read and enjoyed comics for quite a number of years now, longer than I care to admit or is relevant here. My first comics were DC and soon I was spending equal time reading Marvel. Reading habits and interests have changed over the years, but I think DC will remain as favorite.

Like Scott Anderson and actually through him, I became involved in Gay League very early on, though perhaps not exactly as one of the originals, and after more involvement and time, the website was handed over to my by its founder, Anton Kawasaki. My memory is fuzzy now, but it in 1998 (it seems like an accurate date) I was invited to become a member of GLAAD’s Media Awards nominations committee for the comic book category. This is, again if memory is correct, the first time I fleetingly met Loren Javier.

I am also one of the original members of the the prototype organization from which Prism Comics was born, and am one of Prism’s founding members though have since resigned.

Presently I am working on an idea for a comic series though its format is yet to be decided. This is still in the research phase, so please wish me good luck.

AMY READS

I am Amy Reads, an academic who studies Victorian literature and culture and gender studies. (I defend my dissertation this Thursday [editor’s note — according to Amy’s blog, now successfully defended!] (!), so if everything goes well, soon I will be Dr. Amy Reads.) I also dabble, academically, in popular culture (science fiction, comics, mysteries) and issues of the body.

Personally, I am a fan of All Things Amazon, All The Time, and have loved Wonder Woman since I was old enough to pretend I could fly. I’m a DC girl, through and through, although I read Marvel, too. Dark Horse, I adore (Buffy! Hellboy!) and I miss CrossGen (Ruse!).

Renee has been a favorite of mine for some time now, as I find her origins, like Harley Quinn’s, to be fascinating: a crossover from the television show to the comic book. I particularly enjoy what Mr. Rucka has done with Renee, and I found her storyline to be the most interesting and complex of 52. As a fan, I find her to be exemplary of a new push in comics towards strong, complex women who are not stereotypical of their designations. Renee is not a stock character; she is fully realized, and I believe that is mostly due to good writing (as so many good things often are). As a feminist scholar, I find her to be the first tentative fulfillment of a long and arduous journey toward redefining what a superhero is in comic books. In particular, the fact that she has assumed the mantle of the Question and has not become “Girl Question” or “Question Mark” (Forgive Me, Friends: now you see why DC has not asked me to assume any editorial duties) demonstrates an at least fledgling commitment to rethinking the gender divide in comics.

We should never forget gender in comics, but we should never be dependent on them for our heroic designations.

The Subtext of the Mask

In the comments of a blog posting about Batwoman, Valerie D’Orazio implies that there’s an ulterior motive in hiding one of DC’s best-known lesbian characters behind a featureless gender-neutral mask:

As for the Question being being DC’s “star” lesbian character: she’s a FACELESS character named the “Question.” Wow, what a metaphor.

Whereas Amy Reads wrote in a guest column at Girl-Wonder:

Renee Montoya’s recent transformation into The Question is a transformation into an identity that is, by its Very Nature, Absent of Identity. It is a mantle that depends solely on the mantle, solely on the heroism, solely on the worth of the person, male or female, beneath. It is a mantle that, Truly, Friends, depends on a complete redefinition of The Body Beneath.

What Renee Montoya’s The Question ultimately demonstrates, to This Humble Author, at least, is that if a redefinition and a reclamation of The Body Beneath can occur successfully in our Literature, in our Popular Culture, then it can in our “Real Life” as well. Renee is a strong woman and a strong hero, and neither identity is dependent on the other.

What do you see as the subtext of a well-known lesbian character like Renee Montoya putting on this mask — is it a commentary on lesbian invisibility, an example of it, or something deeper?

Amy Reads: I think, in some ways, yes, and no, and perhaps.

That is to say, I think yes, it could be an example of lesbian invisibility, in that Renee is completely faceless, and her clothing mimics Vic’s before her, and is thus “mannish,” or clothing designated traditionally masculine (trench, trousers, hat). Or perhaps a commentary on lesbian invisibility, in that Renee cannot be visible, as she never can be visible to a society that would discount her doubly–as a woman, and as a lesbian–and triply–as also a Latina lesbian. But so, too, can we see it as post-gender and post-sex, in that the man who had the mantle before her was faceless, too, and he existed in a position of privilege, as a white man in America. In this sense, Renee could be seen as the reconfiguration of privilege, a new type of woman for a new century.

But then, I think that is the beauty of Renee. She can be a multitude of things, even all at the same time.

Joe Palmer: This is a topic that I started to mull over a little over a week ago. I can understand the points made by both D’Orazio and Reads. As humans we tend to assign names and qualifiers to everything, especially each other. One group of people (you may categorize the group as you like) decides for whatever reason that another group is unlike them and assigns all sorts of negative ideas and beliefs to the second batch. Group A starts to depersonalize group B and one method of doing that is by removing their identity by metaphorically making them faceless.

On the other hand, it would seem easier for the reader (or listener or viewer) to project their dreams and aspirations onto a faceless hero or protagonist.

Does the fact that the Question is seen without her face being obscured when she is out of costume make any difference in either of the viewpoints expressed by D’Orazio and Reads? If so, does the quantity and quality of scenes with Renee impact this in any way?

How likely is it that this topic would be brought up if the Question were still a heterosexual male hero? My personal opinion is that this would be a non-issue.

Does the facelessness of the mask lessen the possibility of the character being co-opted as a sexual fantasy object?

Scott Anderson:

I read through Val’s comments. There is no real argument about the metaphor. By that I mean, that if you see a symbolic connection between the representation of lesbians in media and the faceless mask, you do. For you, it is a metaphor.

However, when Val was asked, “Are you saying that the mask marginalizes Renee?” Val answered, “Yes.”

I just don’t see it. I pretty much agree with Val when she said, “Montoya pre-Question was a great character. She was her own character. Her homosexuality grew organically out of who she was. And, to DC’s credit, they stood by that decision even though originally it freaked out Time Warner. There was no reason to make her The Question. You could have left her as one of the long line of great DC detectives, without superpowers.” She could have stayed just as she was, but given that Gotham central was cancelled, she’d have been just as she was without a book.

The Question story arc didn’t marginalize her. It pulled her into the most hyped and best-selling of DC’s books, 52. It allowed her to star in her own mini-series. Neither of these would have been an option without making her something other than just another detective in the Gotham PD. Does anyone believe that a Renee Montoya (non-Question) mini would have been green lighted after Gotham Central was cancelled for lack of sales? Can anyone name a detective comic currently published by DC (nee Detective Comics)? Oh, sure, they used to publish detective comics, but Gotham Central was stab at doing it again, but let’s face it, CSIs and Law & Orders may rule the TV roost, but in comics, you’d have to be a detective to find a detective.

There is something to be said about the specifics of the Question’s look, but I think we have to first acknowledge the broader context. If DC wanted to marginalize Renee the simplest thing to do was nothing. Since her book was cancelled, doing nothing would have given her a one way ticket to comic book Limbo where she could languish with Hamilton Drew, Roy Raymond: T.V. detective, and the entire O’Dare family. So she wasn’t marginalized in the way the most marginalized characters are (i.e. they simply cease appearing in comics.)

So does her costume marginalize her in the sense that it removes her lesbianism or status as a woman? I think we could make a case in a general sense that her status as a woman is visually downplayed as opposed to the vast majority of female characters who have their female physical attributes visually emphasized, but I can’t say that I’ve ever heard feminist argue that there is something wrong with downplaying the female physical characteristics or stereotypical female ways of dressing in a comic character, and as a feminist, I’d have to say that Renee is a welcome change.

And this brings up the catch 22 problem with lesbian characters. When the lesbian character is created in a manner that emphasizes her female physical characteristics, we hear people complain that the character is only being done that way to make her appeal to straight male fanboys, which somehow invalidates her as contributing to diversity. Further, we hear that superheroes wearing skirts and high heels are silly, and even sexist in using that silliness in female characters. But when those characteristics are downplayed and the clothing is more functional as with the Question, Val tells us that there is a problem with her wearing “men’s clothing.” What exactly counts as men’s clothing? Pants. Flats? The only thing that stood out to me as being particularly associated with male dress was the fedora, which didn’t appear in 2 of the 5 issues of the Crime Bible mini and even when it did, I was still able to remember that Renee was a woman and tell that she was a woman by looking at her. I’m a wee bit surprised to see Val, who normally takes a fairly feminist view of things, suggesting that a woman’s identity as a woman is defined by her hats … or shoes or pants or whatever it is. I’m perfectly able to tell my sister is a woman even when she is dressed in her firefighter uniform that I suppose one might term as “men’s clothing.” The firefighter is not men’s clothing when my sister wears it. It’s her uniform, her clothing, her woman’s clothing. Similarly, the Question’s uniform ceases to be men’s clothing when it is worn by a woman. I might add that just as my sister stands out more as woman when she is in her uniform that is traditionally worn only by men, so too might we make a case that Renee’s wearing of clothing that might be traditionally male makes her stand out from other women.

The faceless element of the costume also seems to cause Val some consternation that I’m not bothered by. As I said, if she wants to read or can’t help but to read it as a metaphor, well, she does. But I just can’t see how it marginalizes Renee as a person or specifically as a lesbian. The mask didn’t hid the dramatic tension of two ex-lovers when the Question and Batwoman fought. It didn’t prevent Renee from having a sexual liaison with a woman in issue 2 of the Crime Bible series, who Renee is reunited with at the end. I might add that Renee is not in the mask when she’s making love to that woman in issue 2. So it’s not as if she lost her identity any more than Vic Sage lost his as a heterosexual or a man.

One might even argue that it is the very lack of identity that makes the Question uniquely identifiable. Frankly, I’m not at all sure I’d be able to spot Renee or Vic or even Bruce Wayne in a crowd of people in a comic book. However, the Question is immediately identifiable no matter what clothing he or she is wearing. I’d be willing to be that far more comic readers (young or old) could spot the Question than Renee … or even Bruce. To suggest that a lack of identifiable features marginalizes a character is to suggest that more people would know who Mr. Griffin was if he’d never become the invisible man. Does anyone believe that Mr. Griffin’s invisibility marginalized him as a character? Or would most of us believe that it was his lack of features that focused our attention on him? Surely, I’m not the only one who thinks that it was Question’s lack of features that made the character distinct from the rest of the suited detectives that have littered comics for decades. It was his (and now her) lack of features that kept the character from being marginalized.

The Question of the Suit

Scott Anderson: Despite what I said before about the Question’s “costume” not being “men’s clothing” when worn by Renee, I do think there is something about the issue of the suit and how it works with Renee wearing it that is worth mentioning that deals with the difference of men and women in suits.

There is something specific to the suit in American culture that suggests anonymity. It’s the uniform of business man that changes very little as the years pass or as the price rises. We can immediately tell the difference between a cheap dress and an expensive gown and very frequently we can tell pretty much what year it was made. But the suit evolves more slowly and doesn’t become much more elaborate or decorative as it becomes more expensive. It is intended to keep men from being noticed or from standing out.

The suit also becomes synonymous with the man. In the 1960s, calling someone “a suit” implied that he was a conformist, a drone in the system. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was a popular novel and later a film that depicted men’s loss of meaning as they submerged themselves into corporate life. The suit was symbolic of the loss of individuality. Self-important politicians and business men are referred to as “empty suits.”

When Vic wore the suit and added the mask, he seemed to me to reflect a kind of anonymity that I don’t feel from Renee precisely because she is a woman. On a man, the suit suggests conformity, but to me, the suit on a woman suggests a rejection of feminine norms. It’s essentially the opposite message.

It is for this reason that I think the Question’s look works better on Vic than on Renee. The Question’s facelessness combined suit doubles the effect of the featurelessness of the character when it’s on man. He becomes a generic man, a non-entity. On Renee, I think the two images work at cross purposes. The mask makes her featureless but the suits suggest a kind of rebellion against the anonymity of conformity. Even the outfits that Renee wears depart from the standard suit. While I don’t recall ever seeing Ditko’s Question out of the suit and tie look and I only rarely recall O’Neil’s being out of it, Renee diverges from the suit and tie quite a bit. In the Books of Blood, she never wears the standard white shirt and tie. She wears a dark blouse, a ribbed sweater, and a tank top. In one book, she wears a knit cap instead of the fedora. I recall walking in a gay pride parade where a spectator held up a sign that read “More Clothing Choices for Men!” The difference in the variety of outfits between the male and female Questions validates that spectator’s desires.

Speaking of the fedora, the difference between Vic’s conformist short hair cut, essentially hidden by the fedora, making him even more nondescript, and Renee’s hair sticking out from under the fedora in a ponytail or flowing about her shoulders was striking. Part of the Question’s M.O. is that the gas that the character releases changes the color of both clothing and hair. However, while the hair color change on Vic was a clever bit that helped to suggest that he was more able to hide his identity, the fact that he had a nondescript hair style and hid it under a hat already gave him an air of anonymity. The gas changes Renee’s hair color, but we are still very aware of the style of her haircut. It stands out in a way that Vic’s doesn’t.

The funny thing is that while I think the suit and mask have greater visual impact for Vic, I think they work symbolically better on Renee, at least that’s true if we use Ditko’s vision of the character. For Ditko, the Question represented the ideal of the Rand’s objectivism and individualism. Ditko’s Question rebelled against capitulating to corporate interests and rejected societal pressures, but his Question also looked like the ultimate corporate drone, the ultimate “suit.” Conversely, Renee as the Question appears to be rebelling against all feminine conventions of fashion. While women are normally urged to accent their facial features with lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, etc., Renee has removed her face entirely. The suits on her aren’t emblematic of conformity but of her rejection of gender norms. She is ironically more a visual manifestation of the principles of individualism because she is not the standard female comic character in a skimpy outfit and porn face even while her costume in another sense removes her identity in a way that is more obvious than the usual comic book mask.

Amy Reads: The suit has such a deep and interesting history, for both men and women, that I think your resistance of its designation as “male” or “female” is quite right. The suit is, traditionally, considered more “masculine,” but women’s clothing often has included a more masculine aspect as an accent: the military style of the latter 19th century, the large shoulders of the 1980s, the boyfriend sweaters of the 1990s, etc.

But men often are subject to the lack of clothing choices–as your recollection of the sign at the parade rightly suggests–once the suit comes into fashion in the early 19th century. There are some great books out there on the suit–John Harvey’s Men in Black, Anne Hollander’s Sex and Suits, for example–that examine the impact of the shift to trousers after the French Revolution (the sans culotte costume of the French workers), and, of course, the shift to black in the nineteenth century.

By taking the suit and making it her own, particularly by exposing her hair, I don’t think that Renee is purposefully reminding the audience that she is female through more traditionally “feminine” designations, like longer hair or emphasized bust. I think Renee is putting her own mark on the costume to make it her own and, honestly, to make it more comfortable for a female body that is, decidedly, different than a male body.

“Legacy” Characters

In comic fandom currently, there seems to be a sort of backlash against what people are calling “legacy” characters — women, gays and minorities who take over roles previously held by mostly Caucasian males. Montoya is one of those characters who, as a lesbian Latina, satisfies the trifecta of what some believe is a forced diversification of comics.

Do you think such characters are an example of forced diversification, or that the comic industry is still operating under a quota or token system for women, gays and minorities?

How much of this backlash from fandom do you think arises from prejudice, and how much from an attachment to specific characters that they believe to have been replaced for the cause of diversity?

Scott Anderson: It’s hard to say how much of it is backlash to diversity vs. resistance to change vs. real criticism of poor writing. We know from the whole Hal/Kyle business with H.E.A.T. and all that not all resistance to these legacy characters comes from a backlash to perceived diversity mandates. On the flip side, it has also been very clear that some people see these characters attempts to rob traditional readers of comics of the characters to hand them to nontraditional readers of comics. Chuck Dixon and the folks on his Dixonverse message board were quite vocal that they thought that turning the Rawhide Kid gay was a theft of the character from them, turning him from something they enjoyed into something they couldn’t read, and taking the theft very personally … even though, the Kid didn’t have a comic anyway. They saw it as a retroactive theft of their memories of the character. I have to believe that the Dixonverse’s aversion to the coming out of Renee, where they readily admitted that lesbians usually have straight experiences before coming out as gay but still thought it was out of character for her to come out as gay after only being seen as straight, was based in part on their fears of homosexuality. They think there is something about children seeing gay characters being gay that will do something to children or destroy society or something that they don’t think will happen when kids see straight characters being straight or murderous characters being murderous or whatever.

I do recall that some years ago on the DC boards, someone said that they ONLY reason a writer would include a gay character in a comic was to make some pro-gay political commentary. I then created a list of — IIRC – about 78 other reasons an author might use a gay character. Some people had trouble wrapping their minds around it because they could only see gay inclusion as political, and never as artistic, realistic, biographical, thematic, etc. Of course, many of these people grew up in an era when the only time one spoke of gays was as the creepy folks of the gay agenda that wants to convert your kids. I think as the years have passed, this trend as diminished so that people can see other reasons for including a gay character, including that there was no specific reason to make a character gay than there was to make a character straight. The character is just envisioned that way.

So again, I say it’s hard to tell what is motivating people. Even when they say they are opposed to the legacy character because they are opposed to forced diversity, I have to wonder if they would still be opposed to the legacy character just because they liked the old character so much and they’re just using a argument of forced diversity to bolster their feelings. Were Legion fans opposed to the snake Projectra because they liked the old Projectra or because they hate snakes? Hard to say. Similarly, resistance to the new Question would be spawned from the love of the old Question or sexism, homophobia, racism, or something else entirely. Or a combination.

Amy Reads: Oi, this makes me So Angry.

Not, of course, at you, Scott, but at the people who think such things. With writers like Rucka and Brubaker, say, we can see the logical progression of characterization, but the response to them? I think this can be viewed further through the constant press surrounding Batwoman (“oh no! She’s a lesbian!” and “oh no! She’s a rich lesbian!” which almost seems what everyone was in a kerfluffle about). It must be “for a reason” that she is gay, no? I mean, certainly it cannot be because that is her character? Never. There must be Some Hidden Agenda.

(like the feminist agenda. I received my toaster oven several years back.)

You are certainly right that things are changing, slowly, but since beginning blogging two years ago (and thus becoming aware of a larger feminist voice in comics discussion), I have seen the common gutpunch response of “If you don’t like it, make your own comics” which almost always seems to be a veiled way of saying “no girls or homosexuals or non-whites in my comics, thank you!” which of course completely discounts the fact that 1) the world is a many-faceted thing, and 2) there are readers and writers. While I long to be A Writer (on Barda, or the Amazon Princess, thanks), I am First and Foremost A Reader, by Degree, by Profession, and of course, out of Love.

But perhaps since I am part or supportive of Said Agendas, I exist outside the pale, no?

Feel free to continue this discussion in the comments section below!

4 Responses to “The Question of Gender and Sexuality”

  1. The Question | Vic Sage | Renee Montoya » news » Renee Montoya Week says:

    […] The Question of Gender and Sexuality with Scott Anderson, Joe Palmer and Amy Reads […]

  2. D says:

    This is a fascinating discussion, and I do hope it gets taken onward in other places. Perhaps because I never watched the Batman cartoon, I was never invested in Renee as a straight woman, and loved her story arc in 52.

    One of the things I enjoyed is the idea of transformation that takes place in 52 (culminating in Vic’s “into a butterfly” line in his last breaths). I think frequently sexuality is viewed as a pose or role that is played, and the entire point of Renee’s transformation in 52 was that it had nothing to do with her sexuality. Gender was an inherent part of her character, and had nothing to do with the idea of becoming the Question. It is a reinforcement of sexuality as a core level part of being, not something added or subtracted during puberty. Even Richard Dragon’s teaching of Renee has little to do with sexuality (and acceptance or rejection thereof) or attempting to become a “lesbian Question” but rather her acceptance of the fact that she is, in many ways, already The Question, which exists entirely separate from gender.

    As for the costuming, I never really thought of it much. The suit never struck me as a statement on gender (perhaps that’s because most of the women I work with always wear suits) but the fedora with the hair has, at times, seemed dissonant to my eyes. While I agree with Amy that “By taking the suit and making it her own, particularly by exposing her hair, I don’t think that Renee is purposefully reminding the audience that she is female … I think Renee is putting her own mark on the costume to make it her own and, honestly, to make it more comfortable for a female body that is, decidedly, different than a male body.”
    However, I feel like the Fedora doesn’t quite belong. It’s not merely a gender question, it also feels anachronistic (how many men wear fedoras?) Plus with long hair, it must get uncomfortable to have it pressed above your ears even when tied back in a ponytail.

    That being said, thank you for a tremendously interesting discussion.

  3. Sada says:

    I never really liked the whole Renee lesbian thing. Where it seemed right with characters like Maggie Sawyer and even Kate Kane it felt like it wasn’t done for the same reasons with Renee. But that could just be me…

    I am glad that the issue of costume was addressed. Heels are ridiculous but apparently flats are taboo. Doesn’t leave many options for women.

    And, just in response to the above comment and its question “how many men wear fedoras?” I’d say the answer is not enough.

  4. Frank says:

    Fedoras are awesome. I like the anonymity of the costume. She’s not Super Hispanic Lesbian. It does strike me as funny, though when, say prominent black writer Dwayne McDuffie comes on JLA and suddenly hal Jordan is too busy and calls in John Stewart and Firestorm (one of those minority legacy characters) joins the team. Not that I don’t love how it’s working out, but it’s just fishy.

    War a Question ongoing!

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