Batgirl: Transgender Representation and the Power of Words

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

This post contains spoilers for Batgirl #37.

It’s a really good thing that DC Comics has let Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr, the creative team behind Batgirl, revise their script for the new release of The Batgirl of Burnside, Vol. 1. No, this is a great thing. Let me explain why.

Batgirl #37 caused a great deal of controversy. Batgirl had been dealing with Dagger Type, a villain who had been pretending to be Batgirl, taking over her fame and role whilst wrecking the reputation of the real Batgirl. Eventually Batgirl fights Dagger and during the fight rips off their mask. It reveals Dagger as a man and Batgirl reacts in shock at the reveal, exclaiming:

“But you’re a …” [man.]

This was the wrong way to have Batgirl react. It was a problem for many different reasons. For quite some time, the Batgirl series has had a transgender background character: her roommate Alysia Yeoh. The way Batgirl handled the reveal of Dagger was a betrayal of her character and the readers, highlighting how badly diversity is required in the creative teams behind comics.

Batgirl had already been shown to know and care about her trans roommate; the monthly series brought in transgender readers. This is because any trans representation in mainstream media is really rare, so almost any positive representation gains a trans following. So the shock that she shows and the awfulness of her original line, and later laughter at Dagger, was hard for trans readers to deal with.

I am one of the transgender readers that started on Batgirl after the original discussion where Alysia came out to Babs. When I read Batgirl #37, as a writer I, of course, wrote a piece on it; as I reader I removed Batgirl from my pull list. It wasn’t until #40 that I started reading it again; I’d decided to wait and see if Batgirl was going to be safe and enjoyable for me to read again.

The portrayal of Dagger Type hurt transgender people so much because it played into a trope that kills us – the trans woman as a deceitful trickster. Every year trans women are murdered by men that claim “they didn’t know” the woman they were with was trans. It’s called the “transgender defence;” numerous people have gotten away with murder by blaming their victim. In the United States, only California has made this defence inadmissible.

My reality as a trans woman is I will probably be sexually assaulted or raped (50% chance, Forge Forward), and potentially murdered (trans people are 1% of population but globally a trans person is murdered every 29 hours), and that’s if I don’t kill myself (41% of trans people attempt to, Williams Institute). Due to high murder and suicide rates, trans people have a lower life expectancy; the LAST thing we need is the perpetuation of the deceitful trans woman trope.

This isn’t where the story ends though. The creators of Batgirl listened and publically apologised, saying they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, and they said they’d try and do better going forward. The creators were sincere too, and it shows that they really meant it, as with the release of the trade paperback of Batgirl, Vol. 1 a number of changes have been made to the Dagger storyline to try and avoid the transgender surprise/shock implications of Dagger.

I’m posting each image here as a before and after to show the changes that Batgirl’s creators have made to between the scripts in the individual issue and in the trade paperback version of issue #37. There are quite a few; this wasn’t a slapdash change to silence anyone. These changes are careful and show that the creative team really cares about this book.

batgirl before 0

Before – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

batgirl after 0

After – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

There are a couple of changes I don’t fully understand; this is one of them. I think it is part of removing the gendering of characters that happens in much of the new dialogue.

Batgirl Before

Before – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

Batgirl After

After – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

This page is the one that caused the most controversy. The change here is slight but perfectly done. The new script removes the implication that Babs is shocked by a man dressing as her and focuses instead on the issue at hand.

batgirl before2

Before – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

batgirl after2

After – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

This change removes the female gendering of Dagger. It takes away the implication that Dagger is transgender. It pushes the storyline more towards identity theft.

batgirl before3

Before – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

batgirl after3

After – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

Female pronouns are removed and instead the script focuses on Dagger as an out of control narcissist. The script is tighter in the revised versions.

batgirl before 4

Before – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

batgirl after 4

After – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

Again, bye gender references! We’re back to concentrating on Dagger’s personality rather than gender.

batgirl before 5

Before – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

Batgirl after 5

After – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

This is a more subtle revision, bringing Dagger impersonating Batgirl into the now. He’s trying to claim the title – the brand – of Batgirl, not be Batgirl. Note the gender reference that is left in: Dagger here is explicitly male.

batgirl before 6

Before – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

batgirl after 6

After – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

The original text here implies Dagger is a joke, which is dangerous for transgender people who have been a punchline for decades. The revised version is a lot better. We’re back to Dagger committing identity theft, not him wanting to be Batgirl.

batgirl before 7

Before – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

batgirl after 7

After – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

Like the last two images, these ones are about laughing at Dagger, which, given the implicit connections with transgender people that we’ve seen so far, means these panels play into the transgender people are a joke trope. Having Babs laugh at Dagger was a terrible move. The new version removes this and again brings everything back to Dagger’s obsession with self and fame.

batgirl before 8

Before – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

batgirl after 8

After – Creators Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, DC Comics

The original text here implied that Dagger was changing, or transitioning, which is another link to transgender people. It’s now completely removed.

No doubt these changes will raise the ire of some who will cry censorship! Yet this is the creators changing their own work so they are happier with it. It hasn’t been forced on them by the ALL POWERFUL TRANS LOBBY, or those dastardly feminists, or the giant evil behemoth of DC Comics. So the only censorship that could be taking place is some people trying to prevent the creators changing their own work. Is that irony? Who knows, Alanis Morissette ruined that word.

The Batgirl team said they would do better, and they have. This is great for comic book readers and restores a lot of faith and goodwill in both the team and DC comics. They certainly need it right now, as they have a terrible record when it comes to diversity, and I think this is a time to justly heap praise upon them.

So thank you Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr, and thank you DC Comics; both personally and professionally. It’s really nice to see that you all care enough about the media you create that you’re willing to fix past mistakes. It really is great and I hope Batgirl Vol. 1 sells well as after these changes; it is one of the best trades you can buy.

It’s fun, lively, and suitable for 10 year olds and upwards; buy it. Buy it NOW.

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