Thursday, October 12, 2006
public vs private pain
The other day I was doing some reading on intersexuality that raised a thought with regards to the extent and expression of misogyny in comics. The notion specifically, concerned public vs private pain, and its mapping onto the male/female dichotomy.
There’s an idea in some work on intersexuality that when a doctor decides to undertake ‘gender-corrective’ surgery on a newborn infant, they do so on behalf of the transformation of pain from a public to a private sector. By and large, a greater number of these surgeries take place in order to turn a male infant into a female one, usually because the apparent construction of a simulated vagina is easier than the construction of a penis. The surgery again, in general terms, often takes place on males because the penis is deformed in some way; often size or the lack of it is the issue of deformity. Gods forbid a doctor let a male live his life with a socially unacceptable penis, he hacks it off, and makes a potentially visually convincing but nevertheless often physically unfeeling vagina in its place. The idea being that it will be easier for the individual to live life as a constructed female with a probably complicated and emotional sexual existence than as a male with some kind of ‘deficiency’. (more or less a summary of a discussion between Peter Hegarty and Cheryl Chase from a Queer Theory text).
Public/private comes into it, because the male pain is the public one, the one that is recognised by the doctors, which is worried about, the pain of contravening the sanctity of the perfect penis. The suffering of the female the doctor thusly creates is private, simply because it is seen as the answer to the public problem, because she is sent away to grow up and make sense of it herself. For all intents and purposes, physically that female may appear convincing in a visual sense, but the possible suffering she might feel at the complications to her sex and reproductive life as created by the surgery will be the spectre to the image. And as a society, lets face it, we’re still so incredibly discursively concerned with the sanctity of the male and the penis, and woefully disinterested in the pleasure and fulfilment of the female, that her suffering is likely to go unnoticed, especially along with the stigma against intersexed individuals. So her suffering is a private suffering because it is socially acceptable for her to suffer, because we have rendered a silence around the experiences of women in relation to men, as well as around intersexuality generally, and because, quite frankly, gender-corrective surgery is often undertaken without provision of mechanisms to discuss and cope with its results in later years. The suffering is private, because information becomes unavailable, because satisfaction with the doctor’s results are deemed an expectation.
And how, exactly, does this bring me to comics? Well, I was (finally) giving the Batman: War Games storyline a read the other day, to understand firsthand the contentions and outright frustrations with the treatment of Stephanie’s character. And as I read over that torture scene (complete with its gratuitous sexualisation of suffering), the thing that I couldn’t get out of my head was just how alone Stephanie was. Throughout the torture it is dark, her whereabouts, even the fact that she is in danger, are all unknown to the rest of the cast. And when she finally frees herself, she is alone. There is no rescue, her suffering occurs in the dark, in private. Having yet to read the third act, I found myself hoping that someone might find her, if only to give her comfort, to make her suffering an open affair, to provide some kind of in-story reaction to the horror of the torture. Then I thought over the previous issues, and Spoiler’s diary-entry-like monologues. Again she is a loner, her thoughts and fears are internal, are private. And in the very act of dying in the end (as I know she will do) her suffering is ultimately private, it is her death, no one else’s.
But what public pain is it that is being satisfied and transformed into her private one? Perhaps it is that pain of having a female Robin, some broken sanctity of male superiority? Or possibly it is Batman’s pain, being the central (and Public) character, in the form of his dissatisfaction with her, his preoccupation with Tim, being appeased. Perhaps it is the Public pain of what it means to have a strong female character in comics, or at least an interesting one, because Gods forbid we let them usurp their male counterparts? Perhaps that is the big public pain of all misogyny in comics that spurs on the private pains of so many female characters.
I wonder if it is possible to apply that conundrum to other misogynistic occurrences in comic books? Is Jade’s death, and subsequent empowering of Kyle a literal image of how the public pain of a female lantern is sublimated by killing her, and then returning the power to the male character?
I’m not trying to be too literal here, I know its not like this is some motivating force behind the writing of female characters in comics. But I wonder if it’s a useful way of looking at the facets of misogyny in comics? Any thoughts?