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?

alex x


Alabaster Crippens said...

So, I can't offer much direct input into the immediate discussion here as I haven't read the comic upon which you talk about, or heard the surrounding furore, but I do have two things to mention.

Firstly this is an excellently written piece, I understand what you are talking about without having read the primary material. I also thank you for enlightening me to the initial information about Gender reassignment in infants. This is one of many, many things that have been on the edge of my knowledge for years, but never bought to the fore by any direct information or commentary (its hard to find out about everything on your own..which is why I love the webternet so much), so thanks for that.

Secondly, and perhaps as an expression of hope, even if it is from a 'mature' comic that is already considered much more literary than others, Neil Gaiman's Sandman. As you talked about the transference of public male pain to the private female, all i could think of was the story of Wanda in the 'A game of you' story arc. specifically the bold image in the 'epilogue' where the dead Wanda, a transwoman cast out by her family, is buried in the grave her family pay for, under a headstone bearing the given name of Alvin. Wanda's friend Barbie commits one final (if temporary) act of rebellion by writing Wanda on the headstone in Lipstick. The word washes away in the rain, but this is not the point I want to focus on here. Essentially the family are only willing to express their grief for losing Alvin, who they feel they lost years ago. For them the only public pain allowable is that felt for the male, not the female. (I know this is a different point to yours, but I'm just bringing it up because an interesting parallell). Anyway, They must conceal the feminine side of their Alvin, and ignore Wanda's existence. Barbie feels this is a betrayal far too great, and insists that the female element of the pain, felt by her (and represented by Wanda herself, the woman that is no longer Alvin) be made public with the lipstick scrawl removing the Alvin identity and replaciong it, even briefly, with Wanda. I just couldn't get the image out of my head while you were discussing this and thought you might be interested.

Thanks again for the article, enlightening and fascinating. Sorry if i've gone off topic a wee bit.

AlexinWonderLand said...

firstly, thank you so much for the support and interest, i am ever grateful!

The early part of the text on gender reassignment is something quite new to me too, and the piece i read was both enlightening and resonating, so if you want a reference for it i'd be more than happy to give it. My own interests usually centre on queer theory and poststructuralism in general, but increasingly transgendered issues are becoming a part of that rubric (as i feel they should be) and thusly I'm getting exposed to more and more. I'm glad to feel I've perhaps done some justice to the work I've been reading, in extending that interest to you.

Secondly, this is entirely ironic. For the past month i have actually taken it upon myself to read the entire Sandman library, in graphic novel form, from beginning to end, having read none before. I've been renting them from the library, and finished 'A Game of You' about a week or two ago, which is convenient for understanding what you're discussing! I've been trying to find a place for it in my thinking, it prompted a lot of feeling in me at the time, but nothing i could form into words. Your analysis however, has definitely given me more of a way in. The ending concerning Wanda initially angered and disappointed me, and i think perhaps that was something to hang on to, if only for inspiration.

The significance of the naming and renaming, the 'Alvin' in stone, the 'Wanda' in lipstick...there's so much there i perhaps will reserve it for a future posting here on the blog. But indeed, it definitely fits within the rubric of the public vs private pain idea, and also shows us the ways in which we might make expressions that defy that logic, making our private pains public, subverting the public pain and the idea of its much to say :)
It seems to be a nice case of Gaiman pointing out misogyny in his text, and then attempting to undermine its legitimacy.

so, no apologies needed, and thank you so much for your time!

alex x

Alabaster Crippens said...

I think you're right that Transgender is so fascinating in regard to poststructuralist thought. The instability of identity is demonstrated so well by the ability of people to change it so totally. Keep up the good work, I look forward to anything you have left to write on this issue.
As for 'A game of you' I think I shared some of your frustration about it, I think there's a layer of interpretation available that isn't as open. For a start, the stone/lipstick combination seems to diminish the actual shift of identity. The male identity is set in stone with the female only drawn on impermanently. This seems especially true in relation to the earlier fact of Wanda not being allowed to follow to the dream world because the moon cannot accept her as a woman. I think however that the transference of pain and the making public of it is the key to look at this, and don't get too down about it, as Wanda appears with Death at the end, looking 'like Glinda, from Wizard of Oz' and wholly woman. Hopefully this doesn't have to be in death for all transgender people.
Once again, thanks and keep it up.