The Batgirl of San Diego: Diversity in the DC Universe

Yesterday I was blessed with the opportunity to interview “The Batgirl of San Diego,” a woman who was at this year’s SDCC [San Diego Comic-Con] dressed as Stephanie Brown’s alter-ego. While she was there she appeared at every DC panel and asked questions which were met with responses ranging from indifference to open hostility. Gotham’s Batgirl may have rid the city streets of crime, but San Diego’s fights to ask why there aren’t more women in comics.

She responded with more thoroughness and thoughtfulness than even I expected, so I asked as many questions as I could before our time was up.

Evan: You made quite a scene at this year’s Comic-Con. Could you explain to us in a few short sentences what exactly went down?

SDB [San Diego Batgirl]: I don’t know that I would say that I ‘made a scene.’ I attended several of the DC Comics panels and asked questions about what I saw as a lack of female presence, both in comic books and on the panels. The audience, while receptive initially, eventually seemed to grow angry that I was asking these questions.  The main questions were simple: “Where are the women?” in response to the fact that there was not a single solo title cover featuring a woman in the entire Justice League line-up (though I believe Wonder Woman is supposed to be included), “Are you committed to hiring more women?” in response to the fact that the panels I attended were entirely male with only two exceptions, and one addressed to the room asking whether people there would buy and read a comic written about a strong, intelligent female protagonist.

Evan: Do you believe that DC has a large number of strong female characters?

SDB: The female characters DC has are definitely strong.  But let me give you some statistics presented by another women at one of the panels. She went through and counted, and out of 98 prominent figures on the covers, 27 were women.  Out of 28 single character titles, six were women.  As you can see, about a quarter of the DC universe lead characters are female – which means that the other 75% are male.  On the other hand, there are many existing female characters that aren’t being used or are being underused.  If DC were to bring these existing characters more prominently into the spotlight, it would be easy to make this ratio a little less extreme.

Evan: Some might argue that the fact that 1/4 of the heroes are female is fairly good. How would you respond to that? What would be a more ideal ratio?

SDB: Well, I suppose that depends on your point of view.  I’ve certainly watched and enjoyed female-heavy shows such as Sailor Moon, and shows with a majority male cast from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers to Star Trek have enjoyed commercial success.  However, if DC wants to appeal to a broader range of people, they will need to bring in a broader range of characters. In real life, of course, the ratio is very close to 50/50, and I think that’s a good target to shoot for.  If DC wants to expand its fanbase to include more women, they will need to write more females that women want to read.

Let me put it this way: when I watched Sailor Moon, there were a good ten female leads. One of them was my favorite – I adored her and kept watching in part just to see more of her. Similarly, in comics I have my favorites.  There are a lot of males, so coming across a favorite male protagonist in comics is easy. Even if I don’t like, say, Aquaman or Superman, I can read about other characters I like, such as Batman. But imagine if the gender ratio of the Justice League were reversed. Imagine if it were all women and only one man. If I didn’t particularly like that male character, well, there wouldn’t be any other males for me to choose from, would there? Even though there are some strong, well-written female characters in the DCU, they don’t always appeal to me personally. With a greater variety of females to be peoples’ favorites, DC will attract a broader readership and sell more books.  Everyone wins.  Plus, the idea that writing about women equals marketing only to women is just silly.  Men want to read about women, too.

Evan: How well do you feel the comic industry handles diversity as a whole? As an Asian I’m constantly on the lookout for characters I can identify with, but they’re few and far between. There’s Silver Samurai and Radioactive Man and The Mandarin for Marvel, but they’re all villains-

How do you think their representation of race stacks up to their representation of genders?

 [SDB: Have you tried Marvel’s Amadeus Cho? I hear he’s awesome!]

 [Evan: I forgot to mention him . . . Worked with The Hulk, if I remember correctly . . .]

SDB: I can tell that DC is trying.  They’ve been making much out of the fact that they’re bringing in more characters of various colors.  I’m thrilled that they’re bringing back Jaime Reyes and featuring Mr. Terrific and the new Batwing.  There is still far less variety than there is in real life, though.  In real life, especially living in the US, I meet people from different countries all the time: Mexico, Japan, Jamaica, Sweden…I’ve met people from all these places and a lot more.  Plus, I meet queer people, people with disabilities, people who fight to overcome heavy burdens every day.  I get that superhero comics are often about fantasy fulfillment. But most of the time, it seems like it’s only one kind of fantasy – to be a white man saving the world in spandex.  Comics would be so much richer, could be so much more, if they opened up to the variety around them.

Evan: I understand that you questioned the people at the DC panels- was this largely because you consider yourself a DC fangirl, or do you think that they have more to work on than Marvel?

SDB: I’m very much a DC fangirl. I know that, in the past, Marvel’s been more revolutionary and DC more reactionary (at least according to my Bronze Age Marvel fanboy-husband) but I don’t know what’s going on at Marvel right now.  People have told me that they’re no better than DC currently, but that’s just hearsay.

Evan: Are there any characters you can point to who represent what you see as the ideal female superhero? Especially for those who aren’t very familiar with comics and may be on the lookout.

SDB: Oh, I can’t possibly do that! Like I said, everyone has their favorites. Some would say Superman is the best male superhero, some would say Batman, some would say Starman or Doc Midnite! It all depends on what appeals to you. All I can do is tell you what I like. I’ve been a big fan of Bryan Q. Miller’s run on Batgirl since it started coming out. Stephanie Brown [as Batgirl] appeals to me because she’s funny and smart and strong, and she *wants* to help people. She wants it so much that she keeps on putting on a costume even when receiving some of the strongest possible discouragement.  But she’s not everyone’s cup of tea.  Some people like Wonder Woman for her independence and her focus on justice.  Some like Black Canary.  This is what I mean about variety.  The more variety there is, the greater the variety of people comics will appeal to.

Evan: What steps do you believe the comic industry can begin taking in appealing to a wider audience? You mentioned that there are many female superheroes who aren’t being utilized, but what about the other demographics?

Superheroes of other ethnicities would have to be created- do you think this would work when DC and Marvel are trying so hard to capitalize on the characters that are already strongly established?

SDB: Well, as I said, DC is already trying to create new characters, such as Batwing.  Whether he becomes an established fan favorite will depend on a lot who writes him and for how long.  But they have a whole stable of existing characters they could draw from, too.  Cassandra Cain is Asian and had a learning disability, Ryan Choi is Asian, Vixen is a black female, The Question – Renee Montoya, I mean – is a lesbian. Steel is black, as is his daughter, Natasha Irons, who was prominently featured in 52. All of these characters have an existing fanbase that it wouldn’t be hard to tap into if DC actually made the effort to bring them more prominently into the spotlight.

Evan: So what you’re saying is that DC has a well of diversity it could be dipping into, but isn’t.

SDB: Yes.

Evan: As a sort of cap to the questions we’ve been going over, do you think the comic industry is headed in the right direction? Clearly they’ve been making some good choices, but how long do you think until we get to a place where more than a few people can pick up a trade and feel included?

SDB: I honestly don’t know how long that will be. The comic industry, at least on the DC side, seems to be stuck in the past.  I’ve seen people actually make the argument that hiring 99% men and one woman is okay, because DC is only looking for ‘the best’.  That kind of ratio is the kind that would get any other company sued!  Even the 10-12% female creators they had prior to the reboot is an amazingly low number by modern standards.  On the other hand, DC is owned by the WB, and the WB wants to make money.  If the WB recognizes that there is a large market share being neglected, perhaps change will be imposed from above…eventually.  Until then, though, I think that progress will be slow and sporadic, with many speed bumps.  It will be a case of two steps forward, one step back.  One thing I *am* seeing is more racial diversity in the creators, even creators from other countries.  That’s fantastic, and a huge step in the right direction.

Evan: As someone who loves comics, that’s really encouraging to hear. Thanks so much for taking the time to be interviewed.

SDB: Of course.  Thank *you*.  It’s been a pleasure.

Evan: Can I ask just one more question, for the road? A little less serious.

SDB: Sure

Evan: What do you think about Harley Quinn’s new costume?

SDB: Gah.  Frankly, I think it’s horrible.

Evan: You are definitely not the only one. Thanks so much, again, for your time.

For a lengthier, more in-depth interview with The Batgirl of San Diego, check out DC Women Kicking Ass. It also includes exactly what occurred at the DC panels in much more detail.

comicbookGRRRL wrote an excellent post that touches briefly on the events at Comic-Con and that further explores the depiction of female characters in the DC Universe. It’s definitely worth a read, and if not that than a few very lengthy glances.

You can follow The Batgirl of San Diego on twitter or tumblr.

14 responses to “The Batgirl of San Diego: Diversity in the DC Universe

  1. I know you all really wanted to know more about Harley Quinn’s new [horrendously ugly] costume, so here’s a link to what it would look like on a dude:

    • Oh, wow, that’s perfect. I especially like her comments underneath.
      You know, my husband just reminded me – Renee Montoya’s not only a lesbian, she’s also Hispanic!

      • I’m more than down with anyone who can point out the more-than-inherent flaws in the new outfit. Putting it on a guy just exaggerates the ridiculousness of it.

  2. I can’t believe how eloquent and measured she is. Infinitely reasonable! Marvellous.


  3. There is an entire pool of Milestone comic characters that DC has access to as well and have used on rare occasions. It would be nice to see a few of them apear in the DC line as well. The one thing that is not being brought up is that the JL backup characters include an additional 3 female characters: Mera, Lady Luck and a new character from the 52 Elementally based. I do think DC is trying, but failed to realize how large a dynamic of readers were seeking these type of characters, all that being said making Harley look like a knife-wielding albino streetwalker isn’t helping their cause.

    • I am a huge fan of Milestone, particularly of Static Shock and Icon. Dwayne McDuffie helped change the face of American comics, and it’s a shame DC isn’t doing more with the Dakotaverse.

    • I did not know that those three women would be JL backup characters. Suddenly Johns’ response to me makes a little bit more sense. I don’t recall them being brought up at the panel, but I could have missed them if they were – I did have my daughter with me, and she can be a bit of a distraction sometimes. ^_^ Thank you so much for clarifying that.

  4. Maybe I don’t read enough comics, but I think it’s a crumbling soapbox to stand on. I just don’t see the worth in an argument for more women in comics. I’ve also been a much bigger Marvel fan than DC. You just can’t please everyone in the long run, and no one will be happy with their choice to add one race over another or gender or orientation or whatever. It’s going to force a production of contrived heroes not because they want to but because the artists feel they need to to appease the public. Why does an Asian have to identify with an Asian or a woman with a woman?

  5. Sorry Emlah, but as an Asian male I’ve had to identify with White heroes since forever. I’m cool with that but is it too much to ask for a bit of representation? If I can identify with Batman and all those white heroes is it really that hard for John Q. Public to root for an Asian hero from time to time?

    • Not at all, Rik. I’m not downing diversity, I just don’t want to see random new characters for the sake of diversity. I want to root for a character for other reasons than, “she’s female.” I would want an in-depth analysis of a character and have him fleshed out to the strongest degree where the writers and artists foster a true sense of where they’re going.

      Another question arises, then. Are we looking for diversity just for face value or are we looking for deeper characteristics? As I see it, regardless of whether you’re white, black, male, female, etc., etc., being betrayed by your sidekick still sucks, or your long arch-nemesis getting the justice he deserves is still sweet.

      Or are people looking for women super heroes for the sake of identifying with glass ceiling issues, gender equality, sexism, etc. or another example, do we want to see an Asian superhero dealing with cultural strife between his parent’s generation and the next?

      I guess what I’m getting as it what difference does it make if Superhero A and Superhero B all go through experience A, B, C, D anyway, what difference does the color of his/her skin make? It may not, and maybe that too raises the question why do they all have to be white then.

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  8. I would love to see ICON be in the New 52.

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