Last week’s article about the lack of publicized female involvement in the upcoming “Avengers” ongoing series hit a nerve. I greatly appreciated the solidarity the article generated, especially on Twitter and Tumblr, but despite all the warm fuzzies that come along with internet high fives, I still felt a little uncomfortable. The point of my column, and the point of trying to mature myself from a fanboy to a fan adult, is to examine everything from multiple sides. The point of my column is to be in your face about the comics I love and the issues I care about. I’m not saying I didn’t do a good job of that last week, but I do think that a column pointing out an unintended slight needs to be followed by one pointing out intentional awesomeness.
With that in mind, I want to praise Dark Horse Comics and creators Jane Espenson and Drew Z. Greenberg for creating both the first male Slayer and only the second openly gay man in the Buffy-verse (R.I.P. Larry and come-on-out Andrew). This is an incredibly important creative step for both “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 9” the comic and for pop culture in general. For people bemoaning the addition of yet another gay character in comics for what has to unquestionably be a shameless ploy for attention and readers, I offer you a big ol’ wheelbarrow to cart around your privilege in. There ya go! Be on your way!
Oh, you didn’t go anywhere? But…I gave you a wheelbarrow. Okay, fine, I’ll explain why this isn’t a shameless ploy to get new readers. This is, in some ways, the gay side to last week’s women’s rights coin (insane metaphor alert). Gay people exist, just like women do. While I only have my eyes and logic to determine the existence of women since I am not biologically female nor do I identify as one (and I also don’t believe I am involved in an elaborate “Truman Show”-style hoax designed to convince men that women are real), I can confirm that gay people, specifically gay men, are real. I know this because I am one of them. And if you don’t believe me, trust me, neither did I for 21 years. But yes, thoroughly and completely, I am totally gay, bro. So, I know gay men exist. I am one! I have dated a number of them! I’ve been in a relationship with one of them for two and a half years! We live together! Gay people live in this world and, after thousands of years keeping it quiet and hiding out, we’re saying, “Hello, we exist.” You know that thing that straight, white, Christian males have been able to do since our country was founded? Have rights, respect and humanity without anyone questioning it and saying they were going to burn in Hell or telling them to get back into the kitchen? Turns out that people of different races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations want those rights too. Because rights are pretty cool.
The same goes for fictional characters. The same, in relation to this article, goes for comic book characters. I know it’s shocking to have comics suddenly acknowledge that other people exist, I get that. The majority of our flagship characters were created from the late 1930s to the mid 1960s when straight, white men had an unrelenting grasp on our culture. Things have changed. If writers and artists joined forces to put word balloons over pictures on a page for the first time in the year 2012, comics would be diverse from the get go. There would not be roughly 70 years of straight, white male dominance looming over the medium, having lulled generations of readers into a reality that should never have existed in the first place. It’s hard for me, as a gay man, to not read criticisms of gay characters as anything other than flailing against a cultural change that the flailer wishes would just go away. Trust me, no amount of wishing is going to whisk my boyfriend and me away to Gay Limbo.
The introduction of Billy as a gay male Slayer also goes a long way towards neutralizing the strict gender roles our culture carved out and then used to trap and dehumanize those who don’t fit into them. In my previous article, I cited awesome things that just so happen to be “girly.” The main premise of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” has always succeeded in subverting gender expectations by irreversibly attaching the Slayer role to women. Being a Slayer, being an incredibly strong, powerful fighter of pure evil, is “girly.” Anywhere else in American culture, I feel that that level of power would be unquestionably male. It’s aggressive, so it has to be male! “Buffy” said power is not a gender-specific thing. Strength is equally applicable to men and women. Now, the brilliant creators Jane Espenson and Drew Z. Greenberg have spoken much more eloquently on this topic than I am right now, so credit where credit is due, but once they laid out what Billy means to the mythos, I was completely on board.
Espenson said, “I thought, Gee, all the work we’ve done with Buffy is about being female, and how that doesn’t mean that you are lesser. It suddenly struck me: If being feminine doesn’t mean that your’e lesser, then liking guys also doesn’t mean you’re lesser. For very good reason, we’ve focused on the female empowerment part of Buffy, but I wondered, Did we leave something out? What if someone in high school is looking up to Buffy as a role model, and we’re saying: You can’t be a Slayer.”
Drew Z. Greenberg added in the Out.com article, ” “I have no problem telling a story about a boy who’s always felt more comfortable identifying with what society tells him is more of a feminine role. So much crap gets heaped upon us as gay men — crap from straight people and, frankly, crap from other gay people — about how it’s important to be masculine in this world, how your value is determined by your ability to fit into masculine norms prescribed by heterosexual society and, sadly, co-opted by gay society as a way to further disenfranchise and bully those who don’t meet those norms. And those attitudes are a reflection of not just our own internalized homophobia, but of our misogyny, too, and that’s something I’ve never understood. So if this is a story that causes people to examine traditional gender roles and think of them as something more fluid, I’m thrilled.”
My very first piece for Comic Book Resources dealt with Bunker, the out and proud gay member of the Teen Titans, and the conflicting emotions I faced upon hearing of his creation. I was unknowingly one of the gay people who criticized Bunker for being more flamboyant and feminine just because I myself am a bearded, t-shirt and jeans schlub of a gay. I couldn’t relate to Bunker and wrote him off as a caricature. My piece revealed that my opinion had changed. Reading reactions from gay comic book fans who were excited at the prospect of having a gay character on a superhero team that looked like them made me realize that, yes, people of all sorts and shapes read comics. And yes, even those who have never once said, or even thought to say, “I wish there was a gay superhero like me” appreciated him when he debuted. He filled a hole we didn’t know existed and didn’t realize could be filled. Now, a year later, when a gay man is created to fill a role traditionally held by women, I’m proud that I have grown enough to be instantly excited about this. Being feminine is nothing to be ashamed of. Femininity is just as awesome as masculinity, and both of those are as awesome as being neither of those or both of those. Being a human being is awesome.
The fact that I didn’t even comprehend the prejudices I had a year ago leads me to believe the same is true for anyone complaining about the inclusion of Billy into the Slayer universe. The fact that I opened my mind, listened to other people and learned from their experiences, thus leading to an actual change in my perception leads me to believe that there is hope for the future.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre sketch team Everything Rabbits. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).