I love comic books. As someone who is a part of three historically oppressed groups, I find it incredibly inspirational that someone who faces adversity can overcome it and fight for truth, justice, the American way, and to get revenge on the bastards that killed your parents.
Unfortunately, my identities make comic book shopping difficult. From the moment I picked up my first comic book, I have been struggling to find someone like me in the glossy, action-packed pages. The few times that I have, they’ve been re-vamped or even outright killed. For example, Barbara Gordon, the first Batgirl, became a former paraplegic in 2011. The miraculous curing of her disability left me with a sour taste in my mouth and a new task: to find someone intersectional, like me.
Intersectionality is the different experience someone has when they are a member of more than one systematically oppressed group. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of intersectional superheroes out there, which, frankly, sucks. Everyone needs a hero, including intersectional people. When you see someone who deals with everything you do and still has the strength to beat up evildoers, you get the courage to face every day with your head held high.
Case in point: the Blue Ear. His origin story hits more close to home for me than Spider-Man’s. To this day, I’ve never had an uncle killed because of something I’ve done. But I have struggled to feel comfortable in my own skin. In 2012, a child and comic book fan named Anthony Smith refused to wear his hearing aid because, and I quote, “superheroes don’t wear hearing aids”. His mother wrote to Marvel Comics, who responded by creating the Blue Ear, a superhero whose superpower is his hearing aid. After this, Anthony Smith finally had the courage to wear his hearing aid to school.
I’m an adult, so clearly I should have the courage to be myself. But it’s difficult to be yourself when it results in a long string of cringe-worthy experiences. Probably the worst one I’ve ever had was my freshman year of college. I’m autistic and asexual. For those of you that don’t know, someone who is asexual does not experience sexual attraction. I made the mistake of mentioning to my lab partner that I don’t want a ring or children. He responded by calling me a sociopath. Yes, the infamous triple attack of sexism, ableism, and queerphobia. The idea that a woman doesn’t want to marry a nice man and give birth shouldn’t be so shocking. And zoology majors shouldn’t give mental diagnoses.
But personal experiences are just one of the many reasons intersectional people have it rough. People who are disabled and queer like me got a double whammy this summer, in the form of two mass murders within the span of two months.
On June 12, 49 people were killed and 53 wounded in an Orlando nightclub because they weren’t straight. And on July 26, 19 disabled people were stabbed to death and 26 injured in an assisted living home in Sagamihara, Japan. Those were two of the worst mass murders in modern history in the United States and Japan, respectively.
And even as children, we aren’t safe. Both queer children and disabled children have higher rates of bullying. I myself have trauma from my childhood resulting from bullying, trauma I might not ever be able to move past. I can make jokes and snarky comments about my experiences, but at the end of the day, intersectional people have it worse than the average person.
It’s no wonder then, that I look to superheroes for comfort. At their core, comic books are a form of escapism. Whether it’s in beautiful Metropolis, grimy Gotham, or a more “Fantastic” New York, the bad guys always lose and the good guys always win. We see ourselves in the people fighting those battles. The Joker becomes the bully at school and you become the Dark Knight himself. But when we can create a personal connection that transcends just wanting to fight back, a connection between your disability, gender, race, or sexuality, you become more empowered. When we see a hero that is just like us, we realize that we don’t need to escape. We can overcome.
Clearly, we need to do more than just put intersectional superheroes in comic books. The root of my problems and other oppressed peoples’ problems is societal. We need to recreate society into a place where Sagamihara wouldn’t go unnoticed and un-mourned, a society that wouldn’t let homophobia result in the worst terrorist attack since September 11.
And we start with the media. Media directly influences society. If we could avoid using the trope “bury your gays” on TV, we might not feel the need to do that in real life. If we could have a disabled character remain disabled, then we might not have people who insist that being disabled is worse than being dead.
Representation is a snowball. It starts out small, but becomes an entire freaking avalanche. Yeah, it’ll take a while to revamp society, to rebuild it from the ground-up. But in the meantime, at least I can finally enjoy a comic book with a character like me punching Hitler in the face.
Allison Hartman is a double major in Geology and Biology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.