Hellfire and Sweater Meat: In Defense of DC's Starfire Reboot
The reboot of the DC universe has had its share of controversies, such as the paraplegic Barbara Gordon regaining the ability to walk and resuming the mantle of Batgirl. Nothing seems to have gotten folks more up in arms, though, than the way former Teen Titan member Starfire has been portrayed in the pages of Red Hood and the Outlaws.
Those who know her only from the Teen Titans animated series will remember a fully dressed, plucky little thing that was trying hard to fit in on Earth. In the new comic she's almost always near naked, brutal and emotionally distant despite being rather deeply attached to Jason Todd and Roy Harper. The debut of Red Hood drew ire for her costume, the casual way she has no-strings-attached sex with Roy after having previously slept with Jason, and for apparently being some kind of indicator of the juvenile male fantasy stereotype that dominates people's views of comic fans.
Look, there's nothing we can say about her costume. It's more ridiculous than Emma Frost's, and that's saying something. However, we'd like to take this opportunity to answer in the character's defense to some of her detractors.
"She alone seems to have been completely rebooted for the relaunch. Lobdell's decision to write her as being more cold and hostile is fine, but he does over-emphasize her sexuality a bit. Yes, Starfire is meant to be a sexually liberated character, but in a more positive way than shown here."- Jesse Schedeen, IGN.com
In all the condemnations of Starfire, please give the critics some slack as most of them seem to have commented on the first issue only, which is understandable. Schedeen is correct that when it comes to Jason Todd and Roy Harper, little has been done to differentiate them from their previous incarnations, save switching Harper from a recovering heroin addict to a recovering alcoholic. Starfire alone has been significantly redone.
And yet, we feel that he makes far too light of her sexuality. Aliens not understanding nudity taboos is at least as old as Heinlein's Stranger and a Strange Land, and was explored perfectly by Alan Moore with Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen. So there is a precedent, but we feel it is Starfire's casual offer of sex ("Love has nothing to do with it.") to Harper that sets people off.
This is generally portrayed as turning her into some kind of ready-made nymphomaniac, but it's deeper than that. To the Tamaraneans, humans are little more than passing sights and smells, but for Starfire Todd and Harper somehow stand out and matter to her. We've yet to see her just boning random dudes off the street, or even sleeping with either of her teammates again. She's not a sex toy, she's someone from a very different culture attracted to two specific men.
"Juvenile treatment of sexual matters here renders one of the main characters into nothing more than a punchline, and in a book with only three characters, that's unforgivable."-Mathew Peterson, MajorSpoilers.com
It's true that when we first meet Starfire, Todd remarks to Harper on having slept with her, and attributing the attraction to his big red helmet. It's says more about the snark-filled relationship between him and Harper than anything, but it is there. Meanwhile, Starfire is off decimating an entire army on her own while the boys follow behind in a rusty jeep.
There's not much character development for her in the first issue, unfortunately, but subsequent issues have allowed far more of her to come out and be seen. Her monologues show that someone who has deep scars from her time as a slave, the experiments that gave her her powers, and living in a world where xenophobia is rampant. The one look into her past we got in issue three shows the brutality she lived under when she was traded into a slave market as part of a treaty. She's still received far less exposition than Todd, and slightly less than Harper, but little by little you come to want to protect her after such a hard life.
"There's a difference between writing a female character as sexually liberated, and writing her as wish-fulfillment sex object, but Starfire sure is making a case for the latter."-Laura Hudson, Comics Alliance
Our final rebuttal is to make the point that getting the sexually-liberated label onto Starfire is probably as difficult as getting her into a sports bra. Sexually liberated implies that once she was sexually shackled, but then found freedom, whereas the book and the aforementioned homages to alien body taboos make clear that you're not dealing with the point of view of someone who grew up here with our Western social norms.
That's beside the point, anyway. Red Hood and the Outlaws is the best book being printed at the moment, save maybe Witch Doctor. What makes the three heroes so wonderfully compelling is how incredibly damaged they are. Todd was more or less cast aside by fans, Batman and the entire DC universe, only to persevere long enough to become one of the world's deadliest men. Harper was thrown out on his ass by Green Arrow when his addictions became apparent, and he ended up attempting to commit suicide by fighting Killer Croc Hand to hand. Yet here he is, still an inhumanly great archer and soldier and even maintaining a twisted form of sidekick optimism. The horrors of Starfire's past we've covered.
Through that damage the three of them have managed to connect. Post-first issue sex scene, Todd walks into the bungalow where Harper and Starfire are asleep together. How anyone can attribute a lack of emotion to the drawing of her sleeping face is beyond us. Resting on Harper's chest, she looks sad, lonely and grateful for his comfort. Todd spares them an affectionate, if somewhat annoyed, glance ("Last time I let you into one of my hidey holes, you soiled my sheets."). When the team is forced to exterminate the reanimated bodies of Todd's former teachers, Starfire rests her hand on his shoulder as he sits sadly on the floor, only to rise up and call them a team, something he refused to do before.
During a battle with a monster, Starfire is temporarily stripped of her powers and rescued by Harper ("Be a good beastie and stay here. I'm going to go find Starfire, and if she is missing even one of her adorable little orange fingers or toes, I am going to come back here and kill you."). He warms her in the snow while she embraces him, calling him a good man though still an idiot. All these small moments paint a picture of three characters, Starfire included, who have been deeply hurt but are still seeking heroship in spite of it.
Yes, Starfire is a busty supermodel in a slutty costume who fucks on the first date. We can't argue that, but the more we see of her as Red Hood unfolds, we think that the criticisms aimed at her reboot from the first issue have ultimately proven inaccurate. Maybe they helped steer the book in a new direction, or maybe it was always going to be this way. We don't know, but we're confident that treating her as a vapid, one-dimensional male fantasy is inaccurate. There is more to her than hellfire and sweater meat.
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