I have a confession to make.
I hate Starfire. I know hate is a powerful word, and believe me, I mean it in its most passionate sense. Anyone who has ever discussed comics with me in real life knows that I loathe the space princess with every fiber of my being. She offends me as a Titans fan, as a writer, as a feminist, and as a woman.
Anyone who has ever discussed comics with me on the internet probably isn’t aware of these very strong feelings. Except for one notable occasion in the early days of my fandom I’ve kept this to myself. I realize that as far as Teen Titans fans go, especially the ones expressing their opinions on the internet, I am in the minority here and I generally get the feeling that my opinion would not be welcome. So for the past few years, despite being rather vocal about some aspects of comicdom, I’ve kept this dislike to myself in internet discussions and only opened up about my rage to trusted friends. Recently though, I’ve been reconsidering my decision.
Now, it’s not that I think ranting and raving about how much I hate a character that’s generally beloved by my internet-compatriots is a good idea. Frankly, I would hate to see someone spew sentiments similar to the ones I hold for Starfire against one of my beloved characters (if you’re looking for a target for a revenge piece to this write up, Piper or Stormer are your best bets; they’re my favorite comic book characters). Obviously, that would be unforgivably rude. But I think there’s a larger point to be made about the value of dissenting voices in group discussions. I’m going to attempt to use my dislike of Starfire as an illustrative example of what happens when the hivemind gets so passionate that fans with unpopular opinions feel edged out of conversation.
Many years ago, in one of the first DC comics fan fics I ever wrote, I naively expressed some of my feelings about the Tamaranian princess. I wrote a scene where Wally West and Linda Park were gossiping about Dick Grayson’s love life, and I had Wally conclude that, as far as he could tell, there wasn’t much substance to Dick’s relationship with Kory and that it was driven more by teenage lust than say, the deeper connection he felt when he dated Barbara Gordon (incidentally, Dick/Babs is one of my ships). I thought this was pretty mild criticism and a plausible opinion for one of their friends, who certainly isn’t involved in the relationship, to develop. My mild observation was met with one of my first and to date the most hateful flame I’ve ever gotten on a fic. This anonymous troll tore me a new one for suggesting that the Dick/Kory relationship was anything but perfect. They decided that I must not even read comic books and probably formed all of my misguided and WRONG opinions from looking at something called Scans Daily (I believe it was a blog or something that showed out of context comics panels, but as I didn’t actually use the site I’m not sure).
This is usually the knee-jerk fan reaction to encountering someone with not just a different opinion from you, but the flat out opposite opinion. They must not read the comics. They must be a fake geek, or a casual fan, because if their opinion is that completely different from your own, how could they possibly have come to that conclusion in a carefully thought out manner? Obviously, they can’t, and therefore they don’t know the character. Well, sorry to disappoint all the Starfire lovers out there, but…
I’m actually a wicked Teen Titans fangirl, which means I’ve read at least a few comics from varying incarnations of the team. For the sake of my fan fiction, I’ve even read comics I don’t like because I wanted my representations of the characters to be informed.
I think I’ve fairly established that my opinion didn’t spring out of nowhere. So why am I so out of line with so many other fans? The answer is going to sound pretty obvious but I still think it needs to be spelled out. I formed my valid, contrary opinion under highly specific circumstances. My background and experiences have brought some things to my comics reading that others haven’t experienced, and that informed my opinion of this particular character.
For starters, I didn’t read Teen Titans comics as a child, so I’ve always encountered Kory without the comforting haze of nostalgia. I read my first Titans comics when I was actually a teenager, and read the majority of them when I was a young woman with a certain amount of disposable income (I no longer have disposable income so my informed opinion of Kory tapers off just before the New 52 launch). When you love something as a child it helps to shape your opinions and taste and oftentimes there’s a tendency to get super defensive about the beloved childhood character. I was clear of all of that when I met Starfire, and the biases and tastes I’d developed throughout my life clashed with what I encountered on the page.
One of the bigger biases that keeps me from liking Starfire is my previously mentioned preference of the Dick/Babs ship. It’s not that I’ve OTPed Dick/Babs to the point that I can’t conjecture any other possible relationship working. I actually ship Dick and Barbara with a bunch of other characters as well, and that’s partially because I view Dick Grayson as a self-sabotaging commitment phobic young man who panics in serious relationships, so even though I like him with Barbara, I would never want it to actually work out because that seems out of character for Dick (and possibly Babs as well – she’s got some self-sabotaging tendencies too). However, I like the complexity of the Dick/Babs ship and, in my opinion, what I see as the shallowness of his relationship with Kory just isn’t as satisfying a read.
My particular experience as a third wave feminist with an interest in representation in media also colors my opinion of Starfire. I actually really love George Pérez, and whereas I do take issue with some of Marv Wolfman’s writing overall I see more good than bad, and I get what they were going for with Starfire, really. She’s intended to be an independent, sexually empowered woman. I just don’t feel like they were successful in that goal. At her best moments, Kory strikes me as highly artificial, like what a bunch of men think an independent sexually empowered woman might sound like. At her worst, she still seems like more of a male fantasy than a real person. For example, the reason I think of her relationship with Dick as being lust driven instead of some kind of deep connection is because there’s literally no courtship. They see each other, something sparks, and she grabs his face and sticks her tongue down his throat. Shortly thereafter they’re dating. They’re very different people from different cultures with almost nothing in common. What do they talk about when they’re not super-heroing? What is the basis for this relationship? As far as I can tell, sex is the only thing they have in common. I can’t help but read the creation of the leggy, busty, frisky alien princess as some kind of wish fulfillment intended for an audience that’s meant to identify with Dick, or as Babs herself put it:
There was a lot of criticism of the way Starfire was depicted in the New 52, but to me she’s always come across as more of a sex object and hetero male fantasy than a person. Interestingly enough, Nightwing is possibly the only male comic book character who’s been sexually objectified in a manner usually reserved for female characters, and that probably plays into my interest in the Dick/Babs ship. As a nerdy girl, I can identify with Barbara, and as a nerdy bisexual girl, having the sexy smart ass acrobat fall in love with Barbara is a lovely piece of escapist fantasy. So that’s a good look at how biases can dictate our opinions right there…
I really do believe that Wolfman and Pérez created Starfire with the best of intentions, and I’m guessing it played better if you first encountered those stories in the 1980s. Right now a lot of women who grew up idolizing Leia Organa as a bad ass strong woman are reporting showing the original trilogy to their horrified daughters who are shocked to see this woman constantly manhandled, belittled, and sassed by the dominant men around her. We saw a strong character when we were little, but times have changed and Leia’s depiction no longer seems empowering to a new generation of young feminists. That’s definitely a good thing, and I’m willing to give Starfire’s early days the benefit of the doubt on this…intellectually. I was still disgusted by her when I first encountered her as a teenager, and I don’t expect that initial revulsion will ever be fully overcome.
That being said, I do see potential for Starfire to be handled in a manner that I, at least, would enjoy. I haven’t outright hated every panel she’s ever been in. This might count as heresy to some of you, but I really liked how she was depicted in the Geoff Johns Teen Titans run (I’m also a big fan of Mike McKone, so that helped). I liked the occasional culture clashes that emerged as she struggled to make Earth feel like home, and her struggle to work as an authority figure when her rebellious nature made her want to side with the kids she was mentoring. I even liked her interactions with Nightwing. They communicated like uncomfortable exes who knew each other just a bit too well. But the next book I read with Kory in it had her defined by the males around her, and the New 52 redesign doesn’t strike me as terribly empowered (which is a severe understatement). Still, if she ever consistently gets depicted more like a person than a hetero-male sexual fantasy, I think I could like her.
I didn’t bring this up to encourage everyone to dump on popular characters. Frankly, I think internet discussions could use with a bit more optimism and praise for what we do like. However, I do think varied viewpoints make conversations richer, and that it is possible for people to disagree without it leading to a fight. To me, a good discussion doesn’t result in dissenting voices being bullied to silence until a “victor” emerges. A good discussion is when lots of people participate and everyone feels like their opinions are being respected and heard, even if they’re not agreed with. Fandom experiences are subjective and it’s totally possible for different people to read the same comic books and come up with completely different, totally valid conclusions.
These thoughts obviously don’t just apply to those of us who don’t see the appeal in certain beloved characters. Guys, what if there’s some poor soul in our group who really loves Rob Liefeld’s art and wants to share that enthusiasm with us? We might feel they’re a little misguided, but they’re not hurting anyone. I’m positive we can civilly disagree with each other on the merits and drawbacks of different writers, artists, and characters.
Perhaps we can keep all this in mind in the lead up to the release of the first film appearance of a certain Amazon princess, although I do understand that that might be asking a lot.