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The Divided States Of Hysteria

By Brin Bixby

Image announced this week that Divided States of Hysteria by Howard Chaykin is going back to press for a second printing, due to hit shops on July 12th. I suppose that means I should feel lucky for having spent my $3.99 on a first printing?

There’s certainly been a lot of conversation on social media about it, (for example, Mags Visaggio’s twitter thread here) largely centering the presence and treatment of a trans woman character in the book, though that’s hardly the only troubling depiction of a minority character.

Image’s decision to release this book during the first week of Pride month (with an incredibly awful “Pride” variant cover that only adds to the transmisogyny contained within it) didn’t really help it against charges of faux-allyship and tone deaf marketing. What I’m hearing less blowback on is that every single non-sympathetic villain is Muslim, and it was release during the second week of the holy month of Ramadan.

Honestly, I don’t know what the hell I expected when I picked up a comic called “The Divided States of Hysteria” with a woman in a Stars and Stripes niqab on the cover, but I didn’t expect:

  • to be introduced to a trans woman (though speaking in the first person) on-panel by seeing her getting pawed by three men, with her non-visible face buried in one guy’s crotch and with a POV that highlights her ass and legs.
  • to see (let alone hear about) a trans woman’s penis,
  • to hear her bragging about being the “best cocksucker in Las Vegas”
  • to hear her unapologetically and defiantly describe and justify her statutory rape of a 14-year-old boy (to be fair, she was 16 at the time – which is an age difference usually exempted in age of consent laws) because “no 14-year-old deserves a dick that big”
  • witness her being violently assaulted and choked (3 out of 4 of her face’s appearance on-panel involve violence, and the fourth is shock at being “discovered”).   Seriously, over two pages, her face appears 8 times, and 6 of them show either direct violence, a reaction to being choked, or the battered, bruised and bloody after-effects of violence.
  • to see her deadname without ever learning her real name (because she’s arrested and being booked, obviously)

I don’t know if this is the only trans woman character showing up in a June comic, but it IS Pride month and for this to be the only trans woman I encountered in this week’s comics, especially written by a 3edgy5me  cis white dude was a major disappointment.

For contrast, Batgirl #11 came out the week before, May 24th, and prominently featured a scene with Alysia Yeoh and her wife Jo in the culmination of a running subplot discussing the difficulty of family planning and having children when one of the partners is a trans woman and the other is a cis woman (as a trans woman who is a parent – I can attest that this is a very real and painful situation to navigate – envy, joy, despair, dysphoria and hope all combine in one giant clusterfuck mess that is complicated by the physical requirements inherent to the task). This was an unexpected joy to happen upon and filled me with vicarious happiness on Alysia’s behalf – it’s also written by a cis person, but it’s clear that Hope Larson actually spoke – *and listened* – to trans women and maybe even their partners on one of the more frustrating and painful aspects of being trans that isn’t often depicted or acknowledged. Actually, I can’t think of any other depiction of this particular pain point in comics, and it is most certainly rare elsewhere.

While our unnamed trans woman is telling her story here, she does talk about her preparation to defend herself being because she knows that the trans panic defense (called the Trap Defense here – an insulting term put in the mouth of a trans woman by a cis dude) is getting her sisters killed. Like, in all actuality, it sounds like he may have spoken with a trans woman or two, and it’s sort of oddly supportive of sex workers and trans sex workers.

In fairness, there does appear to be some actual nuance embedded in this depiction of her, but I don’t know how much of that is accidental and how much was planned. He may have lucked into honesty by trying to be edgy, or he could have spoken to trans sex workers to get their perspective. Frankly, in some respects, she sounds a bit like some (but obviously not all) trans woman sex workers I’ve interacted with.

I mean, sex workers exist and trans women are over represented in sex work due to barriers to entry to other forms of paid labor. She’s unapologetic about being a trans woman engaged in consensual sex work, and explicit about the implicit shared knowledge of her transness between her and her clients, which, to my understanding, is actually a common feature of trans sex work – plausible deniability is a delicate and necessary element of the institution of in-person trans sex work.

She’s arrested for killing three Iraqi (because of course their being from the Middle East is relevant and not accidental) men who had paid for her services, but who investigated too closely and broke the bounds of the plausible deniability by taking her underwear off and making her transness explicit instead of implicit.

She pulls out a gun and shoots all three of them – and like a lot of trans women who defend themselves from violence or the immediate risk of violence, she was arrested and imprisoned for the crime of Self-Defense While Trans. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, or any examples, look up CeCe MacDonald and Eisha Love. Both of them served time for defending themselves from men who decided to try to kill them for being trans and making them unjustifiably question their sexuality. Of course, the people most at risk of both violence and this kind of treatment by the criminal justice system are trans women of color. This character – who still doesn’t have a real name – though, appears to be white.

This trans woman is one of a couple of characters who get 3-4 pages of introduction showing their crime and mug shot. Presumably, this is in service of setting up some kind of A-Team/Suicide Squad team made of convicted criminals recruited by a disgraced CIA field agent to combat continued and future terrorist attacks committed by (who else?) sleeper Islamist cells – who use pregnant women in the first issue to set off vagina bombs in an airport, natch. It’s very much a “setting-up future issues” issue. Presumably all of these reprobates will get “redemption” arcs by being hyper-violent against people who “deserve” it. Blessed Ramadan, folks.

I initially talked about the trans woman character because it was the subject of so many hot takes and, full disclosure, it’s my particular ox being gored.
Race and religion are seriously abused in this story too. The main character is a generic sort of white government agent guy. And, of the criminals whose intros are interspersed with the framing story (which deals with impending terror attacks a month after an attack kills the president and most of their cabinet in a failed coup d’etat), we see:

  • a black man who seems to be modeled after some combination of the DC/Beltway Sniper pair (John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo) and the Dallas Police Sniper (Mixah Xavier Johnson) – an older man and a younger partner that were specifically trying to kill as many white people as possible (because reverse racism, amirite?
  • the aforementioned trans woman sex worker without a name
  • an older white man who probably-is-but-may-not-be Jewish who perpetrates a financial scheme at a ritzy, rich people resort where he swindles a couple dozen people out of their life savings (because Jew = financial & criminal) and then poisons them all as he leaves to try to cover it up
  • a legit serial killer of New York Italian ancestry with mob ties and a mob-guy accent … because of course he is
  • and the aforementioned CIA G-man who is shown to be cheating on his wife, who is painted as a shrew and who joins him in hating their two awful children.

And of course the villains are all Muslims. Islamist extremists, actually. But hey, they’re all the same right? *eyeroll* This comic’s publication during Islam’s most holy religious celebration of the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammed – a time marked with fasting, prayer, charity, and celebration with family and friends – is a slap in the face to all Muslims and is absolutely shameful.

Given that this issue is clearly trying to lay the groundwork for some kind of suicide squad wetworks team by giving the barest (and most offensive) information possible about these characters, without giving us any interaction with them outside their crime and arrest, there really is a wait-and-see element to this story, and I may even give the second issue a chance to see if this was just a piece of bullshit in service of unapologetically introducing a trans woman – despite its use of the predatory-trans-woman, trans-sex-worker, trans-woman-as-victim-of-violence, and trans-woman-identified-by-her-genitalia tropes.

All of that said, Howard Chaykin has not earned my trust with this depiction. He certainly didn’t earn any forgiveness with his joke of a “presponse” essay published in the back matter – and repurposed by Image as its first response to the controversy. It basically reads as “I’m so very above the fray of identity politics that I’m proud to throw grenades at marginalized people in the knowledge that I’m safe from any shrapnel, but if you’re offended, that shows that you’re the real bigot.” Your typical edgy white man.

I have to decide how much appetite I have for the potential violent bullshit I could encounter. I didn’t know there was a trans woman character in this story, let alone this particular depiction of her, and so the very visceral violence was totally unexpected and, frankly, hit me like a punch to the gut.

It is so full of stereotype and edgy white guy bullshit that it’s honestly hard to read. I feel Visaggio’s anger, and I agree with her frustration and pain. I, too, wish I didn’t have to see this shit. Let alone the first week of “Pride” month. But, to be honest, my expectations of Pride month as a trans woman are pretty low to begin with, so, while I was surprised to see this, I was certainly not shocked. Thus, my anger, while legitimate and earned, is hard to hold onto because this is all so fucking juvenile and ridiculous.

June 21, 2017
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