Pretty, Fizzy Paradise

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Sex-Skewed Look at JSA #26 and #27

One thing I like to do occasionally is look at different characters/plotlines and imagine how they might play out the same or differently if the genders of the characters were reversed. I've done it before here with Kyle's romantic history.

Anyway, I found myself doing it again while rereading JSA. Specifically the part of the story where Hawkgirl kisses Sand, and the resulting conflict. And it occurs to me, the story and particularly the fan sympathies would play out very different if the characters were the opposite sexes.

I mean, face it, in this situation, we were supposed to sympathize a little with everyone. Carter finally comes back to life and his wife, who he's loved and been with for lifetimes doesn't remember him. He's trying to win her, but can't quite move past the feeling that well, she's his *wife*. Kendra of course is a confused girl who suddenly finds out that she's got this whole other *thing* going on, she's not who she thought she was, and there's a man that's admittedly fascinating and attractive but he's overwhelming, overbearing and knows her both too well and not at all, so she turns to a supportive, non-threatening friend. And Sand of course is in way over his head. The girl he has a crush on suddenly makes overtures, that weren't for the right reason, he's a gentleman and turns her down. But still has to deal with the jealous possessive ex, who's also an important mentor figure.

However the weight of the sympathetic viewpoint is on Carter. The narrative focuses on him the most. He's the character that the male fans are going to identify the most with (who hasn't lost a girlfriend, or thought they were betrayed). He's the more overtly *male* of the three characters. Kendra is a woman and Sand is the restrained, quieter type that tends to be harder to immediately relate to. He's also the one with the largest fanbase. Hawkgirl is always a tag-on to Hawkman as awesome as he is, and as cool as Sand is, he lacks the fanbase of the Hawks. Even I, and I hate Hawkman, can't deny that his situation sucks and is awful. It almost makes his actions excusable even to me. And like I said, I hate him. For long time fans of Carter Hall, I can understand why he gets a pass for it.

And definitely the majority of fans wanted Carter and Kendra to get together.

But would it be the same way if the genders were reversed? With Catherine Hall, Kenneth Saunders and Sadie Hawkins? (I know Sandy's a gender neutral name, but it might be too close to the original for a stretch of imagination. Besides, naming a character "Sadie Hawkins" is just cruel enough to appeal to my evil side. I also have a college student named Jonathan Daniels who calls himself "Jack" somewhere in my notes...because he thinks it's funny and I like stupid name puns. Anyway, my hypothetical situation, I get to pick the name.)

Anyway, already there's going to be a shift in fan perspective. It'd be "Kenneth", not Carter who the male audience is going to sympathize the most strongly with in this situation. Kenneth is the guy. The other two will be women. Men tend to empathize most with men, it's just the way of it.

So you've got this guy Kenneth. He finds out basically that when he tried to commit suicide at age seventeen, he succeeded, and that the soul in his body now, isn't Kenneth Saunders, but that of a constantly reincarnated Egyptian prince. He doesn't remember much of it, but every so often something clicks and it's kinda scary.

It gets more complicated for poor Ken. Because Catherine Hall, the legendary Hawkwoman, has returned from the dead. She's also, apparently, his *wife*, and has been for millenia, over and over again. She's very attractive and appealing, but she's overbearing. She knows things about him he's never told anyone. And he's only about twenty! He's not ready to settle down with a *wife*. Especially since he doesn't even know this woman! And she's quite a bit older than him physically, which while not a bad thing, adds a bit to the overbearing factor.

And Catherine, as this is her husband of centuries, understands this emotion in some sense. And is trying to court him as best she can, but she's not used to having to *court* her *husband*. She's a forceful personality, not used to being questioned. Not used to having to wait, so she tends to freak him out.

Anyway, Kenneth's not unattracted, but he *is* overwhelmed, and so he decides maybe he'll turn elsewhere for a bit of romantic companionship. Someone pretty and nice and with no strings attached. And he's got some interesting chemistry happening with the team leader, Sadie. Sadie's about his age, attractive, a bit quiet. But there's no...history there. No pressure. No strings. Just a pretty girl who seems interested in him. So when they're alone together, he decides to give it the old college try. It doesn't work out, because she knows he's just using her. However it is made very clear that she is attracted to Kenneth. So if perhaps one day he pursued her genuinely, she would very likely accept his advances.

As it happens, Catherine comes to apologize and sees the boy she sees as her husband kissing another girl. Instead of confronting her husband though, she keeps doing catty little things to make the other, younger girl's life miserable. She undermines her authority at every opportunity, belittles her, and events play out much the same as they did in the storyline in JSA.

But see, I think it'd end up reading very different. The situation changes when you've got an overbearing older woman, a confused young guy, and a sweet younger girl-next-door. Suddenly, it becomes a lot more likely that the story would end with the older woman becoming an outright antagonist. I mean, there's definitely a power imbalance in the relationship, with all the power in the hands of the older woman. Yeah, she's sympathetic in that as far as she sees it, he's still her husband. And Sadie is the other woman. But Kenneth doesn't see it that way, and I'm not sure the audience will too. Especially when Catherine starts to snipe at the poor girl.

It's an interesting exercise in perspective. Because we start with one common narrative strain, the long lost man coming home and reclaiming his wife, proving his love to her, winning her back, and ousting the interloper. We all know this story, variations thereof, and we tend to sympathize with the guy.

But with a simple shift in each of the participants we've got a different narrative story. Equally as familiar. It's now about the conflict between an overbearing and possessive older woman and a younger, more passive, quieter and innocent girl. There's a guy involved of course, and the real story becomes less of him reuniting with his long-lost wife, but more of a "who will he choose".

Which is interesting isn't it? In the first scenario, it's pretty much a given that the wife will return to her husband (unless in the course of the story he meets a younger, more attractive woman, of course). Whereas in the second, it's not. Suddenly, now that the returning spouse is a woman, it's *not* a given that "Kenneth" will end up with "Catherine". The story will more likely end up circling around "Who will Kenneth choose?" And when you've got a story with a man, a sweet innocent girl and the former wife that's sniping at her...well, who does the audience *usually* favor?

I don't mean this as a critique of JSA, (especially as Kendra/Sand would quickly get creepy quick...the more she remembers of being Chay'ara/Shiera, the more we're reminded that Shiera was an adult when she knew him at age 12. It starts to get awkward.) But I do think it's interesting what a difference a little change in sex makes for everyone involved. And for the audience.


  • At April 09, 2006 3:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I know I'll freak people out with this next comment but:

    If "Kenneth" chooses "Sadie"; when he remember being "Shawn" and meeting a 12 year old "Sadie", would their relationship be considered as creepy as Kendra/Sand would?

    And if not, why so?

  • At April 09, 2006 3:20 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    That would be creepy too. :-) But I'd bet they wouldn't have Kenneth remember being Shawn at all if the choice was made. Narrative contrivance

    Or it'd just be portrayed as a slightly atypical older male, younger female relationship.

    After all Reed Richards first met Sue Storm when she was about 12 too.

  • At April 09, 2006 3:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    That's the thing

    older female + younger male = eww
    older male + younger female = Ok

    Now that is skewed!

  • At April 09, 2006 3:33 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I agree with you. I think it'd be creepy either way. But I think if Kendra were "Kenneth" et al, it would be written differently.

    The creepiness would be written less obviously because this would be the couple we'd probably be supposed to favor. It definitely is a depressing double standard.

    I try not to think of the Reed/Sue thing personally.

  • At April 09, 2006 12:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I only saw the start of this story but I thought Carter was acting like a possesive jerk, and felt it would be kind of creepy if Kendra did submit to his advances. I'd just as well he leave the team when this is resolved as two Hawkpoeople is a bit redundant and I'd rather keep the likeable one.

  • At April 09, 2006 2:20 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    niles: Heh, he was pretty vile wasn't he? That said, I kind of like having him around in JSA. He stirs things up. And I like having a character around I can hate so unashamedly.

  • At April 09, 2006 8:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Oddly, I think that this variant actually makes "Catherine" more sympathetic. Despite having an undertandable viewpoint, Carter came across as a bully and somewhat stalkerish. He was an utter jerk to the younger Sand, who did absolutely nothing beyong reproach.

    And as for the creepiness of Shiera knowing Sandy as a boy, that's not nearly as creepy as Carter/Kendra. Kendra was his grandniece, for god's sake.

  • At April 09, 2006 8:25 PM, Blogger Marc Burkhardt said…

    All this creepiness is why I preferred Katar and Shayera.

    Actually, I thought Carter was a jerk the first go-round, and probably would think the same of Katherine.

    (Although the adventures of Hawkwoman and Hawkboy would make for an intersting read...)

  • At April 09, 2006 9:02 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    spiritglyph: It'd depend on the storytelling style of course. But it's really easy to demonize the more forceful female in, as an example, Memoirs of a Geisha. If you actually consider the time period, the older mean geisha's stance makes a lot of sense. Her circumstances aren't unsympathetic, she's got a reason for what she does. But it's very easy to write her off as evil compared to Zhang Ziyi's Sayuri.

    It's evil step-mother syndrome in a sense. We're used to seeing the formula that it'd take a very good, careful writer to divert from the path.

    That said, I agree with you about Carter. He was an asshole to someone much younger and less...formidable, with very little actual provocation. (But I've blogged about how I hate Hawkman before.)

    Hawkman haters are always welcome. :-P

    fortress: It would! And they're both jerks. Oddly as a girl though I do find "Catherine" a bit more sympathetic. :-) But I'm biased.

  • At April 09, 2006 10:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'll admit to having my own biases in my view of this situation. I like my women to be strong and forceful. Quiet and weak is boring.

    But again, the main thing that struck me about Sandy vs. Carter was how much more mature Sand was. He found himself in a love triangle with two people he cared about and tried to do the most noble thing. He tried his best to keep Kendra from being hurt, and he treated Carter with respect.

    As sympathetic as Carter's postion was, he lost the high ground when he failed to reciprocate Sandy's respect. Here's a kid who used to be like a nephew to him, a kid whose been comatose for decades. Sure, Kendra kissed him, but he didn't let her use him, much as he wanted to. Carter was an utter bully to this kid who looked up to him, constantly undermining him because of something Kendra did. It was petty, spiteful behavior from someone who'd had thousands of years to learn better.

  • At April 10, 2006 12:13 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    :-) I actually think Sadie as a girl would be very similar in personality to Sand. So quiet would be accurate...weak? No. Sarcastic, you bet. :-P

    What annoys me about the Carter vs. Sand thing isn't so much that Sand was the mature one. It's because he *had* to be. I tend to be of the opinion when an older person and a younger one fight, the older one has the responsibility to be the mature one. He/she remembers what it was like to be young and stupid and thus can be more sympathetic.

    I'm not saying the older one should concede the battle. But he/she should act with the dignity befitting their experience. As much as I bitch about Bruce's immaturity sometime, you never see him treating characters like Roy or Kon, much as he may not always like them as actual rivals. He *knows* he's the grownup and thus above their status. Carter actively made the decision to treat this poor kid like a rival.

    This would be okay with someone like Clark or Bruce or Ollie or Alan...but Sand's on level with Dick, Roy, Kyle...he's *young*. And inexperienced. And clearly respects him immensely. Carter made a *very* poor showing there.

  • At April 10, 2006 1:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "And when you've got a story with a man, a sweet innocent girl and the former wife that's sniping at her...well, who does the audience *usually* favor?"

    The rhetorical question that says it all.

    Actually, though, there's a part of me that's really been hoping that Carter will turn out to've died during IC, only to come back as some poor dolt who hit brain death and lost his original soul after a horrible cow-tipping accident. Me, I think the Hawks are more interesting when they can't spend all their time judging their current lives against three thousand years' worth of previous tries - and, dammit, Kendra deserves a shot at the mentor role!

    Or she will, after a couple of years solo.

    So maybe we'll actually see some version of your story - and how the audience takes it - after all!

    . . .

    Yeah, but probably not.

    As for Carter's behavior - both in those issues of JSA just after his return, and over the course of Johns' involvement in the Hawkman book proper - he always came off as an incredible dick (particularly opposite Sand's nice guy in the wrong place at the wrong time), but my working theory is that he was also way more messed up than he looked at first glance.

    See, I'm thinking he wasn't even all that aware of Kendra as Kendra at first; instead, he was using her as the main prop in an effort to do everything humanly possible to keep from having to face up to the fact that Shiera was gone. Kendra's the latest go-around of Khufu's wife Chay-ara, sure, but she's not the woman Carter Hall was married to for sixty years, the mother of his son, and his equal partner in archaeology and whacking people on the head - and I think it's fair to assume that it was Shiera he really needed when he was dumped out of Mystic Animal Dimension with a young body and way too many memories in his head. There are flashes of it throughout that first year of Hawkman: Carter being thrown by the idea of Kendra eating foods Shiera hated, Carter picking fights with Ollie when pressed to name Kendra's favorite color - and then there's the meal with Ray Palmer in Hawkman #8.

    Which I will quote, because I'm an incredibly anal man.

    RAY: You're going to have to let her stretch her own wings.

    CARTER: [staring at his pasta] I've tried to give her some space . . . give myself some space as well.

    CARTER: Even begun seeing other people.

    CARTER: But whenever I'm with anyone else, I just keep thinking about Shiera.

    RAY: You mean Kendra?

    CARTER: . . . Of course.

    See that? That's a snapshot of a guy who's not functioning. He's a relatively new widower, and he can't grieve because there's this chick with wings in the room who's kinda sorta the woman he lost.

    So, yeah, he was an ass with Sand, but I figure there were a couple of degrees of displacement in effect: instead of getting on hands and knees and blubbering to Kendra that he needed her to be more like Shiera, or even picking fights with her (given that he was, in his own dim, Carter-ish way, trying to be supportive), he lashed out at Sand. In a perverse kind of way, one might even argue he did it exactly because he presumed on some level that blondie could take the abuse.

    Except insofar as the past few years have established him as a jerk even when the grief is presumably less remote.


  • At April 10, 2006 1:54 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    djack: It's good to have some perspective from someone a bit kinder to Carter than I am. :-)

    You're right though, it's a terrible situation he's in. And even with the grief less remote, he's still lost the woman of so many decades...even with Kendra, she's *not* completely Shiera.

    And there's the returning from the dead, time displacement stuff too.

    And I can even understand intellectually why he'd target the innocent kid and not the woman he loves...

    But I still dislike him for it. :-)

  • At April 10, 2006 2:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    And with good cause!

    Like you say, the JSA actually benefits from having an asshole or two around . . . .


  • At April 10, 2006 2:14 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Yep. He makes everyone else look good. :-)

  • At April 10, 2006 3:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Personally, the JLA already had someone occupying the role of team jackass. He looked like a Vulcan on steroids. Black Adam was great in that role.

    The role of a jerk is a tricky one to pull off, and I think it all comes down to whether the writer tries to shove them down your throat. Black Adam, Guy Gardner, Namor, Emma Frost, Jayne Cobb... these are character that play the role of team jerk well, and I love them all.

    On the other hand, you have Carter Hall and Hal Jordan. I can't stand these guys. They're obviously jerks, but they're presented in such a worshipful light that none of the other characters seem to notice their obvious personality flaws. Guy used to try and take over all the time back in JLI, and nobody let him. Carter can come on in to the JSA and declare himself chairman, and no one bats an eye.

    Hal and Carter get this all this worship and respect, but they don't act in any way that would cause normal people to treat them that way. They practically border on Gary Stu-dom with this magic, unseen charisma. The team jerk shouldn't have charisma. That's the point.

    At least that's my take. I'm sure if Johns didn't give Hal and Carter special treatment and let other character react to them naturally, I could warm to them.

  • At April 10, 2006 3:18 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Spiritglyph, I see what you're saying, though I don't think Hal's really in the same category as Carter in this case.

    That could just be because I like Hal though. :-) I admit, I'm weird that way.

    I was really upset to see everyone so okay with Carter seizing the chairmanship though. Only one of the old hats protested, I think. And that showed a lot of disrespect for Terrific. It was disappointing.

  • At April 10, 2006 4:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I don't really hate Hal that much - he's just never done it for me. Why should I read about him when I can read about Guy? Or Alan? Or Kyle? Or Kilowog? Even Marvel's Green Lanterns, like Quasar or Starbrand, have done more for me.

    It's simply that out of 3600 potential Green Lanterns to tell stories about, the main Lantern of focus shouldn't be so bland. Every other ring bearer except John Stewart* is more interesting than Hal, and so Hal comes off as a weaker character everytime.

    That, and it's something of a reaction to HEAT. Whiny gits.

    *John Stewart only has two modes: angry, and unbelievably pimping. Katma Tui, that blue gal, Carol Farris, Fatality, etc.


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