Pretty, Fizzy Paradise

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Starfire as a Feminist Icon

You know who's a character I really tend to enjoy? Starfire. I am, for whatever reason, inordinately fond of that character.

It's funny, because I sometimes think that I shouldn't like her. I mean, I can't really deny the general criticisms of her character. She is very much a character designed by men for men.

She's exotic and alien, provocative and sexy, constantly in skimpy clothing and showing herself off, she's sexually promiscuous with a passionate nature and a hot temper. Also, her name is a silly joke.

It's interesting, really, because as much as she's a male fantasy, she's also a very strong and positive character. For one thing, how rare is it in today's media to find a female character that embraces her own sexuality without being lambasted for it either in character or by the narrative? There's still such a bizarre attitude toward female sexuality in our society. Good girls don't. Or they get punished for it. And almost always the only female characters really allowed to embrace their sexuality whole-heartedly are the stupid, amoral sluts.

This idea is so pervasive too. Look at romance novels, even. You'd think, being a medium essentially by women for women, the ideas toward female sexuality would be more open. But very often, the narrative places very heavy emphasis on the fact that this confident, successful, beautiful, experienced protagonist is a virgin. Sure there are a lot of adult women who remain sexually inexperienced, for whatever personal reason, but there are a lot that aren't, especially in this day and age. The female protagonist is almost always in it strictly for love. She never has thoughts of pursuing casual sex at any point in time. In fact, her desire for the main male character is often portrayed as though it's the first time this character has ever felt any sort of true sexual desire. Which, come on! She had been a teenager once, hadn't she?!

Villains and rivals get to embrace their sexuality of course. And of course, at the same time, they get to be amoral, sneaky, deceitful and manipulative. Our Heroine is always good and pure and innocent. If in the rare occasion that she ISN'T a virgin, she's either a divorcee, who'd only ever been with her ex-husband, vile cad, of course. (*He* naturally left her for one of those amoral sluts.) In historical setting romance stories, the character might be some sort of prostitute, but it's always for the sake of her family!!! And she's almost always rescued that first night.

I don't think I have to get into why this is incredibly insulting.

One of the things I was very happy about, getting into comics, was how many superheroines ARE allowed to be sexually confident without being demonized for it. Sure, there are some issues remaining, but it's honestly really nice to see.

Kory is particularly interesting though, because she completely divorces the idea of "purity" from sexuality. There is no question, I think, that Kory is a very moral person. She has a temper, of course, and she's a bit unfamiliar with Earth's sexual mores, but she's always had a very clear sense of right and wrong. She is a character largely incapable of deceit or manipulation, her heart is on her sleeve. She is open, accepting, forgiving. She loves intently and hate is very difficult for her. And she is as free with her sexuality as with everything else. And that's okay!

Even her costume, which very very certainly show off a lot of skin, are more empowering than offensive. Kory shows skin because she's comfortable that way and she likes showing herself off. It's absolutely her choice and she has utterly no shame or self-consciousness about it, and that's great! I don't see anything wrong with a character who likes to be sexy and show herself off as long as that's what she is intending to do. (Contrast this, with say, Supergirl and her belt-masquerading as a skirt. Which of course Martha Kent made for her?! I've been really happy that her portrayal has shifted to an angry teenager out for attention and crushing on anything on two legs. Because at least then I can believe that SHE is choosing to dress that way, rather than someone else dressed her.) It does help that she's an adult woman. (I love that she's taller than Dick and pretty much everyone else too)

I also like that Kory is a very emotional character, but it's portrayed largely as a source of strength. Our society is very strange when it comes to women and the expression of emotion. We're considered to be more emotional than men, more in tune with our feelings and more willing to express them. But our society also discourages a lot of emotional displays from women in the same way it does for men, just different emotions. Little girls are encouraged not to cry, to be a "big girl", not to be angry/aggressive because it's not "ladylike", not to be overly exuberant, to always try to smile and be calm and well-mannered despite what one is feeling on the inside.

I remember reading an article in anthropology class that remarked on the phenomenon that anglo/american women suffered more pronounced mood swings and emotional turmoil during PMS than in most any other country. The writer theorized that PMS made for a nice (subconscious) scapegoat for women to express buried anger, resentment and frustration that we're normally discouraged from displaying. Anything said or done during that time is then written off as mood swings and dismissed.

Kory definitely is not repressed. She's not "ladylike". When she's angry, she yells or hits things. When she's sad, she cries. When she's happy, she'll show everyone! And that's really neat! She gets to be strong, emotional, sexual and it's all completely without shame.

In a weird way, I think Starfire is as much a feminist ideal as Diana, she's just more id than super-ego. Where Diana is more of a cerebral representation of the ideal potential within all women, Starfire represents embracing one's inner primal nature without any sense of shame or regret.

Even if she has a silly name.


  • At May 02, 2007 11:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You know which character I can't get into?

    Starfire. Her recent appearences in 52 don't give me much reason to like the character- she was just *there*.

    You know which character I really like? Animated Starfire.

    Maybe its Hynden Walsh. But she's so awesome. Kind, sweet, caring, naive and intelligent, strong and sweet, and let's not forget that obsession with mustard.

    Some people said that to make comic Starfire into her toon version would require giving her a lobotomy. I'd say that it makes her a better character so long as it fits into her history and knowledge of earth culture, with better speech. She'd still call people a clorbag varbelnelk.

  • At May 02, 2007 12:40 PM, Blogger Brainfreeze said…

    I always liked Starfire a lot as well, for some of the same reasons you mention; I haven't kept up with her over the last 20+ years really but retain a fondness gained during the old New Teen Titans book.

    Unfortunately I'm pretty sure that the only reason Kory has managed to be a sex-positive woman for so long without any of the usual repercussions is because she is an alien and has the "excuse" of having been brought up in a different system. (I.e. she "doesn't know any better.") :P

  • At May 02, 2007 3:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Just like to say, I totally agree. Despite the "designed by men, for men" aspect to it, on the actual page she comes across as a really joyous, hopeful character. Which I *like* in my comic book heroes.

    I've really grown to like her in 52. Her adorably platonic friendship with Animal Man was one of the real highlights of the series.

  • At May 02, 2007 3:44 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    universal: Honestly, I didn't really like the toon version at all. She was cute but ultimately no different than any kids' cartoon bubbly sort, just with a cute vocabulary.

    Comic Starfire is much more interesting and powerful for me.

    I know which gets my vote.

    brainfreeze: Probably so, Diana's an Amazon, Starfire's an alien. I'll take any positive portrayal I can get. :-)

    anon: I agree, that was a very cute relationship. Down to collapsing on his doorstep. :-)

  • At May 02, 2007 8:13 PM, Blogger Lis Riba said…

    I'm pretty sure that the only reason Kory has managed to be a sex-positive woman for so long without any of the usual repercussions is because she is an alien

    I suspect the character balance of the original NTT also helped.
    Raven : Kory
    repressed : emotional
    flat-chested : zaftig
    covered-up : showing skin

    And Donna's portrayal straddled the middle ground.

    But without Donna and Raven as counterbalance, I think Kory would've turned out very different...

  • At May 03, 2007 12:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Oddly, as a total bystander to all things DC, and a total Titans virgin (pun intended, woo)...

    ...I've always had this inexplicable liking for this character too.

    My reasons are nowhere near as intellectual as yours. I don't have the familiarity with her character, to begin with. Even if she is cheesecakey, shes my kinda cheesecake. I've always liked her character design. That she gets her freak on in canon is just the icing on the cake, really.

    You're right that on the surface of things, she sounds like the worst sort of exploitation fantasy. 'I know not of these earth sexual mores. Will you teach me? tee hee!' But hell.. I still kinda like her anyway. It defies logic. XD

  • At May 03, 2007 10:14 AM, Blogger SallyP said…

    Starfire's ok. A little out there, but fun nevertheless. She's so completely uninhibited compared to most of her comrades, that I find her rather refreshing.

    She's not the brightest bulb in the box, but she's passionate in everything that she does, so I'm glad that she survived 52.

  • At May 03, 2007 9:32 PM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    I've always liked Starfire :D But I also know that prolly a large amount of her popularity is due to her "by men for men" thing :(

    I think she's a good character :) But I feel like empowering, strong, positive female characters can only show up if they also happen to fall into "cheescake" for men too. :\

  • At May 30, 2009 5:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hm...maybe it's just me but I don't like loud angry outbursts from men or women, or agressiveness. However I agree when you said that women do PMS when they are repressed.


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