Saturday 31 May 2014

Five Reasons Helena Bertinelli as a Woman of Colour Matters and More

Earlier this month, creators Tim Seeley and Tom King announced that a New 52 version of Helena Bertinelli would be debuting in the new series, Grayson, which would see Dick Grayson rebuilding his life as a spy after the events of Forever Evil outed him as Nightwing.This week saw the official first appearance of Helena Bertinelli as both an agent of Spyral and as woman of colour in the final pages of Nightwing #30.

As was to be expected in this situation, the change to Helena Bertinelli's appearance in the New 52 didn't go unnoticed. Many people supported the change and there were just as many who didn't. Those who supported the change saw this as a positive development for the character, and those who didn't complained about the change for all of the wrong reasons. Unsurprisingly, most of the complaints were, at best, deeply rooted in ignorance over the diversity of people that exist in Italy, and, at worst, rife with racist rhetoric.

Given the mixed bag of reactions the new Helena Bertinelli got, I decided to compile my own list of reasons for why this change actually works in her favour. Not just to enlighten the unenlightened, but also to express my own excitement for this development as well as address any concerns about where this could go given DC's awful track record with women in the New 52. But first, the positives!

1. The change gives Helena Bertinelli a distinct look from her 'parent' Helena Wayne.

Helena Bertinelli in Gotham Knights
One of the major problems of the post-Crisis continuity was the decision to create Helena Bertinelli as nothing more than a new origin for Helena Wayne in order to keep the Huntress active within the context of a then newer DC Universe. (For the sceptics, be sure to read the Introductions to both the Huntress: Year One and Huntress: Darknight Daughter trade paperbacks if you need a source).

With this decision came a whole host of problems, namely in the form of DC Comics deliberately (and systematically) erasing another woman, Helena Wayne, as the original Huntress in order to develop this newer character in her place. This led to the second problem: Writers consistently borrowed aspects of Helena Wayne’s character and history to either service or teardown Helena Bertinelli, while at the same time completely denying that this woman ever existed in continuity.

These two problems manifested in various ways from the way Helena Bertinelli was given (in many cases) the same physical appearance of Helena Wayne, to the way she was frequently referred to as a female Batman, to the way she was characterised as wanting Batman’s acceptance and a place within his family. She was even paired off with Catman in a way that played on a reverse-gendered Batman/Catwoman relationship (a development that's more directly relevant to Helena Wayne's history), and the character has even worn Wayne's pre-Crisis costume on at least two occasions: once in an issue of Batman: Gotham Knights, and on the television series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

Long story short, DC Comics has a long and well documented history of treating Helena Wayne and Helena Bertinelli as interchangeable origins for the same heroine. Writers didn't especially hide any allusions to the fact even in other media. It is therefore not surprising that fans have had a hard time telling these two women apart given how much of Helena Wayne's own history and character was transplanted onto this other woman over a period of two decades. The decision to reintroduce Helena Wayne as the 'true identity of Helena Bertinelli's Huntress' in the New 52 certainly didn't help on that front.

Taking all of this into account, I very much welcome the change to Helena Bertinelli's appearance. Not only will it make it easier for fans to tell this woman apart from Helena Wayne, but it is also a step in the right direction to establishing her as a separate character from Helena Wayne. There is absolutely no reason for creators to continue to define her character through Helena Wayne, and keeping her original 'Helena Wayne face' would've kept her tied to Helena Wayne.

2. There isn't a shortage of blue-eyed, dark-haired, white-skinned people in the DC Universe.

Helena Wayne is a traditional DC heroine

If there is one group of people in the DC Universe that is overrepresented, it is definitely people who match the above description. Seriously, how many people within the Batfamily alone have this same physical appearance? There is Bruce Wayne himself, his father Thomas Wayne, his Earth-2 daughter Helena Wayne, his son Damian Wayne (even though he's a person of colour), Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, and even his own butler Alfred matches this description. On occassion, even his romantic partner/Earth-2 wife, Selina Kyle, is presented with blue eyes despite being largely presented with green eyes.

In other corners of the DC Universe, you have Superman, who is a blue-eyed, dark-haired, white Kryptonian. His romantic partner/wife, Lois Lane, is also often presented in this way despite having had different looks. His clone, Superboy, also fits the mould. His son with Lois from an alternate universe, Jon, is also in this mould. Wonder Woman is also a blue-eyed, dark-haired, white-skinned Amazon princess. So is Donna Troy. So is the New 52 version of her Earth-2 daughter, Fury. Sometimes even her mother Hippolyta is presented in this fashion as well. Billy Batson is also a blue-eyed, dark-haired, white-skinned superhero. So is Big Barda. So was Desaad as a kid.

In case the message hasn't fully registered yet, DC Comics has a love affair with blue-eyed, dark-haired, white-skinned people. Nearly all of their iconic superheroes fit this mould. Even when you step outside of this parameter, you still have more blue-eyed superheroes than you do brown-eyed superheroes, even though blue eyes in the real world are not as common due to being a recessive gene. You also still have more white people populating the DC Universe than you do dark-skinned people, even though there are more people of colour existing in the world. 

Making Helena Bertinelli a woman of colour in the New 52 makes her stand out from all the traditionally-looking superheroes and gives her an appearance that is uniquely her own. 

3. She represents the most underrepresented group of Italians in media: Italians of Colour.

Cécile Kyenge is an African-Italian politician and surgeon
I've seen it argued by less knowledgeable internet folk that making Helena Bertinelli black takes away from her Italian heritage. These same people are of course basing this argument on what they've seen in most media, which is the representation of Italians as white-skinned people with black hair, brown eyes, and mobsters. 

Make no mistake that white Italians do exist all over the land. But an actual trip to Italy (and especially to Sicily where Helena Bertinelli's family is from) will quickly dispel the argument that there are no dark-skinned Italians as well, or that Italians of other ethnic origins do not exist.

Sicily in particular is located next to the southern tip of Italy in the Mediterranean, a part of the world gets hot and is largely populated by dark-skinned people. It is also located right next to Northern Africa, which guess what? Is the largest group of immigrants that come into Italy every year. There's even an entire wikipedia page dedicated to this topic. They even have a list of famous Italians of African origin, including a woman from South Africa named Elena Angione, politician and surgeon Cécile Kyenge, and famous Italian footballer, Mario Balotelli who was born in Sicily! (He's also a favourite player of my mate, Stephanie who is also a huge fan of Helena Bertinelli).

Additionally the racism that exists in Italy for people of colour is well known and well documented. Earlier this year, Italian politician Cécile Kyenge was very outspoken about Italy needing to do more to combat racism in the country, and she herself has been on the receiving end of abuse due to her race. She even did a televised interview on this very topic. (The video is in Italian).

A friend of mine who is of Sicilian descent and goes by the username @CertainShadesL on Twitter also had something to say about racism in Italy:


If this alone does not demonstrate why Helena Bertinelli being presented as an Italian woman of colour isn't important, perhaps the lot of you should pay a visit to Southern Italy (especially Sicily) some time and really get to see the country for what it really is. Think of it as removing the veil of American media from your eyes! The fact that we are getting a very RARE representation of an Italian woman of colour in an American medium at all is a pretty big deal. The point being that this group is NEVER represented even though it very much exists! The point being that making Helena Bertinelli black does NOT take away from her Italian heritage. It actually adds to it! Next up:

4. Helena Bertinelli is a character that resonates strongly with women, especially women of colour.

It may surprise a lot of people just how many of my followers on Tumblr are fans of Helena Bertinelli, even though I largely post about Helena Wayne, the Earth-2 Huntress. The ones I interact with the most happen to be women of colour. One of the reasons this character has strongly resonated with them is the fact that she was different from most of the standard white superheroes despite being based off of one herself.

While Helena Wayne may turn out to be a quarter Latina from her mother's side in the New 52 (Selina Kyle was established as half Latina on her mother's side post-Crisis), have some Italian descent from her paternal grandmother's side (see Earth-2 Annual #2), she's also predominately of British origin. It was established post-Crisis (and presumably in the New 52) that the Waynes get their roots in Scotland. The Kyles were similarly previously established as being of Irish origin. As such, she doesn't really stand out all that much in terms of race and ethnicity.

As an Italian-American, Helena Bertinelli is as far from British as it gets. This development makes her a part of a very unique culture that is both strongly rooted in the Roman Catholic church and with Mediterranean cultures given Sicily's geographic location. Bertinelli subsequently identified strongly with her Sicilian identity. She identified more openly as a Catholic to the point of incorporating the symbol of Christ as part of her Huntress costume post-Crisis.

In addition to being an unconventional heroine in her methodology, these two aspects of Bertinelli's character resonated strongly with women who also did not resemble 'the norm' of DC Comics superheroes. Making her a woman of colour in addition to all of the above will only draw more diverse readers to her character, which brings me to my last point:

5. Being an Italian woman of colour who is Catholic will only work in her favour in the long run.

Helena Bertinelli already had a well established and devoted fan base by the end of the post-Crisis DC Universe and at the start of the New 52. The devotion that fans have for this character is so strong, the backlash against the reinstating of Helena Wayne back into the identity she made popular in the first place (so much that it led to the creation of Helena Bertinelli post-Crisis) was painfully observed. The fact that DC Comics had originally retconned Helena Bertinelli as having been Helena Wayne the whole time felt like an insult to injury for this group of fans. The fact that Helena Bertinelli is returning in a time where she is still fresh in fans' memories (contrast that with the two decades that it took for Helena Wayne to return), and this will only increase sales for DC Comics.

That being said, while there are many positive things going for Helena Bertinelli at this time, including the decision to reboot her as a woman of colour, there are also many things to be concerned about as well. Despite their vocal commitment to diversity, DC's track record with women in the New 52 has been incredibly piss poor, and deeply rooted in a system of unchecked misogyny to boot. Since the start of the New 52, three of their most iconic women alone have been both brutalised for pure shock value and even repurposed in such a way that has caused them to lose their power as icons.

Wonder Woman had her feminist foundation severely undercut in order to incorporate men into her narrative in a way that reinforced the sexist idea that women are weak. In the New 52, the Amazons also went from being a peaceful, loving, all female society to a misandrist society that rapes and murders men, which reinforces the patriarchal myth of feminists as man-haters. Wonder Woman herself is less an ambassador for peace who embraces femininity, and is more of a masculinised, blood-thirsty warrior who swings her sword first, asks questions later. To add further insult to injury, she was even repurposed to function as the iconic girlfriend of Superman in the New 52, a role that she was never EVER intended to fulfil by her creator, Charles Moulton Marston. On Earth-2, she was brutally killed before we had the chance to get to know her. Despite being this world's first superhero, the Earth-2 versions of Batman and Superman have had more narratives told about them than she has. Her daughter, Fury (who was also Steve Trevor's daughter pre-Crisis), was also turned into a villain for Apokolips and serviced the narrative of Steppenwolf, her mother's killer.

Lois Lane, a character who has been at Superman's side since his first appearance in Action Comics #1, was removed from her place in his narrative in order to give it to another woman who already had her own mythos: Wonder Woman. Lois has been consistently tossed into the sidelines and treated as insignificant to Superman's narrative, unless she could be brutalised in some way to drive Superman's actions. This was especially true of the Earth-2 Lois who was killed off page in the first issue of Earth-2 precisely to give Superman manpain. She was later revived as the robotic Red Tornado, who is also shown being bissected on the covers for two Futures End books.

Catwoman hasn't faired any better either. Under Judd Winick, she was reduced into a hypersexual woman who has sex with Batman regardless of whether he consents or not (see Catwoman #1), she had all of her experience and intelligence taken away from her for comedic effect, and she is often presented as reckless. Ann Nocenti hasn't been an improvement on that front. On Earth-2, she was surprisingly better characterised under Paul Levitz and Greg Pak. But! She was also brutally killed in her first appearance in order to turn her daughter, Helena Wayne, into a hyper-violent heroine who brutally injures (even casually kills) the people she attacks very early on in her crime-fighting career.

On the subject of Helena Wayne, she too has been greatly robbed in the New 52. In addition to losing all of the characteristics that made her original pre-Crisis (like her career as a lawyer, her membership in the Justice Society to name a few), she also had all of her maturity and personality taken away in order to turn her into essentially an Earth-2 version of Damian. She also had her narrative on Earth-2 taken away from her in order to give it to another Earth-2 Batman, Thomas Wayne, her grandfather, a character who is meant to be dead. She was also originally marketed as Helena Bertinelli instead of herself at the time of her New 52 debut, which both compromised initial fan support for her character, and put her in a very sticky situation (more on that in a bit). Her potential death was also solicited as a selling point to the new Earth-2 weekly, Worlds' End. (If that doesn't turn out to be a fake-out, killing her off so soon after we got her back will be the surest way to get me to stop supporting the New 52 with my money all together). Her best friend, Power Girl, also lost most of her original personality in the New 52 in order to turn her into Earth-2's Supergirl. She was also reduced into the boy-crazy, dumb blonde, party girl stereotypes. She also had her narrative on Earth-2 taken away from her in order to give it to another Earth-2 Superman.

These are just problems that DC Comics had with their white women alone. Their track record with women of colour isn't that much better with Mister Terrific's wife getting fridged in order to give him manpain, and his assistant Aleeka conforms to many stereotypes associated with black women. DC books that were either fronted by women of colour, or had women of colour as part of their main cast have all been cancelled. Even Power Girl's assistant, Somya was whitewashed and eventually fridged in order to give the former angst. On Earth-2, women of colour have appeared (Aquawoman, Hawkgirl, Sonia Sato), but have been both underdeveloped and given peripheral roles to their predominately white male cast.

With this kind of track record in just three years, fans of Helena Bertinelli have every reason to be concerned about how the character is going to be utilised and developed in this newer DC Universe. How much of Helena Bertinelli's history and personality are going to stick in the New 52, and how much of that is going to be changed? Will she be given a real personality or will she be rewritten in such a way conforms to stereotypes associated with black women? If her white outfit that shows half of her breasts and torso is anything to go by, will she also be presented as 'sexy first, human second?' Since she's debuting as a supporting character in a book fronted by a white male character she has a complicated history with, Dick Grayson, how will her narrative be handled in relation to his? Will she be written with respect, or will she be written too look more emotionally unstable than Dick? Will she be written as a professional partner to him, or will she also function as a love interest for him? These are all legitimate concerns to have.

As a huge fan of Helena Wayne myself, I also have concerns over the way Tim Seeley and co are going to explain Wayne stealing Bertinelli's identity in the New 52. It was already bad enough that this terrible idea was used to reintroduce Helena Wayne in the New 52 (as opposed to just reintroducing her as herself), and the way Paul Levitz initially explained the use of her identity in Worlds' Finest #1 was even more embarrassing yet. Not only was I legitimately embarrassed for the writer himself over how clumsily he 'bid adieu' to a fan favourite character (in a rather offensive manner, I might add), but it especially painted his own character in a very negative light. The fact that Helena Wayne has now officially stolen the identity of a woman of colour as a white woman makes her look even worse. I sincerely hope Seeley and co do come up with a far better explanation for the identity theft than what was originally established in Worlds' Finest #1. Preferably an explanation that shifts agency back to Helena Bertinelli, but doesn't present Helena Wayne in an even more negative light than before.

With all that out of my mind, I do hope for good things to come. I do look forward to seeing Helena Bertinelli being developed as a woman of colour, and I still maintain this is a positive development for her. Seeley and co do sound like they have good plans in store for Helena Bertinelli, but I also hope there will be as little editorial meddling as possible. DC editors don't exactly have an excellent track record of coming up with good ideas for writers to use, which over a period of three years, has landed them a special place on my shit list. (Look no further than how editorial dictated the direction of Helena Wayne's character and narrative for an excellent case in point). Lastly, I do hope to see some long-term fruitful effects from this development, preferably on the front of allowing Wayne and Bertinelli to exist as separate heroines of their own making, and it won't be case of pitting two women against each other. Why the hell would I want to see that?

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