Generation Zee — Who, What, Why is this a thing?
Intersectionality and Diversity in Pop Culture
It’s time for a post-millennial’s analysis of the current state of fandom. Join our intersectional look at how fandom, feminism, LGBTQ representation and other generational dog whistles are portrayed, for good or ill, in the speculative fiction of today.
Editor’s Note: When this series began, Zee Bowditch identified as a queer femme nonbinary woman. Today, Zee stands proud as a queer nonbinary trans genderfluid individual. We at The Unconventional are proud of Zee living his truth, support him completely, and will continue to do so in the future.
Welcome to Generation Zee! I’m Zee Bowditch, staff writer at Steam Funk Studios, and I’ll be your guide through this series. We’ll be exploring intersectionality and diversity in pop culture from the 1990s through to today covering movies, TV, and comics. A number of topics will be addressed. These include how characters like Luke Cage, and Hellboy bring racism to light and how characters like Bucky Barnes, Matt Murdock, and Jessica Jones highlight disability and mental illness. Movies and series like Mad Max and Y: The Last Man highlight issues with masculinity, Ms. Marvel’s Muslim Kamala Khan showcases religion, and characters like Kat Kane, Bobby Drake and others examines gender and sexuality and the way pop culture both reinforces and subverts the status quo.
As a femme, queer, neurodivergent person, I stand at the intersection of many different minorities. As such, I’ve always been on the lookout for people and stories that represent my experience in a way that feels genuine and respectful. This can be a difficult process, one that often leads to disappointment. However, this series will be concerned with more than just criticism of media or pointing out what’s problematic in modern popular culture; I’m also a fan and I like to write about what I find the most important. These are stories and characters that resonate deeply with people. I’m not here to tell you what to enjoy.
An important note: I identify as queer and I use queer as an identifier — a reclaimed, useful term with no simple synonyms [ 1 ]. I will be using it in these articles and while I welcome constructive criticism, I’m not interested in having bad faith discussions about it in the comments. If my use of queer makes you uncomfortable, It’s your right to choose to avoid my articles.
However, by the same token, I believe that looking at media critically is vital to being an educated person and a conscientious consumer. Our media reflects both the best and the very worst of ourselves and our culture. It isn’t “just” a TV show, or a book, or a movie. We all learn things from the media we consume, and it’s important to be sure we’re learning the good stuff, or at least be conscious of the bad. Even at my most critical, I’m here to critique the work, not the fans.
What This Series Will Cover
Comic books — they’re just dumb entertainment, right? In the days of cheap, sensationalist pulp comic stories this may have been true, but today the bare truth is that comic books — and other media that began life on the printed page — are far from simple stories designed to sell books sitting on store shelves. No, comic books — and the movies and other media they’ve spawned — have become an integral part and driving force of popular culture.
This is, unfortunately, a double-edged sword. As our society has progressed, stories told in comic formats have evolved accordingly, often pushing the envelope in narrative scope and also in tackling ideas of equality, representation, privilege, and acceptance of the other, all while brightly costumed superheroes beat the hell out of each other. Yet at the same time, our society’s overall inertia when it comes to recognizing women, people of color, the neurodivergent, the disabled, or members of the LGBT community — or any marginalized social group — often find representation within the pages of our favorite comic book, or during the running time of our favorite television show or film adaptation.
This phenomenon isn’t universal. There are comic titles that reinforce negative stereotypes as much as there are ones that approach these issues head-on in an attempt to disrupt the status quo and bring a more modern, progressive approach to storytelling in sequential art. Over the next 15 installments of Generation Zee, we’ll tackle these problematic issues in pop culture one at a time. We’ll analyze and interpret how content creators approach characters who inhabit minority traits, suffer from disabilities, or occupy roles that have been traditionally marginalized by modern society.
Just a few of the topics we’ll be discussing include ableism, ageism, disability, and PTSD and trauma through the eyes of Ed Brubaker’s Bucky Barnes and through Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage. We’ll also put queer representation in pop culture under the microscope, examining queer comics by queer authors like Joe Glass’ The Pride, how LGBT characters and relationships are still portrayed as “gay tragedy porn” in mass media, and how some creators have used tone-deaf “coming out” stories like Bobby Drake’s simply to sell issues.
We’ll go even further, examining the perils of queercoding [ 2 ] in shows such as Gotham with Oswald Cobblepot and the role trans creators like the Wachowskis have played influencing popular culture by both subverting and upholding minority centered tropes. Prepare as we go in-depth in our examination of masculinity as defined through media such as Y: The Last Man and Max Rockatansky in the Mad Max universe, the Muslim-American experience as filtered through superhero Kamala Khan, and multiple ethnicities and Otherization through Mike Mignola’s titular Hellboy.
Additionally, we’ll examine the role of independent comics publishing as represented by indie juggernaut Image Comics, how sexuality is leveraged by companies such as Zenescope’s reinterpretation of fairytales and public domain stories, and how race is handled with a complete lack of care as evidenced by the relationship between Icon and DC, including how the latter handles alternate ethnicity universes.
Tropes and Comic Art
In addition to deep analysis and interpretation of our favorite pop culture phenomena, this series will also bring to light some of the most common, overused, and certainly problematic tropes that are at play in the world of popular culture in general and sequential art in particular. At this point you may be asking yourself what, exactly, is a trope. You wouldn’t be alone — it’s a term that many don’t understand. Any discussion of tropes at all will necessitate a definition.
In the context used here, a trope is a narrative concept that has become so common in a particular medium that the entirety of that concept can be referred to in just a simple phrase [ 3 ]. An excellent example is that of “the straight man,” the concept that in any comedic duo there is one person who tells the jokes and gets the laughs — the funny one — and the other person who reacts — the straight man. This concept has become so widespread in all forms of media that simply referring to a character as “the straight man” in the context of comedy provides everything you need to know about the character.
Tropes are useful in that they are a linguistic shorthand that allows discussion of characters, events, and trends within pop culture. However, the proliferation and preservation of problematic tropes can reinforce negative connotations, especially when applied to minority figures. The most prevalent example of this is queerbaiting, a trope that refers to when media, either intentionally or through the chemistry of the actors, implies a same sex relationship and then negates, denies, or exploits that relationship to titillate or tease.
The use of queerbaiting as a narrative tactic may not seem that egregious at first glance, but when there is so little unequivocal representation of the LGBT community in popular culture, constant use of queerbaiting can be grating and even insulting to queer audiences [ 4 ]. Given that for most queer pop culture representation is so thin, this often feels like an extra insult on top of the already glaring lack of queer representation in media. Due to censorship, societal pressure, and various other reasons, it’s uncommon to see queer couples ride off into the sunset together or experience a happily ever after. Either all that subtext is washed away with a clumsy shoehorned heterosexual relationship or, in the case where a queer relationship is made explicit, someone will get hurt or killed to motivate a suitably heterosexual hero (or, more rarely, a still-queer bad guy) into action. It seems being an openly queer character in mainstream media often means being consumed by how shitty it is to be queer.
Queerbating is, of course, not the only problematic trope that will raise its ugly head during this article series. There will be all too many examples of negative tropes, whether they be based around gender, sexuality, race, or religion. Much like in the “real” world, marginalized minority groups get the short end of the stick when it comes to pop culture representation in mainstream media [ 5 ]. This, sadly, includes comics and their movie and television adaptations.
Why This Series Is Important
Trying to find media that had people like me in them — people I identified with — has always been difficult.
You’re lucky to hit one of these categories, let alone multiples of them, and often the media I related most closely to would go out of its way to either avoid using a label or descriptor (the dreaded “I’m not bisexual, I don’t like labels” line) or lean on toxic stereotypes and one-dimensional characters. All too often, I’d be recommended something by a well-meaning friend only to be left with a bitter taste in my mouth.
The result is that you, and those like you, develop a highly critical eye. You get together in small groups and exchange information about good shows and books like little goblins rooting through garbage to find that one author doing really cool stuff that no one has heard of because, as everyone knows, only chiseled, cisgender, heteronormative, strong white male jawlines sell comic books.
We need to be better than that.
As far as I’m concerned that process won’t begin without looking with a critical and considerate eye at what the industry provides us.
At my heart I’m a writer and a creator. I’m not interested in regurgitating the mistakes we’ve made, and neither should you.
That’s why this series is important. Its purpose, more than anything, is to look at things I love and begin to understand why I love them and how they could have been better. Hopefully we can all learn a thing or two in the process. Come with me on this journey and I guarantee you’ll learn a thing or two.
I’m reminded of a certain old article by Jason Iannone. A writer for Cracked, he is a person of short stature. When asked who his role-model was, he said — surprisingly — not Peter Dinklage’s portrayal of Tyrion Lannister. Instead, he cited Wee Man from Jackass. His reasoning? Wee Man is treated as an equal in every sense of the word by his compatriots. They don’t look down on him in either sense of the term, and he’s invited to partake — whenever possible — in the group’s antics [ 6 ]. To be seen as an equal, included, invited… These are the things a lot of people like myself dream of. In many cases, can only dream of. Granted, we also struggle to have our identities acknowledged and correctly gendered, and there’s absolutely no reason we should have to sacrifice that to achieve acceptance. But maybe that will one day be the sign of having made our way into society. When being trans will not present any presumptions about myself or others as people — for better or worse — then maybe we’ll finally have made it, in both reality and the portrayals of us.
- “The Impact of the comic book medium, especially market leaders Marvel and DC, is undeniable.” Emiliefarrisphotos. Pixabay. free-images.com/lg/7736/comic_book_marvel_books.jpg
- “These iconic figures, and fandom’s vagaries such as cosplay, have transcended culture and national boundaries.” JennyHollyway. Shutterstock. Tokyo, Japan – June 15, 2019: Man in superhero costume comic marvel spiderman on the street. shutterstock.com/image-photo/tokyo-japan-june-15-2019-man-1429408286
- “Modern fandom has evolved by leaps and bounds. Cosplay is no exception, as seen with this Yennifer build from The Witcher, riding a black horse.” Dramas, Evgineya Fedorova. “A woman in the image of a book character – the sorceress Yennefer riding a black horse.” Shutterstock. 30 March 2022, https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/woman-image-book-character-sorceress-yennifer-1892172595
Zee has shape-shifted across several genres, as a lover of all things geek. They’ve been a shop-assistant and sales rep for Steampunk props and accessories company Gartisan Works and a writer for Feminerdity. A recent graduate of Salem State’s English Bachelor’s program, Zee’s extracurricular and academics indicate a bright career in education. Since their recruitment to Steam-Funk Studios in 2016, they’ve transitioned from the core writing team to senior creative staff over just four years.
- “About the Q.” PFLAG, PFLAG, 25 Aug. 2017. pflag.org/blog/about-q.
- Ennis, Tricia. “The Strange, Difficult History of Queer Coding.” SYFY WIRE, NBCUniversal Television, 11 May 2020. syfy.com/syfywire/the-strange-difficult-history-of-queer-coding.
- “Trope.” TV Tropes, TV Tropes. tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Trope. Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.
- Mitchell, Bea. “Queerbaiting: What Is It and Why Is It a Problem?” PinkNews, PinkNews, 26 February, 2019. pinknews.co.uk/2018/02/26/what-is-queerbaiting-everything-you-need-to-know.
- User, Super. “The Lack of Good Representation in the Media.” Understand Media, McGraw-Hill. understandmedia.com/journals-a-publications/student-journal-of-race-and-gender-in-media/139-2020-issue/408-the-lack-of-good-representation-in-the-media. Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.
- Iannone, Jason. “5 Insane Realities of My Life as a Dwarf.” Cracked, Literally Media, 19 Nov. 2014. cracked.com/personal-experiences-1460-5-insane-realities-my-life-as-dwarf.html.