Since my posting record is growing increasingly pathetic in comparison to that of my distinguished peers, I figured it was high time I did a post of my own. While I was bouncing ideas around, Ragnell suggested I do an Arisia-related post. The advantage of this is that I have a lot to say about Arisia. The disadvantage– well, it’s also that I have a lot to say about Arisia. So the challenge, here, is finding a balance between saying what I want to say, and not going off on too many tangents, and if I continue this paragraph any further I’ll probably end up doing just that.
Ultimately, I decided to narrow my focus down to two particular issues– #205 and #206 of GL v2. For those of you, like myself, who have trouble associating a random number with a random event, these two issues mark the beginning of the Hal/Arisia romance. They also skeeved me out but good, which is why I decided they were worthy of analysis.
Interestingly enough, upon re-read, I found that #205 and #206 were not irredeemably skeevy material. The events in the story do make for a very problematic set-up, but the climax of the story presents a choice: Hal and Arisia’s choice to pursue a relationship. Unfortunately (and I say this from over here on my feminist soapbox) I think Englehart ended up making the wrong choice for the characters.
But, before I’d like to get into the ends of the story, I’d like to discuss its means.
A basic summary, just to start us off: Hal and Arisia fight Black Hand, who siphons away the 24 hours of their rings’ power supplies, and throws them down a mining shaft. Once they’re stuck underground, Hal notices that Arisia has suddenly grown into adulthood. They discuss the probable causes and conclude that Arisia’s love for Hal in combination with her power ring has subconsciously aged her. Then, a mountain lion attacks, which Arisia fights off. When the rest of the GLC of Earth shows up to rescue the both of them, they find Hal and Arisia making out in each other’s arms.
And now, in no particular order, the things I find problematic about these issues:
1. Inconsistency with Previous Continuity
Okay, I don’t expect my comics to stay precisely consistent all the time, because continuity is a huge tangled monster that no one writer can tackle all at once. On the other hand, it’s important that a writer makes clear what she or he is retconning, because otherwise, it can lead to messiness.
Previous to Englehart’s run, Arisia had pretty much been the GL Corps’s resident teenager. She was as strong-willed as the rest of them, but both her appearance and personality was roughly that of a fourteen-year-old girl. This was especially noteworthy in her interactions with other Lanterns, where she would take on the “kid sister” role.
Now, what I think Englehart was trying to say was that now, according to his retcon, Arisia was actually considered an adult by her planet’s standards (a 28-year-old, to be exact), and thought of herself as an adult. Englehart has apparently claimed that his message was supposed to be that appearances don’t matter. But in that context, this dialogue makes things confusing. If it was only Arisia’s appearance that made her inappropriate for Hal, then why make the point about her mind maturing as well? Shouldn’t her mind already be mature?
2. Conflicted Iconography
Comics are a visual medium, so the visual element also needs to be taken into account in the storytelling. Even if the message of the story is that “appearances don’t matter”, the fact is, in comics, that they do.
The problem with Arisia’s character design is that even when she grows up, there’s still a childishness to her appearance. Even within the context of the book itself, Hal doesn’t at first notice that she’s physically grown up.
There’s no doubt that Arisia is drawn as rather fairy- or pixie-like, with the pointed ears, the short but feminine haircut, and the short skirt. In Western culture, fairies and pixies have a pretty strong tie to the concept of childhood. In fact, one might note that perhaps a close cousin in design to Arisia would be Disney’s version of Tinkerbell– the fairy companion to the boy who refuses to grow up.
So, while the text isn’t clear on whether Arisia’s mind was mature already or has just recently matured, the artwork has the potential to further confuse the reader.
3. Reinforcement of a Power Imbalance
When writing an older character and a younger character, it’s easy to fall back on the innocence/experience dichotomy when writing their interaction. On the other hand, when you’re writing an older character and a younger character in a romantic context, the same dichotomy gets a little sketchier. When not addressed directly by the text, this dichotomy can resonate more with old-school patriarchal ideals of the protective man and protected woman, rather than the modern-day ideal of an equal partnership.
By reinforcing innocence/experience in the realm of superhero activities and in the sexual realm, Englehart also reinforces a power imbalance between Hal and Arisia. The ways in which he does this all make sense as individual events within the context of the issue, but when these events are piled on top of each other, they begin to look a bit sexist. Here’s a few examples I can think of off the top of my head:
-Before they fight Black Hand, Arisia claims that she is coming to Hal with her problems because he is “the greatest GL in the cosmos.” While this is standard dialogue for Hal’s supporting cast, it’s a little disturbing that Arisia would have such an elevated (think “pedestal”, not just “good opinion”) view of the man she has considered as a potential romantic partner.
-During the fight with Black Hand, the fact that Arisia has not fought Black Hand before is what causes her to end up making the crucial mistake that gets her and Hal thrown down into the mining shaft.
-When trapped in the mining shaft and comparing their romantic histories, Hal lists off five ex-girlfriends (and that’s not even the full canonical list), and Arisia can cite no previous experience with a boyfriend. While this is fairly in character for both of them, I’d feel a little better if Arisia was at least allowed to cite a grade-school crush! The other thing that bothered me about this, admittedly, was that it seemed to reinforce the old stud/slut double standard, if unintentionally.
4. Paging Dr. Freud!
A final problematic aspect to the way Englehart sets up Hal and Arisia as a couple is in the way Arisia’s forced aging shows parallels to Everyone’s Favorite Outdated Misogynistic Diagnosis, female hysteria.
When Hal first points out to Arisia that she has suddenly become “a woman”, Arisia’s first response is to shriek and go into hysterics. Hal, then, after slapping her to get her to stop, immediately moves on to patronizing dialogue: she’s a healthy, growing girl, and nothing was ever wrong in the first place. In a way, Hal and Arisia’s conclusion that the aging was caused by Arisia’s attraction to Hal bears a striking resemblance to the way 19th Century doctors assumed that “hysterical women” were sexually desperate.
Now, with all of this problematic set-up in place, we reach the climax of the issue: Hal and Arisia’s underground fight with the mountain lion.
5. The Choice
The comic itself will summarize this better than I can, so I’ll link to the scans for you.
First, Hal slips into standard superheroic chivalry mode, but Arisia manages to hold her own and save Hal’s life, to boot. And then, to put the sprinkles onto the ice cream sundae, she tells him not to lead her on romantically. Truly, I think to myself, this is a Most Excellent Feminist Statement.
If the story had ended there, I would have been a happy camper. After all, Arisia seemed to need the time to contemplate everything that happened to her, and reassess her life from there. Then, well, if Arisia actually was a mature adult, and things were working out with Hal… no problem! Maybe then they could have a chance.
Unfortunately, the 19th century cure for 19th century female hysteria is sexual contact.
In the following issues of GLC, Hal and Arisia remain happily, sappily in love. Their rushed, reckless decision is never addressed, and therefore appears to be condoned. Perhaps it’s the pacing of the issue that got to me more than anything else– if I’d been given more time (maybe a year?) to know that Arisia is an adult capable of standing on her own two feet, with or without Hal, I might have been considerably less weirded out.
Englehart could have– and almost did– showed us that good, conscientious decision-making is what makes a person an adult. Instead, the only impression I got from his text was the shallow myth that sex and romance= automatic adulthood. And that’s not a message that our society needs, I don’t think.
Seeing as this post is long enough, I’m going to end it here. I do have a sequel in mind, though, about Arisia’s untapped potential, so hopefully y’all will be looking forward to it.