A shock to your system (Livewire)

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It’s still September 13, 1997, the same day as “Speed Demons” and “Holiday Knights,” and there have been no significant changes in the charts or news stories in the several minutes since the latter.

Livewire’s introduction makes a lot of sense. Harley Quinn was a massive hit, so why not see if lightning (pun very much intended) would strike twice and introduce a new female villain in Superman: The Animated Series? And given that, Livewire and Harley Quinn are interesting to compare. Harley is unpowered, like Batman, while Livewire and Superman both have superpowers. Harley tries to come across as less intelligent than she actually is; Livewire isn’t as smart as she pretends to be. Harley is genuinely funny and subversive; Livewire is angry and power-hungry (in both the literal and metaphorical senses).

One more thing they have in common: they’re both tricksters. But where Harley wields the magic of the harlequinade, subverting and transforming the world, Livewire is a violator of taboos, the woman who laughs in the temple. It is an alternate path to tearing down the power structures of society: mocking the sacred reminds us that it is we who hallow it, not the other way around. Communities create their own taboos; it is the job of the trickster to remind us that we could change them if we wanted.

In the Renaissance carnivals from which the harlequinade ultimately evolved, the breaking of taboos and crossing of boundaries were common. In particular, mockery of the sacred and inversions of the feudal order were encouraged. This is the origin of the tradition of the grotesque, in which the boundaries of the body were violated just as the boundaries of society, and the abject is welcomed in.

In keeping with this tradition, Livewire doesn’t just put on a costume, she is transformed into a monster, a blue-haired, unnaturally pale creature that crackles with energy and eats lightning. She transgresses the boundaries of not just civil behavior but materiality itself, able to transform into an electrical pulse running along a wire or an image on a screen, then emerge again as an apparently solid human being. But this is just a reification of what she was already doing as a radio host: violating boundaries and shocking people. Like Harley Quinn, her very existence is a pun.

As Leslie Willis, at least insofar as we see, the main temple in which she laughs is the one in which Metropolis worships Superman. For this, she is framed as a villain, but as the World’s Worst Books (not to mention the more toxic elements of comics fandom) have taught us, the sanctification of superheroes is dangerous. Nonetheless, it earns her the intense dislike of Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and Bibbo Bibowski, as well as the approval of Mercy Graves and Lex Luthor, so her moral standing in the eyes of the show is fairly clear.

And there is a definite negative side to what she’s doing. She is intensely cynical, insisting “no one is that nice for free,” which is a great excuse to never be charitable or kind. Nihilism is easy, especially in the 90s, as we’ve discussed, and Willis is clearly designed to evoke the 90s suburban goth aesthetic, with her dark hair, black eyeliner, pale skin, black clothes, boots and ripped tights. (I went to high school with a girl who dressed just like that, except for the bare midriff–those weren’t allowed.) Even in her clothing, she crosses social boundaries, wearing a rather business-formal black jacket with her midriff-baring tank top, shorts, and combat boots. But she’s sunk through melodramatic despair and into what lies below, acidic cynicism: if there is nothing good in the world, then nothing matters, and everything is equally deserving of attack. The grotesque is an important means to an end; but once it becomes an end in itself, once one is breaking taboos not because they are bad or even unquestioned, but just because they’re there, then the road to nihilism becomes very short. (South Park‘s first episode aired exactly a month ago; as we will see later, it rapidly made the same transition from shock-jock grotesquerie to nihilistic cynicism.)

The problem is compounded by celebrity; Willis’ nihilism is her brand, and garners her what is in essence public worship, exactly what she exists to undermine. Willis herself is precisely the hypocrite she accuses Superman of being, as she tacitly admits when she answers Lois’ questions about whether Willis really believes what she says with a brief rant about how she had to work so much harder than the men around her to achieve her place. That is one of the few unambiguously true statements she makes in the episode: she undoubtedly did have to work much harder than a man would have to reach the same level of fame and acclaim, because our culture is misogynistic garbage (as well as several other kinds of garbage). But it frames what Willis does as genuinely hard work, for which she expects to be rewarded as she deserves; nobody, after all, is that cruel for free.

But the end result is that Livewire wants power and status, to be worshiped for mocking worship. She has values, and will not stand to see them violated: money and fame, power and attention, precisely the values of late capitalism. Her nihilism is performative; at the core, she’s really just a capitalist, which is to say she’s not laughing in the temple, she’s laughing all the way to the bank. She says it herself: she is the electric company, the cable company, the Queen of All Media (itself a riff on shock jock Howard Stern’s self-declared “King of All Media” title). Just another ruler, another tyrant, Lex Luthor with Freakazoid’s hair and a Bruce Timm pinup girl body.

Small wonder Livewire’s never caught on remotely as much as Harley Quinn: for all her fantastical powers, there’s no magic to be found here. Just dull, acid mundanity.


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