The first twenty-odd episodes of the second season of Superman: The Animated Series were released absurdly quickly, with the result that Livewire’s escape from prison in this episode–which includes her drawing a janitor’s attention with her complaints about being bored and lonely after her long imprisonment–aired only nine days after her introduction and subsequent capture by Superman. This rather puts the lie to her complaints, but it places her actions throughout the rest of the episode in context: she lies about her intentions, implies sexual favors could be in the offing, and then takes what she wants from the janitor, just as she will attempt to do with Parasite–who, remember, was once a janitor.
It’s a strange take on the character, to be sure–she’s somehow gone from an angry nihilist to a manipulative vamp, which isn’t contradictory, but doesn’t really follow organically, either. But it becomes distinctly uncomfortable when paired to a similarly out-of-nowhere development with Parasite’s character, namely that he’s a rapist now. His repeated attempts to touch Livewire are framed not as his usual draining of powers but as sexual assault–he even tells her not to worry because he can refrain from draining her if he wishes, and later she tells him “no means no”–and this strong subtext is made outright text when he talks about Lois during his fight with Superman.
As I discussed in regards to the last episode, villains are a reification of the abject. Livewire and Parasite, as the two major STAS villains who partake of the grotesque, work particularly well as examples of this: their bodies are hybrids of human and not-human, violations of the boundaries of what we regard as the physical norms of humanity, just as their behavior violates social norms. And, as I discussed last time, a consequence of their ability to cross social boundaries is that they cross the boundaries that are there for a reason–they are terrible people.
But there is another factor to this, another function of the grotesque: by performatively crossing social boundaries, they draw attention to those same boundaries. The depiction of a figure as grotesque reinforces that it is abject–this is the function of racist caricatures, for example, which turn natural human features into grotesque parodies of themselves, and thereby declare that those features are undesirable and not “normal.”
With that in mind, look again at how Livewire and Parasite’s villainy are gendered. Parasite, a man, threatens sexual violence; Livewire, a woman, uses sexual allure to deceive and manipulate. These are not remotely equivalent, of course–Parasite is obviously a lot worse–but both are violations of social norms and moral acceptability. But these very violations draw attention to and reinforce the boundaries they’re violating, and just as the violations are gendered, so are the boundaries.
In other words, what we’re seeing is a straightforward example of hegemonic masculinity and performative femininity: Parasite is a man and so for him, sex and violence are equated; Livewire is a woman, and so for her sex and performance or deception are equated. This, in turn, a question I brought up briefly in discussing Parasite’s last appearance, “Two’s a Crowd”: namely, how can characters like Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and now Livewire be at once grotesque and heavily sexualized? They are, after all, women designed to be sexy by a pinup artist–in what sense is that grotesque?
And the answer is that all contain key departures from the “normal” feminine form–which, in the DCAU, is the default Timm design on which almost all his female characters are based–that signify the grotesque without actually making them less conventionally attractive. Specifically, Harley Quinn’s skintight outfit serves as the model here, evoking the clown–a deliberately grotesque figure rooted in the same carnival tradition as all the ideas we’re discussing here–while still presenting her in a way designed to be appealing to the heterosexual male gaze. Poison Ivy is the same: her green costume (pre-redesign) and unnatural pallor (post-redesign) evoke the plants she has the power to control, and in turn the fact that she is not entirely human, while still allowing her to be a shapely woman with a pretty face. Finally, Livewire has her pallor and her hair, reminding us that she is likewise a monstrous hybrid of human and electricity, but leaving her free to be a Timm pinup in a skimpy costume at the same time.
In terms of abject behavior, all of them–now that Livewire is playing the vamp–express their sexuality in similarly boundary-violating ways. Harley is in a relationship with a man who abuses her; Harley and Ivy are lesbian lovers; Ivy and Livewire seduce and manipulate men for their own ends. All three are violations of what women are “supposed” to do by the standards of heteronormative patriarchy, which is to wait passively for a “good man” to claim them as his property, a standard which is reinforced by the vilification of those who cross it.
In turn, their abject status is used to justify violations against them: the Parasite betraying Livewire and stealing her powers is portrayed both as satisfaction of his earlier attempts to touch her–which, as I said above, were portrayed as attempts at sexual assault–and as motivated by her refusal to make herself sexually available to him, even though the most she ever “led him on” was to say “maybe” and then immediately walk it back.
Parasite is ultimately punished severely as well: absorbing Livewire’s powers gave him her weaknesses, and absorbing Superman’s gave him Superman’s as well. It is never stated, but throughout the DCAU, Superman is consistently depicted as being vulnerable to electrical shocks, and so when Parasite is sprayed with a large amount of water, he not only shorts out like Livewire, but electrocutes himself as well, with the end of the episode implying he has suffered severe brain damage as a result. But Livewire’s fury at his betrayal and violation is depicted as therefore inappropriate, as if the fact that he cannot remember his actions means they didn’t happen.
She is, after all, a villain and a woman. Doubly abject, in the eyes of society, her opinions and feelings matter not at all.
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