Re: DC’s racefail, featuring Cass Cain
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise for anyone reading this that I love Cassandra Cain. I love her a lot! My heart grows five sizes when I read her comics. Sometimes during the day I’ll randomly start thinking about Cass and then almost tear up that she isn’t regularly in anything anymore, that’s how much I love Cass.
The simplest way to explain why Cass is one of my favorite comic book characters sounds incredibly superficial—she looks like me. But how often does an Asian girl get an Asian girl vigilante to look up to? Cass is incredibly important to me not only because I can relate to her struggle to find self-worth and identity and a cause worth fighting for, but also because she’s a positive role model who isn’t white.
But there’s no denying that, as a character, Cass is problematic. Despite being one of the most prominent Asian characters in DC comics, she is also one of the most prominent examples of exotification and otherization (oh shit is that a word? I have no idea) of Asian characters in the media as well.
Okay, in the interests of strict honesty, I’m not entirely sure I have the spoons to engage with this discussion, but as much as I liked parts of this essay there are other parts that made me way too uncomfortable to not say at least something. Specifically, I mean the parts that touch on another part of Cass’s minority identity:
The other facet of Cass’ background that DC seems unable to let go of is her abnormal upbringing. That’s totally understandable—Cass’ speechless childhood is something that fundamentally defines her character, her struggle, her motivations, and her loyalty to the bat symbol.
But think about it this way: Cass is “the other”. She’s totally different, totally strange, and this is because of the way she was raised. But, as DC doesn’t want you to forget, Cass is also Asian. By repeatedly emphasizing how different Cass is because of her upbringing, and simultaneously repeatedly emphasizing her ethnicity, DC inextricably links this quality of “otherness” with Cass’ Asian-ness. And with Cass being DC’s most visible Asian character, all that this does is imply that Asian people must be different simply because they are Asian.
The vague, hands-off-ness — I’d go so far as to say othering — of the language used here — “abnormal upbringing,” “speechless childhood,” “the way she was raised,” “different,” “strange” — rather beats around the bush: as a result of her abusive childhood, Cassandra Cain has severe language and speech related learning disabilities (not to mention a whole passel of psychological trauma), and her identity as a person with disabilities is just as much an intrinsic part of her character as her racial background. I am really uncomfortable with the way Cass’ disabilities are framed here in opposition to her Asian-ness, as a trait which undermines it as opposed to another facet of her character. Certainly, DC’s treatment of Cass as a person with disabilities is as mixed as their treatment of Cass as a chromatic person — which is to say very — but the solution is not to downplay one aspect of her identity for the sake of another. The implication that DC should “let go” of Cass’ background, when that background is vital context to the psychological and neurological challenges that she realistically should be working through on an ongoing basis, is tantamount to arguing for erasure of one of comics’ very few protagonists with disabilities.
(Of course, there’s also the issue that it’s always the minority characters who have to work through these challenges, while the white/straight/cis/male characters just sail on through the worst traumas which are completely glossed over within two story arcs. But the solution there is more representation and more nuanced storytelling, not erasing the representation we have to adhere to a flawed and problematic standard.)
I’m not even sure glossing over Cass’ history would do any good for her treatment as an Asian person, anyway. I get where Dandizette is coming from with the argument that DC emphasizes the two things that make Cass near-unique in the field of DC characters — her Asian-ness and her disabilities — to the point of fetishization. But on the other hand, Cass’ ongoing struggles with language, with the legacy of her upbringing, with these things that make her different from everyone else she knows — those are what make her real. More to the point, it’s a bit strange that we’ve both been writing about DC playing down Cass’ disabilities as a hypothetical, when it’s already happened — they already have erased her disabilities, as part and parcel of the same character mangling that turned her into a generic junior dragon lady with daddy issues to be a villain for Tim Drake.