James Gunn’s “Superhero Sex” Post: Do Fictional Characters Have the Right to Be Treated with Respect?

In 2008, an Australian man was convicted of possession of child pornography because he had drawings of characters based on Bart and Lisa Simpson having sex:

In a landmark finding, Justice Michael Adams today upheld a decision convicting a man of possessing child pornography after the cartoons, depicting characters modelled on Bart, Lisa and Maggie engaging in sex acts, were found on his computer.
The main issue of the case was whether a fictional cartoon character could “depict” a “person” under law.

But Justice Adams agreed with the magistrate, finding that while The Simpsons characters had hands with four fingers and their faces were “markedly and deliberately different to those of any possible human being”, the mere fact that they were not realistic representations of human beings did not mean that they could not be considered people.

Writing about the case, Neil Gaiman noted,

And I suspect the Judge might have just inadvertantly granted human rights to cartoon characters.

In 2010, another Australian man was forced to register as a sex offender for

downloading graphic cartoon porn images featuring child characters from The Simpsons and The Powerpuff Girls television shows.

The 28-year-old former security guard was handed a 12-month suspended prison sentence and is now a registered sex offender after pleading guilty in Ipswich District Court to having the bizarre images on his computer.

Later that same year, an Idaho man pled guilty to possession of “visual representations of child sex abuse” because he’d

downloaded more than 70 animated cartoon pornographic images on his computer. Many of them depicted child characters from The Simpsons.

He was later sentenced to fifteen months in federal prison.

These are extreme examples of what can happen when actual human beings start to believe that fictional characters should be afforded the same rights and respect as actual human beings. Keep these stories in mind as we consider the controversy over a post that appeared in February 2011 on the website of director James Gunn.

The first post was entitled “The 50 Superheroes You Most Want to Have Sex With: 2nd Annual Poll Results!

From that title alone, two things should be immediately apparent: The first is that Gunn has a broad, absurd sense of humor. The second is that this is a poll that is so completely unmoored from reality that it is no way meant to be — nor could it be — taken seriously. Superheroes are fictional characters. They are not real people. Actual, living, breathing human beings — such as those who presumably took part in this completely unserious and over-the-top bizarre poll — cannot, by definition, have sex with them. Because they are not real.

I repeat, because some people have trouble understanding this point: Superheroes are not real people.

But Gunn’s post has come in for serious scrutiny because of some of the puerile language he used in his descriptions of the fictional characters who made into the top poll results. Specifically:

5.     Gambit
My girlfriend voted for this Cajun fruit. I think she’s looking to have a devil’s three way with the two of us.  The idea of my balls slapping against Gambit’s makes me sick to my stomach, but I can’t deny the fellow’s pure HEAT, as he yet again placed so high on this list, despite being male and in the presence of so many A-listers.  Wolverine and Superman may beat him in sales, but it’s who the ladies love that really matters, and Gambit is the Galactus of Cock!

8.     The Black Widow
It’s hard to believe the Russian spy who Tony Stark called “sexual napalm” didn’t even rank last year!  Natasha Romanova is the highest debut on the list, and, considering she’s fucked half the men in the Marvel Universe, it’s much deserved.

16. Iron Man
Personally, if I were into dudes, I think Batman would be too stiff in bed, Superman would be too good-natured, and Wolvie would be too accidentally-shredding-me-with-his-claws-upon-orgasm. I’d want a dude who had, you know, experience – someone who has fucked most the superheroines on the planet, and knew what he was doing. I’d go Tony Stark.  Although I’d ask him, kindly, to lose the current prison pussy and go back to the ‘stache.

20. Black Canary
I sometimes think that the Black Canary is the hottest chick in the DC Universe until I remember that she, uh, fucks Green Arrow.  But I’m really happy to have her here, if only for the two awesome and hot Al Rio drawings in a row.

32. Batwoman
This lesbian character was voted for almost exclusively by men. I don’t know exactly what that means.  But I’m hoping for a Marvel-DC crossover so that Tony Stark can “turn” her.  She could also have sex with Nightwing and probably still be technically considered a lesbian.

Does this fictional character have the right to not be slut-shamed?

Gunn’s post isn’t about Olivia Munn or Megan Fox. It’s not about cosplayers. These are fictional characters about which he’s waxing sleazy. And not even fictional characters, really — they’re Intellectual Property that big corporations use to make billions of dollars by exploiting passionate fandom. And sometimes, the fans who have spent entire lifetimes following the adventures of these characters have trouble understanding that they aren’t in fact flesh and blood real people, but fictional characters. Case in point, this post from The Mary Sue, titled “SO HERE’S THE SLUT-SHAMING, HOMOPHOBIC POST ON SUPERHEROES BY… THE DIRECTOR OF GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY,” which contains the following paragraph:

The screenshot at the top of this post is the entirety of what he has to say about Batwoman, which is both a reference to the idea that lesbians just need a good (read: streotypically masculine) man to have sex with them and they’ll be “cured” of their homosexuality, a delusion at the heart of an innumerable number of rapes; and a dig at Nightwing, one of the few male characters in comics who has actually gotten away with being drawn for the female gaze. Apparently, having been depicted as a female sex fantasy occasionally (and still with nowhere near the frequency that any given female character is drawn for the male gaze) instead of a male power fantasy literally makes him a woman.

Look at what the author of the post, Susana Polo, writes there. She states that Nightwing is a “character” who is “drawn” in a specific way, but in the next sentence claims that Gunn’s sophomoric joke “literally makes him a woman.”

Nightwing isn’t a human being. He doesn’t literally exist. He can’t be made literally a woman. He can’t be made “literally” anything. He doesn’t exist in reality. Gunn’s post isn’t an “insult” of Nightwing, because Nightwing can’t be insulted. He is a fictional character.

But look at Gunn’s original post regarding Batwoman, pasted above. He starts out with an observation about the constituency that voted for Batwoman as one of “The 50 Superheroes You Most Want to Have Sex With.” The actual people who voted for this were voting for the Intellectual Property they most wanted to have sex with. Batwoman is a lesbian fictional character. Gunn notes that mostly (actual) men voted for her. It’s probably a safe assumption that most of those men who voted for Batwoman are straight men (although I’m not entirely sure what would be the sexual orientation of an actual human being who desires to “have sex with” fictional characters — “Fictionsexuals”?). Then, in the very next sentence, he feigns ignorance by subtly noting the absurdity of the idea — what are these straight men thinking, exactly? He claims he doesn’t know. In the third sentence he makes an ironic, over-the-top joke that shows in fact he does know what they’re thinking, and it’s ludicrous: “I don’t know what they’re thinking, but I know I’d like to write a story about Iron Man ‘turning’ her.” This sentence is also a subtle dig at “crossover” comics, which invariably follow the same pattern: the heroes meet, there’s some misunderstanding, they fight, and then they join forces. In this case, the joining forces would involve getting Batwoman to “cross over.” But, given the fact that Iron Man and Batwoman are both pieces of Intellectual Property owned by two different and competing corporations, that’s not very likely, is it? I’d say it’s about as likely as “turning” a lesbian “straight.”

Batwoman is Intellectual Property, owned by a huge corporation. She is not a real person. Real people cannot be “owned” by anyone else.

This isn’t exactly Rush Limbaugh slut shaming Sandra Fluke, an actual real-live person. This is a man making absurd jokes about fictional characters and the participants in his completely ludicrous and unrealistic poll.

Some of Polo’s points are so intellectually dishonest that I suspect her outrage is more phony than just misguided. Here’s what she says about Gunn’s notes on Gambit:

Gambit is another character who gets drawn or written for the female gaze, and he comes in at number five even on a list not weighted for the gender or orientation of its polling base.  Says Gunn: “My girlfriend voted for this Cajun fruit.” He goes on to say that the idea of having sex with Gambit himself makes him sick to his stomach. Because, again, imagining a man as attractive to a woman necessarily requires you to imagine him as gay.

Gunn notes that his own girlfriend voted for Gambit. The entire Gambit post therefore becomes a commentary on male insecurity. His very own girlfriend voted for this character. What, he’s not enough for her? She has to fantasize about some fictional character? He’s offended by that! It hurts his feelings! It challenges his manhood. So what does he do? He does what so many homophobic jerks do when they feel their girlfriend might be attracted to a male fictional character: He challenges that fictional character’s fictional manhood. The idea of his having sex with Gambit springs from his stated belief that his girlfriend might want to have a three-way with the character. Because even if he’s not enough for her on his own, well, he might just be enough for her if he gets a little help from the fictional character Gambit — and anyway, his own girlfriend doesn’t really want to have sex with Gambit, she just wants to see him have sex with Gambit. Yes, that must be it.

But, again, real live human beings cannot have sex with fictional characters. Because they are fictional. Absurdity is built into the premise of the post.

Polo does make one interesting point about Gunn and his absurdly-premised post:

I also don’t make a habit of writing news posts about random people on the internet being jerks. Unless, of course, they’re not random people at all, but people with significant power over either legal matters or the media we consume.

See, in between last February and now, Gunn was tapped as the director for the first new set of characters to be introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 2, The Guardians of the Galaxy.

I suppose it would be of interest if Ford hired someone to create a “new” car, based on 30 years of past car continuity that so many of us have come to love, and then it was discovered that that person had at some point in the past written a blog post in which he made jokes about fucking Mustang convertibles and whether or not Camaros should get it on with Priuses. Marvel has hired Gunn to handle some of its Intellectual Property. They hired him after he’d written this particular attempt at humor, in which he pokes fun at some of their Intellectual Property, and the attitudes of fans who take these characters so seriously that they actually voted in a poll about which of them they’d like to have sex with. So, yeah, “What was Marvel thinking?” might be an interesting question.

But, again: This is a post about a poll in which people voted for which fictional characters they’d like to have sex with.

I’m honestly trying to put myself inside the mind of the actual living person who would want to have sex with a drawing. I just can’t do it. I really can’t. I also can’t put myself inside the mind of a person who would be offended by jokes made at the expense of people who would vote in a poll of which fictional characters they’d most like to have sex with.

We know that fans can be… zealous in their attempts to protect their favorite Intellectual Property. Look at how the Rotten Tomatobots made death threats against critics who gave negative reviews to “The Dark Knight Rises,” or how they engage in childish, puerile name-calling when anyone disagrees with them.

This is not so far from what Gunn was doing in his post. In fact, Rachel Edidin criticizes him for doing this too well:

If Gunn’s list is satire, it’s bad satire, because it skews incredibly close to material that’s not only already out there, but that comes from official media and in some cases industry professionals. There’s a significant slice of the comics community that is that misogynist and homophobic, and says so loudly and frequently. It’s telling, I think, that so many people took what Gunn wrote at face value: this is material we’ve seen before, again and again, presented seriously.

So Gunn’s post is ineffective because it illustrates something nasty that is loud and frequent in the industry? Um. What? Apparently, the post was too subtle to be seen as an absurdist satire, despite the fact that in its very title it suggests that actual human beings might want to have “sex” with fictional characters.

As for people taking “what Gunn wrote at face value”: Can anyone be held liable for how his work is interpreted by other people? Should Robert Crumb be held liable for the fact that white supremacists approvingly reprint some of his satirical comics? After all, racism exists in the world, and Crumb’s comics illustrate attitudes that “skew incredibly close to material that’s already out there.” By this standard, Crumb’s work must be racist.

Back to Neil Gaiman, writing about that 2008 Australian case:

The ability to distinguish between fiction and reality is, I think, an important indicator of sanity, perhaps the most important.

“Slut-shaming” and “homophobia” are serious, tragic problems. They are in fact so serious that they should not be trivialized. By invoking those problems in an attempt to criticize a satirical post based around the completely unreal concept of actual human beings having “sex” with Intellectual Property, you’re only blurring the line between fiction and reality, and trivializing the problems you’re hoping to draw attention to.

But, hey, they did manage to get Gunn to apologize for not being funny. So, problem solved.