Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post by Nicholas E. Miller was inspired in part by reading “Professor X is a(n Abusive) Jerk” and its exploration of the normalization of abusive behavior by men in power through the figure of Charles Xavier. Nicholas recently took part in the Bitch Planet Round Table, and I first became acquainted with him when he presented on teaching that comic at ICAF 2017. I hope this powerful consideration of how the expectations for women in the entertainment industry are written into popular narratives is just the beginning of Nick’s contributions to The Middle Spaces.
In a recent post on The Middle Spaces, Osvaldo Oyola posited that “the degree to which [the #MeToo] conversation seems ‘new’ is a result of how such concerns were erased from the public discourse for so long.” Coming on the heels of one of my favorite posts on this site—one that examines Professor X and the normalization of his abusive behaviors—it has become increasingly clear to me that meaningful conversations about abuse and assault require us to grapple more carefully with how artifacts of popular culture normalize toxic behaviors. It is my hope that this post will allow me to continue and extend such conversations.
With that in mind, I want to revisit Marvel Graphic Novel #12: Dazzler: The Movie (October 1984), a comic that depicts narratives of sexual abuse and assault that have been commonly heard in the #MeToo moment—especially as the entertainment industry reels from revelations about American film producer Harvey Weinstein. More importantly, however, reading this graphic novel serves as a reminder of what happens when problematic narratives do not get critiqued, but normalized—a practice that has an established history at Marvel under the editorship of Jim Shooter, who has a troubled past when it comes to responsible representation in his own work (see, for example, his infamous depiction of gay characters in The Hulk). These concerns feel remarkably present, yet—to return to Oyola’s language—they also have been “erased from public discourse for too long.” It is that erasure that brings me back to Dazzler: The Movie. Presented in remarkably explicit ways in 1984, this story about Dazzler (aka Alison Blaire) and the behaviors of Eric Beale and Roman Nekoboh serve as an important fictional prehistory to the #MeToo movement and stories about media figures such as Harvey Weinstein.
That being said, Dazzler: The Movie is more than just an early depiction of stories about abusive men in power. As one of the early publications in the Marvel Graphic Novel series, this narrative also formed part of an initiative to sell Marvel comics beyond newsstands through direct market and bookstore sales. While Dazzler #1 became Marvel’s first direct-market-only title in 1981, just a few years later the direct market would account for nearly 50% of all Marvel sales. While I could easily identify a number of comics that feature sexism and abuse, the potential reach of a text like Dazzler: The Movie—which now has been reprinted in three collections over the past eight years—makes it seem even more important that Dazzler get her own #MeToo moment. As fans and scholars, we must examine how these artifacts critique and/or normalize abusive narratives if we hope to understand (and eventually dismantle) the cultures that enable abuse today. If we consider the central role of the entertainment industry in #MeToo narratives, revisiting the story of a mutant performer like Dazzler seems a promising place to start.
For those unfamiliar with Dazzler, the character was originally imagined as a collaboration between Marvel Comics and Casablanca Records. Clad in a throwback disco outfit, distinctive blue eye makeup, and sparkly silver roller skates, she was first introduced in Uncanny X-Men #130 (February 1980) as a mutant performer whose abilities allow her to convert sound into light. She then had her own solo series, which ran for 42 issues from 1981-1986. [For a more detailed look at Dazzler, please check out Oyola’s post at Sounding Out! from 2012.] Written by Jim Shooter, with art by Frank Springer and Vince Colletta, Dazzler: The Movie picks up following the events of Dazzler #34 (October 1984), a story in which Alison rebuffs the romantic advances of Roman Nekoboh, a movie star who had been part of her life since Dazzler #29 (November 1983). As the narrative opens, Alison finds herself in a similar predicament: she is subjected to the unwanted attentions and unsolicited advances of powerful men. The first panel showcases Alison as a dance-exercise instructor at a swanky Los Angeles health club.
A few panels in, we see a married couple looking in on her class and staring at Alison. The woman states that “every woman here would give anything to look like her,” to which her husband responds, “and every man would give anything to be with her.” Further solidifying Alison’s status as an object of desire, the wife then says: “If you’d said that about anyone else, Mel, you’d be sleeping on the couch tonight. But … I have to admit that I understand … sort of.” From the start, then, Dazzler: The Movie depicts Alison primarily as a body to be admired or someone who is exceptional only for her physical attributes. The language used here is not unlike contemporary discourse about celebrities and desire, including the infamous “freebie list” trope popularized by F•R•I•E•N•D•S in 1996. Alison is viewed as too good to be true, less a person than a possession, and the unwilling subject of our collective sexual gaze. That Alison is a performer is frequently used to excuse such objectifying practices. In common parlance, we might hear somebody argue that she is “asking for it”—a fraught idea that we still entertain toward celebrity women. Yet even under that flawed logic, Alison is not asking for it. She is merely teaching a class and trying to make sure her bills get paid.
As class ends, Alison is accosted by Eric Beale, the owner of a production company. He puts his hand on Alison’s shoulder and declares: “This is my first class, Ali! I’m impressed! You’re incredibly sexy!” This highlights an issue that women often face: she is touched without consent, Beale reduces her value to her “sexiness,” and he names himself as somebody important. He then says: “A girl who looks like you could really go far with a ‘friend’ like me behind her. Now, I want you to go change and meet me in the lobby in ten.” Alison rejects his offer, saying she cannot fraternize with club members. Beale continues by making explicit the subtext of his invitation: if Alison sleeps with him she can move up in the world. And he does not want to take “no” for an answer. He instead tells her exactly what he wants her to do, as if her desires and consent are unimportant. This marks an important facet of patriarchal culture: the idea that to get ahead as a woman, one must have sex with the men in charge. Beale, of course, codes his language by referring to himself as a helpful “friend” (the quotation marks are in the comic), but we know what those quotation marks signify. This phenomenon is similar to what actor Heather Graham described in an interview with Variety when discussing Weinstein: “There was no explicit mention that to star in one of those films I had to sleep with him, but the subtext was there.” The subtext in these situations always seems to be there.
More concerning is how Beale returns to the story. He walks in on Alison’s personal workout session later to inform her that he has purchased the club: “Now I make the rules! So, if you’ll join me for dinner tonight, Ali, we can discuss your promotion!” He also belittles her work by saying: “I understand that you sing a little! I can introduce you to the ‘right’ people … and help you along!” Without waiting for her reply, Beale states: “Put that [barbell] down and get dressed! I’m a busy man!” Alison quickly hands him her weights and grabs a markedly unconfident man nearby, telling Beale that she already committed to getting a carrot juice with this other guy. Much like other stories of women targeted for abuse or harassment, here we see an immediate attempt to escape by crafting an excuse that is palatable to the ego and toxic masculinity of an assailant—the strategy of making use of the presence of another man. What is terrifying here is the sense of urgency and the fear that we see from Alison. Despite being a strong woman and powerful mutant, she is scared of offending Beale.
While Beale is clearly supposed to be the villain of the story and, as such, Dazzler: The Movie could presumably read as a progressive exposé on toxic masculinity in Hollywood, the narrative quickly gets more complicated. Even as comparisons between Beale and Weinstein are valuable, it is the narrative of Roman Nekoboh that raises additional concerns about powerful men in Hollywood sexually abusing women. You see, unlike Beale, Roman becomes a potentially “sympathetic” love interest for Alison as the narrative progresses. As Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men explore in their 2014 podcast episode “Post-Disco Panic,” Roman is a problematic romantic partner. Not least among the reasons they give is that he is ultimately “rewarded” for his “persistence” rather than villainized for his abusive attitudes and attempted rape. It is this effort by creators to “redeem” Roman by the end of the narrative that makes Dazzler: The Movie an important text to revisit in the #MeToo moment—he is the classic “reformed rake” whose early abusive behaviors are made to seem necessary for him to grow as a person.
Readers discover early that Roman is an unfit, aging man who goes through an elaborate process of making himself look attractive each day—including fake teeth, contact lenses, a girdle, and a wig. He is basically a washed-up movie star clinging to notions of grandeur. We first encounter him at his home, waking up late as an unnamed woman leaves his bed. He then tells his butler about a “girl I met recently … Alison something or other.” He extols the values of her body, and laments “[spending] practically the whole day with her” although he “didn’t get any action.” Yet Roman likes a challenge, and he lets readers know that he will still pursue Alison. He values the “chase” in a way that reifies the notion of women as prey to be hunted—a dehumanizing narrative that still permeates the entertainment industry and celebrity culture more broadly.
The narrative then cuts to Alison, who runs into reporters following her opening night gig at a nightclub. They inform Alison that Roman has announced that she is going to co-star in his next film and then proceed to ask her inappropriate questions about their assumed romance, whether or not Roman is good in bed and even if she used to be a porn star. The idea that we glorify celebrity men for being able to “get” ladies in this way sounds eerily similar to narratives about Weinstein, about whom it is reported that: “He boasted about the famous actresses he had supposedly slept with—a common element of his come-on, according to several other women.” We also hear versions of this language from Roman when we next see him in Alison’s apartment. There we learn that he has bribed her building super to get in. Roman greets Alison by saying: “I’ve been waiting for you—and you should be honored! Time and tide wait for no man, and Roman Nekoboh waits for no woman—usually!” It is Alison’s place as one woman among many—the one who has temporarily caught his eye—that is supposed to convince her of his merits and sexual prowess. This exchange highlights how abusive behaviors become normalized as acts of sexual conquest for men. More importantly, men in positions of power are able to engage is these forms of abuse with little risk of consequences.
Uninterested in Roman, Alison tells him that she is tired and wants to go to bed, to which he replies—as he visibly invades her personal space—“That’s exactly what I had in mind.” The narrative now becomes one of explicit and violent sexual assault. Despite a loud “NO!!!” from Alison, Roman leans into her and pins her against a table before violently crashing through it as she tries to escape. Subsequent panels show Roman lying atop Alison on the floor with broken pieces of furniture around them. Alison finally manages to kick him out, but not before the damage is done. Again, this attempted rape echoes more recent narratives of Weinstein, who—as recounted by Rebecca Traister and others—was well-known for his temper and violence. More frightening, however, is that often women are not able to escape such assaults (and we will soon learn that Alison is not free from Roman’s abuses yet, either). In one particularly powerful narrative about Harvey Weinstein, Lucia Stoller Evans recounts: “‘I said, over and over, ‘I don’t want to do this, stop, don’t.’ . . . I tried to get away, but maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t want to kick him or fight him.” In a culture rampant with victim-blaming, we can see how quickly such blame gets internalized by abused women. As Allison tries to pick up the pieces after Roman leaves, we are left with an image of her staring into a broken piece of glass with tears running down her face. There, she asks herself: “Is there anything left to be shattered?” Alison will grapple with that question as she continues to internalize abuse later on as well.
Before he leaves, however, Roman stands in the doorway and claims she “just [doesn’t] understand how Hollywood works,” and makes it clear that she should be grateful for his attentions—“there are lots of beautiful young singers who’d give anything for what I’m offering.” Hollywood producers frequently promise to green-light scripts for women in exchange for sexual favors, and Weinstein often told women that he had upcoming projects that his associates would discuss with them at a later date. Indeed, a common thread among Weinstein’s accusers is that they were often young women looking to break into the film industry. This problem has been normalized in popular culture to the point where abusive men and “desperate” women looking for stardom have become tired tropes. Yet even as these events play out in Dazzler: The Movie, Alison stands her ground, repeating the word “Out!” eight times over two pages. Roman eventually relents, but not without a parting threat, saying: “All right! But your career is dead! Understand?!” Such threats implicitly recognize and name the power dynamic, yet rarely lead men to acknowledge how this dynamic affects consent. Evidence that men continue to feel comfortable making threats against the careers of women abound. Salma Hayek, for example, famously revealed that Weinstein threatened to shut down one of her films if she did not film a nude scene, and—in an unnerving echo of Roman’s words here—Rosanna Arquette reports that Weinstein told her, “Rosanna, you’re making a big mistake,” when she rejected his advances. Such threats, we learn, are not always subtext.
What is most shocking—though I suppose it shouldn’t be—is that Roman shows up again the next day and pursues Alison as if nothing happened, pitching a movie opportunity and telling her how lucky she is to be considered. She retaliates by using her powers, sending his car crashing into a building. Yet he walks away from that accident and physically chases her, yelling: “I’m not going to let you get away! No traffic, no tires to blow—just my lithe bronzed body pursuing yours, until you collapse into my arms, your succulent breasts heaving.” There is no space for consent here, just the predatory language of conquest. When he realizes he cannot run her down, Roman fakes a heart attack—preying on her sympathies until she comes back to check on him. Alison ultimately relents after once more hearing that Roman might help her fledgling career.
At this point, the narrative becomes even more fraught; unlike Eric Beale, it is clear that Roman is intended as the romantic hero of this story. As such, we transition from Roman as physical assailant to images of him purchasing expensive meals and fine clothing for Alison. They eventually share a kiss and are depicted as a couple moving forward. While this is obviously a reprehensible narrative turn, the shift is also instructive in that it provides us with insight into the psychology of abuse. In a recent story of women speaking up about such experiences, for example, Ronan Farrow recounted Asia Argento’s relationship with Weinstein:
“What complicates the story . . . is that [Argento] eventually yielded to Weinstein’s further advances and even grew close to him. Weinstein dined with her and introduced her to his mother. Argento told me, ‘He made it sound like he was my friend and he really appreciated me.’ She said that she had consensual sexual relations with him multiple times over the course of the next five years. . . . ‘I felt I had to.’”
It is not uncommon for victims to eventually become exhausted or relent—or even to retroactively normalize abusive behavior and doubt their own experiences. We have certainly seen versions of that narrative in the recent Larry Nassar sentencing as multiple accusers gave impact statements about how they stopped recognizing abuse or began to doubt what had really happened. Alison, perhaps, serves as an example of that same internalizing impulse.
Indeed, in Dazzler: The Movie, we see few traces that Alison sees wrongdoing in Roman’s actions through the second half of the text. If anything, she blames herself for her decisions in ways that soon become a self-shaming commentary on her looks and body type. She has internalized the objectifying narratives from earlier in the text and now sees her relationship with Roman as toxic only insofar as she is not living up to her sexualized potential. At one point, she stares critically at her body in the mirror, her vulnerabilities now exposed by Roman’s weaponized gaze.
He also exposes her vulnerabilities to the world at large by outing Alison as a mutant, a violation of her privacy that will eventually lead to a public demonstration of her powers and a wave of anti-mutant sentiment toward the X-Men. In addition, we learn that Roman is actually producing a movie for Alison, but that he has made its production contingent upon the funding and demands of her previous harasser, Eric Beale, who is looking for an opportunity to get back at Alison for rejecting him. That Alison will forgive Roman for all of this—despite the stalking and attempted rape and despite the fact that his actions ultimately force her to confront her previous harasser in person—makes it hard to see this narrative as anything but abusive, even if she does not seem to recognize it as such. While I do not have space in this already lengthy post to tackle everything that happens at the end of Dazzler: The Movie, I do want to note how Shooter closes out the narrative: after Alison confronts Beale and terminates the movie production, Roman runs to Beale’s office with the intention of tearing up the contract, realizing too late that what he had done was wrong. The story then ends with Alison telling Roman how much she loves him, a rather unfortunate nod to the idea that doing the bare minimum to redeem oneself after assaulting a woman somehow qualifies men for their love and respect.
I cannot stop seeing our present moment in the text. Reading Dazzler: The Movie helps remind me that the #MeToo movement is only new insofar as it represents a collective of women pushing back against these deeply-ingrained cultural narratives and, to some extent, being heard. What is new is only that we are starting—just barely—to listen up when women speak out about these abuses. That being said, it still took nearly 200 accusers to eventually put Larry Nassar in prison, and many in Hollywood continue to ignore Dylan Farrow’s individual story about Woody Allen. While it is difficult to imagine anybody truly listening to Alison if she had spoken up in 1984, it is also quite easy to imagine a contemporary audience still seeing Alison at fault for the actions of Beale and Nekoboh.
In the years that have passed since Dazzler: The Movie was first published, there have been few attempts to recognize Alison’s abuse in Marvel comics. One exception might be Wolverine: The Best There Is #7 (August 2011), where Alison is found watching a singing competition on television as she laments her past experiences with “gropey managers” and trying to “make it” as a performer. Yet even as such gestures implicitly refer back to her experiences in Dazzler: The Movie (Logan explicitly mentions that he hated her movie), they do too little to acknowledge how such narratives remain normalized in popular culture. And, in this case, Alison’s brief mention of “gropey managers” seems like a very watered-down way of describing the stalking, sexual assault, and attempted rape at the hands of Roman. It doesn’t help that the reference is is sandwiched between a somewhat fraught narrative of sexual desire between Logan and Alison. For Alison to have a real #MeToo moment would require comics creators and fans to shine a stronger light on the institutional practices that still subject women—and, specifically, women in the comics industry—to normalized practices of abuse. What we learn from Dazzler: The Movie is not just that abuse and harassment have long histories, but that we have to do more to end institutional practices and cultural narratives that enable such behaviors. As comics fans, we are getting better at paying attention to the representational violences committed by Marvel (i.e. cancelling LGBT-led titles), but we remain slow to address the institutional practices women have long endured in order to “make it” in comics. To some extent, I would like for us to also consider Alison’s experience in comics as something that might speak to the broader experience of other women in the comics industry.
While Dazzler: The Movie primarily remains known as a forgettable romance story or for references to it in later X-Men comics (often due to its role as a story that triggered hysteria, mass panic, and anti-mutant sentiment), I believe this graphic novel deserves to be read more carefully through the lenses of abuse, sexual assault, and gaslighting. Indeed, while Dazzler: The Movie can be understood productively as a narrative that continues to speak to contemporary problems, it also demonstrates a lack of self-awareness that tacitly condones the kinds of abusive behaviors it represents. Dazzler’s story remains worthy of our time and critical attention as we try to make sense of how these abuses and sexist practices are represented in comics and popular culture.
Nicholas E. Miller (@uncannydazzler) is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Hollins University, where he teaches multicultural American literature, gender and sexuality studies, and comics studies. His essay, “Asexuality and Its Discontents: Making the ‘Invisible Orientation’ Visible in Comics,” was recently published in Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, and he has a new essay, “Transmedial Feminisms from Archie to Riverdale” that is forthcoming in Feminist Media Histories.