“But We’re Out of Time”: Queer(ed) Nostalgia and The WB’s Birds of Prey

Editor’s note: Today I am honored to introduce this post by Nick Miller, who with this essay on Birds of Prey becomes The Middle Spaces‘ first “regular writer.” Nick will be contributing four posts a year and continuing to bring his brilliant analysis of comics and other popular culture through the lens of transmedial studies, queer studies, Latinx studies, and more.

The WB’s Birds of Prey: Helena Kyle (played by Ashley Scott), Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer), and their new recruit, Dinah Lance (Rachel Skarsten).

I remember DC’s Birds of Prey as a queer superhero team. This is a memory that I cannot locate with any precision, and one that makes little sense in terms of actual representation. Indeed, the core team members from the comics series—Black Canary, Huntress, and Oracle—are all canonically heterosexual characters. Perhaps I am mis-remembering the team.

This essay serves as an attempt to sort through this tension between how I remember Birds of Prey, its “official” comics history, and what I will eventually refer to as a queer(ed) nostalgia for its television adaptation. Memory (or narrative) is not something that is stable or fixed. With that in mind, I want to explore nostalgia as a mode of queer meaning-making that is not beholden to canons, continuities, or even representation. By critically examining my recollection of Birds of Prey through the lens of nostalgia, I hope to demonstrate the value of mis-remembering as an act of queer world-building that is akin to what Matt Hills and Joanne Garde-Hansen refer to as the “paratextual memory” of fandom. While scholars often imagine paratexts as media that are explicitly adjacent to a given storyworld, I think there is also value in what media studies scholar Jonathan Gray has termed “off-screen studies,” in which a source text is never the entire sum of a text (7). Instead, I argue that fan experiences—and, specifically, our queer(ed) nostalgia for popular culture artifacts—also play a constitutive role in creating meaning and textuality.

This argument requires that nostalgia be theorized as more than an inherently conservative or toxic mode of longing, as described by critics like Jen Chaney or creators such as Damon Lindelof. I readily acknowledge that nostalgia is, or can be, toxic (e.g. the “fan” cultures behind #ComicsGate). Yet nostalgia can also liberate transmedia storyworlds from heteronormative canons and continuities—particularly as nostalgia generates queer temporalities. Svetlana Boym, who writes extensively about memory, defines nostalgia as a “longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.” In my case, I long for a version of Birds of Prey that (perhaps) never existed—at least as an in-text narrative. This longing might be better understood as a revision to what media studies scholar William Proctor terms “totemic nostalgia,” or an “affective relationship with a fan-object” that is contingent upon personal attachments to the past and to popular culture artifacts. Like Proctor, I want to think about Birds of Prey as fan-object, but I also want to entertain the prospect that nostalgia, as Boym argues, “opens up a multitude of potentialities, nonteleological possibilities of historical development” (50). By reflecting on my memories of Birds of Prey through real and mediated experiences, I consider how personal narratives also become mediated narratives and enable queer world-building.

Helena Kyle (aka Huntress, played by Ashley Scott) moments before her world is destroyed. “Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part Three,” The Flash (The CW: December 10, 2019).

The Birds of Prey television series was developed in 2002 and was loosely based on the DC Comics series of the same name. The television series is set in a version of Gotham City that has been abandoned by Batman. His estranged daughter, Helena Kyle (aka Huntress, played by Ashley Scott), former Batgirl and current Oracle, Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer), and their new recruit, Dinah Lance (Rachel Skarsten), fight crime in his stead. Oracle serves as a high school teacher by day and a master hacker at night, and she partners with the bartending vigilante Huntress to take down Gotham’s criminal element. In the pilot episode, Dinah comes into their lives as a teenage runaway who is afflicted with psychic visions of Gotham. Dinah turns out to be the Black Canary’s daughter and a metahuman. The series was widely panned by critics and was canceled after a thirteen-episode first season. Despite this, Birds of Prey remains one of my favorite superhero television series. I even watched the entire five-episode CW Crisis on Infinite Earths event just to see Scott reprise her role as Huntress for thirty seconds.

Three weeks after sitting through Crisis on Infinite Earths, I was excited to watch the new DCEU film, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Although I knew that there would be stark aesthetic differences between the franchises—the film has been called “colorful and campy” while the television series “has the visual language of an Evanescence music video”—I also knew that my anticipation was fueled, to some extent, by my love for the television series. My memories of the television series were—to put it somewhat bluntly—that it was very, very gay. So I walked into the theater ready for a film that would wildly and openly embrace LGBTQ+ narratives. And, even though I did enjoy watching the film, I walked out of it keenly aware of how much it had failed in that regard. In fact, the next day I told one of my colleagues that “I think the old television series was actually gayer.”

Promotional image for Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020), featuring Harley Quinn, Huntress, Black Canary, Renee Montoya, and Cassandra Cain.

Now I realize that such an off-hand comment might run the risk of reifying homonormative stereotypes, and I want to be clear that I am not interested in crafting essentialist notions of queer life or even reflecting on something akin to a queer aesthetics here. Instead, I am reflecting on how my nostalgia for the television series might serve as a form of queer meaning-making that enables me to think about media studies beyond a strict logics of representation.

Nostalgia seems essential to queer reading and viewing practices. And examining my queer(ed) nostalgia for Birds of Prey might help to understand what I believe are the intrinsically queer temporalities of its storyworld. Queerness and nostalgia are dynamic and transgressive phenomena; but queer nostalgia, by disrupting both reality and time, makes it possible to long for a better future through a remediation of the cultural artifacts that we have consumed in the past. In making this claim, I want to reflect on two scenes from the television series that contribute to my nostalgic sense of the show as a deeply queer series. As I do that, however, I should confess that I had never actually read the Birds of Prey comics prior to watching the television series—so my experiences with it were never informed by questions of authenticity or a character’s faithfulness to their “original” stories.

The first moment that stayed with me is from the seventh episode. That episode is framed around Dinah and her interest in a boy from her high school, Matt. Dinah’s best friend, Gabby, volunteers to partner up with Matt’s lab partner, Gina, so that Dinah can pair up with him and make a move. As the episode progresses, Dinah uses her powers to stalk him, and when she confesses this at the dance, he storms off upset. As the episode ends, Dinah and Gabby walk through the hallway as Dinah tries to explain why she thinks Matt likes Gabby. Dinah points out that, after Matt left her, he went to dance with Gabby. Gabby makes it clear, however, that he is not her type—a concept Dinah struggles to understand, as she believes that Matt is “every woman’s type.”

Their conversation ends with the following exchange:

GABBY: “Dinah, you know when I agreed to switch lab partners?”

DINAH: “Yeah.”

GABBY: “I didn’t just do it for you.”

DINAH: “But Matt’s lab partner was that girl, Gina.”

[Gabby pauses and raises her eyebrow, waiting for Dinah to catch her meaning.]

DINAH: “You and Gina? Oh. Heh.”

GABBY: “She rocks.”

This scene was a blip on the radar. It was Gabby’s lengthiest appearance in the series, and if you do not watch carefully, you miss it. Yet somehow it was one of the scenes I remember most clearly (as was the case for a number of fan fiction writers!). In fact, Gabby was the first openly gay character that I remember on a television show besides Rickie Vasquez from My So-Called Life. And my memories of that scene have lingered for almost two decades. I remember Gabby as the coolest character on the show—in part because actor Callie De Fabry’s facial expressions are epic—even though we never interact with her again. Despite a brief appearance with no lines in an earlier episode, this is all the Gabby as we get on-screen. Since 2002 was not exactly a banner year for LGBTQ+ representation, however, it is clear to me that even brief scenes like this one mattered a great deal. For instance, fan fiction entries that “ship” Dinah and Gabby often refer back to it as a point of origin for their narratives. That said, I am not sure that this moment alone can account for my nostalgic interpretation of Birds of Prey as a queer series. I remain convinced that my queer(ed) nostalgia for scenes like these is tethered to other experiences—or paratextual memories—from my life.

Gabby waiting for her friend Dinah Lance to realize that she is romantically interested in women. “Lady Shiva,” Birds of Prey (The WB: November 27, 2002).

This essay, then, is not strictly tethered to a nostalgia for a media artifact itself (in this case, the Birds of Prey television series), but also my personal fan engagement with the series. Unlike other scholarly writings about queer nostalgia, I am not primarily interested in Birds of Prey as a text that negotiates its own nostalgia toward some imagined historical past. I want to better understand my own mediated memories of the series and their potential for queer meaning-making in the present. In other words, the mediated artifact is also remediated through my paratextual memories—or my experiences and imagined memories from those years. With that in mind, let me stop and reflect for a moment on who I was in the early 2000s.

Stone Butch Blues (1993), a novel about life as a butch lesbian in the United States in the 1970s.

It took a little research into my old computer files (and my undergraduate transcript) to locate the contexts that informed my viewing practices in 2002 and 2003. It turns out that I dropped a literature class at Michigan State University in Summer 2002, shortly after I had purchased the required books. I spent part of my summer reading through them on my own. One of those texts was Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993), which fundamentally demolished my preconceived (and heteronormative) notions of the world. I read it (twice, actually!) a few months before Birds of Prey aired. The following semester, when Birds of Prey premiered, I took a course on Latin American literature that featured two LGBTQ+ authors. That same semester I became aware that some of my closest friends were queer. While I do not want to make the case for a mystical confluence of events, these experiences informed how I watched Birds of Prey. In other words, these experiences served as personal paratexts that invited me to see LGBTQ+ lives, experiences, and even subtexts for the first time. And, as a moment in my life that I now look back on (one might say nostalgically) as being deeply formative, it is no wonder that my media consumption during those years would be tangled up in that same nostalgia.

Literary scholar Caleb Smith writes in “Disciplines of Attention in a Secular Age” (2019) that, “what we critics in the humanities call doing a reading is a peculiar kind of writing: retrospective, semi-autobiographical, recomposing our lived experience so thoroughly that it might fairly be called a fiction” (906). Smith argues that reading is not simply a way of processing texts in real time; instead, it is a way of “dramatizing an encounter and displaying a sensibility” (ibid). Queer nostalgia functions very much in this vein—it is less an act of attending to a text in real time than an act of writing through our encounters with the text in ways that mark a queer sensibility. In other words, to use the language of theorist Nishant Shahani, such nostalgia enables a form of reading-writing that acts as “queer retrospection” and evokes multiple manifestations “of belated recognition, of nostalgic mourning, of moving backwards in time, of thinking about the pastness of the future”  (1). In Queer Retrosexualities, Shahani inquires how turning to the past can be reparative or hopeful. He answers this question, in part, by articulating the “pastness of the future”—or how the future gets retroactively confirmed by how we remember or understand the past. By recomposing my own lived experience through my memories of Birds of Prey, then, I can employ nostalgia as a paratextual act that dramatically queers the source text.

Harley Quinn and Huntress looking as though they are about to kiss as part of their scheduled therapy session. “Devil’s Eyes,” Birds of Prey (The WB: February 19, 2003).

By itself, I am not sure a single scene with a non-recurring character accounts for my lingering sense of the series as queer. After all, the main characters remain explicitly heterosexual. Yet as I rewatched the series, I soon remembered the queerness of the final episode (arguably the strongest episode in the series). It opens with a therapy session between Dr. Harleen Quinzel (aka Harley Quinn) and Helena Kyle, who has attended therapy with the would-be clown criminal the entire season. In that final visit, things get intimate. Although there is no explicit consummation of queer desire, it was the most intimate scene between two women I had seen on television at that point. As it turns out, I was not the only person to remember the scene that way. In rewatching Birds of Prey for Comics Alliance, critics Meredith Tomeo and Caleb Mozzocco described this scene in the following way:

“When Helena Kyle first started going to court-mandated therapy with Doctor Harleen Quinzel, we joked about how sexy the therapy seemed, based mostly on how sexily they dressed and Harley’s suggestive tone of voice. This particular session is like a whole new level of homoerotic tension, though. Harley, dressed in an off-the-shoulder dress, has Helena, wearing a weird set of sweater sleeves over a low-cut top, close her eyes. She then slowly circles her, looking her up and down, leaning in as if to kiss her ears or lips or neck, all the time she’s whispering questions to her, all of which Helena answer breathlessly. Honestly, their therapy session is one of the more sapphic things I’ve seen on television.”

That episode was entangled in other paratexts from the 2000s that also shaped my queer understanding of the series. When it originally aired, the final fight scene (initially between Harley Quinn and Huntress), was accompanied by t.A.T.u.’s song, “All The Things She Said,” playing in the background. For those unfamiliar with the song and its music video, it served as a (not unproblematic) lesbian anthem. The music video shared certain aesthetics with the Birds of Prey series—both making ample use of chain-link fences to separate intimate women from gawking spectators—and I find it hard to separate my paratextual memories of the song from the series finale. This is even more striking when I consider how rights issues led to a change in the score for that scene with the DVD release. Perhaps this change also contributes to my paratextual memories of the scene, as it inadvertently speaks to what Jack Halberstam has called “the queer art of failure”—where failure becomes a form of resistance to homogenization, or an alternative to the heteronormative, capitalist structures that inform popular culture. Whereas dominant cultures often weaponize “forgetting” to ignore issues such as homophobia, Halberstam notes that other forms of forgetting (e.g. my acts of mis-remembering) serve as tactical subversions of expectations and norms. In that vein, both the Birds of Prey television series and the t.A.T.u. music video fail to adequately “represent” queer communities as they feature heterosexual women performing queer intimacies. Yet those failures of representation also produced, for me, a queer(ed) nostalgia.

Such failures of representation speak to the possibility that queer nostalgia is often (and perhaps necessarily) non-canonical in nature. Indeed, failures highlight the possibility that canons can never truly be ‘queer’ because, to draw from queer theorist Judith Butler, canons contribute to the “process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity” (9). This movement toward fixity, which is antithetical to queer studies, illuminates my primary concerns with a logics of representation (i.e. its investment in stable identity categories that can be easily quantified). Instead, like media studies scholar Amy Villarejo, I adopt new paradigms beyond “representational injustice or invisibility” by articulating the need for “other potential genealogies of inquiry that [invite] reflection on facets other than televisual representation” (5-6). While I certainly do not want to argue against the importance of explicit representation, I do think that queer nostalgia—a phenomenon fueled by paratextual memories—can produce a different type of longing, a longing for unauthorized, unstable narratives that are resistant to normative validation.

The abrupt ending to this intimate scene between Harley Quinn and Huntress in the final episode also serves as marker for the role of queer failure in nostalgic interpretations of the show. Just as it seems they are going to kiss, Harley ends the session by saying, “unfortunately we are out of time.” This moment of deferred desire is an impetus toward my queer nostalgia for some unrealized potential. In other words, the scene temporally destabilizes desire. This destabilization also maps out onto the television series itself—which was canceled after only one season and now lives on primarily through a cult following. My queer(ed) nostalgia, then, results from both my paratextual memories of the series and its unrealized (or deferred) queer potential.

A quick glance at the transmedial landscape of Birds of Prey reinforces the idea that unrealized potential is endemic to its storyworld and its queer possibilities. A few years after the television series, for example, Gail Simone infamously failed to canonize Dinah Lance as a bisexual character in the comics—which she described on Tumblr in 2016. Or, to come full circle, the brief appearance of Huntress in the CW version of “Crisis on Infinite Earths” establishes a continuity with the Arrowverse that serves to imagine its end—as she and her Earth are both destroyed leaving that deferred desire unfulfilled. Even the recent Birds of Prey film, which “technically” has openly queer characters, depicts them primarily through failure (i.e. Renee Montoya is only seen in conversations with her ex-wife with whom there is no chemistry and Harley Quinn’s reference to her bisexuality is little more than a quick joke about how it got her into trouble). Throughout the transmedial storyworld, none of the characters are truly fixed as subjects. Instead, the restorative (and potentially queer) promise of each adaptation appears briefly, only to be buried again.

Birds of Prey, vol. 1, #97 (Oct 2006). The infamous “Hetero to the Bone” issue (cover by Jerry Ordway and Brian Miller).

This tension is between fixity and fluidity is at the heart of my inquiry. On one hand, the fluidity of transmedial characters allows them to remain unfixed in ways that exemplify queer promise. On the other, they always risk getting absorbed back into heteronormative narratives. This leaves us with a contradiction that is not easily resolved. Transmediality often shows us that marginalized identities are linked to fluidity—a connection that simultaneously helps them to navigate the world and also makes them vulnerable to it. It is for this reason that I turn to queer nostalgia and paratextual memory. While the idea of fixed source texts makes it difficult to imagine queer media beyond the logics of representation, nostalgia broadens our paratextual horizons to enable new forms of queer meaning-making. In short, we need unfixed, non-representational frameworks for understanding popular culture.

Now, it is perhaps a well-worn truth that nostalgia tells us more about the present than it does about the past, and in this instance, I think that remains the case. In an election season in which I find myself repeatedly grappling with the “Make America Great Again” ideologies that embrace a toxic white supremacist nostalgia for an imagined past, is it surprising that I would construct a queerly nostalgic view toward a (trans)mediated artifact from my own past? The unavoidable question, I suppose, is what—if anything—distinguishes my narrative from more retrograde nostalgic tendencies? To some extent, all nostalgia relies on an imagined past. Yet as Osvaldo Oyola suggests elsewhere, there is a difference between a nostalgia that seeks to foreclose the past through an elision of narratives that challenge its views, and a critical nostalgia that seeks to include by engaging with what is missing. Queer nostalgia, then, is an aspirational longing that disrupts and transgresses heteronormative narratives and stable continuities in comics and related media.

This aspirational longing, however, is not merely a passive act. Although I cannot explore the idea fully here, I think we might also benefit by thinking about queer nostalgia as an act of resistance. As feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz has argued, “history, the past, is larger than the present, and is the ever-growing and ongoing possibility of resistance to the present’s imposed values, the possibility of futures unlike the present, futures that resist and transforms what dominates the present” (254). In other words, the queer temporalities of a critical nostalgia might allow us to remediate the past as an act of resistance. In the words of Elisabeth Windle, writing in MELUS, queer nostalgia allows us to imagine “how the past and present can exist in a relationship of mutual creation that is sympathetic, reparative, and loving and perhaps preferable to the ways that the present might imagine itself on its own terms” (24). As an alternative to toxic modes of nostalgia, I find the idea of nostalgia as a creative and reparative act appealing. Is it possible, then, to imagine nostalgia as a powerful form of queer meaning-making?

If my nostalgia for the Birds of Prey television series exemplifies that possibility, I certainly hope so.

Nicholas E. Miller (@uncannydazzler) is a regular writer for The Middle Spaces and Assistant Professor of English at Valdosta State University, where he teaches American literature, gender and sexuality studies, and comics studies. His essay, “Asexuality and Its Discontents: Making the ‘Invisible Orientation’ Visible in Comics,” has been published in Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society (2017) and his essay, “‘Now That It’s Just Us Girls’: Transmedial Feminisms from Archie to Riverdale,” has been published in Feminist Media Histories (2018).

One thought on ““But We’re Out of Time”: Queer(ed) Nostalgia and The WB’s Birds of Prey

  1. Pingback: Retuning Nostalgia: Anti-Black Racism and the Cultural Politics of Country Music | The Middle Spaces

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