On -isms: Can't Justify Retcons?

By | Thursday, November 02, 2017 2 comments
Over the past year or two, Marvel has revealed that one of the founding member of the X-Men -- Iceman -- is gay. Not surprisingly, a lot of fans became upset with this, pointing to literally a half century of stories that show no indication that Iceman might be gay. At least when Northstar's sexuality was revealed in 1992, there had been hints at it almost from the start as creator John Byrne had initially conceived of the character as gay but was editorially forbidden to expressly state that; Byrne then continued to write the character with that in mind, and it was able to be inferred by the readers. But Iceman had basically been written as heterosexual, so some fans became upset at the change calling it a terrible retcon.

Here's the thing, though... how many "retcons" like this do we see in real life? Think about this...

In the past week, Anthony Rapp accused Kevin Spacey of making sexual advances towards him years earlier. Spacey, in his formal apology this weekend, also revealed that he was gay and had had "romantic encounters" with men throughout his life. But until this weekend, he presented himself as heterosexual. Virtually everybody who has seen him in The Usual Suspects or Superman Returns or House of Cards or whatever 'read' him as straight. There were a few rumors started in the late '90s that he might be gay, but he actively denied them and was seen dating women. To the general viewing public, he was heterosexual.

But now, coming out in 2017, that effectively retcons a good portion of his life. I can almost guarantee you no one will be able to watch American Beauty again in the same way, now knowing he's gay.

And he's hardly unique. Choose any public figure that remained closeted until after they'd achieved some level of celebrity. George Takei, Jodie Foster, Rosie O'Donnell, Michael Stipe, Ellen DeGeneres, Ricky Martin, Neil Patrick Harris, Wanda Sykes, Jillian Michaels, Jason Collins, Anderson Cooper... They were all assumed to be heterosexual by the vast majority of people who'd heard of them... until they weren't. They came out, and suddenly they'd just retconned their life in front of you.

And, undoubtedly, they lost some fans by doing so, but Ellen has remained a ratings topper for years, as has Anderson Cooper 360°. R.E.M. continued to sell tons of albums, getting repeatedly nominated for and often winning Grammies, MTV Music Awards, and others, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the first year they were eligible. Arguably, Takei's career is better and more active since he's been out than at any other time except perhaps during his tenure on Star Trek. All of which is to say that the number of fans any of them lost by coming out is negligible.

Despite the retcons that changed how you now look on their past work.

My point is that retconning a long-standing character like Iceman isn't really a retcon any more than the actual lives of the people I've listed above. (And so, so many others!) Sure, a comics company can totally mishandle how a character is outed and any criticism of the execution can be valid, but the basic concept? The notion that readers learn someone who they've for years thought was straight really isn't? That happens in real life every single day.
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Britt Reid said...

Personally, I've always separated creatives' (writers/artists/performers/etc) personal lives from their work.
Even though I know Neil Patrick Harris is gay, it doesn't affect my watching him play unabashed hounddog Barney on How I Met Your Mother, any more than Carroll O'Connor's well-known liberalism affected my enjoyment of racist and conservative Archie Bunker!

I also daresay that you weren't bothered by Iceman's coming out, either! :)

I was directing the post more at people who were bothered by the Iceman retcon (or whichever character bothered them) but didn't have an issue with Kevin Spacey (or Ellen DeGenerous or George Takei or...) coming out.