Single Ladies [Put A Utility Belt On It] Part 2: Cassandra Cain

Cassandra Cain as Batgirl (II) by James Jean

In considering Cassandra Cain, a significant deviation needs to be made from how I was able to analyze Barbara Gordon. Babs’ life easily conforms to both the conventions of western literature and to the ideals of (white) western feminism so my task was hardly more difficult than stitching together the most significant events of her life and superimposing them against the framework of conventional femininity. For Cassandra to be properly understood, a complete reinterpretation of her is necessary because of a basic lack of understanding of the difference between sex and gender on the part of her original creators.

What gets focused on both in the text and the fandom at large about Cassandra’s childhood is that she was raised in seclusion by her father- David Cain- without being taught to read, write, or speak; she was only taught to fight and kill. The part that gets overlooks is that Cassandra was never assigned a gender at birth, based on her sex or otherwise. While never recognized or expounded on in the text, Cassandra is what queer, trans*, and intersex circles would refer to as UAAB (Unassigned at Birth) in contrast to either MAAB (Male Assigned At Birth) or FAAB (Female Assigned At Birth). From her birth until she was taken in by Bruce and Babs, Cassandra had no concept of gender and thus no fixed gender identity until she was (unknowingly) coercively assigned female by Bruce when he named her Batgirl.

Which doesn’t close the book on Cassandra’s gender identity because it doesn’t account for her self image, a particularly tricky thing to pick out from the incredibly exaggerated depictions of gender in superhero comics. While there’s little to suggest that Cassandra could be transmasculine as she has never challenged or rejected the assumption that she is female beyond the point that she could be reasonably assumed to understand the concept of gender (as discreet from sex), there’s also just as little to suggest that she does in fact internally identify as female. I’m not entirely ruling out the possibility that Cassandra is transmasculine, but my opinion is that her gender identity is non binary or gender neutral.

One of the biggest clues supporting a non binary or neutral gender identity is her original costume. The tendency to draw her with much bigger and more prominent breasts than is realistic or probable notwithstanding, she immediately removed all of the clues to not just her identity but her gender as well from a costume and a legacy that has in every other iteration firmly and intentionally communicated femininity. Cassandra is the only one of the Batgirls or Batwomen who wore no visible make up while in costume nor hair (real or otherwise) spilling out the back of her cowl. The other is that Cassandra has never presented as femme unless directed or coerced into it by a third party. She appears to have absolutely no interest in influencing what gender people read her as.

Interestingly enough, Cassandra’s androgyny seems to expose the sexism of the batfamily; most notably in how differently Bruce, Tim, and Damian treat her relative to Stephanie. Typically, any criticisms or concerns about Cassandra were voiced in terms of her being dangerous, unpredictable, or uncontrollable while the vast majority of criticism leveled at Stephanie as Spoiler, Robin, and Batgirl have been gendered- especially Tim’s brutal manipulations and Damian’s misogynist tirades.

Unfortunately an accurate analysis and extrapolation of Cassandra’s gender identity cannot  progress far beyond a rough sketch because her primary struggle has been for agency, something that she’s rarely been able to achieve and maintain for long. All things considered, I can’t help but think that despite the fact that Tim Drake was in the role at the time, Cassandra was better suited to be the first regular continuity FAAB Robin than to follow in Babs’ footsteps to become the second Batgirl.

What the continued failure to slow down and explore the nuances of Cassandra’s identity beyond her capacity to kill and value as a living weapon exposes is how blind mainstream writers and much of the readership are to the critical difference between sex and gender. Cassandra having been raised without an assigned gender or exposure to socialized gender norms should not lead the reader to the conclusion that gender is purely a social construction, but rather created the potential to explore gender as a pure, innate expression of self that sits at the core of her character like a black hole.

As it currently stands, I believe that no one can honestly say that we know very much of anything about Cassandra’s self identity based on her published appearances alone which is a very strange and troubling thing to say about a character who held a solo series for over 70 issues. Cassandra stands as a testament to the fact that the dialogue about gender in mainstream superhero comics must extend beyond improving female representation to the recognition that gender is neither predicated on sex nor a binary.

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2 Responses to Single Ladies [Put A Utility Belt On It] Part 2: Cassandra Cain

  1. Sue says:

    This is really interesting. I have a question and a point for comment. When David Cain had Cass commit her first murder as a child he dressed her in clothhin traditionally worn by the “good little girl” – a frilly dress and patent leather shoes. What do you make of that? I always thought part of the reason why Cass presented the way she did later may have been related to how Cain dressed her that day.
    Second, about your point about the hair flowing with other Batgirls and women. The costume that Cass wore was not her own but was designed by Helena Bertinelli during No Man’s Land to create the impression that Batman was still around and, as such, hid her hair. Cass could have changed it, of course, but it’s interesting to note that her peer, Stephanie Brown as Spoiler, also regularly hid her hair so I wonder if that was influence. (Of course Steph didn’t hide her hair when Robin, traditionally a male role, so go figure).

    • I have my own thoughts on your query, when David Cain dressed up Cass, I believed it was more for disguise purposes so the bodyguards would think she was just a harmless little girl. As for Cass not changing her batgirl suit from Helena’s design, Helena originally crafted the mask for practical reasons (so her hair won’t get pulled, to prevent being sprayed in the open holes, etc.), and when Cass took it, she just kind-of flowed with it. The suit worked, so why change it? Also, when she was prevented from wearing the batgirl costume, Cass just threw on some makeup, wore pants and a shirt with a utility belt and ran off while Steph crafted a full blown superhero costume.

      Cassandra strikes me as the type to not really care about her looks (during her run as Batgirl, her civilian clothing looks sloppy, lacked a fashion sense and just thrown on).

      Stephanie as the Spoiler, actually had her long blond hair tied in a pony tail behind her black mask. Her ponytail was only covered when she pulled on her hood, but when she pulled off her hood, you could see her hair. I definitely agree that Cass is gender neutral.

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