Starfire
Tag: opinion

Why Starfire's polyamory matters

Contributed by
Oct 18, 2018

The Teen Titans franchise was a success in the mid-‘60s, only to see its popularity wane by the end of the decade and the series canceled by the mid-‘70s. Hoping to turn that around, Marv Wolfman and George Perez had their chance to modernize the Titans in 1980 by rebooting the series and introducing new characters like Raven, Cyborg, and Starfire. The new series was indeed a success, and, for many years, ran neck and neck with the X-Men as the top-sellers from Marvel and DC, respectively. This was in no small part due to the popularity of that lovable alien princess Starfire, who has been a recurring character across various series and TV shows for much of the last 38 years.

Starfire, also known as Koriand’r, was from the planet Tamaran, ending up on Earth in a last-ditch attempt at escaping from slavery, which she had been unwillingly traded into by her own father to ensure peace on their planet. Later it turned out that her sister Blackfire had sold their dad out and that she was Starfire’s master with a real vested interest in torturing her sister to death, so let that be a lesson that things can always get worse. That was retconned out of her history for a time and attempts were made to humanize Blackfire, but it's generally agreed upon that their relationship isn't great. Despite having a massively traumatic and depressing backstory, Starfire’s defining characteristics are her kindness, optimism, and generosity, and an open heart that tends to make comparatively repressed Earth people a little uncomfortable.

The case has been made for a pansexual Starfire, and that definitely stands to reason although we haven't seen it manifest on the page. Regardless of romantic intent, one of the best things about Starfire is her relationships with women, particularly Donna Troy and Raven, who she shared close bonds with during their time in the Titans. While her capacity for friendship deserves its own focus as much as her sexuality, it's also true that those two things overlap significantly in Starfire’s life.

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The problem with Starfire and Dick Grayson

Dick Grayson and Starfire started dating nearly from the jump at her first appearance on the team up until the conclusion of New Titans in the ‘90s. The dynamic of a guy trying to escape Batman’s shadow and become his own person paired with the somewhat naive but sweet alien trying to understand human society was cute at times, but it became problematic the longer it went on. So much of their relationship revolved around Dick telling Kori that her beliefs were wrong or unacceptable. She agreed to be monogamous to please him and to play by Earth’s societal rules, but obviously today we know that if a person is polyamorous, that's not really a problem, and asking a person to deny their basic needs in life isn't love. Ultimately, the central problem of their relationship was the fact that Dick saw Starfire as who he wanted her to be rather than who she was. In the beginning, Starfire was inexperienced and willing to accommodate, but, as time went on, she became more frustrated with Earth's customs and more emphatic about her choices.

Kori and Dick were very nearly married in New Titans #100, but it was not to be, as a possessed, demonic version of Raven interrupted their wedding and supposedly psychically impregnated Starfire. In truth, the part of Raven’s true self that remained had gifted Kori with the ability to stop her, but the whole comic really isn't very kind to Starfire. Dick, who was known to be short with Starfire often enough, pushed ahead with the wedding with an unhealthy obsessive attitude despite several warning signs and a nervous Starfire questioning if he even really cared very much for her or truly wanted to go through with the wedding at all. Anti-alien sentiments flared up against their relationship, and bigots threatened them. The wedding never happened, and Starfire wasn't really given an arc in which she healed from these traumas. Years later, when Dick tried to begin their relationship anew, she asked him if he still even loved her and he realized he didn't. In the end, Dick’s behavior towards Kori was always a bit self-absorbed and callous, and it was best for them to split, although there are many alternate reality futures where they end up together.

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Afterward, Starfire was all over the DC universe, briefly returning to space then returning to Earth, joining Red Hood’s Outlaws and carrying on a doomed affair with Roy Harper, ending up lost in space with Animal Man and Adam Strange, and even starring in her own mini-series. Although her writers don’t always seem to quite know what to do with her, Starfire has remained a fan favorite — though typically an under-utilized one.

As with most Titans, the kindest take on Starfire might be in the animated Titans series. In Teen Titans, Starfire and Robin had a longstanding attraction for one another that remained unfulfilled until later on, but her culture’s polyamory was off the table. In Teen Titans Go! she doesn’t reciprocate Robin’s feelings towards her and views him platonically. Again, her polyamory isn’t a topic of discussion, although she does kiss various people to learn their languages. The argument could be made that children’s programming isn’t prepared to handle the topic of polyamory, but because it is no more intrinsically sexualized in content than monogamy, one wonders why it wouldn't be.

Polyamory and the world of Tamaran

Starfire’s polyamory isn’t just a preference; it’s cultural. We don’t know the extent of the importance of polyamory on Tamaran, and we don’t know what we’re asking of Starfire when we pair her with a person in a monogamous relationship. Starfire believes in loving everyone and that it isn't limited to one person. Writers and other characters have often projected their own ideas about sex-positive women onto Starfire, which is a major reason why her polyamory deserves to be further emphasized and explored by writers who aren’t outright dismissing it, but who likewise aren’t solely projecting their own fantasies onto her narrative. Rather than pairing her with characters that seek to oppress this part of her, or using her sexual openness for comedic effect, wouldn't it be more interesting to see what ethical polyamory means for her, why it's so natural to her people, and in what ways it affects the overall culture on Tamaran?

One of the paradoxes of Starfire’s character is that in spite of being incredibly loving towards most people she encounters, she's also more wrathful than perhaps any other Titan and loses her temper to the point of nearly committing murder semi-frequently. As it provides a dark reflection for her belief in free love, her tendency to react violently deserves a deeper focus and has likewise seldom been commented on except in outright condemnation. Objectively, Starfire comes from a background in which she was under threat of attack at all times, and her violent reactions, while not necessarily moral, are definitely understandable. This is a person who barely escaped from a lifetime of slavery and torture before being immediately paired with Dick Grayson and never given much time to heal from her past. Her polyamory and her wrathful nature are two of the most defining elements of her character, yet they are very seldom examined beyond the surface level.

We don’t know yet how Starfire will be portrayed in the upcoming Titans series, but it's exciting to see new potential and possibilities emerging for her. Preferably there will be some focus on her polyamory that treats it with the understanding it deserves. Starfire is often played as vapid or naive, but her emotional intelligence rates higher than most characters in the DC universe. The complexity of her character is often forgotten in favor of a more shallow view, but her sex-positive ferocity and her ultimate rejection of certain values, along with her strong female friendships, make her one of DC’s most intrinsically feminist characters.

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