Dancing With Bullets: Performing Masculinity in Image Comic’s “Dancer”
There are so many reasons I love Image Comic’s Dancer. I’m a sucker for international thrillers with spies and hitmen (throw in a little sci-fi action and we’re golden), I always wished I could be a ballerina despite my complete lack of coordination, and Nic Klein’s art is incredibly breath-taking and both inspires me as an artist and makes me feel incredibly inept (which is the highest compliment I can pay). So needless to say, I was hooked from the first page, but I honestly wasn’t entirely sure why. The story wasn’t exactly groundbreaking in originality, and the character types were all pretty familiar and straightforward. The script was thrilling, so maybe that was it?
Then I started thinking about Dancer in terms of its identity politics and what it’s actually saying about who we are, who we want to be, and more importantly, who we can be or become under the right circumstances. As The Fox says, “It’s time to stop thinking that you are what you are not, Alan.” As much as it’s about escaping near-certain death, it is about Alan’s struggle with his own identity as a hitman, facing down his own barbarism, brutality, strength, and tenacity…in the form of his clone. His younger self is a pitch-perfect stereotype of the hitman character: he’s strong, relentless, intelligent, and always seems to have the upper hand. The hitman/spy is a pretty standard trope of masculinity, where masculinity has typically been figured in terms of embodied violence and strength. It is monstrous and brutal, a technology of murder that is cold and calculated.
What Dancer manages to do is take two typically gendered binary constructs – ballet and being a gun for hire – and parallels them to reveal the performativity lurking behind said stereotypes.
Alan is constantly being called to perform, to take his stage, and his success in saving Quinn and himself is measured in proving himself against the stronger and better equipped version of himself. It’s a typical script that calls for stereotypical characters: the aging hitman, his younger rival, his damsel and his behind-the-scenes wise associate. But Alan succeeds and is the hero despite failing at fulfilling this typical masculine ideal: he is not the ideal because he is weakening, losing his grip, but this is where his success lies.
According to Judith Butler, gender performativity is the notion that we have internalized certain socially constructed cues about gender (clothing, hair style, posture etc) and then outwardly perform them, like an actor transforming into a character. The catch is that this isn’t a conscious thing, though: because we’ve internalized the cues, we’re not always aware of what and when we’re performing.
What’s so smart about Dancer is that none of the play with gender is conscious on the character’s behalf. Alan’s fighting against himself and the way our narratives have constructed the concept of a hitman. It’s what we’ve learned, the codes we internalized and then project that determine our performance, not our self-conscious acknowledgement of them. We do it because it’s been programmed into us. It’s why, according to theorists like Marjorie Garber, cross-dressing is taken as such an aggressive act against the norm: it’s a visual signifer of difference, but one that contains the potential for anybody to be perceived as different, including ourselves, if not for our visual markers. Visual codes, our performance of our gender, demarcates us.
In an article about Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the use of augmentations to make your main character, a gritty Adam Jensen, more badass, I’ve talked about the embodied machine metaphor that is pretty stereotypical for characterizing masculinity: masculine bodies are depicted as machines, created for the perpetuation of extreme and perfect violence. In a lot of ways, this is what Alan’s clone represents: an idealized, scientifically-constructed killing machine that is younger, faster, stronger, and more calculating than the original Alan. This type of masculinity is a technology in and of itself, culturally manufactured to be the pinnacle of strength and power. In the same way that we can think of the ideal of femininity as a manufactured construct (through cosmetics, for example), some stereotyped ideals of masculinity can be thought of as technologies of violence and power.
This is why it’s so crucial that Alan is portrayed as weak. He has a bad heart, he’s out of practice, he let love get in the way. He’s an older man haunted by his youth…which happens to be trying to kill him and to take his place, a la Highlander. (There can be only one.) But with Clone-Alan there is the sense that this type of mechanization, this perfection of violence, is wrong. Rather than making him a force to achieve good and topple embodied gendered distinctions (like in Deus Ex), the Clone-Alan is dehumanized in a way that makes him monstrous. It is his perfect performance of the hitman that makes Clone-Alan such a good antagonist, and it is Alan’s failure at performing this trope that makes him the sympathetic and realistic protagonist.
The narrative also plays with the damsel in distress trope, but even that’s acknowledged as a set-up, as Clone-Alan tells her: “time to perform, little dancer.” Clone-Alan is controlling, manipulating, showing that when it comes to this script, everyone has a part and follows it accordingly. This is what gender performativity is, in part: we have ingrained cultural expectations of how we should look or act according to our sex and these manifest in stereotyped gender attributes. It’s shockingly perfect that Alan’s girlfriend is a ballerina, a fairly feminized character, who is victimized by Clone-Alan, the genetically-manufactured killing machine. By being right in line with the script, Dancer is able to illustrate the starkness of these stereotypes in contrast with each other. Take Alan’s bloodied figure in the snow after he’s shot, which takes the form of a ballerina en pointe: Alan’s wound (and visual alignment with the feminine character) is supposed to emasculate him, but instead it re-positions him as the realistic hero. It is a re-branding of how the hero is represented, by shifting the connotations of how the masculine is viewed.
Dancer weaves such an enticing tale, outlining typical gendered scripts people perform on a daily basis. The cloning to make “super soldiers” isn’t new either. In fact, most of Dancer is fairly familiar and old-hat: these are tropes and a story-line we know, and that’s what made it so interesting for me in terms of gender performance: in its familiarity, it is able to tackle ingrained gendered characteristics and how we perform them. Clone-Alan is constantly making bad performing remarks to Quinn (and out loud to Alan, who cannot possibly hear him no matter what type of clone-bonding mechanic out there). Gender performativity is operating beneath the surface of all representation, and works like Dancer create an opening to view these tropes as cultural constructs, rather than innate attributes.