The Starfire Solo from a First Generation American’s Point of View
Since the Starfire solo series came out, I’ve seen a considerable amount of criticism for the title. To me, this criticism makes sense because of the sheer amount of infantilism, slut shaming, and general OOC-ness Starfire endures. However, I’m not going to talk about that as you can probably guess from the title. @hellakoriandr wrote a great, all-encompassing post about that here, that pretty much covers all the bases, if you would like to know more.
I’m writing this post because there’s a common defense used for the solo that I would like to address: “Starfire isn’t dumb, she’s an immigrant ignorant of Earth’s culture. If you call out this characterization, you’re xenophobic and racist.”
I’m a first generation “American.” My parents were both born in Costa Rica, my entire family is from and lives in Costa Rica. My sister and I are the first in our family to be born in a different country and grow up here. American culture is so very different from our own; everyone in our family speaks Spanish as our first language, and English as our second.
This is where that defense of the solo is personally offensive to me and my family. Aside from RHaTO, Starfire has been increasingly portrayed as not just ignorant of Earth’s culture, but as dumb in general. Starfire’s characterization took a step back in the Teen Titans 2003 animated series. As much as I love the show, her TV portrayal only retains about 20 percent of Starfire’s original character.
Her style of speaking is way exaggerated, awkwardly saying “the” before nouns; repeatedly making language mistakes like “the mall of shopping” and so forth. However, at her core she was not stupid and displayed intelligence in episodes such as Troq and Bethrothed. She understood social cues and I think that’s one aspect of her the writers got right. Although she comes from a different culture, she understands social norms and doesn’t do anything over-the-top odd. It’s obvious the writers were just trying to make her seem more foreign, even if they do it in unimaginative and nonsensical ways.
Her characterization takes another big step backwards in the 2013 series Teen Titans Go!, a straightforward dumbed-down comedy version of the original show. TTG! focuses on slapstick humor rather than clever jokes, which makes sense, because its intended audience is comprised of 6-11 year olds. Every character is a caricature of their 2003 TV series self, so it’s not surprising that Starfire has been demoted to the role of pretty and dumb but naively, nice girl. All glimpses of Starfire’s intelligence are lost, and she mostly goes through the show being oblivious and “too nice” for this world. The other characters suffered this transition too. Robin is obsessive, painfully awkward, and tyrannical. Raven is secretly into Pretty Pretty Pegasus. So I don’t really see the harm. It’s not like a kids’ show is the reason DC is going to suddenly start portraying Dick Grayson as an emotionally unstable jerk in his comic iteration, right? It wouldn’t make any sense to translate a character that’s unrealistic, stereotypical, and aimed solely at young children to a comic book series marketed towards young women, right?
Starfire takes a final blow in the Starfire solo series, and it goes beyond Teen Titans Go!. She doesn’t understand cultural norms to the point where it’s unrealistic and awkward. Beyond cultural differences, Starfire simply acts dumb. It’s insulting to me and everyone living in a country with different cultural values than their own, that people are attributing Starfire’s sheer lack of intelligence to her foreignness. Ignorance does not equal lack of intelligence, and Starfire is exhibiting both.
When Starfire shakes baking soda into her mouth, she’s not being ignorant of the fact that baking soda isn’t something you eat. She is acting illogically.
The fact that she didn’t read the warning on the side of the box which is made so plainly obvious to the reader, or that she didn’t maybe just dip her finger in the substance and sample it before flipping the box over her mouth, or maybe just think “hey, this isn’t a bubbling liquid like the other sodas” is illogical. I don’t know if anyone under the age of ten would do that in a foreign country, let alone a foreign world. The fact that people are labelling this behavior as one of immigrants is beyond insulting. The only reason this panel is in this series is so the audience thinks of Starfire as a naive, helpless girl that needs people to help guide her through life. This is infantilization and not a characteristic of immigrants.
I also see a lot of defenses of her speech patterns, which I would understand if she had not already learned the English language perfectly.
This sounds like a joke to me. She asks, “Will I hurt it?” I’m not familiar with Tamaran, but I’m pretty sure that if you want to eat something you think is alive, you have to hurt it. Please, tell me again how this is pure cultural ignorance.
It’s almost as if this panel was made to make me angry. These sparkling thought bubbles show up every issue and sure, it’s a cute idea. ‘Hey, let’s put pictures inside bubbles, that sounds good.’ But it comes off incredibly dumb; she has the thought bubbles because she doesn’t understand American sayings and idioms, which infuriates me.
Growing up knowing more English than my parents, I’ve had a lifetime of family members asking me to explain sayings and idioms. They’re probably what my parents struggle with the most, even after knowing English for over 20 years. Sayings and idioms are used more often than you’d think. You can know a language perfectly and still get tripped up on them because there’s no rules to them. But I’ll be damned if my parents or anyone who doesn’t know English as their first language ever thought that “have a drink and meal on me” for a second meant actually eating food off a person’s head.
There are several other instances that offend me if people are attributing all of Kory’s actions to cultural ignorance, but this post is long enough. This post is directed at people who think that Starfire’s cultural ignorance is an excuse for the lazy and demeaning writing that portrays Starfire this way. Your desperate attempts to defend this problematic title is offensive. My people, and immigrants in general, are not your way out. I don’t know if the writers use the same excuse, but I doubt they are going to admit they’re writing her as an idiot. Please stop portraying Starfire’s lack of intelligence as the behavior of all immigrants. It’s xenophobic on top of an already sexist title.
I was actually excited when I heard about the series. Starfire is one of my favorite characters and the series was originally described as following her journey as she learns about earth’s culture and finds her place in society. As a first generation American, that subject interests me greatly and I saw overwhelming potential for the series. Starfire’s ignorance of earth’s culture in New Teen Titans was the most I’ve ever related to a character in terms of cultural identity. People assumed she was dumb and she would prove them wrong. She learned to respect earth’s social norms while still staying true to her Tamaranean identity. Eventually, she even considered earth more of a home than Tamaran, despite its vastly different culture. She was an inspiration to me, especially since I never felt as though I belonged in neither Costa Rica nor the U.S. She was an incredible example of dealing with cultural discrepancies beyond language barriers for me and others like me.
(New Teen Titans v1 #31)
Long live New Teen Titans Starfire. She’s my hero.