Holy Gender Politics, Batman! How a D.C. Punk’s Music Video Sparked an Identity Controversy
It was the shot Tumbld ’round the world.
A scene in a music video, “Sexy Dreams,” showed a young man in a wig wrapping his chest with an Ace bandage. Just moments before, that man had been dolled up in a form-fitting dress, making out with a beautiful woman at a garden party. A few seconds before that, he was Batman. And here he was, tying back his wig in front of a mirror, re-transforming into that masked, virile protector of the innocent.
It wasn’t especially clear what was going on here. So when musician David “Spoonboy” Combs took to Tumblr in February to post the music video he and his friends had spent months working on, he posted a detailed, explanatory statement alongside it. (I’ve been friendly with Combs since we were both teenagers; we share roots in the local punk scene.) “It’s a big deal for me that this video is done, not only because it took a long time to make, but also because in many ways it’s been a really personal project,” wrote Combs, 29, who’s been writing pop-punk songs by himself and with his band, The Max Levine Ensemble, for more than a decade. The video for “Sexy Dreams,” he wrote, was inspired by a dream of his, in which he roamed the earth as a genderfluid Batman. “It’s probably the best dream I’ve ever had,” Combs wrote at the time. But while the video was campy and fun, it was supposed to make a sincere point about living outside of rigidly defined gender and sexual categories.
A day later, Combs’ well-intentioned video would be ensnared in a nasty controversy.
“Sexy Dreams” opens with a fight scene, with Combs in his Batman suit, laying a beatdown on some tough guys in a grimy alleyway. Then the video cuts to his mansion, where he peels off his superhero get-up and transforms into Bridget Wayne, Batman’s daytime persona. Strolling through a garden party, Wayne is seduced by a ginger-haired woman, who pulls her aside for a quick makeout session. When Batman later winds up back in the alley, poised to punish another criminal, he realizes his enemy looks a whole lot like that lady from the party. Poison Ivy! Cut to another soirée at the estate, and evildoers are at the doors, busting their way in. Bridget switches to Batman, a scuffle ensues, and our superhero winds up sucking face with the Riddler. By the video’s end, Batman seems more comfortable blending night with day—he’s still fighting crime, but now, he’s wearing his black mask and lipstick at the same time.
The whole thing came across as kind of wacky, so with his essay, Combs carefully unpacked some of the serious ideas behind his Batman reboot: “‘Sexy Dreams’ is a song rejecting the idea that gender or sexuality should only fit into a few different boxes,” he wrote. “It’s about how you can and should be able to express those things in an infinite number of ways and how there’s beauty in a nuanced, complex approach to gender and sexuality.” But Combs didn’t go into depth about his own gender. He said he did not identify as trans*, which is an umbrella term that describes people who don’t identify with the male/female binary (and which is different than the more specific terms trans and transgender). He linked to a previous Tumblr post he’d written about his experiences toying with gender boundaries, in which he also pointed out that he didn’t experience gender dysphoria, the feeling that one’s anatomy conflicts with one’s gender identity. That, of course, led some readers to conclude that Combs was a cis male (meaning a person with a penis who identifies as a man). Within a day, Combs’ Tumblr post had sparked a fiery debate over who’s sufficiently credentialed to tell a story about living in a trans* person’s skin.
The concept of a gender spectrum—and the separate but linked concept of pansexuality, which refers to sexual attraction to people of nonbinary (or no) genders—is still fairly unknown outside of academia, queer activist circles, and people who personally identify as trans*. Its vocabulary, too, seems ever-evolving and tough to get a firm grip on. So when Combs told the world he did not identify as trans*, he effectively cast himself as an outsider, a visitor from cis land come to tell a zany story about life on Planet Trans*. Even his Judith Butler-referencing essay couldn’t help him; Combs still came across as a clueless cis dude.
The thing is, Combs isn’t a cis dude. He identifies as genderqueer, which refers to a state of ambiguous, unconfined gender. So does his longtime friend Lizz Mazer, 28, whom he asked to help him make the video. (Combs and Mazer say they are comfortable with “he” and “she” pronouns, respectively.) But that wasn’t especially clear in the video, and Combs had said he didn’t identify as trans* at all—even though genderqueer does fall under the very large umbrella of trans*. Combs had effectively misidentified himself. His mistake would quickly thrust him under the highly scrutinizing microscope of the Tumblr trans* community.
After Combs posted the video on YouTube, responses began to stream in from supporters and fans. Some seemed confused; many others, deeply grateful for the video’s positive and nonjudgmental portrayal of a trans* character. But some of the strongest reactions came from folks who expressed disgust with what they thought was a cis dude dressing up like a genderfluid person—yay, how fun, I get to wear a dress!—for the sake of entertainment, or to make some hamfisted statement about gender identity to win cool points. One Tumblr user accused Combs of just trying to get laid. Another called the video a “textbook case of institutionalized cis supremacy in the punk community,” chastising Combs for playing dress-up: “If you will never know what it’s like to stand in front of a mirror and feel the way we do, don’t get in front of a camera and act like it.” One particularly withering response came from Jes, a D.C.-area native who now lives in Chicago. (I also know Jes from our days in the local punk scene.) “I truly hate this, as a genderqueer person, as an older punk who grew up in the same scene you did...Would you like to have my dysphoria for a day? For a month? For a year? Would you like to know what it’s like to struggle with your gender day in and day out?” Jes wrote. “Gender identity is not a costume.”
It was a confusing and disappointing reaction to a work that Combs and Mazer had tried to approach with open eyes. Petworth resident Keith Wagner, who played The Riddler, expected questions from uninformed types, but not necessarily outrage within the same community the video sprung from. “There absolutely is validity to not wanting to see something that’s an intimate part of your own personal experience portrayed by someone who hasn’t had the same life experience,” says Wagner, 28, who also identifies as nonbinary. “I myself get really annoyed, to say the least, seeing like, bros putting on a dress on Halloween and being like, “I’m a chick!”... [But] I just don’t feel like that was the situation with this video.”
As reactions kept coming, Combs and Mazer took to Tumblr to respond—and to finally clarify some of the misinformation fueling people’s rage. In her response, Mazer revealed herself as genderqueer to try to curb allegations of cis appropriation, but added that she didn’t think she should have had to in the first place. “The idea that I should need to qualify my creative projects with a disclaimer about my gender identity, or anyone elses’ for that matter, [felt] tokenizing to me,” wrote Mazer. “To come out and say, ‘I’m genderqueer, and I approve this project!’…No. I will not demean artistic expression of personal feelings with disclaimers of this sort.”
Did finding out that Combs was genderqueer make a difference to some of his critics? “It did, though I really wished he had been more clear about that in both the initial essay and his public responses,” Jes writes me. “Positionality is extremely important when you’re speaking about these issues and when you have the power of a significant voice in your community.”
Combs, meanwhile, says positionality shouldn’t be so important. “I think that if I’d posed myself as genderqueer off the bat, that would have changed the tone of the criticisms completely, but that’s also part of what rubs me the wrong way about a lot of the conversation,” Combs writes from the road while on tour in Europe. “I think there is a weird essentialism around a cis/trans* dichotomy that is sort of what genderqueerness is meant to subvert... I don’t want the art that I’m making to be automatically ‘OK’ because it’s judged to fit on the trans* side of that dichotomy because I used the right buzzword or whatever. I want gender to be free and fluid and that anyone should be able to make art about it regardless of their identity.”
Combs also just wasn’t ready to “come out” at the time “Sexy Dreams” hit YouTube. “I considered whether I felt comfortable referring to myself as genderqueer when writing the essay and at the time I didn’t,” he writes. “I think that came out of a fear that I as a person with cis privilege might be perceived as trying to colonize a trans* identity that is generally occupied by people with less privilege than me.”
Meanwhile, Wagner is happy to have been a part of the project, even though it lead to some tough conversations. “I’m glad that we made the video, I’m glad that it’s out there,” says Wagner. “I wish that it had not hurt people who I consider to be allies and part of my community. But...I’m glad that the conversation happened.” Combs has since started a Tumblr to archive the debate over his video.
Mazer says she’s not going to apologize to anyone for “Sexy Dreams.” “I’m not sorry for hurting anybody’s feelings. I don’t think there should be apologies in punk,” she says. “Art offends people.” If artists stoop to edit themselves when their work sparks controversy, Mazer says, “you’re gonna edit yourself into oblivion.”
Besides, Mazer says, she’s proud of her handiwork. “I made that man into a beautiful, beautiful woman.”