With the release of the newest DC animated movie Batman: The Killing Joke just around the corner, I’d like to share an essay I had published a few years back. The paper is all about Barbara Gordon – who she was before, during, and after the comic The Killing Joke. Once the movie of the same title is released, I’ll post here again with a brand new analysis, so keep an eye out.
This is the only one of my published works that has been unavailable to read online. Just the Way is available here on Sierra Dawn, Write On. And Pyramid is available in the archives for “The Write Place at the Write Time.” You can read my short stories online, but not my academic paper.
Like the Brushfire (in which I had Just the Way published), the Stellaria does not have online archives. So I decided to do the same as I did with Just the Way, now with my Batgirl paper: post it here.
From Batgirl to Oracle
Barbara Gordon Fighting Crime in a (Bat)Man’s World
The comic book genre of fiction is unlike any other. In most genres, we only know characters within limited plotlines. In comic books, however, one character can exist for half a century or more, encountering new storylines constantly. And because the writers attempt to maintain continuity throughout all those decades, characters may change dramatically from the time of their conception until the present.
Barbara Gordon is one such character. Having first appeared in the late 1960s, she has now been in comics for almost fifty years. Her character has gone through many changes, the most life-altering of which being a sexist and violent attack resulting in her paralysis. After the attack, her superhero alias changed from Batgirl to Oracle. As Batgirl, Barbara was a character that conformed to rigid gender norms, perpetuating them in the process. However, as comic book continuity progressed, and Barbara became Oracle, she became a hero in her own name instead of simply a female version of her male counterpart. DC Comics writers took a misogynistic and tragic incident, and created a more feminist character through it.
Barbara Gordon as Batgirl
When she was first introduced in comic books, Barbara Gordon was a young, naïve college student dressing up as a female version of Batman for Halloween. She came across a kidnapping in progress, and helped stop it. She continued fighting crime after that, in the style of her trainer and mentor, Batman, while wearing a costume similar to his, and protected the helpless of Gotham as Batgirl. Barbara was also the daughter of Commissioner of Police, James Gordon. During those issues of comics, what made Barbara Gordon powerful and worth mentioning was directly related to men who were powerful before her. Had her father not been commissioner, or had Batman not already created a name for himself, Barbara might never have become a superhero. Still, not every aspect of her character was as sexist as those of other female superheroes, even in her early years.
Barbara Gordon did not appear in comics until after World War II had ended. This resulted in a few positive aspects in her character regarding feminism. For instance, Barbara Gordon missed the propaganda that other female superheroes were subject to during the war. 1941 saw the first two female superheroes in comic book history, but both were depicted as “variations of the Betty Grable pin-up… thin, attractive, and… easily applied to the victim role in the manly cartoons of the day” (Scott, 328). While writers felt the need to come up with excuses for Clark Kent serving the war effort on the home front (so as to not raise child readers’ hopes for the easy victory America would have with Superman fighting overseas), there was no such reason given for female superheroes remaining at home. Instead it was simply considered a given: “The possibility of women in combat, even comic book ones, was difficult to grasp” (Scott, 333).
Having made her debut in 1967, Batgirl was instead a part of a new era of comics, commonly referred to as the Silver Age. During this time, comics were making a shift to a more adult audience, so there would be less of a need to censor themselves (Růžička, 48). Therefore, Barbara Gordon, aka: Batgirl, began as a more mature character and avoided many of the sexist attributes applied to other female superheroes of the time.
When her character first appeared, it was as Dr. Barbara Gordon, having gotten her Ph.D. in library science. However, her position as head librarian seemed to be merely a part of her secret identity – her career was less important to her character and more of a way to hide who she really was. And of course, her job as librarian, even one with a doctorate, was safely within the realms of femininity of the time.
Batgirl’s first appearance is an occurrence which at first seems to be a feminist one. For one thing, her Halloween costume borders on drag. She dresses up as a male superhero, without sacrificing her femininity to do so. She also successfully stops an attempted kidnapping. However, the person she saved from being kidnapped is actually Bruce Wayne. Although Barbara has no idea, the reader is well aware that Bruce Wayne is secretly Batman, and has the ability to quite easily escape from virtually any entanglement. Presumably the only reason he allows himself to be rescued is that he could not rescue himself while maintaining his secret identity. So while Barbara is able to congratulate herself on her successful heroism, the writers and readers of the comic understand that her actions are unnecessary. She is not the real hero.
This mentality of Batgirl’s usefulness (or lack thereof) continues throughout the first decade or so of her existence; Batgirl was merely something of a guest star within Batman’s comic books. During an interview, Mike Visser (a fan of comic books and a college graduate with a degree in English), explains Batgirl’s early role in the Batman comics: “Unlike Robin, Batgirl wasn’t recruited by Batman… she was an unwanted volunteer… a lot of it had to do with the fact that she was a woman” (Leeder, 2011). In most plots, Batgirl would come in to help Batman and Robin, “but then she’d end up causing more trouble for [them] and they would have to rescue her… in the first few stories she was just a nuisance” (Leeder, 2011).
Barbara Gordon’s character in those early comics exemplifies what Lynn Peril describes in her book, Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons. According to Peril, “pink think” is the mentality built up over decades regarding how women in our society “should” act. In many cases, a woman’s success in her gender is linked to how well she does her make-up or catches a husband. For instance, in an article printed three years before Batgirl’s first appearance in comic books, women were advised “to stow a purse-sized mirror and lipstick near the front door (‘lifesavers when the bell rings unexpectedly’) and in the car (‘mighty handy when you have to rush to meet the 6:10’)” (Peril, 172). Since stashing secret make-up in one’s private space wouldn’t be enough, women of the time were also told to keep “‘a first-aid beauty kit in her bottom desk drawer or in the back of the filing cabinet’” (Peril, 172).
For most women, desks or filing cabinets would be reasonable places to hide make-up during work hours. For Barbara Gordon, however, there are no such convenient hiding places while fighting crime as Batgirl. But does that stop her from keeping her make-up fresh?
In this early Batgirl Comics cover, we can see Batgirl verifying pink think. Even as Batman and Robin fight, clearly outnumbered, Batgirl is preoccupied with her make-up. This Barbara Gordon sends the message to young female readers: no matter what your job is, there is no excuse for not looking your best! After all, you never know when you might meet your potential future husband.
Barbara Gordon as a Plot Point
The main cause of Barbara’s transformation into Oracle is tragic. The Joker, arguably Batman’s most dangerous nemesis, goes to Barbara’s home and shoots her in an attempt to drive her father, Police Commissioner James Gordon, insane. Alan Moore, although highly respected as a comic book writer for his ability to make readers consider the intricacies of morality, was obviously not as aware of gender issues when he wrote The Killing Joke in 1988. Batgirl’s only purpose in this comic was to be an effect on her father’s sanity. And thus Batgirl continues the female superhero’s legacy as “the victim role” (Scott, 328) in the medium of comic books.
In The Killing Joke, the Joker sets out to prove that just one bad day is enough to drive any person insane. He does so by first shooting Barbara in her home. He then strips James Gordon naked before binding him and putting him on an amusement park ride, where he is forced to see pictures of his daughter, paralyzed, bleeding, naked, and helpless.
“The Joker didn’t blink at shooting Barbara Gordon through her spine and stripping her bare. He wasn’t ‘out to get her.’ He simply had made up his mind that he wanted to prove a point, and she was a useful object to help him make that point, no more or less meaningful to him than the amusement ride he later used for the same purpose” (Robichaud, 73).
Since it is obviously a sociopathic serial killer who makes these judgments, it could be argued that the writer is making the point that only villains have such mentalities. The message, therefore, could be that the reader, if s/he is a good person, should not think of people in this way. However, what were Alan Moore’s reasons for this particular plot?
According to Visser, Moore’s only reasons were in regards to the male characters of the comic: “When Alan Moore wrote The Killing Joke… he didn’t have any intentions for what to do with [Barbara] after that. He was just trying to put Jim Gordon through hell” (Leeder, 2011). The validity of this statement can be seen in the fact that Moore did not write any comics involving Barbara Gordon after The Killing Joke. Barbara Gordon continued to appear in comics only when Kim Yale (DC writer/editor) and John Ostrander (DC writer) realized that there was still potential in her character, even if she was paralyzed.
The plot of The Killing Joke contains an element which has been used in fiction for centuries: the damsel in distress. Sometimes the plot is as simple as the female character being in jeopardy, and the male hero having to prove his love and valor by rescuing her. In comic books, this element is extended so that super villains will not only capture a female character, but even kill her, leaving her body for the male hero to find. There are so many cases of women in comic books who are “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or [who] had other life-derailing tragedies” that Gail Simone (another one of the few female DC Comics writers) has created a website listing them (Simone, 1999). (There are men in comic books who have the above tragedies inflicted on them, though not nearly as many as women.) On the list are at least 110 women, and Simone admits that she may have missed a few.
Barbara Gordon is, of course, one of the women on the list. She, like so many other female superheroes, was used purely for the effect she would have on the male hero of the story. However, out of the tragic and misogynistic events that paralyzed her, Barbara Gordon became a new hero.
Barbara Gordon as Oracle
The Joker’s bullet wound did not kill Barbara, but in a way killed Batgirl by paralyzing Barbara. At a time when it seemed that she would never be able to fight crime again, she created a new identity. As Oracle, Barbara used her vast knowledge of science and math as tech support for Batman as well as other superheroes. She even became the leader of an all-female group of superheroes called the Birds of Prey. Barbara’s transformation into Oracle is especially significant because she does so in a world where a body in peak condition can be one’s most valuable asset.
In mainstream comics, the depiction of superheroes’ bodies is an exaggerated form of society’s perception of what a body should look like – men have broad shoulders, narrow hips, and extensive and chiseled muscles; women have slim waists, and large chests and hips.
In this the Birds of Prey cover featuring Oracle, Barbara Gordon is certainly in a position much more suited for fighting crime than she was in her previous Batgirl cover image. Here, Oracle holds her weapons at the ready, her facial expression is one of determination – she appears to be a competent superhero that is ready to throw down. However, even in her obvious battle-ready position, there is unnecessary focus on her chest.
While the exaggeration of male superheroes’ bodies aid them in their crime fighting (with their overly-toned muscles they are stronger and have an advantage in combat), the exaggeration of female superheroes’ bodies does not aid them in crime fighting. Although the female superhero’s thin waist could be justified with her need to stay in shape in order to hold her own during battle, her overly well-endowed chest does not give her any advantage. Quite the contrary, her chest would actually make crime-fighting more difficult. In reality, if a female superhero did happen to have disproportionately large breasts in comparison to her waist, she would bind them while in costume in order to keep them out of her way. (This would have the bonus result of further concealing her secret identity!)
This depiction of bodies can be seen in our society’s values as well. Men and women both have rigid expectations for what their bodies should look like. The expectations are especially prevalent for women, since our society also perceives women to be their bodies, and nothing else. In her article, “Woman as Body: Ancient and Contemporary Views,” Elizabeth V. Spelman examines the effects of Plato’s philosophy on our modern society. According to Plato, the distinction between the body and the soul is synonymous with the distinction between rationality and irrationality (Spelman, 36). Women, then, correspond with the body, while men correspond with the soul: “[t]o have more concern for your body than your soul is to act just like a woman” (Spelman, 37).
Kristen Lindgren also writes about Plato’s philosophy on women’s bodies in her essay, “Bodies in Trouble: Identity, Embodiement, and Disability.” While Plato views the body “as a tomb… a grave or prison… or as barnacles or rocks holding down the soul” (Spelman, 36), he views a disabled body as even worse than an abled one: “If the healthy body, with its unruly needs and appetites, inevitably distracts the philosopher from the pursuit of knowledge, then the diseased body, even more unpredictable and unruly, must surely halt the project of philosophy altogether” (Lindgren, 145).
As women are believed to be “more embodied than men” (Lindgren, 147), it follows that disabled women are even more stigmatized than disabled men. As is the case for Barbara Gordon, “[w]hen a body is both female and diseased or impaired, it can be viewed, and experienced, as doubly corporeal, doubly devalued, and… doubly shameful” (Lindgren, 147). This concept continues in our society today due to the respect we hold for Plato, and, as a result, women are viewed in regards to their bodies. While this perception is not specific to comic books, it is exaggerated in them.
Barbara Gordon exists not only in our world, which perceives women to be their bodies and disabled bodies as “shameful,” but also in a world of superheroes in which anyone of consequence has an “ideal” body. The loss of the use of her legs should have excluded her as a character, or at least as a superhero. Instead, Barbara redefines what it means to be a superhero. She defies Plato’s philosophy, and our society’s gender norms that came from it, by not allowing herself to be restricted by her “dis”ability.
In her book, Take Up Thy Bed and Walk: Death, Disability and Cure in Classic Fiction for Girls, Lois Keith examines the extensive works of fiction containing disabled characters during the last 150 years. What appears to be overlooked by most scholars is that overcoming disability is a widely established (as well as harmful) theme in classic literature designed for young girls. Since the mid nineteenth century, “there were only two possible ways for writers to resolve the problem of their characters’ inability to walk: cure or death” (Keith, 5). The cure option always requires the disabled character to change something about her/himself, which tends to be a trait which is not among traditionally “feminine” qualities (Keith, 5-7).
For Barbara Gordon, cure would be a relatively easy route to take. Many of the superheroes she knows (such as Dr. Fate, Dr. Mid-Nite, or Zatanna) would be able to heal her spine with the use of magic or medical miracles. Curing Barbara Gordon would certainly make more sense than Katy Carr curing herself by simply “learn[ing] to be less boisterous and more womanly” (Keith, 6). Still, DC writers chose to have Barbara remain in a wheelchair. The message sent by Barbara Gordon as Oracle is the first step in a battle against the message sent by classic literature for little girls. Girls’ literature sends a message that says,
“there is nothing good about being disabled… disabled people have to learn the same qualities of submissive behavior that women have always had to learn… impairment can be a punishment for bad behavior… disabled people should be pitied rather than punished, [but] never accepted… [i]f you want to enough, if you love yourself enough (but not more than others), if you believe in God enough, you will be cured” (Keith, 7).
Oracle’s story sends a message that says the complete opposite. Girls reading Oracle’s comics will see that cure is not the only way for a happy and fulfilled life.
As Batgirl, Barbara Gordon was as feminist a character as one can be when she carries a man’s name. Although she fought against certain gender norms by even being a superhero, as a concept she could never have existed without her male counterpart. As a character she first created more problems for the “real” superheroes of her comics, then became nothing more than a plot point. But it was because of that plot point that Oracle was able to emerge.
Without the bullet wound that resulted in her paralysis, Barbara Gordon might never have shed the name of the male superhero that came before her. By remaining in her wheelchair, while still not relinquishing her desire to fight crime, she became an inspiration. DC writers have taken the opportunity that the comic book genre affords them and allowed a character to evolve with the rest of the world and become something more than how she began. Barbara Gordon now sends the message to readers that being paralyzed does not mean being inferior, that no person is just her/his legs, that no woman is just her body.
Anderson, Murphy, and Carmine Infantino. “Showcase Presents Batgirl.” Comic book cover. Amazon.com. Web. 18 April 2011.
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Leeder, Sierra. “Barbara Gordon Interview.” Message to/Personal Interview with Mike Visser. 19 April 2011. Combination Email and Personal Interview.
Lindgren, Kristin. “Bodies in Trouble: Identity, Embodiment, and Disability.” Gendering Disability. Ed. Beth Hutchison & Bonnie G. Smith. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004. 145-165. Print.
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Simone, Gail. Women in Refrigerators. March 1999. Web. 3 May 2011.
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