With the recent news that Joss Whedon is in the works to do a (potentially amazing, if arguably problematic) Batgirl movie, I’ve been thinking about Barbara Gordon a lot. I mean, more than usual. BG’s always been a personal favorite and perhaps the first example I remember from my childhood of not only a real “strong female character” but a superhero I actually connected with. Babs has been a hero to many and while she has been used in incredibly problematic ways over the years, she remains one of the most prominent female superheroes to the average geek.
As different artists have taken a crack at Batgirl over the years, she has gone through a few phases, as have most of the other major players in the Batman canon. Many of those different versions of BG have been used in exploitative ways. Despite this, many have made her a feminist icon and often a source of inspiration to fans of all genders. In looking back at some of these incarnations, I also hope to highlight a few things that will be crucial to the Batgirl film not ending up horrible.
TW: Discussion of themes related to sexual violence and ableism.
To begin, I want to go back to the old school Adam West TV show version, played so memorably by the late Yvonne Craig. When I was a little kid, Batgirl was my favorite superhero. I remember feeling a stronger connection to Batgirl than either Batman or Robin. Don’t get me wrong, Adam West and Burt Ward both give fantastic performances that still trigger endorphin release when I watch them today, but Batman/Bruce in that show is a moralizing father figure and Robin/Dick is the annoying tattletale kid brother who had your back if you really needed it. They both felt like archetypes or even clichés. Batgirl, on the other hand, was the first superhero that really felt relatable. I also remember people generally thinking it was weird that I was more into Batgirl than the boys on the show. At a subconscious level, the idea that superheroes were meant to reinforce a stereotypical gender binary was presented to me and Batgirl was the person who showed me how it was mostly bullshit; I am convinced that has always been a crucial part of the character and one I need to see from any film version.
Unlike Bruce Wayne, who has the whole “murdered parents/protect the innocent” thing going on, or Dick Grayson, who was adopted (or whatever the hell a “youthful ward” is) by a superhero, Barbara Gordon simply up and decided “pfft, I can do that just as well…” and she did! Yes, she’s the daughter of police commissioner Gordon and knows a lot about Batman, but she has access to neither Wayne’s billions nor Grayson’s 24/7 proximity to Batman. With no training and relatively few material resources (aside from a kickass motorcycle and unfettered access to a library), she is able to become a superhero due primarily to the fact that she’s really freaking smart. Throughout the series Batgirl is often the one who figures out clues (without using the various comically convenient Bat-Machines) and saves the caped crusaders on more than one occasion. She’s a librarian, thus also depicted as something of a nerd. She’s the perfect proxy for a young viewer of any gender, since she is essentially the smart nerdy kid who became an actual superhero due to brains and a strong conscience. Her intelligence allows her to figure things out in the field instead of constantly rushing to the Batcave and her compassion drives her heroism rather than an abstract sense of justice.
In addition, I remember Batgirl contributing to my early protofeminist thinking in many ways. Aside from being portrayed as somewhat bookish, Barbara Gordon is often shown to be very feminine. She is unashamedly a girl and is into “girly things” in her normal life; that never precludes her from being able to beat the crap out of like a dozen henchmen and have Batman’s back in a boss fight. As a female superhero who didn’t feel a need to embrace a masculine persona, Babs upended a lot of early tropes and became something of an icon, second perhaps only to Wonder Woman, in inspiring generations of girls (and everyone else) to reach for their dreams. I mean, she made a PSA for the Department of Labor promoting the Equal Pay Act in which she asks Batman and Robin why she should save their lives from a bomb if she’s only getting 70% of Robin’s paycheck: that’s some major recognition of her visibility and power as a feminist symbol.
Depicting all that will be crucial to the success of the film. What makes Batgirl a legitimately strong character, rather than the hollow buzzword “strong female protagonist” often represents, is this combination of immense intelligence and unwavering dedication to doing everything she can to help. She is not invulnerable and, like Batman and Robin, has no actual super powers. Batgirl’s character in the film needs to bring that combination of brains and human ability to the front. While the film absolutely does need some solid fight scenes and Batgirl’s raw physical skill shouldn’t be diminished, they need to continually make a point of showing her figuring things out quicker than anyone else. The film should present Batgirl as someone who, while she might not be as physically powerful as Batman and might occasionally need support, is arguably smarter and possibly even a better detective than Batman himself. One small suggestion I’d have is to set up a few moments where some elaborate villain plot is foiled by BG walking in and instantly dissecting the whole thing as overcomplicated and obvious. I think casting her as a slightly sarcastic if mostly serious mid 20’s grad student (library sciences doctorate?) type who feels down to earth when she’s Barbara and revels in the fun of the cape life when she’s Batgirl (even throwing is a small amount of “meta-campiness”) will be the way to go. That allows her to both appeal directly to younger audiences and to be able to credibly have some solid “I’m a grown ass woman” moments where her feminism can be expressed in an organic way as BG deals with older men underestimating her. A soft pg-13 rating and tone would help keep that balance and avoid gratuitous sexualization and violence. In these ways, the Yvonne Craig Batgirl should be a source for the film’s characterization.
Now make no mistake, there is a good amount of horribly dated misogynistic and exploitative crap in that show. There are numerous scenes where Batgirl is put into stereotypical damsel in distress type moments, the dreaded “sexy pose that wouldn’t work in a fight” is all over the place, she’s regularly sexualized in dialogue and appearance, and there are more than a few gratuitous bondage scenes. The tendency to sexualize Batgirl and use her as part of a power fantasy is one that lingered in the background (or the foreground) of a lot of Batgirl content over the years. While she was an immensely popular character, many of her creators and producers have used her as a plot element in other (predominately male) characters’ stories.
Which bring us to The Killing Joke.
To say that story exploits Batgirl for shock value in a story that has nothing to do with her is an understatement. In Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon is shot through the stomach, severing her spine, and then (at least heavily implied to be) sexually assaulted by the Joker for the sole purpose of showing photographs of the aftermath to her father in an attempt to break the commissioner’s grasp on reality. Joker (probably) didn’t even know it was Batgirl, he just went after Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. It was made worse years later when Alan Moore revealed that when he asked his editor if it was acceptable for them to paralyze Barbara Gordon in a canon story the exact response was, “yeah, ok, cripple the bitch.” While, in all honesty, the bulk of Killing Joke is an absolutely brilliant Batman story and arguably the best Joker story out there, this fundamental violation of Batgirl as a plot point and callous disregard for a beloved character was crushing. I did not watch the animated version because everything I know about it indicates it will make me want to break things. Suffice it to say that a film which was promoted as righting the wrongs done to BG actually ended up making things so much worse and proving that these exploitative uses of Batgirl are not a relic of less enlightened times.
As a result of her paralysis, however, Barbara Gordon became Oracle. Since she was left a paraplegic by Joker’s assault, BG has physical limitations preventing her from literally physically fighting crime. While she can defend herself and isn’t presented as being helpless or used in some ableist pity narrative, she can’t go jumping across rooftops, so she needs to find another way to help. The solution she comes up with is to essentially become the JLA’s head of IT and operational support, using advanced computers and her natural skill to hack… well, basically anything on Earth to help other heroes get the job done. She becomes invaluable and in many ways is more effective as Oracle than she was as Batgirl, eventually teaming up with Huntress and Black Canary in various incarnations of the Birds of Prey super team. While there is some exploitation in some of those series as well, they generally contribute to the legacy of Barbara Gordon as a truly strong female character. She eventually has surgery to repair her spine and take up the Batgirl mantle again. While this can be seen as a disappointment and an ableist cop out, it also finally allows Barbara Gordon to be used in stories that don’t feature a visual reminder of Killing Joke’s abuse in every panel.
For this reason, though Oracle is one of my personal favorite DC characters, they should probably avoid too many references to that plotline in the film. The potential to upend ableist narratives is fantastic, though, so I’m not sure a full on retcon is the way to go either; possibly a situation where she remarks how she can’t do something because she’s not Oracle anymore and therefore less capable in some situations. The other narrative that’s thematically inextricable from the one about her physical disability is that she very likely has PTSD after being shot and (again, strongly implied to be) raped by Joker. There is massive potential for that narrative to be groundbreaking and a step forward for addressing rape culture in comics; however, it is also one where a female writer/director is crucial. The potential for a male writer to present that trauma in the context of a power fantasy is too great a risk to explore. I think, though, that this is a case where subtle acknowledgement may be crucial. They will need to be able to hint at that trauma through things like facial expressions and keywords in dialogue that show Babs is a survivor without delving into the plot of Killing Joke directly. To avoid risking a disaster on either of these fronts, they might actually want to just go ahead and set this movie before the events of that story.
More recent Batgirl comics have taken strides to enshrine Batgirl as a feminist icon and to desexualize her appearance without denying her femininity or her agency. With the notable exception of the previously mentioned Killing Joke film that I choose not to acknowledge (aside from the always brilliant voice work of Mark Hamill), that trend has garnered positive critical praise and fairly solid sales which hopefully means it will continue in the future, film version included.
In the article I linked at the opening of this post, one conclusion the author seems to draw is that a successful superhero movie about a beloved female character can be a setback in the fight for greater diversity if written and directed by a man. While I don’t entirely agree with that conclusion, the author also discusses how, in a vacuum, the decision to have a man with a strong background in both film and comics direct the Batgirl movie wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but in the greater context of Hollywood’s diversity problem, it is at least tone-deaf, if not appropriative. That is an incredibly key point and one that gives me pause. No matter what you think of Joss’ writing, he is not someone who grew up as a little girl idolizing BG. He is not someone who had to deal with the conflicting messages sent by her strong feminism and her frequent sexualization and use in power tropes. While I, personally, do think there is a chance that he can make this work, the bar is extremely high and there is a lot that could go horribly wrong; particularly given the DCU’s recent misfires.
In addition to the examples I mentioned above, there are a few other key things the film will need to do to do justice by the character. First, while Batman can be a minor presence in the film, it absolutely can not be a Batman (or Bat-Team) film in any way; Babs needs to carry the plot entirely and her story needs to be the primary narrative in basically any scenes with other heroes. Second, while she needs to be tough as nails and ferocious in action, she can’t be “dark and gritty”, she needs to feel like a real woman as much as possible rather than a mythologized archetype or cold-hearted vigilante. Third, while she shouldn’t be stripped of a sexuality, any romance subplot should be minimal and not a driver of the main story in any way. It would be cool if they explored her sexuality a bit, possibly even confirming that she’s on the queer spectrum (my headcanon has always been that she’s heteroflexible for some reason), but in any event, it shouldn’t be a major plot point. Fourth, while the movie needs the sense of humor Joss often injects into his work, it should never cross the line from fun into “quirky”. Batgirl is a character with a good sense of humor, but she can’t ever be treated as a punchline. And finally, while feminist concepts should be front and center in the film, they shouldn’t be made a direct plot element. I think it’s possible to make it clear that Batgirl is a proud feminist and have the film convey a feminist message without coming off as putting politics before story.
As a lifelong Batgirl fan and someone who has found inspiration in everything Barbara Gordon represents. I really really hope this gets the treatment it deserves and hits the high notes both Batgirl and Joss Whedon are capable of. I can see myself doing a midnight showing if it looks like he pulls this off but, at the same time, I’d never have thought I’d avoid watching an animated Killing Joke with Hamill and Conroy reprising the roles of Batman and Joker because they made the Batgirl stuff even worse… so who knows. In the meantime I think it’s time to catch up on the 2016 Birds of Prey stuff and the current issues of Batgirl because, even after all these years, BG is still as cool as capes come.
Tune in next week LGG readers; same geek time, same geek channel.