By now nearly everyone who’s interested has watched (or learned) about the controversial scene in the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke. For the uninitiated, the first half hour –dedicated to the presentation of Barbara Gordon as a fleshed out character before her eventual maiming and disappearance later in the story – includes a scene in which she and Batman have sex on a rooftop. Shocking stuff to be sure, but since the purpose of the added material was to show more of Barbara’s character, this could appear to simply go with the flow of the adult nature of the story. Often sexualized but rarely sexual, an adult presentation of Batgirl isn’t in itself a bad idea.
Unfortunately for those who have seen the film in its entirety, it’s plainly obvious where the deeper problem lies. Bats and Babs’ sex scene is merely endemic to the utter backfire that the Batgirl prologue ends up being, which is to say a merry-go-round of sexist tropes that borders on character assassination. In this new story, Barbara’s mode of operation is proving herself to Batman in ways which will earn not only his respect but his affection – the same affection she has for him. It’s compounded by her interactions with a gangster who insistently lusts after her, which throws her off her game. With those opposing forces in her story, Barbara’s character is rendered as an effete, temperamental and immature crime fighter whose costumed career is presented as just short of a farce. Her sex scene with Batman (brought about by her losing her temper and attacking him in a fit of frustration) is followed by truly pathetic scenes of her calling him in costume and pining for him for the rest of the prologue. This all culminates in her beating the stalky gangster nearly to death, crying out the he “ruined everything!” before using that incident to quit as a consequence for the outburst.
Enough people online have talked about what makes this prologue so regrettable. Noah Berlatsky for the Guardian wrote that “Girls aren’t emotionally or mentally tough enough to be heroes, is the message; they’re just too darn emotional. But hey, they look good in those tight costumes, right?” Marceline Cook for Storify.com went scene by scene in breaking down how the movie’s depictions of women make for a misogynist whole, and that “Male writers don’t understand the difference [between male empowerment and female empowerment]” and that the movie is “a masterclass on how exactly to NOT write women.”
There lies the problem, that the film was scripted by Brian Azzarello and brainstormed between him, Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm. As acclaimed as all three writers are for their works on Batman, they’re still three men trying to amend an iconically sexist story and the end result simply doubles down on its misguided gender politics. In the original Killing Joke graphic novel, Barbara is one of two women who have lines of dialogue and of those two is the one to survive the end of the book despite being attacked and sexually assaulted. The animated film improves in the dialogue arena, but with sex workers whose presence is to underline the deviance of the villains, the Joker included. In the comic, women exist either in the background or in harm’s way. In the film, their sexuality is exploited to reflect on the more relevant men.
This is not to say that sex in itself is what makes this movie so misogynist, but it’s part of a larger context. Sexual tension between Batman and Batgirl – while vaguely implicit in the 1966 television series – has never been an enduring element between the two in the forty-nine years since Barbara’s debut in the comics. The one time it was ever established was in the Batman Beyond animated series as anecdotal hindsight. The one person insistent on this pairing is Bruce Timm, producer for both the Killing Joke film and Batman Beyond, who explained that it was something he always felt aware of. Fair enough, but that single perspective doesn’t really have a place in a story where Barbara isn’t the main focus, no matter how much rejiggering they tried to give to the story. It speaks too ill of both Barbara and Bruce Wayne’s characters, and demands further exploration than a simple mistake made days before she’s horrifically assaulted. This also makes Batman out to be worse in his thoroughly unemotional apprehension of the Joker which is transferred from the original comic.
The central conflict is that this is a sexist story made worse through a collective of men who didn’t think hard enough about the choices they made in portraying their lead female character. As appreciable their attempt to give Barbara more to do in her most definitive non-story is, that doesn’t wallpaper over how she actually is in the story. Worse still is the type of behind it in the first place. During the Q&A after the SDCC screening of the film, Brian Azzarello responded to an audience member questioning Babs portrayal with “Wanna say that again pussy?” Azzarello is well known for being the writer of 100 Bullets, a noir/pulp style comic series that indulges in the retrograde style of hard men and femme fatales and all the problematic gender politics that come with it. Not to suggest that he cannot write women well, but his comfort zone has been established throughout his career as one that isn’t concerned with how they’re presented in his stories.
It’s symptomatic of the problem in trying to write the “strong female character”. Women in media are still not totally normalized as having equal agency and capabilities as men, despite the great strides certain characters like Ellen Ripley or Wonder Woman or even Batgirl have made throughout the years. There’s still not a baseline for women to be seen as naturally strong on the same level as men at the starting line, so it’s going to be tricky to add nuance to women characters without firsthand experience, I.E. being a woman. Coming from a man’s perspective and trying to make a female character layered risks relying on problematic tropes in storytelling that subconsciously feed off of the male gaze. An example of this is when Joss Whedon was criticized for his portrayal of Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron, despite the fact that he’s been a renowned feminist in geek media. Another example is Brian Bendis and the outcry he received when writing Afro-Latinx Spider-Man Miles Morales bristling at the notion of being known as the “Black” Spider-Man. Bendis was critiqued for being a white writer presuming the reflective thoughts of a young black hero.
The point is that writing from different stations involves risks of including harmful stereotypes in the attempt to achieve better representation. The Batgirl prologue was done for people unfamiliar with the character going into the film, but her character ended up being completely misrepresented for the sake of “depth”. Had Gail Simone, renowned critic of the Killing Joke, been approached to remedy the story with a Batgirl prologue, the outcome would undoubtedly have been better received. This is not to suggest that white men should refrain from writing women and minorities, merely that they should take special care in trying to do so. The fight for progress in geek media has proven itself to truly be a fight, and there have been as many losses as there are wins in the new millennium. Taking the worst case scenarios – like the Batgirl story in the Killing Joke film – serves as another list of cautionary examples for future writers as to what to avoid and demonstrates the level of difficulty in approaching a problem with the best of intentions.