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EDITORIAL: The Very Real Problems of Batgirl in the Killing Joke Film


Batgirl

 

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.

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6 thoughts on “EDITORIAL: The Very Real Problems of Batgirl in the Killing Joke Film

  1. Bob Moriarty

    For the record, I was completely shocked when the Babs/Bruce sex scene happened. This has to be the least-shipped couple in the history of least and shipping. Never ever in my life did the idea occur to me that Batgirl and Batman should get together. Putting aside that the pairing itself made me queezy in the vein of a old drunk uncle hitting on your cousin, I’m glad you covered that ultimately it’s not just sex that’s so damaging in this story, but the truly pathetic behavior that Babs displays afterwards: Her inability to put her emotions aside long enough to get out of her costume to call Bruce about it, whining ” I mean you don’t care I don’t care, can’t we just go back to the way things were?” just sounding like a middle schooler (well, ok hopefully high schooler) ok ANYWAYS point being – acting like a completely emotionally immature young person unable to handle her feelings long enough to discuss them at an appropriate juncture, then ultimately QUITTING being Batgirl ostensibly over her inability to reconcile her feelings and interact with Batman professionally.

    More than that, the dynamic that’s added to the section of the film covering the actual source material, that is to say throwing into that original story the fact that Bruce and Babs had just recently had sex, it’s even WORSE seeing Bruce then have to rescue her dad from the psycho-circus the Joker has set up created for the sole purpose of torturing Jim Gordon because now the dude rescuing him actually just had a one night stand with his daughter. And the final sequence, the weirdness of which I’m sure is discussed ad infinitum other places, where Batman and the Joker share laughter over a joke once it’s established that the Joker is captured seems even more definingly horrific. Batman shoudln’t be able to get to the place with the creature standing in front of him. Whether Alan Moore intended for us to believe that the Joker sexually assaulted Barbara after shooting her, it’s pretty well intended by Azarello in this adaptation for us to believe that was the case. If Batman can’t see the dark symmetry of all this, he’s a much darker and damaged character than I previously thought, at least in this representation.

    The Killing Joke has always had problems but I like to think that Alan Moore was intentionally trying to go somewhere very dark for all the characters and force us to really examine some of our core beliefs about the heroes he was dealing with. But for me the extra content that based on my reading of this editorial I understand to have been written by Azarello and Bruce Timm, is ultimately too damaging to a classic and important story to be good. It was shocking in the wrong way. While Barbara’s agency in this story is probably always in question, the term “character assassination,” often used hyperbolically, is pretty apropos here. I was really looking forward to this animated film even though this was always a tough story to digest, maybe especially because of that I was interested to see how they’d handle it as an animated production. What’s weird is that I haven’t revisited the original book yet since watching the movie, but if you were to ask me I’d say that the portion of the film that adapts the source material is pretty spot on down to a lot of the visual details and I’m pretty certain most of the dialogue. It’s so strange that they chose to try and provide character context by showing a young person essentially unprepared to handle the emotional aspects of sex, likely then creating additional subtext that has historically been connected to sexual assault and rape where after the fact the victim’s personal life is dragged out of their privacy and where questions can then be raised about the relationship between sexually active versus what constitutes promiscuity and whether or not she was “asking for it” or “got what she wanted/deserved,” horrible assertions that have always come into play historically either in the court room or even simply as gossip in the aftermath of sexual assault crimes.

    Well, that was a lot. I watched it this morning and I guess I didn’t quite realize how shocked and really disappointed I was that someone who over the last few years has become one of my favorite characters received this treatment; was shown to act in ways I know they simply would never act and the resulting exponential damage she incurred in a story where she is already hurt in ways that are worse than any crime I’ve ever known in real life.

    All I could think of as I was watching was “Ohhh boy there’s gonna be some serious heat over at TBU.” (But isn’t that cool that when something Bat-relevant happens, I think of you guys?)

    that’s all I got for now. I hope to hear from others on this topic, I think this is a pretty serious betrayal ultimately of Babs and I’d like to know if I’m alone in that. I know because of how awesome this community is that I’m not though.

    Reply
  2. Ian Miller

    Well done, Don! An excellent analysis. However, I think the problem goes a bit deeper than just the way the team “enhanced” Barbara’s role – the idea of Batman as too detached from the people around him is the whole point of The Killing Joke, and one of the reasons I think it’s not as good a story as its reputation suggests. Even Alan Moore has said that the ideas don’t work very well with Batman (though I’m not sure exactly how much weight his words have, given how many conflicting motives he has when it comes to his work with DC). But I think Moore is right – if you strip away the idea of Batman as a hero, specifically a hero to younger readers, there’s really not much purpose in writing about him in the first place.

    Reply
    1. Donovan Morgan Grant

      I’m not really sure what you mean. “Batman is too detached from the people around him is the whole point of the Killing Joke”, how so? I’ve never heard that perspective, nor do I see that as a point made in the story.

      Reply
      1. Ian Miller

        Well, it appears to me that the point of The Killing Joke is that Batman and the Joker are more similar to each other than Batman is similer to people like Jim Gordon and Barbara. That’s the whole impact of the Joker’s story about the two insane patients, and the fact that it ends with Batman laughing with the Joker. If the point isn’t that Batman and the Joker have more in common with each other than with the rest of society, I’m not sure I understand the point of TKJ (at least when it comes to Batman’s character).

        Reply
  3. Gerry Green

    Terrific article Donovan. You are onto some really important stuff.

    I find it hard to believe that this prologue is the answer DC came up with to address the story’s infamously anti-female plot. It would have been fascinating to have been a fly on the wall and listened to the tortured logic on how getting Barbara to sleep with Batman was going to be acceptable. As Bob says above we are deep in drunk Uncle territory. Creepy and weird.

    It is easy to ignore those voices that call out misogyny, racism, homophobia etc. It is at times like this when it is glaringly obvious that there is something wrong in the decision making process to let this happen.

    So, when’s the next Lego Batman movie coming out?

    Reply
  4. Michael Ridge

    Congratulations, Don! Your thoughtful review has none of the earmarks of squealing fanboy rants that creators have ruined wonderful characters. This was a much more mature rant that laid out a good case that the writers and the producers just don’t get why ‘The Killing Joke’ is a sexist story.
    I hate it that this Joker character piece is considered central to Barbara Gordon’s life. Why couldn’t it have disappeared in Final Crisis, Zero Hour, Flashpoint or Rebirth?
    Based on your review, I won’t be looking for the film until I see it at Half Price Books.

    Reply

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