The recent animated adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke has been a source of controversy, particularly with the way Barbara Gordon – AKA – Batgirl was portrayed. Several critics have claimed that the film version of The Killing Joke has misogynistic overtones and paints Barbara Gordon as less than a strong woman.
I disagree. As a woman and a comic book fan, I argue that the film version portrays Barbara Gordon as human.
Some of us prefer our super heroes to be like gods: held to a loftier standard than most people are capable of upholding. Others appreciate a bit of human frailty sprinkled on top of all that valor. Some have personal demons that are worse than others, but it’s their ability to fight for what’s right and attempt to help others despite those weaknesses that makes them heroes.
Barbara’s behavior isn’t atypical of women who are intelligent and capable, yet find themselves madly trying to decipher mixed signals from a man they are attracted to. She makes mistakes. And sometimes she feels desperate. But it does not make her any less of a strong woman for having those feelings. It just makes her human. You’d find far worse caricatures of female behavior on an episode of The Bachelor — a show aimed at a 18-34 year old female demographic — than you would in The Killing Joke.
A Bit of Backstory
Originally written by Alan Moore in 1988, Batman: The Killing Joke showed the darker side of Gotham’s superheroes and villains, marking it as one of the most brutal installments of the Caped Crusader’s cannon. In it, the Joker shows up at Commissioner Jim Gordon’s home and shoots his daughter Barbara through the spine, paralyzing her from the waist down. As his goons haul Gordon off to prep him for more torture to come, the Joker strips Barbara naked and photographs her as she lies bleeding.
Years after writing it, Moore wanted to disassociate himself from the story. The author did, however, insist that Joker did not rape Barbara. While his actions constituted as sexual assault and intent to harm, the Joker did not commit the physical act of rape — but sure as hell enacted psychological rape on Barbara Gordon, doing irreparable physical and mental damage.
Differences Between the Comic & the Film
Although an important character in The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon didn’t have much of a role beyond being the catalyst / plot device (dubbed the “Women In Refrigerators” trope) whose assault informs the actions of male characters in the story. Screenwriter Brian Azzarello added a brand new story to the front of the film, showing Batgirl as she was before her paralysis and torture at the hands of the Joker.
In this prologue, Batgirl catches the eye of criminal Paris Franz during one of her nightly patrols off Gotham. She makes it her mission to bring Franz to justice and nearly finds herself outmatched.
Batman, Barbara’s mentor in masked crime-fighting, repeatedly tries to pull her off the case. He cautions her that she is out of her depth and that Franz is a sociopath and a narcissist. His flirtations with her aren’t cute, but indicative of something far more sinister.
In a disturbing moment, Franz tries to dose Batgirl with knockout spray. Franz hints at what he might do to her if she passes out — and it ain’t good. She escapes by locking herself in a vault before passing out and the thief gets away.
In the midst of tracking down Franz, Barbara deals with feelings of attraction to her mentor. These feelings are further complicated by the fact that Batman does not see her as his equal. Batman is under the impression she hasn’t stared into the abyss yet, “the place where you don’t care anymore. Where all hope dies.” After a verbal argument, she and Batman wind up having sex. Afterwards, Batman avoids Barbara and is abrupt with her on phone calls. He does, however, show up when he suspects she is in trouble.
Shortly after Franz is eventually subdued by Batgirl herself who unleashes a brutal ass-whooping, Barbara decides to hang up her cowl and retire from a life of active crime-fighting. Not long after she retires, Barbara is shot and it’s implied that she’s raped by the Joker. One scene in the film involves three prostitutes who mention Joker always visits them after he breaks out of jail. This time, he didn’t visit them and they assume he got his rocks off with someone else. Although never explicitly stated, that scene hints that not only was Barbara Gordon photographed in a state of undress, but the Joker likely forced himself on her when she was unable to defend herself.
Sexist Portrayal or Just Human?
The part of The Killing Joke that has many critics and fans in an uproar is that Batgirl had sex with Batman and that she behaves as a victim throughout. In the grander scheme of the DC universe, Barbara Gordon was almost always paired with Robin. However, the cartoon series Batman Beyond made mention of a failed relationship between the former Batgirl and Bruce Wayne.
Many saw the Batman / Batgirl tryst as a violation of the established mentor/pupil relationship and that Batman violated that sense of trust.
On the surface, Barbara had consensual sex with Batman. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, Batman’s subsequent treatment of her after the episode left a lot to be desired.
Bats straight-up ghosted her. He dodged her phone calls and was extremely curt with her after they had sex. I don’t care if you are Batgirl, no one likes being ghosted.
Even Heroes Have Poor Communication Skills
Barbara’s behavior after the act was not irrational, overly-emotional, or indicative of her being a weak woman. She merely wanted to discuss what happened between them in order to move past it. That’s actually a normal, rational response signaling that a person wants some closure — one way or another.
However, addressing the icky emotional factors of that encounter was not something Batman may have been able to address for himself, let alone with another person. Because, let’s face it: Batman isn’t just The World’s Greatest Detective; he’s also The World’s Greatest Functioning Emotional Cripple.
Bruce Wayne has casual sex because it fulfills a need that does not necessarily correspond to emotion. It’s as mechanical a function to him as washing his hands over a high-tech sink after he takes a dump in his state-of-the-art commode in the Bat Cave. Batman has few allies and even fewer friends. He shuns emotional exchanges. He has a capacity to care for others and a clear sense of right and wrong…. But the truth is, Batman may not be capable of expressing or self-defining love (romantic, platonic, or even paternal), at least in the way most people would define it.
What Barbara Gordon may not have bargained for was that Bruce Wayne is damaged goods and is on a perpetual Fuck The Pain Away World Tour that only comes from watching your parents get gunned down in an alley when you’re a kid, inheriting a fortune that essentially locks you away in an ivory tower, relating to so few people that your aged butler is your best friend and confidante, and you feel a whole helluva lot more at home as your alter ego than you do under your government name. Oh… And that the person who most “completes you” in that special Jerry Maguire way is a white-faced, green-haired psychopath.
Batman does not have emotional attachments in the way most people experience them. Then again, most people haven’t exactly lived Bruce Wayne’s life, either.
Batman’s actions are informed by having endured a traumatic experience at a very young age. From an emotional standpoint, Bruce Wayne “stopped aging” when his parents died and built a hard shell around that scared child to protect himself into adulthood. He’s capable of empathy and has a strong sense of justice — but his crusade for justice is less about discerning the blurred line between “right” and “wrong,” rather, it stems more from Bruce Wayne’s desire to see fewer Batmen (and children who are victims of circumstances) emerge as a result of Gotham’s criminal element.
Batman may or may not realize that he violated the mentor/pupil bond of trust by having sex with Batgirl. He read it as an act between consenting adults. And, on the surface, that is exactly what it is. However, to Barbara, the act represented something deeper.
Does it make Batman’s behavior towards Barbara right? No. Not to make an excuses for him, but Batman may know right from wrong in a broader sense, but he lacks the emotional capacity to process right and wrong when it comes to the feelings his actions may elicit in response.
Batman is not a bad person, he’s just a terrible communicator.
And it’s those terrible communication skills that drop Barbara Gordon into territory that’s pretty damn familiar for a lot of women. One scene in The Killing Joke is particularly hard to watch, when Barbara finally gets Batman on the phone and wants to talk. Bats is having none of it. In desperation, Barbara exclaims, “It was just sex! Can’t things go back to how they were?”
What makes this scene so poignant is that Barbara Gordon is a smart, self-reliant adult woman. She holds a job as a librarian and has superlative computer skills. She has a well-adjusted relationship with her father and is quite comfortable working alongside men of all walks of life. She doesn’t come packaged with the “daddy issues” frequently assigned to women by the media (and in real life) that herald a woman as a “Stage 5 Clinger.” (Thanks, Wedding Crashers. Go fuck yourselves.) Yet, this woman who is able to track and apprehend criminals is unable to understand just why someone she cared about — her friend and mentor, no less — can discard her so easily and won’t even help her to understand why.
That’s not weakness. That’s not a sexist portrayal of a woman. That’s called being a human and having an emotional response that requires a rational discussion to help that person process those feelings and move past them.
In truth, Barbara Gordon doesn’t act much different than many women who have received mixed messages after finally hooking up with a guy they perceive a connection with.
Some women and some men are equipped to have casual sex. Others assign emotional value to sexual encounters. It doesn’t make either camp wrong, but it’s something that needs to be addressed by both partners before the actual deed is done. The biggest mistake that both Batgirl and Batman made was not having this discussion beforehand. It can be argued that “it was the heat of the moment” and they both decided to do the nasty on a rooftop. Tingling genitals can sometimes interrupt the part of your brain that says, “This might be a bad idea and we’re heading for that doorway that says ‘Past the Point of No Return.'” But even if it was a conversation they didn’t have beforehand, Batman was in the wrong for denying Barbara that conversation afterwards.
Making the entire situation worse is the fact that (if the film’s subtext is correct) Barbara Gordon was raped and permanently paralyzed by Batman’s arch nemesis not long after the incident. That the last time Barbara had consensual sex before her paralysis was colored by a shade of ambiguity that left her feeling vulnerable and betrayed by someone she trusted.
Batman isn’t the villain here, though. He merely acted according to his nature. But a degree of empathy should be afforded Batgirl — rather than saying her behavior was an exhibition of a negative female stereotype. Quite frankly, that’s bullshit.
Batman himself was affected by seeing Barbara after the Joker had did a number on her. Clearly, Batman cared for Barbara Gordon. But he does not form emotional attachments in the way most people do. He’s insulated himself in a cocoon of rationality, which allows him to be such an effective detective. He recognizes right and wrong on a grander scale and wants to avenge Barbara.
Does One Bad Day Truly Define a Person?
Overall, the film version of Batman: The Killing Joke was a solid adaptation. The voice acting was excellent (Mark Hamill! Back as an extremely disturbing Joker!) and the added storyline lent complexity and pathos to the tale. At the heart of Batman: The Killing Joke is a point posed by the Joker: “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy … I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed.”
As The Killing Joke goes on to show, different people can have traumatic experiences — one bad day that changes their life forever. Yet, how they respond to that bad day and how they push forward with their life is up to them.
Yes, Barbara Gordon was portrayed as a victim in the film in multiple scenarios. However, it does not make her any less of strong a woman or less of worthy of the mantle of superhero. Countless people around the world are raped each day. In the United States alone, a person is sexually assaulted once every two minutes. Since 1998, 17.7 million women and 2.78 men have been victims of rape or attempted rape. To say these people are just victims and capable of nothing more after having endured such a traumatic experience is insulting.
In Batman: The Killing Joke, the misogynistic subtext that can be derived from the source material isn’t sexist. Unfortunately, it’s realistic. Sexism and decades of social conditioning have all-but ingrained a lot of these behaviors in both men and women. Should those attitudes be changed? Absolutely. But, as the saying goes, “Art imitates life.” The Killing Joke just portrays that life in a much harsher light than many of us are comfortable addressing.