Six Ways of Looking at a Batgirl

DC has recently announced that it is relaunching its major superhero titles under new creative teams.  This kind of thing is always a cause for mass griping among comics fans.  The gripe which seems most expressed — and perhaps most well founded — is the complaint that Barbara Gordon will no longer be Oracle, but Batgirl.

For non-comics nerds: From 1967 until 1988, Barbara Gordon, daughter of Police Commisioner James Gordon, was Batgirl.  In Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, the Joker shoots Barbara, piercing her spine and leaving her paralyzed in one of the most definitive moments of the Batman mythos.  Since that time, Gordon has acted as Oracle, the supreme hacker and information master of the DC Universe.

Reversing such a major moment of character history is certainly grounds for debate amongst comics fans.  Rather than opine in any one direction, I’d like to provide Six Ways of Looking at a Batgirl. In no particular order:

1. This is a Slap in the Face to People with Disabilities

Name three superheroes with physical disabilities.   If you’ve been reading the article this far, you got one.  If you thought a while, you probably got two (Daredevil is blind).  I, for one, can not think of a third.  The DC (and Marvel) superhero universes are ones in which, essentially, (physical) might makes right.  This rather uncomfortable state of affairs is, however, undermined if someone in that universe can be just as powerful as someone who can lift a tank, even if she requires the use of a wheelchair.  This is more like our own world where many sorts of abilities are necessary.

2.  Alan Moore is a Bad Feminist (and should feel bad)

The Joker’s shooting Barbara Gordon is an iconic moment in comics, but it’s also a clear Women in Refrigerators moment.   The Women in Refrigerators website collects a number of examples of female comics characters being “depowered, raped, or cut up and put in the refrigerator.”  Fridging has since become a verb for the process of imperiling a female secondary character to drive forward the plot of the typically male hero.  Barabara’s paralysis is the emotional fuel that stokes the fires of The Killing Joke and most readers, I think, will agree that the story is quite good, in part due to this emotional drive.  This does not change the fact that Moore fell back on the old cliche of the Damsel in Distress to craft this story.  Undoing this event undoes the damage done by Moore.

3.  Gail Simone is a Bad Feminist

Are you even allowed to say that?  Regardless, changing Oracle back to Batgirl changes her from an interesting character in her own right to a girl version of Batman.  Oracle was a character with her own personality and M.O., but now she’ll just be a second rate, female version of Batman.  This only reinforces the notion of maleness as primary and femaleness as “other.”  Not to mention it’s fucking boring to have a character who’s schtick is being exactly like another character.  Not to mention that having Batman, but Batgirl is pretty sexist, too.  Gail Simone should know better.

4.  Simone Just Wants to See Barbara Succeed

In an interview with Newsrama, Simone said :

“The most persuasive argument to put Babs back in the boots has always been one that I would argue against vehemently for story reasons, but that was impossible to argue with ethically. And I have heard this question a million times…why is it that virtually every single hero with a grievous injury, or even a death, gets to come back whole, except Barbara Gordon? Why? Why was Batman’s back broken, and he was barely in the chair long enough to keep the seat warm, and now it’s never even mentioned?”

This, first of all, relates back to Barbara’s getting fridged.  Is it sexist to cure Batman and not Batgirl?  Also, if the purpose of superheroes is to do the impossible, then why should one not defeat paralysis, is this, in the end, not a hopeful message?  Simone points out “There has always been a vocal minority of PWD [people with disabilities] who wanted to see Babs healed and out of the chair, always.”  Finally, if we feel connected to Oracle as though she is a person, then don’t we want to see her “get better”?

5.  Oracle is More Timely Now than Ever

I think Wikileaks (among other things) has demonstrated that information is both a very potent and an increasingly proliferated weapon.  A character whose purpose is to be the ultimate information broker is a character concept which is pregnant for stories right now.  Or there could be more stories where superheroes punch each other.   DC appears to have made their choice.

6.  This is a Battle of Some Fans’ Status Quo versus Gail’s

For Gail Simone, Barbara was primarily Batgirl.  Again from the Newsrama interview:

“we all have our spirit guide characters into comics, and Barbara Gordon was mine. When I was bullied at school for being the only redhead in my class, Barbara Gordon on the syndicated reruns of the Batman show was like pure crack.”

For a comics fan my age, Barbara has been Oracle for literally all of our lives.  For Simone, the change from Batgirl to Oracle was a major deviation from the norm.  For us, the change from Oracle to Batgirl will be a major deviation.  Of course, this sort of change is inevitable in an episodic narrative lasting for several decades, but every so often it might be useful to stop and examine exactly what such change signifies.

Published in: on June 14, 2011 at 5:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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