Beyond the Cape: Batgirl and the State of Women in Comics

by CG | Originally posted at Black Girl in Media

[Trigger warning in these posts for mention & discussion of: sexual violence, molestation, rape, and violence against women]

Fiction always reflects the cultural temperature of the times. This could be a good thing, and sometimes be a great thing. But most of the time, it leads to us uncovering not so pleasant parts of our society. Comics have always been an accessible part of that cultural narrative, as their mix of visual and written storytelling have led to them being embraced by fans for decades. Comics and superhero culture are very much at the center of dictating societal norms.

So when we have instances of dictating women’s dress, allowing for female oppression and violence against women for book sales, the issue goes beyond just the individual books or characters in question. It’s about questioning the system that we’ve allowed for this behavior and thinking to flourish enough to reach the success that it has with the comics industry.

This is the state of women in comics.

In part one of this two-part post, I talked about how Wonder Woman and the hypersexuality of superheroine costumes add to the climate of sexism in comics. But of course, it’s far more complicated than a dislike in skin bearing or a color scheme. Comics especially have been a medium where violence against women is commonplace and normalized — almost every superheroine or popular female character has, at some point, been a victim of some crime placed upon her simply for being female. This can range from sexual violence like rape or molestation, to extreme physical disability, and even death.

What’s sparked this urge to really dig deep about this issue? Well, mainly with history repeating itself and sparking outrage with a certain Batgirl cover.

Batgirl is a character that has been revised recently, and along with getting a more conservative costume change that challenged sexual norms for other superheroines, she has been one of the few new DC titles to emerge successful at gaining new fans and avoiding cancellation. However, when the topic of variant covers came to light for Batgirl #41 by Raphael Albuquerque (ahem), with one of the covers being a beautiful, yet disturbing reference to the infamous Batgirl story of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.

The Killing Joke is part of the Batman universe’s dark and twisted treatment of women, and speaks volumes to the larger issue of how sexism and female violence is painted as sensationalism for comic profit. In the original 1988 story, the famous Batvillian, the Joker, kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, and shots Barbara Gordon. This effectively paralyzes her, and later leads to her emerging as the Oracle. However, the disturbance of The Killing Joke comes from how Barbara/Batgirl’s victimization is used as a selling point in the plotline to not only effectively shape the Joker as a tragic villain but to later give new motivation for her male counterparts of the Bat family, and her father.

Simply put, male heroes are given the luxury of being revived and fully healed even after encounters with their corresponding villains that would lead (and sometimes, do lead) to the hero’s death. In the case of Batman, the hero went head-to-head with villain Bane, and went as far as had his back broken over Bane’s knee, yet emerged fully healed a few issues later. One small example of how the unwritten rules of gender and privilege work outside the favor or women in comics.

As Barbara’s journey from Batgirl to Oracle can show, women are not just treated unfairly in comics — they are used as symbols of how nerd culture and comics culture sees the value of women. The Women in Refrigerators trope works at illustrating how important it is that we understand that when women are unjustly portrayed in comics, it does more harm than good. How can we forget when DC launched it’s “Draw a Naked Women Committing Suicide” contest in honor of the Harley Quinn comics? Or when Lady Flash, Huntress, Starfire, and Silk Spectre were all raped in an effort to depower and dehumanize them? For male heroes, it’s a constant threat that they lose an important battle and have the world crumble at their feet, but still remain hopeful that there will be a way to save the day. For superheroines, the threat remains that at any moment, they could be the victims of violent sexism and female oppression that they fight against, and no matter what their powers may be, their writers and artists will ultimately find a way to make them victims of that same oppression that they fight so hard against.

To me, the outrage of the variant covers, Wonder Woman’s costume change, and the disapproval of “vocal minorities” proves that we truly have a longer way to go to reach equality in comics than we had hoped. And though the fans that voiced their disapproval of the Batgirl cover and rejoiced when it was later cancelled, I can’t help but wonder if we are missing an opportunity at addressing a new layer to an age old issue.

The cover of Batgirl #37, a much more positive representation of Batgirl and the potential that superheroines have as being fully respected members of the genre.

It’s not just clothes. It’s not just artwork. It all comes down to the contributions to a culture that has continuously dismissed and discredited a group of people as less than, unworthy, and unvaluable. It’s the constant reinforcement of this state of thinking that leads me to feel nothing but incredible disappointment, frustration, and sobering of my fangirl idealism that a subculture that I could feel so much love and passion for, only feel that quiet resentment back to me.

The small thing that I can do — that all of us can do — is to look at these issues not as isolated ones, but as cogs of a much larger wheel of oppression, and come together to ponder how we can make it right, and finally shift the state of women in comics to a much needed, long overdue, positive and welcoming one.

CG — a twentysomething Black nerd, born and raised in New Jersey — is the girl behind the blog Black Girl in Media. When she’s not blogging or writing, she’s attempting to get through her “to-read” list which is always increasing in length. She loves vanilla chai lattes and categorizing Spotify playlists by mood. Follow her on twitter @BlkGirlManifest

16 thoughts on “Beyond the Cape: Batgirl and the State of Women in Comics

  1. What I find interesting is that this is something that occurs across all media.
    It is possible, for young men, to consume nothing but a steady diet of sexualized, violent images against women all day, every day, across every form of media, from movies, to music, comicbooks and TV shows.

    This needs to be addressed across all media.
    As for the people who argue for this: Is this really the side they want to choose? The media denigration and oppression of women in media is nothing more than the given permission to degrade women in the real world.
    Not saying it causes it, but it certainly aids and abets real life violence.

  2. This is a very eloquent post. Its a long standing tradition for women in comics to be dehumanized based on their gender in the way that male heroes never are. I’m not sure if its their way of trying to make these characters more relatable to women, because that’s a serious and very real threat to their lives (that popular media tends to treat too lightly). However, it always seems to be something that only the women experience. Killing Joke/Knightfall is a great example of this.

    1. I think the comic would have sold equally well if this wasn’t the case. It might have even picked up some new fans. I don’t believe that Batgirl fans would have stopped reading if she was no longer subject to dehumanizing, female-only abuse. If that’s the case, then I put it to the authors, publishers, etc. to use their art form to show female heroes as all that they can be. I don’t think the fact that the comic sold well is relevant. There’s nothing to say that it would have sold well otherwise.

    2. You can’t compare Bruce to Barabra. One is apart of DC’s trinity(Bruce) and one isn’t.

  3. Reblogged this on Goombas Gone Wild and commented:
    This is a very eloquent post. Its a long standing tradition for women in comics to be dehumanized based on their gender in the way that male heroes never are. I’m not sure if its their way of trying to make these characters more relatable to women, because that’s a serious and very real threat to their lives (that popular media tends to treat too lightly). However, it always seems to be something that only the women experience. Killing Joke/Knightfall is a great example of this.

  4. Reblogged this on trainwreck1987 and commented:
    Great review of the State of women in comics. As I believe that there was and continues to be a problem with how women are treated in all types of entertainment media, there does seem to be an effort for improvement. I don’t believe however that there is a problem with making these superhero women/ comic book characters look sexy. Most male superheroes are made to look sexy or visually perfect in some aspects. If theres a big issue with big breasted women in scantaly clad clothing, why is there not a problem with buff ass superman, the arrow or any male superhero you can think of. To a women, most aspects of these heroes are hot and sexual. The new batgirl is a good medium. She may not be classified as “sexy” without the double d sized breasts but she’s now cute, and pretty. Can they play that off in the storyline? Can they make such a sweet innocent looking hero be a badass when it comes down to it?

    On a different note, The Killing Joke cover should have been released as a variant. We all know women in the past and present are not being treated rightly in all media, but that doesn’t me we can’t appreciate the stories of the past. That doesn’t mean we support that kind of conduct in everyday life. The cover was badass in the least and I would love to own it.

    1. Its true that men get shit in the media as well. But we’re not talking about getting a job in this case and depending on what the job is for, thats not true. A labor intensive job would hire a male before a woman. I personally am a hiring manager at my job and i hire just as many males as females. Women are not perfect either man.

  5. What interests me is that you never hear anyone complaining about Kim Yale and John Ostrander when THEY were the ones who brought her back in a wheelchair when they COULD have just brought her back as Batgirl.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Really, being wheelchair bound was an easy shorthand for disability that made sense within the context of Oracle’s origin. My point is that constantly comparing Barbara to Bruce in Knightfall is actually shitting on Kim Yale and her efforts to rehabilitate the character.

    2. Eep. My thoughts on this turned into an entire blog post and I thought you were commenting there. (apologies to the owner of this blog)

  6. Many of the criticisms here are very true when discussing DC comics but for Marvel I think there is more nuance. There is much progress that can still be made to be sure but Marvel had women leading their biggest teams as far back as the 80’s, black women no less – Storm and Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau), headliners today like Storm, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel and Black Widow with strong books out and more and more properties that feature empathetic rather than just sympathetic females in general (Shield’s women, Agent Carter, the comics mentioned above, Captain Marvel’s upcoming movie all vs Wonder Woman, Power-Girl, Harley Quinn and Batgirl comics (sometimes). A comic like X-men for example has an ALL female squad with a good book, many more female X-men in important roles than any other comic and a tendency to make them extremely powerful. Full disclosure there is a bit of strippery-ness as well: Psylocke, Emma Frost I’m looking at you, but they don’t CONSTANTLY go on that trope as DC seems to at times.

    I see what you mean for sure. Most of DC’s female cast of heroines are basically in lingerie just pointing out that ALL of comics hasn’t taken that same slant so much. Also there are some indie comics out there that cater to a largely female readership and/or feature largely female casts, I think we’d probably agree that we need many more

    1. Most? Aside from Wonder Woman, Power Girl, Black Canary and Starfire most of DC’s heroine’s fairly practical outfits. And even then those four have changed up their outfits.

      Femal characters have also had positions of leadership in DC. Wonder Woman and Black Canary have served as leaders of the Justice League. There was the Birds of Prey which was mostly composed of women and was led by a paraplegic woman. Wonder Woman is also one of the few heads of state in superhero comics.

  7. Why are you comparing Barabra to Bruce? Batman is DC’s main monkey.

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