In Praise of Batgirl

by | November 24, 2011
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

This post was part of a series I did for Bitch Magazine Blogs this past spring called “Revenge of the Feminerd”. The ending has been edited to reflect changes due to the DC relaunch.

The three of us eight-year-olds scrabbled through the dress-up trunk, tossing aside toy crowns and shiny costume jewelery onto the hardwood floor.

We were playing Batman and the goal was finding the stretchy, black cocktail dress that was the MVP of the costume box, along with the sheer, black gloves. We got the idea from watching reruns of the 1960s TV series starring Adam West. Anna was usually Batman and Sacha and I traded off being Robin and Catwoman. But I wasn’t really a big fan of Robin and I wanted to be a good guy, so the most exciting development in the show for me was the introduction to Batgirl, played by Yvonne Craig. Not only was the character a new option for our dress-up games, but she was just really cool to watch.

Just think about it. In her daytime job, she was Barbara Gordon, a librarian; she was a bookworm just like me! But as Batgirl she also fought crime, getting Batman and Robin out of many a tense situation, and she had a kick-ass motorcycle.

Since those early days of running around, Sacha in a pair of costume cat ears pretending to tie up either Batman (Anna) or Batgirl (me) until the other one came to the rescue, Batgirl has been my favorite superheroine. I know I’m not alone—Ashley did a couple fantastic posts on Batgirl for Bitch last year.

Batgirl is a character I can relate to. She’s less cutesy than the Sailor Scouts, wears more clothing than Wonder Woman, is nerdier than Nightshade, and has more generalized super abilities than my second-favorite superheroine, Storm (but it’s really close, so don’t hate on me, X-Men fans).

In the 1970s Yvonne Craig did PSAs for pay equity for the US Department of Labor. Craig was quoted as saying: “I meet young women who say Batgirl was their role model… They say it’s because it was the first time they ever felt girls could do the same things guys could do, and sometimes better. I think that’s lovely.” Here is the video of the PSA, in which Batgirl swoops in to save Batman and Robin from a ticking bomb, but not without demanding equal pay from Batman first:

Unfortunately I didn’t get a whole lot of Batgirl exposure when I stopped watching those reruns. While Batgirl has made it into a few of the animated TV series, the character has been pretty absent in the Hollywood movie adaptations, excepting Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl/Barbara Wilson in the fairly terrible 1997 movie Batman and Robin.

Where Batgirl has really thrived is in comic books. Though her huge-chest/tiny-waist portrayal is typical of the problems we see with comic book superheroines, her character is about more than that.

Or maybe I should say characters? In 1988 DC Comics drew flak for having Barbara Gordon paralyzed after her spine was severed by the Joker in the graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke. Luckily, comic book writers Kim Yale and husband John Ostrander were also appalled at the treatment of Batgirl/Barbara Gordon and decided to bring back Gordon as a superheroine with a disability, named Oracle. With her photographic memory, hacker skills, and training in library sciences, she founds and leads operations for the Birds of Prey, a team of superheroines, and learned new ways of fighting.

Some people have argued that Barbara should be cured somehow, returning her to the position of Batgirl, but I was okay with her as Oracle. It’s good to see positive and strong representations of women with disabilities in comics. And as a computer geek, I love that a computer geek’s skills could be used to change the world. Besides, without Barbara becoming Oracle, we never would’ve got to see some of her Batgirl successors, including the awesome Cassandra Cain.

Cassandra Cain

Cassandra Cain

Cassandra, an Asian-American character, was the first non-white member of the Batman team, and she served as Batgirl from 1999 until she was replaced by Stephanie Brown in 2009. The Mary Sue does a great job documenting Cain’s history and awesome qualities so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say I like that she looks like more of a fighter and less of a sex object than other superheroines, including the original Batgirl. I also like the fact that she didn’t seem as angst-ridden about her past as other comic characters seem to get.

Now Barbara Gordon is back as Batgirl as part of the DC relaunch. I haven’t read the new comics, but The Mary Sue has a good recap of the new Batgirl #1. According to the recap, this Barbara has not gotten over being shot by the Joker. My coworker who’s a big comic book fan says she appreciates the nuance given to Barbara/Batgirl in the new series, but a Facebook group has formed called Barbara’s Not Broken, which supports Barbara as Oracle and draws attention to the lack of representation of people with disabilities in comics and pop culture in general.

While I won’t be able to fully weigh in until I’ve caught up with the new comics, Batgirl – Barbara or otherwise – will always have a special place in my heart.

Who’s your favorite comic book superheroine?

-Jarrah


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