The Politics of Batman, Part 4:

Sex, Sexism, and the Dark Knight

[Note: The following is reprinted from the book War, Politics and Superheroes]

One of the main problems Batman has had from the outset of his career as Feudal Lord crime fighter is that he cannot find a Lady of the Manor to stand at his side. Most of the women he encounters—Vicki Vale, Silver St. Cloud, Rachel Dawes, and even the heiress Julie Madison—find his desire to reshape the modern, democratic world into a neo–Medieval society highly questionable at best, if not outright delusional. Catwoman understands his motivation, and is sympathetic to it, but believes that marrying him and becoming, functionally, a Disney Princess in a castle in “New York” is a betrayal of her feminist sensibilities.  This is why one of the few times “in continuity” we might assume that Catwoman and Batman wind up together (The Dark Knight Rises) is when they shed both their costumed personas and Bruce Wayne loses his entire family fortune. Remember, when she tells him she’s sorry he’s lost all his money, he teases her, “No, you’re not.” A broke Bruce Wayne cannot think of Selina Kyle as a “kept” woman.

Several Justice League and Trinity adventures indicate that Wonder Woman, a socialist princess with superhuman powers, is attracted to Batman, but believes that men are fundamentally sexist and incapable of a romantic partnership of equals. Also, as a sometimes-pacifist, she finds Batman’s methods too violent. The only woman who has a truly Medieval world view, and who wants to marry Batman and work to reshape the world in a new, better image, is Talia, the amoral daughter of Ra’s al Ghul, who hopes to become feudal lord of the entire world. In Batman: Tales of the Demon (1971, 1991) and Son of the Demon (1987), Batman does indeed marry Talia, and she becomes pregnant with his child, but when Talia realizes that Batman will make an overprotective, controlling husband, she fakes a miscarriage and ends their relationship. Virtually all of Grant Morrison’s tenure as a Batman writer consists of one epic pseudo-sequel to this Talia storyline, made somewhat difficult to comprehend when a continuity reboot in the latter-half of the saga suggested that what once appeared to be a decades-long relationship was actually only five(ish) years, and Damien’s natural birth was turned into a weird laboratory experiment for some reason.

Batman and Talia are lovers for one night in the film The Dark Knight Rises, a segment that inspired a College Humor comedy segment.

Talia notwithstanding, Batman has been, thus far, incapable of finding a woman to marry and be the mother of his child. Consequently, he has resorted to “adopting” young men and women as wards so they can be the heirs to his feudal empire and keep his dreams alive once he becomes too old to continue being Batman. His first ward, Dick Grayson, was a circus acrobat whose parents were killed by the Mafia. Since Grayson was touched by the same violence Bruce was, Bruce felt a kinship with Grayson and functionally adopted the boy. To the world at large, Grayson was Bruce Wayne’s ward, while Dick’s alter ego, Robin, was Batman’s crime-fighting partner. This legendary “Dynamic Duo” is the most well known of the Batman and Robin partnerships, but not the only one. Grayson was the first of several of Batman’s children to serve as a partner and successor-in-training, including substitute Robins Jason Todd, Tim Drake, and Damien Wayne (Bruce’s son with Talia al Ghul), and Terry McGinnis, who becomes Batman in a cyberpunk future (Batman Beyond). Most contemporary fans of the Batman saga are uneasy about the character of Robin, because he interferes with their “willing suspension of disbelief ” when reading a Batman story. They do not believe it is realistic that Batman would drag a young child into battle with him, as Robin can be anywhere between eight and eighteen years old, depending on the story. (Amusingly, Christian Bale had threatened to handcuff himself to a radiator and not go to work if producers proposed to insert Robin into one of his Batman films. Perhaps the last scenes with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Dark Knight Rises were not included in Bale’s copies of the screenplay.) Fans also associate the Boy Wonder with campy exclamations of surprise at the levels of nefariousness the Batman rogue’s gallery is capable of, often to the effect of “Holy Giant Killer Robots, Batman!” And then, of course, there is another controversy at the core of the Batman/Robin relationship: are they lovers?

As Brooker has written, many fans who are invested in Batman being a heterosexual, tough-as-nails woman-hater have no patience for a funny, possibly homosexual Batman. The homosexual subtext of the Batman comic books, and superhero comics in general, was pointed out as early as 1954 by psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent, in which he argued that children could be harmed by the homoerotic aspects of the Batman/Robin relationship. DC Comics discourages portrayals of Batman and Robin as a gay couple, as in August of 2005, when it pressured the Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts gallery in New York to remove artwork by Mark Chamberlain depicting Batman and Robin kissing in varying states of undress.18 Despite the suppression of this particular exhibit, Robert Smigel’s “Ambiguously Gay Duo” cartoons featured on Saturday Night Live remain a well-known comedic riff on the taboo romance. It isn’t clear if the root of the objection to the Batman and Robin relationship is generally inspired by homophobia, pure and simple, or if the discomfort stems more from the sizable age gap between mentor and protégé, which suggests incest or pedophilia. Significantly, the straight-to-DVD film Mystery of the Batwoman (2003) hints strongly that a similarly taboo romance blossomed between a mature Batman and a possibly sixteen-year-old Batgirl. In the “real world” State of New York (where Gotham City is located), even “consensual” sex is considered third-degree rape when someone over 21 has intercourse with someone under 17, and carries penalties of up to four years in prison. In theory, those who are not perturbed by their age difference, or Batman’s Lolita complex, should not be bothered by the May/December nature of a Batman/Robin romance. Addressing this contentious issue, longtime comics editor Denny O’Neil has stated that, officially, Batman is attracted to women but doesn’t act on that attraction (Brooker 1999). This position implies that, in O’Neil’s eyes, a celibate Batman has had sex with neither Robin nor Batgirl. But O’Neil is not the final word on the subject, and certainly Vivid Video’s Batman XXX: A Porn Parody (2010), suggests that Batman has had plenty of sex, and once participated in a threesome with Robin and Catwoman.

But, of course, that is just a porn film and doesn’t really count. Here is a story that does, though.

While they are not married or “together” in current continuity, the first volume of the New 52 Catwoman series reveals that Batman and Catwoman have often had sex in public with their costumes and masks still on enough that they don’t know one another’s secret identities. And Batman always feels bad that he’s allowed himself to be seduced by her, apparently.

Meanwhile, the women in the Joel Schumacher films are mainly background characters. In Batman Forever, Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) shamelessly throws herself at a distant Batman, and seems to win him over, but Roger Ebert observes that the most romantic scenes are between Bruce and Dick Grayson. Meridian does not return for the next film, a theme taken up by online slash fiction in which Batman breaks up with Meridian so he can focus on his sexual relationship with Robin. Julie Madison (Elle Macpherson), Bruce Wayne’s fiancée in Batman and Robin, is featured in only two or three scenes, and Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) pales in comparison to the more psychologically complex Barbara Gordon of the comic books (see The New 52 Batgirl series, Batgirl: Year One, Showcase Presents: Batgirl, and the Birds of Prey trade paperback library). Also, the seductress Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) is most threatening when her pheromones are strong enough to briefly turn Robin’s attentions away from Batman.

While some fans disliked the Schumacher Batman films specifically because of their homosexual subtext, the films also happen to be garish, poorly written, poorly acted, and poorly directed. They seem more like spoofs of Batman than adaptations. As Virginia Postrel observed in “Superhero Worship” (2006) in The Atlantic, the best superhero movies have “engaged their subjects without emotional reservation.” She specifically notes that “campy mockery exemplified by the Batman television show or Joel Shumacher’s disastrous Batman & Robin, featuring a smirking George Clooney in the lead” (140–141), failed in this respect. In contrast, the Tim Burton films, Batman and Batman Returns take some important liberties with the comic books, especially by allowing Batman to kill and by presenting entirely new interpretations of classic villains (especially Catwoman), which resulted in initially negative fan reactions that didn’t prevent the films from being financial blockbusters and pop culture phenomena. In fact, the Burton films also romanticize the Joker, Catwoman, and the Penguin in a manner that is sometimes subversive and progressive in a positive sense, and sometimes morally questionable.

The films are inspired, if flawed, and offer intriguing commentaries on the Batman universe. What makes Burton’s films both interesting and uncomfortable to watch is that they invite audience sympathy with Batman while dwelling on his flaws—especially his alienation from women and his investment in preserving a flawed social order. As such, they deconstruct the Batman myth in an intelligent manner, rather than content themselves with mocking the surface silliness of the Batman stories, as the Schumacher films do. In Batman (1989), Keaton’s Dark Knight and Nicholson’s Joker battle to the death for control of Gotham City. Both men are presented as funny, theatrical, anti-social, and disturbed, hearkening back to the overstated comic book catchphrase that they are “two sides of the same coin.” However, the film is most concerned with exploring their mutual fear of women and their different reactions to this fear. The Joker’s main targets in the film are women. Nicholson’s Joker blames his girlfriend for his disfigurement in an accident at a chemical plant, so he disfigures and murders her in retaliation. When he plots to poison the inhabitants of Gotham with deadly laughing gas, his first step is to taint cosmetics products, claiming two supermodels and a female newscaster as his first victims. When the Joker sees a possible soulmate in photojournalist and fellow artist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), he demonstrates his love for her by alternatively flirting with her, kidnapping her, and trying to burn her with acid. Bruce Wayne is also attracted to Vale, and the only way he knows how to act on this impulse is to have sex with her on their first date and then never call her again. He has learned to keep women at a distance because he sees them as a distraction from his mission to bring law and order to Gotham. However, his aging butler, Alfred, coaxes him to pursue the relationship with Vale, warning him that without a woman to love Bruce was functionally as dead as his parents. As a matchmaker, Alfred is intrusive in the extreme, betraying his fears that his master is too far gone to woo a woman without being coerced into it. Alfred even takes it upon himself to reveal Bruce’s double-life to Vale by allowing her access to the Batcave. By the end of the film, the Joker is killed and Wayne finds himself open to romantic love for the first time since becoming Batman. He appears ready to work on the relationship himself, without any further prompting from Alfred. However, as Batman Returns reveals, Vale leaves Bruce because she is too disturbed by his need to continue being Batman to remain in the relationship. This depiction of the romance with Vale reflects the comic book source material. As a child-man, Wayne has never fully learned to understand women or communicate with them. For example, Batman is clearly attracted to Catwoman, but her unpredictable actions and morally grey worldview deeply disturb him, no matter how good she is at heart. In fact, Batman appears to equate female sexuality with danger and death, possibly because he blames his parent’s violent ends on his mother’s alluring pearl necklace, which attracted the murderous mugger’s attention. These secret Oedipal fears manifest themselves most dramatically in the elfin form of Poison Ivy, an insane environmentalist who can hypnotize or kill men with one kiss, and who lives in greenhouses populated by giant, wet, toothy Venus Flytraps. A previously underutilized villainess who gained prominence during the age of AIDS, Poison Ivy foregrounds all of Batman’s worst fears about all women.

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Marc DiPaolo is associate professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University. He wrote War, Politics and Superheroes (2011) and Emma Adapted (2007). He is editor of Godly Heretics and Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, and coeditor (with Bryan Cardinale-Powell) of Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh (all 2013). His personal web site is here.

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