Sunday, November 22, 2015

Holy Sexism, Batman!

Lately--usually when I should have been doing something else--I've been going through a bunch of old Batman comics and this morning I came up with a doozy, Detective Comics #371 (Jan., 1968). Its lead feature, "Batgirl's Costume Cut-Ups," is built around what were, even in 1967 and even in a DC comic, utterly dinosaurish sexual politics--unintentionally hilarious, if only because they're so abjectly appalling. The cover tells the story:



And check out the splash:



The plot here follows the bat-family's pursuit of the Sports Spoilers, a gang of criminals who carry out sports-themed capers, but these images tell the real story in play: can a Batgirl overcome her gender's natural obsessive vanity, stupidity and weakness and become an effective crimefighter?

Aren't you just dying to know?

As the story opens, the Sports Spoilers are in the midst of robbing an armored truck. Barbara Gordon just happens to be on the scene. She makes a quick-change into the Batgirl and tackles them on her own. Though significantly outnumbered, she fares pretty well at first but then the pedal on a bike ridden by one of the gang moves her headpiece slightly off center and more concerned with her appearance than the matter at hand, she finds she simply must stop to adjust it. She gets knocked on her ass and most of the gang gets away, though the timely arrival of Batman and Robin results in the capture of one of the hoods.


Batgirl is depressed. "My vanity betrayed me!" This isn't just some one-time random screw-up, you see; the problem is identified as her natural "feminine instincts," which could--and do--flare up at any moment and cause the same sort of trouble. Batgirl becomes obsessed with trying to overcome this, as though merely not acting like a moron  requires the strength of will of a Jedi Knight. She rides around town trying to find a crime in progress so she can test herself but it apparently takes a more brainy--and manly--superhero to manage even that; while she comes up with nothing, she reads in the paper the next day that "Batman and Robin didn't have any trouble finding crooks last night! They bagged two robbers, three holdup men--and half a dozen jewelry thieves! And I came home empty-handed!" The next night, her big idea for finding a crime is simply to tail the batmobile. Let the boys find the trouble.

Batman and Robin trace the Sports Spoilers to a sawmill, where the gang is in the process of robbing an adjacent metal workshop of gold and silver used to manufacture sports trophies. The Spoilers attempts to escape by dumping a bunch of logs in the river--they jump in on top of them and start rolling them away, confident the caped crusaders "never learned" to roll logs. But it's never wise to underestimate the Dynamic Duo! They charge right out on to the logs in pursuit. "They didn't expect us to be expert log-rollers too," taunts the Batman. Who knew?

Batgirl, coming upon this scene, lets out a scream!



The scream distracts the heroes and the Spoilers are able to put them down long enough to escape their clutches. Batgirl has an idea though, to "raise the underwater chain-net that used to restrain logs from piling up in a log-jam," thus cutting off the gang's intended getaway. Unfortunately, one of the Spoilers sees what she's up to and throws a log in the mud in front of her. It doesn't hit her. It isn't intended to do so. The Spoilers know a woman's Kryptonite; the chucked log splatters mud in her face and she's compelled by her "feminine instincts" to wipe it off. "Oh no--not again!" But it's true; this latest pause brought on by her terminal womanliness allows the gang to roll to the nearby forest and escape for a second time.

Though Batgirl is a grown woman, even Robin, who is just a kid, scolds her. "Even such determined fighters are we are... get distracted by a lady's scream!" So there, you girl!

The final act of this dreadful play occurs at a charity ball being held in Gotham Park by a certain millionaire playboy. The Sports Spoilers opt to turn up with the intent of robbing the guests but Batman and Robin have already deduced this would be their next target and are waiting for them. They charge into the midst of the crooks and a devastating donnybrook ensues. Barbara Gordon--Batgirl--is in attendance at the ball. She's a girl, so the only way she can find a crime in this story is to have one coincidentally happen in front of her. She ducks away in the confusion and reappears in her crime-busting duds but as she's about to charge into the fight, she discovers she has, as she puts it, "a bigger problem" than a gang of no-goodniks to fight. "A run in my tights!"

This time, though, her girly problem works to our heroes' advantage--the entire Sports Spoilers gang pause in the midst of their ferocious combat to wolf-whistle and gape at her flash of leg like a bunch of drooling horndogs who haven't been laid in a decade.



This, um, loss of concentration allows our heroes, who are, yes, Dr. Wertham, apparently immune to such charms, to finally put the gang down for the count. "Batgirl's femininity gave us a break this time," raves Robin.

The Batman moves in to impart the moral of this story. "You see, Batgirl? That was one time you turned a feminine trait to your advantage--and the disadvantage of the criminals!"

"It sure was lucky for Batman and me that you tore your tights when you did," adds Robin, "or we might have wound up on the short end of the score!"

Just when one thinks this story must have exhausted the cringing it can induce in the reader, we get this parting panel:



This was a comic that appeared in the midst of the "Batmania" craze spawned by the '60s BATMAN tv series and the bat-books were trying to ape that show. If one wishes to illustrate the extent to which that show is an abominable blight on both the Batman's history and on comics in general, this tale is an excellent example. The appalling sexism on display here didn't start on tv though. It was quite common in DC books. Times move on and earlier this year, a variant Batgirl cover showing the character menaced by the Joker ignited such a furor against sexism that the cover's artist asked that it be cancelled, which was done. That cover commemorated Alan Moore's great graphic novel "The Killing Joke." There are perhaps worse things in heaven and earth--and in comics--than are dreampt of in the philosophy of many of the Keyboard Crusaders who took up arms against that cover and demanded it be withdrawn. And maybe what I've just done here is a better way to address them.

--j.

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