No Place For a Girl:
Batman Comics of the 1980s
During the decade of the 1980s, several comics were published that established a darker tone to Batman than what was previously written. This continued the trend from the 1970s of creating a more realistic feel to the comics and doing away with any fantastical elements, only now the atmosphere in the Batman universe became downright grim and gritty. This began in 1985 with the comic mini-series The Dark Knight Returns
by author Frank Miller, which published four issues, and continued into 1988 with the publication of the stand alone graphic novel The Killing Joke
by author Allan Moore. These comics radically changed the figure of Batman into one that was calculating and brooding, with rarely a smile to be seen on him or any of the characters. Author Frank Miller would later write about his portrayal of Batman, "[Batman's] no whiner; there's not a trace of self-pity in his soul ... His passions are grand. Even his unhappiness is not depressing, but a brooding, Wagnerian torment." 1
Carrie Kelly as Robin.
The Dark Knight Returns is not within the normal Batman continuity, but rather tells a story of the future Batman returning to fight crime ten years after he retired from being a superhero. This story is revolutionary in many ways; besides altering the portrayal of Batman for all future comics, many new views of femininity were introduced. The Dark Knight Returns is notable because it introduces the first female version of Robin, a young girl named Carrie Kelly who ends up saving Batman's life. 2
Instead of being relegated to a minor superhero character, a woman now takes the place of Batman's most recognized partner and sidekick. This new, spunky teenage girl proves an invaluable ally, and manages to rescue Batman's life several times through the course of the book.
Coinciding with this strong female version of Robin, other female characters are being viewed in increasingly strong ways. One notable example is with Catwoman, who has previously been portrayed in contradictory ways.
Catwoman gets a compliment.
Prior to the 1950s she was a rather strong antithesis to Batman, but after the 1950s and 1960s, returned only as an obsessed woman who longed to woo Batman. This depiction begins to be corrected in the 1980s, and once more Catwoman is on equal footing with Batman. In one story published in 1986, "A Town on the Night", Batman and Catwoman partner up and the forty year old fledgling romance between them becomes more overt. Furthermore in this issue, during the process of capturing several criminals, Catwoman helps another woman and is complimented by Batman for her actions. "You handled that well, Selina," Batman notes after the woman is escorted off in a taxi, "Far better than I could have." 3
This dynamic interaction between these two characters is something that had not been seen previously in Batman comics. Instead of Batman treating Catwoman as solely a villain, and Catwoman treating Batman only as a love interest, they are now more or less equals. The hints of a romance between them is not harmed by this status change, and instead actually is heightened, due to the fact that they usually work on the opposite sides of the law. This "equal-yet-separate" interaction will continue through the 1980s, and will remain permanent through the 1990s and even into the most recent Batman comics.
A career ending wound.
Even though many strong portrayals of women are being developed, a reversal is also occurring. Although new characters such as the Robin from The Dark Knight Returns
are present alongside established characters like Catwoman, the stories involving other female characters like Batgirl become more brutal and almost sadistic in tone. The culmination of this is with the 1988 publication of The Killing Joke
, written by Alan Moore. The story is focused mainly on the origins of the Joker and his relationship with Batman, but Batgirl makes a special appearance. Barbara Gordon is spending the night home with her father when the Joker knocks on the door, and without saying a single word shoots her through the spine. 4
Batgirl doesn't get the joke.
In addition to ending the career of Batgirl, the Joker then abducts her father and strips off Barbara's clothes, taking photos of her naked, bleeding body to torment her father. When Barbara manages to ask why he is doing it, the Joker's only chilling response is: "To prove a point." 5
(Additional discussion of Barbara Gordon after she is crippled is present on the treatment of the Disabled pages of this site.) Even more shocking than the shooting of Barbara Gordon is how the author and editor reacted to their decision to cripple Batgirl. In a 2006 Wizard Magazine interview of the author Allan Moore, he discusses the book at some length and talks about the editorial reaction to shooting Batgirl. As Moore recalls, "I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon - who was Batgirl at the time - and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project...[He] said, 'Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.' It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t." 6
These feminine portrayals are in many ways contradictory; while some female characters gained prominence and became increasingly empowered, others were treated in brutal ways. Treatment of women in this manner was not relegated to just comics during this time period. Many edgy advertisements of the time featured women depicted in submissive or degrading positions. "Mainstream fashion magazines offered fashion spreads with women in straitjackets, yanked by the neck with choke collars, and packed, nude, into a plastic trash bag. Fashion ads in the same vein proliferated." 7
In her work Backlash, journalist Susan Faludi attributed the cause of these negative portrayals of women to the rise of conservative religious and political movements in the United States during the 1980s. The "New Right", as Faludi described the evangelical religious movement, focused specifically on dismantling feminist ideals. Several women affiliated with conservative religious groups such as Phyllis Schlafly and Beverly LaHaye even labeled feminism a "philosophy of death." 8
These religious groups found staunch allies within the United States government, especially after Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1980. "Reagan was the first president to oppose the [Equal Rights Amendment] since Congress passed it - and the first ever to back a 'Human Life Amendment' banning abortion and even some types of birth control." 9
Within a year the number of women in government jobs dropped. The amount of women on the White House staff decreased over fifty percent from the 1981 figure. 10
Several government programs that were considered to be "feminist" were aggressively altered or even eliminated. 11
When taken altogether, these actions show a rather schizophrenic response to women in the 1980s. While some areas of the culture continued to address women's rights, other powerful interests tried to scale back the gains made for women. The comics reflected this through their contradictory views of female characters.