Lonely Gods:
Social Minorities in American Superhero Comic Books

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No Place For a Girl:

 

Batman Comics of the 90s and Beyond

« Continued from the 1980s...
     These contradictions of femininity from the 1980s continued through the 1990s and even into the present decade. After the brutal and negative depictions seen during the previous decade, much of the 1990s was aimed at increasing female demographics and introducing more positive female characters outside of just Batgirl. This led to a wide increase in the female heroes who fought alongside Batman. Chief among these were the characters Oracle and the third woman to take on the mantle of Batgirl. The character of Oracle is extremely interesting, mainly in that she is Barbara Gordon, the previous Batgirl. After being crippled by the Joker in The Killing Joke, a character such as hers would seemingly be relegated to the sidelines. However, while bound to a wheelchair, Barbara nevertheless used her intelligence and vast array of computer knowledge to become an information broker and continued aiding Gotham's heroes. 1 With this revitalization of Barbara Gordon as Oracle, a trend began where heroes were portrayed with some mental hangups or a physical disability. This trend was also seen in the third Batgirl. Cassandra Cain was an extremely strong female superhero, and trained since her birth as an assassin before joining Batman and fighting crime. Introduced in 1999, This new Batgirl quickly gained her own ongoing series that ran for over seventy issues. 2 Cassandra even defeated the character Lady Shiva, a woman considered to be the greatest martial artist in the DC Universe. 3

     Other characters like Catwoman gained greater prominence during the 1990s. After Catwoman's revitalization as a strong female character in the 1980s, she became more popular. After being featured in the 1993 film Batman Returns,
The Kiss
Well, Finally.
Catwoman gained her own ongoing series that lasted for over ninety issues. 4 Catwoman developed a greater relationship with Batman as well. While the two heroes flirted several times during the 1980s, Batman now willingly began a romantic relationship with Catwoman. Early on in the "Hush" arc of 2003, Batman saved Catwoman from the villain Killer Croc. "You saved my life," Catwoman later greeted Batman on a rooftop. "Through the years, you've done that more than once. I don't think I've ever properly thanked you." Batman tried to stop her, but Catwoman continued on as she pressed herself up against him. "We've done this dance for a long time. Too long. Aren't you at all curious?" This culminated in a kiss sixty years in the making. 5 Batman himself acknowledged this relationship held great importance to him, and even revealed his secret identity to her. "I know who you are, Selina." he said to her. "Where you live. What you do during the day. Like you, I have two lives. I want you to be part of both of them." 6

     Although some strong female characters became more prominent and developed meaningful relationships with Batman, other females continued to be portrayed much like their 1950s counterparts. Both these themes appeared in the 2005 Batman series All Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder. Written by Frank Miller of The Dark Knight Returns, this series attempted to create iconic portrayals of Batman and Robin not tied down by the sixty years of continuity.
Vicki Vale's work clothes
Vicki Vale's work clothes.
This series, however, has drawn some criticism from fans for its portrayal of women. In one telling instance, the reporter Vicki Vale lounged around her penthouse apartment wearing only scanty lingerie. This was apparently her usual work outfit, for she also dictated a newspaper column where she discussed Bruce Wayne. "At least we've got Bruce Wayne here in Gotham. Rich as Howard Hughes - and looks? Excuse me. Do not get me started. The man is as hot as the sun. A woman's skin melts at the thought of him." 7 Although Vicki Vale is supposedly an empowered, highly paid columnist, her words make her sound much more like Batwoman and Batgirl of the 1950s and early 1960s than a liberated, modern female. When Bruce Wayne asked Vicki on a date, she immediately ransacked her wardrobe to try on at least five different outfits, all the time repeating "I'm having a date with Bruce Wayne." 8 This scene was more stereotypically feminine than the 1940s version of Vicki Vale, who only went on a date with Bruce Wayne to write a magazine story. Yet even this new version of Vicki Vale displayed some strength. Later on in the same issue after Dick Grayson's parents were murdered, Vicki tried to protect the boy and go up against the corrupt police, getting slapped around by them. This did not stop her and she promptly followed the police to where they are took Dick to record their actions. 9 After being injured later in the comic, however, Vicki still managed to swoon into the arms of Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred. 10 This portrayal of Vicki Vale showed both strength and weakness. Although Vicki proved willing to stand up to authority to protect a child, she was still a highly sexualized and stereotypical character.

     And so the current Batman comics include just as many negative portrayals of women that were present in the 1940s and 1950s. However, these very stereotypical depictions are mitigated in many ways by the strong portrayals of women that were introduced in the late 1960s and which continued to develop through the 1980s and 1990s. While this may seem contradictory, it merely demonstrates the differing views of women in society and popular culture present through the last sixty years of American history. Although the women's movement and later feminist movement forced society to accept the ideas of strong, independent woman, the conservative backlash against the women's liberation movement in the late 1970s and 1980s called these ideas into question, and women were once more seen as inherently different from their male counterparts. "The rise of cultural feminism also disturbed many equal rights feminists who objected to any definition of feminism that promoted the concept of 'innate differences' between women and men." 11. As a result, contradictions in the portrayals of women continue to exist in the current popular culture.

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