Long ago, at the very beginning of Roman civilization, there were kings. One king, Tarquin Superbus, took the royal prerogative a bit too far and blackmailed a noble matron named Lucretia into sleeping with him. (He tells her that he will kill her and his slave, then tell her husband he found them in flagrante.)
She, to take back her honour, and keep Tarquin from blackening her name, sent word to her husband of what had happened, and killed herself. A dissident noble named Brutus used her death to start a civil war and depose Tarquin, thus beginning the Roman republic.
Fast-forward a couple of millenia from the events of the Roman republic. A young woman opens the front door, thinking it’s the neighbour calling. But no, it’s a psychopath who shoots her in the stomach, strips her naked, and then shows the pictures to her father, whom he has kidnapped. You would be forgiven for thinking you’re reading about a South American death squad in the 1970s, or perhaps Saddam Hussein’s goons.*
But no, it’s a comic called The Killing Joke, and Batgirl is the victim of the Joker’s insane games. The purpose: to drive Commissioner Gordon, her father, mad. The larger purpose was to show Batman that anyone can be driven over the edge by “one bad day”.
Note that like Lucretia, Barbara Gordon does not “own” her story. Her suffering, humiliation and possible death are plot points in Gordon’s and Batman’s stories. Later, in a different comic, she reemerged as the Oracle, using her background in library studies and phenomenal memory to fight crime from her wheelchair. But the actual Killing Joke storyline uses her and drops her. The one didn’t grow out of the other. I wish I could remember who said that the new team rescued the story from the rubble.
This is just another incident in the long history of girlfriends or wives being menaced or killed to forward a plot and give the hero something to be angry about. (Never be a wife, girlfriend or best friend of the hero – you will die.) The story is about how the suffering affects the hero, not about the victim processing what has happened to her. Just think how different The Searchers would be if Natalie Wood’s character was the focus of the story.**
The rape storyline is a depressingly large subset of this theme, and has been going on since at least Roman times. For the comics version, check out the Women In Refrigerators website. (The name comes from the murder of Alex DeWitt, the girlfriend of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner. She was killed and then stuffed into Rayner’s fridge for him to find.) There really has to be an easier way to motiviate the main character, don’t you think? (I’m not just picking on comics – think of action movies, where the death/kidnapping of wife or girlfriend is all too common.)
But, as Michael Wood asks, do heroines have to die? He refers to the Larkin poem about a girl forced into prostitution, drawn from accounts of the London poor:
If the girl had been a heroine, of course, she would not have survived her disgrace. She would have committed suicide like Lucretia, or lapsed into slow dying like Clarissa. Or would she? Is that what heroines have to do?
Rachel Blau DuPlessis wrote about writing beyond the ending; would it be too much to suggest that Batgirl lives beyond the ending?
What has been lost amidst all the noise is the way that both Barbara Gordon and Lucretia attempt to seize control of their narratives. (Yes, I realize they’re ficitonal. But each character has been subject to many revisions, and different points of view.) Lucretia, by writing to her husband to tell him what really happened, and being willing to die to prove her integrity, wrests back control of her narrative from Tarquin.
Barbara Gordon, by regrouping and using her formidable intelligence and resourcefulness, does the same. (No credit to the original story, for which the shooting was a pretext, but to the team of writer John Ostrander & editor Kim Yale, who established the Oracle character.)
As the Barbara Gordon wiki puts it:
One night, Gordon has a dream in which an all-knowing woman (similar to Oracle at Delphi of Greek mythology) has her own face, it’s then that she adopts “Oracle” as her codename. She serves as an information broker, gathering and disseminating intelligence to law enforcement organizations and members of the superhero community. In “Oracle: Year One,” Oracle also trains under the tutelage of Richard Dragon, one of DC’s premier martial artists, to engage in combat (using eskrima) from her wheelchair. She develops her upper-body strength and targeting skills with both firearms and batarangs.
And in true heroic fashion, she is reborn as Oracle, a new name, and new powers.
Of course, in the end Lucretia’s story winds up where it started, being manipulated by men for their own purposes. It’s nice to think that Barbara Gordon’s fate is different because we’ve moved on, but I think that it owes as much to the comic’s endless recycling of characters, living, dead, and everything in between, as it does to social progress.
The fact that blog posts on the Batgirl variant cover can instance so many movies and other stories that still harm women simply to motivate a male character suggests that this problem is bigger than the comics.
You can have your reservations about the Joker variant covers, and I certainly do. Batman, Deadpool and Superman aren’t being menaced, while Wonder Woman and Batgirl are.*** The larger issue, however, is that while the Batgirl character may have been used, literally, by the Killing Joke story, her arc since then has been an upward one. First as Oracle, now as Batgirl, she has not let tragedy define her. (Thanks to writers who were willing to give her back her dignity after DC more or less ceased to care about her.)
The first issues of the new Batgirl comic show her dealing with the aftermath of her trauma – afraid to open the door, freezing up when someone pulls a gun, but still managing to succeed and bring villains to justice. Like Carol Danvers, Barbara Gordon managed to escape the refrigerator. Let’s hope their defrosted sisters (inside and outside the comics) will be joining them soon.
* Sadaam’s goons used an updated version of Tarquin’s methods to terrorize women – they raped them, then threatened to send the film of the event to the women’s families and/or employers.
** There’s a race version of this trope: you could call it the Gunga Din. A nonwhite character sacrifices himself to save the white hero, and is awarded the ultimate accolade: as good as a white man.
*** Some have seen a suggestion of sexual assault in the way the Joker is painting the smile on Batgirl’s face. It is an open question, but there are enough incidents in movies and TV shows of the villain fondling the hero’s captive girlfriend (I wish I could remember where I recently saw the villain licking her face) that it’s not completely out of left field.
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