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The Eschatology of Barbara Gordon, Part 6
by The Old Maid

(This essay was originally posted to World's Finest May 2004; revised July 2006.)

In response to the draft of this essay, there arose another faction that was neither Gnostic, agnostic, nor moderate. This faction also exhibited the all-or-nothing approach to Barbara’s character. In their case, they voted for the sinner interpretation—and, as a rule, they found this interpretation easier to advance against the old, un-cute Barbara that “nobody” liked anyway. This writer was struck by a responding statement from the moderate camp that,

It’s one thing to acknowledge that Barbara is not a saint like her father. It’s another thing to say that it’s a sin that she’s not.

If the all-or-nothing approach to Barbara makes admirers overly defensive of her ingénue days—no one so cute dare fall from the divine pedestal—then it also makes her critics overly censorious of Commissioner Barbara. Commissioner Barbara’s not sexy, not vivacious, not funny, not fun. She cannot sweep her mistakes and weaknesses under the “cute” carpet. They stand revealed, shaved bald, and looking rather forlorn. But just because Barbara is not cute anymore, does that make her diabolical? Consider this quote from an anti-Gnostic commentator:

Elder Barbara is often a plain-faced [rhymes-with-witch], commonly butting heads with Terry and Bruce, almost as if she's proving something. She's mostly proved that you really need a motivating tragedy to be a Bat-person, because doing it for the thrill like she did is a perfect path to tragedy.

As it happens, until this century rhymes-with-witch was the worst thing anyone could call a woman—far worse than any variant on “harlot.” After all, if they survived, prostitutes could repackage themselves as mail-order brides, relocate, and live out their days in respectable obscurity. But rhymes-with-witch was like having a certain eye color; once you were stuck with it, somehow strangers always knew. The definitions have changed through the years … the term “harlot” has an imprecise quality to it now that Those Who Do It For Money are being pushed to the violent margins of the business because of competition from Those Who Do It For Free. Rhymes-with-witch too has evolved. When people felt free to start saying it, they never stopped. Nowadays every woman can expect to be called this name; like “have a nice day,” it is universally overused. But it has lost none of its sucker-punch force for being vague and overused. Is Barbara a saint? No. But is she this bad a sinner?

Let’s start with her arguments with Old Man Wayne. Is yelling at Bruce so very terrible? Clearly not; Dick and Terry scream at him with impunity, and the audience loves it. Then again, Dick and Terry come across as three-dimensional people who cope with high-pressure situations by releasing excess verbal “steam.” In particular, Dick’s Robin and Bats/Terry have a sense of humor. Commissioner Barbara in contrast is humorless, even mean-spirited. (See her twitting of her secretary Dave in “Babel.”) When Robin or Terry take a verbal swing at Bruce, we pause to think whether they might have a point, whereas Barbara (or Nightwing, for that matter) just seems to hate everybody.

Barbara’s argument with Terry is more problematic. She doesn’t solve his father’s murder, but she doesn’t want him to act on it. She sees him primarily as a “high tech glove on Bruce Wayne’s hand,” a glove that she intends to confiscate. Her best behavior (“ATOC”) consists of responding to Terry’s plea for peace with a show of charm masking the office politics. And Terry isn’t the only one who believes that he should have served an adult’s sentence of three years instead of a juvenile’s sentence of three months.

The fact that Commissioner Barbara is a thinly developed character, who primarily expresses negative emotions, is not enough in itself to qualify for the (formerly) ultimate expletive of “rhymes-with-witch.” A more thorough approach is to inquire whether Commissioner Barbara qualifies for the male equivalent, “rhymes-with-mastered.” (Oh, the fun one can have with euphemisms.) For in the end, mastery is what it’s all about. To borrow an observation from Heinlein, Commissioner Barbara has high status and is fighting to keep it. Barbara is boss lawman in Gotham, likes being boss, and is fighting to keep the high status of boss. She has no intention of surrendering her supreme status, or even sharing it, with someone a third her age who—let us admit it—is not competent for the work the status requires.

In that passing flash of insight, Terry considers letting Barbara handle the villain Curare. He believes Barbara has earned her police job whereas he merely “inherited” his. Like Thorby’s Uncle Jack, Commissioner Barbara must have been terribly disappointed when Batman returned to Gotham; “it must have seemed an utterly unfair twist of fate.” And it echoes a comment by the creative team in “Gotham’s New Knight”. “She was the girl on the outside who kinda wanted to play with the boys. And the boys were kinds like going, Aah, you know, No Girls Allowed in our club.” In “Batman Beyond” the city is Commissioner Barbara’s clubhouse and Terry is the little tagalong she can’t seem to ditch. Unfortunately the creative team limited Barbara’s accumulated wisdom to merely telling Terry that he should quit on her say-so. (This very quickly got a little too Johnny One-note on the kazoo.)

At the same time, the audience often has to take it on faith that Barbara “earned” this job. It is important to see her succeed on her own, without male coaching or “safety nets.” Yet we rarely see such successes, and are expected to be satisfied that whatever unseen things she did during the Interregnum ought to be good enough. Basically, Barbara coasts. This technique tends to be employed in worse works of fiction. Sample usage: “See? The other characters know that Self-Insert Character is Da Man!” Therefore, if Tim adores Barbara, if Terry respects Barbara—or at least fears her—she shouldn’t have to do anything to impress the viewers, and, as a rule, doesn’t.

Indeed, we learn more about Sam Young’s career in four episodes than we learn about Barbara’s in fifty-two. We learn that this district attorney has cut the plea-bargaining ratio in half. He has gotten (most of) the city’s unregistered guns off the streets and put nine local crime bosses behind bars (“Eyewitness”). Sam also takes down international criminals, which is why Curare (“ATOC”) arrives to silence him. Sam gets to play mensel-in-distress again when he decides to outlaw the “Splicers.” Yet even four assassination attempts do not deter or intimidate him. It’s more than the fact that his gun-toting wife is protective of him. He’s just a quietly courageous D.A. who believes in what he’s doing. He’s approachable and occasionally funny, a good foil to Barbara’s abrasiveness. When it comes to the aforementioned nine crime bosses, Barbara and Sam have the same arrangement as police commissioner Jim Gordon and D.A. Harvey Dent: “You catch ‘em, and I’ll put ‘em away.” And Sam’s pretty busy without his wife, too. We see him working on local crime boss number ten when Ian the “Sneak Peek” interrupts him. (Note to Terry and Old Man Wayne: the legal term you were looking for is “witness tampering.”) Sam’s biggest weakness is one Barbara shares: the stories have not enough “show” and too much “tell.”

Worse, Commissioner Barbara’s reputation comes under fire almost from Day One, as Uncle Jack’s reputation comes under fire. (“All the files showed [were] legitimate business, sometimes with wrong people. But who knew that they were the wrong people?”) In “Rebirth” Terry twice scorns the police because “you know how cozy they are with [the murderer] Powers.” This is a serious charge. It puts either Terry’s credibility or Barbara’s credibility at risk. (Indeed, if there are crooked cops in Gotham, a prisoner and ex-con like Terry may well have met them.) In “Babel” Old Man Wayne complains that Barbara obeys a “sellout” mayor. Would Sam (or Jim, or Dick) have let Batman call him a sellout with impunity? Barbara shows no offense, or reaction for that matter. In 52 episodes the creative team never bothered either to follow up on such explosive charges, or to clear the character’s name. Unlike Uncle Jack (who at least gets fired), or Jim “Shadow” Gordon / “Eyewitness” Terry / “Phantasm” Bruce (all of whom get cleared), Barbara seems not to have been worth the effort.

It is a far cry from the Barbara Gordon we saw at her daddy’s side, still young enough that the whole world was waiting for her, and old enough to go get it. And the body of evidence supports this writer’s assertion that that Barbara was included in the “Batman Beyond” series (and possibly even TNBA) out of a sense of obligation, but that no one seemed to have specific plans for her. If they had, would we not have had some answer to at least some of the following questions?

Did Barbara always want to be a police officer when she grew up? Did she go into the family business to imitate her father? If Jim Gordon had been an accountant, would Barbara still want to be a police officer when she grew up?

How did Barbara feel about sharing her dad with his demanding job? How much did she have to share her dad with Batman? Did her time as Batgirl give her a chance to spend more time with her father? Less time? Why did she really continue as Batgirl after the costume had served its original purpose? (Aside from thrills, that is.)

Would she have married Dick Grayson if she had never learned Batman’s real name? (This is separate from whether Dick would have married her.) Did Barbara ever really grasp why Dick felt she’d betrayed him, or does she believe her own spin? (Again, this is separate from whether she agreed with his reasons.)

What does she look for in a guy? What does she consider when dumping one? How long does it take her to figure out where a relationship is going?

If/when her father dies, would Barbara find herself competing with Bruce/Batman for the position of First Mourner? Bruce may have looked up to the man, but he is Barbara’s dad, after all. If she had elbowed Bruce out of the way to wail over Alfred’s grave, wouldn’t Bruce have something to say about it? Are any such elements built into their “Batman Beyond” relationship?

Who is carrying on Jim Gordon’s legacy, the Batboys or Barbara? Jim would not have gotten as far as he did without Batman; Batman would not have survived in Gotham without Jim. Do the Batboys and Barbara have to work together to carry on Jim’s legacy? What would Barbara have to do to carry the torch alone?

Did Barbara go into law enforcement after someone shot Batgirl because she was on her own for the first time in her life, scared, and needed something familiar to cling to? Did the shooting cause her to re-evaluate the justice system so that she was “on fire” to join? As a Bat-moderate commented, “It makes a difference whether Barbara drifted to that shore or whether she swam there.”

Who shot Batgirl?

Barbara never became the “Oracle” character who stars in the comic book continuity. Some fans cited the affair as the reason she never became Oracle, since it reflects a radically different mindset. What paths did the animated Barbara take in life that led her away from the Oracle characterization?

Did Commissioner Barbara get her position on “name recognition”? Is she pleased to be compared to her father? Embarrassed? Is she pleased for him? Embarrassed for him?

In “A Touch of Curare,” Barbara tells Batman and Bats Jr. to mind their own business. Her exact words are, “I’ve looked the other way so far, but I’m not my father. I don’t want to have to come back here again.” Barbara once respected her father so much that she put Batgirl’s fate in his hands. She still loves her father (hence his picture on her desk), but somewhere along the line her respect for him changed. Jim Gordon welcomed Batman. Barbara seems to think that he made the wrong choice. Why?

Considering that Barbara works for a “sellout” mayor, how does she get any work done?

How does Commissioner Barbara compare and contrast against the leadership in the real Gotham in the 1970s, when NYC saw the rise of professional amateurs called the Guardian Angels?

Is there anything Barbara has always wanted to do but never got around to it? Has she ever traveled? Does she want to? What are her hopes, her dreams, her goals?

What is Barbara’s philosophy in life? Her spiritual beliefs? Her approach to money? To jobs? To housing? To retirement? Is Barbara planning to work until the day she dies? Could Barbara afford to retire? What happens if she’s forced to retire?

How did Barbara transform from a Batgirl, who respected Batman’s aversion to guns, to someone who has to shoot people as part of her job, and does?

Barbara was actually scared of her father’s ruthlessness in “Over The Edge.” Does she ever fear she could go too far as a police officer?

In “Zeta,” Barbara is paralyzed by red tape. (She lets Terry handle matters, rationalizing that the competition is even worse.) But in “ROTJ” Barbara is paralyzed by the past. She’s like every other civilian in Gotham, hoping that some nebulous Someone will save them. She freezes up. Does this happen a lot? Did it happen the night Batgirl “died”? If it’s just one issue—she only freezes up remembering Joker and Tim—wouldn’t it still compromise Batgirl’s performance, given that she would see Tim’s costume at her workplace on display? (“The other day, upon the stair / I saw a Robin who wasn’t there…”)

We have some ideas about what Barbara sees in her husband Sam. What does he see in her?

Does Barbara have children? Did she want children?

What is Barbara’s favorite food? (Timmverse Batman foods: young Bruce, sushi; Old Man Wayne, soup. Matsuda Batman foods: young Bruce, nachos; Old Bruce, diabetic menu or early grave. Timmverse Barbara? All liquids: a cup of coffee here, a cup of tea there, a slurp of ice cream as a nightcap. But if she did eat solids, what would that be? Italian? Greek? Chocoholic? Not much to work with, here.)

What are Barbara’s hobbies? Does she speak any languages? Aside from gymnastics (“Shadow of the Bat”), what extracurriculars did she take in high school and college?

Barbara grumbles in “Batgirl Returns” about how much she hates math. (Let’s set aside the message this sends to girls. If this writer could “Lucas” that episode, it would be to make Barbara complain about History. It suits her. But then wouldn’t this writer be doing the same thing? “Strike that; reverse it!”) In Bruce’s day the supervillains had exotic motives. In Terry’s day most of them are in it for the money. As a policewoman, Barbara either needs to know forensic accounting—Sample usage: Max in “Inqueling”—or has to hire and handle someone who does. How’s that working out for her?

The episode “Unmasked” attempts to explain why Dana Tan has been forced out of Terry’s life. If it is an insult to Dana that Terry shares his secret life with Max but not with Dana, then isn’t it an insult to the retired Batgirl that she never gets the chance to mentor the young woman who is so impatient to succeed her? (Nightwing got such scenes with the new Robin. See “Old Wounds” and maybe “Animal Act.”) We couldn’t give Barbara and Max a scene in “Where’s Terry,” an episode which places Max (under arrest) on Barbara’s home turf? What would happen if these two had a meeting of minds? Not even that much: they couldn’t slug it out? As it is, a series that can spare 30 episodes for Max, but not one for Barbara-and-Max, only reinforces the deficiencies we see in the Barbara-and-Terry model: that Barbara doesn’t mentor anyone because she has nothing to teach. That cannot be right.

The creative team tells us in “Gotham’s New Knight” that “being the daughter of a cop, she would have taken self-defense courses. So she’s just as much a brawler as the two boys.” This is something the creative team never bothered to tell the viewers. This writer is not the only fan who finds the revelation vaguely annoying, much like Terry taking martial arts classes in “Curse of [the] Kobra,” when his series is five episodes from being put to bed anyway. Both characters illustrate a “too little, too late” approach to formal technique. A related item is the creative team’s remarks about the “dainty” fighting style of the Yvonne Craig Batgirl. Actually, the style seemed more a Rockette interpretation of karate, as played for comedy, and which of these disciplines is harder, only someone who has studied them can say. (Besides, how many viewers might find the sight of an anorexic Batgirl fighting Rhino Daly or lassoing Calendar Girl’s dinosaur just as silly?)

What does Barbara look for in a friend? What quirks or flaws can she accept, and what qualities are deal-breakers?

Does Barbara even have any friends?

Does Barbara have any enemies? Unless we count the person who shot Batgirl, the answer would seem to be No. Barbara has adversaries. She has bruises. She has a job to do. In “Gotham’s New Knight”, the creative team proudly states that,

“In her early appearances, she’s taking on the big boys. She goes up against Two Face, and she goes up against big city corruption and the smear campaign against her father. There’s a great scene on the boat where she faces off against the guy and takes him down on her first case. We had her go up against Scarecrow, against a number of villains.”

This statement is only partly accurate. Barbara does confront corruption, and she does save her father’s name and her father’s life. (For the record, what is the first move Batgirl makes against the villain Gil Mason? An over-the-head Rockette/karate kick!) Also, the creative team is correct that Barbara’s best appearances tend to be early in her career. As time passes, more of her appearances resemble “Over The Edge” and "Girl's [sic] Night Out," in that she gets incapacitated and has to be assisted in the takedown/collected for medical care ("Torch Song,” “Holiday Knights”). Unfortunately, the Batgirl character devolves into Bat-muscle, and muscle becomes all she meets. She does not really fight Joker (“Old Wounds”), Two Face (“Shadow of the Bat II,” “Sins of the Father”) or Scarface (“Double Talk”). She fights their lackeys.

Now this work has to be done, but as time passed it became plain that Batgirl was not really earning a reputation in her own right. It goes beyond the fact that Penguin—whose "muscle" (Batman's word) and trusted henchmen (Raven, Lark, and Wren) are all women—does not see Batgirl, or Supergirl, or both put together as "someone who can do something." It goes beyond the fact that no one would hire Bane to stop Batgirl, the way that Penguin hires Bane to stop Batwoman. It goes beyond the fact that Joker II (“Return of the Joker”) never looks up Barbara but simply plans to vaporize the city (Barbara presumably being in there somewhere). In Whistler’s words, Barbara lacks a “warm personal enemy.” If we can take the measure of a man based on the quality of his enemies, then Barbara has been denied one of the most valuable tools of definition.

Batman (unwillingly) builds relationships with Joker, Two Face, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, the Head family, Phantasm, Catwoman, and so forth. Terry/Bats Junior also has made many “warm personal enemies” of his Rogues’ Gallery: Shriek, Inque, Willie Watt, Stalker, Ian the “Sneak Peek,” and Big Time. Also, Terry and Old Man Wayne both have relationships with Blight and the Royal Flush Gang. Even when Terry lacks a relationship with Joker/Tim Drake, Terry knows how to uses that impersonal contact to provoke a deeply personal response. Barbara, whether as Batgirl or the Commissioner, has none of these interactions. There is no sense of connection there. And it is telling that we must resort to one-hit wonders like Supergirl, Livewire (“Girl’s [sic] Night Out”), Gil Mason (“Shadow of the Bat”), or Catwoman (“Batgirl Returns”) to inquire whether Barbara is capable of making even short-lived friends or enemies. Barbara is no Valancy Stirling—“what a spineless thing I must be, to not have even one enemy!”—but Barbara isn’t much of anyone else, either.

Curiously, a minority of viewers see the de-aged Batgirl’s lack of direction and development as a good thing—for Batman, anyway. In response to a viewer's complaint that:

Batgirl had almost no personality in TNBA. In BTAS she was appealing as an outsider trying to join the club ... She was, in some ways, the biggest viewer-identification character. In TNBA, most of her role is parroting what Batman says and being, basically, a drone sidekick. Maybe her obsequiousness is due to her hopes for the future relationship that develops between her and Batman ([I]cf.[/I] “Batman Beyond”), but it's boring.

another viewer replied:

That's not personality you're speaking of—just character function. By becoming Batman's (perhaps) closest associate, Batman's personality could also be split—she often represents the more compassionate, friendlier side of Batman, leaving TNBA Batman to be better off-set against his sidekicks.

For this faction of fans, it is good that Batgirl should “represent” the positive qualities of somebody else. (Personally, this writer wonders what such fans would call Commissioner Barbara—a character who neither obeys, nor “represents” someone else, nor serves as a viewer-identification object.)

This is not true Bat Gnosticism, in that Batgirl is not being artificially infused with positive qualities of her own but with qualities of someone else. She becomes a shell that Batman's personality easily fills. Mind, we don't actually see her being compassionate or friendly to people outside her own little circle. Instead, one must rationalize that she is, or ought to be, because Batman is, or ought to be. Yet even as late as “Epilogue,” when Batman shows gentleness and compassion to the child Ace, he needs no help from Batgirl, or anyone else. Either he behaves well, or he behaves badly—but he doesn’t necessarily need other people to do the behaving for him. (What he needs is for more people to stand up to him.) If anything, if Batman did not otherwise “need” Barbara to serve as an illustration of his secret humanity, then by this logic the TNBA Batgirl character could have been dispensed with altogether.

The unpopular truth is that Barbara has no long-term friends or “warm personal enemies” aside from the Bat-family themselves. Excluding her relatives (father, husband), she has no “history” with anyone except Bruce and Dick and Terry and Tim. From the day that Barbara joins the team in the “Old Wounds” flashback, Barbara gets development only to the extent that it advances and develops the Batboys around her. If the scene doesn’t develop them, it won’t develop her.

Fans frequently object to this assertion, citing "Over the Edge" as an example of hidden riches in Barbara. This exception only proves the rule. Fans embrace “OTE” because, as with Star Trek fans cherishing Spock’s mother, there’s been little alternative. Spock’s mother Amanda is the repository for the (noncanonical) hopes and dreams of fans because she is one of only two positive maternal figures in the classic series—Aurelan Kirk being the other—and one of only two positive female characters over forty … or over thirty, for that matter. (T’Pau is the other.) In like manner, Batfans laud “Over The Edge” because Barbara only gets an outstanding and/or personal story about once every four years. Oh, we take an educated guess that Barbara has a “life,” and that this “life” causes her to have “experiences.” We learn nothing about these things, but because the creative team claims great affection for Barbara, then the audience has the creative teams’ assurance that these never-seen “life experiences” must have happened, and that they were both compelling and deeply moving.

To borrow an observation from Lalli, characterizations that would have been visionary in the 1960s are now largely exercises in “preaching to the converted.” For example, few viewers would think twice at the sight of Renee Montoya subduing violent criminals and rising to the position of Police Commissioner, yet fans are expected to be impressed when Barbara does it. What Barbara does is to keep up with the crowd. She’s just “the prettiest Robin.” That’s a problem, given that Batgirl was created to run ahead of that crowd, to be a pinnacle of human achievement as a female counterpart to Batman.

To the creative team’s credit, Barbara’s career (unlike her personality and her love life) is presented largely unselfconsciously. That is, Batman, Robin, the new Robin, and Terry never twit her for being “the girl who wanted to play with the boys.” It isn’t the characters who say, “No girls allowed in our club!” Only the creative team and fans speak that way. In thirteen years, only two characters even notice that Batgirl/the Commissioner is a woman. (Sam Young quips that “I thought the man was supposed to protect the woman.” Barbara replies, “Last century, babe.” The other character, Two Face, calls Batgirl a “chippie,” an old term for hooker.) Well, there’s also Bullock, but Bullock never liked any caped crusaders. (At least he’s egalitarian.)

Batman and Robin do not try to shut down Batgirl for reasons of gender. Rather, they are professionals. She is an amateur. An anti-Gnostic fan commented that:

As a policeman’s daughter, Barbara, of all people, ought to know that you don’t get to be a police officer by walking in the front door and asking for a badge and a gun.

When Batman and Robin object to Batgirl’s activities, they are motivated by concern that she sees the vigilante life as a shortcut, a path to instant authority over life and death, minus all that silly “discipline” and “accountability” stuff. As the creative team commented, Barbara “does have a sense of adventure” which must be balanced against her “dedication to preserving the common good.” Eventually she convinces Batman to “allow her along.” Still, the Batboys are correct that the job of preserving the common good should not attract thrill-seekers. (Consider the police academy’s discomfort with applicants who seek the badge and the gun for “thrills.”) In addition to her raw emotions, it is this lesson that Commissioner Barbara brings to her grim treatment of Terry: she thinks he is seeking easy solutions to a complicated world.

This is not to say that either TNBA or “Batman Beyond” should have been Barbara’s series. (Certainly we cannot expect the creative team to answer all of the above questions. If they answered merely one in ten, it would be an embarrassment of riches.) We also do not say that Barbara’s appearances after the “Old Wounds” flashback have been of poor quality; they are simply … lacking. Not everyone can write a Star Trek “Data’s Day” or a BTAS “A Bullet for Bullock.” But Barbara has been so underserved lately that Barbara’s fans probably would have honored even a halting effort.

Going back to the archetypes previously mentioned, we do well to consider if Barbara occasionally gets slapped with the "harlot" archetype simply because fans do not know how else to approach her. Fandom may love the animated Barbara, but all too often they love her in the way Barbara loves her Woobie: with affection for a thing outgrown but that one cannot bear to give away. The Timmverse creative team could have made Barbara a more mature, multifaceted, and durable character (say, by developing the Commissioner interpretation). Instead they settled for making young Barbara more “adult” (as in “adult content”). The creative team merely sexed up the character, as if this somehow would make her more well-rounded and contemporary. But giving Barbara a controversial love life (or even a torrid affair, according to preference) does not really make her more well-rounded or contemporary, any more than giving Star Trek’s Christine Chapel a torrid love affair would make her well-rounded and contemporary. The Barbara Gordon character has had so much history and potential … but she has spent an entire animated “lifetime” stuck on “potential.” When we evaluate the character according to the study of fiction as a genre, this Barbara simply falls short. (There is a reason that most of the websites dedicated to the character devote most of their time to the comic-book version.)

Let us put it another way. Barbara has been too much defined by her gender, and her love life in particular. Sometimes it shields her. At other times it condemns her. So who is she if these factors are removed?

We mentioned Barbara's successor, Max Gibson. What would be added, changed, or lost if we turned Girl Max into Boy Max? Very little, it would seem. Oh, we would lose a couple's trick scene in "Mind Games," or a parent-trap scene in "The Eggbaby," or the scene of Brain Girl confronted with Mindless Dino Harem Babes. (Then again, even Max didn't want to be in "Curse of [the] Kobra," and said so.) Overall, Boy Max still would have a touch of thrill-seeker Roxy Rockett. Max still would have a touch of Nelson Nash: cheerful and boisterous among friends but a bit of a bully when he doesn't get his way. Max still would have elements in common with Ian the "Sneak Peek" and would make the same deal: I won't expose your identity now, but I want the long-term exclusive of your life. Boy Max would find the dating options as poor as Girl Max did, and so would be just as unlikely in that world to get into the dating trouble that so plagued the Girl Barbara. Max would still be a slightly shadier character than Barbara and would be praised or blamed accordingly. Although Max may be the last Bat-female, ultimately Max is human first, and it shows. A little gender-bending would not alter Max in any significant way. But this technique would devastate the animated Barbara.

If we turn Girl Barb into Boy Barb, we are left with gaping holes in her character. Boy Barb won't be involved in a Bat triangle with Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne. (The two Batboys have indicated that their door doesn't swing that way.)

For what, then, would Boy Barb be famous, a role model, unique? Would Boy Barb be distinctive for her career, for becoming a vigilante? No. Not only have four Batboys and three Batwomen done it, but two villains have tried it as well (Lock-Up, The Judge). What about Boy Barb’s run as a police officer? She merely follows in the footsteps of Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock, Renee Montoya and (in the comics) policeman Dick Grayson (who may well become commissioner by arresting everyone else). Barbara merely goes where everyone has gone before. Even though she did one or two things first, the glut of competition sometimes makes it appear that everyone is passing her while she is standing still. It is much easier to measure Boy Barb against the competition because she cannot hide behind The Pretty. (But people hate it when this writer does it.)

There are personality quirks and qualities in Girl Barb that Boy Barb would retain. A few would be good. Barbara probably would still have a strong and stable relationship with her father. The relationship might lose some elements of protectiveness, but there is nothing else in their presentation to suggest that their bond would change in any appreciable way. (And Jim probably won’t stop pressing for grandchildren just because his girl’s a guy.)

Boy Barb probably would be just as anxious as Girl Barb to play with the big boys in BTAS. Boy Barb would be just as consistent (and one-dimensional) as TNBA’s “yes-man” if she became a man. However, we might find Boy Barb’s identical weaknesses to be of greater concern.

The TNBA Barbara is cheerful and dutiful. Nothing wrong with these qualities, as such, except that they may not be what Bruce/Batman really needs. We probably would notice more when the obedient Boy Barb declines to give Batman the challenge he deserves, the rebuke he earns. Grayson revolts against Batman at least four times (“Robin’s Reckoning,” “Old Wounds,” the creation of the Nightwing character, and the final departure for Bludhaven). Tim Drake stands up to him twice (“Never Fear,” “Growing Pains”), then stands up to someone bigger (“Knight Time”). Terry’s fights with Old Man Wayne are the most subtle (in spite of the screaming), because Wayne cannot make Terry do anything but must talk him into things (or out of them). Commissioner Barbara still might look upon Old Man Wayne and Terry as reminders of how young and naïve he, Boy Barb, used to be, and might still mistreat Terry accordingly. (The emotions would shift from bad-divorce to family-feud.) But without major changes, the TNBA Barbara would be just as much a parrot or mimic as Boy Barb as she is as Girl Barb. (When even the dutiful Bat-dog has more, well, “bite” than Barbara, people notice.) As either person, the TNBA Barbara would remain a drone, a born follower, not someone who would rock the boat by having ideas of her own. Viewers minimize these concerns in Girl Barb, but if Boy Barb did it we might well wonder what is wrong with him.

So it is fair to inquire if people call Girl Barb the archetypal “harlot” because gender roles and sexuality are so heavily utilized to prop up her character. It is quite a distressing term to lob against a beloved character, even if she deserved it (which is debatable, at best). But perhaps it is not to be wondered that viewers cling to these simplistic labels. For you see, this writer proposes that removing gender and sex from consideration makes the animated Barbara Gordon character vulnerable to an even worse literary term: boring.

In “Gotham’s New Knight”, the creative team stated that:

A girl audience [has] a character they can identify with, that can be a hero … With Batgirl, you get a lot of the audience’s wish fulfillment, that they could be a part of the Batman universe.

Although Barbara is in a position to bring much to Batman’s universe, her version of a “role model” sometimes sends less desirable messages as well.

Example: Barbara is de-aged by almost ten years. She loses her curves (probably about thirty pounds), and also is trimmed of six inches of height (she and Grayson used to be about the same height.) Message: Don't grow up. No one will want you when you’re not cute anymore.

Example: When even other characters can call out a problem, it must be pretty bad. It is hypocritical for the creative team to turn Barbara into a giggling, hair-twirling girlie and send her back to school when even an outsider (e.g., the TV reporter in "Batwoman") can credibly suggest that Batgirl is, or ought to be, "grown up" and looking and acting her age. And it is hypocritical for this de-aged Batgirl—who in real time would be pushing thirty—to appear in the same episode ("Mean Seasons") with a woman who lost her job (and her mind) simply because she also turned thirty. Calendar Girl starves and carves herself to keep her job, but Barbara's creators also starve and carve her as if this is conditional to her keeping her job. In contrast, the Matsudaverse Batgirl considered it a privilege to be called Bat*woman* and was willing to fight for the name. (This character too is wraith-thin, unfortunately. Still, she's the same age as Terry McGinnis, and not much younger than the de-aged Barbara. So the new character has as much right to call herself Batwoman as anyone.) But the Timmverse Barbara is doomed to be a Bat*girl* as long as possible. Message: "Pay no attention to that Calendar Girl behind the curtain!"

Example: Fans complained almost incessantly about how Barbara “seems to have gotten a lobotomy between BTAS and TNBA.” Certainly she turned into a follower. Message: Act dumber than you are. Boys won’t play with smart girls.

Example: When you don’t know what to do with a female lead, put her into a relationship. If the first relationship doesn’t work, pass her around the campfire like a bag of cookies until someone keeps her. Message: That is what she is *for.*

Example: If the relationship does not seem sufficiently “interesting,” the female lead can always shop around with a trade-in. Message: It’s not like boys have feelings.

Viewers pick up on more complicated unintended messages as well. This writer concedes the creative team’s point that “it’s hard to stay ahead of the fans.” Perhaps that is the form at issue. It is one thing for the creative team to be interdependent upon the loyalty of the audience. It is another thing to presume upon that loyalty. Many fans protest the Bruce/Barbara affair because, rightly or wrongly, they think that line has been crossed. What happens when fans wonder if they actually have a duty to root for Barbara “no matter what”? What if they start asking questions such as, why, exactly, Barbara is owed allegiance as opposed to earning it?

Indeed, some fans dislike the affair so intensely that they have stated they will not purchase the “Batman Beyond” series as a way to “vote with their feet.” Truly, this is a case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face: the writers already have been paid, and if they genuinely didn’t care what fans thought of them, a boycott would not change that reality. (To put fans’ anger in perspective, this writer has yet to hear of a single “Max-hater” boycotting “Batman Beyond” just because Max Gibson is in 30 of its 52 episodes.)

Are such fans “dainty?” Do they shudder at the implications of the affair because they cannot handle such vulnerability, such intensity? This writer doubts it. If such were the case, then these fans would not consistently number the deep-divers (“Perchance to Dream,” “Over the Edge,” “Out of the Past,” “Return of the Joker,” etc.) among their favorite episodes. There is indeed daintiness at work here, but the nature of the charges hint at a more fundamental fastidiousness.

The truth is that the Bat Gnostics, the anti-Gnostics, and the creative team all appear to exhibit (dare we say it?) an almost Puritanical approach to the animated Barbara character. From their assorted points of view, sex sin is the absolute worst thing anyone could ever do to Barbara, or that she could do to herself—worse than lying, worse than manipulation, or robbing a bank, or committing murder. It’s worse than being shot, worse than being orphaned, worse than killing off her character, worse than Crazy, worse than Stupid. It’s just The Worst Thing Anyone Can Do. This may be why Bat Gnostics are so frantic—almost Calvinist—to shield Barbara from the very rumor of unforgivable sin and keep her in the company of predestined saints. This also may be why the anti-Gnostics see the Bruce/Barbara affair as “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” for a character that did not necessarily have a camel, or sufficient straw, or sufficient backbone. Finally, it may explain why, when the creative team was trying to give Barbara a backstory to carry her through the long drought of the Interregnum, turning her into one more entry in Bruce Wayne’s little black book was the first, last, and only “interesting” thing they could think of to do with her. They gave her water, but only enough to keep her alive.

Who is Barbara really? It can be argued that Commissioner Barbara is concealed in young Barbara, and young Barbara is revealed in Commissioner Barbara. The proposed Bruce/Barbara affair serves as the revelation, the bridge that unifies her nature and its mysteries. For fans who think the affair is a wonderful thing, they will conclude that the affair reveals wonderful hidden (Gnostic) aspects of the expanding nature of Barbara. For fans who think the affair a mistake, the revelation of such an affair prompts them to anti-Gnosticism; which, in this fandom, means that they know all they need to know about her, and more than enough to reject her. Several such fans responded to the draft of this essay with, “Thank you! I never liked Barbara and never could put my finger on the Why. Now you’ve given me a reason to dislike her.” That is no more this writer’s intention than to prompt viewers to adoringly sing Barbara’s praises.

For this writer, defining Barbara’s past as leading up to the affair and the future as flowing naturally from that affair, is a reasonably airtight and conclusive case. It is also, at heart, profoundly unsatisfying.

Even moderates find slim pickings when examining Barbara’s character. This writer has heard it explained as, “Barbara has no emotional problems or bad behaviors. She is a victim of inconsistent writing because of staff turnover on the creative team throughout the years.” Given that the assorted teams had little difficulty maintaining consistent characterization for Bruce, Alfred, Jim, Dick, Tim, Terry, Max, and almost all the villains, this explanation fails to persuade.

(Indeed, the one character who was most inconsistently written was so written by one and only one creative team. At that, Dana Tan was written consistently until the Max Gibson character siphoned off her positive qualities and screen time.)

A more realistic explanation is that it is only Barbara’s positive qualities that would seem to be inconsistent: in one series she is independent; in another, she is a follower. In this series she is unique; in that one, generic, even stale. In series A she has distinct lines and scenes; in series B a Robin could step into her shoes, say her lines, with no gain or loss to the story in any way. In one series she makes jokes (admittedly, the standard sidekick “groaners” that the leading man would never say); in another series she’s so humorless, she makes her husband look perky. In this series, Barbara is generous, giving people the benefit of the doubt; in that, she has lost faith in people. In series A Barbara is smart; in series B, not so much. And it just goes on and on. Yet a case could be made that it reflects the evolution of her character, as she opens herself to new experiences, only to be stripped of her illusions and ideals.

In contrast, Barbara’s weaknesses are portrayed with aching consistency from series, to series, to series. She becomes Batgirl in part because she thinks she is special and should only associate with other special people. Only she can understand such people; only special people can understand her. She expects to be acknowledged as special and superior before she “shows the work” necessary to earn that status. Men and boys are Barbara’s toys. Her expectations of them tend to be unrealistic and geared toward her benefit alone. She assumes they should respond with automatic compliance. She may exploit those who do, and she vilifies or belittles those who don’t. She can be “preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.” And whether her hair is red or gray, whether her uniform is spandex or corduroy, she shows an unsettling tendency to redefine reality—putting words in others’ mouths; arbitrary mind-reading—to preserve that fantasy world. Barbara is a classic narcissist and fantasist, living in a parallel world slightly out of phase with the world of others. She’s not as far gone as, say, Old Man Wayne—who could be?—but she’s far gone enough. And unlike Amanda Waller, Commissioner Barbara never quite figures out the role she plays in her own drama.

Bettelheim once said, “That which cannot be talked about cannot be put to rest.” The Bruce/Barbara affair is one such controversy. Yet there is a deeper silence, in the shade of a character whose rich fantasy life but poverty of nature are more taboo than what she does with them.

The character Bruce Wayne is in love with the idea of family but essentially is oblivious as to how to nurture one. We have attempted to make a case that Barbara was not so much in love with Bruce—whom she never noticed when he was just another civilian—or with Batman either, so much as she was in love with the idea of being in love. This writer humbly suggests that many fans, and perhaps members of the creative team, are not so much in love with Barbara/Batgirl, as they are in love with the idea of Barbara/Batgirl. Barbara cannot be developed or explained lest the illusion be shattered, the Self-Insert fail to fit, the True Romance fail to be, the scapegoat slip the ceremony and run free. Yet change is required if the character is to truly connect with the audience: as a friend, as an honorable foe, as a role model, or as a person.

Critiquing the animated Barbara Gordon is a lot like discovering the grandparents’ silver in the attic, turned to tarnish because it was saved for a “special occasion” that never came. It requires patience and an acid bath to restore the set to usefulness and its original beauty. (But a gentle acid bath. You can eat off them the same day.) But why let it get that bad at all? What are you saving it for? This writer would suggest that, whether it’s the good silver or a good old character, the irreplaceable time spent with a family who loves you is already all the special occasion you need.

{The End.}

September 2006


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