There have been a lot of interesting stories about women in comics and fandom this week. Like this one about little girls dressing up as Rey at Comic Con, and how important that is. Or this one about how sales of Ghostbusters toys are exceeding expectations.
To me, the week’s most exciting news is that Roxane Gay, an African American, feminist writer, will be writing a spinoff of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s run on Black Panther, featuring Ayo and Aneka of the Dora Milaje. The series, which will be called World of Wakanda, is expected to premiere in November. This is amazing on so many levels. Not only is Gay a fantastic choice to pen basically anything at Marvel, but it’s incredible to see a series giving so much face time to two women of color who are also lovers. And, after facing requests from fans for Riri Williams to be written by a woman of color in the future (likely after Brian Michael Bendis finishes his current Invincible Iron Man run), it sounds like Marvel might be responding, albeit with different characters.
All of this points to why many of us were so upset earlier this week about the way Barbara Gordon is represented in the animated film adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke, which was screened for a single day in theaters on Monday.
In the movie, Barbara is presented as being romantically interested in Batman and, frankly, she comes off as a little needy at times. The two of them in fact end up having sex, which just makes them both look bad. It makes Barbara look like she only became a crime fighter to win Bruce’s affection. And it makes Batman look like he’s taking advantage of her, since he’s clearly not interested in any romantic involvement, but knows that she is. What’s more, Batman has to swoop in and rescue Barbara while she’s fighting bad guys on multiple occasions.
To be clear, all of this happens during a rather lengthy prologue. Because Alan Moore’s original source material isn’t long enough to fill a feature-length movie, the Batgirl story was tacked on to the beginning. Once the actual Killing Joke storyline starts, the movie is pretty good. Of course there are always the questions about Barbara getting shot by the Joker, but at least as an audience, we saw that coming.
What we didn’t see coming was Barbara being disempowered in the way she is. In the theater I was in, a lot of people in the audience (including myself) started actually LOLing at the point when Barbara whips off her blouse and begins making out with Batman. It just seemed so…old school (not in the fun, nostalgic way). And out of place. And gratuitous.
And this stands out because it feels like a step backward. As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, there has been quite a bit of positive stuff going on lately when it comes to representations of women in comics and fandom. Of course we still have a very long way to go. But it has felt recently like more creators are starting to make conscious decisions to represent women in a more empowered, realistic light.
But the way Barbara is portrayed feels out of tune. There are some interesting things going on with women in the DC world, though. I’ve really enjoyed Amy Chu’s Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death. The way it depicts (spoiler alert!) her relationships with Harley and Selina, its representation of Ivy as a woman who’s no less badass after becoming a mother, and the subtext of what she says to her sporlings about being different, are all pretty great. And of course, I’m super excited about the upcoming Wonder Woman movie. From the trailer, it looks like it’s going to be amazing.
But making Barbara into a needy, wannabe girlfriend is very much out of step with all of that. It’s as if the writers were tone deaf to what’s going on elsewhere in DC and in fandom at large. They had an opportunity to do something really fantastic with Barbara, but instead, it feels as if they intentionally took a step backward.
Audiences seemed pretty taken off-guard by Barbara’s on-screen representation at Comic Con, online, and in theaters (at least the one I was in). And I think the reason why is that it seemed like the writers were somehow unaware of the direction fandom is going in. It felt very retro, and that caused it to stick out like a sore thumb.