“Cripple the Bitch”

Posted: 08/21/2010 in Comics, Girl Stuff
Tags: , , , ,

What if we’re living in a world where that is the most important phrase ever uttered in the DC editorial offices? It’s what Len Wein allegedly told Alan Moore when he asked for permission to cripple Barbara Gordon in the pages of The Killing Joke, and a reader poll in Brian Cronin’s Comics Should Be Good column at CBR just voted it the most memorable moment in DC history outstripping the deaths of Superman, Supergirl, Barry Allen, and even Batman’s crippling.

I’ll admit that I was pretty taken aback during the early stages of voting at how much the voting seemed to focus on the year 1986. I don’t want to really go back and count the number of panels and pages from The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns that made the cut because while they were and continue to be important works, it’s depressing how hung up on The Year Comics Grew Up a large section of the readership is. I guess it shows how much insecurity there still is about comics being a kid thing despite how unfriendly to children the medium has become in the last twenty years. But that’s not what we should be taking away from this.

I don’t want to pretend that this poll is reflective of the entire readership, but Brian’s got a pretty big audience and it’s a pretty general one. It’s not like his readership is a very specific niche or anything, so I think that it can be taken as a pretty accurate sample of what the climate out there is. I think that the first thing we have to do is separate out what this doesn’t mean. I don’t want to interpret it to mean that people are looking at the event as being a positive one or even that it can be looked at as vindicating Moore’s decision to cripple her. I just can’t rationally parse this as “Man we love seeing bitches get gutshot.” The first thing it tells me after I’ve had some time to let it settle is that it’s an event that stuck with people, that continues to be relevant. That alone I think is good for the general state of women’s narratives in superhero comics, that the crippling of a character who was nearly forgotten at the time means more to the readership now than the death of it’s biggest icon. There’s clearly a massive emotional investment in Barbara Gordon.

Let’s be real about that, though. The emotional investment in Barbara has little to nothing to do with her being crippled and the real reason that moment is in pole position has fuck all to do with Alan Moore. I’m going to have to make my second major concession about a female superhero in the span of a week to my friend Richard and go ahead and say that Babs is the central character of the DCU, which is a large part of what Geoff Johns meant when he told Gail Simone that without Birds of Prey there was a large hole in the DCU or at the very least it’s a perfectly valid way to interpret it.

It you look back from high up on the mountain of 2010- especially as a reader who identifies as female or considers themselves a feminist- and stare back down into the history of funnybooks, you’re going to have to admit that it was the most pivotal moment for female readers. It was shocking, brutal, and gratuitously tore down a childhood hero for many women. I recently read a wonderful article pointing out how important her introduction the Adam West series was for female characters on television and the impact she had on the female audience, and as we all know Gail Simone was one of the women who Babs had a big impact on. We can never forget that The Killing Joke is why we have Women in the Refrigerator which was the moment in time that the feminist perspective got it’s first real foothold within the fandom. It continues to be both a lightning rod and a touchstone that changed the way thousands of readers look at comics and even modified the language we use to discuss violence against women in comics. It was the moment that we stood up and said enough was enough, that the time for staying silent was over and women’s narratives in comics needed to change.

Judy Garland’s death was definitely not a good thing, and the hate fueled police raid on Stonewall wasn’t either but they were the key ingredients that ignited the ensuing riots that birthed the modern gay rights movement. The pivotal moments in history, especially the ones that drive a silent or oppressed minority to action, are rarely happy ones. We should be proud and heartened that despite how overwhelmingly gruesome the top tier of moments in Cronin’s poll, Babs’ shooting prevailed. I can’t think of a single reason why that moment should be forgotten because once it fades from prominence, so does our fight to keep it from happening again.

While the decisions and attitudes surrounding the publishing of The Killing Joke are undeniably a low point for DC and comics in general, it was followed by the single greatest feat pulled off by DC writers which is far more important to why that moment was voted the most memorable. I am of course talking about that thing that I’ve been talking about way too much. The Babs Squad; John Ostrander, Chuck Dixon, and Gail Simone. In turn, they took the most senseless and regrettable tragedy in company history and turned it into the opportunity to give DC their most compelling hero whose stock both within and without the narrative is higher than it ever has been. There were no retcons or cheap shortcuts in restoring Babs from her fall from grace. She had to fight harder than any of her male peers to regain her self worth and status, which in itself is emblematic of the struggle many women experience, handicapped or able.

The readership has responded to and rewarded that uncompromising approach to rehabilitating Babs, which says a lot considering how readily the reset button is being pushed these days (Hal Jordan, Spider-Man’s marriage, Wonder Woman’s everything, etc). The first issue of the relaunched Birds of Prey is in it’s third printing and the following two issues are already in their second printings. I kinda wish that the beautiful, tearjerking moment where Babs and Dinah meet face to face for the first time ever was the most memorable moment ever, but it still means that Babs has captured the hearts and minds of the readership despite her gender to the point where her most defining moment is their most memorable one.

UPDATE: DCWOMENKICKINGASS (who you should all follow and inspired me to write this based on her own interpretation of Cronin’s poll) corrected the Len Wein quote for me and noted that Alex Dewitt drove Women in the Refrigerator. She’s definitely the namesake of what is now considered a trope. What I meant by “we wouldn’t have WiR without The Killing Joke” is that if I’m reading the history of the list correctly, it was originally the poor track record of major female superheroes (of which I’d like to think Babs is foremost, perhaps second to Supergirl) that lead to the investigation of female characters as a whole and the publication of the list. In my mind Babs’ crippling is more emblematic of the underlying issues presented by WiR than it’s namesake because she had at one point been a very prominent character who brought in a lot of female fans and later on was discarded showing a clear disregard for the female perspective and potential readership. This is all of course subjective conjecture and what example of fridging is most offensive, polarizing, or memorable is going to depend on the reader.

Again, I can’t really say with any certainty why Cronin’s readers voted the way they did. I just want to present a potential positive perspective on why a woman being shot in the gut is the most memorable moment for a lot of readers.

GAIL SIMONE (holyshityesTHEgailsimone) Popped up to not just say very nice things but to add that the late Kim Yale is missing from my Babs Squad as she co-created the Oracle persona with John Ostrander, driving the point home to me that I should not be blogging at seven in the morning when I have not gone to bed, even though I had a Rock Star and a cigarette earlier. Hopefully she won’t be poking around the blog and find all those other nice things I said about her on here because I’d die of embarrassment.

  1. Gail simone says:

    Thank you for this powerful and fascinating article.

    I did want to echo your comments regarding both Chuck Dixon and John Ostrander, who did hero’s work fixing the damage done by Alan’s story.

    But it is important to not forget the contribution of Oracle’s co-creator, the late, great Kim Yale.

    All three of them chose to build something, rather than just tear things down, and are the reason Oracle is so compelling today.

  2. Rick Sand says:

    I think you’re forgetting about the feminist reaction to Denny O’Neil’s depowering of Wonder Wonder in 1968. There’s plenty of interviews and essays he wrote on the backlash they received on that. And the “women in the refrigerator” phrase comes from Ron Marz’s Green Lantern story where Major Force brutally murders Kyle’s girlfriend and stashes her body in Kyle’s fridge; not from Babs getting shot.

    I also don’t think Barbara Gordon’s gender had much to do with the decision to let Alan Moore cripple her. This was Alan Moore, the man who broke convention. If he wasn’t taking risks, he would never have had the influence in comics that he did. Look what he did to male characters. Swamp Thing learns he’s not really a man with plant powers, but a worm/plant that ate Alec Holland and took on his identity. That’s quite crippling without putting him in a wheelchair. Rorschach is the star of the Watchmen and he kills him off at the end, and it’s debatable if that had any real purpose. Ozymandias already told Rorschach to go off and do whatever he wanted, because he knew no one would believe him. So why does Dr. Manhattan have to kill him? Because it was a memorable ending. Alan Moore did plenty of bad things to male characters. In fact, he also killed Zatara in a Swamp Thing story. And let’s not forget what the Joker put Jim Gordon through in the Killing Joke as well.

    As for abused male characters, let’s not forget the brutal beating and death of Jason Todd at the hands of the Joker a few years later. Barry Allen, the man who started the Silver Age of Comics, died in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Batman got his back broken. Superman died. Hal Jordan went off the deep end. Bucky got brainwashed into spending most of his life as the Winter Soldier. Steve Rogers was assassinated. Maxwell Lord killed Ted Kord. Let’s not even get started on poor Peter Parker or John Constantine. It would take days to cover the works of Garth Ennis alone. But I digress. I doubt an inventory of mistreated male characters is really necessary.

    Now I’m not saying I approve of any of these actions taken against any character male or female. It’s almost always gimmicks. No one stays dead. We all know that. Jason Todd was voted dead by the readership and even he got a second chance to suck at his fictional life all over again. But sales trends show this is what people want to see.

    Furthermore, is the Killing Joker really about the shooting of Barbara Gordon? It’s a Joker story. It’s why he’s on the cover. When he shoots Barbara, he didn’t go there to shoot her. He was coming for Jim Gordon. It is 110% in character for the Joker to shoot Barbara Gordon when she opens the door. Anyone could have opened the door and the same outcome would have occurred. Alan Moore wasn’t gunning for Batgirl. He was developing the Joker. It’s what that makes story so memorable. It’s what pushes the Joker beyond anything he’d ever done. It’s also a defining Jim Gordon story, because this is the public hero of Gotham City. Gordon isn’t just Batman’s bitch (as earlier comics make it seem). He has to struggle and survive to be man he is in the modern era. Barbara Gordon isn’t out of place in this issue either. It’s not some ridiculous notion that she’d be at his house when the Joker arrives.

    If Jason Todd (a major character) hadn’t been killed by the Joker later on, I might consider the feminist point-of-view here to be more valid. At the time, Batgirl (sadly) was probably the least significant Batman cast member available (considering the post-Crisis universe wiped out most of Batman’s history). Yet she still was identifiable enough for her shooting to mean something to the reader. Her shooting was a plot device, just as Jason Todd’s death was in “Death in the Family.” It wasn’t Alan Moore’s crusade against women. Nor Len Wein’s.

    I remember reading somewhere else before that Wein had said that about Batgirl. I don’t think that’s really enough on its face to call it a move against women everywhere. I’m sure he would have had the same attitude about any character. Alan Moore had already drastically altered Wein’s Swamp Thing character. Maybe Wein has something against women. That I cannot say. I don’t think his nonchalant attitude about the shooting of Barbara Gordon is a woman-hating move though, especially when it was Alan Moore’s idea.

    You’re right about why the Killing Joke was voted #1 at CBR. People love Barbara Gordon as Oracle in a way they didn’t when she was Batgirl. Not that she didn’t have fans. I loved her as Batgirl. But Oracle is one of the most important characters of the DCU. Dan DiDio has said numerous times that he would never “fix” Barbara Gordon, because she is essentially an untouchable character. With all the crazy junk he lets happen at DC, Barbara Gordon is the one character he won’t mess with. She is perfect as she is. Birds of Prey for the win. Love the new story.

  3. emmahouxbois says:

    “I think you’re forgetting about the feminist reaction to Denny O’Neil’s depowering of Wonder Wonder in 1968. There’s plenty of interviews and essays he wrote on the backlash they received on that. And the “women in the refrigerator” phrase comes from Ron Marz’s Green Lantern story where Major Force brutally murders Kyle’s girlfriend and stashes her body in Kyle’s fridge; not from Babs getting shot.”

    Well, the feminist reaction in 1968 didn’t come from within the fandom or really spark any long term changes in how we read female characters. WiR, like I said, even changed the language we use to talk about violence against women in comics and has remained current for 11 years now. How often is WiR or “fridging” used in conversation in the fandom relative to the feminist backlash to a short term status change for Wonder Woman? How relevant is it to us now? It’s really just part of the embarrassing interchange between DC and the media regarding Wonder Woman.

    Barbara Gordon may not be the face behind WiR, but Alex Dewitt didn’t prompt WiR’s creation nor is her example extensively used in discussion of the phenomenon. In the history section of the original WiR page it states that the inception of WiR was based around the realization that a great number of prominent female superheroes had been killed or disabled, which prompted further investigation and the publication of the list. Barbara Gordon is arguably the highest profile character to be fridged and the one who generates the most discussion. I’ve honestly (and personally) heard Karen Page and Savage Dragon’s cavalcade of dead girlfriends brought up far more than Alex.

    Let me be crystal clear about my thoughts regarding Barbara Gordon being paralyzed. Nowhere have I stated in any way shape or form that Alan Moore or Len Wein are misogynists or launched a campaign against women. I have in fact minimized Moore’s position in the story and have only mentioned him as being it’s original author. As for Len Wein, it’s inarguable that his infamous statement is sexist. “Bitch” is a phrase that is exclusively used to take women’s power away and to debase them as women specifically. I’m not going to intimate that she represented a breed of woman that he felt threatened by, but I am going to say that it’s ridiculous to call Barbara Gordon as she was then a bitch. She was a proactive but moderate feminist who had an ordinary sex life and ran for office successfully but Hell, people slander Hillary Clinton for the same thing but I digress.

    My argument isn’t necessarily with the story, but the editorial decision to make the crippling stick and write Barbara off. Wein was acting out of ignorance. His phrasing and flippant decision clearly telegraphed that he nor DC editorial policy as a whole had any interest in cultivating or maintaining female readership. As Gail mentioned on WiR, she noticed at the time of it’s writing in the late 1990s that there were no meaningful numbers established for female readership in comics. No one knew how many women were reading, and they obviously did not care. My argument is with the indifference that the industry showed to a loyal and disenfranchised demographic whose purchases afforded them no voice.

    Trotting out a list of maimed male characters is completely irrelevant because it erases the context and impact of the story under discussion. For the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter what else was in The Killing Joke because I’m examining why Cronin’s readers decided that Barbara being shot was not only more memorable than everything else in that comic, but more than any other DC comic ever.

    The only relevant comparison is when Bane broke Bruce’s back. Bruce’s return- much like with his recent “death”- was planned before the incident saw print. Babs’ wasn’t. They silenced and threw away the most relatable and progressive female character of the era. However, it’s also important to note that I said that clearly, the readership responds to a more thought out and organic approach to rehabilitating injured or disgraced heroes because there’s no way that moment would be at #1 if Ostrander and Yale hadn’t founded Team Babs and set the foundation for BoP. This a hopeful post about how past mistakes can be redeemed by committed writers and an open minded readership, not a screed.

    As for Jim, well roll back a few pages to my 30 Day DC Meme post for favourite civilian. ;D

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