Not Your Girlfriend, Not Your Victim: Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke
When “The Killing Joke” was first released in 1988, Alan Moore’s tale could probably be best summed up as the best example of comic book sexism. Barbara Gordon, the first Batgirl, a complex and badass character, is reduced to a prop. Shot and brutalized to drive her father mad, to hurt Batman, to show just how cruel the Joker is. While the story was supposed to be a standalone piece, it eventually was incorporated into DC’s canon and Barbara, now paralyzed, became Oracle. It was a miracle save of a character who had endured so much, and when the DC universe was rebooted the Killing Joke plot was erased and Babs resumed her role as Batgirl.
It has been nearly thirty years since the comic was first published, and the discourse surrounding comic book sexism has progressed since then. Gail Simone, the pioneer of the concept of “Women in Refrigerators”, wrote Barbara’s triumphant return to the Batgirl mantle. There are more female writers in comics, more female artists, and more female critics. We should have progressed past the days when Barbara’s pain was reduced to a pawn to make the men in her life sad.
But apparently, we haven’t.
Recently, DC adapted “The Killing Joke” into an animated feature film. Countless thinkpieces have been and will be written about this film, so allow me to add my voice to the fray: this was a mistake, and shows how little progress we seem to have made.
In order to lengthen the short story into a full-length film, the writers decided to give Barbara more of a backstory, in order to give her more agency in the story. However, this backfired horribly. Instead of becoming an active character, Barbara loses even more of her strength.
Perhaps the most grievous sin is that, in the first half of the film, Barbara and Bruce Wayne enter into a sexual relationship. This defies all Bat-logic; Barbara is like a daughter to Bruce, has dated his son Tim, and is the child of his best friend and surrogate father figure Jim Gordon. Bruce and Barbara would never see each other as a romantic partner. And outside of the squickiness of the Bruce/Barbara pairing, it only serves to make her shooting even more about Bruce’s pain. Part of the horror of “The Killing Joke” is that the Joker sexually assaults Barbara, so by making her Bruce’s girlfriend, the pain stops being about her and instead becomes about his pain.
The first half is also littered with numerous moments of Barbara being objectified. She appears in her underwear twice. She finds the bad guys hitting on her “flattering.” This is not strength. This is a male writer’s view of a strong female character. Barbara is not allowed to be strong for herself, but instead she must be desired and lusted after because that is, after all, what women are good for in comics.
There are almost too many problematic moments to capture, ranging from villains making jokes about it being “that time of the month” to Barbara being taken off a case because her love for Bruce is getting in the way of doing her job. All of this, combined with the vile nature of the comic and added jokes about disabilities, make this film an outstanding example of sexism in the comics industry. But all of this, all of this somehow is not the worst part.
The worst part is that this film was made in the first place.
There is no excusing the initial “Killing Joke”, but it was written at the dawn of the conversation about feminism and comics. It is a textbook example of fridging before the term even came into use. And that is what it should be. This should be something left in the past, used to illustrate the problematic past and a list of things not to do in the future. And yet here we are, discussing this film in 2016.
DC knows the controversial nature of this story, and not only did they decide to translate it to the screen but included scenes to make Barbara into a caricature, the Girlfriend or the Daughter or the Victim. They took material widely known as being deeply, violently misogynist and translated it straight to the screen without changing a thing.
This cannot happen any longer. We cannot simply translate sexist material to the screen and shrug and say “we are staying true to the text.” “The Killing Joke” should have gathered dust in DC’s history books, because there is no way to adapt this material to make it about Barbara, or to make it be empowering for women. This is a story about Bruce Wayne’s conflict with the Joker, about Jim Gordon being pushed close to madness, and about the Joker’s psyche. Barbara never mattered in the text. And she clearly doesn’t matter in this film.
To say that we should avoid all problematic forms of media is impractical. No piece of media is perfect; we live in an imperfect society and that reflects in our films, books, and television shows. But there is a vast difference between enjoying something problematic and celebrating violence against women despite the backlash by creating a film that once more forces young women to see one of their heroes reduced to just another victim for a man to cry over.
Of course, there is the cry that this is a classic Batman comic. Well, to quote IndieWire’s review of the film, “just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean it’s good.” “The Killing Joke” is a classic. It is not good. DC’s decision to update the film is not good, and the writing is a sign of the sexism that still has a grip on the comics industry.
It’s time to retire the stories of women being shoved in refrigerators. It’s time to stop reducing female characters to sexual objects. So, DC, next time you want to make another movie like this, just don’t. Because when a Joker cosplayer thinks you’ve taken things too far and damaged Barbara’s character, then that’s when you really know you’ve gone too far.
(It is also worth noting that when an attendee at the SDCC panel for the film, Brian Azzarello called a detractor a “pussy.” If you’re wondering how this film could have happened, that moment makes it abundantly clear that the writers are just as misogynistic as their writing makes them out to be.)