Posted inDCUQ / Feminism

(Dis)empowering Batgirl: Combating Sexism and Rape Culture

Batgirl #41 variant cover

[dropcap background=”yes”]Y[/dropcap]ou might have seen the recent news story that DC Comics has pulled a variant cover of an upcoming Batgirl comic, issue 41, that featured the Joker on the cover. The Joker stands in a shadow, pointing a gun downward at Batgirl.

I have so many feelings about this—all negative.  The image is triggering (in both senses of the word). The problematic aspect of this is not just the look on Batgirl’s face, or the the finger pointed at her head, it’s that the real gun is pointed downward into the dark in a menacing way that pushes this over the top.

For the record, this is a “variant cover”, meaning that usually variants have absolutely nothing to do with the current story at all. The Joker won’t even appear in the story. Variant covers are usually produced by a guest artist that is paid by contract to produce a “special cover”—those editions are often sold at a premium. This cover was produced as part of an effort to celebrate the Joker’s 75th anniversary. Previously, DC Comics has honoured Superman, Lois Lane, Batman, and the Flash with anniversary variant covers.  This is the first villain that has received that treatment. Perhaps this should be expected when a comic book company “honours” a villain. Paying tribute to a villain, while potentially profitable, can lead to dangerous compromises.

To be clear, the variant cover is inspired by the comic “The Killing Joke”. As a result of this comic from the 80s, which is widely acclaimed, Batgirl was left traumatised and paralysed for years. Batgirl’s story has since been one of survival. Since her first story in the 1960s, Batgirl has been fighting against sexism—even calling Batman and Robin out on it in the story, AND proving them wrong.

In the graphic novel, “The Killing Joke”, the Joker shot and paralysed Batgirl, and then took naked photos of her. Not only did the Joker take naked photos in the story, but to be frank, it was a sexual assault. In fact, this is the story that transformed Joker into the most vile villain in DC Comics.

This variant cover evokes a type of fear that makes the viewer believe that the Joker is about to sexually assault Batgirl again. The fear represented in the image is not one that is simply someone fearing for their life, but of someone that has been sexually assaulted in the past. While this might not be obvious to the world outside of the fan community, there isn’t a serious reader of Batman comics who wouldn’t make this connection. While “The Killing Joke” can certainly be critiqued for promoting rape culture as well, the writers and artists (such as gailsimone) of the last twenty years turned that moment into survival—making Batgirl into a strong symbol of an empowered woman. This image attempts to disempower Barbara Gordon.

"Detective Comics" #359, Batgirl's first appearance
Fighting sexism from the beginning. “Detective Comics” #359, Batgirl’s first appearance

The fact that this comic has been pulled has led many to call it censorship. It’s called editing.  Moreover, it’s the power of the free speech and the press that pressured DC Comics, and the artist, to pull the cover. The company, like most companies, made a decision based upon the negative press and the fear of a drop in sales in one of its most popular comics. Free speech means a person has to right to say something, publish it themselves. However, it DOES NOT mean that other people have to silence themselves—especially in response to what I can only interpret as a violent image that is a product of a culture that perpetuates sexism and rape culture.

However, while DC Comics has pulled the cover, prior to fan response, they were ready to publish it—believing that it would sell. The fact that DC Comics got to the point where they were ready to publish the comic, without thinking twice about the possible ramifications, IS reflective of what rape culture is. Rape culture is what allows people to think this sort of graphic depiction is fine. Sexism, racism, transphobia, nationalism, homophobia, ethnocentrism, ableism, and classism are not okay.

Censorship is not calling someone out for hate speech. Censorship is the legal and societal exclusion and marginalisation of people because of a narrow minded view point.