Can’t Go Back.
Right, so the rumour doing the rounds this week is that come September, Barbara Gordon is going to be ‘uncrippled’ as part of the relaunching of the DC Universe. For those of you unaware, Barbara Gordon is the daughter of Commissioner Gordon, a librarian who became the 1st Batgirl. After a run as the 3rd wheel in the Batman and Robin duo, she was shot and maimed by The Joker in the graphic novel ‘The Killing Joke’ and was left unable to walk as a result.
Subsequent to this, she drew upon her skills with computers and became the hub of the electronic DC universe, reinventing herself as the anonymous Oracle. Linked to everything that goes on digitally, she became one of the key members of the JLA, The Titans and founded her own guerilla super-heroine team: Birds of Prey.
Barbara’s injury is often cited as one of the early examples of the syndrome known as ‘Women in Refrigerators’: a nasty plot device where a woman related to the central character is maimed, raped, killed or in some other way abused in order to give motivation to the lead stopping the Big Bad. It’s a variation on the schtick in action movies where the black partner is killed to drive the white guy more reason to take out the crime boss/crazed killer, etc (Hello X-Men: 1st Class.) On the whole, it’s usually a sign of an inability to write a compelling narrative and create cheap drama instead.
Where I disagree that Bab’s abuse is just one more symptom of the ‘Women in Refrigerators’ is that, well, honestly speaking, The Joker was the best thing that ever happened to the character of Barbara Gordon.
There’s a lot of talk about how badly women are represented in mainstream superhero comics. Rendered in a way that borders on the fetishistic, used as sexual decoration, underwritten, under motivated. Only really interesting to the dominant consumer base if they have large breasts or wear not a lot of skin-tight spandex. Off the top of my head, there’s only one comic starring a female that’s run consistently without being cancelled and that’s Wonder Woman. Men don’t want to read about female protagonists.
All valid and true points, but try having any kind of disability and see how well women fare in comparison, in terms of representation.
Off the top of my head, if you want physical ailments, then you’re looking at the X-Men, who frankly make too much noise given they’ve spent most of the time living in a mansion, don’t seem to have to work any jobs for their income, are totally stunning and on the whole don’t have much in the way of visual deformities (‘Oh Noes, I have claws that nobody can see unless I choose to show them’ ‘Waah, I’m a statuesque blonde who can read minds and can turn into diamond if I choose to’.)
Then there’s Matt Murdock aka Daredevil who’s blind, but his real disability seems to be a cycle of really stupid behaviour that runs as follows: Life goes wrong. Cry about an ex. Elektra and/or The Black Widow show up for a bit while Matt wallows in self-pity. Become a crime boss of some sort, realize that was a pretty stupid idea given his habit of telling every pretty girl that He’s Daredevil. Foggy will get beaten up in some way. Goes off for a sulk to find himself; worrying everyone he knows as he hasn’t told anyone where he’s gone, culminating in his jumping across lots of buildings in costume. So, no, I don’t think we want to be Matt.
Professor X? Well, he’s a genius, but aside his liking of underage girls, he has a habit of coming up with really stupid solutions to things: ‘I’ve had enough of Magneto running around disagreeing with me and being up in space generally leaving everyone alone. I’m going to go confront him and then absorb his psyche into mine just after he rips Wolverine’s skeleton out of his body. That’ll end well. Or with his mind melding with mine until we become a giant purple transformer that crushes New York City and kills The Avengers, The Hulk and The Fantastic Four. To me, my X-Men!
Then there’s the Hulk. If you want a quick idea of what having any kind of behaviour disorder is like, meet Bruce Banner. It’s an incredibly simplified version of it, but the underlying theme holds true. Bruce is a mild mannered guy who flips out and attacks things when he’s under stress due to his unresolved childhood issues. He spends the rest of his time feeling incredibly guilty about this, trying to put right what he did wrong in his mania, living in fear of his next attack. A life spent looking for a cure that probably doesn’t exist. It’s probably the best depiction of mental health issues in mainstream comics outside of Pete Milligan’s Shade The Changing Man or Hewligan’s Haircut.
Barbara, on the other hand, did something with her life. Unlike a lot of the women who suffered the indignity of being a woman in a refrigerator (and believe me, the Crisis on Infinite Earths era DC Universe was a bad time to be a woman), Barbara moved on. She accepted her fate and made the best of her life. Not in a shiny ‘And now I will be happy and drift off into the sunset, never to be referred to again’ way, but she carried on living, being part of her community of friends and colleagues.
She’s had some rough patches subsequent to that (not least of which was Dick Grayson popping round to give her a sympathy shag the day before he married Starfire), but she’s a real testament to the ideal that disabled people are as much a valid and vital part of the world as everyone. As Batgirl, Barbara really wasn’t much more than Huntress-Lite and a half-hearted attempt at female empowerment (‘Gasp! I’ve been taken down…by a GIRL!’) As Oracle, she’s the strongest representation in comics that people who aren’t entirely okay can still make a contribution to society as a whole, that we’re as capable as we can be and shouldn’t just be swept under the carpet, locked up in homes and asylums until we die.
And this winter, it seems that’s exactly what will happen to Oracle, her struggles and determination will be forgotten about.
I hope I’m wrong.