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What's Wrong With Barbara Gordon as Batgirl

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Amy B.

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"What do you have against Barbara Gordon as Batgirl?"

It's a question I've been asked many times, in various forms. Why all the hate for the decision to revert Barbara Gordon to Batgirl in the New 52? Is it because I'm a fan of the two subsequent Batgirls: Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain? Well, yes. Is it because I miss the disabled representation? Of course. But those reasons, while certainly part of it, don't really explain how revolted I've been by the New 52. It's that I love Babs, too. It's that this change was not some return to glory for her, but rather a slap in the face to all that she represented. Not just as Oracle, but as Batgirl.

Batgirls

To understand this, let's start by delving briefly into the history of Barbara Gordon. Contrary to popular belief, Barbara was not the first Batgirl; the original Batgirl was in fact Bat-Girl, secret identity Betty Kane, who was introduced alongside Batwoman Kathy Kane as love interests for Batman and Robin to try to mollify the post-Seduction of the Innocent panic. Sadly, that was the bulk of what they did - rather than being equals on the vigilante playing field, they were relegated to obstacles and objects of affection, with little real story or existence of their own. So when Babs was first introduced, she was, put plainly, progressive as fuck. She was not only a female counterpart to Batman, but incredibly competent. Batman didn't even know who she was for a while. Half of her entire deal was her incredible intelligence, grounds on which she stood even with Batman. Hell, at one point, she even became a congresswoman.

Shortly before The Killing Joke, and after Crisis on Infinite Earths, she retired from being Batgirl of her own volition - not because she messed up horribly or any of the gross things typically done to drive female superheroes out of titles, or because she became disabled (that happened later), but by her own choice, because she felt she could do more good elsewhere. She became a librarian and retired from Batgirl because she felt it was time.

And then Alan Moore came along with The Killing Joke. And he had a proposition - he wanted to tell a story exploring the Joker and his backstory, seen through the lens of the Joker trying to drive Babs's father, Commissioner James Gordon, insane by giving him "one bad day."

And as part of this, he wanted to have the Joker shoot Barbara Gordon through the spine, making her disabled, and then strip her of her clothes and take photos of it in order to give her father general man angst. What did Alan Moore's editor Len Wein say in response to this proposal? "Yeah, okay, cr*pple the bitch."

And here everything changes for Barbara Gordon...

Suffice to say, it was not a shining moment of female empowerment.

Yet from this act of callous fridging, something truly amazing happened. Something beautifully and spectacularly progressive, a shining example of what comics could be, solid proof that superhero fantasies could truly be for everyone, not just cisgender, heterosexual white able-bodied men.

Barbara Gordon became Oracle. And as Oracle, she was so, so much more than she ever was as Batgirl.

To understand how truly progressive this was, I want to have a little bit of a side discussion about ableism. Ableism is, in a nutshell, the belief that people with the most common levels of mental and physical ability are somehow better and more interesting than those with differing abilities; the belief that disabled people are somehow tragic, that their stories are uninteresting and their lives not worth living, that they are somehow less.

But… there's no reason that things should be this way. Why? Because our definition of ability and disability, of what is and isn't normal, is frankly rather arbitrary. Do people have different levels of ability? Sure. But why is it that, say, being bad at math is considered trivial, yet being bad at socialization is considered to make someone's life not worthwhile? That no one really cares if you can't run a marathon, yet if you can't walk entirely you're considered worse off and discriminated against? That glasses are trivial, yet wheelchairs are stigmatizing? It's not like we don't have the capability to make things accessible for everyone. It's not like we can't put ramps everywhere, and make the differences in transportation available to people without impaired mobility and wheelchair users trivial. Disability, then, is not really a matter of being disabled so much as a matter of having abilities that don't really line up with what our infrastructure is built to accommodate.

And yet, disabled people are told again and again that their bodies or minds are somehow "wrong." They are denied employment, they are pitied, they are mistreated, and sometimes, they are even killed by those they trusted, only for everyone else to look on and feel for their murderer, whose "hardship" was having to associate with someone "less" than them. Disabled people are told that their bodies are wrong and that they should seek to be "cured," that they are mistaken if they love their body or have no problem with the level of ability they have, that they are foolish and selfish if they are proud of the way they are. They are erased from media except as victims, or, even worse, as villains, when their physical or mental disability is said to have twisted them and made them evil.

This ableism becomes even more bizarre in the DCU, where an even vaster range of abilities are available. People in the DCU can routinely fly, or shoot lasers from their eyes, or see through walls, or lift cars, or run at the speed of light. Yet, the same level of ability considered "normal" in our world is no less mundane there. Hell, one of the most prominent and powerful superheroes in the DCU is Batman, who has no powers whatsoever, but rather than being pitied for his lesser ability, it is said to make him more interesting! And yet we still see so very, very few disabled characters. It's fine if you can't see through walls, but god forbid you can't see! It's fine not to be able to hear people talking miles away, but god forbid you can't hear at all! It's fine not to be able to fly, but god forbid you can't walk! Disabilities are still considered tragic, and even with the DCU's massively advanced technology, we still can't get a world designed for everyone to access - though I suppose this, at least, is not a surprise, because the same thing can be said of our own world.

And yet, in Oracle, we had this disabled woman who was one of the most powerful people on the planet. Who flipped ableist and sexist narratives on their heads and said, "Fuck you. I am here, and I am not broken."

Barbara Gordon as a very strong heroine

In a genre defined by the power fantasies of those who already have more than enough power, we had Oracle, and she was everything. She worked for the Justice League and Batman at the same time, yet alongside all this also managed her own team of operatives, the Birds of Prey, and trained her legacy, the Batgirls Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain.

In fact, let's talk about that legacy for a moment, and how on top of this already incredible character we got even more.

When Babs as Batgirl was introduced, she was a very progressive character, yes. She was an icon of female empowerment. But she was also a white, neurotypical, then-able-bodied cisgender heterosexual woman from a middle-class family who interacted mostly with men. When Cassandra Cain was introduced, she was a biracial woman of color with a verbal disability who was taken under Babs's wing. So in the Babs and Cass dynamic, we had two disabled women, one training the other, and one of them was an Asian abuse survivor. And not only that, but Cassandra was badass. Just as Babs was more powerful than Batman in the sphere of influence and information, Cassandra was more powerful than him in the sphere of combat, and was in fact a better fighter than even her mother Lady Shiva, who had previously held the title of the best martial artist in the DCU. So in Cass and Babs, we had a woman training a woman and generally passing the Bechdel test, disabled characters interacting with disabled characters, and a wildly popular Asian hero with her own book. It was incredible.

Babs's and Steph's relationship is also interesting. Unlike so many of the other Bats (except for Jason Todd, the second Robin, to whom Steph bore a variety of similarities and whose history is its own huge topic irrelevant to this discussion), Steph came from a low-income family and generally bad circumstances. When Steph first appeared, she was Spoiler, the daughter of the small-time villain the Cluemaster and his wife Crystal, who was at the time a drug addict. Most of Steph's earlier stuff involved her stopping her father from committing crimes, but she later worked extensively as Spoiler alongside Tim Drake, the third Robin, and dated him for a while. What's interesting about Steph, though, is that unlike so many of the other Batfamily members, she constantly had to fight for her place in the Batfamily. She was discouraged time and time again by Batman and Robin alike, but was supported by her best friend Cassandra and her eventual mentor Barbara Gordon. So she was a female superhero breaking into a boys' club who befriended the other women in this boys' club, and she let nothing stop her. She was a teen mother and yet was not shamed for it. She was poor and yet was not shamed for it.

Cassandra Cain Gone Bad

Until "War Games" happened. For a few brief, glorious months, Steph got to be Robin. We got to have Robin, the Girl Wonder, and to see Steph acknowledged by the Batfamily as she'd always wanted to be. We got to see the new Batgirl and Robin, Cass and Steph, best friends, two girls kicking ass and taking names under the direction of Oracle, their own little girls' club in the boys' world, populated by a disabled woman, a disabled woman of color, and a woman from a poor family. And then she was summarily fired as Robin, duped into sparking off a massive gang war, and brutally murdered in a highly sexualized, victim-blaming way. Not long afterwards, the One Year Later event happened, and Cass suddenly went evil, turning from a powerful woman of color whose entire backstory was meant to show that you are not your parents, that abuse does not make you evil, that you can change and decide your own life path into a stereotyped Dragon Lady minus her verbal disabilities, all in order to make her a villain for the sake of White Male Superhero Tim Drake.

Who's that?

And yet, these two women came back from that. Cassandra got to become a hero again, her previous out-of-character behavior explained (somewhat poorly) as the result of Deathstroke controlling her. Stephanie Brown became Batgirl, with the blessing of the two previous Batgirls, Cassandra Cain and Barbara Gordon. While the way in which Steph became Batgirl was problematic in that it shoved aside her friend Cassandra Cain, swapping out the Asian hero for the white blonde-haired blue-eyed one, the core of Batgirl as a legacy title, of women supporting women, was still there. And while I disagreed with the way in which she became Batgirl, Steph's ascension to Batgirl was something the character well deserved after all the bullshit she had gone through, after how long she had fought tooth and nail to stand alongside all the men of the Batfamily. Just as Babs did as Batgirl so, so long ago. It was wonderful. It was beautiful. When Cass came back as Black Bat, it was almost perfect.
 

And then the reboot happened. And in the reboot, we lost all of that. We lost Oracle, the disabled woman who was smarter and more influential than Batman. We lost Cassandra Cain, the disabled woman who could beat Batman in a fight. We lost Stephanie Brown, the woman from a low-income background who let nothing keep her down. And in her place we got… a white able-bodied woman. Not even as she had been before, when her introduction was progressive and her identity a mystery to even Batman himself, but as a tame, cheap version of herself, less her abilities, less the legacy she'd built up over almost 30 years, less her power and influence and protégés. Gone is her time as a congresswoman. Gone is her deciding to retire the Batgirl mantle, rather than the Joker. Gone is her network of operatives. Gone is her status as a hero on equal terms with Batman. And not only do we get this badly downgraded version of Barbara Gordon, but we get it at the expense of Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown, who it seems are being systematically kept out of the New 52.

It used to be that we could look up and see BATGIRL and BLACK BAT, leaping, fighting and swinging over Gotham, then look behind them and see ORACLE, ex-congresswoman, undisputed lord of the internet and information, backbone of the superhero community, and proud mentor and disabled woman. And it was absolutely thrilling. But now, we look up and just see Barbara Gordon. In this world, where a man with no powers but money is considered equally powerful and interesting as the man who can destroy the entire planet without breaking a sweat, a disabled woman with more influence than either of them is somehow uninteresting and "broken." Instead of a network of women mentoring and supporting women, we've turned the once icon of female and disabled empowerment into one of misogyny and oppression, one of the sad few 17%, and we've erased her legacy.

You were always meant to be Batgirl, Barbara.

Why am I so against Barbara as Batgirl? Well, she stands for everything that stands against me and my friends, for everything that tells us that we are not worthwhile, that we are lesser. So why the hell shouldn't I return the favor?

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