Guest Post: Being Batman - Female Superheroes as Counterparts to Male Heroes
I hope you have been enjoying the guest posts this week while I am on vacation. Today’s post is by Pamela Bodziock who did a wonderful guest post last year about how she brought superhero comics into the library where she serves as a Teen Services Librarian. In this post she discusses why some many female superheroes are distaff versions of iconic male heroes. Her thoughts follow.
If you spend any time on the internet at all, you’ve seen this:
And — particularly if you’re a regular reader of this site — you’ve probably seen this, too:
I love these pictures. I particularly like the Wonder Woman response — because, like Wonder Woman herself, it reminds that girls, too, can be heroes. Being a girl myself, I find that sort of message inspiring, even if it’s just coming from a little internet meme. That doesn’t matter. It’s still a good message.
There’s just one little problem.
I don’t want to be Wonder Woman. I want to be Batman.
Wonder Woman’s a fantastic character, don’t get me wrong. I like her — particularly in the Timmverse, which is the first place I really connected to her character. But I’m a Batman nut through and through. Batman was my introduction to the superhero genre, and he remains one of my favorite characters — not just from comic books, but from fiction, period. I grew up watching the Timm animated series, I’ve read the comic books for years, and I’ve got my midnight tickets to “The Dark Knight Rises” all lined up. I’ve got a Batman maquette on my mantle and a framed poster that was signed for me by Kevin Conroy. Batman’s my guy.
Still, he is — when you get right down to it — a guy. So are Superman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Flash, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wolverine, Hulk, and Captain America — all characters that people have heard of even if they’ve never seen a superhero movie or picked up a comic book. Because these superheroes aren’t just comic book characters — or even just movie characters, for that matter. They’re something larger than that, now, an intricate part of our pop culture. They are characters who have transcended the printed page to become something else entirely: Icons.
Wonder Woman falls into the Iconic camp, too (which is, perhaps, all the more impressive, since Wonder Woman hasn’t even gotten her own feature film yet). But after her, I’m hard-pressed to come up with another female superhero that is truly Iconic. Black Canary? Maybe, but a lot of people who don’t read comics don’t know who she is. Catwoman, perhaps, since she’s certainly well-known — but she’s definitely more anti-hero than hero.
While the new “Avengers” movie is giving some well-deserved attention to Marvel’s Black Widow, Wonder Woman remains, at least for the moment, the one female superhero who everybody’s heard of. Or at least, she’s the sole iconic female superhero until you start looking around at that other curious creation: the female version of male superheroes.
Like the superhero genre itself, the “female counterpart” to established male superheroes can trace its roots back to Superman. In Issue #60 of “Action Comics” (1943), a concussed Lois Lane has a dream in which a blood transfusion from Superman leaves her with Kryptonian powers. She promptly dons a Super-inspired costume and begins patrolling the streets as Superwoman. Her superhero career is short-lived, being a dream sequence, but she does get to save Superman (and, of course, win a marriage proposal from him) before she wakes up.
There were a few Supergirl-esque encounters after that (including an issue of “Superboy” where Superboy himself is transformed into “Claire Kent” — alias “Super-Sister” — after ticking off an alien woman who decides he needs a lesson about gender stereotyping. Sometimes I think I need to spend more time reading Silver Age comics).
But the character as she’s best known — Kara Zor-El — showed up at the tail end of the 50s (in the same issue that would introduce Superman baddie Metallo). She was Kal-El’s long-lost cousin, and arrived on Earth already attired in a Superman-esque costume. The character was an instant hit, which may explain why she’s managed to survive so many retcons and Crises in one form or another.
Batgirl and Batwoman have a history no less unusual. (What superhero doesn’t?) In their original forms, Batwoman and “Bat-Girl” were introduced in the fifties and sixties, and they were there to serve as love interests to Batman and Robin. It wasn’t just their primary purpose; it was really their *only* purpose, an attempt by the editors to counteract the charge made by Fredric Wertham (in his infamous book, “Seduction of the Innocent”) that Batman and Robin were gay. The romances between Batman and Kathy Kane’s Batwoman, and between Robin and Betty Kane’s Bat-Girl, were played for comedy and not much else.
Batwoman and Bat-Girl eventually disappeared, as Batman was returned to his original, darker persona. That is, until the third season of the “Batman” television series, when producers began talking of adding a female character to the show in order to boost the female audience — and the show’s ratings.
The “Batgirl” that appeared on the TV show, and on the pages of “Detective Comics,” was a far cry from poor Betty Kane. Barbara Gordon seemed to neither want nor need Batman’s approval in the beginning of her career operating as a crime fighter; in fact, Batman actively discouraged her. She’d go on to earn his eventual approval anyway — clearing the way for future Batgirls like Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown. (Batwoman, of course, also gained new life thanks to comics creators like Greg Rucka, J.H. Williams III, and Grant Morrison; if the new Kate Kane isn’t as iconic as Gordon’s Batgirl just yet, it might only be a matter of time.)
Batgirl and Supergirl are only the best-known examples to the non-comic-book-crowd. If you’re more in the know about comic book characters, you’re familiar with Hawkgirl, Mary Marvel, Aquagirl, Miss Martian — and even Harley Quinn, the female version of the Joker. (Though, like Catwoman, Harley can hardly be called a hero. Well, with rare exceptions, that is; have you seen the B:TAS episode “Harlequinade?”) Marvel, of course, has Ms. Marvel (about to be promoted to the rank of captain), She-Hulk, Spidergirl, X-23, Lady Punisher, and my beloved Pepper Potts as Rescue. Comic books have given us an undeniable plethora of female superheroes who took their cues from their established male counterparts.
What’s interesting to me about Batgirl and Supergirl, however, isn’t so much why DC and Marvel seem so fond of creating female spin-offs of their successful male heroes. After all, the answer to that one seems pretty obvious to me: creating a spin-off is viewed as less of a risk than creating a completely original character, because the brand recognition is already there. (Besides, the spin-offs have often proved quite popular.)
No, what’s truly interesting to me, instead, is why people respond so strongly to some of these female “spin-offs.” Is it always just a question of familiarity with the brand? I’m not sure that can always be the reason; after all, there are plenty of failed spin-off versions of already-established characters that fail to take off on their own merits, regardless of gender. So what’s the attraction of a “female Batman?” We’ve already got Batman and Superman — how did Batgirl and Supergirl sneak in to become iconic in their own right?
It’s a question that’s probably unanswerable. I don’t know if anyone can say for certain why some characters become larger-than-life while others (who may be written just as well as, if not better than, their more popular competition) fade into the background. Batgirl hit superstardom because she appeared in the 60s “Batman” series, but you can no more be sure of why her character took off there than you can be sure of why the show was such a hit in the first place. Lightning strikes where it may; you can rarely predict how, and almost never know why.
I’m certain that part of the appeal to audiences of characters like Batgirl, Supergirl, and the rest of the popular “female counterpart” characters is that they are strong, interesting, fully-realized, and fun characters in their own right. (Most of the time, anyway — but every character has periods of weaker writing to contend with, after all.) But still — it’s kind of a shame, isn’t it? Great female characters, sure; strong role models for women of all ages, right. But they aren’t iconic under their own symbol. They’re a carbon copy. No matter how much I might love Batgirl, she’ll always be a variation on the original icon. She’ll always be in the shadow of her male counterpart. Right?
But not so fast.
The argument I’ve often heard about this issue goes something like this. As strongly-written as characters like Batgirl, Supergirl, and Rescue may be, there’s still an inherent flaw in their character design. Because, unlike Wonder Woman, these female characters aren’t iconic in their own right. Instead, they borrow their icon status from their original male counterparts, the counterparts that these female characters were merely modeled on.
There’s a validity to this argument, to be sure. Iconic female characters who are iconic under their own, original merits are definitely something I’d love to see more of in the comic book world. (And with this year’s blockbuster action film successes starring female leads — movies like “The Hunger Games” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” — the world seems ready to accept original, iconic, kick-butt women in their fiction. Big Two, take notice.)
But for me, there’s something more than simple carbon copying going on with these female superhero counterparts.
I love Batman. But I also love Batgirl. And when it comes to Batgirl, I’m a Steph Brown fan through and through. I love Brown’s Batgirl for a lot of reasons — like because she’s bright and fun and funny and tough, and eternally optimistic no matter what life may throw at her. She’s got an unbreakable spirit that refuses to be knocked down, even in the heart of Gotham City; how can I not admire that? And I love Batgirl as Barbara Gordon, too, because Barbara is brilliant and funny and clever and resilient. And Cass Cain, too, who started her career in No Man’s Land because she decided she did not want to be what she was raised to be — she wanted to be something better.
Each of these characters has their own story, their own unique character arc, and I admire these characters and love reading their stories because of that. But I also love these characters because they are Batgirl, and I love Batgirl. And the character of Batgirl means something else to me than “carbon copy.”
The message of Batgirl, to me, is not, “Here’s the lesser-version of the male original.” The message, instead, is, “Girls, you can be the icon too.”
The comic book world needs more original, iconic female superheroes — characters who, like Wonder Woman, did not start life as the female version of the male superhero everybody already loves. But I’ll always appreciate those characters who did appear to deliver the message that a girl can, too, be like Superman or Iron Man if she wants to be. In fact, here are some female characters who are out there doing just that. When I look at Stephanie Brown as Batgirl, I don’t see her as the lesser version of an icon. Instead, I see her as proof positive that anybody can be the icon.
Which means that anybody — ANYbody — can be Batman.
And that’s pretty good to know.
Like Barbara Gordon, Pamela R. Bodziock earned a degree in library science, from the University of Pittsburgh. She’s now employed as a youth services librarian, but spends her nights and weekends on her other passion: writing. She is proud to announce the inclusion of her short story “The Adventure of the Broken Book” in the new mystery anthology “Sherlock’s Home: The Empty House,” available for purchase at Amazon.com or as an ebook.