As a comic book fan, a Batman fan, an artist, and a reasonable person, I’m going to talk about the Batgirl #41 variant cover by Rafael Albuquerque, which has caused the Twitter #ChangeTheCover/#SaveTheCover efforts. The social media fire storm has led DC to cancel publication of the Albuquerque variant cover.
Because I wasn’t reading comic books back in 1988 and I hold to the Voldemort Axioms, I went back and read the original “Batman: The Killing Joke” (B:TKJ) by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland which is the influence for the Albuquerque cover. I found it profound and probably the best interpretation of the personas of Batman and Joker, and their relationship. The Joker is a mystery to me and the Moore story added a lot of depth. Joker’s backstory is mostly an untold mystery that is the constant itch to the motives behind his insanity.
Let me give my opinion about the feminist issues brought up in this stir.
Was the treatment of Barbara Gordon in Batman: The Killing Joke a misogynist trope?
Misogynist noun. 1. a person who hates, dislikes, mistrusts, or mistreats women (as in discrimination, denigration, violence, or sexual objectification).
Trope noun. 1. a commonly recurring rhetorical device, motif, or cliché.
Barbara Gordon’s treatment in B:TKJ is argued to be the objectification of a woman by the writer, a lazy crutch to promote the protagonist’s story.
There are actually two questions here: is the plotline misogynist and is it a trope?
Is every storyline including the objectification of women misogyny? Is it always a careless trope?
One bad day. According to the grinning engine of madness and mayhem known as The Joker, that’s all that separates the sane from the psychotic. – Batman: The Killing Joke
There’s no question that Joker is objectifying Barbara in B:TKJ but I don’t believe that means that Moore is objectifying women.
Joker wants to answer the question: how do you drive Jim Gordon, “the sanest man alive,” insane? One sure way is through his daughter. You could kill Batman, ruin Jim’s reputation, or shoot Jim and take naked pictures of him, but nothing would terrorize Jim more than the flippant, demeaning mistreatment of his confident, intelligent daughter, while he can do nothing about it.
Could Moore have chosen some other way? Maybe. Joker could have just shot Barbara. He could have photographed her bleeding body without undressing her*. But the sexual objectification of a strong woman is one of the worst things you can do and it fits the Joker.
Besides, nudity is a theme in the story. Forced nudity strips a person of their identity. It leaves them vulnerable to the elements and forces everything into view.
It shouldn’t be casually dismissed that Joker strips Jim Gordon naked as well, binds him S&M style, parades him in front of a laughing audience, and puts him in a cage. Joker’s true identity is masked, as is Batman’s. Joker thinks his madness is his true face and that Jim is in denial of his own madness. Joker must remove Jim’s façade–his power and identity as a strong, skilled policeman and a loving and doting father.
Given all of this, there is no way that the shooting of Barbara Gordon plot line in B:TKJ is in a lazy plot trope or mere misogyny on Moore’s part.**
Is the variant cover a misogynist trope?
Arguments against the cover are that it shows Batgirl subjugated by Joker, weak and weeping, and, that it makes reference to DC’s worst treatment of women.
For years, comic book covers have depicted heroes being subdued by their enemies. It’s provocative and makes us buy the issue. “That’s my hero! How is she getting out of this one?” It is a comic book cover trope perpetrated on all heroes. We love it because we love the thrill when our hero comes through in the end. Our hero is empowered even more.
If Albuquerque’s cover is sexist you are saying that, as a woman, Batgirl can’t stand up to the same rigors as the male heroes.
Censorship, Canon, and Sensitivity
Many protestors describe themselves as comic fans, and comic books as if they’re talking about My Little Pony or Archie and the Gang. Comics have always been deviant art and storytelling, gritty and sensational and a fight against establishments like the Comic Code Authority. Before the CCA, kids weren’t deterred from comics and I don’t think that girls now are such genteel, clay-footed creatures that they can’t handle their hero in the grips of a villain.
I think Batgirl can handle it as well.
*The question of whether Joker raped Barbara or not doesn’t add weight for or against the misogynist argument. Moore may have left it open for interpretation on purpose. I personally don’t think there’s a rape because that’s not Joker’s style, persona, or motive. Joker is not a sexual deviant and not a sexual being. It’s a great contrast to Harley Quinn’s passion towards him.
**In fact, it could be more easily argued that the last frames where Barbara appears are more sexist on Moore’s part than what Joker did to her.