The Gayness of Batman: A Brief History [Opinion]
“Gayness is built into Batman. … Batman is very, very gay. There’s just no denying it. Obviously as a fictional character he’s intended to be heterosexual, but the basis of the whole concept is utterly gay.”
As we reported last week, this was the claim made by Batman, Incorporated writer Grant Morrison in an interview with Playboy where he offers his insights into the psychology of superheroes. In Morrison’s view, Batman’s attachment to Alfred and Robin and his alleged detachment from the women in “fetish clothes” who “jump around rooftops to get to him” is symptomatic of his conceptual gayness. That’s a very selective framing, but as Morrison told the LA Times in 2010, “Batman can take anything. You can do comedy Batman, you can do gay Batman.”
That’s not true, of course. You can do comedy Batman, and you can do The Midnighter (Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s openly gay Batman analogue), but DC Comics is unlikely to allow any writer to make Batman gay, even in an Elseworlds or alternate-universe story. As Morrison himself says, Batman is intended to be heterosexual. And yet there is a gayness to Batman, and it has been part of his identity since his earliest days.You may ask how one can talk about “gayness” as a concept distinct from sexuality. That’s a perfectly good question, but it has a simple answer. Our culture has not always been comfortable presenting the realities of sexuality, but it has always found ways to explore its fascination with manifestations of sexuality. The cultural markers associated with being gay were fair currency for fiction even when talking about gay people was not, and thus gayness, with all its broad strokes and stereotypes, was detached from sexuality, with all its nuance and diversity.
When we talk about Batman’s gayness, we talk about presentation and perception. Writers as diverse as Bill Finger, Alan Grant, Devin Grayson and Frank Miller have all said that Batman is not gay; but they have all been asked the question. It’s not a question that generally gets asked about other heroes, but in the public imagination it’s one of the first questions asked about Batman. Psychologist Travis Langley, who co-wrote a book on the psychology of Batman, says it’s the question he was asked most often when he told people what he was working on.
Something about Batman begs the question, and there are multiple possible triggers. There’s the glossy homoeroticism of the Joel Schumacher movies, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, with their plastic nipples and phosphorescent palettes; but it didn’t start there. There’s the high camp of the 1960s Adam West TV show, with its tongue-in-cheek dialogue and theatrical villains; but it didn’t start there. And there’s the scandalized innuendo of the 1950s Senate witch hunt into the deviant influence of comics on juvenile delinquents ignited up by psychologist Frederic Wertham’s notorious study Seduction of the Innocent; but it didn’t start there.
It started in 1940, a year after Batman’s debut, and it started with a sensible solution to a writer’s problem. As Bill Finger recalled it in an interview shortly before his death, there was a frustration that Batman did not have anyone to share his deductive reasoning with. He needed a Dr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. In the model of dime novel sporting hero Frank Merriwell, whose sidekick and ward was his younger half-brother Dick, the writers decided to give Batman a junior Watson to talk to. Batman and Robin. A wealthy bachelor living with a young boy. That’s where it started.
It has become an exhausted joke, of course; the hero/sidekick relationship has inspired decades of snickering insinuation. The implication is not merely that Batman is gay, but that he is a pederast and a predator – concepts that have too often been conflated by prejudice. The Batman/Robin relationship was the basis for Frederic Wertham’s allegation that Batman stories were “psychologically homosexual.” Where Morrison says there’s “just no denying it,” Wertham says, “Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoerotism.”
Wertham perceived the gayness of Batman, and perhaps even went looking for it, but he did not invent it. He found it in the patients at his New York clinic for “sexually maladjusted individuals,” many of whom were gay, and many of whom read comics. In Seduction of the Innocent he notes, “A number of them knew these [Batman] stories very well and spoke of them as their favorite reading.” He also records the experiences of one patient who showed him a copy of Detective Comics and observed, “I found my liking, my sexual desires, in comic books. I think I put myself in the position of Robin. I did want to have relations with Batman.”
To Wertham this was alarming. He believed Batman comics were fostering and fixating homosexual tendencies in young men, and especially an inclination towards an “adolescent-with-adult or Ganymede-Zeus type of love-relationship.”
In retrospect we can see the alarmist fear-of-otherness in Wertham’s condemnations. His patients were not older men trying to prey on ephebic youths; they were youths who idolized and sexualized the older Batman. It was no more deviant behavior than an adolescent male today fantasizing about Adriana Lima or Irina Shayk.
We reject or deride the sexualization of Batman’s relationship with Robin precisely because of the worrying implications of eroticizing Robin, but that reading takes the roots of Batman’s gayness in the wrong direction. For gay readers in the 1940s, the introduction of Robin to Detective Comics did not sexualize Robin; it sexualized Batman. It created what Wertham called “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together,” a visible idealization of a same-sex relationship in an era when homosexuality had no mainstream recognition. The gayness of Batman was not just a joke about sidekicks, it was a scrap of identification for a starved gay audience. Robin established Batman as an early totem for a nascent and repressed gay subculture.
The hero/sidekick dynamic is not unique to Batman, but it is the best-known example. Still, there are other layers to Batman’s gayness, for which the Robin relationship merely provides the foundation. Both Morrison and Wertham describe a further element in Batman’s gayness (as Morrison puts it) or psychological homosexuality (as Wertham would term it). For Morrison it manifests as Batman’s disinterest in women pursuing him in “fetish clothes.” For Wertham it presents as an “anti-feminine” atmosphere of vicious and indecent women, with whip-wielding Catwoman an especially notable example. He wrote, “If the girl is good-looking she is undoubtedly the villainess.”
The common view of Batman’s world presents women as at best a distraction and at worst a threat. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have female love interests, but he doesn’t have a Lois Lane. Characters like Vicki Vale and Silver St. Cloud may help reaffirm his heterosexuality, but they also reaffirm his commitment to his cause, and though Talia al Ghul can give Batman a son, they will never form a family unit. Batman has no time for the conventional heternormativity that he lost when his parents were killed.
Frank Miller expanded on this point when he was asked about Batman’s sexuality by Christopher Sharrett for his 1991 essay, Batman and the Twilight of the Idols: An Interview With Frank Miller. The cartoonist said, “Batman isn’t gay. His sexual urges are so drastically sublimated into crime-fighting that there’s no room for any other emotional activity. Notice how insipid are the stories where Batman has a girlfriend or some sort of romance. It’s not because he’s gay, but because he’s borderline pathological, he’s obsessive. He’d be much healthier if he were gay.”
Miller is right to say that Batman presents as someone who sublimates his sexual – and romantic – inclinations into his obsessive crime-fighting mission. He’s wrong to say that Batman would be healthier if he were gay. That implies that gay people know nothing about sublimating sexual urges. At the time of Batman’s creation, sublimating sexual urges was what gay people knew best, and insipid romances with women were their forte. In fact, Batman’s string of paramours would not be atypical for a closeted gay man in the 1940s, as any book on the golden age of Hollywood will tell you.
Though Frank Miller may wish it, sublimation and romantic failure are not the elements of Batman’s character that make him heterosexual. Word of God at DC Comics is what makes him heterosexual. His gayness comes from the fact that he’s screwed up about it.
That is not a positive message, I know. But look at the context. Batman’s gayness come from his roots in a time when being gay was always an obstacle to overcome. Gay readers could identify with him and adopt him as a cultural totem because they recognized his conflict as their conflict. Batman did not just fight aggressive women, he also fought flamboyance and unashamed self-expression.
Wertham did not mention The Joker in his book, and I can only guess at what he might have made of him. If Batman has a gayness, Joker has a queerness, and the challenge of his queerness is fundamental in defining Batman. Batman is a grim, disciplined, tormented figure with a secret life. His nemesis is a dapper, flamboyant, irrepressible man with dyed hair, outrageous make-up, and no secret self underneath it. One sublimates his sexuality to his sense of duty. The other forces his exuberant personality on the world. As Frank Miller put it in the same interview, the Batman/Joker relationship is a “homophobic nightmare.” It’s a monstrous distortion of the conflict between the closet and the scene.
In fact flamboyance is a defining feature for much of Batman’s rogues gallery, from conflicted Two-Face to questioning Riddler. The 1960s TV show that defined Batman for a generation helped bring this to the fore, giving villain roles to such theatrical legends as Cesar Romero, Eartha Kitt, Vincent Price, Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin.
In retrospect many fans cite the TV show as the defining feature in Batman’s gayness. The irony is that it reflected the mood of the post-Comics Code, post-Wertham industry. Because of the fear that comics were corrupting our youth and leading them into deviancy, a whole generation was raised on camp – and the boundary-blurring exuberance of camp has done more to subvert the strictures of authority than any number of stories about hoodlums and dames.
The eventual response to the reigning TV show paradigm of Batman was to push him back into the shadows, but that hasn’t reduced his gayness either. Bruce and Dick no longer occupy the gaily enticing idyllic lifestyle that Wertham described in his book, with its sumptuous furnishings and “beautiful flowers in large vases.” Instead Batman is now a smouldering sado-masochistic leather daddy; a discipline dom who places himself at the fringes of society among the orphans, the outcasts and the freaks.
The concept of Batman may be open to endless reinvention, but any effort to make him less gay only adds layers upon layers to his gayness. Make him light and you emphasize his campness; make him dark and you emphasize his repression; give him a girlfriend or a female sidekick and you reaffirm his bachelorhood. He is both camp and butch; repressed and sexualized; erotically fetishistic and homoerotically anti-feminine.
Batman is not gay. The writers will line up to tell you that. But when there were no explicitly gay characters to identify with 70 years ago, the bachelor hero with the boy sidekick stepped in to the vacuum, and gay readers were not the only ones who saw it, and now his gayness is indelible.
More than 70 years after his debut, Batman has emerged as the best known patient of Dr. Wertham’s New York clinic for sexually maladjusted individuals, and also its most successful failure. Batman will always have his gayness, however straight they write him.