Can Supergirl Save Us From Batman’s Fear Of Femininity?
Picture a character. He appears to wear makeup — lipstick, eyeshadow, eye-catching facepaint. He drapes himself in neon colors and dyes his hair to match. He flings his thin, bony body into flamboyant gestures when he talks. He’s positively obsessed with hyper-masculine men. He’s got to be gay, right?
That’s essentially what Wally West wondered aloud about the Joker to friend Pied Piper in William Messner-Loebs and Greg Larocque’s The Flash #53 in 1991. In the exchange, West indicates that with “guys like that, you can always tell ... there are signals.”
Piper, who would come out to Wally moments later, assured him that no, the Joker isn’t gay, he’s “a sadist and a psychopath,” a monster. The fact that Piper can’t name any gay supervillains is a surprise to Wally.
Though it varies between depictions, the Joker has always been a character coded in queer stereotypes. In Christopher Sharrett's "Batman and the Twilight of the Idols: An Interview With Frank Miller," industry legend Miller — a man whose work is no stranger to effeminate male antagonists countering hulking male leads — referred to Batman and the Joker’s relationship as a “homophobic nightmare,” where he perceives the latter’s flamboyance as taunting the former’s possibly repressed sexuality.
How did the Joker — and the Riddler, and Mad Hatter, and other Gotham villains — become so coded in effeminate and queer stereotypes?
Put frankly: it’s Batman’s fault.
Oppositionality is a popular tool in fiction, as it allows writers to explore individual facets of a hero’s identity and posit, “What if this character were different?” Lex Luthor is Superman without the powers or morality. A recent version of the Cheetah is Wonder Woman without the compassion.
Oppositionality is also a large part of why Gotham (and Arkham Asylum) is so populated by queer-coded villains.
Batman is a straight male power fantasy. His daylight veneer is one of a playboy billionaire. His nighttime identity is that of a sculpted superhero all clad in black. In either take, he is a masculine bulwark against the evil in Gotham — which is why his villains are so often feminine, queer, flamboyant, and robed in bright colors.
The Joker is his ultimate opposite, where masculine (and male) and heroic contrasts with feminine (and male) and villainous. This — incidentally or intentionally, your choice — reinforces the notion that the gender normative (men are masculine, women are feminine) are “good,” while those who aren’t, aren’t.
Gotham is built in Batman’s image. Other heroes are free to inhabit it, but, ultimately, every secret organization and Arkham escapee is sculpted with his image in mind. The world of Gotham is dark and severe, and Bruce is camouflaged within it. When he stands still, his Kevlar and Nomex armor turns to stoic, sculpted stone, a gargoyle surveying his terrain. To slink through the city’s streets, he is silent. He is stealthy, discreet. And he’s not like his villains, not like those other guys. They fester in flaming flamboyance. They’re often performative, dramatic, and definitely wrong. Their specifically feminine, theatrical designs simmer like a sore.
The Batman mythos does have a lot of positive and tangible queer representation — through Kate Kane, Renee Montoya, and even a Catwoman or two. That’s important. But that universe, through normative history and how it utilizes oppositional storytelling, is fundamentally stacked against queer and gender nonconforming characters.
Given their serial format, comics universes can, in theory, change — but I’m not confident that the world of Batman has that capacity. The Joker’s influence burns on Gotham’s backdrop more brightly than the batsignal, and he’s never going to go away. Every reboot, relaunch, and media readaptation beelines for the Big Bad, the payload, the Joker.
When the Batfamily swells, it grows to include female heroes; when it shrinks — to “get back to basics,” “refocus the line,” they’re the first casualties. When the New 52 launched, all the male Robins survived and featured in their own titles (Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Red Robin leading the Teen Titans, Batman and Robin) yet only one of the former Batgirls was a headliner. It took Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain three-and-a-half and four years, respectively, to return to main continuity. Rebirth gave those two (and Batwoman) a shared book in Detective Comics, but diminished or erased the roles of queer ladies Catwoman and Operator, the androgynous Bluebird, and the fascinating girls of color in We Are Robin.
There’s little telling what Rebirth will bring, but recent years’ comics also, under the clown-shaped spectre that permeates Gotham, ushered more queer-coded villains into the Bat-universe, as was the case with Batgirl’s recent run of “Burnside” era comics.
In many ways, the "Batgirl of Burnside" run was a resounding success in how it portrayed female characters in both Gotham and superhero publishing slates as a whole. It gave Barbara Gordon a clean break — both from Gotham proper and from the suffocatingly dark editorial direction of her previous run. New series architects Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr gave Barbara room to breathe into her personality, style, and social life. Tarr’s direction gave the series a feminine and fashion-forward edge rare for a Batfamily book. In the first issue, Batgirl defeats a villain who is the embodiment of possessive, toxic masculinity. But, just a few issues past launch, the series vaulted straight into transmisogynist trope territory with the debut of a fake Batgirl, an oppositional Batgirl.
Where the original Batgirl is stealthy and unassuming, the impostor Batgirl is flamboyant and attention-seeking (a Batsuit of glittering gold sequins will do that). The imposter’s thirst for attention and the spotlight, so unlike humble and serious Barbara Gordon, underscores Barbara’s perceived personality switch in the very next issue. In it, she signs autographs for fans, takes selfies with caught criminals, and accidentally destroys a neighborhood diner after her ego is slighted. She’s scolded for it by Black Canary and resumes her usual self issues later.
Worse than upset diner patrons was how the issue affected trans and queer readers in real life.
At the moment of the Batgirls’ confrontation in Batgirl #37, real Batgirl pulls off fake Batgirl’s cowl to reveal that the latter is actually Dagger Type, a man (with running mascara); this is punctuated by a horrified Barbara Gordon gasping with “but you’re a—,” shocked at Dagger Type’s perceived gender misalignment.
Later in the issue, Dagger Type monologues in front of a packed theater and is ridiculed by the audience. Queer and/or feminine folk who are assigned male at birth — whether they’re trans women or cis gay men or feminine folk of any gender — are treated as punchlines both in media and in real life. The idea being that masculinity is for men, femininity is for women, and anyone who deviates is a monster, a perversion, a Joke.
Fortunately, criticism from trans writers for the issue's transphobia resulted in an apology from the creative team — a pleasant surprise given Big Two editorial control — and later revisions of the transphobic content in collected editions. But, still, it doesn’t change the message about normativity in Gotham.
Further complicating this is the series’ later introduction of Corporal Punishment, a hyper-masculine woman (complete with short hair and stocky build) who joins Dagger Type in the metaphorical Burnside gender nonconformity pride parade. She’s a fun character until you realize that both she and Dagger Type would only get to call Arkham or Blackgate their home in Gotham, and never the Batcave.
And that’s a key point here. Female heroes don’t get to look like Corporal Punishment; they can’t lose that Cover Girl appeal. Male heroes don’t get to act like Dagger Type, lest they send comics’ presumed straight male audience into a panic — gay, trans, queer, or otherwise.
The series’ overtly queer characters matter, of course. Bisexual roommate Frankie Charles played the most important role in the series behind Barbara, and the value of trans woman Alysia Yeoh on the comics landscape can’t be overstated. But, by the end of issue #37, the transphobic character had received more narrative focus in the series than the transgender character. Frankie presents enormous value as a queer disabled women of color, but she doesn’t challenge the gender normative tensions struck by Dagger Type and Corporal Punishment.
Gotham can change, but history tells me it won’t — at least from a structural, long-standing viewpoint.
That’s why I’m hoping National City and, more specifically, Supergirl (of both the current television show and upcoming comic series) can provide a more inclusive and subversive space for the feminine, the gender nonconforming, the queer.
In both universes, Kara (Zor-El or Danvers, your pick) calls National City her home base. It is primarily her own; she doesn’t share it with someone who would eclipse her as focus, either in-narrative or out. And with her as its figurehead, the city may take shape with her unique considerations as a focus and offer a fresh start on the comics landscape.
Relatively speaking, Kara is one of the few superheroes more often portrayed as feminine; she derives her strength equally from her own compassion as she does Earth’s yellow sun. In her television show, it’s through her faith in people and her kindness that she subdues (and befriends) Bizarro, stops a robbery when deprived of her powers, and saves the world in the season finale.
(Much of this applies to Superman as welll, but a rash of angry, grim mainstream stories — the Zack Snyder DC films, the Injustice brand of video games and comics, much of the mainstream series — de-center Clark from his kinder traits.)
While in civilian gear on her television show, Kara regularly dresses in pastel colors or floral prints or polka dots. When she’s temporarily brainwashed into villainhood in the episode “Falling,” she dresses severely and in black, to denote a grim, Gothamesque turn of personality. It is rightfully distressing. It’s theatrically masculine, like Miller’s bibliography.
In real life and fiction, anyone perceived as feminine — whether by active presentation or passively having a body socially assigned as “female” — is seen as weak. In the absence of a queer and/or gender non-conforming franchise lead, Kara can still provide a safer space for such characters through her femininity.
The television show has already shown oppositional power dynamics that are less likely to implicitly hurt marginalized identities. While Batman often spends his time duking it out with feminine, “homophobic nightmares,” Supergirl clashes with archetypally masculine male characters who abuse their power; Maxwell Lord, Master Jailer, and a businessman nicknamed in-episode as “the walking personification of white male privilege.” By challenging these particular male villains, the show sets up a dynamic where an underrepresented identity defies an abusive member of an overrepresented one.
Another important focus to Supergirl’s current stories: National City is new. Its name doesn’t summon forth nearly eight decades of history and expectations from fans. It gives Kara a pseudo-physical space to explore new dynamics, characters, and narratives. She gets to be the yellow sun around which satellites revolve; if she were in Metropolis, she’d much more likely feel like a moon.
And even if Superman’s Metropolis bleeds into National City like Batman’s Gotham bled into Burnside, there’s less anti-feminine baggage to fear. Lex Luthor, despite his occasional preference for green and purple, is drawn and written as a power-hungry, masculine figure, a ruthless counter to Superman’s kindness. Superman’s other high-profile villains — General Zod, Doomsday, Darkseid — are all masculine counters. Sure, there’s Mister Mxyzptlk, but it’s hard to argue he’s had a transformative effect on the Superman mythos when he’s charitably a C-list villain.
When it comes to actual queer characters, the television show’s first season remained empty, but it, at the very least, didn’t poison the well with any queer-coded villains. The show acknowledged the LGBTQ community on multiple occasions and charitably (if irritatingly, given the lack of actual representation) compared to Kara’s coming into her superhero identity as “coming out.”
It looks as though Supergirl will offer tangible queer representation in the upcoming season. It has cast Floriana Lima as "out and proud" police detective Maggie Sawyer. Actor Jeremy Jordan has suggested that his character Winn Schott — Kara’s best friend, colleague, and superhero costume designer — could be gay. My hope is that Supergirl honors his suggestion and doesn’t shy away for aligning Maggie with some of her more butch comic portrayals.
Both modern Supergirl comic stories are also led by queer creators — Ali Adler and Greg Berlanti for the show, and Steve Orlando with the new series. Orlando, hot off a Midnighter run that explored queer character depth, multitude, and nuance, has spoken directly and specifically about the importance of Kara’s compassion:
It’s a possibly unfair to assume that a Midnighter run will translate into implicit queer representation in Supergirl, but there’s no harm in hope; it’s a core tenet of the Superman mythos, after all.
And if Orlando’s tweets about villain visitation prove true, Kara may want to visit Arkham or Blackgate — there could be some characters there that need her.