2017 is turning out to be quite a year for Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl. Not only did she play a prominent role in “The LEGO Batman Movie,” she is also celebrating her 50th anniversary while headlining two separate DC Comics series. While others may have taken up the Bargirl cowl — most prominently Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown — Babs is proving time and again why she has remained the iconic Batgirl for five decades.
Much of Babs’ mainstream popularity can be attributed to her numerous appearances on TV and film, including the 1960’s ““Batman” TV series, the 1990’s “Batman: The Animated Series,” and, yes, 1997’s “Batman and Robin.” However, there’s something else that helped to make and keep Babs popular — in a medium where female superheroes (including Babs herself) have all-too-often been used as objects to define the men around them, Barbara Gordon has demonstrated an independence and agency that has been both radical and refreshing.
When Barbara Gordon first appeared as Batgirl in early 1967, female superheroes were rarely treated with much respect by either their creators or fans. Sure, Sue Storm or Jean Grey occasionally saved the day, but they were more frequently portrayed as damsels needing to be rescued. Even Supergirl, one of the strongest heroes of the Silver Age, was consistently denied the ability to act on her own, instead being hidden away by Superman to act as his “secret weapon” when the need arose. The only woman consistently portrayed as the hero in her own story was Wonder Woman, and even her Silver Age stories were watered down from the overt feminism of her earliest years.
Batgirl was different. From her first appearance, Barbara Gordon makes her own decisions, including the decision to become a hero in the first place. Where Batman fought crime as a means of coping with the trauma of losing his parents, Barbara Gordon first takes up the cowl because she sees someone in trouble and decides to do what she can to help. Despite repeated discouragement from Batman, she persists as Batgirl, believing she can make a difference for Gotham City.
This was an all the more radical decision because Barbara Gordon did not have any superpowers of her own to compel her to be a hero. Sure, she has a photographic memory and martial arts training, but she doesn’t have the powers of Wonder Woman, Supergirl or even the early Sue Storm. Despite that, Babs made — and continues to make — a conscious decision to put her life on the line to help other people.
And when Babs started to worry she wasn’t doing enough, she didn’t give up. Instead, she challenged herself to do even more to fix Gotham’s underlying problems by running for Congress—and winning. (More impressive is that she won by running an anti-incumbent, anti-big money campaign that didn’t rely on any of Wayne family fortune.) As a legislator, Barbara Gordon believed she could have far greater impact than she ever could as Batgirl, starting with criminal justice reform.
Of course, this being Gotham City, it didn’t work out quite as as Representative Gordon had hoped. By the early 1980s, though, the cultural zeitgeist was shifting, and both Babs and DC comics started to wonder if there was still a place for Batgirl in Gotham. In a 1982 story, she even ponders, “Maybe I’m becoming outdated—the values I protect don’t seem to be important to anyone but myself.” Did the world still need law-and-order Batgirl when it had anti-hero vigilantes who were willing to kill to protect the public? Did it need a reformer politician when politicians were seen as part of the corruption?
While Batman lent himself well to dark reimaginations such as Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Year One,” Batgirl’s hope and belief in positive change made her an ill-fit for the then-new direction of the Batman line. So, when comics legend Alan Moore asked permission to paralyze Barbara Gordon in “The Killing Joke,” editor Len Wein infamously replied, “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”
Barbara Gordon, who had been such a symbol of female agency, of a woman who was willing to stand up and make hard choices to better the world around her, was in that moment denied power over her own life. In the months before “The Killing Joke” was released, DC rushed out “Batgirl Special” #1, which attempted to justify her retirement, but in the end one of the most devastating moments in Barbara Gordon’s life didn’t happen in a story about her; it happened in a story about the Joker, where she appeared solely as an object of his abuse and of her father’s grief and rage. She is so peripheral to the plot that by the end even Batman seems to forget about her, instead sharing a joke with the man who paralyzed (and possibly sexually assaulted) her. (The recent “The Killing Joke” movie is even worse, portraying Batgirl as important because she’s Batman’s lover, rather than because she’s a hero in her own right.)
While there were initially no post-“Killing Joke” plans for Barbara Gordon, writers Kim Yale and John Ostrander were upset by how she had been treated, and decided to write her into “Suicide Squad” as the mysterious hacker Oracle. Later, they wrote an “Oracle: Year One” story in “Batman Chronicles” #5, in which Babs expressly called out Batman (and everyone involved in “The Killing Joke”) for, essentially, the way she was denied agency. It was a powerful moment, one where Barbara Gordon reclaimed her life as her own and decided that rather than be limited by her injuries, she would find a different way to help fix Gotham’s problems.
As Oracle, Barbara Gordon once again became an indispensable member of the Bat-family. But, that wasn’t all — she also took the lead of her own team of heroes, the Birds of Prey. Though Babs might not have been on the street fighting supervillains, her role behind the scenes often made the difference between success and failure.
But while Babs accepted her new life, she didn’t give up on making herself better, either. Several experimental surgeries later, and she was once more ready to take up the Batgirl cowl. Though the move was initially quite controversial — it eliminated one of the few prominent disabled superheroes and seemed to remove fan favorites Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown from continuity — it has now been generally accepted, and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Babs as the Batgirl of Burnside. (Of course, it helped that Cass and Stephanie did eventually show up in DC Comics’ New 52.)
What made Babs’ return really work, though, is that the stories once again played up her agency. She makee her own decisions, is responsible for her own mistakes, and will not allow herself to be defined by what had been done to her. This is why the “Killing Joke”-inspired cover was so controversial: it portrayed her once more as an object, when she had long before reclaimed her role as subject.
Ultimately, it is this agency and subject-hood that make Barbara Girl not just an amazing Batgirl, but an amazing hero period. Here’s hoping we get another 50 years of amazing stories about her.
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