It’s been about two weeks since The Killing Joke premiered as a Warner Bros. Animation film in a “one night event” that of course turned into two nights because money, that’s why.  And while two weeks isn’t a long time, it feels like a lifetime since the premiere.  Perhaps it’s because everyone under the sun has expressed an opinion on the film and with social media’s intrusion in our everyday lives, there is no escaping these opinions.  So here’s another one.

Anyone who has seen The Killing Joke knows there are problems with it, but I’ll focus on the film’s treatment of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, aka Commissioner Gordon’s daughter.  First, I’d like to start by saying the outcry about the storyline concerning Barbara is heartening.  Given the numerous issues that comic books have historically had with portraying women, having so many people express their discomfort and disappointment with the story speaks to the way comic book fans have come to expect a more enlightened point of view from their material.

The Killing Joke 2Secondly, and this may anger some people, it has to be stated that The Killing Joke comic is not a bastion of female empowerment.  Barbara Gordon is only included in the comic as a trope for the torture of Commissioner Gordon as The Joker attempts to show him how “one bad day” can turn anyone into a raving lunatic.  And not only is that her single purpose in being included in the story, but she suffers further degradation as The Joker undresses and photographs her after shooting her in the abdomen.  The sexual assault is almost glossed over, with a passing reference during Batman’s visit to Barbara’s hospital bedside.  So lest we idolize the comic, I find it important to make this point before turning to the film.

When it was announced that DC would be turning The Killing Joke into a feature length film, it was obvious to all who had read the comic that there would need to be an addition to the original story, which The Killing Joke 3is relatively short.  Brian Azzarello decided to focus on a Batgirl storyline, showing her relationship with Batman and why she no longer works beside Gotham’s Dark Knight.  His intention, I believe, was to make Barbara Gordon more than a trope, more than a one-note character included in the story strictly as motivation for the male heroes in their battle against the male villain.

He failed miserably.  Using the tired stereotype of a woman pining (in multiple conversations with a tired stereotype of a lisping gay man) for a coworker who has no sexual interest in her, Azzarello reduces Barbara Gordon, and by extension Batgirl, to a lovesick ingenue and nothing more.  Even her scenes as Batgirl show her ineffectively chasing a smarmy villain who only sees her as a trick in a body suit.

I feel it behooves me to acknowledge my limited experience with Batgirl, and her relationship with Batman.  I do know that most people assume Bruce Wayne is significantly older than Batgirl, although I guess it depends on your interpretation of “significantly”.  As the product of a currently-33-year-old union boasting a 15 year age difference, the idea of a 45-year-old man sleeping with a mid-20s woman, or vice versa in my parents’ case, doesn’t bother me.  The problem for me is that from my understanding, The Killing Joke 4the relationship between Barbara and Bruce has never been sexual.  It has instead been paternal.  Batman treats her as an assistant, a trainee, a younger sibling even.  While I can posit a young Barbara crushing on an older friend of her father’s, to have a professional woman continue to hold onto that infatuation is ludicrous, especially given their history and her role as crimefighter.  And while I don’t have much of a background with Batgirl and Batman as a duo, I will say that the reaction in the theater to the gratuitous sex scene spoke volumes.  Everyone either gasped (if they lived under a rock and didn’t know it was coming), groaned, or laughed.  I myself squirmed uncomfortably in my reclining seat, accidentally hitting the button and moving my seat into an upright position, providing me with a merciful distraction from the atrocity on the screen.  The animation style didn’t help matters, as it made a mid- to late-twenties professional librarian Barbara from the comic look closer to a 19-year-old sophomore dressed as a sexy librarian at a sorority Halloween party.

I’m going to take the time to point out that while this entire storyline is a slap in Batgirl’s face, it also does immense disservice to Batman, and men as a whole.  This middle-aged man is dealing with a young protege throwing a temper tantrum on a rooftop, who then throws herself on top of him and forces a kiss on him.  There is a moment where you hope he tosses her as far away as his gigantic arms possibly could, but instead, he melts into the kiss and once Batgirl has exposed her bra (an interesting feat that left me The Killing Joke 1wondering if her cape, cowl, and top are all one entity and if they are, it still doesn’t explain the ease with which she removed it), he grabs her ass and rocks her world (I assume).  This is a theme often seen in entertainment- men cannot resist sleeping with a woman if she expresses interest in such an activity.  And while Bruce Wayne has a history of sleeping with hot women, both evil and non, the Batman I, and most people, know would have thrown up in his own mouth upon viewing the undergarments of a woman he knows as his friend’s daughter, his apprentice, and a person he’s known since she was a small child.  But no.  He is a man.  Driven by his penis.  A penis that knows no age difference or paternal affection.  And so he must sleep with her.  HE MUST.

But I digress.  Shortly after this traumatic scene, Batgirl decides to hang up her cape/cowl/top, setting up the beginning of the original story from the comic.  But not before she goes for a run, during which the camera does a top-up shot, pausing to showcase Barbara’s shapely bum.  I supposed it was a moment meant to make us mourn the ass that would no longer run through the park once The Joker performed the act that is the sole purpose for her inclusion in this storyline.  It was a fitting punch to the gut for an audience hoping for some scrap of respect for such an important figure in the Batman universe.

~Alison Flaherty