Editor’s note (a fancy way of saying Emma talking about herself in the third person at three in the morning): This is the first of a four part series on the gender identity and presentation of the four post-crisis female members of the Batfamily- Barbara Gordon, Cassandra Cain, Stephanie Brown, and Katherine Kane- that Emma first teased us with back in January. She has yet to show any remorse for either the delay or the awful Beyonce related pun.
For pretty much all intents and purposes Barbara Gordon is the progenitor, the first serious and lasting addition to the Batfamily who went on to create and maintain a powerful legacy of her own by mentoring not only both her successors as Batgirl but several other young women including the similarly disabled daughter of her nemesis The Calculator. Her power and influence as Batgirl and especially Oracle is unquestionable, but what about Barbara Gordon the woman? Who is she and how does her personal expression of femininity inform her actions and her legacy?
Babs presents an interesting and unique opportunity to explore women in genre fiction because of not only how voluminous her canon is relative to her most popular and frequently cited contemporaries (Buffy Summers and Ellen Ripley), but also because of how completely and iconically her canon portrays her as both maiden and mother, which is something that not even Wonder Woman can claim despite her much longer and more cohesively collected history. When asked about why Wonder Woman’s role in Final Crisis was so diminished relative to Batman and Superman, Grant Morrison echoed an often heard sentiment, that Wonder Woman should be to all women as Superman is to all men but stated emphatically that has never truly been the case. The ideal that despite her problematic origin and early material by her creator, she should or could go on to become a universal symbol of womanhood is very much in line with one of the core themes of the DCU; the relation of the individual to the iconic. Except that doesn’t appear to be what most women invested in contemporary genre fiction are looking for. As a kind of pop culture godform of female strength, Diana has proven to be quite effective, but she has never been able to deliver any kind of noteworthy insight into or commentary on the experience of being a woman.
Wonder Woman makes perfect sense to men. The Amazon Princess from Paradise. It’s a perfect compliment to the fantasies of the billionaire playboy and the alien superman. Diana’s fatal flaw is that she is Woman Denatured. A woman with all the icky things that men recoil from taken out, as illustrated by her Pygmalion origin; the baby made of clay. Wonder Woman’s most reoccurring story is each successive writer’s attempt to re-define and in some way humanize her which- given it’s ubiquity- never seems to take no matter how many times she has her powers taken away or is forced to live undercover as a mortal human. It all comes across as a man’s increasingly desperate attempts at understanding women, giving her canon an irretrievably fractured quality.
Barbara Gordon never required any such extreme measures. To the outside observer, she seems ancillary to Batman with her Adam’s Rib origin and guise, an idea that is laughably absurd to even the most casual reader. Barbara did not start life as a clay simulacrum of a woman. She was introduced as a librarian chafing under the doting eye of her policeman father and the tedium of her comfortable existence, an all too real experience for many of the women in the audience. Despite the accidental nature of her first adventure as Batgirl- foiling Killer Moth’s attempt to crash a costume party- crime fighting has always been a primarily intellectual pursuit for Barbara. Even before she took on the Oracle persona, her greatest skill and the focus of most of her stories as Batgirl was her intellect. From the beginning, Barbara sought to prove her intellectual equality if not outright superiority to the men in her life, mostly by arriving to the same conclusions they did before them.
Although she boldly appropriated Batman’s symbol and demanded his respect, Barbara never intended her creation of the Batgirl identity to be a feminist act, unlike Power Girl who joined the JSA explicitly to prove that women had a place in the superhero community. Babs was on a personal quest, and at first it was even more about proving it to herself than anyone else as she frequently downplayed her role in solving crimes, sometimes even to preserve the egos of the men around her. Even after she was paralyzed and became Oracle, Barbara retained her desire for anonymity, this time seeking a level of it that obscured her gender entirely.
That desire for anonymity and isolation may have begun as an effect of her shooting and difficult rehabilitation, but it took on a new dimension in her interactions with the Suicide Squad and the deep impact that Amanda Waller had on her personality and goals as Oracle. Through her time at Belle Reve, Barbara came to understand a completely different perspective on crime fighting than what she had been used to as Batgirl. Instead of the vigilante approach of patrolling a limited physical area and reacting to crimes in progress, Amanda Waller had carved out a position where she could proactively respond to situations across the country or even the globe, which became the original basis of the Birds of Prey when Barbara left the Suicide Squad. In addition to her operational model, Barbara emulated Amanda’s cool detachment from her operatives, as evinced by the botched mission that resulted in the feud between Babs and Power Girl. It isn’t very clear when Barbara’s primary goal changed from proving herself to becoming the most important mother figure in the DCU, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that it started when the anonymity of the Oracle persona was broken in a meaningful way when she met Dinah face to face for the first time and crystallized when she took in Cassandra Cain.
There’s an important distinction to be made between her activities with the Birds of Prey and her role as the coach of Team Batgirl. While both became safe spaces for female superheroes to operate on their own terms without having to answer to male authority they reflect two distinct impulses; Barbara’s desire for sisterhood and her desire for motherhood. As far as we know, Dinah was the first woman that Babs shared an intimate connection with that encompassed both her life as a superhero and a civilian, which opened Barbara’s world view to the idea of sisterhood and became the cornerstone of the Birds of Prey when it shifted from being Barbara’s attempt to emulate Amanda Waller into the combined efforts of Babs, Dinah, and Helena.
While the story of the Birds of Prey has never been a fairy tale, Team Batgirl is perhaps the harshest test that Barbara has faced as it was the moment in which she became a mother. Much like her first true meeting with Dinah, Babs’ role as surrogate mother for Cassandra Cain was thrust on her by circumstances rather than something she sought out. Her relationship with Cassandra was likely doomed to a tragic end from the beginning by what amounted to an ongoing dispute over parenting styles between her and Bruce. While Barbara saw a wounded soul who needed nurturing and time away from the violence that defined her life from birth, Bruce was fascinated by what David Cain had accomplished with his daughter and sought to leverage Cassandra’s gifts towards his war on crime, which resulted in several heated exchanges between the two. This tension only made Barbara push Cassandra harder to learn to speak, read, and write that created a deep resentment in Cassandra that has likely never fully healed given their estrangement and Cassandra’s eventual formal adoption by Bruce. Her declaration that she had been Batgirl for him when she relinquished the name and costume to her successor Stephanie Brown upon his death made her feelings about Barbara and their time together abundantly clear.
While Barbara did attempt to mentor Misfit and Black Alice, it wasn’t until Stephanie returned from Africa following her supposed death that she made a sustained effort at creating a lasting relationship with a young hero. More than just recognizing shades of her younger self in Stephanie both in her determination to be Batgirl against any and all who would dissuade her and the violence she suffered at the hands of the Black Mask, Barbara saw an opportunity to redeem herself and her legacy for the mistakes she made with Cassandra much like Jim Gordon did when he retained custody of Babs following the dissolution of his marriage. Most modern readers readers are familiar with his ex-wife and son James Jr. through Batman: Year One, but further reading reveals just how poor the relationship between Jim and his son was.
Jim himself was a survivor of abuse plagued by the fear that he would abuse his own son and came dangerously close to it on several occasions culminating in Jim Jr pulling a gun on his father, ostensibly to protect his mother during an argument. This proved to be the breaking point that drove Jim’s wife Barbara to leave him and take Jim Jr with her to Chicago. Whether Babs is cognizant of it or not, her estrangement from Cassandra and fierce protectiveness of Stephanie closely resembles how Jim attempted to atone for his failures as a father to his son through his doting on Babs. However, there is more to Barbara’s devotion to Stephanie than simply righting the wrongs done to Cassandra. Her continued desire to find an heir following Cassandra’s departure to Bludhaven and eventual disappearance despite her admonishments to both Charley and Stephanie suggest that Barbara has reached a point in her life where she feels incomplete without someone to carry on her legacy as Batgirl, despite the greater operational capacity of the Birds of Prey. In that sense, Stephanie (as well as Cassandra) is truly a daughter to Babs whether or not either of them are willing to admit it openly. The same may be said in the future of Wendy Harris, but only time will tell.
Barbara Gordon as a woman is defined by her relentless drive for self improvement and her complete disregard for the limitations placed on her. She could have had a secure, easy life as a librarian. Instead she chose to carve out a place for herself at immense personal cost. As a feminist, she took the gains she made for herself and transferred them to her contemporaries through the post Hunt for Oracle Birds of Prey and her successors through the Batgirl mantle.
This is fantastic. Looking forward to the next entry!
This is very well written and I look forward to the future entries in this series. However, I feel that you are reading too into Barbara’s estrangement from Cassandra Cain. Cassandra was dropped from the Batbooks, excised entirely as her role was whitewashed for Stephanie Brown. The abandonment of Cassandra, and also Misfit, is the major mis-characterization of Barbara that is continuing in the Batgirl and Birds of Prey comics today. I agree that the three girls are her daughters, but why has she the first two of them off to favor the third? Barbara Gordon deserves better.
Great post, sums up the history of one of my favorite characters in the DCU nicely. The only part I’d slightly disagree with is that I saw Bruce’s approach was to teach Cassandra to hold herself to the impossibly high standard that he holds himself to. It’s a minor difference, and largely a question of how the reader wants to view Batman’s motives. While the Bat-family has no small number of patriarchal moments, I saw this as less an attempt by a caped crusader to exploit a talented youth for his own ends, and more a father seeing his responsibility to instill the notion of right and wrong in a child, even as that morality mirrors his own, and may lead to the same flaws. Again, it comes down to how one views his motives, whether he’s a ruthless crusader who uses people for his own ends, or a teacher who takes in dangerous and troubled youth for their own sake (superhero after school programs?). I’d also thought Barbara didn’t necessarily discourage Cassandra’s career, though I agree her approach was more nurturing. The conflict you describe comes to a head in one of my favorite Barbara lines ever when she tells Bruce about Cassandra: “If you tell her she failed that man, you’re not welcome here anymore.”
I’m also with Mark III, in that I think it’s difficult to read far into storylines that are just bad for insights into character. It also highlights the problems between taking dialogue as proof between titles: was character X not mentioned as a deliberate slight, or was it simply because that character is not central to the title in which the story occurs?
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