The recent released trailer for Batman: The Killing Joke – the direct-to-video adaptation of the classic graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland – has reignited the long-standing debate over this story’s artistic merits, particularly its handling of the Batgirl character. This in turn feeds into a wider ongoing discussion about the portrayal of women in pop culture, and the fine line between expression and exploitation in fiction.
A great Batman/Joker story…
For those who haven’t read The Killing Joke, it’s a text book example of the “grim ‘n’ gritty” approach to superhero comics in vogue in the 1980s, and it’s famous for not only providing a sympathetic (possible) origin for the Joker, but also for a chilling sequence where he cripples Batgirl.
The Joker’s rationale for shooting poor Barbara Gordon actually has nothing to do with her caped alter-ego; ironically, the Clown Prince of Crime is completely ignorant that she is Batgirl when he guns her down. Barbara is simply collateral damage in a twisted experiment the Joker is performing on her father, Commissioner Gordon.
See, The Killing Joke reveals that the Joker’s superhuman villainy is potentially the result of an ordinary man suffering “one bad day” – a random, tragic series of events that all combined to drive him criminally insane. Having correctly surmised that Batman is also the product of a similar “bad day”, Joker decides to test his theory out on Gordon to prove that even the most morally upright person can go mad (and bad) given the right stimuli.
Fortunately, despite the trauma of seeing his daughter paralysed and the further torture he’s subjected to, Jim Gordon proves an incorruptible old bugger by the time Batman swoops in to save the day. Better still, the Joker’s best efforts to force Batman to embrace madness in the face of life’s chaotic and cruel nature also fail; the Dark Knight refuses to crack in the same way his archenemy once did, instead continuing to channel his own potential lunacy through a heroic outlet.
So on a thematic level, everything in the story works nicely, and it remains a fascinating examination of the Batman/Joker dynamic, as well as a solid meditation on the nature of insanity and how human beings react to severe emotional distress. But it’s also got some kinda serious issues, and they all come back to Barbara Gordon.
For starters, there’s the portrayal of a young woman known for being a brave, tough fighter as a helpless victim, incapable of preventing the Joker from shooting her at point blank range. Sure, you could argue that, realistically, even the best scrapper in the world would struggle to defend themselves when caught off-guard by an armed assailant. Except this is superhero comics: despite any lip service paid to the concept, they aren’t really capable of actual realism.
More importantly, ask yourself this: could you see anyone accepting it if Batman were crippled in the same way? I didn’t think so.
…but a terrible Batgirl story
So already, we’re on shaky ground in terms of how Batgirl’s character is depicted. But far more questionable is what she goes through after being shot. As I hinted at earlier, after kidnapping Gordon, Joker then torments him further.
This takes the form of Gordon being shown photos of his blood-spattered daughter writhing in agony – while stripped totally naked. Although it’s never directly suggested that Barbara was raped (although some readers and critics have interpreted this as implied), it’s impossible to argue that what is done to her constitutes anything less than sexual violence.
Yes, it’s handled by Moore and Bolland (both masters of the craft) in a way that doesn’t feel entirely sensationalist, and yet there’s still a sense that including this particular detail was wrong. It’s possible that the creative team agrees with this appraisal. Moore has gone on to distance himself from the story, and Bolland has expressed mixed opinions about the finished product (although part of his objections stem from an unrelated issue to do with how his artwork was coloured).
Either way, the big stumbling block for a lot of people is that, having first turned Barbara into a victim, The Killing Joke then makes her sexual abuse more of an issue for Batman and Gordon than for her. It’s about how they respond to it, how they cope, and not her. She’s not even seen again in the narrative after Batman visits her in the hospital – and we never get to see her come to terms with her ordeal, or what it means.
A classic case of “Women in the Refrigerator” syndrome
This sort of treatment of female characters is what comics scribe Gail Simone famously termed “Woman in the Refrigerator” syndrome: when the violence (physical or sexual) experienced by a female character is inflicted by an author solely to motivate the male characters.
Granted, a lot was done with Barbara after this story by writers including Simone, John Ostrander and Chuck Dixon, who turned her into someone who moved past her personal tragedy to become the information broker for the superhero community in the DC Universe, and there was an appeal to having a character that disabled readers could directly identify with.
Still, it feels like The Killing Joke as a stand-alone entity could have worked just as well without crippling or degrading Barbara – surely Jim Gordon could have been directly tortured, rather than indirectly. And as brilliant as the story is in many other ways, it’s hard to get around the fact that the physical and sexual violence involved was employed as a mere plot point rather than as a major moment for Barbara’s character, the repercussions of which deserved to be addressed within the story itself.
Let’s face it: at the end of the day, sexual violence towards women (and men) is unfortunately something that actually happens. If the role of fiction is to reflect the world we live in and help us make sense of it, this is a subject that can’t be excluded from the stories we tell. But, it’s also a subject that needs to be addressed with the utmost care; not as an event that happens solely to impact the those who care for the victim, and most importantly, not as something that the victim just “gets over”.
That’s probably what most rankles about what happens to Barbara – not only does her attack exist to generate emotional conflict for Batman and Gordon, but it’s aftermath is never even directly addressed. Like I said, there’s not even a brief epilogue showing Barbara’s attempts to recover from her ordeal – it’s almost as if (other than the expected addition of a wheelchair ramp to her home) it’ll be business as usual for her on an emotional front.
Frankly, I imagine that to those readers who have suffered this kind of inhumane treatment, this blasé handling of the aftermath of the abuse is a bit of slap in the face, given their own ongoing struggle to come to terms with the unimaginable ordeal they have gone through.
Creators: stop using rape as shorthand for “bad”
Of course, The Killing Joke isn’t the only case of sexual violence against women being mishandled in mass media, nor is it the most recent.
I mentioned up front that the debate around The Killing Joke forms part of a much broader conversation currently underway about how women are depicted in popular entertainment, and when a creative choice tips over the edge into exploitative territory.
Of all the examples to draw from, easily the strongest to point towards is HBO’s Game of Thrones, which has been courting controversy in this area with ever increasing intensity since the first season. It is, after all, a show that coined the term “sexposition” – when characters advance the series’ plot while doing the horizontal mambo – but many fans have long since become uncomfortable (or even downright outraged) at how often sexual violence towards women has been featured over the last five seasons and counting.
At first, it wasn’t as much of a problem as it would later become.
The first rape scenes we’re forced to witness involve Daenerys Targaryen and her brutal warlord husband, Khal Drogo, and she’s at least shown to shaken after her ordeal, and determined to find a way to take control of her situation. When she later learns to assert herself sexually, Dany is able to cease being a victim and even lays the groundwork for herself and Drogo to develop an emotionally and sexually reciprocal relationship.
Granted, the sexual politics of this dynamic are beyond bizarre, but at least there’s a sense of trying to address the abuse that takes place and Dany’s response to it. What happens to Dany is important to her and no other character, making it less an exploitative device and more an actual attempt at character development that’s based around empowerment (unlike Barbara’s experience, which diminishes her).
Unfortunately, the show came unstuck when showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss employed rape as a recurring element; a form of assault that, even for Game of Thrones‘ vicious, quasi-medieval setting, seemed to go down all too frequently.
The more that sexual violence towards women was depicted, the more ill-judged the approach seemed to be. Sometimes rape was (as in The Killing Joke) utilised to motivate male characters. Such was the case when Theon Greyjoy – himself the subject of some pretty horrific sexual violence – was forced to watch Sansa Stark raped by the vile Ramsay Snow, helping to prod him towards facilitating her escape later on.
Other times, rape was used as shorthand to remind us that characters – such as Ramsay or rogue members of the Night’s Watch – were really-for-real not nice people. And most disconcerting of all, at least once, it was included by mistake, in a much derided scene where everyone except Benioff and Weiss interpreted Jamie Lannister forcing himself on his lover/sister Cersei (after her repeated protests) as assault.
Ignore the aftermath, engage in exploitation
In short, stories like The Killing Joke and Game of Thrones (like so many other movies, TV shows and comic books) are guilty of trivialising something that should never be trivialised. Rape shouldn’t be used as an easy way to suggest “something horrible” happening to a female character (certainly not to the extent that Game of Thrones has done so) – or a male character either, for that matter.
Nor should it be inserted into a story where the creators have no intention of showing the ongoing, life-long ramifications for the victim. Instead, sexual violence against women (or men) should only rear its ugly head in a story where the creative team are fully prepared to address these consequences, and when they’re convinced they have something to say about sexual violence, and that it says something about the themes of the story itself.
Anything less and you run the risk of dealing in pure exploitation – and that’s no laughing matter.