This year, I got all my Christmas shopping for my nieces done early. Being a giant nerd, and hoping to indoctrinate my nieces to the geeky cause, I went on a hunt for girl-friendly superhero merch — predictably difficult, but not impossible. Wonder Woman and Supergirl dolls were bought, but when it came to picking another hero I hesitated.
Batgirl was the logical next step, but I wondered how I would explain who Batgirl is. She doesn't have a feature movie, or a glossy TV show. The most recent depiction of Batgirl was in The Killing Joke — and there's no way that animated movie is suitable for kids.
Which is a shame. Batgirl is fantastic because she's something unusual — a teen girl superhero. With Supergirl aged up in the current CW show, there isn't a teen female superhero on TV or in film right now*, which is a shame. While Spider-Man swings from animated shows to blockbuster movies, teen girls are left without a superhero idol.
Then the second trailer for The LEGO Batman Movie dropped, and I was delighted. Finally, a version of Barbara Gordon that my nieces could look up to! And yet, this still isn't the Batgirl I grew up with.
The Rise And Fall, And Rise Again, Of Batgirl
Over the years, Barbara Gordon has had several different roles. And in fact, she wasn't even the first Bat-Girl — that honor belongs to Betty Kane, a Golden Age character who was later retconned out of existence.**
Like Harley Quinn, Barbara Gordon was actually created for TV — during the 1960s Batman show, television execs requested that a young female hero be introduced. According to Les Daniels, author of Batman: The Complete History, Babs' introduction was intended to "attract new audience members, especially idealistic young girls and less high-minded older men." From the start, Barbara's purpose was to be an icon for young girls, in a time when there were no other female superheroes on TV.
The comic book Babs was wildly popular, as she juggled her role as Batgirl with being Congresswoman, and even teaming up with the Justice League. Yet, Babs' own golden age was coming to an end by the late 1970s. The merging of The Batman Family comic — in which she was a protagonist — with Detective Comics demoted her to a supporting role. The Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity reset reduced Batgirl's role further, and by 1988 DC had retired the hero. By the time The Killing Joke rolled around, DC didn't really care about Barbara, and this became painfully obvious.
Before The Killing Joke was released, writer Alan Moore revealed that when he requested permission to permanently disable Babs in the events of the story, the DC execs were in favor of this story, telling him: "Cripple the bitch."
And crippled she was — little more than a plot device in the popular and daring comic The Killing Joke, Babs is shot in the spine by the Joker. But despite no longer being Batgirl, this only increased fans' interest in the character. This is thanks to the writers who took on Batgirl after Moore left her crippled — finding this turn of events unfortunate, Kim Yale and John Ostrander continued Barbara's story. Living life in a wheelchair, Barbara became the hacker sauvant Oracle, a hero in her own right and an symbol of hope for many people.
That Was Then, This Is Now
Two more continuity resets later, and Barbara is back to being Batgirl... in the comics at least. The recent animated movie of The Killing Joke sparked fresh controversy, thanks to Barbara's romantic relationship with Batman: They have sex on a rooftop, and Babs pines after him for the majority of the movie. Thought by many to be twisted from the source material, Batgirl's role in The Killing Joke animated film is hardly the way new viewers should be introduced to the character.
Which is why The LEGO Batman Movie seems to be such a blessing. This version of Barbara Gordon is police commissioner, inspired by Batman's heroism to form a new task force. Her dream is to unify the two forces for good, fighting together with Batman to protect Gotham. Voiced by Rosario Dawson, Barbara promises to be one of the strongest elements of The LEGO Batman Movie, the perfect foil to Will Arnett's antisocial Batman and Michael Cera's delightfully campy Robin.
There's so much to love about this version of Barbara Gordon, and I'm itching to pre-order all of those lovely LEGO sets featuring police commissioner Babs. That's Christmas 2017 taken care of.
And yet, something is missing from LEGO Babs — she's not Batgirl. Or Oracle. Simply put, she's not a superhero. Sure, she's an action star, and by being police commissioner she replaces her father Jim Gordon as a vital element in the Batman story. But when I give those LEGO sets to my nieces, Babs will be dressed in her snazzy detective suit, and not her Batgirl gear. Crucially, this Babs isn't a kid, meaning she's someone my nieces can aspire to become — and not someone they can see themselves being right now.
Of course, the film hasn't been released yet. Perhaps, like Robin, Babs too will get the chance to suit up and take on a superhero role. If not, The LEGO Batman Movie will be a fantastic way to introduce new fans to a popular character — and maybe this renewed interest will lead to Batgirl appearing in the DCEU, or even getting her own TV show. Hey, I can dream.
Which version of Barbara Gordon do you love best?
[Source: Batman: The Complete History via Wikipedia, Bitch Magazine 2007]
*With the exception of the cartoon DC SuperHero Girls, and because that's aimed at children, not teenagers, that doesn't really have the same impact as, say, Spider-Man's role representing teen boys in the Marvel movies.
**A Bette Kane was later reintroduced as the hero Flamebird, a member of the Teen Titans and sidekick of Batwoman.