Why Barbara Gordon should stay in the wheelchair

So it turns out that my article about the DC ‘reboot‘ was pretty offbeam. DC are now making it clear that it is merely a relaunch and won’t apparently result in a significant shift in continuity. So essentially ignore all my guff about Geoff Johns’ Corps Wars and Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated storylines coming to a close and Damian Wayne possibly being written out of continuity. Not going to happen. I will still stand by the significance of DC’s switch to same-day-as-print for its digital output, a move which is far more significant than any passing continuity change in any case.

Just to compound matters though, in the comments I poured cold water on Andrew Hickey’s suggestion that Barbara Gordon might suddenly be ‘healed’ and return as Batgirl. Well, the precise details are still yet to be confirmed, but it looks as if I could not have been more wrong.

One reading of this decision is that it is actually quite positive. Gail Simone, who will be writing the new series, is responsible for kickstarting the debate in comics fandom about Women In Refrigerators Syndrome – the tendency for comic writers to maim, abuse and kill off female characters in the interests of (male) character development. Anita Sarkeesian gives a pretty good overview here (transcript here):

From a feminist perspective then, it could be interpreted that this move to restore Barbara Gordon’s spine is actually a positive step: she’s being ‘defrosted‘. So why am I, and others, less than pleased? Four reasons:

Firstly, if there are precious few positive female role models in superhero comics, there are even fewer positive disabled characters. And Barbara Gordon, in her guise as Oracle. was very much that. Here I take issue with Sarkeesian [1]. Sure, Gordon is crippled and very possibly raped in a heinous way – the Killing Joke is a highly problematic story – but her story arc ever since is that of a survivor.

Secondly, if you look beyond the superficiality of assessing characters in terms of their physical capabilities. Gordon-as-Oracle is a far more powerful character than Gordon-as-Batgirl. The latter was a second-stringer; she didn’t even count as a proper sidekick. She is defined by male character: Jim Gordon’s daughter; Dick Grayson’s girlfriend; Batman’s copycat.

Oracle, by contrast, is a central character in the DC Universe, one who works closely with all the heaviest hitters. She’s the character Batman and Superman go to when they need help. She’s played a central role in saving the world on more than one occasion. You’d have to be pretty superficial indeed to see it as anything other than a massive demotion.

As a character, Oracle was not defined by her disability: yet, ironically, as Batgirl she will inevitably be defined by her physical prowess. Will she be able to survive as a just another poutingly gorgeous female acrobatic martial artist? Throw a rock in the DC Universe and you’re liable to hit one of those; very few have ongoing series that last very long.

To cite a related example, Cassandra Cain is the fourth character to assume the identity of Batgirl. A radically different character to Barbara Gordon, she could best be described a 5-foot mute ninja in a gimp mask. When she first appeared, she was an immediate fan-favourite. Then someone had the bright idea of ‘curing’ her muteness. As a result, she was sidelined and was eventually replaced. Just another boring epitome of physical perfection. In this particular case, it was made slightly worse in that one of DC’s few Asian characters was replaced by a blonde white girl.

Thirdly, this would appear to be filling a vacancy that doesn’t exist. Even leaving aside the fact that Stephanie Brown only recently took on the Batgirl mantle, the comic about a red-headed female Batman-copy that fandom is currently waiting for with baited breath is J. H. Williams’ Batwoman #1. Unlike Batgirl, Batwoman is a character with her own, independent continuity – only tangentially connected to Batman’s. And, having only sporadically appeared over the past 5 years, she’s got plenty of story to tell.

Fourthly, if it emerges that she gets to come back because of some kind of time paradox (this isn’t mere speculation, this whole relaunch is being precipitated by Flashpoint, which is all about a villain’s attempt to muck about with events in the past), it’s boring. There’s a reason that DC have flirted with the idea of bringing her back on at least two occasions and rejected it. It is the ultimate lazy plot device. One of the things we were promised with the Blackest Night saga was that there would be no more, or at least fewer, incidences of characters ‘recovering’ from death. True, Gordon isn’t dead, but this is just as much of a cop out. It isn’t remotely interesting from a dramatic point of view.

I may be wrong. It could be that Gail Simone has gone something pretty spectacular up her sleeve and Gordon will be coming back in a way that doesn’t leave the reader short changed. It may well be that she manages to retain what is best about Oracle with the added bonus of the main character being able to literally kick arse once again. This could be the most genius, misunderstood move yet in the twisty-turny life of the character. But on the face of it, this appears to be a very poor choice, not just from a feminist and ableist perspective, but from a dramatic and commercial one as well. And with 51 other new DC titles to choose from during the month this makes its debut, why risk it?

[1] I actually take issue with Anita Sarkeesian in one other important respect. In one crucial aspect, she is factually wrong: Stephanie Brown is actually an example of a character whose “death” actually results in her coming back more powerful than before as Batgirl (and with her own series): she’s actually an example of a female character who “defrosts”, to use the jargon. Ironically, with Gordon now taking that mantle back, she’s now just another bit-player.

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