Greetings, folks! It is I, Falconlord5 with another round of Fandom Heresies! Today we’re going to talk about how and why Barbara Gordon was created, her relationship to Catwoman, and how she was routinely positioned as a love interest and equal to Batman rather than his sidekick. Part one of this series is here and part three is here
But first, I have a simple question: would it kill Kevin Feige and his crew over at Marvel actually read the comics their less-than-stellar movies are based on? Watching Black Widow this weekend was like watching Smallville in its last days. Random, incoherent cameos and shout-outs to various Marvel properties that are supposed to give comic readers a jolt of recognition despite not resembling their comic book namesakes. It’s just, ah, aggravating especially when you consider that the original comic book characters were engaging and interesting in their own right and didn’t need all this kerfuffle.
Bah. But I digress. We’re here to talk about Barbara Gordon, and how she came from the last good live-action adaptation. Join me under the cut!
Yeah, It’s A Little Racist
Okay, we have to start here. Julie Newmar, who had played Catwoman for two seasons on the hit Batman (1966) TV show, declined to appear for season three. That was a problem for the producers, because Catwoman and her flirtatious dynamic with Batman was one of the reasons for the show’s popularity. They had another problem, too: Batman wasn’t hitting its target numbers with the female demographic. The producers, logically, figured that adding another female character to the main cast would help with that. Stick a pin in that, we’re going to come back to it.
So, first the producers hired Eartha Kitt as the new Catwoman. On the face of it, this was brilliant. Eartha Kitt had a naturally flirtatious style that would mesh well with Adam West’s own and fit the Catwoman character, could switch to legitimately threatening on a dime, was a popular and good actress and drop-dead sexy to boot. You would be hard pressed to find a better fit for Catwoman, in my opinion.
The problem was that Eartha Kitt is, according to her Wikipedia page, of mostly African and Cherokee descent, with maybe some white in her.
Yeah. Look, my country just dug up a thousand Indigenous kids it killed for racist purposes, so I don’t have any moral standing here. But miscegenation laws were only overturned in 1967 in the United States, and southern states often refused to air anything that might be supportive of the Civil Rights movement. William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols had to fight like demons just to get that one kiss on the air; no way would the Batman producers manage to get the same kind of teasing, flirtatious relationship that Batman and Catwoman enjoy past the censors. It’s a damned shame, too, but there you have it.
Do you remember that bit about adding another female character to the main cast might help with the lady demographic? Yeah, well, the producers thought they could kill two birds with one stone.
On the one hand, the incredibly racist nature of the States at the time meant Batman was out a love interest. On the other hand, Batman producers figured adding a woman hero to the roster would help with their ratings. And finally there was probably some copyright business around the name ‘Batgirl.’ So the producers sat down with underrated Batman editor Julius Schwartz (seriously, it’s this guy who gave Batman his balls back. Not Miller) and legendary comic book artist Carmine Infantino to create Barbara Gordon, daughter of Police Commissioner James Gordon.
She was a new hero for the Feminist Age! She had a doctorate in library sciences! A brown (?) belt in Judo! She was, perhaps most importantly, not Batman’s sidekick. In both the comics and the TV show, Barbara was largely independent of Bruce. While inspired by him, certainly, Babs largely did her own thing. She didn’t operate out of the Batcave, neither of the boys knew her secret identity. She wasn’t trained by Bats and she wasn’t his freaking daughter-figure! That’s Cassandra Cain’s storyline that for a variety of reasons that we will be discussing later got soldered on to Barbara’s character. Barbara Gordon, as originally written, was very much her own hero.
The Batman producers got Yvonne Craig to play the newly created hero, which was a great choice. Yvonne Craig was as charming and flirtatious as either Adam West or Eartha Kitt and easily kept up with the innuendoes and double-entendres that the show was famous for. And while not quite as naturally intimidating as Eartha Kitt (allegedly, Craig was terrified to face Julie Newmar and relieved to face Kitt ’cause Kitt’s a lot shorter than Newmar. This will never not be hilarious to me), Craig could still project authority and control as Batgirl and sell the fight scenes relatively well. Unfortunately she also starred in season three, the season of no budget, so she didn’t really get to show off.
The point is this. Barbara Gordon as initially conceived was not Batman’s sidekick, his daughter figure or Dick Grayson’s love interest. She was created as an independent hero who could conceivably stand as Batman’s love interest, but could also work independently. Further proof comes from the comics. In the comics, Catwoman and Batgirl are continuously positioned as rivals for Batman’s affections (Batman 197), there’s that ridiculous ‘Batman’s Not Fair To Women’ or whatever story where all the women go on strike because Batman won’t marry them, there’s Barbara’s development of her own love interest in Jason Bard… the list goes on.
Modern fans, more used to the de-aged versions of Barbara have long argued that Bruce and Barbara dating would be wrong because they have a father-daughter relationship (not true), that it would be betraying Jim Gordon (wow, talk about limiting a woman’s agency. While Barbara is very much a daddy’s girl and would take Jim’s opinion in to consideration, he ultimately has no say over her dating life) that it would be betraying Dick Grayson (true, but only after Batman: The Animated Series codified the Dick/Babs relationship) and that it’s only Bruce Timm pushing the relationship. The last one is hilarious because the whole Dick/Babs relationship that is so damned popular with the fandom? Bruce Timm more or less invented that.
Next week we will discuss the origins of the Dick/Babs romance and how it has served to undermine Barbara Gordon. Until next time!