Another day, another ridiculous controversy generated by feminists and the social justice crowd. This time it’s a Batgirl comic book cover that has the perpetually offended flocking to social media to register their disgust.
The cover, part of a variant series promoted by D.C. was created by artist Rafael Albuquerque and features The Joker holding a terrified Batgirl at gunpoint. The Joker, wearing his signature purple and green livery and demonic grin, draws a smile across Batgirl’s face — using blood as ink. The bloody smile is a form of calling card and hints at violence that has already happened, while the fear in Batgirl’s eyes (and the gun in The Joker’s hand), hints at the violence to come. It is a disturbing, yet beautifully rendered image full of allusion.
Albuquerque took the 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke as his inspiration for the cover, widely regarded in the comic book community as one of the darkest stories in the D.C. canon. In that story, Barbara Gordon (Batgirl, for those not au fait with comic book heroines), is kidnapped by the Joker and shot, severing her spine and leaving her temporarily disabled. There are allusions in the story to sexual assault (Gordon is stripped naked and photographed by the Joker) although it is by no means clear that beyond involuntary stripping any physical sexual assault took place — that point remains ambiguous.
The controversy over Albuquerque’s cover began with a tumblr post in which author “feministbatman” (real name Rachel) criticizes it on the basis that it “portrays a victim of sexual assault with the man who assaulted her.” While Rachel’s article is undeniably heartfelt, her argument waves away some pretty foundational realities: “But a violent, bloody cover of a weeping Batgirl as the man who molested her smiles by her side is sickening. It’s disgusting. And I am tired of her scenes in The Killing Joke being referenced while the serious issues involving her assault are casually ignored.”
Of course, those issues are ignored because they don’t exist. The assault isn’t real. None of this is real. In her eagerness to find offense, Rachel has reified Barbara Gordon and her experiences, much like Annie Wilkes does with the character Misery Chastain in Stephen King’s novel Misery. It’s art. The Joker is a fictional character, a comic book villain whose raison d’être is to cause mayhem, to injure, to hurt, and to provide the Yin to Batman’s oftentimes complicated Yang. It doesn’t make sense to find the actions of a fictional character offensive, especially when those actions are central to the personality of that character.
Rachel’s article was reblogged several times, and the hashtag #changethecover was coined. In short order numerous articles were written criticizing D.C., Albuquerque, and the cover itself. A lot of the criticism compared the sexualized content in Batman: The Killing Joke with Albuquerque’s artwork — some even going as far as to offer a quasi-Freudian analysis of the gun in the Joker’s hand. But while many did stress a tenuous link to sexual assault, most criticisms were related to the portrayal of Batgirl as a powerless victim, issues pertaining to violence against women and yes — you’ve guessed it — misogyny. Eventually, Albuquerque apologized for causing offense and asked D.C. to withdraw the cover. They obliged.
If at this point you’d like to raise your eyes heavenwards and sigh, or to smash your head repeatedly off the desk in frustration, don’t feel bad, it’s understandable. This episode is not only idiotic but is also immensely tedious especially when endured as part of the recent, relentless barrage of social justice tantrums. Gamers and developers, singers and songwriters, film makers, authors, and now comic book artists have attracted their ire with each new “issue” more petty than the last. Some will undoubtedly view this new controversy as little more than in-fighting amongst geeks, but it is much, much more than that. This is the latest skirmish in an ongoing culture war where freedom of expression is at stake.