It’s May 23, 1998. Tomorrow, I turn 17.
Topping the charts, we have Mariah Carey with “My All”; Next, Janet featuring BLACKstreet, and Savage Garden also chart. In the movies this weekend, Godzilla (the bad American one) opens at No. 1; Deep Impact, The Horse Whisperer, and Quest for Camelot also make the top five.
In the news, on May 11 and 13 India conducted its first nuclear tests in nearly 25 years. In response, Pakistan will detonate its own test devices on the 28th. In Indonesia, a week after riots against Chinese-Indonesian people killed around a thousand people, long-reigning President Suharto resigns on the 21st. He is succeeded by his Vice President, B.J. Habibie.
Batgirl’s greatest fear is that her father will learn the truth about her.
That’s not subtext. It’s text. Even the way she tries to tell her father at the end plays like a coming out: “Dad, have a seat… this is important. It won’t be easy for you to hear…” Gordon’s response strongly resembles a (more or less good) parental response to the same: “Sweetheart, you’re capable of making your own decisions. You don’t need me to approve or even acknowledge them… All you need to know is I love you. All of you.”
Barbara Gordon is not, as far as we know, any flavor of queer–all of her relationships are with men, and there is nothing to suggest she isn’t cis. She is, as established earlier this season, kinky, but that’s more queer-adjacent than queer. Nonetheless, there is a powerful reading there of the superhero’s obsessive defense of their “secret identity”; we have generally viewed it as a trauma metaphor, but it works well for being closeted, as well.
I am far from an expert on the closet. I spent the first 36 years of my life so deep inside it, I didn’t even realize the closet existed. Once I did, I was fully out barely six months later.
But I spent those 36 years convinced there was something inside me. Something terrible, that could ruin everything, something that must be kept contained and hidden at all costs. The truth of my monstrosity. (The monster’s name is Jenny, and she turns out to be awesome.)
But we’ve talked about monsters, and queerness, and we know that heroes are monsters facing out. It makes sense that superheroes have their queer readings as well. Far more interesting are the details of Barbara’s fear: that her father’s discovery of her monstrosity will lead him on a trail of vengeance against her lover. In reality, he sees her as a grown woman capable of her own decisions, but her fear is (understandably, seeing as he’s struggled with this in the past) that he will seek a man on whom to blame her choices, and then seek vengeance against that man.
Her fear, in short, is that she will not only die but be fridged; that her death will be an excuse to create conflict between male characters, and opportunities for them to emote, while her character and her agency are effaced from the narrative. “It was all just a dream” is unfairly maligned as a plot device, and “Over the Edge” is an excellent example of why. First, the “just a dream” informs Barbara’s character and pushes her toward taking a major step, one which in turn illuminates Commissioner Gordon’s character as a better father and less clueless than we’d previously been led to believe. But more importantly, it emboits the fridge within her nightmare. It turns what is inherently a sacrifice of a woman to advance men’s characters into a sacrifice of men to advance women; without Barbara, Commissioner Gordon and Batman destroy each other, and the fear and pain engendered by their deaths is what drives Barbara to confess.
To be clear, simply making it a dream does not undo that it’s a fridging. All fiction is equally fictional; the story-within-a-story that is the dream is still a story told by the writers. They still started this story by fridging Batgirl. But its emboitment transforms it; the fact that Barbara’s death was just a dream does not unfridge her, but the fact that her father and lover/mentor are killed as well, and her actions at the end of the episode are motivated by this death, makes it much more interesting. Or to put it another way, this story inverts both aspects of a fridging: at the end of the story no one is dead, and a woman’s story has been advanced via her emotional response to the deaths of two men she was close to.
There is, of course, still the issue that seemingly every story about Batgirl has to be a psychosexual drama of some kind. If it’s not about tensions between her current lover and his estranged, adopted son who happens also to be her ex, it’s about tensions between her lover and her father. Certainly there’s plenty of psychosexual drama to go around in stories about Batman, too–pretty much any time Catwoman or Poison Ivy is around, for instance–but Batgirl seems to get little else. Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures stories are, as we’ve observed before, rarely about Batman; the pattern shared by Batgirl, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and hell, let’s throw in Harley Quinn, too, is that the stories turn sexual when women are involved. The DCAU has come a long way from the misogynistic, gynophobic femme fatale depiction of Poison Ivy in her introductory episode, but it still struggles to position women as anything other than sexual objects, even when it’s about them.
This is, unfortunately, a problem it will never entirely overcome.
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