It’s just to scare the bad guys, really (Torch Song)

It’s June 13, 1998. The top song is “The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy & Monica; Next, Shania Twain, and Mariah Carey also chart. Top at the box office is The Truman Show, a story about a man trapped in a perception of reality he was taught from birth; Can’t Hardly Wait and The Horse Whisperer are also in the top ten.

In the news since last episode, on June 7 James Byrd, Jr was beaten to death by a trio of white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, and the Guinea-Bissau Civil War started; yesterday, France won the World Cup.

“Torch Song” represents an interesting evolution in the DC Animated Universe’s depiction of stalkers. Including this episode, we have had at least three supervillains’ origin stories begin by depicting them as stalkers: the Mad Hatter in “Mad as a Hatter,” Edward Lytener/Luminus in  “Target,” and now Firefly. Laid out this way, there is a distinct progression in the episodes’ choice of focus.

“Mad as a Hatter” centers Tetch’s descent into villainy in a sort of parody of “sympathetic villain” episodes. Tetch is entitled, aggressive, and hateful, but the structure of the episode means that his self-deception that he is a “nice guy” who has been mistreated is centered in the same way that Mr. Freeze’s much more justifiable claims. By contrast, “Target” centers the recurring threat against Lois, making it clear that Lytener’s rationalizations are just that. On the other hand, Lois is placed in peril and rescued by Superman throughout the series, so “Target” comes across as just a sequence of such moments in a life full of them, not a particularly traumatic episode for Lois.

Not so “Torch Song.” Cassidy is a one-off character who never appears again, so the choice to center her is an unusual one–typically The New Batman Adventures will center a recurring character or villain, but victims-of-the-week almost never get that treatment. The episode thus signposts clearly that it is Cassidy’s experience that is the focus of the story, and Cassidy’s experience is a fascinating one.

An up-and-coming rock star, Cassidy is the picture of performative femininity. She dresses in a way that is as attention-grabbing as Leslie Willis in Livewire, but in the opposite direction: where Leslie wore deliberately shabby clothing–baggy pants and ratty shirts–to emphasize her rejection of social norms around feminine dress and behavior, Cassidy spends most of the episode in a backless black minidress, heels, and long black gloves, essentially eveningwear, but showing a lot of skin for eveningwear. She is presenting herself as formal yet sexual, a “good girl” who can function in polite company but nonetheless is very clearly a physical, sensual presence. She is the essence of the Good Girl Art aesthetic of Bruce Timm just as much as Supergirl is.

Her body language in the scene where she tries to hire Batman as a protector is similar. She is coy, flirtatious, deliberately making herself appear small as she approaches him. This is a woman who has spent her life fitting herself into the spaces she can find, performing whatever she needs to be in order to survive. If all anyone wants of her is her body (and her music as shown in the episode really is not very good), then she will offer up her body how and when it is wanted. She will perform the role she is given–on stage and off.

But the performance is never enough. It is not possible to be everything for everyone, and yet that is what is demanded of her. On stage she must be the innocent-yet-sexually-available ingenue and the powerful performer who holds the audience enthralled; in her everyday life she must deal with the demands of the men around her, from her pyrotechnician/ex-boyfriend turned arsonist/stalker to her manager to, yes, even Batman. And while her performativity clearly works well in her career, fitting herself into the spaces left by others gives her very little leverage to actually get what she wants: her manager doesn’t listen to her, Batman refuses her offer to hire him, and Firefly plans to destroy the city and disappear with her, regardless of whether she wants to be with him.

The result, inevitably, is trauma. Helpless and alone, she is trapped in fire while Batman–who, remember, refused her offer to hire him as a protector!–fights Firefly. Neither seems particularly interested in her impending death until the very end of the fight. She is, in other words, placed in terror for her life with no support of any kind, and afterwards returns immediately to her existence of pure performance, with no one to whom she can express her honest feelings about the experience.

This is a perfect recipe for trauma, and at episode’s end we see that she is indeed traumatized: her terror at the flambe at the next table and the reflection of the flames in her eyes imply that her mind has been plunged back into the fire she very nearly didn’t survive. The episode ends before we see her outward reaction, if any; we do not know if she tries once again to continue the performance, to bury it and shrug it off, or reaches out for support, nor do we know if she receives that support.

We can’t know, because trauma is the heart of Batman; to depict its healing is to call into question his very reason for being. If this one-off character can find support and healing, why can’t he, the main character around whom the narrative bends itself?

These are not questions the show is prepared to answer–and yet it is already setting itself up for its own replacement, which might be able to. Batman is unable to face Firefly on his own, in his normal gear, so he wears armor that is at once reminiscent of the Batman Beyondbatsuit and of the “mecha” batsuit depicted in that series as Wayne’s final, failed attempt to remain Batman despite advancing age. The world is evolving, and the spaces in which he exists and performs his role are squeezing gradually shut.

Bruce Wayne, age eleven, might have to actually grow up.


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