Entertainment

07.26.14

Holy Homophobia, Batman! A Queer Reading of the Dark Knight

Batman wears tights and has a handsome ward who often stands with his genital region discreetly evident. But really, what does it matter if the caped crusader is gay?

Batman may be 75, but the confirmed bachelor can still fill a pair of tights, pull off a codpiece, and fly through the night with his various teenaged apprentices.

DC Comics commemorated the anniversary with the release of Batman: A Celebration of 75 Years, a collection of comics from various Bat-eras, with short, two-page introductions between each one explaining the history of the franchise during those epochs. There’s also a full year of Bat-stalgia festivities, including a gargantuan exhibit of movie props and costumes at San Diego Comic-Con.

But Batman memorabilia isn’t the only hallmark of the caped crusader’s long career to come out of the closet. Rumors about the character’s sexuality have followed the Dark Knight throughout his history.

It is worth mentioning that Batman is older than Gay, but only by a few years. Although the term had been in use colloquially, it only started to appear in writing during the 1940s. Etymology Dictionary suggests that the term originated with travelling hobos known as “Gay Cats,” a profession that also gave American English a number of sexual innuendos including “tramp,” “fag,” and “drag.” Early critics of Batman’s sexuality never use the term “gay,” referring to the masked vigilante instead as “homosexual” or “homoerotic.”

The script leak was not the first time Batman’s sexuality became a point of contention. In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham made the same claim in his controversial book, Seduction of the Innocent. Although Wertham wasn’t the originator of the claim (he attributes it to an unnamed “California Psychiatrist”), his book examines the evidence from a selection of Batman comics and focuses around some key arguments:

● Batman and Robin have “special uniforms.”
● Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him.
● Wayne manor is filled with “beautiful flowers in large vases.”
● Dick Grayson notices when something is off with Bruce Wayne.
● “Like the girls in other stories, Robin is sometimes held captive by the villains.”
● Robin is handsome.
● Robin often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident.
● When a woman does appear in a Batman comic “if [she] is good-looking she is undoubtedly the villainess.”
● A study of cases at “the Quaker Emergency Service Readjustment Center” found that “the Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies.”

Leaving aside for now that some of the data for Wertham’s book comes from a “Readjustment Center” for sexual offenders (many of whom were simply homosexuals, a crime illegal in New York State at the time), the most pertinent question about Batman’s sexuality is: So what? Why would it matter if Batman were homosexual?

At the time of publication, Wertham’s assertion that Batman comics “stimulate children to homosexual fantasies” was the most troubling to the establishment and is often cited as a primary reason why the U.S. Senate launched an inquiry into juvenile delinquency with a focus on comic books at which Wertham was a star witness. However, Batman isn’t mentioned at all in Wertham’s testimony, and the doctor only brings up homosexuality once telling the committee:

“Comic books contribute to delinquency by teaching the technique…how to rape and seduce girls, how to hurt people, how to break into stores, how to cheat, how to forge, how to do any known crime. Formerly to impair the morals was a minor was a punishable offense. It has now become a mass industry. I will say that every crime of delinquency is described in detail and that if you teach somebody the technique of something you, of course, seduce him into it. Nobody would believe that you teach a boy homosexuality without introducing him to it. Now, children who read that, it is just human, are, of course, tempted to do it and they have done it.”

One of Wertham’s critics, Dr. Laura Bender, in her testimony to the U.S. Senate downplayed the ability of comics to influence children. Dr. Bender, using her own children as an example, said that even those of a young age are able to distinguish between fantasy and reality, telling the Senators “most often the Walt Disney movies which do depict very disturbing mother figures. The mothers are always killed or sent to the insane asylums in Walt Disney movies.” The problem plagues Disney films today. A recent NPR story on children’s films cites the Mouse’s still problematic approach to motherhood sixty years after Dr. Bender’s testimony.

More recently, a New York Times article called Wertham’s assertions into doubt when, Carol L. Tilley, assistant professor at the University of Illinois, reviewed the doctor’s papers and found that he had “misstated [his subject’s] ages, combined quotations taken from many children to appear as if they came from one speaker and attributed remarks said by a single speaker to larger groups.” Wertham also neglected to mention pertinent details his patient’s lives, many of whose families had a history of violence or substance abuse. In other cases, he simply invented evidence where there was none.

In the same article, author Dave Itzkoff quotes from Michael Chabon, who researched comic history for his critically acclaimed book The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay, stating “while Wertham had been viewed as ‘this almost McCarthyite witch hunter,’ he was actually ‘an extremely well-intentioned liberal, progressive man in many ways.’” Wertham, like so many “well-intentioned” mid-century white liberals, was often guilty of pathologizing black culture. Bellevue, where both Wertham and Bender spent portions of their careers, was an early pioneer in the use of shock therapy in the “treatment” of children. Wertham eventually opened the LaFargue Clinic in the basement of the St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Harlem, providing low cost psychiatric treatment for black teenagers.

Wertham focused most of his criticisms at Bruce Wayne/Batman’s relationship with Dick Grayson/Robin, a character originally introduced to attract children to the series and make Batman more likeable. As a teenager, creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger rightly assumed the young hero would serve as an “everyman” that was more relatable than his mentor, the crime-fighting millionaire playboy.

The original Batman comics, prior to the creation of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, were much more violent, with Batman frequently committing murder. But the implications of a private citizen putting on a costume and murdering criminals without a trial started to fall out of fashion as World War II heated up in Europe. Even the otherwise antiestablishmentarian Woody Gurthrie changed his tune and started singing about kicking Hitler in the panzers.

But just as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the modern era led to a promiscuous use of the term “treason,” the fog of war led to accusations of fascism against innocuous entertainments like comic books. One month after Robin’s introduction to the Batman comics, The Chicago Daily News published Sterling North’s “A National Disgrace” which called for parents and authority figures to ban comics “unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one.” Even Time magazine joined in, asking the question in an editorial titled “Are Comics Fascist?”

Advertising to children is a thorny issue with critics of the practice on both sides of the American political spectrum. Several European countries, including the Sweden and Norway, have banned the practice when the child in question is under 12. And the desire to protect pre-teens is itself a relatively recent phenomenon, with most U.S. states considering 12 the age of consent for heterosexual sex until the early 20th century. Prior to its decriminalization, homosexual sex was illegal regardless of its participants ages.

Still, the tradition of a hero with a younger, or everyman, acolyte stretches back to antiquity. Achilles had his Patroclus, Quixote his Sancho, Jesus his apostles. Separating the longstanding negativity associated with homosexuality from what is perceived as a threat to the youth often says a lot more about the person lodging the accusation than it does about the artistic work. If there is nothing wrong with being gay, then what would it matter if Batman was? In Seduction of the Innocent Wertham cites the Rorschach test as a means by which the homoeroticism in comics is impressed upon its audience, but the same complaint could equally apply to a child psychologist who sees a “gay threat” lurking behind the self-harm exhibited by the children in his care.

If sexuality, and sexual preference, is more of a spectrum than a series of mutually exclusive clubs, then it doesn’t necessarily matter if Batman is gay; however, even the mere suggestion has the power to drive Bat-fans into a frenzy. Angry homophobes from all over the Internet spewed hateful invective at the mere suggestion that the upcoming Batman v. Superman movie would feature Ben Affleck portraying a gay Batman. Former Batman writer Grant Morrison, after suggesting the caped crusader might be gay in an interview with Playboy, walked back his comments on several occasions. Even DC has voiced their objections, threatening the Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts Gallery in New York with legal action when they displayed artist Mark Chamberlain’s series of homoerotic portraits featuring semi-clothed Batman and Robin.

So the question remains: Is Batman gay?

Over at SwiftKey, a team of researchers hand entered all the dialogue, thought bubbles, and narration from the Batman comics and created a word cloud. Not of the most frequent words used, but the most frequent words overused compared to how often the average English language speaker uses the words.

The names of villains figure prominently in the cloud, as well as words like “crime,” “murder,” and “gems.” Missing from the word cloud is any overt reference to sex or sexuality.

Thanks to the DC reissue of several early issues in its 75th anniversary collection, it’s possible to look back in time to the early days of the character, directly at the source of the controversy.

In truth, the early Batman comics are sparse. Dialogue and narration is at a minimum, as are as the drawings. The Golden Age comics sometimes ellipse huge chunks of action such as Batman suggesting an overly complicated plan and then skipping to its successful outcome in the next panel. The villains' crimes are often simple robberies, which sometime involve murder, and in the classic cinematic tradition, damselled women. The stories are so minimal that anything could be projected on them and imbued with a significant meaning to its observer.

Having said that, there is no shortage of suggestive scenes between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, including the pair sleeping in the same bed, carrying one another to safety, and generally spending most of their time in very tight, masked costumes as the childless wealthy orphans of murdered parents.

Wertham’s testimony to Congress is frequently cited for its effect in establishing the Comics Code Authority. Similar to the deal the Motion Picture Association of America got from the Federal Trade Commission, the Code allowed representatives within the industry to self-regulate potentially harmful messages in their publications. DC Comics, Batman’s creator and owner, was one of the last companies to drop their adherence to code standards in January 2011. A significant number of early comic publishers were put out of business, particularly EC Comics, under William Gaines, whose titles included Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, all of which folded the year after Code implementation.

Batman survived, and DC later introduced a Batwoman, and later a Batgirl, so everyone would be sure that there was no funny business going on. Comics would remain a source of vexation for Americans, including former head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, who would go on to continue the fight against comics into the 60s, even while denying the existence of organized crime in America.

Asking if Batman is gay is the answer, not the question. It is a journey through 75 years of a character with at least two identities and a seemingly limitless amount of time to explore the implications of that fractured life.

But for the literalists who simply must know, who must look behind the curtain, who must see if Oz is real or a sham? If a gay Batman makes you angry, then yes. Batman is gay.