Tyrion Lannister

Remember When Batman Was Gay?

Filed By Tyrion Lannister | August 15, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Batgirl, Batman, Batman and Robin, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batwoman, Christian Bale, Christopher Nolan, Dick Grayson, gay Batman, gay history, Heath Ledger, Rachel Dawes, The Dark Knight

Editor's Note: We pulled this out of the archives to share with readers again. Our newer Projectors may have missed this post by former B-IN contributor Tyrion Lannister that originally ran in the summer of 2008 - just as The Dark Knight hit theaters.

pinkbatman.jpgThe Dark Knight is actually a very entertaining film. Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise is darker, more serious, and, consequently more frightening. It also captures the psychological complexity of the titular character in a way that the more stylized vision of Tim Burton - not to mention the dreck produced by Joel Schumacher - never could.

Nolan's vision is inspired by the Golden Age Batman, who was a different breed altogether. Batman of the early 1940s, for example, shot people, tossed them off rooftops, and had few reservations about killing criminals. He menaced murderers, gangsters, and thugs, not overgrown graffiti artists. Early Gotham was a dark and scary place, the sort of place that might inspire people to, you know, dress up like a giant bat. So what happened? Why did the dark and menacing Batman of 1940s become the lame and tame Batman of the 1960s?

Much of it has to do with changing national mores and an evolving economic and social landscape. In this sense, Batman's story is a microcosm for what happened throughout the entire comic book industry during that period and, to a lesser extent, some of the changes that swept across the nation. One of the most important episodes in Batman's metamorphosis centered around the startling accusation that Batman and Robin were gay and might seed impressionable youths with homosexual fantasies. Silver Age Batman was indelibly shaped by the gendered expectations of the era and his failure to adhere to those expectations incited criticism, predictably, that called into question his sexual identity.

I always preferred Batman to Superman, largely because Batman, the central implausibility of his character aside, was psychologically interesting in a way that the bland Superman never was. Of course, my introduction to Batman was Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, a crucial revision of the Batman myth which imagined Batman as a psychologically scarred character inhabiting an increasingly savage world.

In contrast, most baby-boomers may be more likely to associate Batman with the campy, absurdist version of the late-1950s and 1960s best captured in the long-running television series. In the pages of Detective in that era, Batman traveled through time, verbally sparred with "Batmite", and foiled countless plots to deface many of Gotham City's iconic landmarks. In other words, Silver Age Batman was a glorified boyscout, patrolling against vandalism - just like Superman without the awesome powers.

Outing the Caped Crusader

The accusation that Batman was a homo, as strange as it might sound to our own ears, was taken quite seriously by government and public alike. It wasn't leveled by a marginal nut or crank, but by a world-renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Frederic Wertham.

Wertham was the Chief Psychiatrist for the New York Department of Hospitals and an important figure among the New York City liberal intelligentsia. His writings were respected enough to help form part of the legal strategy for Brown v. Board. In 1954, Wertham published a scathing indictment of comic books, The Seduction of the Innocent, which argued that comic books were an invidious influence on American youth, responsible for warped gender attitudes and all manner of delinquency. Wertham's accusations garnered the attention of Senator Estes Kefauver and his Senate Sub-committee on Juvenile Delinquency, where Wertham repeated many of his central claims.

BatmanRobin.gifBatman and Robin, Wertham charged, inhabited "a wish dream of two homosexuals living together." They lived in "sumptuous quarters," unencumbered by wives and girlfriends, with only an aged butler for company. They cared for each other's injuries, frequently shared quarters, and lounged together in dressing gowns. Worse still, both exhibited damning psychological characteristics: proclivities for costumes, dressing up, and fantasy play; secretive behavior and double-lives; little interest in women; and, most damning of all, neurotic compulsions resulting in their violent vigilantism. Indeed, Wertham argued, depictions of Batman and Robin were frequently homoerotic, visually emphasizing Batman's rippling physique and Robins splayed, bare thighs.

"Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize the subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures," wrote Wertham. "The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies."

Batman's creators and writers were aghast. Batman, they noted, had a series of dalliances with several Gothamite ladies, even if he'd never settled down. Nor, they argued, had there ever been any explicit homosexual affection between Batman and Robin, much less a portrayal of anything beneath their tights. And, in any case, what sense did it make to interrogate the sexual practices of a character who lived only in the frames of a comic book? Any "sex life" Batman might possess was purely the imagination of his critics and had nothing to do with Batman himself. Right? Right?! Imagination, as they say, is a powerful thing.

batmansfacial1fk.jpgAs literary critic Mark Best notes, "Wertham did correctly identify the possibility of a queer reading of the superhero, albeit as an example of what was wrong with the comics."

If Bruce Wayne was a paragon of upper-middle class white masculinity - wealthy, cultivated, and amiable - his secret identity represented the dark liberation found in the lurid city, cruising strange corners. Even if Batman's genitals were never portrayed coming into contact with Robin, Batman's crime-fighting lifestyle still embodied a fantasy of freedom from male familial responsibilities and, in a very real sense, from women altogether. Batman's world of the 1940s was almost exclusively male.

The few females who appeared in the pages of Detective were usually for show or comic relief (Bruce Wayne's earliest fiance, Julie Madison, was frequently duped by his double-identity and played for laughs). Like many closeted men, Bruce Wayne dated women to keep up appearances, so that no one would suspect that beneath his placid veneer lurked the sort of fellow who wrestled with criminals in dark alleys.

Batman vs the Nuclear Family

At a time when social norms dictated that men and women alike should form nuclear families and settle into comfortable domesticity, Batman's homosocial world presented no small challenge to the "normal" family. Of course, only a decade before the publication of The Seduction of the Innocents the idea of men living only with other men for the purposes of fighting other men was not only uncontroversial, but, in the midst of World War II, it was the norm. Under war conditions, soldiers lived and slept together. They depended upon one another for comfort and support, emotional and physical.

SmartBombStudios-justice.jpgAs John Ibson argues in Picturing Men, male-male physical affection in the wartime context was normal and captured frequently in photography of the era. As Allan Berube has documented, soldiers frequently also found sexual companionship with other soldiers, often with the knowledge of and without causing much consternation from their peers and superiors. In fact, the military did little to aggressively police male-male sexuality until the end of the war, when the military dishonorably discharged tens-of-thousands of service people on "morals" charges.

Indeed, the sort of intimacy between men enjoyed by millions of men in the early 1940s was increasingly suspect by the end of the decade. Society moved quickly to restabilize heterosexuality and stigmatize many of the types of same-sex intimacy - sexual and nonsexual alike - that had been common during the war. Margot Canaday notes in Building a Straight State that the architects of the 1944 GI Bill designed it intentionally to make ineligible for benefits those tens of thousands of service people discharged on morals charges.

The Lavender Scare

In addition, as tensions with the Soviet Union increased, psychologists, politicians, and demagogues linked communism to homosexuality, arguing that communists and homosexuals alike were secretive and opposed to the "democratic" heterosexual family unit. Even if homosexuals were not communist themselves, they could be blackmailed and strong armed into complicity with communist schemes. Thus, the "lavender scare" - as historian Robert Johnson has called it - preceded the "red scare."

thelieswetellourselves.jpgIn 1950, a subcommittee chaired by Maryland Senator Millard Tydings convened to investigate Joseph McCarthy's notorious list of "205 known communists." Tydings worked to discredit McCarthy's claim, but, in the process, the subcommittee at least partially validated concerns that the State Department was overrun with "sexual perverts." During the hearings, Nebraska Senator Kenneth Wherry memorably claimed that as many as 3,000 homosexuals were employed at State. By the end of 1950, 600 people had been dismissed from positions at the State Department on morals charges.

How deeply this context specifically informed the creative forces at DC is difficult to tell. Regardless, the charges levied by Wertham against Batman were bad for sales. Parents might steer their children away from the title toward more "wholesome" comics and some communities might attempt censor the comic book altogether. In an effort, to combat the perception that their product was morally suspect, DC made a number of changes.

Butching up Batman

To address the general concern that Batman comics were too violent and encouraged socially reckless behavior, writers for Batman increasingly penned stories with surreal, fantastical, or absurd story lines. Plots portrayed Batman traveling through time to ancient Babylon, venturing to alien planets, and being the victim of magic spells. Rather than depicting Gotham as a den of vice and crime, the writers portrayed the city as relatively safe and prosperous. Batman's foes became less violent, plotting capers that often centered exclusively on symbolic crimes or "unmasking" Batman. Batman himself became less anti-social - frequently cooperating with Gotham police and public safety committees - and DC began including public service advertisements in the comic.

Other changes were designed to specifically undercut the accusation that Batman and Robin were gay. Alfred's role in the comic was diminished (Alfred was even killed off for a while in the early 1960s, only to be, literally, resurrected for a while as a villain). To supplement Alfred, Aunts Agatha and Harriet were introduced to provide care, nurturing and a woman's touch in Wayne manor. At the same time, DC began to introduce a series of other female characters to provide romances for Batman and Robin - Bat-girl in 1956 and Batwoman in 1961.

As Best notes, Bat-girl and Batwoman's complementary crime-fighting acted as a replacement for regular heterosexual courtship: rather than dinner and a movie, a romantic Batman took his girl out on rooftops. In this sense, Batman's crime-fighting became a sight for potential heterosexual productivity, a time when Batman could WOO! and COURT! The cast of female characters provided Batman with something of a full family, or at least the groundwork for one. Even if the bat-family never achieved full "normalcy," it at least blunted the edges of a lifestyle that was irreconcilable with the gendered expectations of the decade.

It's something of a cliché today to point out that the rigid expectations of domesticity in 1950s were, to say the least, unrealistic and stifling for many people, straight and gay alike. Whether Batman experienced something of a Bat-Mystique is tough to discern, though he seems, at times, to have chaffed under the care of Aunts Harriet and Agatha. But Batman's hypothetical feelings on the matter were irrelevant to the suits at DC. The world had changed.

A Batman who continued to live in 1945 was an economic liability in 1955. He was a threat to the family and to the bottom-line. Batman's "gayness," then, was a flash point for a larger set of social anxieties. Just as elites worked aggressively to purge society and government of homosexuality, so too did DC purge Batman of any social deficiency which could be interpreted or construed as "gay."

badthoughts5ci.jpgWas it enough? To satisfy the most vocal critics, yes. But, ironically, the move to surrealism and fantasy also pushed Batman into the territory of high camp, in which Batman's ostensibly heterosexual romances were suspiciously unbelievable. Indeed, in the camp world of the Batman television series, Batman's exaggerated and largely asexual romances seemed almost like a parody of actual heterosexual romances - a tension best explored by Robert Smigel's Ace and Gary.

In this sense, Silver Age Batman's partisans miss the central reason why Batman is a compelling and fascinating figure in the first place. Batman's most important relationships have always been with criminals. What drives him to pursue them? How does he distinguish himself from his queries? How is vigilantism anything but criminal? Indeed, Batman's most provocative implications have centered around the distinction between law and justice - Batman's dedication to the latter, often at the expense of the former.

Attempts to contrive a heterosexual "history" for Batman have always rang false, precisely because what rang true about Batman had nothing to do with "normal" heterosexual romance. That hardly necessitates Batman occupy an all-male world and the next Nolan film would benefit from a compelling female villain. Nevertheless, this much is certain: a character locked in any banal romance, either with Dick Grayson or Rachel Dawes, hardly seems believable as someone willing to endure the deprivations and burdens required of the Batman.


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Sounds like no true hero could survive our many moral panics that recur regularly like clockwork several times each decade.

I watched "Cool Hand Luke" (1967) last evening starring Paul Newman. It is a chain gang movie set in 1948 Georgia.

In one scene two men are seen acting very girlish, by today's standards, by jumping rope together. No one gives them a second look. Another scene has two men dancing together while the other men cheer them on. Throughout the movie the prisoners are seen to be very caring for one another.

Nonsexual affection between men in public used to be the norm. Not only in the U.S. but elsewhere. Even into the 1960s, when I spent some of my childhood in Germany, it was common in Europe to see straight men holding hands.

The virulent homophobia that has spread world-wide over the past 50 years has not only hurt gay men. It has hurt straight men who used to be able to show their softer, what we'd now consider feminine, side in public.

Back then, of course, such behavior wasn't seen as feminine. Rather it was seen as normal male behavior. Go further back in history and you'll find that men wore high heels (hence the saying referring to rich men as "well-heeled"), wigs, makeup and colorful fancy clothing one would be considered a drag queen for wearing today.

I do not think there can be any doubt that the resistance of the religious right wingers to ending DADT, passing ENDA and keeping anti gay laws like the DOMA in place has at heart a fear that straight men might discover that they are a lot more like women than the powers that be wish them to be. After all if you can control a person's sensuality you can more easily oppress them in other ways too.

A small side note:

Frank Miller, who gave us the near-perfect homo fantasy of 300, rewrote a bit of the Batman legend back in the late 80s with a four part graphic novel (whose name eludes me at the moment, sorry, but I think it was "The Dark Knight"), in which Robin is a young punkish girl. Miller's rationale for no longer having Robin a boy? "Batman's grown too old for that phase of his life."

Needless to say, the fans were outraged at this sacreligous breech of the Batman mythology. I dont think Miller touched the franchise again.

Sean,

You're wrong on most counts. In "The Dark Knight Returns" (referenced in the article), Robin *was* portrayed as a punky teen girl, but the series was an enormous hit. Miller returned to the "franchise" multiple times with "Batman: Year One," "The Dark Knight Strikes Again," "Batman/Spawn," and "All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder." That last title has, however, been reviled by most fans. Some fans object to its portrayal of Batman as an abusive "father" to Robin, but most just object to the dreadful writing("I am the goddamn batman!").

Okay, guys, I stand corrected on him going back to the franchise. However, the fans' outrage at Robin being a girl was indeed huge *at the time when the series was published*, which was my frame of reference for the post. Miller was pretty POd at the reaction to his work -- again, *at the time*.

Yes, now it's a seminal work, but I dont think anyone -- even Miller -- goes into a project and says to himself, "This is gonna kick ass for decades!" Or maybe he does; I dont know. I love his work, but he's had his share of a few duds over the years -- anyone remember the near-incomprehensible "Ronin" series done in the mid-80s? I havent stuck with it to know what happened as a result of its publication, but I can remember reading it *at the time* and thinking WTHF is this?, as did a lot of my comic geek friends. Spectacular artwork, but man, that story!

"The Dark Knight Returns" was a seminal work, exceptionally impactful, and changed the entirety of the world of Comics both on the page and beyond (Miller's Dark knight served as the basis for the recent movies).

He did, in fact, return to the character, and has, several times over the years. Miller pretty much got his first major boost in the industry writing fro Batman Comics, and when he shifted to competitor Marvel, he established a character that he felt would become the Marvel version of Batman, a leaner, meaner, darker version that ultimately presaged what later became the graphic novel mentioned earlier.

That character was Daredevil. Didn't create him, but he made DD an iconic figure and developed the ideas out a lot more in his long tenure on that title. Elektra is Miller's creation.

Miller followed up TDKR with Batman: Year One, where he looked a the early years, which had never been done to the depth and degree he took it. That series is absolutely behind the first Nolan Film in terms of direction.

A decade ago now (wow) he wrote the sequel to the Dark Night Returns: Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again. In 2005, he started writing the main continuity line title as well -- Miller *is* the modern Batman in terms of direction and oversight -- even old Denny (who's work is actually glimpsed in the article above) hasn't had that deep and lasting an impact on a character.

Next year, he and Jim Lee are supposed to reprise their much maligned Batman and Robin that they wrote between '05 and '08 -- with a boy wonder.

(sorry, I loves my batman...)

Perhaps in future comics or a movie, Batman should be gay. And Robin should be his younger lover.

This is the thing that gets to me in all these discussions. Everyone always focuses on this "is he, or isn't he" titillation.

No one bothers to imagine what a gay Batman and Robin could look like. Except of course, in the context of bad cliche's based on homophobic ideas of what "gay" is.
This is illustrated perfectly by the images provided with this very interesting piece of writing.

Why couldn't a superhero have a healthy gay relationship and still kick some criminal butt? Batman and Robin would surely continue to fight against crime and preserve the good quality of life that Gotham and the world deserves. That is what they do.How would this look? Can we conceive of this?

Or are we, (both gay and straight people), too locked into our notions of what being homosexual is, to create any kind of new story?

What if the gay superhero was someone that kids and grownups alike could look up to as THEIR superhero? A hero free of the gay cliche's of clown, swish or tragic figure that inevitably dies at the end of the story.

If you ask me, all I've seen and read in the last years are rehashed versions of material we've already seen.

A new story would truly be a radical change.

If I ever got to do a gritty re-imagining of Batman & Robin, Robin would totally be a gay teen who was disowned by his parents and ended up living on the streets, scraping by on prostitution and go-go dancing. ("Boy Wonder" would be his stage name.) To defend himself and his friends from gay-bashers and muggers, he'd learn mad fighting skills. Batman would notice said badass fighting skills and, empathizing with a fellow orphan, invite him to stay at his mansion and fight by his side. At first, Robin would be suspicious of Batman's motives, assuming he wanted some kind of sugar daddy/kept boy situation, but gradually he'd learn to trust the Dark Knight. Also, he'd play bass guitar in a queercore band.

TELL me that wouldn't be awesome.