Heroines, Assemble!

Welcome to the new GWOG! It will be updated each Monday by a member of the Gworg Board of Directors, on a rotating schedule whose particulars are a closely-guarded secret. I have the honour of the first post of the new regime.

Huntress in "Batman: The Brave and the Bold"

Like lots of fans, I’ve been enjoying the new BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD animated series. It’s campy and fun without being overly knowing or self-referential, accessible to everyone while still being clever. One problem keeps hitting me, though: the lack of female superheroes. If you’ve never seen it, there are two notable features of the show’s set-up. First, the few minutes before the title sequence are usually used for a mini-adventure unrelated to the main episode (although they are sometimes used to set up the episode’s backstory, or to further the overarching plot of the season). Second, and most fundamentally, the theme of the show is team-ups. Batman is never alone, always coming together with at least one fellow hero to beat up baddies. Which makes it quite striking that no female hero has had the full BatB team-up treatment, a one-on-one team-up with Bats in the main episode. Only once has a woman Black Canary been in such a team-up, and that was in a pre-title sequence. Every other super-heroine appearance has been alongside other male supers. So far* only five female superheroes have put in an appearance in their professional capacity, and only three have appeared more than once. Let’s go through them spoilers abound past this point.
Katana in “Batman: The Brave and the Bold”
Katana has made three appearances as one-third of the Outsiders (with Black Lightning and Metamorpho). Katana is, as you’d expect, Japanese, and carries a lot of stereotypes she wears a schoolgirl uniform, her powers are skills with katana and shuriken (she has a magic sword in the comics, but it’s not put in an appearance yet in the cartoon), and in her first episode, ‘Enter the Outsiders!’, she’s silent, speaking only to tell her fellow Outsiders how to perform a sort of super-CPR on an incapacitated Wildcat. Her silence means the other two get more limelight, and she remains quiet during a pre-title sequence with the Outsiders being trained by Batman. This is somewhat made up for by ‘Inside the Outsiders!’, in which Psycho Pirate has trapped the three in nightmares, and Batman has to save them. Each of the Outsiders gets some meaty psychological stuff, but only Katana gets backstory the death of her sensei in her native Japan. She speaks a lot during her dream sequence (in a strong Japanese accent which she didn’t have in her first appearance) and we learn that her silence is in honour of her master, so at least it’s a stereotype they’ve taken the trouble to justify. In the end, most of Katana’s character is defined by her ethnicity, and she can be crowded out by the other Outsiders quite easily, but she’s still good to watch and they do seem intent on doing something interesting with her team.
Huntress in “Batman: The Brave and the Bold”
Which is more, really, than can be said for Huntress, probably this show’s greatest disappointment for me as I’m a big fan of hers. Huntress gets two main-episode appearances, one as part of a big ensemble in ‘Death Race to Oblivion!’ where she’s rather overshadowed by Green Arrow, Guy Gardner and Plastic Man, and one alongside Blue Beetle in ‘Night of the Huntress!’***. Huntress’s whole thing in this episode is ‘sexpot’ her tooling-up sequence mostly consists of her letting her hair down and applying lipstick, and the main thrust of this episode is Jaime’s crush on sexy Helena. She flirts constantly, with lots of double-entendres. The writers just don’t seem to see much of her character beyond her sexiness (she’s also somewhat more violent, although Batman doesn’t seem to be bothered by this).
Black Canary in “Batman: The Brave and the Bold”
Black Canary is another favourite of mine, and the best woman in the series. She’s the only female hero to get a straight team-up in a pre-title beatdown on Solomon Grundy. There are still wrong notes in her portrayal, though her unrequited love for Batman feels a bit forced and uninteresting. In one of her episodes, the musical ‘Mayhem of the Music Meister!’, she’s largely passive, apparently under the Music Meister’s mind-control for most of the episode, and though her Canary Cry saves the day Batman has to goad her into using it. Her best episode is ‘The Golden Age of Justice!’, in which she and Batman are still being treated like sidekicks by an ageing Justice League (of the Flash, Doctor Mid-Nite, Wildcat, Hawkman and Hourman). It’s another ensemble episode, but most of the spotlight is on Canary and she swings the climactic fight. Best of all, nothing is made of her Bat-crush.
Two other heroines have minor appearances Fire cameos in a Plastic Man pre-title adventure, and one of the Metal Men, Platinum, is really a Metal Woman but that’s it for woman as heroes in BatB. And over thirty-four episodes, that’s not great.
Part of the underlying problem is revealed by looking at the treatment of women as wives. In the pre-title sequence to ‘Last Bat on Earth!’, Batman and Mister Miracle escape a death-trap for charity, following which Big Barda hectors Miracle for not cleaning out the garage Batman chuckles and tells him, ‘That’s one trap you can’t get out of’. In ‘Aquaman’s Outrageous Adventure!’, Aquaman’s wife insists that he take her and their son on a vacation rather than fight evildoers. In ‘Long Arm of the Law!’, Plastic Man’s wife Ramona insists on him watching the baby rather than going out and fighting crime. It’s a time-honoured position for the wives of male superheroes, from Mystery Men to The Incredibles a dogmatic insistence that their husband give up that silly crimefighting and concentrate on his family. It’s all part of the general stereotype that men put their time and effort into Big Important Projects, whereas women are concerned above all else with their homes and children.
It’s also a genre problem. BatB is trying to recapture an element of light-hearted, old-fashioned fun. Like a cargo cult, they do it by replicating elements from the original purveyors of that fun. And when you do that without some discretion, you replicate the flaws of what you’re making an homage to. With luck, they’ll learn to take what they need from the past and leave behind the unnecessary baggage.
*Which is not to say that this is BatB’s only problem; it’s just the problem I’m talking about here.
**I’m up to episode 34, ‘Sidekicks Assemble!’ but from the episode list, I don’t think there’s been an uptick in female representation in the episodes I haven’t seen yet. There is apparently a Birds of Prey episode coming up, which should be fun.
***My least favourite episode so far, I think. Not only is it ill-treatment of Huntress, there’s also the awful Mrs. Man-face as a villain.