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Batman and “Bitches”

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Wednesday, Nov 9, 2011
In noir, men do bad things to women, women do bad things to men, people do bad things to each other. One of the central conceits of noir is very simple: people are creeps.

Kirk Hamilton’s article on Batman: Arkham City and his perception that the word “bitch” is overused by the game’s various thugs and villains has (among other essays concerned with Arkham City‘s approach to women) been making the rounds for a couple of weeks now to both positive and negative response.


Hamilton’s essay is thoughtful and not especially knee-jerk in its consideration of the game’s events and dialogue.  For instance, he writes:


As you make your way around Arkham, you’ll overhear goons from the various factions talking about current events, and every time they talk about Harley Quinn, the B-word gets dropped at least once. Often more than once. “That bitch,” “That crazy bitch,” etc.
To those playing the game: it’s weird, right? Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s Weird ‘Bitch’ Fixation”, Kotaku, 19 October 2011).


While Hamilton seems to want to pose a rhetorical question, I think that it is at least a legitimate question and one that is more open for consideration, perhaps, than a rhetorical question should be.  In answering that question for myself: no, I’m not sure that I immediately feel that it is as weird as he does.  While I think that I essentially agree with his point that “there’s a fine line between edgy dialogue and forced, angry overkill” in fiction, I don’t think that those who argue that convicts and super criminals overusing a slur against women has some ring of authenticity to it are entirely crazy either.
  
Indeed, if I played a game or watched a movie about the KKK or skinheads in America, I would be surprised if racial epithets weren’t overused by those populations.  For prisoners to use the term “bitch” without restraint seems unsurprising as this is a term that is very much a central one in prison subculture.  Its gendered quality is absolutely of central concern to men in prison, as it is used as often (if not more) to emasculate men as it is to describe women.  (And it is used in Arkham City in that context as well, which Hamilton does point out near the end of his essay.  Though, he incorrectly identifies it as only occurring once near the end of the game—this isn’t the case, as I have heard Batman and Bruce Wayne told by prisoners that they would “make him their bitch” on more than one occasion, and I’m still early in my playthrough of the game).  The word and its usage by this population assumes that femininity is synonymous with weakness and submissiveness.  It’s offensiveness in a prison context is quite clearly fully intended as a gendered slur and assumes very nasty ideas about women.  To me, this is undeniable, and it is definitely really used in this way and used often.


However, my lack of surprise at the language of Arkham City‘s criminal class is less a product of my assumption about the authenticity of Batman’s world in terms of its adherence to realism generally.  My feeling stems, instead, more from my sense of Batman and the way that he has emerged in fiction and what genre traditions that Batman stories emerge from.  Simply put, Batman is hard boiled and his worlds emerge from that novelistic tradition as well as the cinematic traditions of film noir.


The Bob Kane Batman, who first appeared in 1939 in Detective Comics, is, of course, a part of the superheroic fantasy genre that we recognize that most comics represent, but the character and his world also emerged at a period of time when the hard boiled novel and pulp magazines were influencing other media even more so. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep appeared the same year as Batman, Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon appeared nine years earlier, and, of course, both Chandler and Hammett were influenced by Hemingway (whose work preceded theirs by a decade or so but also spanned many of these years).  Batman emerges within this tradition and would come of age and develop alongside Hollywood fare like the Chandler scripted Double Indemnity (1944) and other films like The Third Man (1950, featuring Orson Welles) and Welles own contribution to the genre of noir, Touch of Evil (1958). 



Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity

The attitudes of this style of fiction are quite clear and quite simple.  In noir, men do bad things to women, women do bad things to men, people do bad things to each other.  One of the central conceits of noir is very simple: people are creeps.


Chandler spoke to the reasons for American crime fiction going this direction because he was rather contemptuous of stories of murder and vice as told by the British in their “drawing room mysteries.”  He discusses how Dashiell Hammett’s novels changed in their approach to approximating criminal behaviors for the sake of an audience that was not privileged, but, instead, that might understand better the harder worlds that his fiction represented:


Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to begin by getting as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing. He wrote at first (and almost to the end) for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street. (“The Simple Art of Murder”, The Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin, 1950)


Tonally, Kane’s early Batman stories are quite different than contemporaneous superheroic fare like Superman and Wonder Woman stories, more akin, perhaps, to Will Eisner’s Spirit strip than other funny books of the era and, again, also more akin to the novels and cinema of the era dealing with detectives and crime stories.  In that sense, Batman, was always initially a bit more violent, a bit darker than his more colorful peers.  And represented a “realism” a bit more as Chandler might conceive of it:


The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising.


The “sanitization” of Batman and Detective Comics would happen progressively with more and more “kid friendly” stories emerging over several decades, especially the later days of the 1950s and the 1960s (Frederic Wertham’s 1954 attack on the comic book genre as a source of juvenile deliquency, Seduction of the Innocent, is probably one notably obvious causal factor for this kinder, gentler face of comic books in general), culminating in Batman’s most kitsch and most mainstream debut with his portrayal by Adam West in the Batman television show.


Now, in terms of sanitization, language and to some degree sexuality, was sanitized in much of noir during the early part of the twentieth century.  Despite the fact that Chandler would write stories of homosexual pornographers and insurance men seduced by wives in need of a patsy to kill their husbands, the Hays code very much restrained some of the application of Chandler’s hard boiled philosophy on the screen.  The language was suggestive but the code still did not allow for the colorful linguistic expressions of those with a “sharp, aggressive attitude to life.”


Enter a post-Hays Hollywood and the world of neonoir.  Some of the early pulp novelists had already been testing sensibilities within a Hays-Code-bound America in print form (like Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me, 1952, for example), but the handcuffs really came off at the close of the 1960s and many of the writers that were still around were able to generate worlds that expressed the unadulterated cynicism that Chandler had previously expressed as his vision of “realism” (Elmore Leonard, for example, as well as newcomers like James Ellroy and even later folks like Quentin Tarantino). 


Batman would dabble with darker themes in the more horror inspired comics of the 1970s, but it would be the 1980s where he would be returned most fully to his noir roots.  This transformation may have begun with the hard boiled approach of Doug Monech and the comfortable embrace of the grotesque of Alan Grant, but it would be, of course, Frank Miller that would finalize the return of darkness to the Dark Knight (unsurprisingly, since Miller had struck this tone in his run on Daredevil and he is the author of the neonoir comic book title, Sin City).


Miller’s Dark Knight would make Batman’s universe more than a little troubling and uncomfortable again, but his play with actual continuity in Batman: Year One would make Batman the most mainstream neonoir superhero again.  Commissioner Gordon would cheat on his pregnant wife, Catwoman’s origins would be in prostitution rather than as a high class jewelry thief, and hard boiled cynicism was central to the world of Batman once more.


Thus, I can’t help but not feel any particular shock at the world of Arkham City.  Everyone talks trash; indeed, as in all noir, everyone is a creep. 


Catwoman in Arkham City

The sexiness of Catwoman also seems of a piece with a hard boiled tone.  She is a femme fatale—a staple of the genre and its cynicism.  My only real gripe about the character is that she isn’t the best written femme fatale, coming off as flat by comparison to, say, Barbara Stanwyck’s wickedly clever, predatory character in Double Indemnity.  For that matter, Catwoman has been done better by both Michelle Pfeiffer and Eartha Kitt, two actresses whose performances are admittedly hard to follow.


As far as women go in Arkham City, it is really only Harley Quinn that causes me to raise an eyebrow at developer Rocksteady’s intentions.  Harley’s sexed up look resembles that of the femme fatale, which she really is not.  Not a sexual predator, Harley’s previous cartoon and comic book appearances have situated her as a weird satire of comic book girlfriends and sidekicks, who is all the more interesting because she is a villainous female that occupies a noir space but defies the femme fatale role (something that I can’t think of any exceptions to in noir—there are differing types of female characters in noir, but if a woman is bad, she is sexually predatory in every instance that I can recall).  Harley has always worn a skin tight bodysuit, but so does the Flash and the Green Lantern, so does everyone in comic books.  Harley’s shift into leather bustier, frankly, doesn’t fit the character at all and is clearly a mere gratuitous element that doesn’t serve the genre that Batman stories represent in any way.


I frankly hate it.


However, once again, my real interest is in articulating an honest response to Hamilton’s question about the weirdness of a fictive world in which men speak in such ugly ways about women.  The speech is detestable, but is less weird to me as I seem to personally locate Arkham City in a tradition that is extremely cynical about human behavior very broadly and is very unabashed about representing human cruelty, gendered and otherwise.  In this regard, I think one of the most astute things about Hamilton’s article is his initial implication in the essay that the Teen rating for this game might be more than a little inappropriate, as its dark themes seem of a much more mature nature.  I feel like considering the problem of the rating more than a little reasonable, especially because human cruelty is expressed throughout the game as it goes to some additionally very dark places (the serial killer Victor Zsasz’s meditations on carving human flesh, for example). 


Arkham City really isn’t standard comic book fare in its approach to world building, and I really don’t want grandma picking up the box for a present for the grandkids this Christmas.  Hopefully, the black and white image of Batman with a bloody fist on the cover and the sexy pose of Catwoman on the back helps clarify that this isn’t a game for kids, but a more clearly targeted rating would also be helpful because, yes, this game is considerably meaner than what one might think a funny book adaptation “should” be.


 

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