Batman’s Cultural Impact: Promoting Great Society Values
The Batman TV series (1966-1968) is famous for its witty camp humor and colorful cast of villains. But, argues Chris Gould, it also enthusiastically espoused the social and political goals of LBJ and the Great Society.
For children, watching the '60s television series Batman was a joyously relaxing exercise. Two good, strong men in bright-colored costumes took the fight to the forces of Evil on a weekly basis and forever triumphed via a series of “Pows! Bams! and Zaps!” For adults, though, there is a moral–and taxing–obligation to analyze further. Contained within Batman’s simple narrative is not only a pop art masterpiece but a powerful social commentary that wholeheartedly supports the Great Society initiatives of President Lyndon Johnson. Even now, exactly 45 years after the broadcast of its first season, Batman remains perfect proof that pop really matters.
Bruce Wayne’s Great Society
The phrase “Great Society” was introduced to American culture in 1964 via the lips of President Johnson, anxious to extend the New Frontier program that had hit the buffers following his predecessor’s assassination. The central aims were to eradicate poverty and increase opportunities for lower-income families through increased government intervention and spending. In Johnson’s own words: “No child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.”
This quote could easily have come from Bruce Wayne, the millionaire philanthropist alter-ego of Batman who takes it upon himself to spend money where government doesn’t. Not by coincidence was Wayne’s character created by Bob Kane against the backdrop of Roosevelt’s New Deal program in the 1930s, upon which the Great Society concept sought to build. Charitable donations and fundraisers are a prominent theme of Bruce Wayne’s life, highlighting the Johnsonite belief that vast accumulations of wealth should be redistributed for specific causes. Furthermore, by investing hugely in the latest crime-fighting equipment for the Batcave, Wayne also sends a veiled message that higher state spending on police technology will yield higher criminal detection rates.
Batman’s episodes are brimful of references to Great Society thinking, with the cowled crusader himself taking a very liberal line on public spending, the value of human life, penal reform, and racial integration. His views are often vented in response to rash statements from Robin–dressed up as the inexperience of youth, but usually resembling conservative opinions. Below are some of the finest examples.
“Closed on Wednesdays due to lack of funds?? Shocking! Shocking!”
The above line is uttered, with much head-shaking, outside the Baker Street Branch of the Gotham City Library, which Batman rather expected to be open on the day in question. Nearly every episode has Batman espouse the virtues of education and reading to Robin, explaining how moral standards make a good citizen, and how academic knowledge (especially of science) can help solves crimes. One memorable exchange sees Robin’s alter-ego Dick Grayson shout: “What’s the use of learning French?” only to be batted down by Bruce Wayne’s: “I’m surprised at you! Language is the key to world peace!” In a later episode, Robin’s French actually helps him solve one of the Riddler’s trademark puzzles.
Batman is clearly exasperated at the lack of funds for libraries and, in line with the Great Society mantra that spawned America’s first national culture centers, clearly believes that relevant spending should be increased. Another episode sees Bruce Wayne donate $5,000 to the Gotham State Penitentiary Library, in the hope that better and more uplifting books will encourage villains to reform themselves. The episode in question aired during America’s first official National Library Week (another Johnson initiative) and also saw the creation of a special one-off villain, the Bookworm, to highlight its cause. This, of course, came just months after two landmark education acts increased federal spending on education to unprecedented levels.
“They may be drinkers, Robin...”
The 1966 movie, released just after the first season aired, sees Batman having to dispose of a bomb which four super criminals have placed above a bar full of drunkards. Unfortunately, every time Batman nears a convenient place to drop the bomb, a blind marching band, a mother with a pram, a kissing couple, innocent nuns, and charming ducklings come into view. The caped crusader only just succeeds in tipping the bomb into the ocean, prompting a petrified Robin to exclaim: “You risked your life to save that… riff-raff in the bar?”
The comment not only hints at upper class snobbery, but also contains Aristotelian undertones, suggesting that Batman’s life–that of a supremely virtuous human being–is worth more than those of the alcoholics he protected. Batman refutes this suggestion with a response that evokes Johnson’s Equal Opportunities Act. “They may be drinkers Robin,” he concedes, “but they’re also human beings.”
As if heeding the President’s call for society to take responsibility for social problems, Bruce Wayne continuously donates to the underprivileged, even to criminals who have tried to kill him! One of the Joker’s molls, for example, is sent to the Wayne Foundation for Delinquent Girls, to gain access to chances that a “broken home” failed to provide for her. Underpinning Batman’s philosophy is the very liberal belief that early intervention, as well as punishment, is central to preventing crime.
Batman’s views on prisoner rights are also remarkably liberal for the time, especially given the treatment he received from many of Gotham City’s most feared inmates. When Robin chides Warden Chrichton for allowing Penguin and his henchmen to wear regular clothes in the Gotham State Penitentiary to prepare them for “re-acclimatization to the outside world,” Batman coolly replies: “Sound penology warden. Ve-e-ry sound.”
“The original land was leased from the Mohican Indians”
Batman also captured how the Civil Rights Movement was rapidly spreading the agenda of ethnic minorities. An episode dominated by Vincent Price’s virtuoso guest appearance is based upon recognizing the Native American Indians who founded Gotham City. Bruce Wayne is at pains to stress the importance of paying a ceremonial donation of nine raccoon pellets to the absurdly named Chief Screaming Chicken every year. Arguably Batman’s most political moment occurs when Wayne tells Grayson the story of Chief Screaming Chicken’s argument with a hotel manager, which ended with the latter’s words: “Go back to your own country!” Grayson exclaims: “But this is his country.” Although ethnic minorities were largely absent among the show’s actors, a notable milestone was achieved in casting Eartha Kitt as the first African-American Catwoman.
“I want a campaign that deals with the issues”
Batman’s political commentary also cut across party lines, expressing a clear desire for cleaner elections and better use of democratic functions. The episode which sees Batman vying with Penguin to become mayor of Gotham City revolves around a scathing critique of electoral practices–and was aired just prior to the 1966 mid-term elections.
The caped crusader is adamant that the campaign should focus on issues and not showmanship, but is dismayed when only a handful of people turn up to hear his policy-focused speech. On the contrary, Penguin’s rallies are always well attended even though he deliberately avoids policy, simply treating the crowds to dancing girls. When Robin, alarmed by the Penguin’s pulling power, urges Batman to make his posters bigger, the caped crusader eyes the camera firmly and makes a direct appeal to real-life voters. “I’m convinced the American electorate is too mature to be taken in by cheap vaudeville trickery,” he maintains, before delivering his biting punch line: “If our national leaders were elected on the basis of tricky slogans, brass bands, and pretty girls, our country would be in a terrible mess now, wouldn’t it?”
Batman proceeds to provide a blueprint for the perfectly clean electoral campaign, refusing to kiss babies because “they are very susceptible to germs” and refusing to report an attempt on his life by Penguin for fear of being accused of mud-slinging by the Electoral Fair Practices Committee. Batman’s assertion that “it’s the votes that count” is part of the episode’s general swipe against opinion pollsters, who are portrayed as naïve, clueless, and collecting data from ridiculous samples: “two sword swallowers and a female wrestler.”
In general, the Batman team’s political leanings can clearly be seen from the ridicule meted out to leading Republican figures of the day. The election episode not only results in Batman being invited to challenge Richard Nixon in the Californian gubernatorial race but also sees a Gotham city candidate named Harry Goldwinner labeled as a “monarchist…backed by two old ladies.” A later episode also introduces a criminal weapon named a “Ronald Ray-gun,” hardly a generous accolade for the politician in question. On the contrary, Lyndon Johnson himself is favorably portrayed by the presidential character in the Batman movie, steadily reassuring the nation in a time of crisis while lovingly stroking his dog.
Yet, for all the shows veiled attacks on Republicans, and not-so-veiled support of the Great Society, the producers were only as liberal as their age would allow. New social movements developing among the young, such as women’s lib, beach surfing culture, pop art, and flower power, were mercilessly lampooned in later episodes–dismissed without any real analysis of their raison d’etre. That said, the fact Batman even acknowledged the presence of these movements was groundbreaking for TV shows of the day, and highlighted the producers’ determination to shape opinion on every hot social issue–even if they didn’t fully understand it.
CHRIS GOULD was born in England, and started writing in his early childhood. After freelancing as a sportswriter for the Daily Telegraph, he pursued a research and speechwriting career in local government before heading to Japan in 2008. Since moving to the Land of the Rising Sun, Chris has not only experienced a hair-raising earthquake, but continued to write for a number of publications in Tokyo and overseas. His main interests involve Japanese and French society, popular cultural trends, football, tennis and music.