‘Batman: The Killing Joke’: You Can’t Fix Sexist

Let’s face facts. Some things you can’t sanitize. You can’t make Moby Dick palatable to conservationists who want to save whales. You can’t eliminate the racism from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And based on the animated feature, released this week, it seems more likely you’d be able erase the misogyny from Charles Bukowski’s Women than from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.

And perhaps that’s ok. In some ways, Moore’s work should be remembered as a relic of the 1980’s– the supreme example of how violence towards women is glamorized and used to further a male-centric narrative. It’s meant to be brutal and shocking– but not to say something about violence towards women. It’s intention instead is to establish how evil The Joker is and how good Jim Gordon is, and to give our hero, Batman, a reason to leap into action.

The attempt by Director Bruce Timm and Screenwriter Brian Azzarello to update and expand Killing Joke is laudable in its attempt but flaccid in its execution. It’s as if they heard the complaint “Batgirl is just a victim here! Where’s her story?” and chose to respond to this criticism in its own problematic ways.

It isn’t enough to give us more Batgirl storyline and that somehow offers absolution for her victimhood later. In many ways, it compounds the problem. It presents her as a strong, capable female character, making it all the more tragic when she is brutalized later. And that’s the problem.

It certainly feels like now we, as the audience, are culpable in her victimhood. We are supposed to be shocked and outraged and sickened as much as Jim Gordon. By raising the stakes because we’ve fallen in love with her during the opening act (and speaking for myself, I fell hard for Barbara Gordon. She’s amazing), now we care about her even more.

That’s cheap. And it’s the heart of what’s wrong with Killing Joke’s sexism: Barbara Gordon is still a victim. Nothing more, nothing less. And her attack only serves to propel the male characters, not her own. Tacking on a epilogue where we see her becoming Oracle doesn’t spackle over and whitewash this rotting sexist wall full of holes.

Here’s an idea: Give us an Oracle story. Show us Birds of Prey. Flip the script and make Bruce Wayne a damsel in distress.

Don’t want to go that far? Just change a few lines. When Batman releases Jim Gordon, let him talk to his daughter in the hospital. Let Jim Gordon and Batman be out for blood. “I’ll tear his throat out!” “No, that’s what he wants. Let me handle him.” And then let Barbara be the one who implores, “No. We have to bring him in– by the book.” Then show Batman’s struggle with whether or not he’s going to let Joker live, with Barbara as his shoulder angel, and the Joker himself as the agent of rage who wants Batman to kill him in order to prove his point.

Even then, I concede that Killing Joke wouldn’t really be feminist in any way, shape or form. And by feminist, all I mean here is something that simply doesn’t degrade women and treats its male and female characters equally– something I hope we can all agree is worth pursuing.

Even if we made all these changes, Killing Joke would simply be just slightly less terrible and misogynistic, and also possibly place the onus on women to be level-headed and forgiving towards their attackers. That’s also problematic, even if a step up from the status quo.

But let’s talk about what the creative team actually did, and why that’s still not sufficient, rather than speculate on what they could have done.  

There is a critique of “political correctness” that somehow to make something PC one engages in “checkbox writing.” Minority character? Check. Gay character? Check. And that somehow if you check off all the boxes, then you are going to be fine. But this is why basic things, like the Bechdel Test (which the expanded, animated Killing Joke still doesn’t pass, by the way) are the floor for what is acceptable, not the ceiling to which we aspire.

Killing Joke engages in this “checkbox political correctness” (eg, the wrong way to create diverse, equitable, inclusive literature/entertainment) and the results are nearly disastrous. To clarify, “checkbox correctness” is what people engage in because they don’t understand how to bake equity and inclusivity into their stories from the start. The most egregious example of this is a form of tokenism where Barbara’s best friend at the library is a stereotype of a gay best friend. Even if the character were a woman, it still wouldn’t pass Bechdel, because all they talk about is men. *Le sigh* 

And then let’s talk about the sex, which seems to be the lightning rod for much of the criticism. The sex is fine. I don’t like that Barbara is reduced to pining over Batman like a teenager, or brooding over why he won’t call, but I get it. Who hasn’t fallen for a dark, emotionally distant, powerful man before? She’s human and she’s allowed to fall for a co-worker. 

The problem isn’t the sex, it’s the tone. The entire prologue feels like an adult version of an episode of The Animated Series. It would work, to some extent, on its own. But its connection as a prologue to The Killing Joke makes no damn sense.

One of the more interesting pieces of the tacked-on Batgirl story is the introduction of mob villain Paris Franz. Being interpreted as a symbol of 21st century privilege and toxic masculinity, he makes an interesting counterpoint and foil for Batgirl to fight. It’s actually quite satisfying to watch her get the best of him, not only proving herself the equal of Batman himself, but even rescuing Bats from certain death!

An apologist for the material could make the case that because Batman was attacked and put in danger in order to allow Batgirl to be the hero, then that makes it somehow ok when it comes to the attack on Barbara later by Joker. But it in no way does. Batman escapes with minimal damage and no lasting trauma. Barbara is paralyzed and sexually brutalized. The two are in no way equivalent.  

In the end, I’m not sure if I should thank or critique the creative team behind Killing Joke — they were trying to make it better, but there’s simply not enough mayonnaise in the world to turn chicken shit into chicken salad. And that is what we have been served. The tacked-on extra Batgirl sequences as a first act and an epilogue are two slices of bread that don’t match the flavors of the chickenshit chicken salad filling. The clash of flavors is so jarring, it makes the filling somehow worse. The bread on its own might have been just fine. But here? The final inexorable conclusion is maybe this just isn’t a sandwich we should try to make any more.

Let’s put it on the shelf and remember it. It’s important and iconic and always will be. But maybe we can stop idolizing and idealizing it.