Friday, July 13, 2012

The Geek Chorus #5: The Uncomfortable Truth About Bat-Nipples

I want to thank all of you who watched & commented on my video A Defense of Joel Schumacher. I'm quite proud of it, and I was pleasantly surprised by the overall positive reaction I received. It seems people are ready to move on and stop anchoring Mr. Schumacher's entire career to one blunder. Many people also came out as fans of the film, admitting to enjoying it for it goofiness, and that thrills me.

A lot was left out of the script, mostly for being tangential musings of different aspects of the film. I originally had a whole paragraph on Poison Ivy and a lot more to say about Batgirl. However, there was one point I left out because it was honestly such a touchy subject it would've dominated the video, and potentially made it twice as long. It's a rather uncomfortable undercurrent to the entire outrage over the film, an elephant in the room no one really wants to address. I touched on it briefly, alluding to the "slightly homophobic" hate Schumacher had received over the years, but I downplayed it because I had no time to go into detail, and offhandedly accusing Batman & Robin haters of being bigots would have been absolutely the wrong approach.

Nonetheless, it's something I feel MUST be discussed at some point, if for no other reason than to just get it out in the open. I'm not here to accuse anyone of anything, only to address the more troubling subtext to how many people seem to respond to Joel Schumacher & his work.

So let's talk about Bat-Nipples.

First off let me be absolutely clear about this: I am not a psychologist, nor am I a mind-reader. I claim no expertise in psychoanalysis, and I make no boast to have any real insight into the collective consciousness of our society or any others. Nothing I say here is to be taken as fact by anyone. These are simply observations and suggestions as to what some things might mean, nothing more.

Excellent, qualifiers made. Back to the subject at hand.

In order to really examine why putting nipples on the batsuit turned out to be such a controversial move, we have to discuss the made who made that move in the first place. Joel Schumacher, as most of you may know, is gay. Actually that's understating it a bit. He's not just gay, he's GAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYY.

Batman's fabulous!
As homosexual directors go, he's not exactly Roger De Bris, but Schumacher has always been very open & proud of his sexuality. Moreover, he's been that way since before it became widely socially acceptable in this country to do so. Supposedly he even describes himself as a "sexual outlaw".

Now unfortunately, I was raised in a very isolated environment in the 90's (I didn't even know gay people EXISTED until my parents finally sat me down for "the talk"), but it's my understanding that the period is remembered as a bit of an awkward time for our country's relationship with the LGBT community. Homosexuality was no longer much of a taboo in the culture at large, but we weren't quite "used" to the idea yet. Gay men & women in films & television were usually extraordinarily stereotyped, often seen as the sidekicks in romantic comedies & such. They still are to some degree, but we've learned over time to write better characters for them.

However, when it comes to the area of sexuality, there's a big of extra baggage that comes with Batman. And there's one man we can thank for it: Fredric Wertham.

Comic's greatest super villain.
The 50's are infamous for their overzealous fear-mongering, and Dr. Wertham was right in the thick of it. In 1954 he published a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which sold parents on the idea that comic books were a corrupting influence turning children into lazy gadabouts, juvenile delinquents, sexual deviants, or any combination of the three. His accusations were completely unfounded as anyone with a functioning brain cell knows media does not and has never turned anyone into a criminal, but this was a 50's, and scared parents ate it up. The book resulted in congressional hearings, massive censorship, and crippled the comic book industry for decades to come.

However, this book made one particular accusation that tends to be remembered more than others: That Batman & Robin were in fact a gay couple promoting the homosexual lifestyle to youngsters.

And now you know where "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" comes from.
This was around the time of the "Lavender Scare", when homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder and was even grounds for the U.S. government to label you a security risk, believe it or not. So Batman's perceived sexual orientation was much more serious than the relative non issue this kind've thing is today. It led DC Comics to hurriedly write two new characters to serve as female romantic interests for the duo: the first versions of Batwoman & Batgirl. Presumably to emphasize the the masculinity and totally-not-gayness of Batman & Robin, this new pair where made to be as stereotypically feminine as possible, to an arguably offensive degree. They had "utility purses" instead of utility belts and their arsenal of weaponry within was all repurposed women's beauty products (lipstick, cosmetics etc). Appropriately enough, when Batwoman was finally brought back in 2005, they opted to make her a lesbian as a nice "screw you" to the controversy that spawned her decades ago.

Now obviously Batman was never intentionally written to be gay. Taking in a 12-year-old orphan only to use him to fight crime is morally questionable enough without adding and undercurrent of pedophilia. Though a number of writers over the year do admit to there being some homosexual undertones to the Batman mythos, intentionally or not. Even Frank Miller, of all people, has gone of record saying Batman's drive and anger issues comes from repressed sexuality. And let's be honest, even ignoring Robin's shorts, it pretty hard to overlook the fact that Batman has an unhealthy love/hate obsession with his flaming, lipstick-wearing likewise-obsessed archenemy.

...who'd rather think about Batman than plow his frisky so-called "girlfriend".
But whether or not Batman himself is actually gay is ultimately irrelevant. What's important is A) the aesthetic trappings of Batman's world over it's long history have a tendency to be very, very gay, and B) Batman was the first fictional character in history to face public persecution for his perceived homosexuality. Gayness is built into the franchise whether you like it or not.

Unfortunately, if Batman & Robin demonstrated anything it's that a depressing number of people still pretty firmly in the "not" category. We've come quite far in the country with regards to our tolerance of LGBTs, but we're not nearly "there" yet.

I've spoken at length about how many modern Batman fans resent older phases of the franchise, particularly the silver age, for failing to take the character as seriously as they did. To them, Batman should always be dark, brooding, gritty...and masculine. This may be a leap, but maybe, for some, that's the real reason for the image of Batman as darker and more realistic. Batman is cool, manly, a vessel for their own teenage power fantasies. And gays aren't cool, not in the way that they define cool. Gays are weak. Gays are colorful. Gays are campy. In order for Batman to remain cool, in order for them to forget those parts of their history that don't fit with their image of the character, he must be stripped of the colorful, the fantastical, the goofy, everything remotely "gay". Remove Robin from the picture as much as possible. Batman's a loner, because loner's are cooler. Tone the villains down, take away their gimmick weapons. Stop giving everything "bat-" prefixes. Realism.

Let me pause and remind you how fully aware I am that this is massive generalization & conjecture on my part. To say that Batman's fans are a bunch of insecure teenage homophobes would be incredibly condescending & presumptive, to say nothing of untrue (mostly). What I'm trying to do is offer a hypothesis as to why of all the things that are wrong with Batman & Robin, we keep coming back to the damn Bat-nipples, because when you really think about it, that's the most harmless thing about the movie.

REALLY look at this.
Look at this Batsuit for a moment. Besides the lighter shade and some fine detailing, this is essentially the same look the character has had in every movie since 1989. So why, of all things, are the nipples such an outrageous departure? Asking what's the point is of putting nipples on the Batsuit is like asking a man dressed entirely in fruit what's the point of adding limes. Why not ask the point of taking a character whose fighting style relies on stealth & evasion and encasing him in a bulky, visibly-restrictive outfit? All this time we've been fine with him having Bat-abs, Bat-pecs, Bat-thighs, Bat-calves, Bat-biceps, triceps, the whole human anatomy rendered in black rubber. The addition of nipples should be an utterly meaningless extra detail. But it's not. Apparently it's the end of the world.

Yeesh, overreact much?
Now the more obvious reason that tonal inconsistency and story problems get overlooked in favor of focusing on Bat-nipples & ass shots is that they're easier to point out. Generally speaking, a casual viewer isn't going to pick up on the deeper problems with a film's script or editing, so if they don't like it they'll often latch on to something more blatantly obvious, like a bad line of dialogue or a goofy bit of scenery. And there's certainly plenty of both to be had in Batman & Robin.

But I can't help but think that there's more to it, that the nipples & codpieces aren't just scapegoats for the bigger problems with the film. I can't help but see this as the newest generation of Batman fans colliding with a side of Batman they didn't want to admit existed. Fans who grew up in the Dark Age of Comics, whose image of the character was eternally rooted in The Dark Knight Returns. Fans for whom the combination of the campy aesthetic, an openly gay director, and one ass-shot too many were proof enough of a plot to turn their manly hero into a massive gaywad. And fans for whom that was the worst of all possible things that could happen to Batman.

I'm not hear to chastise or to wag the finger. I bring this up only because I feel it warrants discussion. Batman & homosexuality have a long, awkward & complicated history of misunderstandings and overreactions, and I think it's fair to see Batman & Robin as where it all came to a head. If we could just admit that to ourselves, maybe we can finally put the Bat-Nipples to rest once and for all.


Mulciber said...

It's refreshing to see somebody going against the tide, but I suppose I should expect that from an anarchist film critic. Personally, I'm a Marxist, but for the same reason I like the idea of pushing back against the thought-terminating consensus that always seems to form around significant events, be they in movies, art, history or politics.

The real significance of the constant uproar over Bat-nipples was never as obvious to me until you put it into context. I do think that there is an element of homophobia in the criticism of Schumacher and his Batman movies, but it was always just below the surface. Kudos for bringing it to attention and starting a debate that Batman fans don't want to have, but should. They may not be consciously homophobic when it comes to Schumacher's Bat films, but that doesn't necessarily make a difference, because I think you get to the deeper worries. Depicting Batman in such colourful, campy terms appears to be a threat to their masculinity - how else can you explain the lasting vehemence of their hatred towards Schumacher?

Jon Red said...

Oh come on. It's a great post and you had me going for a second but come on.

First of all, let me say that I agree fully that Mr. Schumacher's entire career shouldn't be anchored to one blunder. I agree.

But Mr. Shumacher's blunder has very little to do with homosexuality and way more to do with campiness in comic book franchises.

It's very simple: the majority of audiences want more gritty, more realistic, less campy versions of their comic book heroes. This has been the trend for quite some time now.

At the time in came out (1989), Tim Burton's Batman was the most gritty, most realistic, least campy on-screen treatment the franchise had received up to that point. It received positive reception. Each of the three following Batman films were progressively less gritty, less realistic, and more campy. And each of the three following films received progressively crappier reception.

Yes, camp is an aesthetic sensibility that homosexuals are often associated with but it does not mean camp = gay. And audiences rejecting campy shit from a film or comic book franchise is not evidence of homophobia.

Why do fans focus on the bat nipples and bat asses more than any of the SO MANY other examples of camp aesthetic in the movie? Simple: because Joel Schumacher made absolutely sure of it.

See, Batman & Robin didn't introduce the bat-nipples, bat-asses, or bat-crotches. No, they were actually introduced in Batman Forever. Don't remember? Watch it again, they're most definitely there. So why did it only become such a big deal with Batman & Robin?

Because with Batman & Robin, Joel made sure the bat-asses, bat-crotches, and bat-nipples were all bigger, more noticeable, and that they were all centered and zoomed in on during the opening suit up scene which was twice as long as before since it now included both Batman AND Robin. Four bat-nipples, two bat-crotches, two bat-asses, each one right up in your face, one after another. He made sure they moved the cape completely out of the way so that the audience got a nice long clear look the whole bat ass that completely filled the screen. This was the opening scene of the film and, just in case anyone missed it, you can catch it again in the additional and similarly awkward sequences that he also thought were necessary to add to the film.

Audiences hated the campiness of the film and Joel Schumacher went WAY out of his way to make sure EVERYONE noticed these particular campy details. It's really no surprise that criticism of the film always comes back to bat-nipples. It's quite logical.

Bottom line is, Joel force fed a camp aesthetic to audiences that simply did not want it. This doesn't indicate homophobia on any level, all it indicates is that, at least from 1989 to 2012, fans simply wanted films about the Dark Knight to be more serious and more... well, dark. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that's why any discussion on Shumacher's Batman films is most often loaded with the inevitable slurs of "f*gg*t" thrown around freely. Totally not homophobia!