Saturday, May 01, 2010

BADD 2010

In honor of Blogging Against Disabilism Day, here is my (long-promised and hopefully coherent) post on Oracle, superheroine extraordinaire:

For whatever reason, I was juiced about Halloween this past year: maybe it was the idea that we might, in our new house, have more than three trick-or-treaters, or maybe it was that I'd been feeling like crap and was looking for a reason to be excited - who knows?

Whatever the reason, I decided at the last minute to see if I could throw something together. And so, that Saturday morning, I was searching online with a (pretty great if I do say so myself) idea in mind: Oracle. DC Super heroine, former Batgirl, and wheelchair user extraordinaire. The best part is that since she's a behind the scenes kind of girl - at her most basic level, she's a computer genius who supplies Batman (and numerous other heroes/heroines) with the intelligence necessary to fight crime - she can wear whatever the hell she wants. Jeans, mostly. Sweatpants, sometimes. Excellent: I can handle sweatpants! Accessories? Laptop computer: Check. Bluetooth device: Check. Superintelligence: Easily faked. (Ok, yes she has red hair, but it was dark. And trick-or-treaters are little, so I decide to just pretend there.) So, although I did wish I had a shirt with a bat insignia on it, I figured I was set. What I didn't expect, while searching to make sure my mental picture of Oracle matched up with the reality, was how much abilism I would have to wade through in relation to the character of Oracle herself.

Now, before I get any further, let me just state, for the record, that I am absolutely a newcomer to the comic book world, and I have absolutely no experience with the fandom, the world building, the story arcs: I don't know if Oracle ever had to fight the Riddler, or if she battled Catwoman, or if, as a comment I wandered across suggested, she and Professor Xavier are getting it on in private - because people with disabilities only date other people with disabilities, don't ya know - : For the purposes of this discussion, I will gladly cede the point that I am NOT a comic book genius, and that there's a lot about the DC Universe that I don't know or understand. I am not even going to consider myself worthy of writing a critique of the character, or comic books in general, in regards to different forms of discrimination - the majority of this post is going to instead focus on the ablism inherent in the online discussions of Oracle - that is, the arguments over her fitness as a superheroine, her perceived uselessness when being "confined to a wheelchair", and the unapologetic ablist terminology & attitudes that were displayed in these various discussions.

To start with, there's a lot of argument about whether or not Barbara Gordon is a better character now (as Oracle) than she was as Batgirl, and I'm sure that's a valid discussion to have - which incarnation of a character is the best, why is it the best, etc. What I think are distinctly less valid are observations like -

...Tate comments, “It's ridiculous to think somebody wakes up thinking how lucky they are to be confined to a wheelchair, and yet the attitude around DC and among the fans is that Oracle is the better character over Batgirl because of her handicap. Rubbish. Batgirl has fought more crime and done more to aid Batman as Batgirl than she has as Oracle. Batgirl has saved Batman's life on numerous occasions. Oracle has not. Barbara in this incarnation is not a bad character, but she is not better because she no longer hunts the night in cape and cowl.

No: People with disabilities are not better because they're disabled. They're also not worse, either, and that certainly seems to be the implication here - Oracle is not as good as Batgirl, not as worthwhile, not as valuable. Her intellectual skills - genius hacker and supplier of crucial information - are not on par with the kicking and swooping and physicality that she exhibited as Batgirl. She "saved" Batman when she was Batgirl, but that information she provides is apparently not life saving enough. (Although I seem to remember at least one occassion that this was exactly the case.) The alliance building she did with the Justice League of America, the founding of the Birds of Prey (an all female superhero team), her photographic memory, and the fact that she remains a master of numerous martial arts (even though she is "confined" to her wheelchair) is just not 'life saving' enough?

Somebody probably should have told her she was just wasting everybody's time and getting in the way.

Then you can compare that attitude with this one -

James B. South's chapter "Barbara Gordon and Moral Perfectionism" in the 2004 book Superheroes and Philosophy analyzes how the changes in Barbara's life "from librarian to Batgirl to Oracle" drive her to pursue a higher self, illustrating the philosophical theory of moral perfectionism.


And here we get the ideal SuperCrip - able to "get past her bitterness" over being viciously attacked and to overcome the challenges that being "wheelchair bound" must present. But ablisim goes both ways: When you are attributing characteristics to a group of people because of their disabilities - whether those characteristics are negative or positive - you are using stereotypes and ignoring their real value as people. African Americans are not all good at basketball, women are not all bad drivers, and people with disabilities are not pure or without moral imperfections. See this excellent post for all the reasons why being a Supercrip is not only unrealistic, but damaging as well. (And yes, I don't need you all to point out to me that I am, in fact, discussing comic books, where the characters are supposed to be superheroes: What I'm talking about here is the denial of a person - or in this case a character -'s humanity based on a faulty system of beliefs. All I'm saying is that expecting her to just "get over" her attack, and that she will instead buck up & be an inspiration to all is not, in fact, a reasonable path for her character arch to take.)

There's also a large dose of disabilism to be found in the parts of Oracle's storyline which negate her disability completely - In the short lived television show based on Birds of Prey, (which was, incidentally, my first introduction to Oracle), the character is played by Dina Meyer, an able bodied actress. I'm sure the creators of the show would explain that by saying that they had to show Batgirl's story in flashbacks, or the inclusion of the inevitable storyline where she can once again 'miraculously' wiggle her toes, but instead of that being a reason for not using an actress with an actual physical disability, this is rather further proof that the ways individuals with disabilities are portrayed in the media are inadequate. In addition, in the comic books, there are times when Barbara Gordon's body is possessed, and those beings are able to "bypass her paralysis and make her run and fight like a normal person but when they leave her body her paralysis will return completely."

"Like a normal person," huh? That's awesome - There was some discussion revolving around the fact that she's probably "disappointed" when the person WHO POSSESSES HER leaves, because then she's back to being "crippled".

Seeing disability labeled as abnormal is not the only term I had an issue with: Articles, posts and comments were littered with the words handicap, crippled, immobile (although she's clearly mobile), forever confined to/stuck in a wheelchair, and a lot of talk about the fact that she's hindered (rather than empowered) by her chair. Terms that are not only not 'politically correct,' but harmful to the accurate portrayal of individuals with disabilities. There's also the idea that she's both useless and an invalid, and, of course, there's a lot of talk about Oracle being "cured".

The question of the cure is actually one of those areas where the intersectionality of ablism and sexism inherent in (but certainly not restricted to) comic books is made only too obvious:

Just to drive home the point that Barbara Gordon's crippling was sexist, a few years later Batman was also crippled. How long did he spend in a wheelchair? Oh, about a year, and then as a SUPERHERO and PROTAGONIST he was able to make a miraculous recovery. Because Batman is a MAN and a HERO. And Batgirl was disposable.
Comment onMyriad Issues by Rusty

So there's one double standard, in that ok: Yes, I will grant that Batman probably could figure out a lot of ways to 'cure' her disability, or that Barbara herself would probably, in the way of all superknowledgable superheroines, be able to come up with a pretty good idea of how to accomplish such a feat. But that doesn't mean she should be cured, or that she's any less vital of a character because she hasn't been cured. The discussions revolving around the idea of a cure are some of the most impassioned - people talk about how useless and ridiculous it is that Batgirl hasn't been cured yet, invalidating Oracle completely: If Barbara can only fight crime/be worthwhile/be important when she is Batgirl, then Oracle is a wasted character, nothing more than a "girl in a chair".

I am also largely setting aside the idea that her "crippling" by the Joker is considered by many to be one of the most anti-woman plot devices in the DC Universe (which is full of anti-women storylines, unfortunately), because I just don't know enough about it, having not yet read the issue myself, although I will point you in the direction of a very interesting discussion about Women in Refrigerators vs Dead Men Defrosting, (See Here .
I am going to mention this piece of information, however, because I think it says so much about how 'well-thought out' the creation of a well-rounded character with a disability really was:

Brian Bolland tells this little story in his recent book The Art Of Brian Bolland:

"Back in Northampton, Alan had to check with editor Len Wein how DC would feel about him crippling one of its key character, Batgirl. Len phoned back. His precise words are not printable here, but the gist of it was that it was okay. The Joker had, after all, to be shown to be a seriously nasty piece of work."

The words that Bolland is too much of a gentleman to reproduce, but which have been retold in various circles, were: "Cripple the bitch!"

And that pretty much sums up the attitude that allows female characters to continue to be mistreated in comics (at DC in particular, it seems).

Kate, Digital Eraser

Still, from such an offensive beginning, Oracle has become a favorite heroine for many. Even amidst all of the disturbing comments and discussions I was able to find online, there were a lot of positive things being said as well. Most readers described Oracle as invaluable, powerful, and just all around awesome. Some of them talked about how inspirational she is a character living with a disability without being too corny or 'movie of the week', and the writer who 'rescued' Barbara after her attack and gave her her own storyline seems to have a pretty impressive attitude about the whole thing, IMO:
We wanted her to cope with what had happened to her and becoming, in many ways, more effective as Oracle than she ever was as Batgirl. And we knew that others with disabilities might look at her and feel good reading about her...I don't think people 'dance around' her disabilities as they don't want to focus on them, but on her character. These shouldn't be stories about a disabled person; they are stories about a compelling fascinating character who HAPPENS to be in a wheelchair and I think that's correct. Barbara isn't her handicap; there's more to her than that.[41] ”

I was shocked by some of the dis/ablism I was confronted with as I wandered around looking for an Oracle action figure (you can see one here, if you're interested), but I probably shouldn't have been. It's not news to me that there are people who say they'd "rather be dead" than have to live "shackled to a chair"... I've met more than one of them in person, unfortunately. But there's a lot of good stuff out there too, a lot of positive feedback on a pretty unique character. I'm going to wrap this up with one last quote (originally intended to discuss sexism, but I think it works pretty well here too):

"Comics have always attracted intelligent people as fans, especially among women, and the idea of a superhero who uses her brains instead of her fists to defeat criminals is one that has deep attraction, especially with the rise of the Internet. Batgirl evolved from being a dilettante librarian to a tech-savvy geek girl, just in time for the Information Age. Her storytelling engine seems to constantly reflect the evolving role of women in society, and her popularity reflects the fact that comics are no longer just a boy's club.

I hope that as society continues to change, and comic books evolve as well, that the role of disabled characters is one that will continue moving in a more positive direction. Besides: A librarian turned techno-geek turned super-heroine? Tell me that's not the most awesome Halloween costume ever. (Actually, it was not: since nobody in my family reads comics, I spent the entire day trying to explain who Oracle was. Oh well, I still rocked that bluetooth.)

Thanks for reading, and for participating in BADD. Don't forget to head over to the Goldfish's place for more fabulous posts!


Ellen Seidman said...

Hello, and, WOW. This post blew my mind. So inspired, so eye-opening, so TRUE. Bravo. Gave me a lot to think about. And, I never even knew about Oracle!

Good to connect with you.

Anonymous said...

I don't know as much about the Batman-verse and the Superman-verse (and even then I'm not an expert by any means and mostly know about it via TV shows and movies and not the graphic novels), so I don't know much about Oracle, but this was an interesting read.

And it made me think about a character on Smallville, Chloe, a woman without any super powers but who is incredibly intelligent and very good at tech-stuff and hacking and information-seeking. She supports Clark Kent and the other superheroes on the show and in the current storyline she is struggling to be seen As Good As and As Important As they are.

She doesn't have a disability, but in some ways it's like she does. Because she is surrounded by super-abled folk. Since she doesn't have super powers, she is seen as less able as these guys (and most of them *are* guys). I've never thought about her situation from a disability perspective before because I never thought of her as disabled. And she's not. But you could definitely make a case for reading her that way. She can't run super fast or fly or see through objects, etc. She's "just" an incredibly smart and dedicated young woman trying to offer support to all those guys who *can* do those things.

And what's happening in the current storyline of the show is that it's becoming more and more obvious, both to the audience and to the super-guys, that they need her and that the help she is providing them is essential to their ability to do as much good as they do.

Sounds like she has a lot in common with Oracle?

seahorse said...

This made me think of all those other portrayals of disability in kids' series such as Dr Who (where the disabled characters are invariably villains) Superman (ditto) and a whole bunch more.
Getting away from the villain thing is a start. But I share your frustration at peoples' interpretation of the validity of her role. V frustrating.

Terri said...

This is a great post. It is so interesting to untangle 'disability' and 'how people view disability' from each other and then view how stories are told and turn out. I hope the comic-world feeds pick this post up as well. Much to think about. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

As someone who adores Barbara Gordon and has read a great deal of her comics? I also adore this essay.

It's appalling how many people disregard and dismiss Barbara, or think she only counts as a hero if she's Batgirl. Now, Batgirl was a great hero in her own right, but so is Oracle, and as the latter, she has in fact saved more lives.

I understand wondering why she hasn't been cured in a world where spines can be replaced and so on, but insisting that she must be is She is damn well a viable hero and an awesome character just as she is.

I do consider The Killing Joke a classic case of fridging - she's stripped naked and photographed, we never see HER point of view, it's all about how it effects her father, no thought was given to just how she's live her life afterward, and so on. But what came from it was a unique character, a powerful one.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article. I'm linking to it everywhere. As the writer of the Birds of Prey book and a believer that Oracle is one of the best characters in comics, and not meant to be a perpetual victim, I think more people should read this.

Thank you!

Gail Simone

Anonymous said...

Something that should also be mentioned for the pro-Babs-as-Batgirl crowd (Something they hate and love to forget) is that Barbara Gordon retired as Batgirl long before Killing Joke. She gave up that life, moved on, was a Congresswoman and attempted to have a normal life. She was not Batgirl until the moment she was shot. Babs has also likened the Batgirl time of her life to an adolescent phase that she has out-grown, not because she's disabled, but because she is in a different place her life and a different mindset.

I also wanna mention that I do not think the choice of Dina Meyer as Barbara Gordon was motivated by ablism, but rather the need for Dina to be both Batgirl and Oracle, which she was in the series. Also, the resemblance is uncanny.,

thumbsj said...

Interesting article. I would say don't read to much into what some people say on the internet, something about the thing inspires political incorrectness.
Now I did love the killing joke, but I also loved death in the family, where robin is beaten to death, so maybe I just like torturing batman.
Finally, I can name at least one point where oracle was offered a cure, during grant morrisson's run on jla, the martian manhunter offered to fix her spine using alien technology. She replied she had no interest being a cyborg and turned him down. Food for thought

Sylvina Solaris said...

I don't want to sound like a major dick here, but I probably will.

Two things:

#1. If Oracle could walk AND fight crime (which she can still do btw, she manages to kick quite a lot of ass and do a lot of arm-strength related acrobats when she needs to.) She would be inherently better than an Oracle who couldn't walk and fight crime.

If Oracle/Batgirl had to sneak into a building and steal something or get the drop on some thugs, she would have an easier time doing it if she had use of her legs. I'm just approaching this from a "common sense" route I guess.

Granted Batgirl is a different "character" than Oracle, despite them being the same people they have different outlooks on life before/after the Killing Joke. But, if Batgirl could do all the things Oracle could do (mentally) and NOT being in a wheelchair, chances are she would be inherently better at the physical stuff due to usage of her legs.

#2. The reason people bitch and complain about this, is pretty simple, aside from Batman curing himself from a broken spine. This is world filled with SUPER PEOPLE with MYTHOLOGICAL crap like the Holy Grail and Greek Goddesses, etc. and we're supposed to believe that Oracle just CAN'T be cured, that there's no possible way for her to be cured or that she DOESN'T want to be cured?

That's a tough pill to swallow, and I think that's where a lot of this argument for her being cured comes from. Just recently a bunch of DEAD PEOPLE came back to life, yet, Barbara Gordon is still in a wheel chair. Maybe if she was in her own confined universe separate from all this fantastical supernatural stuff, it would be more believable, but as it is, there's no real excuse.

Another aside about that, is that DC seems to CONSTANTLY be teasing at the fact that she MIGHT be cured during this mini-series or that mini-series or show teaser images of her in her outfit, or show people time traveling back to the Killing Joke and NOT being able to change anything or whatever. They keep throwing the issue in peoples faces like "Barbara Gordon is in a wheel chair, deal with it, that is who she is as a character, she's Oracle, not Batgirl, never again. Except maybe this one time during this ad we're releasing to sucker you into buying our 3.99 comic every week."

kantvelink said...

I really don't know what to say about this. On the one hand every argument you lay out makes a point. On the other hand taken as a whole it seems more like a rant than an argument. Basically it seems to me you take issue with Oracle being seen as disabled, but also take issue with her being seen as abled and finally take issue if the entire thing ignored. I can understand that the problem with the character being defined by her condition (I use the word condition to mean circumstances, no connotations negative or positive are implied. I simply couldn't think of a better word).

Here's the thing though, we are all defined by our experiences. I became deaf a couple of years ago, I don't self identify as a deaf person nor do I self identify as a hearing/"normal" person. An accurate portrayal of me as an individual would not be complete if it didn't take into consideration my difficulties with dealing with the transition. Partially that is because society is structured around "normal" people.
I'm probably even less of an authority on comic book universes than you are. But I seem to recall quite a few superbeings agonizing over the difference between them and non-powered beings. Its normal to have difficulty with not being like the majority of the people you are in contact with.
Oracle's wheelchair should not define her but it is a part of her definition.
Whether she's better or not as Oracle I can't say, in a room full of bad guys I would prefer her as batgirl, in a situation where her genius is more directly applicable I would prefer her as Oracle. However I would rather have Oracle in a room full of bad guys than no backup at all, she can still fight after all.
In a delicate negotiation, or to foul some nefarious technologically based evil plan or to track the funds of some evil plot I would rather have her as Oracle.
Infact you can even argue that normal people should be offended by her Batgirl years. After all as batgirl her approach was largerly similar to batman's (generous use of the fist) while as Oracle she's more into using her head. That can be construed to imply that ablebodied people are stupid while physically disabled people are smart.

A final thought, I attribute part of the problem to the limitations of language. In English we say someone is disabled, in Dutch they say someone has a functiebeperking. Functiebeperking sort of translates into functional limit while disabled implies inability. Yet niether of them is quite right in my opinion. You need a pile of essays to accurately explain what is really meant.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post (I found it through Gail posting it on Twitter, if you want to know), and I think it addresses some of the major conflicts surrounding Barbara Gordon. As a huge fan of hers, I've read a lot of different opinions on her status (as being in a wheelchair), and I've thought about it a lot, too.

I guess the conclusion I've come to (which I think is sort of what you were saying in this post) is that although Babs was crippled in an event sparked by sexism in the industry at the time (although I would like to emphasize that Alan Moore never intended The Killing Joke to actually become part of comics continuity, and he wasn't the one who made the final decision to cripple Barbara, so he isn't as much to blame as many people would like to think), she's made a lot of progress--there have been some fabulous writers who have rescued her from simply being a "fridged" character, and to reverse her crippling now would reverse a lot of the good she's done. And not just that Babs has saved a lot more lives as Oracle than as Batgirl (which I firmly believe) or that she's proven that disabilities do not equal helplessness, but because she's the ultimate proof that we're out of the fridging age. She's probably the second-worst fridged character (after Hal's girlfriend), and yet here she is, undeniably an important hero in her own right.

Also, she's proof that some things are permanent in comics, that actions do have consequences, something that is sadly lacking in a lot of comics.

John Wiswell said...

This was a very interesting post. I also came in on Gail's tweets. I've struggled with disabilities for years and had never even heard of ablism/disablism before.

One point that many pro- and anti-Oracle people miss is quality of writing. Batgirl was created when most sidekicks were identical; scratch gender-specific cues and she sounds like Robin in most of the old comics. It's more in vogue now to give characters layers, and in that period she's had some amazing writers. Gail Simone had a multi-year run on Birds of Prey that was significantly more developed and entertaining than anything she was the focus of in her Batgirl days. People see this all through the lens of disability, missing that there are other factors. There is still bad writing in comics, but you're less likely to see this:

Which has nothing to do with ablism/disablism. It manages to be somewhat offensive on another matter altogether.

Regardless of gender, regardless of disability, she fills a brilliant niche. She's the dispatcher and the general. Dispatch is classically undervalued work, despite dispatchers being responsible for saving so many officers and civilians every year. While not physically doing it herself, in storylines she's been responsible for evacuations and ship rescues with incalculable lives saved. Beyond plotline empowerment, she's a mentor to younger characters, leader to peers, with strong friendships and a reputation independent of somebody else's logo. Her condition is a dimension of her character; she was paralyzed by a serial killer who keeps escaping and maiming people. That should come up. But it doesn't define her.

Anonymous said...

#1. If Oracle could walk AND fight crime (which she can still do btw, she manages to kick quite a lot of ass and do a lot of arm-strength related acrobats when she needs to.) She would be inherently better than an Oracle who couldn't walk and fight crime.

If Oracle/Batgirl had to sneak into a building and steal something or get the drop on some thugs, she would have an easier time doing it if she had use of her legs. I'm just approaching this from a "common sense" route I guess.-

You can't Oracle while running around and jumping out of buildings anyway, though, but what you can do is use Oracle skills to make sure Black Canary, Huntress, or Stephanie Brown is there instead, possible even when Batgirl wouldn't know about the buildings, and they're equal or more physically capable than Babs was as Batgirl anyway.

Having legs would probably help in self defense, which crops up occasionally, but ultimately even if she could kick criminals in the face and leap from rooftop to rooftop, other people can do that, but other people can't Oracle.

She'd be better off at her computers anyway, in almost any situation, since there's a lot of physical fighters, several of whom work for her to boot. Chair or no, Barbara Gordon's effectiveness is best there.