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Re-booting Barbara Gordon: Oracle, Batgirl, and Feminist Disability Theories

By Carolyn Cocca


The words "superhero" and "disability," at first glance, may not seem to go together. The body types that most comic readers envision as representative of each of those categories probably differ from one another. But there are mainstream superheroes that could be described as disabled. Those who might stand under both signs tend to be portrayed as having some extraordinary power that overcompensates for their disabilities.[1] Barbara Gordon, by contrast, has no superpowers and used a wheelchair for much of her comics career, but most of her fans would label her a superhero. Debuting in 1967 as Batgirl (brilliant librarian by day and costumed member of the Bat-family by night), the character was injured, paralyzed, and relaunched in 1989 as Oracle (computer expert, information broker, tactical leader of various superhero teams, and wheelchair user). In 2011, a "cured" Barbara again donned Batgirl's boots, engendering controversy over mainstream superhero comics' portrayals of disabled and non-disabled bodies.

This article examines writers and artists' portrayals of Barbara as a disabled and non-disabled woman over the last two decades, as well as the debates over the character's re-booting (in both senses of the word). It explores the ways in which feminist theory and critical disability theory both come together as well as seem to stand at odds with one another vis-à-vis certain aspects of Barbara's portrayal as a person with disabilities, particularly in terms of her race, class, gender, and sexuality. Such tensions can be embraced as productive, as they push both types of theories to become more inclusive in their approaches. The article then draws some conclusions about the ways in which mainstream superhero comics can provide spaces—or, as I would term them, interactive public spheres—that allow for diverse constituencies to work through the unstable categories of gender and disability, allowing for a variety of writings and readings of the material.[2]

Feminist and Disability Theories and the Disabled Female Superhero

I employ the term "disability" as reflecting historically and culturally specific social constructions of the "normal" body such that certain bodies are privileged, and others, subject to discipline. I do not assume a separation between a truth of bodily "impairment" versus a social construction of disability built from that impairment. This is parallel to the way in which I employ the term "gender," in that I do not assume a separation between a truth of bodily "sex" versus a social construction of gender built from that sex (see, e.g., Davis "Constructing Normalcy," Garland-Thomson "Extraordinary Bodies" and "Integrating Disability," Longmore, McRuer, Russell, Tremain; also, Butler, Foucault). As Tremain puts it, "There can be no understanding of a raw body detached from the disciplinary practices that make it legible" (10).

In the germinal work in the field of feminist disability theory, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes that "Integrating disability does not obscure our critical focus on the registers of race, sexuality, ethnicity, or gender, nor is it additive. … Integrating disability clarifies how this aggregate of systems operates together, yet distinctly, to support an imaginary norm and structure the relations that grant power, privilege, and status to that norm" ("Integrating Disability" 4). The sensibility of a feminist disability theory is in line with those who have pushed for more inclusive feminist work due to the perception that the "Second Wave" feminism of the 1960s and 1970s was imbued with a white, middle-class, heterosexual standpoint (see, e.g., hooks, Lorde, Moraga and Anzaldúa). Those who would subscribe to "Third Wave" feminism strive to be anti-essentialist and nonjudgmental, embracing the complexities of lived experience and of the variety of identities both across and within people (see, e.g., Baumgartner and Richards, Heywood and Drake, Purvis, Walker).[3]

Disability and feminist theory, then, converge in their interrogation of cultural norms about privileged bodies and cultural stereotypes of non-privileged bodies. "Female, disabled and dark bodies are supposed to be dependent, incomplete, vulnerable, and incompetent bodies … portrayed as helpless, dependent, weak" (Garland-Thomson, "Integrating Disability" 7-8). I would extend the implications of this argument by stating the opposite of each of its adjectives: Male, non-disabled, and white bodies are supposed to be independent, complete, invulnerable and competent. As applied to comics, then, the stereotype of a typical disabled woman seems to sit in binary opposition to a typical mainstream superhero. But insights from feminist disability theory show us that it is not so simple. A disabled woman superhero (differently from a non-disabled woman superhero) would both subvert the privileged and masculinized construction of the superhero body and at the same time also shore up the normalization of those non-disabled superhero bodies through her contrast to them. This is one of the many ways in which the portrayal of Barbara Gordon can work toward more progressive readings of gender and disability but also undermine that work; other examples will be discussed throughout the article.

Where feminist theory and disability theory sit less comfortably with one another is in the area of sexualized images—images not uncommon in mainstream superhero comics.[4] Third Wave feminists tend to embrace, sometimes uneasily, the reclamation of signs of femininity and sexuality as empowering as well as a cultural critique of sexual objectification (see, e.g., Baumgartner and Richards, Heywood and Drake, Purvis, Walker). Disability theorists tend to as well. But while feminists in general tend to critique sexualized images, disability theorists also take into account a history of asexualized images of people with disabilities (see, e.g., Garland-Thomson "Extraordinary Bodies" and "Integrating Disability," Clare). Feminist disability theory seeks to integrate the insights of both types of approaches, taking into account that the dividing line, if there is one, between a sexual subject and a sexual object is not so clear. This issue complicates the production and reception of a disabled woman superhero character.

Through the lens of feminist disability theory, this article illuminates these types of issues as it discusses the complexities of Barbara Gordon's embodiment as a superhero. It tries to take care not to make sweeping statements about whether the character is a positive or negative representation of a person with disabilities. Rather, it seeks to problematize readings of disability in the titles in which she has been drawn over the last twenty-five years.

From Batgirl to Oracle, and Oracle to Batgirl

At her first appearance in 1967 (Detective Comics #359), Barbara Gordon, PhD, is a librarian, a brown belt in judo, and the daughter of the Gotham City Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. She makes her Batgirl costume for a policeman's masquerade ball, fights Killer Moth, captures him with Batman and Robin, and decides to continue fighting crime as Batgirl. She runs for Congress in 1972 in order to "boot the rascals out" (#422-424), noting that the boot is a symbol of Batgirl as well as a call to vote out incumbents. She wins, but later loses her bid for re-election in 1980 (#487). She's in Detective Comics on and off until 1982 (#519), as well as featuring in the Batman Family comic, while she was a Congresswoman. She is light-skinned and red-haired, tall, fit, strong, pretty, funny, bright, independent, and capable.[5]

After appearing less in the 1980s, Barbara Randall Kesel's "Batgirl Special" (1988) has Barbara announce her retirement on its last page. When Kesel was asked in 2011 about how she was approached to write the story, she recalled, "It was pretty much this simple, [they said] 'She's getting her spine blown out in The Killing Joke, so try to make people care.'" Indeed, immediately opposite the last page of the story is an ad for the then-forthcoming graphic novel The Killing Joke.

In that story, the Joker shoots her, paralyzing her, and then takes pictures of her in various states of undress while she is writhing in pain. The whole point of the Joker's actions, as he himself states, was to drive Barbara's father mad to prove "there's no difference between me and everyone else. All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy" (Moore and Bolland). It was this story that prompted future Barbara Gordon writer Gail Simone to create the "Women in Refrigerators" website, an accounting of the number of times in comics that female characters were victims of violence—particularly, sexualized violence—solely to show the violence's effect on male characters (Pantozzi).[6] The violence done to Barbara was a classic "fridging" in that no one in the story ever asks her how she's feeling after it happens. The whole point of the story is how her father and Batman feel about it.

The Killing Joke was a huge success, but more than a few were rankled by its treatment of Barbara. Comic writers John Ostrander and Kim Yale almost immediately created the idea of the character as having a new identity, a new mask: "Oracle." He said, "Kim and I … felt the action should have repercussions. Barbara Gordon should be crippled as a result. However, it should make her no less of a "hero" so we armed her with a mess of very high-end computers and made her the research person for the [DC Universe]" (Ostrander). As they wrote later in the origin story "Oracle: Year One" (1996), Barbara works through depression and self-doubt to truly come into her own and move beyond being a "distaff" or "second-hand version of someone else" (i.e., Batman). She embraces her new life, using a wheelchair as well as her exceptional intelligence, photographic memory, and facility with information sciences. These were skills that she had always had, that had been displayed here and there while she was swinging from rooftops and taking down villains with roundhouse kicks. But now, instead of using those skills occasionally in the Bat-universe, she would use them full-time for all of the big-name superheroes of the DC Universe.

Oracle's origin story is rather more complicated than it seems at first glance. It is gratifying to see Barbara succeed not in spite of her disability, but because of it. This can lead us to "reimagine disability" as a common human experience and work to be more inclusive of people with disabilities (Garland-Thomson, "Disability and Representation" 524). On the other hand, the idea that "disabilities are the gateway to special abilities" is a pop culture trope (Siebers 318) which can just as easily lead us to unrealistic expectations of people with disabilities.

The character of Oracle became instrumental to DC superhero successes in a number of titles beginning in 1989, such as Suicide Squad, Hawk and Dove, Hacker Files, Manhunter, Black Canary, Green Arrow, Nightwing, Batman, and Detective Comics. In John Ostrander's Suicide Squad, in which she was featured the most, she was usually drawn frumpier than she had been as Batgirl, with formless suits, oversized glasses, and her hair in a bun. The first time we see her, she's crying due to the loss of one of the Squad (#38); the next time we see her, she's crying while talking to a psychologist about having been shot by the Joker (#48). These first appearances fall squarely into stereotypes of people with disabilities: she is portrayed as sad, lonely, pitiable, unable to "move on" (Davidson, Linton, Longmore, Siebers). She feels that her shooting has pushed her outside of norms of able-bodiedness and gender and sexuality, as she thinks, "I can't ever walk again, or have kids, or probably ever marry …" (Ostrander, Yale, and Isherwood). After these initial establishing appearances, she is portrayed as a stronger character and valued member of the team, albeit still rather dowdy in appearance.

Where Oracle really comes into her own and becomes praised and beloved is in Birds of Prey.[7] The title launched in 1996 and ran for over 150 issues with only a few short gaps until 2011. The series showcases Barbara as a brilliant, caring, funny, thoughtful master tactician, computer hacker, information broker, and team leader for the various superheroes (mostly female) whom she runs on missions. She isn't perfect, sometimes doubting her abilities and sometimes making personal and professional mistakes. Almost half of these issues were written by Chuck Dixon (Volume 1, several one-shots and #1-46) and almost half by Gail Simone (Volume 1, #56-108 and Volume 2 #1-15). Lettercolumns from the first fifty or so issues illustrate fans' embrace of the well-rounded character. Some mentioned her wheelchair use; most did not.

After 15 years, Birds of Prey ended in 2011 as part of DC's "New 52" rebooting and relaunching of fifty-two of their superhero titles, wiping out some elements of long-standing continuity but not others. The character of Oracle disappeared, and Volume 3 of Birds of Prey was launched without her. A non-physically-disabled Barbara Gordon instead headlined her own Batgirl comic. Written by longtime Birds of Prey writer Gail Simone from issues 1-34, the comic made mention of her becoming paralyzed by the Joker and then having been "cured" so as to be able to run, swing, and kick again. Readers reacted passionately in a variety of spaces to the news that Barbara Gordon as Oracle would be replaced by Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, and then reacted to the content of the new comics themselves. As Simone put it, some readers were "thrilled and delighted" at her being "healed" and others felt "a punch in the heart" at losing a portrayal of a strong superhero who flew in the face of ableism and sexism (Pantozzi).

It is the portrayals of Barbara Gordon as Oracle from 1989-2011 and again as Batgirl from 2011-2014 with which this article is most concerned. In the next three sections, employing feminist disability theory, I discuss her characterization, her resources, her relationships with others, and her body and sexuality. I then examine the controversy over Barbara's cure in the new Batgirl series.

Oracle: The "Supercrip" Who "Overcomes" Disability?

In Volume 1 and 2 of the Birds of Prey series, Barbara is portrayed as young, attractive, intelligent, healthy, white, cisgender, heterosexual, wealthy, independent, and disabled. While we are never allowed to forget that she is a person who uses a wheelchair, her mobility is not a "deterministic vehicle of characterization" for her as is often the case for characters with disabilities (Mitchell and Snyder 276). As mentioned above, fans reacted positively to her characterization:[8]

"The insights we got into a strong, determined, and attractive Barbara who has moved beyond the crippling tragedy was a treat" (Jake Rose in Birds of Prey: Manhunt #2, 10/96)
"She is such a wonderful character; a complex, strong-willed, brilliant person." (Maehatter in Birds of Prey: Manhunt #4, 12/96)
"Oracle is such a strongly written character—smart, principled, quick at analysis and so often on the mark in her judgment—that it's a very human touch that she hasn't got it all quite right." (Sarah Beach in Birds of Prey: Wolves, 10/97)
"In my opinion, Barbara Gordon is the most fascinating character in comics today." (Joseph Stivers, Birds of Prey #31, 7/01)
"Please don't break up Barbara and Dick! … Nightwing and Oracle are a special couple." (King Jason in Birds of Prey #44, 8/02)

Many explicitly contrasted Batgirl to Oracle and found the latter more compelling:

"I've felt sick about Batgirl ever since the Joker shot her. However, there was no pity in this story. Oracle is a wonderful character." (Jeff Mitchell in Birds of Prey: Manhunt #4, 12/96)
"Barbara Gordon's transformation from Batgirl to Oracle was, if you'll pardon the morbidity of the statement, the best thing that ever happened to her. She's a strong, intelligent woman who happens to be handicapped. She may be the most interesting character in comics today." (Beau Yarbrough in Birds of Prey: Black Canary/Batgirl #1, 2/98)
"The truth is that Oracle is way cooler than Batgirl ever was, not to mention an integral part of the entire DCU. I would never want to lose Oracle to regain Batgirl. And it is pretty darn great having a 'superhero' who is wheelchair-bound." (Chuck McKinney in Birds of Prey #6, 6/99)
"Barbara's far more complex and interesting than she ever was as Batgirl." (Dan Harrison in Birds of Prey #7, 7/99)
"Chuck Dixon, my all-time favorite writer, has really established Oracle as the heart and soul of the DC Universe. I must admit that I miss Barbara as Batgirl, but I prefer her as Oracle." (Robert Acquaruto in Birds of Prey #17, 5/00)
"I love Barbara! Her strength of will even after she was shot and what she has done with her life afterward is inspiring." (Erik Hollender, Birds of Prey #42: 6/02)

The praise for her "moving on" from her "tragedy" of being "wheelchair-bound," and admiration for her "strength of will" are common reactions to the pop culture trope of the "supercrip." This is the individual "disabled hero" who "accomplishes things that are unusual even for the able-bodied" due to unusually high levels of resources, and who "may give the able-bodied the false impression that anyone can 'overcome' a disability" (Wendell 346; see also Garland-Thomson, "Feminist Disability Studies" 1568). But as tends to be the case in the supercrip narrative, with the focus on the individual disabled person and their character, no structures of discrimination that cause the person to be labeled "disabled" are mentioned (Linton 232, Longmore 159).

Unremarked upon are the structures of Barbara's economic, racial, and sexual privilege, in the comic itself or in any letters.[9] She already has a Ph.D., and later acquires an online J.D. and then an LL.M. from Harvard. She taps into villains' bank accounts and transfers money to her own. She gets grants from the Wayne Foundation (i.e., from Bruce Wayne/Batman) for extremely expensive and difficult-to-acquire technology. The weight machines she uses and the pool she swims in and the hot tub she soaks in seem to be in her own apartment, which is the entire top floor of a tower. But in the real world, "by all estimates the majority of people with disabilities are poor, unemployed, and undereducated" (Davis, "The End of Identity Politics" 312; see also, Charlton, Schur). According to the Census Bureau, in the United States in 2010 almost 57 million people had a disability; of those about 31 million required some assistance for walking (Brault 5, 8). Median family income for people with disabilities was about 60% that of the non-disabled; the employment rates for those with disabilities was about half that for the non-disabled, and the poverty rate for people with disabilities was almost double that of the non-disabled (Brault 10, 12). In other words, Barbara's resources mark her as quite elite, particularly for a person with disabilities, and even more particularly for a woman with disabilities. If she were a woman of color this would be even more pronounced, as raced education and pay gaps intersect with and exacerbate gendered education and pay gaps.

Were Barbara to need assistance, she could afford it without difficulty, unlike most people with disabilities. Independence carries costs, as Susan Wendell writes of famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking: "He is able to live the creative life only because of the help of his family, three nurses, a graduate student who travels with him to maintain his computer-communications systems, and the fact that his talent had been developed and recognized before he fell seriously ill" (340). But we never see another character assist Barbara with daily life tasks. Indeed, a number of times, she draws attention to the fact that there are no push handles on her wheelchair because she does not want or need anyone's help. Total independence is simply not a reality for many people with (or without) disabilities.

It is important to note that Barbara's wheelchair was drawn with great care and improved upon due to reader input. When a number of letters (unpublished, but summarized by the title's editor) in response to the first Birds of Prey special issue critiqued its wheelchair's design, the chair was modified. Editor Jordan Gorfinkel wrote in the lettercolumn in 1996, "Because of your letters, we gathered reference on wheelchairs from the National Spinal Cord Association of America for [the second Birds of Prey story]. Please let us know if we're on the right track; we're trying hard to get it right … on all fronts" (Birds of Prey: Manhunt #2, 1996). In 1997, he wrote in response to a letter praising the redesigned chair, "Thanks for noticing Oracle's new chair, a sleek model appropriate to athletic chairbound paraplegics. After [the first Birds of Prey story], I received a lot of feedback from paras which led us to do some homework … a simple standard applies: the less chair, the better (i.e., no handlebars or armrests) and keep the wheels as close to the body as possible" (Birds of Prey: Revolution #1, 1997).

Barbara is able to push away assistance due not only to her privilege, but also due to the athleticism mentioned by the title's editor. She is neither helpless nor weak nor dependent as stereotypes of disability would have us assume (Garland-Thomson "Integrating Disability," Linton, Longmore, Mintz). We see her working out, and defending herself physically with her escrima sticks and her fists. She was already a judo expert when she met Batman and Robin, who trained her further when she was Batgirl. Not long after her shooting, Batman sets her up with one of the best martial artists in the DC Universe, Richard Dragon, so that she can learn how to fight and defend herself from her chair (Ostrander and Yale). Indeed, her martial arts skills are comparable to those of the other "Birds." Coupled with her brilliance and ingenuity, this mostly keeps her safe from her foes. Almost every time we see her face a foe with her sticks, she wins.[10] This includes when she faces the Joker for the first time since he shot her. When he says, "I took your legs, your future," she tells him, "You took nothing from me" (Bedard, St. Aubin, and Floyd). Such situations subvert a common plot point for characters with disabilities in which a "character's disability and femininity serve to indicate a terrifying or defeated situation" (B. Smith 4).

She is privileged in another way as well. Because the nature of her work is in large part through computing, Barbara is able to skirt two vectors of oppression for quite some time: her gender and her disability. Usually, both the female body and the disabled body are subject to looking, albeit in different ways: "Women are objects of the evaluative male gaze [but] the disabled body is the object of the stare. … The stare is the gaze intensified, framing her body as an icon of deviance" (Garland-Thomson, "Extraordinary Bodies" 26). But Barbara as Oracle is invisible to many characters, both superhero and supervillain. Mike Madrid notes that, "As Oracle, Barbara was a picture of cold, emotionless, male efficiency" (240), conflating four words that do not have to go together, yet are culturally constructed to do so. Therefore, there is no reason for anyone who has faced Oracle's avatar online to assume that avatar represents a woman using a wheelchair. A number of times in the Birds of Prey run, characters who know of her only in this way assume that someone with such intelligence and resources must be male.[11] Because Barbara not infrequently escapes both types of objectifying looks, she can pass as the male "norm" (Garland-Thomson, "Integrating Disability" 22; Linton 229) and is treated with a respect and deference that someone who was face to face with her might not use.

We can be thrilled that the character of Barbara Gordon subverts stereotypes of people with disabilities through her independence and strength. But her portrayal also follows the trope of the supercrip, or disabled hero, one who has "extraordinary social, economic, and physical resources that are not available to most people with disabilities. … Wheelchair athletes are exceptional, not because of their ambition, discipline, and hard work, but because they are in better health than most disabled people can be. [Therefore], the image of the disabled hero may reduce the 'otherness' of a few disabled people, but because it creates an ideal which most disabled people cannot meet, it increases the 'otherness' of the majority of disabled people" (Wendell 346). We must also be mindful that much of her power in the DC Universe stems from her extraordinary eidetic memory, her level of education, her economic resources, her network of well-resourced peers, her pre-paraplegia super-athleticism, and her ability to pass for a non-disabled male.

Barbara's Relationships with Others

Barbara is neither dependent nor isolated as stereotypes of people with disabilities would have us expect (Garland-Thomson "Integrating Disability," Linton, Longmore, Schur). She is the leader of the superhero team, the Birds of Prey, and the Birds make a loyal circle of friends as well. The team's rotating roster assures that she is surrounded by superhero women such as Black Canary, Huntress, Manhunter, Big Barda, Lady Blackhawk, Judomaster, Gypsy, Hawkgirl, Ice, Powergirl, Vixen, Katana, Dove, Misfit, and the two Batgirls who succeeded Barbara in that role. Her reach extends to many male characters in the DC Universe as well, as we see her interact with Batman, Robin, Nightwing, Superman, Green Arrow, Wildcat, and Blue Beetle, as well as with her father, Police Commissioner James Gordon. She is sometimes shown posed similarly with the other Birds, usually sitting and talking, rather than having them standing around her.

In contrast to the 1990 Suicide Squad issue in which she laments that she will probably never have children, Barbara in Birds of Prey and other titles is a maternal figure. She acts as a mentor and sometimes as a guardian to the new Batgirls, the Asian-American speech-impaired Cassandra Cain (1999-2008) and the working class college student Stephanie Brown (2009-2011), as well as to orphan teen Charlotte Gage-Radcliffe (Misfit: 2006-2011) and villain's daughter and wheelchair user Wendy Harris (Proxy: 2010-11). But here, disability theorists and feminist theorists can be in tension with one another: "Whereas motherhood is often seen as compulsory for some women, disabled women are often denied or discouraged from the reproductive role that some feminist thinkers find oppressive" (Garland-Thomson, "Extraordinary Bodies" 26). Not physically reproducing but still mothering, Barbara subverts a stereotype of women with disabilities as unable to care for children or young people, yet falls into a stereotype of women as intergenerational nurturers. The way in which she deals with the young women, in that she both embraces her role but also finds it burdensome, displays nuance that move feminist and disability theorists closer together.

Despite her fears immediately following her shooting, Barbara indeed has a romantic and sexual life. A few men show interest in her, but the most long-term (albeit on and off) relationship is with the Robin to her Batgirl, Dick Grayson. This is in contrast to "cultural stereotypes [that] imagine disabled women as asexual, unfit to reproduce, overly dependent, unattractive—as generally removed from the sphere of true womanhood and feminine beauty" (Garland-Thomson, "Integrating Disability" 17; see also Clare, Coleman-Brown, Garland Thomson "Extraordinary Bodies" and "Disability and Representation," Siebens, Wendell). We see them kiss a number of times over the course of the run of the series and in other titles as well; once we see them naked and lying in a bed.[12] In most, but not all, of these panels, Barbara's chair is visible, making clear that one does not have to be either disabled or sexual but rather can be both.

But we also see her push Dick Grayson away a number of times, usually in the same issues as the kisses, due to her wanting to remain independent. This was made clear in the comic, as a letterwriter noted: "She blames it on her disability and her eagerness to prove she doesn't need any help" (Wesley Porras, in Birds of Prey #12, 12/99). Of course, no one is truly completely independent, but the American brand of liberalism valorizes such individualism (Russell 6; Wendell 347). What we see, then, is another trope:

Disabled characters may be quite capable of physical lovemaking but spurn opportunities for romance because of a lack of self-acceptance, a disbelief that anyone could love them with their "imperfections." Nondisabled characters have no trouble finding the disabled persons attractive or falling in love with them, and have no difficulty in accepting them with their disabilities. … These depictions fly in the face of the real-life experiences of many handicapped men and women who find that even the most minor impairments result in romantic rejection. (Longmore 142)

At the same time, her heterosexuality works to "normalize" her, as "able-bodied status is achieved in direct proportion to [an] increasing awareness of, and need for, heterosexual romance" (McRuer 41).[13] As the non-disabled reader follows her into such a romance and sees a close-up on their faces as they kiss, the disability takes a backseat to the arc of heteronormativity.

Where feminist theory and disability theory come together more comfortably is in an examination of Barbara's portrayal as a sexual subject. Barbara has a romantic life from the first issues of Birds of Prey. She is on equal footing with her partner, in the way they're drawn, in their language to one another, and in who is initiating the contact with whom. This allays feminist concerns about women being portrayed solely as objects; it upends the "assumption that disabled people cannot be sexual beings" (Hall 4).

The Sexual Objectification, and Asexual Objectification, of Barbara's Body

The tension between feminist theory and disability theory in terms of portrayals of women's bodies can be summed up with the following: "While feminism quite legitimately decries the sexual objectification of women, disabled women often encounter … 'asexual objectification'" (Garland Thomson, "Extraordinary Bodies" 25), rendering disabled bodies as "genderless, asexual undesirables" (Clare 130). Many Birds of Prey covers don't have Barbara on them at all, but have an action shot and/or a highly sexualized shot of the other Birds: Black Canary, Huntress, Lady Blackhawk, Misfit, Manhunter, Big Barda, etc.

In short, Barbara—the main character of the series—was on only one-third of its covers, and her whole body was depicted on those covers only half of the time. In the first 64 issues of Birds of Prey, she was on 26 covers; on 14 of them, she was depicted as a head in contrast to another Bird's full body.[14] In the next 72 issues, she was on 27 covers; on 12 of them, she was depicted as a head in contrast to another's body.[15] In Volume 2 of the series, she was on 4 of the 15 covers, each of which depicted most or all of her body.[16]

With invisibility, as noted before, she escapes the "gaze" and the "stare" and gains access to privilege. From some feminists' point of view, this non-sexualization of Barbara as Oracle is welcome. But disability theory compels us to note that her absence falls into a stereotype of people with disabilities as asexual and unattractive, and hides her body as if it should be unseen—or as if there is nothing to see. Showing only her head half of the time she is on the covers seems to indicate that various artists were not sure how to portray her body in a medium in which women tend to be even more often sexualized on covers than they are in panels.[17] It is as if artists' inability to draw her as an able-bodied woman made it too difficult to imagine how to draw her at all, so she was on only one-third of the covers. The erasure is striking. As Clare puts it, "In the world as it is, sexual objectification is a powerful marker, however damaging, of sexuality. In turn, its absence is also powerful" (131).

In terms of how she has appeared in panels, as noted, when we first see her as Oracle in Suicide Squad she basically looks like the stereotype of "old maid librarian"—hair pulled back in a bun, large unstylish glasses, suits and blouses that would more likely be worn by someone much older and more traditional than she. Readers noticed that she was drawn differently in Birds of Prey. One wrote, "Finally there is someone at DC who is willing to give Oracle a chance … it was also nice to see her drawn in a flattering manner for a change. So often she is drawn to look so dowdy" (Oracle 359 in Manhunt #3, 11/96). Editor Jordan Gorfinkle responded, "Thanks for noticing the efforts [we] put into showing Oracle as the attractive woman that we Batguys have always known her to be." Another letter writer thanked the writer and artist for having "strong female characters that aren't costumed like they work for a [strip club, and that] come off like real people" (Dave Rossi in Birds of Prey #4, 4/99). A third noted about two years later, "[Artist Greg Land] brought back Barbara's beauty, grace, and dignity unlike so many other artists. Until Greg, most artists rendered her as a bitter old geek girl who rarely bathed." This writer continued on to say that the next artist on Birds of Prey, Butch Guice, drew her like a "geek girl" again (ashndavd99@webtv in Birds of Prey #27, 3/01). Indeed, in many of the early Birds of Prey issues, Barbara's hair is bobbed to the shoulder, hanging lankly, and she often wears shapeless sweaters and pants, in contrast with the long-haired, curved-body, more sexualized drawings of the other Birds.

Later in the run, Barbara would be portrayed consistently in a more sexualized manner. Particularly beginning with Gail Simone's run as writer and Ed Benes as artist, Barbara was drawn as very attractive, with a shapely upper-body made strong by martial arts practice and swimming, large curvy breasts pushing out of small shirts, a thin waist, and perfectly tousled longer hair. Many feminist theorists would probably find this dispiriting: she is a sexualized object for our gaze like so many other female superheroes, and her beauty is enmeshed in her whiteness and in the "cultural and historical specificity of dominant Euro-American notions of corporeal attractiveness" (Tremain 2). But many disability theorists would praise the art: Barbara is drawn to be as sexy as she was when she was Batgirl, and as sexy as the other Birds, subverting the stereotype of people with disabilities as "asexual undesirables."

While her invisibility to many characters allows her to escape both the gaze at women and the stare at people with disabilities if she so chooses, she is not, however, invisible to us. In her wheelchair, she is still embedded in the habitual sexualized portrayals of women in mainstream superhero comics. But while we can and should critique sexualized portrayals, we can and should also see the disruptive potential of portraying the character as disabled and beautiful and as an agent of her own sexuality. Feminist disability theorists note that the line between sexual object and sexual subject is not so clear when it comes to disabled bodies in our culture (Clare 129; Garland-Thomson, "Integrating Disability" 25), leading to yet another set of complications about gender, disability, and embodiment.

The Cure: Barbara's Return as a Non-Disabled Batgirl

These kinds of complications did not disappear when Birds of Prey ended its second volume in 2011. As noted, Barbara Gordon was Batgirl from 1967-1988, and Oracle from 1989-2011. In 2011, when DC Comics relaunched or rebooted 52 of their superhero titles, Oracle disappeared and Barbara was again Batgirl. Gail Simone, who had written Birds of Prey (Volume 1 #56-108 and Volume 2 #1-15), was to be the writer of the new Batgirl title, which had the following intro blurb beginning with issue #3, "Three years after a savage attack that nearly ended her life, the brilliant Barbara Gordon returns to the streets as both survivor and avenger."

In the early days of the Birds of Prey series, two letters were printed that asked for Barbara to be cured, but DC editors pushed back. In 1996, editor Jordan Gorfinkle wrote, "While it is true that the scientific community is coming tantalizingly closer to a breakthrough on such research … I feel that it would be a great injustice to allow [Barbara] to take a leap that her brethren cannot" (Birds of Prey: Manhunt #4, 12/96). In 2001, associate editor Michael Wright rebuffed a call to "get her out of the chair already" with, "We think she's a unique and important hero just as she is" (Birds of Prey #26, 2/01).

Numerous disability theorists have noted the ubiquity of the narrative of cure, and have criticized it heavily (e.g., Clare 120-124, Mintz 130, Russell 183, Snyder and Mitchell 175). For instance, "the ideology of cure directed at disabled people focuses on changing bodies imagined as abnormal and dysfunctional rather than on changing exclusionary attitudinal, environmental, and economic barriers. The emphasis on cure reduces the cultural tolerance for human variation and vulnerability by locating disability in bodies imagined as flawed rather than social systems that need fixing" (Garland-Thomson, "Integrating Disability" 14). When such critiques were fused with concerns about the underrepresentation of people with disabilities and of strong female characters in mainstream superhero comics, the mix was explosive as soon as the new title was announced—well before it was published.

The most comments came from those who lamented the change, protesting that Oracle was a more interesting character than Batgirl, and that the politics of the change were problematic. For instance:

"Barbara Gordon is a beacon for the chronically ill, mobility impaired and disabled … not only with basic human dignity, but also with a mental, emotional and indeed a physical capableness. … Even more importantly, Oracle has developed deep friendships with able-bodied people of all types, some of which were even romantic and presumably sexual, demonstrating that people like her don't have to be segregated to the unseen fringes of society." (Andy Khouri at Comics Alliance, 6/6/11:
"Barbara as Oracle is a character that teaches us that no matter how imperfect your body is, you can still be not just useful, but indispensable. To reboot her back to being able bodied, or even to magically cure her … is nothing short of an insult." (Liopleurodon on the Comic Book Resources message boards, 6/6/11, 8:34pm)
"Do you not see how ableist this is? Do you not see that while Barbara was fridged and victimized, Kim Yale and John Ostrander came and turned her into something amazing and empowering? A role model that people love and adore? (Benicio127 on the Comic Book Resources message boards, 6/7/11, 7:17am)
"Seeing a disabled person in a comic [can] ease the discomfort someone might feel when seeing someone in a wheelchair … [Barbara's] one of the very people in comics that disabled people can look at and see their own struggles for respect, for equality, for simple dignity reflected back at them." (Puckett101, on his tumblr:
"My dad was a paraplegic … Oracle meant so much. People read her comics and related or looked up to her whether they had disabilities or not. She eased the stigma and gave people like my dad and I representation. She made me hope for a day when discussions like this would be unnecessary because disabled people could be seen as individuals, not monsters." (MJ on her blog, Comic Relief:
"Barbara Gordon deserves to be Oracle. She deserves to be the symbol she's become. … Giving Oracle back the use of her legs to bring her back to her iconic role is a travesty." (Jill Pantozzi, at Newsarama, 6/6/11,

Other fans, seemingly much smaller in number, supported the idea of the new title:

"I think it's a good thing that Babs finally gets to recover from her fridging." (Ziral on the Comic Book Resources/ message boards, 6/6/11, 5:40pm)
"THIS disabled person is happy to see Babs healed because I never will be." (Tori Pagac on the Comic Book Resources message boards, 6/6/11, 6:08pm)
"It never made sense to keep Babs in a chair for 20 years when the resources to heal her existed within the DCU." (Badou on the Comic Book Resources message boards, 6/6/11, 8:51pm)

Writer Gail Simone herself entered the fray on the Comic Book Resources message boards, responding to a number of posts. But it was Jill Pantozzi's column (the last one in the first set of comments, above) that led Simone to ask her for an interview, so she could address people's concerns. In that interview, Simone said, "It's been sort of simply accepted that there's this block of disabled folks who are against this idea, en masse [but] there has always been a vocal minority of people with disabilities who wanted to see Babs healed and out of the chair." She noted that Oracle as a character made storytelling difficult, because she could solve any problem; that given the fantastic elements of comics, it made no storytelling sense to not have her "come back whole" when other injured superheroes had; and that Barbara Gordon was the first and most iconic Batgirl, who would finally headline her own Batgirl title. She also made clear that she was not completely sure about the change, but that DC was planning to go ahead with it, and if she did not write it, someone else would (Pantozzi).

It is clear that Simone put great effort into incorporating content about disability into the Batgirl title to address the types of comments listed above. While many elements of Barbara's history were wiped away, her shooting and paralysis were not. In the first several issues, Simone establishes that Barbara was Batgirl for about a year, was shot, and after about three years of using a wheelchair visited a clinic in South Africa that restored her mobility. Barbara has survivor's guilt over the "cure" of her physical disabilities, and is also living with post-traumatic stress disorder over the home invasion and shooting by the Joker.[18] In other words, Barbara as Batgirl could be considered disabled. She vacillates between confidence and fear, noting that she is "rusty" and that her "condition could deteriorate." Her body is drawn to look athletic, and she is only infrequently posed in a sexualized manner. The first villain she faces is "Mirror," who kills people somehow saved by "miracles" from certain death, an on-the-nose reference to Barbara's feelings about her cure as she thinks to herself, "Why do you get a miracle when so many others never will?" (#4).

Stereotypes of people with disabilities would have us expect their portrayals to show isolation. The character of Oracle, though, was surrounded by close companions. The new Batgirl is not. She pushes away Dick Grayson (as Oracle did initially as well), worried that he pities her rather than respecting her. She does become friendly with her roommate Alysia and has the beginnings of a romance with a young man named Ricky. But her mother, father, and brother are a source of stress in contrast to the way in which Barbara as Oracle was supported through a close relationship with her father. And because Barbara has been de-aged and the characters of Cassandra, Stephanie, Charlie, and Wendy seem to have been rebooted out of the DC universe, she has no mentoring role as she did in Volume 1 and 2 of Birds of Prey and Volumes 1-3 of the previous Batgirl titles.

Subsequent story arcs deal less with the fallout from the shooting, or the meta-fallout from the reboot. The stories are interesting and action-packed, and it's clear that while she is struggling with post-traumatic stress and with the "grim and gritty" situations and characters surrounding her, Barbara is as smart, fit, and competent as other superheroes. As a female superhero, the character still works to unsettle gendered boundaries (although not boundaries of race, class, sexuality, or disability) by performing strength and capability through a woman's body (see Brown "Dangerous Curves," Cocca "The Brokeback Project" and "It's About Power," Robinson).

Simone's Batgirl, which ran 34 issues up until August 2014, received mostly positive reviews and for over two years was usually the highest-selling female-headed comic title in any given month.[19] But resentment over the loss of the Oracle character remains, questions about her return persist, and readers don't tend to view the Batgirl character as disabled. Reflecting the feelings of many online about the difference between Barbara in this Batgirl series versus in Birds of Prey, one woman wrote, "Disabled people are told that their bodies are wrong and that they should seek to be "cured," … that they are foolish and selfish if they are proud of the way they are. … In Oracle, we had this disabled woman who was one of the most powerful people on the planet. Who flipped ableist and sexist narratives on their heads and said, 'I am here, and I am not broken …' In the reboot, we lost all of that" (Amy B at Comics Bulletin, 7/24/13:


This last comment highlights just how the character of Barbara Gordon/Oracle disrupts cultural assumptions about gender and disability, albeit in complicated ways. Her portrayal from 1989 to 2011 as a person using a wheelchair, and her current portrayal as a person who appears non-disabled, both stemmed from the push and pull of various competing constituencies. Some aspects of those portrayals can be read as more enmeshed in various degrees of stereotypes of disabilities and of gender, while others can be read as more indicative of inclusive discourses and practices; different audiences will receive the text and images in different and not necessarily predictable ways.

Comics, then, function like interactive public spheres, where writers, artists, editors, and readers can negotiate the meanings of gender, race, class, sexuality, disability, and power as they are embodied by the superhero, producing sequential art whose meanings are open to interpretation.[20] Here, feminist disability theory problematizes representations of Barbara's "cure," her various privileges, her relationships with others, and her body, particularly the ways in which she can be viewed as both subject and object. "Such images, then, are at once liberatory and oppressive. They do the cultural work of integrating a previously excluded group into the dominant order—for better or worse. … This form of popular resymbolization produces counterimages that have activist potential." (Garland-Thomson, "Integrating Disability" 25).[21] In other words, as always, the meaning and significance of these images is up to us and what we do with them.[22]


[1] In terms of physical disabilities, for instance, Professor Charles Xavier uses a wheelchair and also has extraordinary telepathic and psionic abilities; Daredevil is blind while "seeing" even more with radioactivity-tinged vision; Cyborg and Misty Knight have cybernetic and bionic prostheses that are much stronger than their replaced human limbs.

[2] I make a similar argument about interactive public spheres in "It's About Power" and "Negotiating the Third Wave," discussing the characters of Wonder Woman and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as portrayed in various media. The phrase "interactive public spheres" draws from Lisa Duggan's analysis of mass circulation newspapers; the notion of "competing constituent audiences" draws from Jennifer Reed's analysis of gender in The L Word; the idea that various people are struggling through meanings in a somewhat collaborative negotiation draws from Jeffrey Brown's analysis of black superheroes and Milestone Comics ("Black Superheroes").

[3] Feminist criticisms of this tension basically fall into two areas of concern: First, that embracing an individuality that affirms all women's choices can foster non-feminist ideals. Second, that taking pleasure in dressing sexily or in images of sexiness to reclaim portrayals of women can lead to a lack of interrogation of the social inequalities manifest in such dress and such images and how different audiences may receive them (see, e.g., Kelly, Kinser, Snyder, Showden). Springer and Snyder among others have pointed out that the "wave" metaphor describing feminist theories is problematic in that the word "wave" makes it sounds like the ideas of the different time periods are distinct and separate from one another without commonalities that carry through. Also, the usual dates placed on the first two "waves" (1848-1920, 1965-80s) are centered on white women's activism and thereby marginalize the activities of women of color.

[4] I make this assertion based on my own quantitative study ("The Brokeback Project"). I examined 14,599 panels in 144 issues of mainstream superhero comics from DC and Marvel and found that only 8 issues had no sexually objectifying images of women.

[5] In 2003, the nine-issue series by Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty, Batgirl: Year One, changes a few of these details: for instance, Barbara is noted to be small and slight and is rejected from being a police officer or FBI agent because of that. She is younger and has a college degree, but not a PhD. In 2012, a single issue by Gail Simone, Batgirl Volume 4 #0, tweaked the origin as well: Barbara is schooled in ballet and martial arts, and rather than making her costume herself to attend the policeman's ball, she finds it at the Gotham City Police Department. In the body of this article I am describing the original chronological story for the sake of clarity.

[6] The site was named after the storyline in which the Green Lantern's girlfriend was killed and her body stuffed in his refrigerator:

[7] Before and after Birds of Prey launched, Barbara as Oracle appeared in numerous other titles as well, such as Azrael, Azrael: Agent of the Bat, Batgirl, Batman, Batman: Gotham Knights, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Batman: Shadow of the Bat, Catwoman, Detective Comics, Green Arrow, JLA, Nightwing, and Robin.

[8] There were 32 letters that commented specifically on Barbara as a character, out of the 50 issues with lettercolumns. From Birds of Prey #4-46, there were 20 letters about her; in 7 unnumbered one-shots, there were 12 such letters. There were only four critical ones: two suggested she be "cured," one criticized the design of her wheelchair, and one said that a particular artist drew her too much like a "geek girl" and preferred Batgirl. Most letters were about the particular plots of particular issues, and the remainder were about the various characters. The rest of the run had no lettercolumns.

[9] To be fair, there are plenty of characters in comics that illustrate such privileges. For instance, Bruce Wayne/Batman, Tony Stark/Iron Man, and Oliver Queen/Green Arrow all young, attractive, brilliant, healthy, white, cisgender, heterosexual, wealthy, independent, and non-disabled men.

[10] This is not infrequent. See, for example, Black Canary/Batgirl #1; "Oracle Year One" in Batman Chronicles #5; "Oracle" in Showcase '94; Birds of Prey #1, 6, 15, 19, 28, 61, 63, 73, 75, 99, 111, 124; Oracle: The Cure #3; Batgirl Volume 3 #10.

[11] See, for example, issues by five different writers: Birds of Prey #20, 34, 111, 117, 123; Oracle: The Cure #1; Batgirl Volume 3 #1.

[12] See, for example, Birds of Prey #8, 35, 54; various issues of Nightwing between #38 and 117. The bed scene is in Nightwing Annual #2.

[13] McRuer was writing about the movie As Good As It Gets, but his observations apply here as well.

[14] These fourteen are from writer Chuck Dixon's lengthy run: Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey, Manhunt #3 (covers by Gary Frank), and Birds of Prey Volume 1 #1, 2, 4, 9, 10, 12 (Greg Land), 32, 33, 39, and 41 (Phil Noto). Interior art was by Greg Land and Butch Guice. Birds of Prey Volume 1 #52 and 55 were written by Gilbert Hernandez with covers by Phil Noto and interior art by Casey Jones.

[15] These twelve are from writer Gail Simone's equally lengthy run: Birds of Prey Volume 1 #61 (cover by Ed Benes), 65 (Greg Land), 66 (Phil Noto), 67, 72 (Greg Land), 86 (Adriana Melo), 91 (Jesus Saiz), 99 (Jerry Ordway), and 101 (Stephane Roux). Tony Bedard wrote 110 and 123 and Sean McKeever, 115; the cover artist on these three was Stephane Roux. Interior art was by Ed Benes, Joe Bennett, Paolo Siquiera, and Nicola Scott.

[16] These four were written by Gail Simone: Birds of Prey Volume 2 #1 (cover by Ed Benes), 8, 10, and 12 (Stanley Lau).

[17] See note 4.

[18] Note that Barbara's shooting by the Joker comes up rather frequently, referenced in internal monologue, dialogue, and art. See, for example, "Oracle: Year One" in Batman Chronicles #5, Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey, Birds of Prey #1, 8, 16, 50, 61, 72, 84, 123, 124, 127; Oracle: The Cure #3; Batman: Gotham Knights #6, Nightwing #45, Batgirl Volume 4 #0, 1, 3, 6, 14, 15, 19, 22, 24, 27, 31.

[19] For such reviews, see, for example The Mary Sue:, or Comics Alliance: For sales figures, see Batgirl was generally the highest-selling female-headed title (in terms of orders by comic shops) from its debut in September 2011 until the launch of Harley Quinn in December 2013. Cameron Stewart (w/layouts), Brenden Fletcher (w), and Babs Tarr (a) took over the Batgirl title in October 2014, with intentions of a lighter tone and more focus on Barbara's detective and computer skills as she attends graduate school. See

[20] See note 2.

[21] Garland-Thomson was writing about photographs of fashion models with disabilities, but her observations can be applied to here as well.

[22] The author would like to thank the issue editors, Jeffrey Brown and Melissa Loucks, as well as Steven Goodman and Anne Swinton, for their comments on this work. Thanks also to Margaret Torrell, and special thanks to Bob Reyer.

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