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					                                                                          Rick Young
                                                                     6 December 2009
            Support For Heteronormativity And Patriarchy In The Dark Knight

        The character of Batman has been a ubiquitous element of pop culture almost

since its creation by Bob Kane for DC comics in 1939. Given Batman‟s instant

familiarity today, it‟s easy to wonder by what mechanism it is even conceivable that a

seventy year old superhero could not only be surviving, but be instantly recognizable to

nearly every person in the U.S. The Batman is, indeed, the locus of a thriving mythos

capable of generating new sources of revenue to this day. What allows Batman and many

other classic superheroes to remain relevant cultural icons is that “unlike some fictional

characters the Batman has no primary urtext set in a specific period, but has rather existed

in a plethora of equally valid texts” as “the (economic) pressure to produce means that

comic book heroes must have eternal life and eternal youth and that basically unchanging

situations must appear in endless modification.” (Taylor, 350) The overall essence and

personality of the character remains more or less constant over the years, while the

character‟s appearance will likely change to conform to the aesthetic sense of the time.

As it happens, characters may often undergo subtle personality changes not only to suit

the artistic or dramatic vision of their interpreters, but also as the inevitable result of

changing societal norms and expectations. This fundament is central in analysis of the

most recent Batman film, The Dark Knight, in the context of other Batm(e)n and the

evolutionary lives of other superheroes. Because each new incarnation of Batman and

the Gotham he inhabits are, of economic necessity, a product of their environment, it is

possible to glean information about the values and institutions of the culture in which

they are created. However, by virtue of their position in pop culture, mediated
superheroes may also reinforce or challenge certain paradigms and ultimately influence,

in small ways, the culture in which they were conceived. As a text, The Dark Night

exhibits many culturally influenced elements with gendered significance. These signs

may be critiqued from a feminist and, insofar as gender and sexuality also have class

implications, Marxist perspective. This paper examines The Dark Knight‟s position

within the cultural canon of Batman mythology, with specific focus on the film‟s

patriarchal and heteronormative implications.

       Very shortly after its initial creation, the Batman mythos‟ relationship to cultural

hegemonies was brought into the realm of public discussion. In 1954 Frederic Wertham,

a psychiatrist, penned a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent in which he asserted

“that comic books were „morally disarming‟ children” (Genter, 955) of the time. Among

his claims, he specifically mentioned the Batman comic books as possessing “a subtle

atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature „Batman” and

his young friend „Robin.‟” (quoted in Terrill, 493) This assessment of the relationship

between Batman and Robin would have a direct influence upon the development of the

Batman myth from that moment through to the release of the most recent Batman film,

The Dark Knight.

       Among the effects of Wertham‟s analysis was a strengthening of contemporary

American hegemonic ideals, specifically those relating to gender and sexuality. His

claim reified beliefs in the immorality of homosexuality and the condemnation of

homosexuals as a corrupting and predatory force. However, the impact of both his

statements and the culture that received them would not only influence the development

of the Batman myth at the time, but through to the release of The Dark Knight. The net
result of Wertham‟s accusation of Batman‟s and Robin‟s homosexuality would prove to

be the perpetuation of hegemonic masculinity and heteronormativity and the derived

oppression of nonconformists.

       In his analysis of graphic novelist Frank Miller‟s reinterpretation of Batman and

Robin, Tipton points out that the fictional hero and sidekick relationship was not new to

American culture in 1954. (Tipton, 323) He continues that what had made Batman and

Robin available for such an interpretation was their existence not only in the literary

form, but their illustrative nature in that “their heretofore „meta-textual‟ homosocial

relations became both „felt‟ and seen, thus making… close readings like those of

Wertham‟s that much easier.” (Ibid) Indeed, it is not unreasonable for Wertham to

interpret a possible homosexual relationship between the characters. It is the promotion

of heteronormativity attached to his and others‟ criticisms that becomes a barrier to

furtherance of equality and social justice. This reinforced hegemonic heteronormativity

would guide a concerted effort, on the part of the future propagators of Batman myth, to

visually construct his heterosexuality via an amplified masculinity.

       How this has been accomplished in the most recent cycle of Batman films

(Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) is through what

Terrill refers to as “sanitizing the Batman.” Central to this sanitization is the unequivocal

establishment of Batman as within the bounds of heteronormative hegemony so as to

remain a commercially viable commodity.

       While there is no conclusive evidence that such “sanitation” is undertaken

consciously for the express purpose of upholding hegemonic ideals of the status quo, the

observation that DC Comics has a track record of refusing to grant reprinting licenses to
academic works (in four specific cases as of 2001) that specifically discuss Batman‟s

sexuality vis-à-vis other “hundreds of permissions granted by DC for inclusion of

material we‟ve published in scholarly works ranging from articles to books,” (Heer, 21-

22) lends credibility to the theory. It does not seem unreasonable to think that DC would

refuse to grant licenses to prepare derivative works to graphic novels and films that did

not meet it‟s acceptability standards for portraying the Batman.

       The first method by which Batman is sanitized is through amplification of his

masculinity via militaristic imagery. Prividera and Howard show that there exists in

American culture an equation of militarism with masculinity and that this “[g]endered

and racialized framing of militarism and war is perpetuated in the American media.”

(Prividera & Howard, 30) Militarism extends far beyond physical violence against

criminals in Batman mythology. During the course of a dialogue with Lucius Fox

(played by Morgan Freeman) in The Dark Knight, it is revealed that Bruce Wayne‟s

(played by Christian Bale) mega-corporation, Wayne Enterprises, deals significantly in

military research and development. In his analysis of Batman Begins, Dr. Kyle Killian

describes one product of Wanye R&D: “the Batmobile, which is (not coincidentally) a

high-speed tank in this re-vision.” (Killian, 80) The very same Batmobile is later

destroyed-in-action in The Dark Knight. Military research and technology is also evident

in the creation of the tools, weapons, and body armor with which the Batman combats

criminals. The construction of military industry, through its indispensable utilization by

the Batman, as the savior of Gotham effectively approves and reinforces its primacy in

masculine American hegemony.
       In The Dark Knight, Batman is described as a vigilante. Furthermore, his use of

force as an autonomous, albeit very influential, citizen, and his refusal of accountability

to the state, confirms this description. (Dumsday, 51) Violent aggression is fundamental

to the act of vigilantism and “without at least the threat of violence, vigilante action

would be totally ineffective.” (Ibid) While not immutable, under the dominant culturally-

constructed conception of masculine and feminine behaviors, following from the

masculine role as hunter/protector and the feminine role as nurturer/caregiver, the use of

violence and aggression is looked upon as a masculine trait, excepting cases in which

mothers might, in their nurturing capacity, defend their offspring. In The Dark Knight‟s

final catharsis Batman‟s vigilantism is vindicated in the ruse by which Commissioner

Gordon‟s privately supports Batman whilst publicly condemning him:

       James Gordon Jr.: Why‟s he running, Dad?
       Commissioner Gordon: Because we have to chase him.
       J: He didn‟t do anything wrong.
       C: Because he‟s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs
              right now. So, we‟ll hunt him, because he can take it, because he‟s
              not a hero. He‟s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. The Dark

       As the protagonist and hero of the film, Batman‟s use of vigilantism portrays

masculine aggression in a such a way that it reinforces notions that, not only is masculine

aggression itself acceptable, but desirable over a “feminine” passive response. By

favoring masculine traits over feminine traits, existing patriarchal hegemony is further

reinforced. Also important is the fact that vigilantism is undertaken to redress a

perceived threat to the status quo.” ( Dumsday, 55) A vigilante‟s concern for the status

quo, insofar as it is the dominant ideology, has class implications. By attempting to
“(prevent or inhibit) criminal or noncriminal but still deviant acts” [sic] (Dumsday, 57)

the vigilante is defining deviance according to societal norms. Whether for the benefit or

detriment of society and individuals, vigilantism, by definition, perpetuates the prevailing

paradigm of the time and place. Ultimately his violent vigilantism, as well as his

utilization of military technology to fight criminals, Batman reflects and reinforces

“distinctly masculine assumptions regarding social, economic, and political activity” in

which “[t]he warrior hero is definitively male” (Privadera & Howard, 31) and definitively


       Two further ways by which Bruce Wayne as the Batman is sanitized regard his

aesthetic taste and his relationship to women. In assessing Wayne and Robin‟s alter-ego,

Dick Grayson, Wertham wrote:

         “At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and „Dick‟ Grayson.
  Bruce Wayne is described as a „socialite‟ and the official relationship is that Dick is
  Bruce‟s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases,
 and have a butler, Alfred… It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”
                                  (quoted in Tipton, 322)

       This is quite a different picture from the aesthetic of Bruce Wayne in The Dark

Knight. His style of dress is more in line with the harder-edged monochromatic

fashionability of the “metrosexual,” invoking images found on the cover of the lexical

masculine magazine, GQ. His quarters, a chic high-rise penthouse, further employ the

straight “metrosexual” aesthetic to confirm Wayne‟s masculinity. Wertham is implying,

of course, that “sumptuous quarters” and “beautiful flowers in large vases” indicate

sexual preference. By acknowledging these criticisms and refining the image of Bruce

Wayne to fit a more “straight” masculine ideal, the creators behind The Dark Knight,

whether knowingly or not, accede to these gendered meanings. As a consequence the
notion is that not only are flowers “naturally” feminine, but so must also be homosexuals.

Straight/masculine hegemony remains unquestioned.

       Another noticeable difference in the revival of the Batman cycle is his altered

relationship to women. No longer is he simply a “socialite” who “squires about” the

most beautiful women in town. Were that to remain the case, Bruce Wayne could

conceivably continue to be interpreted as having homosexual preferences.

       Terrill discusses at length the inclusion and heterosexual implication of the female

love interest, Dr. Chase Meridian, in Batman Forever. So too, is there a feminine object

of desire in The Dark Knight: Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes. In fact, with her

death at the end of The Dark Knight we see the interrelation of separate canonical texts

revolving around the Batman. The explanation for the Batman‟s sexual ambiguity found

in Frank Miller‟s novel is recycled in the 2008 film. The rationalization contends that

during his relationship with and especially after the death of Rachel, Batman‟s “sexual

urges are so sublimated into crime-fighting that there‟s no room for any other emotional

activity.” (Taylor, 356) This explanation may be unnecessary, given Batman‟s

relationship to Chase Meridian in Batman Forever, given that the film was created before

and set after The Dark Knight, but Warner Brothers and DC Comics presumably might

not object to a reminder of Batman‟s hegemonic authenticity.

       Rachel, as the former lover of Bruce Wayne, and current lover of District

Attorney Harvey Dent, is the focus of a simmering rivalry between the two. The

inclusion of the rivalry between Batman and Dent has gendered significance in that it

reifies conceptions of competition, especially in the context of romantic competition as a

masculine pursuit. The physical attributes and personalities of Wayne and Dent pit
physical strength and sexual appeal (Wayne) versus sensitivity and emotional appeal

(Dent). Implicit is the notion that the ideal male may only possess one set of

characteristics or the other and, in so doing, be either “properly” masculine or lacking

some desired traits. The ultimate position of Dent as being, first, dependent upon Batman

for rescue and, second, succumbing to a moral defect and transforming into the villain

Two-Face, a decision is made as to which traits are ultimately most desirable in a “good”


       Critical theorists have asserted that the question of Batman‟s sexuality may be

resolved by virtue of inclusion of certain secondary characters and their relationship to

him. (Terril, 2000; Tipton 2008).

       In explicitly displaying his unattainable romantic and sexual interest in Rachel,

The Dark Knight casts Bruce Wayne/Batman as an icon of heterosexual masculinity and

dominance. Consequently the relationship to the women he “squires about” is altered. In

the party scene at his Penthouse, it seems rather that it is he who is being escorted as he

steps out of a personal helicopter with three idealized women on his arm. It is of course

an eroticized, patriarchal, and hegemonic ideal to which the women conform. Each

woman is tall, slim, with large breasts and curvy hips; accentuated by dresses with

plunging necklines and high hems. The portrayal of the women against the backdrop of a

luxurious personal helicopter and a high fashion invitation-only party connotes their

function as accessories; through their use it is understood that Bruce Wayne‟s status may

be elevated. This example, along with the instance in which he whisks away every

woman in a Russian Ballet troupe to Hong Kong only to be momentarily shown laying

seductively on the deck of his yacht in Bikinis, evokes images reminiscent of Jay-Z‟s
“Big Pimpin‟” and other similar rap videos shown on MTV. These women are the

reward of the rich and famous, and, as the film‟s “good guy” is rich and famous, it is

natural that he should have them. Such depictions only perpetuate a hegemonic ideal in

which “women are valued for their constituent body parts and their sexual attractiveness

and… are encouraged to value themselves for these same attributes.” (Mooney, 252) By

creating women as either, in the case of Rachel, the unattainable quarry of the chase, or

as the rented possessions of Bruce Wayne, they are “[contained] to „women as image‟ so

that only men can be represented as fully social subjects.” (Mooney, 262)

       In addition to the inclusion of sexualized women, the questionable role of Robin

in the early comics has been resolved through recasting. In Frank Miller‟s

reinterpretation of Batman legend as the 1986 graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns,

he originally completely re-sexes Bruce Wayne‟s ward as a teenaged girl. (Tipton, 323-

324) In his analysis of Batman Forever, Terrill decodes Chris O‟Donnell‟s version of

Robin as “vehemently heterosexual.” (Terrill, 501) Dick Grayson, in Forever, displays

an overt sexual interest in women and “[b]y displaying the signs of heterosexuality

himself, Robin clarifies Batman‟s sexual orientation.” (Ibid)

       In the same way that remedial portrayals of Robin are created to secure Batman‟s

hegemonic masculinity, so too are the portrayals of the villains related to an audience‟s

ability to “correctly” decode the Batman. In Batman Forever, Jim Carey‟s Riddler is

sexually ambiguous and displays many “Campy” qualities. (Terrill, 498-499)

Furthermore, the Riddler represents the antithesis of the Batman. As what Terrill

describes as the mythic “trickster,” he is in all things a doppelganger of the protagonist.

Thus, “because the Riddler is sexually ambiguous, Wayne/Batman isn‟t.” (Terrill, 498)
   In The Dark Knight, the Joker fills the same role of the trickster/doppelganger.

However, with Batman/Bruce Wayne‟s sexuality firmly resolved through earlier re-

representations of Robin and the Riddler, the Joker‟s opposition to Batman takes on a

much different character. Rather than reinforcing the heteronormativity of Batman, via a

postmodern sexuality in which he can appear in drag as a nurse, yet be apparently

“straight” (according to the aggression-related norms already established in Batman), the

Joker opposes the patriarchal masculinity of Batman‟s industrial militarism. Where

Killian argues that the new Batman is representative of George W. Bush‟s “War On

Terror,” (Killian, 77) the Joker might be more properly described as a rough analog to an

Iraqi or Afghan insurgent. He stands in defiance of the order represented by both Batman

and the rest of Gotham‟s organized crime as hegemonic forces. In the conversations

between himself and Batman, he is shown, not as insane, but sadly and pathologically

realistic in his assessment of the world in which he lives. Yet, in his ultimate defeat,

patriarchal hegemony, conformity, and propagation of the status quo are also victorious.

   Superheroes are, at their core, the embodiment of hegemonic ideals. The heroes

adhere to and defend societal norms. Villains oppose them. What has historically

separated the Batman was his moral ambiguity. (Terrill, 494) In possessing such

ambiguity, Batman traditionally has been the most accurate portrayal of the individual‟s

conviction that their way is the correct way. In “sanitizing” Batman Forever, Terrill

argues that Batman‟s antagonistic relationship to hegemony has been transformed. In

continuing to rigidly define the Batman through his portrayal in The Dark Knight, it has

been shown that the Batman mythos becomes a proponent of, rather than a challenge to,

cultural hegemony.
                                     Works Cited

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      Retrieved November 12, 2009 from EBSCO Host.

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