So I went out and bought the Arkham Knight Season Pass. I’m a big fan of the Arkham games, but I wouldn’t recommend the DLC – Warner Brothers have been trying to squeeze extra pennies out of customers lately, and it’s not a practice that we want to encourage. There’s some extra story missions in the DLC, as well as these little one-off minisodes featuring different characters. The first few are very small – three or so rooms each, switching between predator and combat modes. But I’ve just played the Batgirl episode, and it’s a bit longer, and a bit more interesting – especially in terms of how the game constructs her character. Let’s talk about Batgirl.
A quick bit of context. Batgirl and Robin are out trying to apprehend Joker, who’s kidnapped the Commissioner. Instead of the three-room structure, it’s an open map with different events in different areas, much like in the base game. You play as Batgirl, who is probably the most conventional character so far. The minisodes seem to be about experimenting with different gameplay styles – so Harley Quinn has a meter that builds up and allows her to one-hit KO everybody for a period of time, while Red Hood has guns and shoots people. It makes predator challenges much easier, because you can shoot enemies from across the room, but it’s also a bit weird in a Batman game. Batgirl doesn’t really have a special gameplay style. For some of the fights she works with Robin, but we’ve already seen that in the main campaign – Batman working with Catwoman to fight Riddler, and with Nightwing to take down Penguin.
What’s interesting about Batgirl, then, is how she’s portrayed – particularly how her gender is constructed. The Batman games generally tend to hyper-sexualise women. They all wear skintight clothes, Catwoman has her unzipped suit, Poison Ivy is literally just walking round in a loose button-up shirt, and Harley – well, see Exhibit One above (pursed lips, elevated ass, etc). Batgirl, by contrast, exists in this weird mid-ground where she’s a little bit sexualised but mostly styled after Batman. Where other characters have their own personalised gadgets, Batgirl exclusively uses Batman’s gear. Obviously the thematic and visual design is very similar – fundamentally her character is a Batman spin-off.
The similarities extend into fighting styles. Batgirl’s attack animations are frequently modelled on Batman’s. This makes her a bit more conventional to play, but also associates her character with some of the gruff masculinity of Batman. I’m not suggesting she’s presented as masculine – she’s obviously a very petite character, fulfilling the stereotype of the thin pretty girl. Arguably Batgirl is more traditionally feminine than Oracle – ah, so, for those who aren’t aware, Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) gets paralyzed at some point and ends up in a wheelchair as Batman’s tech buddy, Oracle. You’ve been working with Oracle throughout the Arkham series, and this minisode is (to my knowledge) the first time you flash back to Batgirl. Anyway: so Batgirl is probably more traditionally feminine. Where Oracle has her hair up in a pony tail, Batgirl has long flowing locks out the back of the hood. It’s all very conventional markers of femininity, right down to the heels and waist-hip ratio.
So Batgirl is probably best thought of as alt-Batman – or gender-swapped Batman, if you like. She’s styled on Batman, and her animations largely mirror his, including his rolls, beatdowns, gadgets, silent takedowns, his gliding, and so on. She also spends a bunch of time asserting herself, over and often against Robin, her ostensible boyfriend. Robin will suggest something (“Hold on, I’m heading to your position!”) and Batgirl will disagree, taking charge of the situation (“No. Don’t. I can take care of this. Find the Joker. Let’s end this.”). She orders Robin around in the same way that Batman does. There’s also the whole solo-hero vibe, with Robin essentially just functioning to scout things out and call Batgirl to do all the important things (like disarming bombs). Not only does she fight like Batman, but she behaves like Batman in her relationships.
So there’s a weird tension for Batgirl – she operates like Batman, but she’s a girl, and we all know how the Batman games portray girls.
This tension results in the sexualisation being downplayed, especially when compared to Catwoman. Catwoman has lots of attacks that have her doing the splits, or something sexual – in Arkham City, for instance, she had a takedown where she’d kiss an enemy and then break their arm, or another where she’d knee an enemy in the nuts. It’s a weird type of sexual violence where technically it is just violence, but it invokes the sexual dimension by focusing on sexual organs or processes. Because Batgirl uses Batman’s fighting style, the violence is much more professional, very measured and dispassionate. It’s not sexy fighting, it’s cool fighting – it’s Batman fighting. Some specific moves aren’t taken from Batman, so they’re a bit more feminine – for example, whenever Batgirl does a ground takedown there’s usually a bit more of a pirouette, or some cartwheels or stuff that emphasises her legs or her figure.
So that’s the argument. Batgirl is a female character in Arkham Knight, but she’s not hyper-sexualised because she’s largely modelled on Batman, so she carries much more gravitas and basically just gets more respect. One possible explanation for the lack of overt sexualising could be the child-parent dynamic that she’s got going with Batman. Both Batgirl and Robin are Batman’s proteges: it’s not strictly a child-parent relationship, because that would make the romantic relationship between Batgirl and Robin incestuous, but there’s still a loose metaphor. At one point, for example, Joker refers to Batgirl and Robin as Batman’s babies. So you could say that Batgirl isn’t sexualised because Batman’s not trying to have sex with her. That would fit with the broad power fantasy of the superhero genre, and the way in which every character in a superhero story typically exists for the gratification of the audience focalised through the hero-protagonist. That is, we as audience imagine ourselves as Batman, and if Batman’s not trying to fuck her, she’s not presented to us as sexualised. That’s not where Batman wants to take us.