Batman and Robin enjoy some downtime: a panel from World’s Finest Comics #59 (1952)
Today’s National Post contains an article an article I’ve written examining the history of the rumour that Batman and Robin are gay. (like everything I write for the Post the article came along with an instant rebuttal, which you can read here. As a special treat for Sans Everything readers, I’ve posted below the full-length version of the article, which has many details that didn’t make it into the Post.
Inside the Batcave: Intellectual Genealogy of A Rumour
by Jeet Heer
When Batman returns to the big screen later this summer in The Dark Knight he’ll be joined by his familiar cast of secondary characters: Alfred the Butler, the decent cop James Gordon (soon to be a commissioner), the evil Joker. One character, however, will be missing: Batman’s familiar sidekick Robin, the Boy Wonder. In part this is due to the fact that the movie focuses on the early years of the Caped Crusader. But it’s also the case that movie makers in general have been reluctant to bring in Robin lest they revive longstanding rumours that Batman is gay.
It seems like a stale old joke, albeit one that can still produce a smirk in the immature. Yet the gayness of Batman has been a topic of serious debate over for nearly 70 years now. The history of this idea shows how once-marginal notions can quickly become mainstream.
The first writer to suggest that the superhero genre has a gay subtext was Gershon Legman (1917-1999) in his 1949 self-published polemic Love and Death. Legman is a hard figure to describe but perhaps the best way to sum him up in a few words is to say that he was an intellectual wild man: an amateur psychologist (with his own spin on Freud), an erstwhile assistant to sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (they had a falling out), a critic of militarism and advocate of sexual liberation (he’s been credited with coining the phrase “make love not war” and he wrote a guide to cunnilingus), a folklorist and collector of dirty ballads, a popularizer of origami (the art of paper folding) and all round general outlaw thinker who lived on the cultural fringe.
In his classic 1994 book Gay New York, historian George Chauncey mistakenly described Legman as “a gay man.” Terry Eagleton, in his book Figures of Dissent, characterized Legman’s book Love and Death as a “right-wing US polemic”. The truth is a little bit more complicated. As a young man Legman had experimented with homosexuality and he was certainly very familiar with gay culture (he published a still useful lexicon of homosexual argot in 1941). But over time Legman became very homophobic for complicated ideological reasons. Inclined towards pacifism, he concluded that American culture was screwed up because it celebrated violence (associated with masculine virtue) while denigrating sexuality (associated with feminine weakness). In short, American culture was deeply misogynist and violent. For Legman, male homosexuality was a manifestation of this misogyny (boys were trained as young that girls were icky and grew up gay) and therefore should be opposed for the sake of a psychologically healthy culture. (The conflation of male homosexuality with misogyny was a commonplace psychological observation at the time).
In Love and Death, Legman argued that many comic books had “an undercurrent of homosexuality and sado-masochism.” Legman’s full account of this “undercurrent” is a typical example of his careening, over-loaded, sarcasm-heavy prose: “The homosexual element lies somewhat deeper. It is not – at least, not importantly – in the obvious faggotry of men kissing one another and saying ‘I love you,’ and then flying off through space against orgasm backgrounds of red and purple, nor in the transvestists scenes in every kind of comic-book from floppity-rabbits to horror-squinkies, not in the long-haired western killers with tight pants (for choice). Neither is in the explicit Samurai subservience of the inevitable little-boy helpers – theoretically identification shoe-horns for children not quite bold enough to identify themselves with Superprig himself – nor in the fainting adulation of thick necks, ham fists, and well-filled jock-straps; the draggy capes and costumes, the shamanistic talismans and superstitions that turn a sissified clerk into a one-man flying lynch-mob with biceps bigger than his brain. It is not even in the two comic-book companies staffed entirely by homosexuals and operating out of our most phalliform skyscraper.” (Interesting tidbit: one of the companies that was supposedly staffed entirely by homosexuals was Timely, the forerunner to Marvel Comics. Stan Lee, an editor at Timely, is said to have been particularly miffed by this accusation).
In his 1955 bestseller Seduction of the Innocent, psychologist Fredric Wertham took up the idea that Batman and Robin have an unhealthy homoerotic subtext. In a much-noted passage Wertham wrote, “Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and ‘Dick’ Grayson. Bruce 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. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. … [I]t is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” For this reason, “only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize the subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his younger friend ‘Robin.'” Wertham’s fear was that the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder would pervert the sexuality of young readers. (Wertham also found a lesbian subtext to Wonder Women).
Wertham was clearly picking up from where Legman left off. In his book Men of Tomorrow, Gerard Jones suggests that Legman was the ghost writer for Seduction of the Innocent. This is highly unlikely, For one thing, Legman had left the United States in the early 1950s after the government tried to convict him as a pornographer. Moreover, Legman’s prose was too distinctive to make his a successful ghost writer. More likely, Wertham was influenced by one of his colleagues, Hilde Mosse, who was quite homophobic. (There is an interesting family dynamic behind Mosse’s stance. Mosse was the sister of George Mosse, the great historian who in the 1950s was very much in the closet but who came out as openly gay later in life, after his beloved sister died).
Since comics were internationally popular, the great Batman debate issue soon started skipping across borders. In the early 1960s Italian cultural critics, developing the new field of semiotics, also started writing about the homoerotic subtext of superhero comics (two prominent scholars on this subject were Roberto Giammanco and Umberto Eco; Eco, of course, would go on to write the bestselling novel The Name of the Rose).
The accusations of Legman and Wertham influenced the way DC presented Batman. As scholar Chris York once observed, the writers of Batman comics responded to Wertham’s accusation of “homoeroticism” by providing Batman with more female companions, such as Batgirl, Batwoman, and numerous girlfriends. York concludes: Surrounded by his “nuclear Bat-family,” the “dark, deviant” vigilante of the early 1940s was transformed into a genial, problem-solving father figure in the 1950s.
Yet the attempt to straighten up Batman was only partially successful. When ABC television launched the Batman show in 1966 everyone – from the producers to TV critics to viewers – described it as “campy”. The camp aesthetic, as readers of Susan Sontag will know, emerged out the gay subculture. (The show did try to defuse the gay issue by having Batman and Robin live with their Aunt Harriet but this half-hearted and ambiguous gesture was counterbalanced by the general campiness of the whole production).
Interestingly in his 1995 tell-all autobiography Boy Wonder: My Life in Tights, the actor Burt Ward, who played Robin in the 1960s TV show, addressed the long-standing rumor that Batman and Robin are gay. While stridently proclaiming his own real-life heterosexuality (and boasting of his many sexual conquests, including a nine-way love-in with eight female groupies), Ward conceded the possibility of an amorous link between the fictional Batman and Robin and closely echoed Wertham’s words: “A mature man, unmarried and rarely seen in the company of women, takes a naive teenage boy under his wing…. They share many secrets and spend long hours alone in remote areas…. Holy homophobia!”
In response to the Batman TV show, which they felt demeaned the Caped Crusader by turning him into a clown, many subsequent comic book writers and cartoonists have tried to emphasize the grim, noir Batman (while keeping Robin discretely out of sight). Examples of this include the Batman stories of Denny 0’Neil and Neal Adams as well as Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series. (In Miller’s version Robin is turned into a teenage girl, which to be frank might make Batman heterosexual but still has a creepy undercurrent: Lolita is not any better a model for a superhero than Death in Venice).
With the rise of gay liberation at the end of the 1960s, gay writers and artists themselves started talking about the appeal that Batman and Robin had for them. “Holy Hormones! Batman and Robin Made Me Gay” Steve Berry claimed in a 1986 article for Gay Comix. Book designer Chip Kidd came out as a major Batman cultist, editing some beautiful volumes paying tribute to the masked avenger. In his 1995 novel What They Did to Princess Paragon, Rob Rodi explored the gay subtext of both superhero comics and fandom.
By 1996, the old song and dance about Batman and Robin was familiar enough to make it on network television. Animator Robert Smigel started producing his series of satirical cartoons featuring The Ambiguous Gay Duo, which first aired on the Dana Carvey show and eventually became a fixture on Saturday Night Live.
The gayness of Batman, once a scandal discussed only by marginal intellectuals like Legman, became a common place. In fact, even the cartoonists who work on the character talk about it. The original creator of Batman was the late Bob Kane, but from the start he had many ghost writers and artists. One of the most important of these early ghosts was Jerry Robinson, who co-created the Joker. Interviewed recently by the author David Hajdu, Batman, Robinson freely admitted there as a “tinge” of homoeroticism in those early Batman stories. “What they did between the panels was their own business,” Robinson told Hajdu.