I don’t remember where I first heard it, but the idea that, in fiction, villains represent the things that we, as a society, reject while heroes represent the things that we support has interested me for a long time. At first, I wasn’t really sure how I felt about it, whether I agreed or disagreed. Because, on the one hand, the villains have typically been the characters that I felt a deeper connection with. The heroes were always boring. They were limited to the confines of certain rules, being forced to reflect what writers view as ‘the everyman’, while sticking to their very limited view of morality. Villains were much freer. They were allowed to be and do what they wanted, opening themselves up to further exploration.
But at the same time, I see where the argument comes from. Focusing on the Batman universe for a second here (because I’m familiar with it, and because Batman has a fuckton of villains), the majority of his villains are either foreign (Bane, Penguin, often Mr. Freeze), mentally ill (Two-Face, the Joker, Riddler), or queer (Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn). In some more specified cases, too, this argument presents very problematic aspects of the Batman universe.
For example: Poison Ivy. Poison Ivy is most commonly presented as a villain in the Batman universe. Created in 1966, when feminism and environmentalism were both issues that were frequently discussed, Poison Ivy is an ecoterrorist and a strong woman who is in charge of her own sexuality. On the one hand, when you apply this argument to this character, it looks like the text is offering a very sexist and a very anti-environmentalist message. But on the other hand, this is also part of what I love about her.
And the Batman universe hasn’t been entirely dismissive about who Poison Ivy is as a person either. Many writers have made deliberate attempts to humanize her, as well as to make the reader sympathize with her as a person. Her main conflict, for example, involves feeling like she is outside of society (being half-plant), and that she is incapable of connecting with any human being. Later comics allowed her to move passed this feeling by giving her a close relationship with Harley Quinn, but the point still stands that Batman writers have made an active attempt to make readers relate to her.
So what does that mean? Is Poison Ivy a representation of what society hates most?
And on the hero-side of things, what about Batman? Batman, after all, is a wealthy, white man who the comics have gone out of their way to prove is straight (for proof of this, look back to the creation of Batwoman as a character). All of this falls into the definition of what society accepts as ‘correct’. In most recent Batman texts, however, this has changed ever-so-slightly, as Batman has begun to be explored as someone who is very mentally ill. Although he still refuses to accept help for his illness, his PTSD surrounding the death of his parents is most evident, though there might be more beneath it all, considering the fact that he endangers his own life nightly to dress up as a giant bat and work as a vigilante.
And not only that, but Batman is not the only hero in the Batman universe.
Batwoman, for example, has been a lesbian in the comics since the 1990’s.
Oracle is a physically disabled woman, being confined to a wheelchair since she was shot by the Joker.
And Damian Wayne is represented as racially other, having a mother who is half-Chinese and half-Arab.
These, of course, are very small deviations from the norm, but they are present nonetheless. So what does that mean? Do Batman heroes represent the norm of society, and I’m just nit-picking a few small exceptions, or does this argument fail to apply to the Batman universe?
At the end of the day, I’m not sure that I have a conclusion. I’m not even sure if there is a conclusion to reach. There are many ways in which this argument rings true in the Batman universe, but there are also ways in which it deviates.
And either way, whether or not this rule applies, I have to admit, the level of variety that the Batman comics has is part of why I love the universe so much. Seeing so many issues explored, through so many different characters, is a truly fascinating experience, and one that I wish I saw in more fictional universes.