Friday, November 18, 2011

Spotlight On: Enter Batgirl, Exit Batman

By Gary Gerani

Even to us mid-‘60s kids, the addition of Batgirl to the BATMAN series seemed a fairly desperate move.  A succession of groan-inducing Season Two episodes proved the campy party thrown by Dozier and his cohorts was pretty much over.  And yet, driven by adolescent urges that transcended our interest in aging comic book parodies, we welcomed this new regular with a respectable degree of excitement.

According to comments in DC Comics (and other places), it was former beauty queen Mary Ann Mobley who was all set for the part.  Veteran of glossy B-flicks like MGM’s Get Yourself a College Girl and eventual wife to Gary (SIXTH SENSE) Collins, Ms. Mobley would have surely dazzled us with her own brand of sexy, good girl vivaciousness.  Instead, longtime Fox contract player Yvonne Craig was tapped… and filmdom’s first comics-inspired superheroine burst into our appreciative lives (we’re not counting Irish McCalla’s mostly forgotten turn as jungle queen Sheena; meanwhile, Jane Fonda was about to raise the super-babe bar considerably in 1968’s BARBARELLA.  So the times, like our hormones, were a’changin’… ).

Barbara Gordon/Batgirl undoubtedly gave a handful of little girls a female hero to root for, along with titillating those same little boys who went nuts for Julie Newmar’s body-beautiful Catwoman.  Regardless, the somewhat revamped BATMAN series, now cut in half for its final season, became a cartoon-like circus of unrestrained self-parody, very often with wall-to-wall costumed characters milling about in deliberately ridiculous situations.  With protests against the Vietnam War reaching fever pitch and all of my friends worrying about the draft in 1968, TV shows like BATMAN represented the absolute height of irrelevance.  We made time for THE PRISONER, however.  And I couldn’t help checking out a sexy super-babe in a skintight outfit, for gosh sakes.

Interestingly, many veteran Bat-viewers actually resented Craig’s Batgirl at first; she was yet another character added to an already overcrowded group (even the villains had become “family”), the BATMAN joke itself was clearly played out, and BG was rightfully pegged as a not-exactly-organic gimmick.  Moreover, Batgirl’s persona was less extreme than the Dynamic Duo’s self-mocking super-square approach; the prim and proper local librarian who moonlights as a sassy, butt-kicking, motorcycle-riding semi-vixen isn’t very different from “straight” comic book heroine incarnations, then and now.  Often Batgirl came across as more mature than her seasoned partners; they would never smirk, raise a cynical eyebrow, or engage in light sarcasm (“…that’s because nobody knows where you live,” she chides Batman with some edge).  The character’s entire motivation is pretty much spelled out in some memorable “Enter Batgirl” dialogue: “Crime-fighting is serious business to me, too, Batman…but you might as well get a few laughs out of it.”  So, in a sense, Batgirl effortlessly represents the repressed mid-‘60s female cutting loose from dowdy convention by traipsing about sexily and kicking arrogant males in the face… an unapologetic feminist with ZAP! POW! BAM! trimmings.

Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, it was Batgirl’s tendency to be captured and tied-up provocatively that kept impressionable teenage boys glued to their screens, even as the quality of the series itself declined.  Unlike traditionally wimpy damsel-in-distress types, BATMAN’s imperiled lass was a taunting, super-sexy crusader, so challenging her feisty self-confidence added some spice to those already stimulating capture set-pieces.  It would take a new century and the emergence of the Internet’s countless “superheroine in jeopardy” fan fiction sites for Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl to be immortalized as the original, one-and-only Ground Zero prototype.

Some questions: Was Batgirl designed as a possible romantic interest for Batman?  I’d say only in the most distant, generalized way.  B & R are basically pre-sexual characters (Catwoman could write volumes about this), and even Batgirl is at heart a fun-loving tomboy flirting with the idea of being sexy, even though her statuesque physique in that second-skin costume easily does the job for her.  Another point should be addressed here: some fans to this day believe that BATGIRL was intended as a separate spin-off series, a la THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E., probably because the brief try-out film for the character could easily be mistaken as a series pilot.  But this is a myth, at least according to Yvonne Craig, who points to Dozier’s own production memoirs – the character was created specifically for BATMAN to boost ratings and give the show a third season, period.

Fighting techniques, and what’s in a name: Just as Batman and Robin specialized in traditional, all-American roundhouse rights in their battles, Batgirl relied on more feminine high-kicks, elegantly connecting to a ballet dancer’s approach to physical action.  Like all American heroines of the day (starting with Honey West), Batgirl never once threw a punch – which would have been deemed way too macho and unladylike for a cartoon-like parody of old serials (England’s Emma Peel had no such restrictions).  And what about a 29 year-old female referring to herself as a “girl,” with or without a Bat prefix?  That’s what our culture demanded back in the ‘50s and ‘60s; Catwoman got away with the more mature moniker because she was tainted, a villainous counterpoint to Batman himself.  Similarly, referring to an actress as an “actor” would be viewed as a weird put-down in the 20th Century, a rejection of the performer’s all-important feminine attributes.  Today the exact opposite is true.

Ultimately, Dozier’s made-for-TV Batgirl is thought of rather fondly by fans and pop historians.  Sure, she couldn’t revive the camp-choked series, but nothing could this late in the game.  In her own rather modest, irresistible way, Yvonne Craig defined and embodied what would eventually evolve into the sleek, fearless, ultra-cool superheroine character of today, perhaps even more so than Lynda Carter’s iconic Wonder Woman.  There’s something of Craig in Kate Beckensale’s Underworld butt-kicker, Iron Man’s Black Widow, and countless others.  After all is said and done, no woman – or girl – ever looked more fetching in form-fitting leather duds and a pointy-eared Bat mask.  Viva le difference! 

Rare scenes from a 1958 TV pilot, GORDON AND BABS AT HOME.

GORDON: “Batman, my Batman!  I bless the day you came into our lives.”

BABS: “I do too, Daddy.  But even the Dynamic Duo can use a little help now and then…”

GORDON: “Really, Barbara!  A female version of Batman, capturing arch-criminals and bringing them to justice?  Well, perhaps someday…”

BABS: “Maybe sooner than you think, Daddy!”


  1. Luckily, though, the word "actress" HAS made a very big comeback. Not that it ever exactly went away, but for a while you'd have almost thought so, with the word "actor" being used in such an all-purpose way.
    (I don't usually get into the whole "political correctness / political incorrectness argument, but a world without "actresses" and "waitresses" - and, yes, "stewardesses" - is just less interesting!)

    I don't understand - are those photos actually from some earlier thing with Hamilton and Craig?

    1. Grant:

      Nice to see that I'm not the only one who comes back here occasionally ...

      Anyway, those photos are from PERRY MASON, a first-season episode titled "The Case Of The Lazy Lover", which first aired in 1958 - nine years before Yvonne Craig landed on BATMAN. This was her only appearance on MASON.

      On the other hand,Neil Hamilton made a total of seven appearances on MASON; he only missed appearing in two of Mason's nine seasons on the air, always as different characters. In "Lazy Lover", he was the murder victim; in at least one other episode he turned out to be the murderer. Hamilton missed out on achieving the Mason Trifecta by also appearing as a defendant in an episode.

      There's a PERRY MASON TV SERIES website that keeps track of multiple appearances by actors; I commend it to you..

  2. Thank you.
    I've never been too familiar with Perry Mason, but I and others do that with the original Columbo -
    Who played a killer more than twice? - Robert Culp and Jack Cassidy.
    Who played both a killer and a funny supporting character? - Joyce Van Patten.
    And so on.

  3. Batman was off the air for many months before The Prisoner made it's US airing, so it wasn't all that hard to make time for it. And I'm afraid that Batgirl was a long gone memory when Barbarella first stirred my loins in October 1968