It is a truth universally acknowledged that Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997) is a terrible film. I’m not going to argue with that universally acknowledged truth because I would look like an idiot. And the fact is Batman & Robin truly is a terrible film but that doesn’t change the fact that when I was an impressionable young fangirl I absolutely adored it. Even at 11 I knew this movie wasn’t great, but I still loved it unironically because it gave me something I didn’t know I needed, it gave me Batgirl.
There are a lot of reasons that Batman & Robin sucks. Almost every aspect of this film fails spectacularly that it’s kind of pointless to try to pin point exactly what went wrong. Everything went wrong, but I still watched it over 20 times. Why? Because I was 11 years old and it was the first time I had ever seen a female superhero.
When I first saw Batman & Robin I hadn’t been introduced to comics. It was before I read Harry Potter and before I started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While I had already begun my fannish Journey with Star Wars, I wasn’t actually involved in fandom. (We had only just got the Internet and I wasn’t really allowed to use it without supervision.) I wasn’t born when Wonder Woman was airing and it wasn’t like anyone was going to recommend renting Supergirl from the video store. My superhero exposure at that point existed of, watching Superman and Batman movies on VHS and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.
Sure Lois Lane is pretty cool and there’s no doubt that she had quite an impact on my life (along with April O’Neil) but she’s not Batgirl.
In the years since Batman & Robin was released I’ve learned that Alicia Silverstone’s performance as Batgirl was one of the most panned aspects of the film and with the benefit of hindsight I’m inclined to agree. The casting in this film was so bad that it’s almost like they did it on purpose. My comic education taught me that Alicia Silverstone’s Barbara Wilson is NOT Barbara Gordon. But the truth is that without Barbara Wilson I might never have encountered Barbara Gordon. Batman & Robin was honest to goodness the first time I realised that superheroes could be girls.
There I was, having watched the Star Wars trilogy, read The Hobbit and had my first introduction to Doctor Who. I was a fangirl in the making but I hadn’t even considered that a girl could be an actual honest to goodness superhero. (Xena was pretty awesome but ancient Greece was a different time. Things had changed since then). I used to dream of being the journalist sidekick or maybe a princess (still waiting for my royal parents to come claim me - sorry mum).
Then out of nowhere - there she is BATGIRL! She road a motor bike and totally defeated Poison Ivy on her very own! She fought along side Batman and Robin like she was one of them! If Batgirl could be one of them then maybe I could too! While everyone else was complaining about everything that was wrong with Batman & Robin all I could see was myself in a leather suit fighting along side Batman and it was EVERYTHING!
Not long after this I started to delve deeper into the world of fandom and I soon learnt that my love for Batman & Robin was something to be ashamed of. Years later I cringe while I watch this film because not only is it bad, it’s also grossly misogynist and generally rather boring (I now understand why I used to fast forward to the few parts with Batgirl in it). But I put up with those terrible ice-puns and George Clooney’s stiff performance because it was literally all I had.
Is that not the saddest thing you have ever heard?
While I was never an active part of any DC fandom, I do remember reading many message board discussions and blog posts discussing the various depictions of Batman and literally the only thing they ever said about Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl was that she was fat. The only representation that was a available to me and all anyone wanted to talk about was the size of her thighs.
This is why we need diverse superheroes. Yeah, Batman’s cool and on some level I can identify with him even though he’s a straight white man. But there is still a part of me that thinks in order to become a superhero I have to become a straight white man. The two identities are not interchangeable. Or at least they weren’t until I saw Batgirl.
Batman & Robin might be terrible but without it, I might not have become the geeky girl you know and love. For that I am forever grateful. But really, the fact that I had to latch onto the tiniest hint of representation in the worst movie ever is completely unacceptable and that is why representation matters.