It’s a good thing that we have the classification of “Problematic Fave” because this is a strange Schrödinger of media: simultaneously good and nauseating at the same time. The DC Animated Universe, abbreviated to the DCAU from here on out, is a series of animated TV shows created by Warner Brothers Studios. Starting in 1992 with Batman: The Animated Series, the combined verse spans eight very successful TV shows across fourteen years. Their tone varies from the grim-dark future of Batman: Beyond to the bright, optimistic Superman: The Animated Series. The writing is always smart but the shows revel in sexism.
One thing to say right off the bat is that these writers are very good, which makes their narrative stumbling less excusable. These people were able to take shows written completely separate, and created with no intention of making a continuity or universe, and still managing to retroactively blend the stories together, sometimes with a decade intervening between them. Case in point, Superman’s nemesis Brainiac appears in Superman: The Animated Series (STAS) and makes a false alliance with Lex Luthor in order to destroy the Earth. When Brainiac and Luthor’s computers link up, Brainiac buries part of his code within Luthor’s data and this causes no end of trouble. Brainiac holds Luthor hostage later in STAS, hacks into Bruce Wayne’s computers when Wayne Enterprises and Lex Corp do business and mind controls Wayne himself, beams that information into an asteroid to rebuild itself in Justice League (JL), and even hybridizes himself with Luthor in Justice League: Unlimted (JLU) because Brainiac planted himself into Luthor when Luthor was Brainiac’s hostage in STAS. It is really quite spectacular that the writers managed to retroactively add so much to the earlier shows so organically that, when taken as a whole, one might even think it was their intent from the beginning.
That good writing applies to the characters as well. While all the characters are written exceptionally well, the best work, and probably the writers’ favorite character is the original:
The Dark Knight is written consistently over every single DCAU show, notably the only character to appear in each. While more modern interpretations of Batman verge into the toxically masculine (looking at you Arkham series), Batman here never is. He fights people, sure, but he never dismisses them as psychos or lunatics. He always returns them to Arkham and never beats them senseless without reason. More than anything, Batman wants to cure these people. The staff at Arkham is very capable and with a few patients they even succeed in curing them. The people that Batman roughs up, especially the ones who were just in a bad place, often find themselves beneficiaries of the Wayne Foundations. More than anything, Batman’s refusal to kill is indicative of his paradigm: healing the wound is better than amputating. Time and again, Batman wishes for a world where he has no place. The character is beautifully written, but these writers are far from perfect, especially where women are concerned.
Keep in mind, the same writers behind the flagships of the DCAU, BTAS, STAS, and the later Batman/Superman Adventures were also the men behind the absolute mess that was Batman: The Killing Joke. They are all men, and both of these main shows are packed to the brim with sexism. In this scene from STAS notice how Lois almost gets a panty shot while crawling away from a giant dinosaur. The episode where Harley Quin and Poison Ivy ride roughshod over Gotham is packed with implications that the two are in a sexual relationship, but only insofar as fan-service allows. Their dialogue flows almost like anti-feminist propaganda, adding fuel to the “femi-nazi” perception of feminism. Catwoman’s catsuit is so form fitting you can see EVERYTHING, not to mention the fact that women throw themselves at Bruce Wayne the entire time. This is just scratching the surface. The video series “Justice League: Innuendo” Part 1 and Part 2 covers only Justice League (JL) and Justice League: Unlimited (JLU). Any given episode of almost any show demonstrates some level of men objectifying women.
Yet, at the same time, occasionally a ray of sunshine bursts through the clouds. Harley Quinn has suffered lately from bad writing and poor popular perception as the Joker’s trophy girl. Make no mistake, with many writers she is. However, the BTAS writers never paint their relationship as anything but toxic and tragic. We are supposed to feel sympathy for Harley, because we know that Joker does not actually love her. He manipulates her and beats her, she is trapped in an abusive relationship. We want her to be saved, and refreshingly she never actually needs Batman to save her. When she does break free it is always on her terms and for her own reasons. Batman even says that Harley is more dangerous than Joker is. And while she often does really bad things, she is also capable of great kindness, and often that kindness is returned in some ways. This is her original incarnation, so all other versions that paint her as just Joker’s trophy girl are actually bad adaptations.
Still, trophy girlfriends for villains are everywhere. JL has Giganta and Gorilla Grodd, a pairing made so overtly sexual in the show that is so many levels of squicktastic. After Giganta’s brain gets fried (by Grodd I might add), Grodd moves on and picks up a new girlfriend, the witch-woman Tala. Tala is also ridiculously sexual, telling people that Giganta was “…not nearly enough woman for Grodd.” Tala, however, seems to only have sexual attraction for whoever is in charge of the operation. As soon as Lex Luthor usurps Grodd as the head of the supervillains Tala is diving into the sheets with Luthor. Her use as an object culminates at the end of JLU, where Luthor sacrifices her to resurrect the long dead AI Brainiac. She gets her revenge by summoning the evil god Darkseid instead.
Then in JLU we get several really good episodes about positive female bonding, without the bad feminism. Foremost in my mind is Hawkgirl and Vixen in “Mystery in Space.” Hawkgirl’s ex is Vixen’s current boyfriend, and while the episode sets up that there must be conflict between them as a narrative convention, they end the episode as best friends, drinking together and talking about how clueless their ex/boyfriend is. Another episode is “The Balance,” where Wonder Woman and Hawkgirl have to work out a mutual distrust while saving the world. Their distrust is completely devoid of boys, and even though they end the episode on good terms they both admit that they are not friends. It is just so phenomenally in-character for both of them that it warms my cold dead heart every time I watch it. Wonder Woman herself is one of the best characters on the show, and despite her outfit she is not nearly as sexualized as other women in the show.
One thing I will NOT be addressing here though is costumes. Yes, the women are in skin-tight clothes often with large tracts of bare skin exposed, but so are the men. In a weird way I do not think the women’s clothes, aside from the lack of sports bras, are the problem as much as their posing is. The JLU episode “Grudge Match” is about the women in the Justice League being mind-controlled into fighting each other. There are some feministic moments in the episode, considering only two men actually have speaking roles in the whole episode. Ignore the problematic implications of women being mind controlled for now. The episode might even be a meta-commentary about how sexualized women are, especially when they fight, lampshaded by the villain Sonar in the episode’s intro, but assuming the worst it is pure cat-fight fanservice. The best evidence comes from this still right here:
Make your own decision. My optimism is almost spent.
Yet we find that, on the whole, JL and JLU are significantly less squicky than its predecessors, and I think a lot of this comes down to the writer Dwayne McDuffie. He was a writer for the critically acclaimed and almost unproblematic TV show Teen Titans, but his best work comes from the DCAU show Static Shock. In a stark break from tradition, Static Shock focuses on a black teenaged super hero, and boy does the show bring the diversity. Virgil Hawkins, “Static,” is black as I said before, but almost every other character is some persuasion of brown, including the villains. The black people are not just generic black. They can be Jamaican, they can be Latinx, in one episode they are actually West African because the family takes a trip to Ghana to meet the African superhero Anansi. The villains come from all backgrounds too, and they never play into stereotypes either.
The show also has the will to take on difficult issues as well. The villain-turned-hero Rubber Band Man starts his life of crime because a producer plagiarized Rubber Band Man’s rap lyrics. Poverty is a constant shadow in the writing. The reason why Static and all his adversaries exist is that there was an industrial accident in the midst of a gang war which contaminated all the participants, thus giving them their powers. When Static meets Green Lantern Jon Stewart, who is also black, Static gushes about how he loves that there is a black superhero who he can look up to. Even racism, something that we in America like to pretend does not exist, gets thoroughly explored because Static’s best friend, Richie Foley, has a venomously racist father. Racist to the point that Richie never told his father that his best friend was black and never invited that best friend over to his house for fear of what his father might say or do. Richie himself is another aspect of diversity. The network censors would not allow Richie to be openly gay, but the writers still wrote him that way. He makes overtly heterosexual comments about wanting girls in an attempt to throw people off the trail, but McDuffie himself confirmed that Richie was gay for the run of the show.
Come to think of it, one of the reasons why the DCAU gets so much praise is the maturity of its content. For all its flaws, when the DCAU decides to take on an issue they do it with at least a modicum of respect and they never dumb it down “for the kids.” As mentioned before, Harley Quinn is always shown as tragic and no one blames her for what has happened to her. Static Shock directly confronts issues like poverty and racism. BTAS goes to town on everything from abusive parents, the nature of what it means to be alive, and what love is. The villains often dabble in moral ambiguity as well. Mr. Freeze only wants to save his wife from a crippling disease. The villainous Lex Luthor, while still self interested and thoroughly self interested, still has morals, loves people truly, and donates tons to charity.
So in the end, the DCAU really qualifies as a Problematic Fav. The writing is smart and mature, never dumbing down for the sake of its young viewers. The issues are complex, and the characters are well developed and always written in character. Still, the women are treated like dirt and more recent interpretations of these characters are becoming ever more problematic. Many people call the 90’s and early 2000s “the Golden Age of Animated TV.” True, there were moments of brilliance, but it was far from golden, and that idea of perfection fuels rampant fan-boy rage against people who try to challenge the status quo of pop-culture. It is as Wendy says: “Nothing and no one is perfect, so isn’t it about time we learn how to call out the things we love?“