Since the 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon (the daughter of Commissioner Gordon; formerly Batgirl) has operated as a high-tech superhero under the alias Oracle. Gordon became Oracle after an injury left her paralyzed; like other women in refrigerators, Gordon was injured by the Joker as a plot device meant to provide the male protagonists with sufficient angst to fight crime. But due to the wonders of talented writers and character development, Gordon’s transition to becoming Oracle made her a more nuanced, interesting character. Her intelligence places her in a league above most other superheroes; she appeared in BusinessWeek‘s list, “The Smartest Superheroes,” and was the only woman to make the cut.
But soon, all of this will change. DC Comics is relaunching its entire line, and among the changes that will be made, Gordon will be returning to her original identity as Batgirl. She will no longer be known as Oracle, and she will no longer use a wheelchair.
I admit, I don’t regularly read comics, and my familiarity with Barbara Gordon as a character is limited. But I can’t imagine that the elimination of a character with a disability in a medium that promotes conventional ideas of strength and physical ability will do much good.
It’s human nature to look for people who resemble you and your experiences in the media. As a queer woman, I often look for images in film and television that represent my experiences and identity. In mainstream media, they are hard to find. (As someone who isn’t monosexual, representations I identify with are very hard to find.) In the world of comics, the DC Comics universe and the Batman franchise are as mainstream as they come. And for over two decades, the franchise has allowed women with disabilities to have a role model. Marginalized people are represented so rarely and so stereotypically in the media that when a complex, three-dimensional character belonging to a specific marginalized group is created, that character is of great value. Barbara Gordon’s identity as Oracle has been of great value to comic book fans with disabilities, as characters with disabilities are not quite commonplace in the medium, and her invisibility will only make fans search harder to find representations of themselves. With so few quality images of disability in the media available, the elimination of one of them is of great concern.
Jill Pantozzi suggests another reason why Barbara Gordon’s identity as Oracle is significant — unable to use conventional physicality to fight crime, Oracle (and, as a result, Barbara’s) identity is innately intellectual. Her disability has allowed her to become a hero using her ideas and thoughts alone, which separates her from other characters and makes her a unique addition to the DC Comics universe. Pantozzi writes:
Barbara Gordon deserves to be Oracle. She deserves to be the symbol she’s become. A beacon of light in a world filled with super-powered heroes who can save the day with their physical strength Oracle fights with her mind and her determination. A part of her identity is being ripped away. Of course at this time we don’t know whether or not Barbara will be cured or simply retconned to where the Joker never shot her in the spine but either way, giving Oracle back the use of her legs to bring her back to her iconic role is a travesty. Every hero has a defining moment that makes them who they are. Batgirl didn’t. Oracle did.
Pantozzi’s point that Gordon’s injury is what made her who she is as a character is key. Every superhero has an origin story, and many of them involve some degree of violence or trauma. Oracle is who Gordon could become after her injury, and it made her a stronger, more complex character because of it. Batgirl doesn’t have that kind of origin story — she just wants to fight crime because it’s the right thing to do, as she learned from being a police commissioner’s daughter. And that kind of strong morality is wonderful, but it doesn’t make for a compelling superhero. Oracle exists to overcome obstacles and defy expectations. Batgirl exists to have fun and solve crime because she feels like it.
Still, none of this is to say that the reboot of Barbara Gordon’s identity will be all bad. What’s particularly interesting is that the woman who is writing DC Comics’ new Batgirl series is Gail Simone, the writer credited with coining the phrase “women in refrigerators.” Simone has been writing for Gordon for awhile, so she can be credited with strengthening the character of Oracle as well. Perhaps with her leading this new project, the new Batgirl series will be a departure from the pre-1988 character and closer to Oracle in her struggles and perseverance. It will be interesting to see how much of that is possible without keeping her as a disabled character, which provides such strong motivation to conquer challenges. But perhaps it’s still possible, and if anyone can make it so, it’s Simone.
There is no telling what Barbara Gordon’s reinvented identity will mean for the character or for the representation of women with disabilities in comics. All we know for now is that the news of Oracle’s retirement has been devastating to fans that have treasured her for years. So goodbye, Oracle, and thank you for all you’ve done for the fans that have needed you. And if I’ve learned anything from the few comics I’ve read, it’s that nothing is impossible, so I hope we might see you again someday.