The poor kid’s going to cry (Baby-Doll)

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It’s October 1, 1994, a week before “Time Out of Joint.” The top song is “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men, who are having a very good couple of years. Luther Vandross and Sheryl Crow also chart. The top movie is something called The River Wild; Timecop, Forest Gump, and Natural Born Killers are also in the top ten. In the news, Iraqi and U.S. troop buildup along the Kuwait-Iraq border continues; today Palau becomes an independent country; the 5th is the first ever World Teachers’ Day.

This is quite probably the best episode of Batman: The Animated Series.  It has everything: a bizarre and psychologically troubled villain who reflects Batman in many ways, a convoluted scheme, henchmen in themed costumes, anachronism, pathos, and camp, all somehow crammed into 22 minutes without ever feeling the least bit crowded or overdone.

At the core of all this is the fantastic titular villain, a woman trapped in the body of a tiny, adorable child. In a way, she is a darker take on Elmyra Duff, the recurring “villain” of Tiny Toon Adventures, whose genuine childish persona turned her into a force of chaos and destruction. By contrast, Mary “Baby-Doll” Dahl (who, once you account for differences in art style, looks astoundingly like Elmyra, with near-identical proportions and face shape, and near-identical-except-for-color hair and clothing) weaponizes her childlike persona to manipulate others, but at times seems to get lost in that persona.

It is difficult to tell when Baby-Doll is just playing at being a child and when she actually thinks like one; when she is terrorizing her TV family and when she slips into believing that they’re really her family. Certainly, as Robin (in disguise as her former costar) points out, her rage is misplaced; her upstaging on her birthday episode was scripted by the writers, not a malicious act of sabotage by the other actors. But on the other hand, she is sufficiently aware that she’s not a child to acquire the resources necessary to hire her henchmen and Miriam.

Consider what it must be like to be Mary Dahl. She is an adult woman–20 when she filmed her old TV show, 30 in the present-day of BTAS. (Hence the anachronism–last episode Batman was able to run a computer search for information on Bane, and yet 10 years prior to this episode, people were making sitcoms in the style of the 1950s and 60s. Nothing new for BTAS, of course.) Yet she has the body of a child, literally looked down upon by everyone she meets. She is doubtless assumed to be a child by every stranger she meets, meaning her every encounter begins with patronizing disrespect. Even people who know she’s an adult are likely to treat her as a curiosity, an object of pity, or a freak.

Is it any surprise that she uses the character she played on TV as a shield against this constant dehumanization? Baby-Doll is a protective persona, a mischievous child adored by millions who can get away with anything. With Baby-Doll, she could replace that patronizing disrespect with autograph requests; she’d still be treated like a child, but now that just meant she was doing her job as an actress. So she wrapped herself up in her persona, and soon lost track of where she ended and it began.

Sound familiar?

Baby-Doll is a protector fantasy gone horribly awry. Underneath her violent, dangerous protector-self, she is a selfish and frightened child, who uses her protector-persona to lash out. Her identity is incoherent as her personality swings wildly between the playful child, the terrifyingly violent child with access to very adult weapons, and the broken-hearted woman who has never been loved for who she is, and only briefly for who she pretended to be.

And Batman has no defense against her. Absurdly, given that this episode comes after one in which Batman went toe-to-toe with and defeated Bane, Baby-Doll continually eludes him, disappearing into crowds or down tunnels that force him to crawl. But then, Bane acknowledged and accepted the power structures from which Batman arose, and in so doing he granted Batman the power to defeat him. By contrast, Baby-Doll doesn’t play by the rules, and as such can’t be confronted directly. (The fact that she looks like a small child helps, of course–TV Standards and Practices is among the most potent of allies a cartoon character can have.)

In the end, Baby-Doll defeats herself in a tragic confrontation with what she calls “the real me”–a distorted reflection that looks like the “normal” people around her. She surrenders, sobbing, and Batman quietly holds her–making her defeat complete. For a few minutes in the middle of the episode, her former castmates, Batman, and Robin treated her like an adult–a dangerous adult, yes, but nonetheless she was a villain, with all the power that entails. After her breakdown, however, Batman treats her like the child she resembles; her brief taste of being perceived as an equal is over.

For all that Baby-Doll is a broken protector fantasy, she is just as much a failed power fantasy. For a brief, shining moment, she had the power to make people take her seriously, to get revenge on the people who looked down on her. Even though we defined two classes of villains as those who seek power in existing structures and those who seek to destroy those structures, and placed Baby-Doll in the latter, she is no enemy of power. Rather, she craves power, specifically the power to destroy, just as Bane craves the power to dominate.

And phrased that way, the nebulous categories we laid out two essays ago snap into focus. Both are power fantasies, because ultimately that’s what supervillains are; but villains in the one category seek power primarily so they can dominate others, while villains in the second seek power so that they can destroy things that they see as being unacceptable. Admittedly, there is a great deal of overlap–Bane, for instance, expresses dominance by killing, which of course is highly destructive–but broadly we can assign villains to the two categories. Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Clock King, Clayface, and Baby-Doll are clearly examples of destroyers, for instance, while the Mad Hatter, Joker, Two-Face, Scarface, and Bane are dominators. The fact that most of the female characters fall into the destroyers makes sense, too, because another word for the power to dominate others is hegemony, and it’s frequently positioned as being synonymous with masculinity in our culture.

Of course these categories are, ultimately, rather arbitrary. But then, all categories are. The important thing is to define them in ways that are illustrative and useful. Are these categories, then, of dominators and destroyers, useful to our project? Given that one of the main themes is near-apocalypse, quite probably, yes.


Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): Maybe I can at least (Lock-Up).
  • Latest video ($5+/mo patrons can view): Vlog Review: Steven Universe S3E8-9
  • Latest Milestone: Monthly bonus vlog–I will post one extra vlog (in addition to the weekly ones) to both the blog/YouTube and the Patreon each month!
  • Next Milestone: $110/mo: Let’s Play The Stanley Parable Episode 2. ($2 away.) One-off goal. I will finally make the long-awaited sequel to this video!

MLPFIM S6E14-15 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episodes, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting! Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching MLP there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST.

Afterwards, I’ll update this post with the chatlog.

ETA: Chatlog below the cut! Also, discussion of the Legend of Brad.

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A Dose of Reality (Bane)

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It’s September 10, 1994. The top song is “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men. Lisa Loeb, John Mellencamp, Babyface, and Changing Faces also chart. The last two are rather appropriate, given Bane’s interest in unmasking Batman and the eventual reveal that Bane is actually quite boyish-looking under his mask.

The top film this weekend is Forrest Gump; Natural Born Killers and Clear and Present Danger are second and third, respectively. In the news, on the 8th USAir Flight 427 crashes outside Pittsburgh, killing all 132 people on board; today a Wollemia Pine, previously believed to be an extinct, prehistoric tree, will be found growing in Australia; tomorrow actress Jessica Tandy dies.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that the animated Batman would have to fight Bane. Introduced in the comics for the prior year’s massive Batman story “Knightfall,” Bane was essentially the evil Batman: a violent masked man who asserts his power and dominance by beating his chosen enemies to a pulp, but who is also extremely clever and cunning, carefully studying his enemies and patiently planning exactly when and how to strike against them. More plot device than character, his narrative purpose was to render Batman incapable of fighting so that a different “evil Batman,” Azrael, could temporarily take over before the original Batman would eventually be restored, essentially the same storyline as The Death of Superman.

In the years since, Bane’s developed a reputation as one of DC Comics’ most “90s” characters. He is hugely overmuscled, a wrestler who uses the “super-steroid” Venom to amplify his power at a time when professional wrestling in the U.S. was being rocked by steroid abuse scandals, kicked off by a 1991 federal investigation. He’s a dual Latino stereotype–he’s a drug-related criminal who enters the U.S. to kill people and a masked wrestler–at a time when anxiety about and racism against the U.S.’s growing Latinx population was on the rise. (As of this writing that rise is still ongoing, having become, along with Islamophobia, a key element of Donald Trump’s campaign to become our first white nationalist President in at least eight years.)

In short, he is a cocktail of the anxieties and concerns of his time, coupled with the deeply questionable aesthetics that gave us characters like Cable, pre-parody Deadpool, and the Youngblood team–which is to say, aesthetics which placed massive piles of badly drawn muscle with absurdly overhuge guns at the highest pinnacle of comic-book art.

But BTAS is not the comics. Between its efforts to be anachronistic and thereby timeless, and the constraints of airing as children’s television, it is unable to fully embrace the aesthetics of 90s comics, and therefore the more restrained Batman, the Batman who holds himself back, must win decisively over the equally intelligent, even stronger murderer.

The result is that Bane’s Batman-like qualities are downplayed. He does not, as he does in the comics, wear Batman slowly down by staging a mass breakout of Arkham, delaying his own attack until after an exhausted Batman finishes capturing all the other villains. He instead stages a trap worthy of the Adam West show, kidnapping Robin and placing him in an absurdly slow death trap to lure Batman to him, then confronting a reasonably well-rested Batman one-on-one.

In short, Bane is clever and powerful, but his confidence is misplaced; his actions reveal it to be the arrogance of a man who has yet to lose, not the confidence of a man who has lost massively and returned from the brink. But he’s still a reflection of Batman in one respect: he’s rich and entitled. Not initially; he comes from prison, not a wealthy family that controls a massive corporation. But he charges five million dollars per assassination, and he’s done enough of them to be reasonably well known, at least enough so that both Candice (Rupert Thorne’s assistant, last seen manipulating Harvey Dent in “Two-Face”) and Batman have heard of him.

Given what we see of Bane’s history in the episode–the product of an experiment conducted on prisoners to develop a super-soldier drug, who even before that was “obsessed” with Batman in Candice’s words–we can see a path through his life. A man surrounded by criminals who read about the adventures of Batman, the world’s most powerful criminal, who hunts and dominates the other criminals of Gotham, to become the ruler of its underworld. Given physical power by the experiments, Bane used that to acquire the power of wealth, and happily came to Gotham to prove himself the new most powerful criminal in the world.

He barely blinks at Candice’s offer to betray Rupert Thorne and help Bane become the new ruler of Gotham. In his mind, that is hardly even important; what matters is proving himself the most powerful. He is exactly what we talked about in the last entry, the hypermasculine (literally; he’s hopped up on anabolic steroids, which simulate or amplify the effects of testosterone in the body) figure who seeks to climb the existing structures of power until he sits atop them.

But in the end, it is Batman who stands atop those structures, and he will not allow himself to be toppled. He breaks Bane just as Bane threatened to break him, removing his mask and presenting it to Thorne, and then turning Thorne and Candice against each other on the way out. (Thorne’s “Candice!” is presented as a comedic moment, like he’s simply very annoyed, but he’s a mob boss who’s just been betrayed. Candice never appears in the series again.)

Bane’s failure comes from a simple source: the structures of power, by their very nature, empower those at the top more than those at the bottom. Climbing them is very difficult, and knocking someone off their perch so you can claim it requires either very, very careful work or major mistakes by the person at the top. Power structures which don’t work this way, where the people at the higher levels are easily unseated by those below, are unstable, easily toppled and replaced with more stable power structures by people like Bane–or, for that matter, Batman, who over the course of his career has transformed Gotham from a city with multiple unstable power structures (including the ineffectual police and city government, and the endlessly squabbling gangs) into a city with one, very stable power structure with Batman at the top, both police and crime below him, and the citizens/victims below them.

This episode’s villains all underestimate the ruthless efficiency of the power structures of Gotham. Thorne believes that his wealth and the organization at his command will allow him to bring in Bane, knock out Batman, and take his place as lord of the city. Candice believes that she can seduce Bane and use him to take out both Batman and Thorne, becoming the number two to the lord of the city instead of an also-ran. And Bane believes he can defeat Batman and take the city. But Batman demonstrates they’re all wrong, beating each of them at their own game. He defeats Bane in direct confrontation, kills Candice by manipulating another into doing his dirty work, and before the episode even began had defeated Thorne by “stealing” from him, leading the police to disrupt Thorne’s activities and cost him millions.

In all three we see how a taste of power led them to embrace wholeheartedly the extant power structures and try to move higher within those structures. But what about a villain who’s never had any kind of power at all? We turn to that next.


Current status of the Patreon:

  • Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): Retroactive Continuity 12: Leaving Megalopolis.
  • Latest video ($5+/mo patrons can view): Vlog Review: Steven Universe S3E4-5
  • Latest Milestone: Monthly bonus vlog–I will post one extra vlog (in addition to the weekly ones) to both the blog/YouTube and the Patreon each month!
  • Next Milestone: $110/mo: Let’s Play The Stanley Parable Episode 2. ($2 away.) One-off goal. I will finally make the long-awaited sequel to this video!

MLPFIM S6E12-13 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episodes, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting! Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching MLP there starting at 1:00 p.m. EST.

Afterwards, I’ll update this post with the chatlog.

ETA: Chatlog below the cut!

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Announcing Animated Discussions, a new essay collection coming soon!

I’ve been quietly working on it, and occasionally making noises about it, for a while now, but let’s make it official: I am trying to get a new book out by the end of the year, an essay collection about anime titled Animated Discussions.

This will include past blogposts such as “Beyond the Inferno: Situational Ethics in Fullmetal Alchemist”; adaptations of panels like “Break the World’s Shell: Anime Apocalypses as Personal and Social Revolution”; and excerpts from The Very Soil, plus new, book-exclusive content like an essay on narrative imprisonment in Revolutionary Girl Utena and Princess Tutu, and something I’m tentatively calling “Hinamizawa Syndrome: Time Travel as Trauma Metaphor.” And more I’m not telling you about yet!

I’m planning to launch a Kickstarter in two to three weeks, likely structured much like the My Little Po-Mo Kickstarters, and I’ve already retained the editorial services of Kit Paige, the same editor I worked with for The Very Soil, and the design services of Viga Gadson, who’s done all my book covers. I’m currently in talks with a certain scholar (with whom I’ve collaborated in the past) about doing a guest piece, too!

I’ve put a brief sample of what I’m working on tonight under the cut.

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