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).
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