The Dark Knight and the Anxieties of Patriarchy

It came to me while I was playing Batman: Arkham Asylum, that Batman is all about the anxieties of the patriarchal order.

One can critically analyze the enduring appeal of Batman from a variety of angles. ‘Criticism’, by the way, doesn’t mean just trying to denigrate something. Criticism helps us show how a piece of culture does its work. Criticism might increase our appreciation of something, or decrease it, or just change the way we view it. At its best, criticism brings out an interesting aspect of something in a way that helps us reflect on what that piece of culture means to ourselves — and, in so doing, helps us understand ourselves better.

One can criticize Batman’s appeal in terms of his power and versatility as a fantasy-identification figure. Batman gets to inflict revenge, but he remains morally in the right. He breaks society’s rules, but is celebrated and idolized by that same society. He is strong, nigh-invulnerable, but still a human being without the magic powers of Superman or Wonder Woman. He is muscular, but also intelligent. And so on. Overall, a great, versatile masculine identification-figure.

(And of course, all the feminist criticisms of this kind of figure apply to him in spades.)

One can also criticize him in class terms. As Bruce Wayne, Batman is the billionaire heir of a corporate empire, but he spends his energies protecting ordinary people from muggers and gangsters as well as fighting global threats to humanity. He expresses the hero-fantasy that those with great power are also great and good people who care about us and protect us.

(And of course this fantasy reveals its own contradictions as soon as we start asking a few basic questions. Such as: why doesn’t Bruce Wayne use his vast fortune and power to improve social welfare, preventing crime while improving the standards of living for the working poor, instead of spending millions building weapons for his private paramilitary assault on individual criminals?)

But for me personally the most interesting line of criticism focuses on Batman’s role as an enforcer of patriarchal power, because this line of criticism also explains the villains Batman faces, which have usually been the most interesting thing about Batman.

Batman’s most interesting villains are not ordinary criminals or mobsters. They do not operate from ordinary motives of rational self-interest. They are sociopaths, fanatics, and madmen. Their motives are perverse, inexplicable. Scarecrow, the Riddler, Zsasz, and especially the Joker spread terror and destruction for their own sake. They do evil because they are evil. They must be stopped by force because it is categorically impossible to incorporate them into the social order.

And they must be stopped by Batman because the ordinary forces of social order are powerless against them. Only Batman can catch them because he himself is partially outside the social order. Frank Miller brought this to the forefront in Batman The Dark Knight, back in 1986: Batman is technically a vigilante and a criminal. Only his own personal moral code prevents him from being a force for evil (and this is part of the heroic fantasy: that those with power over us will use this power for our benefit instead of their own).

In this way Batman functions as a savior. One the one hand, we have the forces of social order, embodied by the police and Commissioner Gordon. On the other hand, we have villains like the Joker who cannot be defeated by ordinary legal means. To defeat the Joker, the police would have to adopt illegal tactics, invalidating their own status as guardians of law and order. Thus, even in defeat the Joker would win, bringing chaos into ordered society. Batman rescues the police and society from this diabolical dilemma. He does this by doing what law cannot. Like Arjuna in the Mahabarata, he violates the law in order to protect the law, thereby protecting the very existence of social order as such. But as a supplement to the social order, he reveals its inherent incompleteness.

The social order that Batman protects is emphatically patriarchal. You can see it visually in Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and in Batman: The Animated Series, in which both Batman and Commissioner Gordon are hyper-masculine figures with broad shoulders, square jaws, deep voices, and unquestioned social and moral authority.

But these are superficialities: you could change these details without changing the patriarchal nature of social authority in the Batman mythos, which reveals itself, again, in the villains.

Patriarchy is, literally, the rule of the father and, more broadly, the rule of social life by a select class of men who rule over women, children, and other (non-patriarchal) men. In the late Roman patriarchal household, the male head of the household ruled over the women, children, and servants of the household, all of whom were to varying degrees his personal property. This structure persisted as the structure of the household of the feudal knight, out of which the modern state gradually emerged. Today patriarchy manifests not only as the personal authority of men but in laws and social norms that perpetuate the subordination of women and non-normative men, and more subtly in values that celebrate a certain form of masculinity: martial, invulnerable, dominant.

Patriarchy has an ideology that justifies it. The ideology goes like this: human beings are inherently prone to antisocial, evil behaviour. We need social authority to make us good. So authority, if properly constituted and properly exercise, is a positive good; authority makes it possible for us to live in peace, without fear of violence or theft or personal violation, and to construct good lives for ourselves. But there are always those who refuse to recognize this. Such people are either immoral (because they set their personal advantage over the general good) or irrational (because they mistake personal disadvantage for a general evil and so misunderstand the nature of authority). Thus, in the end, social order always requires the exercise of force for its own maintenance.

In principle, the force that protects social order must embody the values of society in its own operation. Force must be just. And ordinarily this is enough (or so the patriarchal thinker believes). The police and the courts can apprehend and dispense justice to ordinary criminals and ordinary rebels. But confidence in patriarchal authority is always open to doubt. For if that authority really is what it claims to be, then why are the police and the continually courts necessary? Why do people keep rebelling? Either the patriarchal authority is not as beneficial as it claims to be – which cannot be contemplated – or there is some force at work beyond ordinary immorality and ordinary irrationality, driving people to resist that authority.

Batman’s villains embody this anti-patriarchal force. Because they appear within a patriarchal imaginary, they appear without real motives, as pure essential evil. Batman rescues society from this evil. But it always returns: the Joker breaks out of Arkham Asylum, Harvey Dent reverts to his Two-Face persona, Ra’s al Ghul rises from the dead. Always one fears that even Batman won’t be able to stop them. The cultural meme of Batman’s hyper-competence, his infallibility, is a mantra chanted against the anxious thought that nothing is really enough, that sooner or later the patriarchal order will fall.

What thoughts do you have?

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