“If Batman and Catwoman had sex, would he go down on her?” It sounds like a conversation between adolescents, but the question had the internet aflame last week, when Harley Quinn co-creator Justin Halpern revealed in an interview that a scene depicting this intimate act had been censored from the series’ third season. Halpern stated that DC, the powerful parent company that owns the original fictional universe of these characters and their myriad spin-offs, was generally supportive of creative choices. Except, when it came to this scene, the co-creators were told that “Heroes don’t do that.” That meaning giving oral pleasure.
Harley Quinn is an animated series for adults, based on comic books that also contain adult content, including sex and violence. In today’s television streaming universe, to have a pearl-clutching response to pleasuring the oyster is downright archaic. This controversy is not about the portrayal of sex, or about sensitive material that may not be suitable for audiences of all ages. It’s about a discomfort with pleasure, specifically if the person experiencing that pleasure is a woman. It’s also about discomfort with tender expressions by masculine figures. Sex, as we know, can sometimes be about power or capital instead. Perhaps those iterations are more acceptable to some than mere, or sheer, pleasure – both given and received.
The Batman character was created in 1939, and was a forerunner in what came to be known as the Golden Age of American comics, which continued till the mid-50s. After the Comics Code Authority, an industry-regulated mechanism, came into effect in 1954, DC Comics included this edict in its in-house editorial policy: “…the inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance, and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities.” By the time I was a comics reader in the mid-90s, the last point at least had long gone out the window. Hypersexualisation of women was an overt part of the books and the animated shows, made for kids, that I consumed. But that wasn’t all: in 1999, writer Gail Simone created a list called “Women In Refrigerators”, listing the myriad ways in which women characters met brutal ends in comic literature. This history is relevant because the characters of Catwoman and Batman were shaped by these trends too, just the censorship of their relationship is now.
But it’s really the decision-makers at DC who’ve revealed a little too much about their own sex lives. Whoever told the Harley Quinn team that “It’s hard to sell a toy if Batman is also going down on someone” seems unfamiliar with the adult toy market, hentai, fan fiction, diverse audiences or – umm – sexual fantasy and sexual reality. We don’t all necessarily want to watch animated erotica, and we certainly don’t all want the same things in bed. But as Glen Weldon of NPR, one of many commentators who weighed in on the issue, said: “I’d argue that thinking of others and putting their needs above yours is pretty much the definition of a hero.” Not that just being a good lover makes anyone a hero, of course!
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 25th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.