I was watching a collection of 1970s cartoons recently with the maniacs, and when we got to a 1977 episode of Batman and Robin titled “The Pest.” I was pretty struck by the homoerotic
undertones overtones. Now, my time as a grad student at the CUNY Grad Center may have tainted me for life, and I must confess I was always jealous of the folks who so intelligently queered Douglas Sirk’s films. Add to this the fact by the 1990s queering Batman and Robin was popularized by the animated shorts of The Ambiguously Gay Duo on Saturday Night Live. So, I guess this is nothing new, save for the fact that I haven’t seen an older episode of Batman and Robin since I was a kid. And after watching “The Pest,” I have to wonder whether my immediate reading of their interactions as queer is part of a shifting cultural/critical perception or a more intentionally inscribed frame by the writers of this cartoon in 1977. See for yourself:
But, if you begin to scratch the surface online it becomes quickly apparent that the rumor that Batman and Robin were gay comes well before the 70s, and well, well before the 90s. The popularization of this idea can be traced back to the 1955 bestseller Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Fredric Wertham, a book which argued that comics were linked to juvenile delinquency. He details the homoerotic relationship between Batman and Robin in the following passage:
Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and ‘Dick’ Grayson. Bruce is described as a ’socialite’ and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. … [I]t is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize the subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his younger friend ‘Robin.’¹
The post Batman and Robin: Just friends? by Jeet Heer on the Sans Everything blog suggests that Batman and Robin’s uncertain relationship might account for the camp of the 1960s TV show. And while Heer works through the intellectual genealogy of this rumor, I’m fascinated with how the rumor might have begun writing itself into 1970s animated series. In this animated run the the homoerotic frame seems so overtly re-enforced, and is in many ways even more over-the-top given it’s a bizarrely schizophrenic hybrid of campy homoeroticism and moral wind-bagging, with the unfortunate addition of the downright unbearable Bat-Mite.
What’s even stranger is that it is obviously catering to the juvenile audience Wertham was so concerned would have their innocence subverted. In fact, every episode is punctuated with a didactic recounting of the preceding events by our heroes to hammer home a painfully clear moral to the story. For example:
What is the moral of this story? I really have no idea, but I think what becomes immediately clear is that what’s important often has little or nothing to do with a canned moral. Rather, it has everything to do with what you’re looking for. And what’s striking to me is that I have been trained to watch Batman and Robin so differently then I did back in 1977, which just reinforces for me that texts are always read through the cultural sediments of a moment. A process of acculturation that is as sinister as it is subversive. Moreover, there is a crucial importance to tracing a “gay history” of our popular culture even if it’s only a “rumor” in the text, for the cultural canvas will ultimately write it large on our psyches despite the rumor. And for me that’s the power of popular culture, both it’s great seduction, promise, and delivery, we are what we watch, but what we watch is by no means stable or clearly defined—it’s a variable that is constantly changing within streams of thought and interaction. Why are we so sure that TV and film are such passive forms of consumption compared to our social media now? I’m not at all convinced of this, in fact Twitter often suggests quite the opposite in my mind as of late.
Image credit: from Sans Everything Batman and Robin enjoy some downtime: a panel from World’s Finest Comics #59 (1952)