It’s July 11, 1998. The top song is “The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy & Monica; Shania Twain, Next, Usher, and Madonna also chart. At the box office, Lethal Weapon 4 knocks Armageddon out of the top spot; further down in the top 10 we have Mulan, The X-Files, and The Truman Show, which confirms Batman Forever‘s discovery that Jim Carey actually can act if forced to stop being a rubberfaced fartsmith* for five minutes.
In the news, Japan launched a Mars probe on July 4, becoming the third nation to explore extralunar space. The probe is intended to reach Mars orbit in 1999; it will end up taking until 2003 and never actually achieve orbit. That’s about it news-wise.
Baby-Doll and Killer Croc’s introductions were two of our go-to examples of sympathetic villain episodes, so an episode that pairs them into a relationship makes some sense. At the same time, it’s an episode about the Bonnie-and-Clyde affair between a giant lizardman and a woman stuck in the body of a toddler, so “sense” is relative.
But why? What’s strange about that? Baby-Doll is a woman, that’s the whole point of the episode. For all that she is small and behaves intensely childishly most of the time, she is an adult woman with an adult woman’s needs–namely, respect, companionship, and love. The episode is written to make it nearly impossible not to squirm in discomfort at her affection toward Croc, but because she acts like a child, not because she looks like one. Her mind, her pain and her rage, they are as fully adult as his.
But he doesn’t see that. He treats her the same way everyone does, the same way everyone treats him: he sees only the difference of her body, its otherness, and he is repulsed. It is classic abjection; Baby-Doll and Croc differ from the bodies we are used to, and in so doing remind us that our bodies could be other than they are. In turn, we are reminded that we are bodies, that we could be other than we are, that we will never be anything but dreaming meat. Caught between our subjective awareness of ourselves as people and the objective fact that we are sacks of skin stuffed with flesh, blood, bone, and bile, we project that feeling of abjection onto the experience which caused it, the appearance of their “incorrect” bodies.
Or, at least, some part of us does. Not everyone reacts the same way, but everyone has internalized social norms; everyone has some idea of what a “correct” body is, and some degree of negative reaction to “incorrect” bodies. Ideally that would correlate to harm; the only incorrect body would be one which is suffering, and the negative reaction it engendered would be empathy.** But that is not the nature of our society, and therefore not what we learn; we learn to abjectify them as people, to deny their subjectivity and treat them not only as objects, but objects of disgust.
Even if we ourselves have bodies labeled as Other, we nonetheless learn to abjectify Othered bodies, often including our own. We’ve seen that with Baby-Doll before: the climax of her titular episode showed her reaching out to the normative adult (conventionally attractive, white) woman’s body she feels she was denied. She loses that fight because she abjectifies herself; in “Love Is a Croc,” she loses because Croc abjectifies her.
Croc is a terrible partner. He physically abuses Baby-Doll, cheats on her, and lies to her. Her attempt to murder him and all of Gotham City is melodramatically over the top, of course, because this is Batman, but the feelings underneath are genuine. She thought she could find love in someone who was othered the same way she was, and he betrayed her.
He isn’t the only one, and she isn’t the only one betrayed. People look at Mary-Louise Dahl and see Baby-Doll, the cute, funny eternal child. Yet no matter how much she acts like that, they refuse to give her what she needs, what everyone needs. They even use her behavior–the behavior she was taught that they expected!–as a reason to punish her and deny her. The same goes for Killer Croc; people look at him and see a monster. Yet when he acts like the creature they expect, they use that a reason to punish him and deny him what he needs.
This episode hurts.
It hurts to watch, to think about, to write about. It stabs at old, deep wounds–the feeling of being physically unlovable, wrong, broken, cursed. Of not being a real self, but a twisted object, cut off from everyone around me and therefore from myself. Suffering more the more I act as I’m expected to act, and yet not acting as I’m expected to act just marks me still more as an Other. No matter what identity I perform, I’m doing it wrong.
And I’m one of the lucky ones. I came out to a staggering outpouring of acceptance and love from the people close to me! It feels ungrateful and whiny to complain about all the people standing just a bit further away with torches and pitchforks. But it’s hard not to be aware–indeed, hyper-aware–of their presence.
They’re dreaming meat, too. The difference is that their dreams, their meat, are billionaire playboys who fight crime in cosplay. Ours are freaks and monsters.
The episode opens with a bit of the past, a clip from Dahl’s old TV show in all its painful black-and-white 1950s white suburbinanity. That transitions almost instantly into a couple–notably with the same voices as Dahl’s TV parents–who encounter her working at a hotel, where the very drunk husband physically assaults her and demands she entertain him. He treats her just as the TV show treated her, as a curious object presented for amusement–because of course her body, safely contained in a proscribed role, ceases to be dangerous, but remains a violation of the norm, and benign violation is the essence of humor.
At the end of the episode Baby-Doll threatens the nightmare scenario that lurked beneath that same 1950s inanity, nuclear devastation. The episode is bracketed by a past of bland sameness and a future of bleak wasteland, because those are the same thing. Those are our options. To cling to our norms, to side with the torch-wielding mob, is to choose wasteland–or a future of freaks and monsters. And frankly, I’d side with them even if I had the choice to do otherwise. I always will.
But Batman–or, rather, the Batman we know, the Batman who is Bruce Wayne–is the dream of that mob. He will always side with them and against us. The only path to the good future, the dark and monstrous future, lies over his broken body.
*Thank you, The Onion, for that astoundingly accurate description.
**Negative in the sense of being unpleasant to experience, not in the sense of being wrong.