Don't see the boy (You Scratch My Back)

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Sorry about missing so many posts this and last week. I was super sick last week, but I don’t really have an excuse this week. Consider this Tuesday’s NA09 post; today’s video will go up tomorrow.
It’s November 15, 1997. The top song is still “Candle in the Wind,” and the top movie is The Jackal, with The Man Who Knew Too Little and a re-release of The Little Mermaid also in the top five. In the week since “Heavy Metal,” WorldCom and MCI formed MCI WorldCom in (at the time) the largest merger in US history; Mary Robinson became Ireland’s second female President in a row, the first time any nation elected two successive female heads of state; and Ramzi Yousef is found guilty of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
On The New Batman Adventures, the burgeoning “what happened to Dick Grayson?” plot thread takes a strange turn, as the answer appears to be “he changed costumes and moved out, but everything is fine.” It’s a deeply unsatisfying answer that results in a bizarre episode where everyone is attempting to trick everyone else, even when there’s no reason to. Dick’s behavior toward Barbara Gordon when she visits him in his apartment is worthy of his name, for example–but if his antipathy toward Batman and Batgirl was an act to lure in Catwoman, why keep it up when she’s not around? The episode seems to be trying to play Nightwing’s final line about always accepting help as a development or change in attitude–but its central twist is that he was working with Batman from the start, a contradiction that just doesn’t make sense.
On the surface, anyway. Underneath, it actually fits perfectly into the ongoing exploration of the Batman/Nightwing rift–but only in hindsight. We are seeing the story out of order: we saw its beginning in Batman: The Animated Series, but we won’t see most of the middle until later this season of The New Batman Adventures, and we won’t have all the pieces until Batman Beyond.
The level on which this episode works is as a psychosexual drama–because it’s a Catwoman episode, so of course that’s the level on which it works–about Nightwing’s resentment of the fact that Batman’s fucking his ex, and to a lesser extent Catwoman’s resentment of the fact that her sub is now domming someone else. The picture of Dick and Barbara the latter finds in the former’s apartment is pretty clear: they used to be an item; the chilly distance between them that Dick maintains makes clear they’re not one anymore. Dick already resents Batman for (from Dick’s perspective) standing in the way of him growing up, and like a lot of people (unfortunately) he equates adulthood, masculinity, and the sexual possession of women.
A BDSM relationship–or, more specifically, one involving dominance and submission–can contain elements of possession or ownership, of course. However, as these are consensual, they’re really just role-play (assuming the relationship isn’t abusive, which we have no reason to think is the case here); the dominant partner doesn’t actually own the submissive or have genuine coercive power over them, only what the sub gives them, and what the sub gives, the sub can take away. Here, however, we’re talking about the idea of actual possession–that a man in some sense actually owns, or gets to control, the women in his life, or the ones he’s slept with at any rate. (There is, of course, much heteronormativity here as well, but that’s a topic for another time.)
When one has internalized hegemonic masculinity, any loss of power or reminder that one lacks power is perceived as emasculation (hence the use of the term as a synonym for powerlessness), and this is exactly how Dick perceives it: the status of sidekick felt emasculating, as does Bruce “taking” Barbara, who on some level Dick still sees as “his woman.” (To his credit, Dick seems to be over this by the end of the episode and in future episodes. Consciously, he tries to be decent, but like everyone else, he’s internalized some garbage from the larger culture.) Catwoman, meanwhile, on some level sees Batman as her sub, so she tries to do the same thing to him when he rejects this role via his relationship with Batgirl, so she tries to do the same thing to him by taking away his sidekick. Nightwing is up for it, both because he has enough in common with Batman to find Catwoman intriguing, and to stick it to Batman. (A phrase which again reflects this association of masculinity, heteronormative sexuality, and dominance–consider what the “it” is and where it is presumably being stuck!)
Of course this is a children’s show and has to keep all this firmly on the level of subtext, so we get Catwoman’s scheme to sneak a stolen emerald into the country using a smuggling operation, and the Bat Family’s scheme to make her think Nightwing is on her side and lead them to the emerald. But scenes like Catwoman’s overt flirtation in and around Ricky the Hook’s penthouse, or Dick’s confrontation with Barbara, make it clear what this is all really about.
Ultimately, this is the climax and denouement of the Nightwing arc that runs through this season, but it is both shown before the main action and occurs entirely in subtext. That it even somewhat works is impressive, but it does: Nightwing catches Catwoman (gets the collar, if you will) and makes peace with Batman and Batgirl, but retains his independence. He ultimately refrains from revenge-fucking Batman’s ex, and in that demonstrates the maturity he was seeking after–one rooted in actually being a grown-up, rather than merely trying to wield the power associated with being one.
In the process, the DCAU Nightwing finally moves into a position resembling the comics character’s: the genuinely good man in a corrupt world, the Lot-figure that even Infinite Crisis‘ Earth-Two Superman had to admit was the equal of his Earth-Two counterpart.
He will thus barely show up again, of course.

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