It’s October 17, 1998. The top song is the Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week”; Monica, Aerosmith, Jennifer Paige, Faith Hill, and INOJ also chart, the last with a fantastic cover of “Time After Time.” The top movie is Practical Magic, and I recall rolling my eyes at trailers for it when I was 17, but honestly it sounds like something I’d have fun with now.
In the news, on the 12th 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten and murdered in Wyoming, probably at least partially for being gay; 11 years later a federal law bearing his name will (after a decade of failed attempts) be passed, extending federal hate crime laws to include crimes motivated by gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability; on the day this episode airs, an oil pipeline explodes in Nigeria, killing over 1000 people.
“Girls’ Night Out” is a fun episode. It features two great team-ups that sadly will never be seen again: Supergirl/Batgirl vs. Harley Quinn/Poison Ivy/Livewire. And those slashes are quite intentional on my part: this episode drips in shipper bait for those sets of characters: Harley and Ivy are again pictured living together and hanging out in very little clothing, and Harley is notably jealous when Ivy praises Livewire; meanwhile on the cape side, Supergirl looks at Batgirl with what can only be described as a melting expression at one point, and at the end of the episode they are hanging out in bathrobes and slippers, very clearly having a “sleepover.”
But there’s something slightly off about that final scene, too, something that points toward what holds this episode back from greatness: Supergirl and Batgirl, established, skilled superheroes who just took down three villains, each of whom individually posed a significant challenge to Batman or Superman, high-fiving in happiness because a formerly dismissive cop said they had “potential.” Taking down three of the deadliest women in the world isn’t potential, it’s actuality, and Supergirl and Batgirl ought to know that–but instead the entire episode is held back by the very 1990s notion that “girls can do just as well as boys” is a radically progressive statement deserving of kudos.
There’s a kind of episode that shows up in science fiction shows now and then–Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Lower Decks” and Babylon 5‘s “A View from the Gallery” are good examples–which do “a day in the life” of characters who would normally be single-line one-off characters or background extras, while the main cast are relegated to background status. The idea, more or less, is to show that these characters have inner lives too, that they are the protagonists of their own stories, and the results are generally, much like “Girls’ Night Out,” pretty entertaining.
But something about those episodes rankles too, and it’s baked into their very premise. For starters, it assumes that we need the reminder that these characters have inner lives–that if we weren’t explicitly told that, we might forget, which speaks poorly to at least one of the show’s ability to present rounded minor characters or the creators’ opinion of their audience. It also relegates this depiction to a single episode, signaling the choice to depict these characters’ perspective as remarkable, which is to say it reinforces the notion that these characters are Other while congratulating itself for acknowledging they exist. Given that the type of show notable for doing this sort of thing tends to follow officers and these episodes tend to focus on enlisted crew–a distinction which maps fairly neatly onto the class divide–there’s something more than faintly patronizing about these episodes.
And that’s what “Girls’ Night Out” is: it’s the New Batman/Superman Adventures equivalent to “Lower Decks”–characters who would not “normally” get their own episode do. See, we think women are people too! Why, they can even be main characters for one episode out of a couple hundred!
Again, this episode is fun–but it’s also a reminder of how few episodes of the DCAU center women as their main characters. So far, it’s really just been this, “Shadow of the Bat,” and arguably “Little Girl Lost,” and there won’t be that many in the future. In particular, there will never be a DCAU TV series about a woman; every one of them will center a male character or male-dominated team. (Yes, the robot counts as a man; we’ll get there.) Sure, there’ll be Gotham Girls, but that really just compounds the problem–when women do get a DCAU series, it’s a bunch of web shorts so obscure that I didn’t even know they existed until about a month before I started NA09.
In particular, it hurts to see Harley, the breaker of worlds, the one who summoned the Harlequinade and destroyed Krypton so that she and Ivy could be free, so easily defeated by champions of conventionality who have so much internalized sexism that they can cheer for the patronizing words of the same slob whose sexism Harley called out in her first appearance. But such is the nature of near-apocalypse: the world is broken and set free, but the superheroes will always be there to put it back as it was.
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