A soulless little doll (Golem)

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We’ve discussed golems before, but it’s been a long time, so let’s recap the basics: the golem is a figure from Ashkenazi Jewish folklore. The typical golem legend runs that a rabbi in an embattled Jewish community–most commonly Rabbi Loew of 16th-century Prague–created a golem, a giant made of clay who served the community by performing menial tasks and fighting back against pogroms. However, the people abused the golem–in the version I know best, by making it keep sweeping the streets even on the Sabbath–and it went berserk. Its creator thus had to destroy it, or in some versions render it dormant. In the latter, the golem still exists somewhere, but the secret of how to bring it to life has been forgotten.

Golems are one of the major sources of both robot and superhero lore. Multiple lines of descent can be traced, but the short version is that a lot of Golden Age science fiction and comics were written by Ashkenazi Jews, and our folklore is represented therein.

In today’s Batman Beyond, meanwhile, the titular Golem is a piece of construction equipment, stolen and controlled by picked-on nerd Willie Watts. He is not, however, a sympathetic villain. None of the main characters of the episode come off as sympathetic: Nelson bullies Willie and is aggressive and pushy with Blade, including what I believe is the first instance of a character outright sexually propositioning another in the DCAU, when he asks if she wants a ride and clarifies he’s not talking about his car. Blade is manipulative and condescending, taking advantage of Willie’s crush to make Nelson jealous. And Willie himself is vengeful toward Nelson and possessive of Blade, with some justification for the former and none at all for the latter.

In that, he rather resembles the depiction of the Mad Hatter in “Mad as a Hatter,” which was similarly structured like a sympathetic villain story, but remained unsympathetic toward and critical of its villain protagonist. His character design has some common elements, too, with an enlarged, pointed chin and nose that appear to be how the DCAU signifies “ugly male.” His ability to use his mind to control technology is even an inversion of the Mad Hatter’s use of technology to control minds.

But unsympathetic though he may be, he still has the protection of the Golem, the defender of the marginalized from abuse by the powerful. And Willie is abused. By Nelson, who insults, threatens, and hits him, but also by his father, who passes on a nugget of truth–that sometimes you have to stand your ground and assert your boundaries–but drowns it in toxic masculinity with comments like “hit him where it hurts” or calling his son a “wuss.” The thing is, abuse doesn’t make people better. It breeds fear and anger, and frightened, angry people don’t always focus on the right targets when they strike back. The abused–and the marginalized, who are the same dynamic scaled up to an entire population–can easily internalize negative attitudes about themselves that serve as justifications for their abuse, and these can in turn be made into justifications for abusing others. In Willie’s case, he internalizes the subtext of his father’s statements–the he deserved to be bullied because he’s a wuss, and can only stop being a wuss by enacting violent revenge–and then uses that to justify attacking Nelson and numerous bystanders. They don’t succeed in hitting him back where it hurts, after all, and therefore must be wusses.

This is the problem with golems; they get abused. It’s so important for marginalized communities to have boundaries and safe spaces, to find ways to protect themselves from the abuse they face in the larger society. But it is so tempting, and so easy, to progress from “we deserve safe spaces and to be protected from the harm society perpetrates against the marginalized” to “we are to be protected, they are to be policed.” Which, you may recognize, is another way of stating the in-group/out-group, Us/Other binary from which marginalization itself derives. It’s the core problem of the protector fantasy: who gets protected, and from whom?

And that goes back to how Willie sees the world. He is a picked-on, abused outcast in his own eyes, which isn’t untrue. But we also see from his interactions with Blade what he thinks he should be, what he aspires to be: able to command her attention and affection, which he sees as rightfully his and resents when she directs it elsewhere. He thinks, in other words, that he should have hegemonic power over her; he doesn’t want to end abuse but to escape it by becoming the abuser. He’s internalized his father’s “hit them where it hurts” long before we first hear it in the episode. And again, it scales up neatly: he doesn’t want to end marginalization, which necessarily means ending hegemony, but to become hegemonic himself. He wants what he sees as the rightful power of masculinity, with which to force Blade to perform according to his desires.

And this is, unfortunately, often the case in marginalized communities. We’ve talked about it before in regards to lesbian cop Maggie Sawyer. Which is where we all too often end up with golems: they go berserk and start hurting people they should be protecting. It’s easy to tell that they’re doing that when they go around hunting high-schoolers and smashing through buildings; it’s less obvious, but no less damaging, when they do it by becoming cops, Terry–both of you.

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