“No, Batgirl, Get Out Quick!”
The watering down of a TV heroine
Entertainment historian Fred Grandinetti makes the case that TV’s Batgirl was emasculated and humiliated, unlike her comic book counterpart.
From Detective Comics #359, The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl (published Nov. 29, 1966; cover date, January 1967)
Batman: “I’ll welcome her aid, Commissioner Gordon, when and where the occasion arises! From what I’ve seen, she doesn’t have to take a back seat to anybody.”
From the Batman television episode, The Ogg Couple (aired Dec. 21, 1967)
Batman to Batgirl: “Perhaps crime-fighting is better left to the men, Batgirl, perhaps not, but this isn’t exactly woman’s work.”
Batman’s Ratings Needed a Woman’s Touch
On Jan. 12, 1966, the Batman television series premiered on the ABC network, airing both Wednesday and Thursday evenings. The program was an instant hit with audiences, and Bat mania swept the country. However, despite some imaginative episodes, the series’ ratings declined during the show’s second season. The Sunday Telegram’s Aug. 13, 1967, edition stated, “Last year Lost in Space and other stiff competition clobbered Batman’s Wednesday night segment. The two-night ratings dropped into the top 20, 30, and a time or two, out of the top 40 shows.
There was an actual discussion of cancelling the series, but it was decided to bring in a new character. Joining Adam West, who played Batman, and Burt Ward, as the intrepid Robin, would be Batgirl.
Batgirl made her debut in Detective Comics # 359 and was Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, Barbara. She dons a Batgirl costume to attend the policeman’s masquerade ball. Along the way, Barbara becomes involved with the criminal known as Killer Moth. She helps the Dynamic Duo capture him, displaying impressive judo and karate skills.
The ABC network was shown a promotional short featuring Yvonne Craig as Batgirl and Tim Herbert as the villainous Killer Moth. Craig was a member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and became a television and film actress. In this short film, Batgirl fends off an attack by Killer Moth and his men. She also rescues Batman and Robin, who is encased in a giant cocoon. With the criminals defeated, the mysterious red-haired crime buster disappeared. ABC was sold on the new character and renewed the program for another season. However, this would be the only time Batgirl was allowed to defeat a gang of criminals on her own. Batgirl, full of self-confidence during the actual series, would confront a gang of evildoers and be quickly subdued or knocked out.
While comic book readers welcomed Batgirl’s fighting ability, Batman series producer Howie Horwitz removed this popular aspect from the television version. Yvonne Craig stated in the Miami Herald’s May 14, 1967 edition:
Did I tell you, too, that Batgirl won’t be chopping people up with karate? She’ll be adroit but not violent. I think the reason why Honey West didn’t stay on TV was because she [the Honey West character, played by Anne Francis] was always going around clobbering somebody, and you can’t look feminine when you’re doing that.
With all due respect to Ms. Craig, Anne Francis was very feminine, and the series’ demise can be attributed to airing against Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
Best-selling author Joel Eisner, who wrote The Official Batman Batbook (1986), composed of Batgirl’s involvement in the series:
Apart from the pilot, Batgirl never really got involved in the capture of the arch-villains; she was there just to lend a hand or be captured and rescued by the dynamic duo. After directing the pilot, producer Howie Horwitz decided that the character needed to be more feminine and less violent. According to Craig, “Howie was a funny man. He had a wife and three daughters, and he wanted them all to be very feminine. He specifically said that Batgirl was not [to have any] involvement any karate, kung-fu, or any sort of martial arts type stuff. That wasn’t ladylike to him. I was allowed to kick the bad guys in a sort of high-kick, ballet manner or spin into them and waste them, but I was supposed to be able to sneak out of their grasp before any punches were thrown.” If it appeared that Batgirl was “watered” down for the series, it was only because of the producer’s desire for her to be ladylike and feminine. This was not the time for a self-assured and independent superheroine; that would happen years later. At this point in time, Batgirl was nothing more than visual eye candy for the male audience and a pop star heroine to the young female audience.
Author, animator, designer, illustrator, and Batman viewer Mark Marderosian observed:
Yvonne Craig as Batgirl was perfect casting. Although Batman gave her television immortality, it underutilized Ms. Craig’s acting range. I understood the Batman producers were simply looking to fill the costume, and, of course, she filled out the suit nicely. But they didn’t capitalize on her innate acting ability to create deeper emotions, nor have her fight scenes be more than merely kick, one-two, kick. Sure, it was a superhero show with a different, younger audience, but a little more “Honey West” and a little less Ethel Mertz in the action and dialogue would have allowed Ms. Craig to showcase her talents to a greater degree. A wasted opportunity by the producers.
Craig’s Barbara Gordon was an intelligent woman who managed to solve criminal’s clues on her own. However, when she suited up as Batgirl, the male writers played down her physical skills from the comic book pages.
While Batgirl was performing high kicks, spins, and tossing props, Diana Rigg gained admirers in The Avengers. Rigg’s Emma Peel used judo and karate to defeat her attackers. Audiences applauded this portrayal of a capable woman, and she remained very feminine. What a shame the Batman producers did not follow suit.
Batgirl’s Awkward Television Exploits
Many do not share my opinion but believe that Craig’s Batgirl strikes a positive note for female portrayals on television. Unfortunately, Batgirl’s television exploits show otherwise.
Episode 95: “Enter Batgirl, Exit Penguin”
The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) captures Barbara Gordon with marriage on his sinister mind. Batgirl makes her first appearance joining the Dynamic Duo in battle. However, when she departs, the duo is gassed to sleep by Penguin’s umbrella. It takes Batgirl and Alfred, the loyal butler, to rescue the duo from becoming human tea bags. During the second fight scene, all of the Penguin’s goons grab Batgirl, allowing Batman and Robin to save her. Was this scene essential in her debut episode? Was its inclusion to remind the viewers the name of the program was BatMAN?
Episode 96: “Ring Around the Riddler”
The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) wants to control the prizefighting business. When Batgirl enters his hideaway, the Riddler orders his men to “get her.” She slowly backs away, turns around, and is seized by two members of the Riddler’s gang. The Riddler orders her tossed into a steam room, although she later escapes. Admittedly Batgirl needed to be captured early on, or this would have been a brief episode. However, a little more action on Batgirl’s part before she was manhandled could have been showcased. Batgirl did rescue Batman from the Riddler’s attempt to defeat him in the boxing match. Barbara Gordon displayed her intelligence, helping Batman figure out a riddle.
Episode 97: “Wail of the Siren”
The Siren (Joan Collins) puts Bruce Wayne under her spell. It is up to Robin and Batgirl to rescue him. This episode illustrates Batgirl’s limited fighting skills creating problems for her choreography. Except for one “ZAP” she exerts from a high kick, the battle is thrown in Robin’s direction. He is shown as the one easily defeating the Siren’s men. The Boy Wonder also rescues Batgirl after a burly henchman grabs her. Batgirl does save Chief O’Hara from drowning, although no particular fighting skill was necessary performing this. In each of her first three episodes, Batgirl is manhandled.
Episode 100: “The Unkindest Tut of All”
King Tut (Victor Buono) is after valuable scrolls. Batgirl blazes a trail for Batman and Robin to locate his lair. She gets there first and manages to defeat two of Tut’s thugs. However, the monarch’s henchwoman (Patti Gilbert) smashes a large vase over Batgirl’s head. Batman and Robin arrive and stop King Tut from escaping.
Episode 107: “The Bloody Tower”
Batgirl helps Batman and Robin stop Lord Ffogg (Rudy Vallee), Lady Penelope Peasoup (Glynis Johns), and their gang from stealing the crown jewels. Although she was the one who discovered what the criminals were up to, the credit for solving the case was awarded to Batman and Robin.
Episode 108: “Catwoman’s Dressed to Kill”
Catwoman (Eartha Kitt) is jealous of Batgirl and kidnaps her intending to use a buzzsaw on the helpless heroine. It is Alfred, disguised as the world’s oldest hippie, who rescues the damsel in distress. When Batman and Robin initially encounter Catwoman, they are snared by a net. Batgirl frees them, but an ungrateful Batman lectures her, saying, “We can fight our own battles.”
Episode 109: “The Ogg Couple”
The episode was filmed earlier than its airdate, but Batgirl has now been captured two weeks in a row. Batman and Robin learn the plucky heroine is heading for the criminal’s hideout. Both caped crusaders doubt her ability to subdue Olga’s Cossacks. As Batman laments, “Even her extraordinary abilities may not be enough.” Of course, the duo is correct as Batgirl is captured after an exciting battle with the Cossacks. Egghead (Vincent Price) and Olga (Anne Baxter) force her to perform a saber dance (to showcase Yvonne Craig’s dancing abilities). Egghead dumps the bound Batgirl in a massive vat of caviar while the gang escapes (it was later revealed they ran into Chief O’Hara’s paddy wagon). Batgirl is rescued, but Batman lectures her commenting, “Perhaps crime-fighting is better left to the men, Batgirl, perhaps not, but this isn’t exactly women’s work.” You would never hear John Steed say this to Emma Peel!
Episode 110: “The Funny Feline Felonies”
The Joker (Cesar Romero) teams up with Catwoman (Eartha Kitt) to commit a series of robberies. The cunning jester jolts Batman and Robin with his lethal Joker buzzer. Batgirl arrives and saves the duo with her antidote pills. Instead of thanking her, Robin lectures Batgirl on almost arriving too late.
Episode 111: “The Joke’s on Catwoman”
Shortly after Batman and Robin leave Batgirl alone, she is confronted by Catwoman, Joker, and two henchmen. She is pulled off her cycle and grabbed from behind, then tied with deadly Cat Whiskers. Batgirl manages to free herself and later on, in the fight scene, swings from a chandelier to aid Robin. Scenes of this nature, considering her limited fighting skills, were needed more frequently.
Episode 112: “Louie’s Lethal Lilac Time”
Writer Charles Hoffman simply humiliates Batgirl in this episode. Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson have been captured by Louie the Lilac (Milton Berle) and his gang. With Batman and Robin nowhere to be found, Barbara Gordon says to Alfred, “It’s going to be difficult without Batman or Robin, but maybe Batgirl alone can do something.” Barbara, before heading out, says to her parrot, “Well Charlie, Batgirl rides again and alone.” An overconfident Batgirl invades Louie’s lair, but Bruce Wayne knows this will be a failed rescue attempt. He shouts, “No, Batgirl! Get out quick!” and Louie stuns her with knock-out spray. The heroine falls to the floor and is encased in a giant vat to be filled with boiling oil. Bruce and Dick manage to change into their alter egos and thrash Louie and his henchmen. Batgirl escapes the vat on her own but is given little to do during the fight scene. It’s understandable the need for Batgirl to get captured to get Batman and Robin into action. However, the dialogue emphasizing her going it alone only to be captured quickly was humiliating.
Episode 113: “Nora Clavicle and the Ladies Crime Club”
Females take over the police force in Gotham City in a very stereotypical fashion. They’re more concerned with department store sales than capturing criminals. So when Batman, Robin, and Batgirl enter the ladies’ hideout, it’s naturally Batgirl who gets grabbed, leaving Batman and Robin helpless.
Episode 114: “Penguin’s Clean Sweep”
Writer Stanford Sherman gets his turn humiliating Batgirl in this episode. The Penguin plans on putting Gotham City to sleep with Lygerian Sleeping Sickness. Contaminated money is tossed into the streets, which Penquin sucks up with a giant vacuum cleaner. A brief scene was needed before a commercial. Batgirl confronts the Penguin’s two goons, brimming with overconfidence, and says, “Consider your collecting career over, Penguin.” She tries to push Penguin’s goons, each holding brooms, with no judo or karate abilities to call upon. Both goons grab Batgirl as Penguin gasses the struggling heroine to sleep. She lies unconscious on the sidewalk, and a discussion is held about whether or not to “finish her off.” Penguin decides not to bother with Batgirl and continues to collect the loot.
Meanwhile the citizens of Gotham City watch Batgirl’s humiliation. Was this scene vital? Why was Batgirl not allowed to knock the goons around before being gassed? Her running into the two goons clearly illustrated the difficulty in choreographing a brief fight scene. On a positive note, more than usual, she was spotlighted in the climatic fight with Batman and Robin.
Episode 115: “The Great Train Robbery”
Batman, Robin, and Batgirl battle Shame (Cliff Robertson) and his gang. Batgirl’s fighting technique consisted of tossing stage props at her attackers. Throughout much of the battle, she is held in an Indian’s grasp while using her feet to push away a Mexican bandit. After the fight is over, Calamity Jan (Dina Merrill) and Frontier Fanny (Hermione Baddeley) spray the trio with fear gas. Shame decides to take a cowering Batgirl hostage. Now here was a chance for the writers to explore different territories. If Shame had chosen Robin as the hostage, Batman and Batgirl would have needed to work together. This would have brought out a different dynamic between the two. Instead, we are treated to the typical male chauvinistic storyline where men have to rescue the female.
Episode 118: “The Joker’s Flying Saucer”
The Joker wants to build a flying saucer and use it to gain control of the world. Batgirl is caught climbing in a window at The Wayne Foundation, where the Joker’s men steal the needed material to build the spacecraft. The grinning jester ties Batgirl to a giant rocket that will launch her into orbit. Batgirl uses her automatic fuse extinguisher, causing it to go out. She is then shoved into the huge spaceship. By this time, criminals knew Batgirl, on her own, was no threat to them. This is illustrated when the Joker and his gang emerge from the spaceship. The criminals are not concerned Batgirl is not being restrained. Batman and Robin arrive, and a battle ensues with Batgirl’s sole participation as hitting the Joker with a piece of wood. The Clown Prince of Crime and his henchman force her into the saucer. Robin is knocked unconscious and carried into the ship with Batman in pursuit. The battle in the craft rages until all the criminals are thrown out. This episode illustrated once again the limited choreography Batgirl was given in the fight scenes.
Episode 119: “The Entrancing Dr. Cassandra”
Dr. Cassandra (Ida Lupino) uses camouflage pills to release the Joker, Egghead, Riddler, the Penguin, King Tut, and Catwoman from the state penitentiary. The Terrific Trio discovers the criminal’s hideout but gets knocked around by invisible crooks! The camera appears to linger more on Batgirl being pummeled than her male counterparts. Thankfully, Batgirl came up with the solution to defeating the criminals by having Batman shoot out the light.
Episode 120: “Minerva, Mayhem, and Millionaires”
Batgirl is hardly on view in the final episode where she tries to rescue Alfred from the evil designs of Minerva (Zsa Zsa Gabor). Naturally, her rescue attempt fails, and Minerva’s musclebound men grab her. Batgirl and Alfred are tossed in a Persimmon Pressurizer but saved by the Dynamic Duo. Batgirl, again, has limited involvement in the fight scene, hitting two criminals in the face with her foot.
A big loss all around
While enthusiastic fans welcomed Batgirl’s comic book appearances, her television counterpart did not help the series. The Feb. 22, 1968, edition of The Gazette stated, “This shrewdly promoted series, which came in 75th in the ratings, will present its final episode March 14 (1968).”
A Saturday morning cartoon version of the series premiered on CBS in 1968 produced by Filmation. Again, Batgirl had no judo or karate skills and often needed rescuing by Batman and Robin. In one episode, she receives a pie in the face while on her bat-cycle to pursue criminals.
I sent an e-mail to Yvonne Craig regarding Batgirl’s treatment in the television series. The actress replied by saying, “I hear you! But for the times, I think they did a good job.” But, no, they didn’t. Times were changing, and featuring a physically cable woman who could hold her own with the men would have been revolutionary – perhaps fulfilling the producer’s request, which was to save the show.
Entertainment historian Fred Grandinetti has been writing about Popeye since 1983 in numerous magazines, newspapers, and websites. Besides ‘Wimpy Celebrates 90 Years of Hamburgers,’ he has written several articles for Boomer on Popeye and his pals, notably ‘Popeye, the Wandering One-eyed Sailor,’ ‘Happy 90th Birthday, Popeye,’ and ‘What Is Popeye’s Archenemy’s Name?’ Grandinetti also produces the award-winning cable access series, ‘Drawing with Fred,’ for Massachusetts cable-access television.
Caption for feature photo: Doused with fear gas, Shame takes Batgirl hostage in ‘The Great Escape’ (1968). (All images provided by Fred Grandinetti)