One of the more easily pointed to examples of sexism in the New 52 concerned which of the five characters to be called Robin and three characters to be called Batgirl made it to the new continuity. Editorial explained to fans that two Batgirls would be erased from the setting so the “most iconic” one, Barbara Gordon, could be returned to the costume, to make things simple for new readers. However, in the other Batcave locker room, all four of the male characters who had been Robin were brought over to the New 52, despite the new universe having a hard age limit of five years from the first appearance of Batman.
This week saw one of those women (spoiler for Batman #28) Stephanie Brown, the third Batgirl and fourth Robin, return to comics as the Spoiler in a sneak preview of the next story arc to engulf Gotham City and the Batman-related titles. And while I’m very excited to have her back, I worry about Cassandra Cain, the first person of color to join the Batfamily, who is now that last Batgirl sitting on the bench with the rest of the New 52’s abandoned heroes.
Aside: It would be better, though not as succinct, to describe Cass as the only Batgirl or Robin who cannot pass for white. Dick Grayson, the first Robin, after all, is of partial Romani heritage; and while he is rarely drawn in a way that shows it, Damian Wayne, the most recent Robin, is of mixed Arab and Chinese descent on his mother’s side.
I believe when one female character gets a chance at wider visibility in the industry, the argument should never be that another female character “deserves” the spotlight more (I’m looking at you, Captain Marvel “fans” who were tearing down Black Widow after the most recent rumors of her solo film). The best response is “good, now also [this other character].” To quote the Tumblr refrain: “Why not both?” It’s even meaner to pit Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown against each other because, when they both existed in the same universe, they were close friends.
Cass and Steph both grew up with abusive supervillain fathers (though the degree of abuse was certainly a difference between them), they were both accepted as Batman’s allies at around the same time (Cass as Batgirl, and Steph as the vigilante The Spoiler), they were about the same age, they both headlined a popular Batgirl title that sold consistently well (Cassandra’s Batgirl was the first time the character had ever starred in her own title, Steph’s was cut short by the announcement of the New 52), and they both had to deal with an editorial environment that had it out for them to an extreme degree.
Stephanie Brown claims the title of the only female Robin in the main DC continuity not because editorial thought it was high time to break that gender barrier, but because it had been decided she would be tortured to death by villain Black Mask at the climax of an upcoming storyline in the Bat-books. Folks at DC thought her visibility as a character would have to be increased if that death (which technically came from completely uncharacteristic deliberate neglect at the hands of another long-standing female character, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, who was then also removed from Batman stories) were to have a proper impact on readers. Eventually, Steph’s death was hamhandedly retconned to have been a fake all along: Batman was revealed to have suspected it all along but not told anyone, even Robin (then Tim Drake), her off again on again boyfriend, because… because everybody knows Batman’s a jerk. This doubled as an explanation for why Batman had appeared to have been in no way torn up about Steph’s death (especially compared to what was then only other Batfamily death in combat, Jason Todd).
Many story arcs later, in the first issue of a new Batgirl series intended to feature Stephanie Brown, Cassandra confessed to Stephanie that she had become disillusioned with being Batman’s partner, and so was leaving her the Batgirl role. This was after a long period where Cassandra was written as a villain, murderer, and head of the League of Assassins. This might not seem so outrageous in a genre where heroes regularly switch sides when writers decide it would be more interesting, but here the twist ran particularly contrary to character backstory. Former DC Editor Scott Peterson described the initial concept for Cassandra like this: “cheerful and chipper and always up and good natured and she has a complete and total death wish.” The way that was managed takes a little explanation.
Cassandra’s origin was as the daughter of two of the world’s greatest assassins, David Cain and Lady Shiva, who conceived her in what was essentially a business transaction. David Cain was fascinated by the idea of repurposing the language portions of the human brain to read physical cues instead of verbal ones, and after many failed experiments with kidnapped children, he decided he needed to raise one from birth. By the age of eight, Cassandra could not speak, but was as dangerous as your average seasoned assassin. At around that age, under her father’s orders, she killed someone for the first time. With her heightened sensitivity to body language, Cassandra could read every inch of the man’s pain and fear as he died, and in that instant she resolved to escape her father and never listen to him ever again. As a teenager, she came to Gotham and became one of the homeless kids who worked as a spy and gopher for Barbara Gordon, then Oracle, during the events of No Man’s Land, and eventually with Barbara’s permission became the second Batgirl.
She was introduced in an era where the writers and editors of the various Batman-related titles were comfortable and interested in focusing on the interpersonal relationships between the various characters and their various emotional problems. And so they developed a way in which she could be mentored by Batman despite the fact that she was, in experience and ethics, a perfect sidekick: she was convinced it wasn’t enough to merely help people as Batgirl. The only true way to atone for committing the act of murder, in Cassandra’s eyes, was to die in the act of helping innocent people, and she would sometimes accept her own death as the most efficient solution to a problem rather than considering all of her options. Naturally, the pragmatist Batman had absolutely no time for that.
Where was I? Right. That’s why writing Cassandra Cain as a murderer and assassin, or someone who had become “disillusioned” with Batman’s mission really leapt miles away from the core character. Oracle and Nightwing once suddenly realized that, years after she’d started being Batgirl, Cass had only just realized the celebrity Bruce Wayne was Batman, purely because she had not even a casual interest in his secret identity. She didn’t meet Batman and wonder “what makes him do this.” It was enough for her to know that what he did was good. Obviously he would want to do it. Because it was good.
But Cass and Steph also have some differences. Steph is talkative, even bubbly, while Cass, while very intelligent, is still working out prepositions. Stories about Steph can easily tap the “teenage superhero with high school woes” where Cass’ family status kind of prevents it. Steph’s character is fundamentally aspirational, about trying very hard to be something very hard, and picking yourself up when you fall. When Cass started being Batgirl, she was already better at hand-to-hand fighting than any member of the Batfamily barring Batman. She would go on to do things like beat Lady Shiva in a fair fight, something only a handful of characters in the DCU are capable of.
And of course, Steph is blonde and blue eyed, and Cass is, and has always been drawn as, (obviously) Asian.
There are lots of reasons why Stephanie Brown would have larger, more vocal fanbase than Cassandra Cain. She’s been Batgirl more recently, her series was very popular when the New 52 was announced and so she became an easy example of a popular but inexplicably benched female character, though editorial edict has kept her out of the spotlight many times she has had the luck to have been written as a more consistent character, and she’s a much more classic superhero trope: a Peter Parker, if you will. But I think it would be incredibly naive to ignore the potential that her race (and the fact that she has more conventionally feminine personality characteristics) has to give her a better chance with fandom and editorial.
If you’re about to get up my butt about how liking Stephanie Brown doesn’t make a person racist, please refer back to the portion of this article where I point out female characters should not be placed in opposition to each other. Liking Stephanie Brown doesn’t automatically make you racist (you might be racist for any other number of reasons, I don’t know, man). Is the reason I’ve never really been interested in Steph and have always and immediately loved Cassandra Cain that I, myself, am mixed race? There are all kinds of reasons why folks identify with a character. Sometimes, it’s because they and that character would be marking down the same thing on a U.S. Census form. It’s important to acknowledge that, and the ways it can warp our media when one particular census category makes up most of the folks in charge of creating our media and advocating for it.
Editorial isn’t perfect, and neither are fandoms. If we claim that part of the reason we wanted Stephanie Brown in the New 52 was in order to increase the diversity that was lost to editorial edict in the reboot, or that we wanted her back in part to address the ludicrous claim that three Batgirls must be reduced to one for simplicity’s sake but four Robins is perfectly accessible, then it would be the height of hypocrisy to sit back and relax now that Spoiler is back, while Cassandra Cain is still benched. I hope my worst, cynical fears are proved wrong, and I hope to see Cass as Black Bat, her most recent superhero identity, grace comics pages again.