THE EVOLUTION OF ORACLE AND DISABILITY REPRESENTATION
Updated: Jun 21
Barbara Gordon is a woman of many names, faces, and identities. Batgirl, Oracle, crime fighter, hacker, able-bodied, wheelchair user, and most importantly: hero. She is one of, if not THE most famous disabled caped crusader to date. In addition to her tenure as Batgirl, she’s had a long and storied (pun intended) history in the role of Oracle, an ass-kicking-techno-wizard-wheelchair-user. But for me, a wheelchair user myself, her representation has never felt whole or true to my experiences. Now with the new series Batgirls, by Becky Cloonan and Michael W. Conrad, I am finally beginning to see my own story in Barbara: that of a real disabled person.
I’ve never seen a poorly written Oracle story; every incarnation is a joy to read. They’re all incredible, they have so much fun, and each iteration brings so much to the character. I also don’t want to discount the good intentions of the writers, especially John Ostrande and Kim Yale. DC was ready to discard the character entirely, essentially fridging her after Killing Joke, until Ostrande and Yale lobbied to continue her story. They were trying to tell stories they believed in, and without them we wouldn’t have Oracle at all… but these stories include aspects of her disability which to me ring false. We almost always see Barbara in a clunky hospital transport wheelchair rather than a manual chair, the kind most paraplegic chair users have. We hear her saying that her “disability doesn’t stop her,” positioning her own body as an obstacle to overcome, rather than an innate part of who she is. And after the events of New 52, her body is essentially “cured.” After the first few issues, she acts as though she were never disabled in the first place, barring the short arc “Art of the Crime”. Even in Batgirl of Burnside, her past disability literally becomes the villain of a story arc. There still lurks the concept of “cure” culture, that being whole and being disabled can’t truly coexist.
In the “Art of the Crime” arc (Batgirl #26-29), written by Mairghread Scott, Barbara is faced with the possibility of losing her ability to walk again after a fight in which she’s hit on the spine with an electric baton. This story stands out in its acknowledgement of Babs’ disability, and even accurately addresses some key ableist issues we’ve seen in previous Barbara stories, and it’s… almost successful. There are definitely moments throughout this story that feel authentic, like when Babs chafes at a professor calling her “differently abled”, and when her dad tells her he’s proud of her for “overcoming her disability”. These are things that have been said to me as well, and probably many others. Barbara is even given a properly designed wheelchair! She doesn’t actually use it; it’s simply a reminder of her past, but it’s there. And yet the story still misses the larger mark, once again positioning Barbara against her own body. Barbara calls herself broken more than once, and even says that she celebrates her scars while looking at a broken and glued back together vase. The story itself seems like it can’t decide whether Babs is proud of her disability and body or fighting against it. There’s a whole conversation with her dad about “not giving up” and a montage of panels of her struggling through stairs and physical therapy to return to “normal”, positioning her body and disability once again as a disappointment and an obstacle.
In Barbara’s stories, I see a common theme: to be disabled is to be less-than. To be helpless. The terms “confined to a wheelchair” and “useless” are bandied about. Again: the writers try, but these motifs rub me the wrong way. I’m not “confined” to my wheelchair: I’m freed by it. I’m not weak or less than, I am simply different in how I experience the world. Barbara is bitter about her disability; I get that. I was too when I first received my diagnosis. I don’t want to ignore the very real grief and anger that a lot of us must move through to see our lives beyond the way able-bodied people see us. In Oracle: Year One, which occurs in Batman Chronicles #5 and is written by John Ostrander and Kim Yale, many of the issues I had with Killing Joke are addressed in a very satisfying way… but to me it still rings hollow. In the issue, we still see Barbara being used as a plot device, the inherent misogyny in the story, and the acts of violence against her being immediately discounted by Batman and the Joker. The stories are good; they’re well-written, interesting, and add to the character in great ways, but again, we are being told the story of a disabled person’s journey through the eyes of able-bodied writers and artists.
In the DC Rebirth, also called the New 52, the aftermath of The Killing Joke is retconned and altered. In the new history, three years after her injury and subsequent paralysis, Barbara is offered the chance to participate in an experimental surgery. The surgery would implant a chip in her spine that would bypass her damaged nerves and allow her to walk again. This comes right in the first issue of the new 2015 Batgirl series from Gail Simone, Ardian Syaf, Vicente Cifuentes, and we actually get a very interesting interaction between her and her roommate, Alysia Yeoh. In it, Barbara is still driving her wheelchair accessible van, which Alysia sees. Alysia asks if it’s for someone in her family and Barbara lies and says yes. Alysia then says the oft-heard refrain of, “I could never live like that!” after seeing the wheelchair ramp in Barbara’s van. Barbara even uses the term ‘able-bodied’ in describing her dismay at Alysia’s insensitive remark, thinking to herself, “I don’t feel like explaining that to her able-bodied-but-well-intended-self”.
Barbara also struggles with the abrupt shift in her life–moving from a wheelchair user to being essentially able-bodied. She feels guilt for what she refers to as her “miracle”, and struggles with the PTSD of being shot, paralyzed, and a return to her old life. There’s an attempt throughout this run to address Barbara’s return to able-bodied status through confrontation with inner and outer demons, yet for a disabled person like myself, it feels more like lip-service. Both Oracle: Year One and this new Batgirl run both approach Barbara’s disability from the same angle: grief and guilt. Neither one acknowledges that there is a joy in accepting your disability and body; that you are not less than you were before. This portrayal of disability is one of darkness and helplessness, rather than the light and joy that can be found instead.
And now we come to the new Batgirls run from Becky Cloonan and Michael Conrad, which takes Barbara in all her forms, and combines her into her truest incarnation yet: Barbara Gordon. Oracle. Batgirl. Ambulatory Wheelchair User. We see Barbara on her good days, we see her on her bad days. She runs, she jumps, she fights crime. She uses a cane, sometimes a wheelchair (a proper, well-designed manual chair). She goes to physical therapy. She acknowledges that her body, even with the chip installed (from New 52), is still disabled. And that’s not a bad thing. She works with herself, not against herself. This essay came to me after I read a scene from Batgirls #9, with Barbara and Alysia Yeoh at a café. Barbara says, “Speaking of, I gotta run. If I miss another PT session, the doctor will kill me.” Alysia responds, “Physical therapy? Everything all right?”
And here is really where it nailed home for me how closely I relate to this Barbara Gordon. She says, “Everything’s great, actually. I mean, I still have bad days… my spinal implant is pretty new tech. There’s no guarantee it’ll last forever.” I sat back after reading that and went “oh.” This is my Barbara. This is the mirror I can look at and see myself reflected in her. She understands that, chip or no chip, her body is disabled. Her experience of the world is through disability. She embraces these facets of herself, moves with them, rather than struggling against them. Here is where this Barbara and the Barbara of stories past diverge: where previous Barbara stories ignore her disability, burden her with guilt and shame, or consider her “cured,” this Babs embraces her body and all of its quirks. It’s not something that needs to be said aloud. Barbara never needs to announce to her team or the reader that she’s having a bad day, or wallow in the guilt of being a burden to the team. She simply is the way she is, and it’s normal. It’s something the creators were directly aiming for and had intended, as Becky Cloonan said in an interview with Alex Jaffe titled “DC’s First Look: Talking Batgirls with Becky Cloonan and Michael W. Conrad”:
“…in our book, she has off days. She’s got bad days. So, we’ll see her using a cane. She does use a wheelchair occasionally. She’s got days when she’s just spending some time under her desk rearranging all the cables, you know? And I think anyone would want to spend the rest of the day sitting down. So, I think it’s just natural. We don’t make a huge deal of it because it’s such a big part of her character and her history. It’s not like we want to beat readers over the head with this idea. But at the same time, we want to show that it’s still part of her character. She is still disabled, even if she doesn’t always look like it all the time. She can walk around, but it’s still a part of her.”
While we’ve yet to see a Barbara Gordon canon story written by a disabled person (go read Oracle Code, I am begging you), this feels so very close to home for me. I’m an ambulatory wheelchair user. I use a cane on my good days, my chair on bad days, and I experience the world in a variety of ever-changing ways. While this Barbara is also written by an able-bodied team, it feels closer to the mark than any other story before. Is it perfect? No. But is it oh-so-close? Absolutely. Oracle has always been a beacon of hope for disabled fans of superhero comics. She’s always been a shining star, and her stories are always welcome and fun to read. But for the first time, she also feels real in a way that she never did before. The new Batgirls run makes huge strides in representation and the evolution of Barbara Gordon as Oracle. I see myself in her. I see a disabled experience and story in her. Now, as this run for these Batgirls comes to a close, I can only express my gratitude to the incredible team behind this story. Thank you for bringing this Oracle to me and to the other disabled DC fans out there. It has been a joy to come along for the ride. Once a Batgirl, always a Batgirl!