Yvonne Craig died this week, and that makes me sad. For most of us, Craig was known as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl on the ultra-campy 1960s Batman TV show. Along with Adam West and Burt Ward, Craig fought famous Batman villains, like the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, and Egghead in the show’s final season from 1967 to 1968. It was, of course, in reruns that this role continued to make her famous, and continues to make her well-known throughout much of the comic industry. Even if you’re not a fan, you’ve most likely seen an episode or two of the Batman series, and you’ve most likely seen a bit of Craig’s most excellent portrayal of Batgirl.
I don’t want to spend too long talking about Craig’s life. There are plenty of obits all over the Internet that are doing exactly that. A simple Google search will net you plenty of information about where she was born, when she started acting, her roles outside of Batman, and how she died. I don’t want to spend too much time worrying about all of that. Now, I’m not avoiding that because it’s not important. It is. I just want to spend the limited time I have here, as I write this on my lunch break, to celebrate the importance of Craig’s role as Batgirl on a campy 1960s superhero TV show.
No one is going to argue that Batman is a masterpiece of TV storytelling, or even a masterpiece of superhero narratives. The show is campy as heck. Fun, but campy as heck. The puns are groan-worthy, the villainous plots are simplistic, the fights are silly, and the storylines are all formulaic. Despite that, though, the show — for better or worse — shoved Batman into the general consciousness, pushing him near the top of the recognizability list of comic book characters. The show basically made Batman a household name, turning him into a pop-culture icon, a status he maintains today. Whether you enjoy the show or not is irrelevant. This show IS important to the Batman mythos, campiness and all.
And for all of this status, the show really only has one concept to thank: its characters. As mentioned before, nothing else in the show is all that well-done, but the characters themselves are memorable. From West’s Batman to Caesar Romero’s Joker to Burgess Meridith’s Penguin to any of the other bright and colorful characters that graced TV screens every week, these representations remain first and foremost in the minds of people that watched this show growing up. Mind you, the numerous portrayals of these characters in media since may overshadow them a little; however, when you mention some of these characters to the average Joe on the street, chances are the portrayals from this TV show will immediately spring to mind.
And in the midst of this stood Yvonne Craig with her purple outfit, red wig, and sweet motorcycle. Introduced in the comics only two years earlier, the appearance of Barbara Gordon in this show was important for a number of reasons. First, it was one of the first portrayals of a female superhero in television and film. Ten years before Lynda Carter spun into her Wonder Woman costume, Craig donned her cowl to punch the Joker with a Ka-Pow! She stood on the same ground as Batman and Robin, often saving them from whatever dastardly deathtrap the villain of the week had caught them in. And, in doing so, she inspired girls young and old the world over.
I talk a lot about how representation is important, and Craig is case in point. Right now, you can do a single Google search to find countless stories of young girls for whom this show was a gateway drug into the world of comic books, and Craig’s Batgirl is at the top of the list of the reasons it resonated so much with them. Representation in media is important, because we all want to imagine we’re comic book characters fighting crime, and that’s made much easier when we can identify with them, much easier when the characters look like us. Now, as a white male, it’s easy for me. I have a million comic book characters I can pretend to be. I can pretend to be obscure characters from the 1930s, or I can pretend to be the latest big-name superhero to grace the silver screen. They’re, for the most part, white and male. But, you go outside of my group, and you find the pickings slim. People who don’t look like me? They don’t have a ton of options.
But for the past 50 years, from broadcast to reruns, Yvonne Craig has helped to fill that role, and she did it well.
And because of this, I think it’s important to note that her portrayal is also a counter to one of the traditional arguments people trot out regarding diversity in comics: Companies only do it as a quick cash-grab. In Batman, Batgirl was exactly that. Ratings were lagging, so they thought if they introduced a female character, they could keep things going for a little while. It didn’t work, of course — the show only lasted one more season. But, that doesn’t change the fact that the producers only introduced her to try and make a little more money. To that, I say this: Who cares? She was only on the show for a season, but look at what she inspired. The motivation for including her is irrelevant, but the result of including her is important. And the result of her inclusion in the show is a ton of little girls watching a superhero show and wanting to become Batgirl.
And that is awesome.
The other reason that Yvonne Craig is so important is that the show did much of the same for Batgirl as it did for Batman. Batgirl had only appeared in the comics for a couple of years before she was introduced to the TV show. Without the show, who knows if she would have continued. And then, without her, we wouldn’t have Oracle or Cassandra Cain or any number of other female heroes inspired by her. And I think that so much of that public awareness is due to Craig’s portrayal. As previously mentioned, she stood up with Batman, completing her own stunts and proving Batgirl as a viable member of the bat-mythos. I don’t know if you can say that we definitely wouldn’t have our idea of Batgirl without Craig, but there is definitely a strong chance of that. The Batman comics were already faltering during the 1960s, and DC was considering cancellation entirely. What saved the comics were editor Julius Schwartz and Batman, the TV show. So, I don’t think it’s a far cry to state that Craig is to thank for the popularity of Batgirl, a popularity which allowed her to continue as a character for the past fifty years.
Craig lost a fight with breast cancer this week, a fight she had been taking on for nearly two years. My condolences go out to her friends and family in this time definitely, but also, my condolences go out to anyone who Craig inspired with her costumed escapades. I can understand what she meant to you on a theoretical level, but I can’t truly understand how important her portrayal was. I’m not equipped to do so, and my experience in this world is different from yours. With that said, I do praise Craig for doing what she did, and I hope I’ve honored her memory with this post.