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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Social Class in Gotham City

I'm sure I've mentioned this before but I find elements of class psychology fascinating. One of my favorite JSA stories ever, for example, is that one where the 40s JSA have their little debate on class. I like to observe people, and class culture is a particularly interesting phenomenon to analyze. Especially in comic books.

Class Relations in the Bat-Clan (contains slight spoilers for this week's 52)The key to this analysis is, of course, Bruce Wayne. I've always suspected that a great deal of Batman's presence comes subconsciously from social cues he's learned since birth. They say there's a palpable difference between Old and New Money in terms of class. And they're right. It's not a matter of breeding of course, but it's a matter of culture. Learned behaviors that emphasize particular social patterns evolved over decades, if not centuries.

Matters such as "taste", "refinement" and "etiquette" can be taught, but like any knowledge, assimilation works best when you're young, where it gets buried into the subconscious.

Bruce Wayne has this. He's a socialite. He's been raised with notions of How To Act, complex etiquette and mechanisms to show his "breeding", to be at least subconsciously aware of how he's presenting himself at all times.

While Batman naturally doesn't portray the same image as Bruce Wayne, he's still got a lot of that ingrained social awareness, which he undoubtedly uses to its full extent. Look at the way younger characters like Wally or Kyle act around him, look at how he can stand equal with an Amazonian Princess and the most powerful man on Earth. He's a man used to being in charge, who knows without a doubt that this is his proper place. That seems like trained class arrogance at its most efficient.

What makes it fascinating is how class effects the interactions between him and the rest of the Gotham heroes. Dick for example is carnival folk. He became Bruce's ward at 13 or so, but all ready a little too late to have been fully indoctrinated in the social system. Dick's more approachable, but he'll never have the presence or arrogance of the Bat. As charming as he is, as privileged his upbringing as Bruce's ward, he still works a lot better as a police officer or a model than he would as a junior socialite.

This has interesting elements to his interaction with Bruce too. He's aware, on some level, of the social cues that Bruce utilizes as Bruce Wayne or Batman, but he often misreads them. Bruce's anger after a particularly disasterous mission gets read as being targetted toward poor performance rather than at particularly risky behavior. And he's effected by that because he's trained to respond consciously to the cues but not how to counter them, which may feed into the constant misunderstandings between Bruce and Dick.

Jason Todd was, on the surface, in the same position as Dick, but he turned out very differently. While also of a traditionally considered "low class" background, his actual upbringing was very different. Dick was carnival folk. Regardless about whether all those movies glamorizing the family structure that springs up around carnival life are true, he's still got supportive parents and close friends to rely on. Jason was a street urchin without anyone, really. Wis mentality is very "us against them" Batman wasn't a savior for him initially, he was a *mark*.

I'm not, of course, saying Jason turned out the way he did because of his background, but I think it did feed in with his relationship to Batman. His openness to be trained constantly warring with a wary skepticism. He was angry at the world and I don't think Bruce ever understood why. He wasn't really prepared for dealing with someone who came from Jason's situation, so he was trying the same methods that worked with Dick, and thus was never able to defuse the situation before Jason's recklessness got the better of him.

Steph, (I'm skipping Tim for a moment) parallels Jason in a lot of ways. Her father was a criminal, her mother an addict, her financial situation pretty dismal. She was never quite in Jason's position, to adopt a criminal vs. mark mentality though. She had some measure of support from her mother and her anger at her father helped motivate her to take up a hero mentality herself already.

Steph's relationship with Tim (and Bruce) has some elements of lower class to upper class. She's the renegade on the outskirts, he's the favored sidekick. She reacts to this with defiance. Defiance of social roles and expectations. She pushes at him, gets him to react, presses for training, company, to know who he is. Batman is the distant, stern authority figure. Even while she's his Robin, he's still the authority to obey/defy. She never really had the chance to develop anything more with him.

Tim Drake is the weird Robin. The successor. He's the first and only Robin to have a similar class background to Bruce himself. He's got the same awareness of social cues and the same unconscious training of how to use them. Like Bruce he was raised isolated during his formative years (through neglect instead of death) but very aware of his social responsibilities as the son of Jack Drake. In Young Justice, Tim uses, on a lower scale, the same social manipulation techniques Bruce does with the Justice League. Fascinatingly, perhaps due to his nature as an observer, Tim shows a lot more conscious awareness of those techniques than Bruce himself does.

Actually, it could well be because of the way Jack Drake lost his fortune. Suddenly being dropped into a more normal life was a turning point to the character, an element of chaos added into the mix. Batman's considered Tim his heir since Cataclysm, but this is where we first see signs of Tim actively fighting against it. Part of it might be the influence of Steph, Dick and Young Justice as well. With more exposure to the outside world instead of high society during his adolescence, Tim may have a better sense of perspective.

Tim's so far one of the few Gotham characters to really respond to Batman on something of an equal level. He's clearly subordinate, but it's an apprenticeship, not a familial bond. The big key though is that where Dick, Jason and Steph all had knee jerk reactions to Batman's persona (be they submission, anger or defiance), Tim was never one to be provoked into a reaction. His responses of obedience, disobedience, even fear where all more logical and intellectual rather than instinctual. Batman's usual tricks don't work on him.

Jim and Barbara Gordon are interesting because they're much more able and willing to act on an equal level with Bruce than any of the Robins. However, a slight class element can still be perceived. While Barbara and Jim have no intention of being subordinate to Batman and have shown themselves to be more than capable of standing up to him (That Birds of Prey scene is still the best ever!), they still show a certain subconscious reaction to his presence. A certain initial respect/awe, though neither character lets that get in their way. That element is reinforced also by the nature of the relationships between them. Jim relies on Batman to uphold justice in the city in the ways that he cannot, Barbara is something like an apprentice graduated. She had to prove herself *against* him.

Helena Bertinelli is one that should not be subordinate to Bruce, by all rights, as an adult woman taking the costume under her own initiative. Where Barbara had been quite young and thus open to the guiding force of a more experienced hero, there's no need for Helena to do the same. However, I think this is where the social cues come into play again. Helena's family was as rich as Bruce's however, theirs was a different social court than the upper crust WASP aristocracy. The mafia families, at least as portrayed in the comics and on television/movies, don't play with the same social techniques. It's more of a straightforward velvet gloved menace, and that's the kind of social cues she'd learn, rather than the subtle aristocratic arrogance. She's more than capable of using that menace as a vigilante, but it still leaves her unarmed when it comes to the more subtle power plays. Batman's unconscious impression of superiority leaves her grasping for approval, even though she's really got no need of it.

Cassandra Cain and Jean Paul Valley have interesting similarities. Their initial backstories couldn't be more different, but once Azrael's father died, the whole relationship with the Order of Saint Dumas does bear an interesting similarity with Cassandra's with David Cain. Both were essentially programmed, both resisted their programming and escaped. Both ended up aided by and allied to Batman.

In a weird sort of way, while Jean-Paul was adult, and Cassandra matured quickly through her experiences, Batman still ended up taking on a very direct paternal role. With Cassandra it's more obvious naturally, but even with Jean-Paul, he'd ended up naming the guy his temporary successor. He was a guiding figure, to follow and learn from and emulate. Both Cain and the Order are very powerful, very controlling forces. Batman's unconscious arrogance/projected superiority would have played into and against those memories, allowing him to essentially take their roles in Cassandra and Jean-Paul's lives.

Now why am I thinking of this now? Because we've just met Kate Kane in 52. And I have to say, I'm finding her very intriguing thus far. And it occurs to me, she has a potential for a very interesting clash with Bruce. I can't imagine he'll be terribly pleased with someone running around with a name derived from his.

Not to mention that as she's characterized thus far...I do not imagine her rolling over for him at all. She's an adult woman with the same arrogance and superiority he has. She's a socialite too, specifically emphasized as being of equal class status as Bruce Wayne. She'll know his techniques and the social counters. She'll be immune to his sexual charm.

This is going to be interesting.


  • At June 22, 2006 5:33 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I have no idea what that means. :-) I'm gonna assume from the smiley face that that's good?

  • At June 22, 2006 6:47 AM, Blogger Madeley said…

    A Marxist reading of the Bat Family wouldn't be applicable here without badly stretching the metaphor.

    We would have to assume that 'class struggle' is represented by the animosity between Batman and his sidekicks (the 'working class'), and that Batman was exploiting their abilities (the 'means of production') while contributing nothing of his own. And also, that the main motivation of all the different Robins would be to overthrow then replace him.

    I remember reading that Grant Morrison intended the friction between Wonder Woman and Batman to be due to Wonder Woman representing the aristocracy, and Batman the upstart 'new money'.

    Personally, I've always read Batman's superiority complex, along with the deference other characters show to him, to be due to his own self-confidence. He knows he's the smartest man in the room, he knows how to exploit the weaknesses of everyone he comes into contact with, and he's probably so loaded with testosterone that he assumes he's the Alpha Male in any gathering. After all, most people defer to him not because he's stupid rich (they wouldn't necessarily know his secret ID), but because he's madder than a bag of badgers.

  • At June 22, 2006 7:41 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I don't really intend this to be marxist, or anything like that, (My education's in anthropology, not economics. :-) I wouldn't know where to begin to argue economic or socialist theory.) I'm just thinking about basic psychology, in a broad manner.

    I agree with you in some sense. The thing is the "old money attitude" (which would be young money to the Amazons, keeping Morrison's analogy in tact. :-P) is more than just money. It's why "new money" has trouble breaking in to high society.

    I think you're right in that his self-confidence and alpha attitude is the core of it. I'm just theorizing that some of that does come with the attitudes taught from birth. Our upbringings do play a large role in the person we grow up to be.

    Class is interesting because it's a classification based completely on external factors (rather than race, gender, sexual orientation, et al) and expansively effects the way people perceive others and are themselves perceived.

    I do think a lot of his self-confidence and attitude comes from the manner of society (and business) he's been exposed to since birth and that he's using it.

    I'm not attempting to claim a class struggle, (it wouldn't work anyway, Tim Drake is certainly not working class, and Steph, Jason, Dick, Babs, and Huntress are not in the same class as one another, for example). But I do think that what gets defined as class has a strong influence on an individual's perspective. A girl laughed at every day for wearing hand-me-downs is not going to have the same reaction in social situations as a girl who goes to school wearing Gucci.

    And the differences in experiences of those two girls would also effect the way they interact and understand one another, I think.

    Which ultimately is what I'm trying to analyze here. Bruce/Batman strikes me as a man who's always had social power, regardless of every other aspect of his life. And others don't need to know he has money to react to that level of social privilege, I think. YMMV of course. :-)

  • At June 22, 2006 8:31 AM, Blogger Madeley said…

    Sorry- I should have explained a bit better; I brought up Marx following Afp763389's post only to suggest that class antagonism isn't automatically Marxist.

    I agree absolutely that the way someone is brought up effects their outlook, and no doubt a privileged upbringing would fundamentally affect Bruce Wayne's psychology.

    However, I'd argue that his attitude isn't so much to do with believing he automatically had a right to top any hierarchy due to birth or upbringing, partly because he doesn't seem to manifest other behaviours I would associate with that kind of person.

    Instead, I'd say that a Wayne family upbringing is dominated by another characteristic frequently found in wealthy families; just because you're born to your wealth doesn't mean you've earned it.

    Thomas Wayne was born into money, but it wasn't enough for him to simply accept that. He still had to become a doctor (one of the most difficult career paths to take), and on top of which expand an already huge fortune.

    This, I think, became a primary driver to a young Bruce Wayne. You have to work and train harder than anyone else, to earn your place in the world and prove yourself to your family. This is exactly what Wayne did after his parent's death.

    I think his arrogance and sense of entitlement comes not from his breeding or family background, but from a certainty he's (to borrow a phrase) the best there is at what he does.

  • At June 22, 2006 9:41 AM, Blogger Matthew E said…

    I just realized from reading this post... a good comparison for the Batman / Commissioner Gordon relationship is the friendship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Inspector Charles Parker in Dorothy L. Sayers' series of mysteries.

  • At June 22, 2006 9:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I don't really buy it. I've always thought that Bruce and Jason were the most similar and Tim has always been the odd man out. And in terms of class structure the kind of person Bruce is most similar to in historical analogy would be Cato the Younger.

  • At June 22, 2006 11:18 AM, Blogger 100LittleDolls said…

    I really think Kalinara is on to something in terms of the underlying psychology of the Bat-clan.

    And re: Bruce's father being a doctor, well, there's a certain amount of privilege that comes with being able to pursue the education that you need to become a doctor. Not that anyone can't become a doctor, but wealth certainly helps. A part of me thinks that Bruce's parents had to be humanitarians so that the masses could identify with Bruce and his parents.

    Also, in terms of social class, Bruce had a lot of power taken away from him by having his parents killed at a young age—which would be the case for anyone. But because he had the means, he was able to rise up and take that power back as Batman, which I think lends to his confidence and leadership.

  • At June 22, 2006 3:25 PM, Blogger Tom Bondurant said…

    My own speculation about Kate Kane is that she's related to Martha (Kane) Wayne, and therefore Bruce's cousin somewhere down the line. That's definitely a new wrinkle in the Bat-clan's relationships, since Bruce is used to thinking of himself without any blood relatives.

    I have to agree too about the example Thomas Wayne set for Bruce. Both have been portrayed rather consistently as egalitarian, using the Wayne fortune for social justice and looking down on the "radical chic" elements of Gotham society who use causes to make themselves look better.

    Still, I can see where you're coming from, about just the unconscious mannerisms Bruce would have learned, especially from Alfred.

    I just can't picture Dick as a model, though, without thinking of Ronnie Raymond's cringe-inducing male-model phase....

    (word verification: "exshell," obviously as in "Exshellsior!")

  • At June 22, 2006 3:34 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    hunter: I understand now. Why I shouldn't reply to comments when half asleep. :-)

    I definitely think that Bruce's attitude isn't believing he has the right to top the hierarchy due to birth. I don't think Bruce himself is classist.

    I do think though that the particular etiquette structures he's grown up with make a useful tool in projecting his self-confidence. He's confident because of his ability, but the way he expresses that confidence is in, I think, what he learned growing up.

    Not to mention that someone poorer probably wouldn't have been able to afford Bruce's training initially. :-)

    matthew: that's an interesting thought.

    anonymous: I think that Bruce and Jason have a lot in common in temperament. More so than with Tim, but I think the expression of that temperament is affected by the circumstances of birth. Jason's had to fight and scrounge, Bruce's had to build himself up to be Batman, but he's always had his basic needs: food, shelter, clothing taken care of.

    100: :-) Yes, that's what I mean. You stated it much clearer than I did. Thanks!

    tom: I could see that, definitely. And it'll be fascinating to see how it plays out.

    And I definitely agree that Bruce is himself egalitarian, but there is a certain psychology behind philanthropy that can't be ignored. You are the giver, the others are the benefactor. It's not an equal exchange, so it does, subconsciously, add to the sense of social power.

    Not trying to say philanthropy's bad of course. Just that the element is possibly worth examining.

    And I can't really see Dick as a model either (yechh). It was more an example of how he's not really cast in a high society role though as Bruce's ward, he theoretically could be.

  • At June 22, 2006 6:27 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Gotta love institutionalized inequality. :-)

    Seriously I'm not trying to advocate (or attack) class systems in this post. It's just an analysis of how the phenomenon can be utilized in a narrative capacity.

  • At June 22, 2006 7:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Also i think that the batman/huntress relation is colored by the fact that apparently huntress was partially inspired to be a vigilante after seeing batman take down some of her mafia family members. in the batman/huntress: cry for blood miniseries from awhile back it's fairly explicitly stated that helena looks up to batman as some sort of wierd father figure type, and it seems like that would define their relationship as much or more than the class differences.

  • At June 22, 2006 7:54 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    :-) I'm not trying to say that the class difference is why things work out the way they do in the comics. Huntress has a lot more reason in her history and their dynamics than class difference.

    But it is interesting to consider it as a factor, adds another layer to an already complex relationship.

  • At June 23, 2006 12:07 AM, Blogger Derek said…

    Sorry to interrupt the discussion, but can someone please elaborate on "(That Birds of Prey scene is still the best ever!)"?

    I'm rather new to comics and since I've been wanting to pick up some of the Birds of Prey title anyway, I thought maybe the issue with "the best scene ever" would be a good one to start with.

  • At June 23, 2006 12:10 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Well, I always recommend starting at the beginning personally. Or at the OYL leap. Those are good starting places to work back from, but I'm a completist.

    As for the best scene, it's a confrontation between Barbara and Bruce, long overdue, and it's in 89 or 90, as I recall. I'm thinking 90.

  • At June 23, 2006 7:43 PM, Blogger notintheface said…

    I love your posts, including most of this one, but I had to take issue with your comment about Dick:

    "he still works a lot better as a police officer OR A MODEL than he would as a junior socialite."

    The police officer part I agree with. (See Dixon's NIGHTWING run for proof.) But Dick working well as a

    No. He. DOESN'T! (See current Bruce Jones run for proof.)

    During the Morrison run, it was suggested that Batman and Wonder Woman sometimes clashed because she represented royalty and he represented wealth. Then what does Superman represent? Celebrity?

  • At June 23, 2006 8:10 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    notintheface: I think it's possible, if taken seriously, to write Dick plausibly as a model.

    It's not *been* written plausibly. But I think it could be. :-)

  • At June 23, 2006 10:04 PM, Blogger notintheface said…

    I prefer the idea of him running his own security or private investigations firm (preferably security firm). Nothing too large; I don't want him to be too Bruce-like. It'd just be cool to see him as a leader in his CIVILIAN identity for a change.

  • At June 23, 2006 10:06 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Oh I definitely agree. I don't want to see him stay as he is now. Egads.

    I still liked the cop idea best though. :-)

  • At June 24, 2006 11:24 PM, Blogger Ragnell said…

    Weighing in, Superman is the "Self-made man" (yes, ironic, since he was born with his powers). He comes form humble beginnings and gains his status based only on hiw gods-given talents, he owes nothing to his parents beyond the gift of life and morality. In America, he's automatically respected more than the other two. Batman is respcted through fear, Diana through a strange sense of tradition and obligation, but Superman is the standard by which the average citizen measures him or herself.

    Wonder Woman's royalty, Batman's old money, Superman's new money. The Trinity of the Upper Class, which makes for class disputes all the way across the DCU.

  • At June 25, 2006 1:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Lovely analyses. It's not Marxist (except for people who yell "Marxism" at anyone who suggests class is real), but it reminds me of ideas from Bourdieu, who started out in anthropology --you're kinda talking about habitus, or class disposition. And the disposition of a phyisician from Thomas Wayne's generation would indeed assume ingrained deference and obedience (for their own safety) on the part of the objects of one's philanthropy/patients.

  • At June 25, 2006 1:33 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    ragnell: That's how I see it too. I've never understood the Batman-as-self-made-man thing, I mean, sure determination got him that far, but without the Wayne capital, where would the fighting training and the tech come from?

    Superman however might have the powers and the Fortress of Solitude, but he really is, in regular life, just a farm boy with a special talent that made it big. Definitely a difference.

    Josh: I don't think I've read Bordieu actually, or not for a couple of years. But you definitely get what I'm trying to get at. :-)

  • At July 04, 2006 2:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I just found this blog from the newsarama blog. This is a great post. I agree with the most recent anonymous post that this isn’t a Marxist read. I read this more as a discussion of the physicality of class/power. Sure there is much to discuss about the psychology of the Bat family, but what kalinara provides is a more material explanation of why Batman/Bruce Wayne works interpersonally. Sure he is the smartest guy in the room, but his self-confidence doesn’t provoke irritation from others (at least not primarily); it provokes awe. Batman/Bruce Wayne is dynamic. He won the birth lottery—he’s smart, handsome, and well-born. All of these factors contribute to way of handling himself in casual exchanges. Now when he really wants to turn it on and intimidate someone, he can simply amplify these ingrained traits.

  • At July 04, 2006 2:59 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    anon: Yep, that's exactly what I'm trying to argue! Though you say it much better/more efficiently!

    (I'm glad you like the blog!)


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