Or, On the Absent Girl Child at the Heart of The Dark Knight Rises. (or perhaps not).
This post will a) contain many spoilers for the most recent Batman movie and b) be of little or no interest to anyone who has not seen this movie.
At the end of The Dark Knight Rises my biggest question was not about, for example, Bruce Wayne’s ability to travel from Jodhpur to occupied Gotham without money, visas or any form of identification , or any of the other seeming plotholes that I’m sure are being discussed, dissected or retconned into making sense elsewhere. My question (and it’s one I posed to twitter as well) was – what happens to Gotham’s female orphans? I am making the assumption here that they don’t all become professional cat burglars.
In the movie, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Blake spends a great deal of his time at a home for orphaned boys. We later learn that he himself was a resident of this institution, and that it is partially funded by Bruce Wayne – to the extent that, when Wayne’s funding stops, some of the older boys are forced to leave.
So far as this goes, if it’s a bit Victorian-sounding it is also vaguely canonical. But St. Swithin’s is a home for “orphan boys”, not “orphans”. It’s possible that there are other orphanages in the city, funded by Wayne or others, and this just happens to be the one that’s relevant to the plot (except that Gotham isn’t a real city, and the bits of it that aren’t on the screen don’t exist). Wayne was orphaned as a boy as well, and the movie makes much of the connection that this gives him to other boys in this position – it’s a connection that helps young Blake to identify Wayne as Batman.
This group of boys is one of the early signs that Blake is the movie’s moral centre – almost the first thing we learn about him is that he volunteers at an orphanage. Towards the end he risks his life in an attempt to save them from the doomed city.
There’s at least one other prominent boy child in the film, and he is singing the national anthem before a football match in a scene that seems at least partly parodic (with overt patriotism I’m never quite sure).
The most important child in the film is its villain. In the mysterious foreign prison where he struggles to recover from his broken back and watches his city burn on the news, Wayne learns that only one other person has ever escaped from the pit – a child. It is partly because this story dovetails with rumours about Bane’s origins that we’ve already heard, partly because Bane has been set up as the antagonist of the film, that Wayne (with presumably most of the audience) does not stop to consider that “child” is a gender-neutral term and that no pronouns have been used.
I want to return for a moment to those orphans. I haven’t been able to find exact statistics on the sex-ratio of orphaned children in foster or group homes in America. I do remember a few years ago a spate of news stories in my own country that indicated that young boys were more likely to be adopted quickly than young girls. In an institution for “orphans” rather than “orphan boys”, it’s quite possible that the majority would be girls. (I suspect the racial distribution would also not map very well onto the sample of children that the film offers us).
I mentioned earlier that Blake is established as a kind of moral centre to the film. A running theme is his tussle with the ways in which the legal system works – quite understandable in a state where the draconian-sounding Harvey Dent Act is in play. Blake ranges himself in solidarity with other policemen during Bane’s uprising but there are moments, such as when he discovers the truth of Commissioner Gordon’s lie, when his faith is shaken. Gordon excuses himself by explaining that the rules and regulations which govern the police force feel like “shackles” (it can’t surprise anyone that the Batverse will generally fall on the side of vigilante justice, even when it examines* the massive potential flaws of such a system). At the end of the film, Blake throws his badge into the river. But what provokes this – was it the policeman whose ‘following orders’ prevented him from getting the orphaned boys out of the city, or was it the fact that Wayne appeared to have died largely unacknowledged by the city for which he had given his life? Asked about it shortly afterwards, Blake invokes Gordon’s “shackles” complaint. I’d suggest that both incidents had to do with it because they’re both largely inextricable – the unfairness of the justice system as experienced by Blake has been signalled earlier in the film by the police force’s misjudgement in targeting Batman during a police chase.
Although half the internet has already written about the politics of this film, I think it’s telling that we’re given to understand that the system is flawed by its unfair treatment of the genius legacy billionaire white guy. And so of course it’s important to make the most of his ‘similarity’ (apart from the obvious there really is none) with the boys of St. Swithin’s**; they are underdogs in this city and he is just like them.
But there’s something else going on here.
When Cotillard’s Miranda Tate stabs Wayne and reveals that she was the child who escaped the pit, it’s a revelation because nothing up to this point in the film has suggested that female children even exist (Selina Kyle has a canonical history with orphanages as well-the film chooses to omit any references to her character’s childhood).
At the end of the film, Wayne’s family home has been given over to an institution for orphaned children. Perhaps the Batman has learned that girls can be children too?
*I don’t think this film does.
**Potential school story title?