Hi Everybody! Derek here. Back in October 2017 I had the honor of being a guest lecturer at Moore College in Philadelphia for a rewatch and discussion panel of Batman the Animated Series (which ran from 1992 - 1995). My topic was to analyze the two part episode “The Demon’s Quest”. I examined the episode using the lens of Orientalism, which I talked about in Midnight Myth Episode 94B: Its Dull You Twit. Now, up on the website for your reading pleasure, is my lecture:
Hello and good afternoon. My name is Derek Jones and I’m excited be here at Moore College, speaking about Batman the Animated Series. Just to give you a little context as to who I am, I have a degree in history from Temple University, and I am the co-founder and co-host of the Midnight Myth Podcast, where our mission is to understand the historical and philosophical context of storytelling as it pertains to everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to modern Hollywood cinema. (And if you don’t mind a shameless plug, you should really listen to it on iTunes or Stitcher)
The subject of my lecture is going to center around a two part episode in season three, the Demon’s Quest, in which Batman is confronted with Ra’s Al Ghul’s twisted scheme involving kidnapping, false identities, wedding proposals, and let’s not forget, genocide on a mass scale. I intend to argue that the Demon’s Quest stands thematically apart from the series, in that it delves into the murky waters of orientalism. To really understand this, it is important that we dissect what the consistent themes of the series are, in order to highlight how these episodes stand apart, while juxtaposing the themes of the Demon’s Quest next to orientalism.
First, the show has one consistent thematic element— duality. Equal and opposite forces are constantly being placed against one another to highlight the moral sameness and otherness in each character, situation, person, monster, and criminal enterprise. Batman himself is a representation of two diametrically opposed selves- the crime fighting Batman vs the billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. Batman’s villains challenge and rival Batman’s crime fighting virtue, in the name of vengeance (such as Mr Freeze, who wants to avenge the death of his wife) or madness (such as the Joker who wishes to see nothing but the city burn while Batman watches). Gotham city is often portrayed as two cities, where the wealth and privilege of Bruce Wayne’s billionaire life sits adjacent to the dark underbelly of a city so corrupt it produces fiends and monsters such as Killer Croc and Scarecrow. Structural societal units, such as police forces and charitable organizations, are often counter-balanced with crime syndicates who rival (and often surpass) the police, while the site of charitable causes often become the scene of violence.
At first watch, the Demon’s Quest subverts this theme. Gotham city, and it's corrupt urban culture, is the prime catalyst for nearly every hero and villain in the show, save for Ra’s Al Ghul. Free from being formed via the city of Gotham, Ra’s is free from the standard Gotham-esk hero/villain paradigm every other character is trapped in. Consider that Ra’s Al Ghul knows Batman’s true identity and does not want to destroy Batman, rather marry his daughter to him so that Batman can be come his male heir. To orchestrate the marriage, Ra’s fakes a kidnapping of his daughter while kidnapping Robin, to test the detective prowess of Batman. When Batman quickly sees through the facade and solves the mystery, Ra’s is proud, realizing that his daughter’s love is well placed. Even Ra’s’ genocidal plan to kill millions of humans stands apart from the typical evil motivations of other Batman villains. Ra’s is not looking for wealth, power, or destruction for destruction’s sake. Rather, he wants to restore the natural balance of the world, upending the capitalist destruction of Earth’s ecosystem. His evil plot stems from a more noble motivation, aimed at preserving the planet from deforestation and global warming. In other words, Ra’s has a noble cause, with noble intentions, that leads to a mad solution.
So, in the Demon’s Quest, did the writers abandon duality completely? Well, no. If Batman and his allies and enemies where all formed by Gotham, what forms Ra’s? It is not an easy question to answer, as we learn he has had an unusually long life, due to regular baths in the mystical youth rejuvenating Lazarus pits (more on them later). Clearly, Ra’s is non-western in origin. His bases are in Calcutta, India, Malaysia, home of the Himalaya mountains, and lastly the Sahara desert in North Africa. In this way, Ra’s and his international criminal assassins guild, represent the non-Western side to the Batman. Ra’s is the oriental Batman.
Ok, let’s back up bit, and try to understand what is meant by the term “Orientalism”. Like in most social sciences, to understand Orientalism, we must first travel back to Ancient Greece and coining of the term “history”. In the 5th Century BCE, Ancient Greece was a collection of city states, Athens and Sparta being the two largest and most influential. Greece was not a nation at this time, rather a group of independent powers who mostly, spoke the same language. Across the Aegean Sea and to the north was the much larger and powerful Persian Empire. The Persians twice attempted to conquer Greece and twice they were repelled. The first invasion force was lead by the Emperor Darius. Darius’s son Xerxes tried to conquer Greece and he also failed. Both times the Greeks were out numbered, loosely united, and both times the Greeks won hard fought, but decisive victories against the foreign invaders. At this time people were not very big on writing down events that happened to record them unless they were triumphs. Since the Persians lost both wars, there is no Persian record of what happened. However, a Greek by the name of Herodotus thought it would be prudent to record the events of these two wars. He called them “The Histories” which in ancient Greek meant “The Inquires” and was the first person to treat the events of the past as a subject of investigation. History was born from Herodotus wanting to know why and what caused these wars. Prior to Herodotus, history was record via poetry and song meant to be recited and free from inquiry and investigation into causes and consequences. In his analysis of the Persian Wars, Herodotus coined a very interesting new word, “Barbarian” (“βάρβαρος” in Ancient Greek). There is a ton of scholarship around Herodotus’s Histories and summarily, the word Barbarian. The literal translation into English means, “foreign” or sometimes translated as “non-native speaking”. By casting the Persians as foreign, Herodotus links their non-Greek-ness to their defeat and the word Barbarian takes on a new meaning: savage, simple, and inferior. Herodotus’s characterization starts the demarcation of the “us” vs “them” and The Persian Wars, as he came to call them, as a war where civilization itself hung in the balance. In short, Herodotus was the first in a long line of intellectuals to create the western world via creating the non-west.
As we flash forward to the Modern era (the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries), the West carved vast sums of the planet into Empires under the mission to civilize the barbarians. Also, the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the early 20th Century, leaving a power vacuum in what we now call the Middle East. Out of the imperial Western system, Orientalism was born. Orientalism was one of the academic wings to Western Imperialism. Simply put, the Orientalist was a person who studied of the lands conquered— or was set to be conquered— by the French, British, Dutch, Germans, and so on. For a long time this school of thinking was considered to be the pinnacle scholarship around the Near East and the Far East. In 1978, at the tail end of the Western Imperial dominion over the planet, a scholar, historian, and awesome dude named Edward Said published “Orientalism”, a comprehensive work detailing the historical influence of power over scholarship designed to relegate the Orient as an inferior land of backwards people. Today, Said’s work turned the word Orient, Oriental, and Orientalism from standard day to day vernacular, to problematic and loaded deregulatory terms. Let’s look at a quote:
Said reminds us that the stereotypers implicitly benefit from the stereotype. That huge populations of human beings where placed into neatly contained ideological boxes, making conquest, in both literal and rhetorical forms, easier to morally accept. Said argued that the demarcation of West vs. East is imaginary, a collective correction imposed upon reality, and not a reflection of reality. Orientalism was not an honest academic study, it did not elevate dialogue around the complexities of the human condition. Rather, Orientalism served to benefit the Western collective academic discourse.
Where does this fit with Batman and Ra’s? When we first see Ra’s, he is dressed in dramatized clothing and wearing a mask that resembles the Egyptian god Anubis, signaling to the audience that he is both villain and foreign. He has a man servant, Ubu, who’s very presence displays Ra’s as a commander of powerful men who is respected in distinctly non-Western ways. Furthermore, Ra’s arranges all the events of the first episode to enforce his non-western patriarchal system, where Ra’s work with the League of Assassins can only continue if he marries his daughter, who is incapable of inheriting his property, to a worthy male.
Ra’s is everything Batman is and is not. They both are rich, powerful, able to operate outside and above social institutions while waging personal crusades on the evils they believe are corrupting society. Consider the effect of the Lazarus Pit. In the Gospel of John, Lazarus of Bethany is resurrected by Jesus Christ. The naming of Ra’s youth rejuvenating pit Lazarus, plays on the sacred role of resurrection in Western theology and turns it on its head by making it a tool of non-Western unnatural power. In order to villainize Ra’s, to keep him an opposite of Batman, to cue to the young audience that Ra’s is evil, he becomes Orientalized— corrupting the sanctity of Batman-ness into Batman’s Eastern rival.
So what does this all matter?
In truth, maybe it doesn’t. After all, this show was for children and who cares if the writers draw upon ancient cultural stereotypes to craft one of Batman’s rogues? After all, there are worse examples or Orientalism (looking at you Synder’s 300). I also love this two part episode, as it interwove Batman’s detective prowess with an Indian Jones style adventure. Ra’s Al Ghoul is a fully fleshed out, complex villain, running head first into Batman who Batman must defeat or suffer a genocide of biblical proportions. However, I would argue that examining the cultural biases, power relationships, and their historical significance is a worth while endeavor. Learning how we Westerners craft stereotypes around others tells us volumes of insights about ourselves. It forces us to confront our imperial history and challenges the racism implicit in the rhetoric of Orientalism. I believe that if a show such as Batman the Animated series can be guilty of an Orientalist ideology, then we all can be. Unchecked, unexamined, and undeterred, attitudes of Orientalism can lead us to a dangerous and dark place, such as the words of ex-President George W Bush:
And if you’d like to hear an oreinlatist attitude expressed less eloquently…
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