Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lady Joker Week: Drag Clown

Hello, nurse.

The task of writing the Joker has changed hands dozens of times over the past seventy years, and with each new creative team comes a different take on the clown's characterization, even if that take is only slightly altered from its predecessor.  Since his creation, the Joker has been a murderous psychopath, a harmless prankster, and even a scowling, humorless villain.  But one thing about the Joker has always remained consistent: he has no respect for boundaries, be it for major legal restrictions such as murder and reckless endangerment, or for far more harmless activities such as ignoring culturally-based gender binaries.

The most well-known instance of the Joker's cross-dressing was provided in the 2008 film The Dark Knight, in which the Joker goes "in incognito" as a redheaded nurse in Gotham General Hospital:

Redefining "fire crotch."
Given that his choice of disguise would fool absolutely no one who stopped to take a closer look, and that in the mass panic to escape the hospital, the clown probably could have thrown on something that didn't require a wig and a mask to complete the ensemble, it's pretty clear that the Joker decided to play nurse simply because he wanted to - and dressing in drag to visit the man with a deceased fiance was probably just the icing on the cake.  The movie, unlike so many others featuring drag, thankfully did not point to the cross-dressing as if to say "Do you see how messed up this character is?  He's in a dress!  That's messed up!," but rather let the Joker's manipulative actions speak for his character, and let the costume simply speak to his sense of style and humor.  The look was iconic that "Nurse Joker" later had a cameo in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows:

Yes, I know.  That's the joke.
The Joker's cross-dressing moments are usually introduced as a paper-thin disguise that nonetheless manages to fool those around him - though this is the universe in which a pair of glasses keep people from recognizing Superman - until he dramatically reveals his true identity.  Another example of these questionable disguises is shown in Batman: The Brave and the Bold, when the Joker infiltrates a group of Amazonian warriors:

Well, that's subtle.
Perhaps the most infamous example of the Joker cross-dressing, however, is an instance that never came to fruition, and one used entirely to violate social norms rather than conceal an identity.  In Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, the story's portrayal of Batman was intended to critique the 80s' tendency to portray the hero as a violent near-psychopath by painting the Bat as a repressed, neurotic, and sexually frustrated mess.  And what better way to do that than by dressing the Joker up as Madonna?

As Grant Morrison explained in the 15th anniversary annotated script: "...The powers that be didn't go for my take on the Joker's fashion sense.  The original first draft is quoted as: "The main doors of the Asylum are open and the Joker stands on the threshold, posed enticingly, like a calendar cutie.  He is dressed as "Madonna," in a black basque, seamed tights and lace-up stiletto boots (From "Open Your Heart" video)...Pale and emaciated, he should look simply grotesque but standing there, hand on out-thrust hip, he projects an absolute confidence that confers upon him a bizarre kind of attractiveness and sexuality.  It is the attraction of the perverse and the forbidden.  The Joker personifies the irrational dark side of us all."  He appears as 'Madonna' in yet another allusion to our recurring ('Mother') theme.  Also, and more simply, because she has become an instantly recognizable cultural icon of the type which the Joker loves to mock."

The idea was nixed - likewise, the suggestion that the Joker have a beard to symbolize "vagina dentata" never went through - but that didn't stop the clown from crossing as many lines as possible while dressed in traditionally male clothing.

"Loosen up, tight ass!"

What struck me, however, when compiling images for this page, was that the Joker cross-dresses far less frequently than I remembered him doing.  I could only find a handful of images when I seemed to recall many more.  A bit of Googling revealed the reason for my confusion: I was thinking it was the Joker and the Joker only with a non-traditional fashion sense in the Bat-universe, but he's far from the only one.  Harley has appeared in drag:

Where do they even make wigs like that?
The Riddler has tried on Catwoman's clothing:

This is why you never leave your luggage unattended.
The Scarecrow sews dresses for girls he abducts:

That sure looks practical for a life of crime.
 But cross-dressing is - thankfully - far from an activity that only villains engage in.  The Robins, in particular, have a history of gender-bending disguises, be it Dick Grayson:

Robin, the granddaughter Alfred never had.
Putting on a mustache is not a disguise, Bruce.
Here comes the bride!
Or Tim Drake:

Alfred has had way too much practice at this.
Even Bruce Wayne has been known to slip on a dress to fight crime:

I question your choice in wigs, Bruce.
After all, if you're going to be Batman, you had better look impeccable:

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