Well, Bat-fans, we’ve come to the end of the six-part “Wounds of Discovery”, Jeremiah Lawson’s dazzling excavation of the inner life of Gotham’s criminal population. While there’s still much more to come, this marks the end of a significant chapter in our survey of the DC Animated Universe. As always, to begin at the beginning, go here. For the very beginning, here.
PART FOUR: THE WOUNDS OF DISCOVERY
6. The Prison of the Self
Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy. – Proverbs 14:10
Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief. – Proverbs 14:13
Clayface is not the only villain in Batman: The Animated Series whose path to corruption began with a battle against his own body. Indeed, the episode “Baby Doll” depicts a similar conflict, albeit one that many fans didn’t connect with, as the villain in question had a deliberately annoying voice and catchphrase. Yet Marion Dahl represents one of the more memorable original creations of Batman: The Animated Series–and for reasons that, at first, might suggest otherwise.
Yet no survey of Batman villains, at least those motivated by the “agony of loss or the madness of desire”, can afford to overlook her. If Clayface is driven by a desire to regain a body he lost, Baby Doll is his doppelganger, a woman doomed never to be able to gain the body she craves. Born with systemic hypoplasia, a rare condition that stunts growth, Marion Louise Dahl has spent her entire life looking like a toddler.
Baby Doll’s story comes later in the run of BTAS but evokes all of the darkness of earlier episodes. It is a character study of a woman who feels shut out by society and betrayed by biological realities she cannot change. She tries to adapt by playing a role that leaves her empty yet which is the only thing she knows to cling to. Anyone who has ever been frustrated by a disability, felt judged or ignored for not looking the “right” way, or simply betrayed by the weakness and limits of one’s own body will relate to Baby Doll’s story in a powerful way.
For years, Dahl found success as a “child star” in a TV show called Love That Baby, where she treated her co-stars and crew in a highly tyrannical fashion off-camera. Fed up with her insolence, a character introduced in the show’s twilight season (to combat flagging ratings), Cousin Spunky, shoves Baby Doll face first into her own birthday cake. Livid over being humiliated on her own show, Dahl quits and turns to more serious work. Of course, this being a Batman adventure, the transition to the big screen doesn’t quite work out. Roasted by the critics, she attempts to return to her old show, only to find that it’s been cancelled and the network will not take her back. Dahl, devastated that she lost the one thing she had built her life on, goes into hiding for years.
When she re-emerges Dahl has completely subsumed herself into the persona of Baby Doll, eager to kidnap all her old co-stars and compel them to continue the televised illusion she had built her whole life around. It may have been corny, it may have been poorly written, but Love That Baby was Marion Dahl’s life, and she has to get it back, even if it involves murder. When confronted by one of her former colleagues with accusations that she was insufferable on the set and canned her own show because she wasn’t getting enough attention, Baby Doll pleads, “But I knows now I made a boo-boo.” And then she breaks character, saying, “It was hard for me out there. I studied and trained and auditioned but no one wanted me.”
In a moment of narcissistic self-pity, Dahl makes plain her intention to remain Baby Doll foever, so that everyone will love her–before resuming character to kill the actor who played Cousin Spunky. But Cousin Spunky turns out to be Robin in disguise, and Batman soon arrives to take down Baby Doll and her minions. Baby Doll escapes to a nearby fairgrounds and hides among the children there. Batman, in hot pursuit, shrewdly jumps on top of a concession stand, and takes advantage of his legendary stature to attract the kids’ attention. They all flock to their hero, but revealing herself, Baby Doll flees to–what else?–a haunted house that leads into a hall of mirrors.
Batman calls out to her: “Don’t run away. I know you must be scared, confused. I can help you.” Doll ignores his entreaty and tries to shoot him but Batman knocks her down with his grappling gun. Trapped within her narcissism, literally and figuratively, Baby Doll becomes distracted by her appearance in the distorting mirrors and, finally, sees a reflection of herself that shows her who she wishes she was:
“Look. That’s me in there. The REAL me. There I am. But it’s not really real, is it? Just made up and pretend like my family and my life and everything else.”
Shaking with rage she turns toward Batman with her gun and asks, “Why couldn’t you just let me make-believe!?” In a darkened hall of mirrors, none of Marion Dahl’s shots ring true. She merely shoots until the only mirror left is the one reflecting who she wishes she was. Overcome with rage and grief, she shoots this mirror, too. She can no longer hide from herself, or use make-believe to hide from realizing she has gone her whole life feeling helplessly betrayed by a body she cannot change, a body that typecast her into a role that she now can no longer play. Batman won’t let her make-believe any more than he will let a man like the Mad Hatter change a woman into his living doll.
The smashed mirror is a symbolic suicide. Dahl finally realizes that what she thought was a vendetta against he co-stars was actually a death-wish. She drops her gun and turns to Batman, saying her worn out catchphrase but in her own voice, “I didn’t mean to.” It is no longer a justification for misdeeds; in this moment, her catchphrase serves as a desolate and ironic confession. She meant everything and only now realizes what that means.
All this time the Dark Knight has pursued her, not with a threat of violence but with an offer of help. Realizing that she cannot escape Batman or the truth about herself, Dahl surrenders. Batman says nothing, but he lets her embrace him in her misery and despair. Batman knows what it is to live between irrevocable loss and impossible desire. He knows what it is to live with nothing but helpless rage and grief. Intimate knowledge of his own wounds allows him to do more than simply fight the cruelty of others – it allows him to show them mercy.
Now up: Look out for the Joker in part 5 on “Cartoons and the Myth of Pure Evil”