The Man Behind the Mask: Batman as a Symbol of Masculinity in the 1980s

By Emily ChamblissHumanities, Cycle 11, 2023

Bruce Wayne, alongside his vigilante alter-ego Batman, is arguably one of the most popular fictional characters of all time, particularly among young men. Warner Brothers reported that 65% of ticket sales for the 2022 film “The Batman” were male (McClintock). The character is also largely marketed toward male children with programs like “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Justice League Unlimited,” and “Batwheels.” Professor of Psychology at Whitworth University Justin F. Martin states that superheroes have significant influence in children’s development of moral values. Young men all over the world see Batman as an ideal man and look up to him as an example of what a hero and a man should be. How DC Comics chooses to portray a character like Batman has a considerable impact on how young men grow up believing a man should act. DC Comics has used this power to construct a hyper-masculine archetype out of Batman/Bruce Wayne through his appearance, aggression, perception of danger, emotional indifference, treatment of loved ones, and the contrast of a hyperfeminine adversary. This portrayal of the character is a clear reflection of the hegemonic masculinity valued by society, particularly in the 1980s, when Batman comics were exceedingly popular. Five of the ten highest rated Batman comics were published in this decade and still have a considerable impact on how the character is written today.   

Hypermasculinity can be defined as the “exaggerated stereotypical masculine behavior or traits” (Encyclopedia Britannica). In his article “Modern Men: Men’s Studies in the 1980s,” author Eugene August identified six central hyper-masculine traits: exaggerated and unrealistic physical appearance, aggression, the view of violence and danger as manly, emotional indifference, poor relationships with loved ones, and an aversion toward displays of femininity. I conducted a thematic content analysis across a selection of top rated and most valuable Batman comic issues from 1980 to 1989 in search of hypermasculine themes.  

There have been several iterations of the ideal male body throughout history. In the 1980s, this ideal was defined by broad shoulders, muscular biceps, thighs, and abdominal region, and a pronounced adonis belt (Kanani). A male body that fits these standards is positively associated with strength and heightened masculinity, which often equates to enhanced social standing (Kowal and Sorokowski). Most of the art depicting Bruce Wayne during this time period fit these standards.  

Throughout comic history, Bruce Wayne and Batman are characterized as two separate entities. Different artists and authors have had different visions for Bruce Wayne and Batman throughout their long life. Nevertheless, even among different iterations, Bruce Wayne/Batman consistently display hyper-masculine traits. In many issues, Bruce Wayne pretends to be an airheaded and promiscuous billionaire to keep him and Batman separate. The Bruce Wayne that Gotham knows is charming and ignorant, and these character traits imply to the citizens of Gotham that he is not capable of hiding in the shadows as Batman. Bruce Wayne is also often portrayed as a smart businessman, a traditionally male-dominated career path. He believes himself to be more intelligent than those around him and always one step ahead of everyone else. He often looks down on others as naïve. The practice of legitimizing male dominance in society, or hegemonic masculinity, is rooted in the belief that women and nonconforming males are subordinate to the intelligent, capable, and attractive man (Donaldson). In “Batman: Year One” (1988) published by Frank Miller, Bruce Wayne is able to use his extensive wealth to fund his journey around the world to master every form of martial arts in preparation for his fight against crime (Miller). Bruce Wayne’s wealth, personality, and power have allowed Batman to be successful in the goals he tries to accomplish. The emphasis of these traits shows that they are valuable and reinforces the idea that men must be attractive, highly intelligent, self-confident, and successful to be considered “worthy” (Donaldson).  

After witnessing the deaths of his parents, Bruce Wayne swore vengeance against criminals. He believes society is capable of justice and that he can “save” Gotham. He became Batman later in his life as a way to take matters into his own hands. Batman has always been considered a fairly violent character, but Frank Miller’S “The Dark Knight Returns” (1986) is one of the most graphic.  It follows an older Batman who brutally assaults the criminals he fights, as well as the allies that get in his way, and leaves each fight bloodier than the last. There is a societal connection between “proving manhood” and committing acts of violence. Engaging in violent acts is a method of asserting toughness and dominance, and the failure to participate in them often results in emasculation (Miedzian). Bruce Wayne choses to turn his grief into anger, and thus physical violence. The existence of Batman as a vigilante reinforces this relationship between masculinity and aggression. 

Bruce Wayne is notorious for emotional repression. He is typically characterized as angsty and brooding; he is quiet and reserved and his facial expressions are generally indifferent even in the most emotionally taxing moments. He is rarely able to maintain long-term relationships and is often at odds with his allies. One of the most tumultuous personal relationships Bruce maintains is his relationship with his adoptive son Richard “Dick” Grayson, the first character to appear as Robin. It is evident that he loves his son, but he does not outwardly express this. Bruce Wayne provides for him and trains him to be a hero, but rarely states that he loves him or is proud of him. In Len Wein’s “The Untold Legend of the Batman” (1980), it is revealed that Bruce Wayne becomes Dick Grayson’s legal guardian because he sees himself in him, a child who just lost their parents and is seeking vengeance. The two form a close bond training and fighting crime together, but never acknowledge this verbally. They each confide in Wayne’s butler Alfred about their fond feelings toward one another, but fail to communicate with each other. Affectionate communication and displays within male relationships are fairly uncommon. Men often choose to show their love for another man in a covert manner due to the complexity and connotation surrounding male-male displays of affection. They are wary that the intended meaning behind the affection will be misinterpreted as feminine or homosexual and undermine their masculinity (Morman and Floyd). In Max Allan Collins’ “Batman Vol. 1 (#408)” (1987), Dick Grayson is shot by the Joker and believed to be dead by the Gotham media. Although he is not dead, Bruce Wayne forces Dick Grayson to retire as Robin because he believes it to be too dangerous. He fires him harshly, telling him to take it “like a man” rather than expressing his true concerns. Dick Grayson reacts poorly to being fired.  Bruce almost immediately hires another young boy to be Robin afterward, which causes additional tension and strain on their relationship that is still present in the current comic continuity.  

A similar circumstance occurs with Batman’s second Robin, Jason Todd. After he fired Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne swore he would not endanger another child sidekick. Despite this, he quickly adopts a young Jason Todd and spends months training him to replace Grayson. In Max Allan Collins’ “Batman Vol. 1 (#410)” (1987), Wayne claims he is protecting Jason from a harder life of living on the streets by teaching him to defend himself. He was successful in shielding Jason from serious injury until Jim Starlin’s “Batman: A Death in the Family” (1988). Their previously close relationship becomes strained when Jason Todd’s grief for his deceased parents turns into excessive violence against criminals. Bruce Wayne benches Jason to give him some time to mourn. Jason does not take this well and storms out of Wayne Manor. The Joker takes advantage of this tension and murders Jason Todd a few issues later, before Batman can save him (Starlin). The lack of effective communication between father and son is an indirect cause of Jason Todd’s death. Even after Todd’s resurrection in 2005, his and Bruce Wayne’s relationship has never been the same, becoming violent and more complex. In the Scott Lobdell’s “Red Hood in the Outlaws #25” (2018), Jason gets into a physical altercation with Bruce after Jason kills a criminal, something Bruce is vehemently against. Wayne tells Jason that he “was a fool for ever believing in [Jason],” to which Jason replies that Bruce  “is a character,” and that he has “never seen [Bruce] hit Joker that hard,” even though Wayne hates the Joker. Wayne responds by hitting him again. Wayne often expresses his emotions toward his sons with physical violence. In Marv Wolfman’s “The New Titans #55,” (988), Dick Grayson confronts Bruce Wayne about Jason’s death. Both men are grieving, but rather than having a conversation, Wayne punches Grayson, blames him for Todd’s death, and kicks him out of Wayne Manor. The strained relationships Bruce Wayne has with his sons reinforce the idea that displays of emotion and affection are not “manly” and therefore should not be shown. Media largely influences the construction of gender ideals in youth, and the consumption of media that glorifies unhealthy father-son relationships are detrimental to a child’s perception of masculinity (Remmo). Bruce Wayne’s strained relationships teach Batman’s young audiences that this is how a man interacts with the world: violently and without emotional vulnerability.  

Batman’s most infamous adversary is the Joker. The Joker is responsible for the death of Wayne in some comic continuities, paralyzed Bruce Wayne’s love interests in “Batman: The Killing Joke” (1988), and killed Jason Todd’s Robin in “Batman: A Death in the Family” (1988). The Joker is described by many scholars as feminine or queer coded. He presents stereotypically feminine traits that have historically been used to reinforce his status as a villain. He wears makeup, a feminine signifier, dresses in elaborate outfits, and makes romantic or sexual comments and advances toward Batman during confrontations. In her article “Queering the Clown Prince of Crime: A Look at Queer Stereotypes as Signifiers in DC Comics’ The Joker,” Zina Hutton states that the Joker is written with “coding that has created an implied and monstrous queer identit.” In “Batman: The Killing Joke,” Batman uses the Joker’s one-sided perception of their close personal relationship as an interrogation method. He harshly dismisses the emotional displays of vulnerability the Joker makes (Moore). The Joker is presented as a “queer threat”. This is linked with the fear of Batman being perceived as gay. DC Comics does not want to compromise the character’s relatability or have a hyper-masculine character “turn” on their loyal audience and destroy their ideal male fantasy (Hutton). In Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth” (1989), the Joker is especially flamboyant, which mimics the way queer men are commonly stereotyped in media. When Batman confronts the Joker in this issue, he calls him a “filthy degenerate” after the Joker grabs his rear end and tells him to “loosen up, tight ass!” Bruce Wayne does not react that harshly when approached sexually by women villains. He is angered because the Joker, a man, is the one to do it. He is a hyper-masculine, heterosexual man who reacts badly to the existence of queerness. Homophobia and the dominance of heterosexuality are the “bedrock” of hegemonic masculinity (Donaldson). Women are sexual objects for men but men cannot morally be sexual objects for other men. Batman is strict heterosexuality personified, and he is the hero. He is the character we are supposed to look up to. The Joker is the villain, and the character we are supposed to detest. Without fail, Batman always beats the Joker. Masculinity and heterosexuality beats femininity and homosexuality. Masculinity is the “right” and femininity is the “wrong.” 

Batman comics were largely lighthearted until the 1970s. The stories of this time period established the character as the dark and terrifying presence he is associated with today. Batman writers of the 1980s such as Grant Morrison and Frank Miller strengthened this reputation with their publications. During this time, DC Comics portrayed Bruce Wayne as a hyper-masculine ideal through his appearance, aggression, emotional repression, and the distinction of his character from those that are displayed as hyperfeminine. Masculinity is “naturalized in the form of the hero and presented through forms that revolve around heroes” (Connell). The hyper-masculine characteristics present in Batman comics reflect and reinforce the masculine societal values of this time period and preserve these values in future generations. Traces of 1980s Batman have persisted through decades into the current comic continuity. In comics as recent as “Batman (2016) #134” and “Nightwing (2016) #100,” both published in 2023, Batman is violently combative and emotionally restrained, as inspired from the 1980s comics(Taylor and Zdarsky). Batman’s characterization in the 1980s has influenced the gender ideals of Batman readers for over forty years, sowing books with hyper-masculine themes. 



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Emily Chambliss