How obsessed is too obsessed?
Andrew A. Smith
If you’ve ever wondered if Batman was certifiable in any way, you’re in luck: A clinical psychologist has written a book that addresses that very question.
What’s the Matter with Batman? An Unauthorized Look Under the Mask of the Caped Crusader is by Robin S. Rosenberg, PhD, a psychotherapist, textbook writer, book author, lecturer, and certified hypnotist. (No, I am not making that last one up.) She is also series editor of the “Superheroes” line at Oxford University Press, and editor of the anthologies The Psychology of Superheroes and The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – and a major Bat-fan.
I interviewed Rosenberg about the book, which examines whether Batman could be diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, clinical depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder. She also addresses Batman’s guilt and anger issues, workaholism, and occasional poor judgment (like adopting teenage boys to fight crime).
Obviously, I’m not going to spoil the book by revealing Rosenberg’s diagnoses and/or conclusions. But the interview ranged over a number of Bat-topics, and what she had to say was fascinating without (hopefully) too many spoilers. Here we go:
Captain Comics: There have been a lot of different takes on Batman in his 73 years, and you reference stories throughout the character’s print, TV, and films appearances. Are you analyzing a sort of amalgam Batman, or focusing on elements that are found in the current version, or what?
Robin Rosenberg: I focus on an amalgam. Basically what I was trying to do was find, in any version, enough symptoms of various disorders. Did any version have a disorder? Of course, I haven’t read every Batman story, not even close [but] there are stories that I think that make it really clear that he does have enough symptoms. That’s why I invite people to let me know about stories that they think show that he does have a given disorder. Then I’ll revise and make a second edition if that’s true. So it’s a collaborative effort.
CC: One point you make is that some of Batman’s behavior can be seen as an exaggeration of what is otherwise familiar behavior – workaholism, or wearing a different “mask” in different situations. He just takes it to a troubling extreme.
Rosenberg: Exactly. And I think that’s part of the appeal of the character, or characters in general, is that people do identify with these different aspects, that are just exaggerations of what we do all the time. And even with alter egos, the secret identities, we all are different people in different contexts if you want to frame it as that. Who we are with our boss is different than who we are with our parents, [or] who we are with our intimate partner. And different contexts allow different aspects of ourselves to come to the fore.
So for Batman, he may do what seem what seem like weird things, like wearing a costume, or spending a lot of money on his hobby. But we do the same things. We put on a costume when we put on a suit or whatever on Friday night, we spend money on our hobbies (some of us more than we should perhaps). And most of us try to do good in some way, and so like Batman we try to be social activists. He is exactly what you said: He’s an exaggeration of us.
CC: Speaking of masks, a popular debate fans have is to argue about who the “real” person is in a superhero book. That is to say, most agree that whether or not he’s wearing a suit, Superman is always Clark Kent – that Clark is the real person, but Superman is an act. On page 26, though, I get the idea that you feel that Batman’s core personality is neither Batman nor Bruce Wayne – that both of those personae are masks of a sort. Am I anywhere close to what you were saying?
Rosenberg: Another good question. Going back to what I said earlier, I think all of us have different alter egos. We’re a combination of different personality traits that come to the fore or recede depending on a goal, on the context, kinda the pack that we are with. Just as we are at heart one person, we can be different people with our parents or our intimate partner. We can feel like we’re different people in different contexts because we behave differently. As adults with our parents we tend to still feel like kids, and around kids we feel like an adult. I think he’s one person who has different facets in the same way we do.
But, having said that, I think the process of literally wearing a mask has some interesting effects. There has been some psychological research on wearing masks. … When people wear masks they tend to feel less like themselves, they tend to take more risks. They feel more anonymous, and so they might behave differently than … when they’re fully seen and recognized without a mask.
So for Batman and Spider-Man and other superheroes who wear a mask, they do this interesting thing that you really do feel less [like] yourself. I’ve interviewed cosplayers, you know, costume players at comics conventions, and talked to them about how it feels when they wear costumes that have a face mask, versus ones that don’t, and they reported a very similar experience, where they feel much more embodied in the character, when they’re wearing a face mask that people can’t identify them as themselves. They really become someone else socially, because no one knows who they are behind the mask.
I think, again, it’s part of the interesting thing where there are psychological underpinnings to superhero stories. So when Batman wears a mask there is a sense where he becomes someone else simply by virtue of wearing a mask and becoming anonymous.
CC: It’s kind of liberating.
Rosenberg: Exactly. People describe it that way. Liberating, and you can guess that makes Batman have to work a little harder about restraining himself, because when people wear a mask they describe feeling less inhibited. And so a powerful Batman who is uninhibited, it would be -- he would kill people. But because he has so much self-knowledge, and is so good at regulating himself in general, he’d be positive to work extra hard when he wears the mask. To make sure he didn’t hurt someone – to make sure he didn’t hurt them mortally.
CC: That raises a question about the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. In the first movie the idea is suggested that the bat mask is a sort of totem, that with it Bruce draws on the animal’s spirit, strength, and guidance, as many primitive societies believe. What’s your professional take on the mask as something other than just a scary disguise?
Rosenberg: I think partly it just depends on the wearer. … So if he chose the bat, it’s not simply a mask that he’s putting on, it’s a meaningful mask. It may be when he puts it on there is a totemic-like aspect wishing to imbue himself certain bat-like characteristics. I mean, if he were wearing a princess mask, he might feel a little differently!
If I ever had the opportunity to interview Christian Bale or Michael Keaton or any of the other Batman actors, I would be curious to hear about their experience in wearing the mask – again for the reason we just discussed, about the psychological effects of wearing a mask, of being hidden, of really being hidden. I wouldn’t rule out a totem connection.
CC: In the July issue of Entertainment Weekly Christian Bale says he plays Bruce Wayne as three people: “The public, vacuous billionaire. The private Bruce Wayne who is a child. And then the vengeful one who is a monster.” The monster, of course, is Batman. How does this play into your Bruce Wayne theories?
Rosenberg: I think for an actor, it makes sense that they need to think about the different alter egos of different roles. I think in our own lives, we don’t consciously assume a different role when we’re with our parents or with our children. We do it because the context of the situation, the cues in the environment, really pull it out of us. When we notice, when we’re in the hallway with our parents [and] we feel like a child, we wish it wasn’t so. But the power of the situation pulls it out of us.
For an actor, it has to be more consciously put on, because they don’t have a history with those same cues. So it makes sense to me that Christian Bale would describe them as different roles. But it’s not all the different from what we do. And, in fact, underneath all of those roles is still Christian Bale the actor, who in his different roles allows different parts of himself to come out. So Christian Bale, too, has his own personal alter egos. And my understanding from actors that I’ve talked to [is that] part of acting is letting different parts of yourself come to the fore in a role. So that’s also, sort of at a meta level, part of what he’s doing when he assumes the three roles, letting different aspects of himself out in those roles.
Which is why some actors may have too hard a time playing certain roles, because it’s so far from who they are. It’s harder to act a part that resonates with a role that’s really different. On the other hand, some actors provide amazing performances of a character who is so clearly different from themselves, because somehow they just access the elements needed to make that character work. But that’s a whole other digression. But that part must have been rattling around somewhere in side of them because so much of it is coming to the fore.
CC: Nolan seemed to channel some of that when he picked Bale. In that same Entertainment Weekly, he said “Bruce Wayne is such an extreme character. You needed someone who could project that quality. Christian Bale had that fire.”
Rosenberg: Exactly. The psychology of this is quite fascinating. I’ve been certified in hypnosis and I was involved in a research study looking at actors to see how hypnotizable they were. They were actually, I think, students. But the idea is that actors can disassociate well, that they can sorta go somewhere else in their heads, which most of them must do, in order to embody a role. Especially in … theater, you at least have continuity in the moment, from scene to scene and act to act. But in film and television, where you just cut you’re doing a scene an hour later in the film, you have to get yourself into that place really well.
To Be Continued!
Andrew “Captain Comics” Smith has been writing professionally about comics since 1992, and for Comics Buyer’s Guide since 2000.