Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lesley Gore on Batman — or, It’s My Bat-Party and I’ll Be a Lesbian If I Want To

In the same way that The Simpsons made me vaguely aware of Eudora Welty years before I’d read her books, I first learned about Lesley Gore through The Simpsons. In that one episode where Marge goes on the lam Thelma & Louise-style, her friend Ruth accidentally plays Gore’s “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” when she means to put in the cassette of “Welcome to the Jungle.” The song stuck with me — as a kid, because I thought it was funny, and as I got older, I realized it’s relentlessly cheerful to the point that it’s probably compensating for some crippling emotional pain.

The despair. It overwhelms.

Anyway, when the golden age of music downloading struck during my freshman year of college, I downloaded this Lesley Gore song to satisfy some weird Simpsons completionist urge. It was only then that I realized that Gore was also the singer of that midcentury drama queen anthem, “It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry If I Want to).” But for my money, Gore’s best song is “California Nights,” a wistful little number doing various chaste things at the beach. Here, watch the video for it.

You may be wondering why Lesley Gore was dressed in a pink kitty cat costume. I know I was. It turns out this is actually a clip from the old Adam West Batman series, which Gore guested on for two episodes in order to debut “California Nights.” She played Pussycat, a Catwoman sidekick who turned to a life of crime when she felt her dreams of being a rock-and-roll singer would not come to pass. This was all news to me, and I thought I’d seen every episode of the old Batman series.

It doesn’t take long for Catwoman to explain her plan: Pussycat is to use her feline wiles to seduce Robin. I know, I know. Naming a seductress Pussycat is a little on the nose — on the genitals? — even for Batman, but the truly interesting bit here is how Batman mythos converge with Lesley Gore’s own life. You see, Gore revealed in 2005 that she had been in a relationship with a woman for decades. (And if she didn’t sing some variation of “It’s My Party and I’ll Come Out If I Want to,” then she really missed a great opportunity.) To me, Lesley Gore’s sexuality seems notable for two reasons.

For one, it allows for a much darker reading of “Sunshine, Rainbows and Lollipops” — “Downpours, Colorblindess and Medicated Cough Drops,” if you will. The lyrics explain that existence has become sunshine, lollipops and rainbows because the speaker is in love. Love, however, doesn’t necessarily result in happiness when you’re a closeted teen pop idol in 1963. I’d imagine that at some point Gore noticed the irony of standing onstage and literally singing the praises of love. (At some point, she probably also noticed the irony of Pussycat.)

Secondly, her brief stint as Pussycat, who only ever appeared on the TV show, foreshadows a sidekick Catwoman would eventually get in the comics twenty-four years later: Holly Robinson. She never wore anything as sidekick-y as Pussycat’s get-up, but Holly was Selina Kyle’s right-hand woman for years, and she actually became Catwoman herself when Selina retired in 2006. Holly eventually came out as a lesbian as well. That’s not to say that Holly’s sexuality has anything to do with Lesley Gore’s, but it just makes for a nice little parallel for these two sidekicks to Catwoman. DC Comics introduced Batwoman back in 1956 to help quell real-life rumors that Batman and Robin gay, so that’s why it was all the more symbolic that DC reintroduced Batwoman in 2006 as a lesbian character. In an inadvertent way, Holly as an openly lesbian Catwoman makes good on something that’s just under the surface at in a different Bat-time and a different Bat-place with a closeted woman playing Pussycat.

Circle achieved in full. Way to be, superhero lesbians.

Extra bits:
  • “Marge on the Lam” is also what taught me about Garrison Keillor, though I wouldn’t get the joke until years later, when I heard my first broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. “Oh, that’s what that one guy was.” This happens to me often, even today.
  • “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” debuted in the 1965 “beach party” movie Ski Party, which did, in fact, have beach scenes in spite of the snowy setting. The film starred Yvonne Craig, who in 1967 joined the cast of Batman as Batgirl. Additional circularity!
  • “It’s My Party” was Lesley Gore’s most famous song and also just one of those standards that everyone can at least hum the chorus to. But a lot of people don’t know that Gore later sang a “sequel” song, “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” in which the victimized narrator gets her revenge by kissing another boy and enraging the guy who left her in the first song, leaving Judy alone. Suck it, Judy. Why don’t more songs have sequels?
  • Gore also has a song titled “That’s the Way Boys Are,” and I kind of want there to be a response song along the lines of “Oh, How Would You Even Know, Lesley?”
  • While Holly Robinson was never Catgirl, Kitrina Falcone was, and her Catgirl outfit looks more or less like you’d imagine Pussycat’s, minus the camp.
  • Wikipedia’s page on homosexuality in the Batman franchise is more detailed than you might expect.
  • And, finally, you can watch the Batman episode, “That Darn Catwoman,” below.

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