Batman: "Nora Clavicle" ...or Why Feminism Will Kill Us All

Welcome back to “Failing the Test of Time”, an irregular feature at HNTP where we relive classic TV episodes that haven’t aged all that  well.

Batman: "Nora Clavicle" ...or Why Feminism Will Kill Us All

Batman premiered on ABC in January of 1966, 50 years ago this week, and it was an instant, massive success for the network. Sure, the show was a pretty silly, campy take on the Batman character, but anyone familiar with DC’s Silver Age knows the show wasn’t a whole lot goofier than what was going on in the comics at the time.

Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story! Though everyone wishes it was.

Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story! Though everyone wishes it was.

Batman initially aired twice a week—with the first airing ending with a now-legendary plea to tune in the “same bat-time, same bat-channel” the following night—and pulled off a rare feat when both installments placed in the top 10 Nielsen ratings for the 1965-1966 season. The success of the show kicked off Batmania, with huge quantities of Batman-related merchandise suddenly appearing on (and flying off) store shelves, including some rather… questionable product lines.

Okay, even setting aside the phallic placement of the trigger, no one saw anything wrong with a water pistol that requires kids to give Batman an enema?

Okay, even setting aside the phallic placement of the trigger, no one saw anything wrong with a water pistol that requires kids to give Batman an enema?

Unfortunately, Batmania was a fad that burnt out pretty quickly. Ratings dropped off significantly in the show’s second season, and by the third season, Batman saw its budget severely slashed, and the show was reduced to airing once a week. This was a huge creative blow, in that the writers were now left with a meager half-hour to introduce the episode’s celebrity villain, establish his or her evil plot, have them capture Batman and Robin and lock them up in some sort of ludicrous deathtrap, have Batman and Robin escape from said deathtrap, and then finally get around to the big finale “Bam!-Pow!” Bat-fight to wrap things up. Essentially, they were taking the same hour-long formula of the first two seasons and trying to cram it all into a half hour, which turned out to be a recipe for mediocrity.

The 19th episode of the third season, “Nora Clavicle and the Ladies’ Crime Club”, is a pretty good example of how far the show had fallen in terms of quality, and is generally considered one of the series’ worst episodes. Not only is it a god-awful story cheaply told, but it’s full of all kinds of lazy stereotypes about women in the workplace that would have come off as dated in the ‘50s, let alone in 1968 when women’s lib was just gaining steam.

It’s sort of like Oprah’s Book Club, only with slightly more armed robbery.

It’s sort of like Oprah’s Book Club, only with slightly more armed robbery.

We begin at a banquet dinner, where our friendly omniscient narrator informs us that Commissioner Gordon is being honored for “25 years of faithful service”. And somehow, Batman and Robin haven’t been invited to this dinner, even though Gordon’s entire job at this point consists of picking up a phone and calling Batman whenever there’s trouble.

In their place, we have Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, and then Chief O’Hara drunkenly sings “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and calls for a toast, and everyone lifts their glasses of champagne, except for Dick, who as America’s oldest teenager is only allowed a champagne glass full of milk.

And then right after this, Burt Ward went out and banged three groupies at the same time.

And then right after this, Burt Ward went out and banged three groupies at the same time.

Also at the dinner is Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara Gordon, AKA Batgirl, played by Yvonne Craig, a new character added to the show in season three as a Poochie-like attempt to drum up ratings. They even added Batgirl to the cartoon Bat-fight in the opening credits, accompanied by a sound effect balloon that comes off a little different  in retrospect.

Well, at least we know what the writers were hitting every night.

Well, at least we know what the writers were hitting every night.

They’re all waiting for Mayor Linseed, and when he finally shows up, he’s standing in the entranceway with his wife, and they’re silently bickering. Linseed eventually steps up to the podium to present Gordon with a gold watch. And then, while his wife looks on sternly, he announces that he’s discharging Commissioner Gordon, and the new police commissioner will be a woman named Nora Clavicle.

Nora Clavicle enters, dressed in her supervillain costume consisting of a fur collar coat and leather gloves, while flanked by two busty henchwomen dressed like Greek goddesses. And I know what you’re thinking: Who? Thankfully, Bruce is here to enlighten us. “The famous Nora Clavicle!” Ah, yes, of course. How could we forget?

Mrs. Howell was Batman’s most terrifying nemesis.

Mrs. Howell was Batman’s most terrifying nemesis.

Actually, it would appear that Clavicle is some sort of militant feminist, because one of her goddesses is pounding away on a drum that reads “Woman Power”, and Nora tells the room that she wants to carry on her “crusade for women’s rights” by proving that “women can run Gotham City better than men!” Her first act as commissioner is to appoint a new police chief, and O’Hara looks flabbergasted as Clavicle names Mrs. Linseed, the mayor’s wife, to replace him.

Cut to the banquet hall in the aftermath, with all the men looking dejected. Mayor Linseed explains he had to do it, because his wife is a follower of Nora Clavicle, and “she refused to cook or clean or wash my shirts” until he appointed Clavicle as commissioner. “I haven’t had a decent meal in months!” Uh… dude, you realize you’re the mayor, right? You seriously can’t find anybody else to cook and clean for you? And shouldn’t the mayor of Gotham City have a staff to take care of those things anyway?

We now find Nora Clavicle having gotten herself all settled into Commissioner Gordon’s office, and she calls up Batman and Robin on the red Batphone, and informs them their services are no longer required. Clavicle says the police “won’t need any help from you men, Bat- or otherwise,” and instead of just hanging up, she uses a big pair of scissors to cut the phone line.

More and more people are cutting the cord these days.

More and more people are cutting the cord these days.

Over in the Batcave, Batman finds this whole affair “curious”, so Robin yells out the memorable line, “Well, we’re dressed for investigating… let’s investigate!” Batman says there’s really nothing to investigate, but then decides a moment later that aimlessly cruising around in the Batmobile might be a good idea, after all. And it seems Batgirl is having the exact same idea, as she walks into her “secret closet” and gets on her frilly pink motorcycle, creatively called the “Batgirl-cycle”, to go riding around the city to scope things out as well.

If this motorcycle were any more girly, it would have a period.

If this motorcycle were any more girly, it would have a period.

In Commissioner Clavicle’s office, she’s congratulating Mrs. Linseed, now Chief Linseed, on her inspired idea to fire every man on the police force and replace them with women. As soon as she’s gone, Clavicle tells her goddesses to proceed with “Operation: Ransack” while she proceeds with “Operation: Disaster Insurance”, and I proceed with Operation: Watching Total Nonsense.

Her goddesses point out that Batgirl is helping out Batman and Robin, and they might actually be a threat with a woman on their side. But Clavicle already has a trap in mind to get rid of all three of them.

And that trap involves having her goddesses go down to the Gotham City National Bank and hold up a teller. The bank manager notices the robbery going on, and he runs over to a police officer who just happens to be standing around inside the bank. Thanks to Linseed’s new hiring practices, it’s a female police officer, and it looks like the new Gotham City police uniform consists of a miniskirt, as well as a… rolling pin. Because, you see, women like to cook. Oh, but it gets better: She’s completely oblivious to the bank robbery because she’s too busy applying lipstick.

This is outrageous! O’Hara always had his officers go for the natural look.

This is outrageous! O’Hara always had his officers go for the natural look.

Cut to two more policewomen outside, and they’re so engrossed in swapping recipes that they don’t notice the robbers leaving with big sacks of money. The bank manager then goes over to another female cop standing around outside, and tells her to chase after the robbers. But she refuses to run in her “new Givenchy shoes”.  He then goes to a call box to contact the police, but the female dispatcher is too busy telling all her officers about sales at local department stores to pay any attention to the call.

So, yeah, basically a tsunami of unfunny and shamelessly sexist clichés. It would almost be excusable if Clavicle mentioned she was deliberately hiring incompetent women to be police officers to make it easier for her to pull off her evil scheme, but nope. The whole point of this scene, and probably the entire episode, is that women are just too obsessed with makeup, clothes, and cooking to ever hold down important jobs.

Batman and Robin are listening in on the police radio as the dispatcher prattles on about clearance sales. Finally, she mentions in passing that a bank was robbed, and they go check it out with Batgirl following right behind them.

Over at the bank, the robbers are long gone, so they decide to use the “portable Bat-computer” in the trunk of the Batmobile to look for clues. In some random way or another (and I’m actually explaining it far better than the episode), this leads them to the warehouse of “Dropstich & Co.”, which sells “fine knitting needles”. Batman and Robin and Batgirl enter, but soon Nora Clavicle ambushes them, and holds a knitting needle to Batgirl’s neck. Robin yells out, “Holy knit one purl two!” Wow. That is some deep inside knitting humor.

Clavicle threatens to puncture Batgirl’s jugular unless they surrender, and then tells her goddesses to tie the three of them up into “Siamese human knots!” A moment later, Batman, Robin, and Batgirl have their arms and legs all twisted together. Yes, this is our amazing, elaborate villain trap of the week. In a huge comedown from the giant set pieces of the earlier seasons, all they could manage this time around is having the actors sit on the floor and wrap their arms and legs around each other and call it a “human knot”. It’s a pretty sad and pathetic trap, though still quite memorable, for all the wrong reasons.

Well, the kids of 1968 had to learn about kink some sort of way.

Well, the kids of 1968 had to learn about kink some sort of way.

Nora Clavicle tells them the “slightest move” will only “draw the knot tighter, crush your bones, strangle you!” Batman says, “This is torture… that is most bizarre and terrible,” and I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Before Nora leaves, she explains her plan, which is to destroy all of Gotham City, and then cash in on a ten million dollar insurance policy. Yes, Nora, a private citizen until very recently, was somehow able to take out an insurance policy on an entire city, and now she’s going to destroy Gotham to cash in, because there’s no way the sole beneficiary of such a policy would ever be the prime suspect. Having explained her evil scheme, she and her goddesses head outside to unpack crates full of wind-up toy mice that are supposedly loaded with explosives. They set them free and they all scurry into various corners of the city to explode at the appointed time.

There’s a quick scene where Gordon and O’Hara stand in the unemployment line, lamenting the fact that they won’t be able to find other jobs because, as O’Hara puts it, “we’ve been policemen almost all of our lives! We don’t know how to do anything else!” Frankly, based on what I’ve seen on this show, I’m not even sure they know how to be policemen.

We return to the warehouse, where Batman figures out that all he has to do is wiggle his ears under his cowl, while Robin wriggles the fourth finger on his right hand, and that will set them free. “It’s the basic formula for escaping from a Siamese human knot,” Batman says, and it’s all just so hopelessly halfhearted. Though I do have to say this entire stupid scene is almost redeemed by the amazing faces that Batgirl is making the whole time.

Just where is Robin’s fourth finger right now, exactly?

Just where is Robin’s fourth finger right now, exactly?

They then spot one of the mechanical mice, as well as two lady police officers who have climbed up on a light post. Because, as everyone knows, all women are terrified of mice and will jump up on the nearest chair/table/elevated structure at the first sign of one. Usually this show was pretty clever when it came to its more adult-oriented humor, but “women get scared easily” is literally the only joke here, and adding insult to stupidity is that these aren’t even real mice.

Chicks love to get on the pole, am I right, fellas?

Chicks love to get on the pole, am I right, fellas?

Batman picks up the mouse and opens it up and sees explosives inside, and somehow knows they’re all set to go off after sunset. Batgirl says they can’t round them all up in time, so Batman tells Robin to call Chief Linseed to mobilize her entire police force. Alas, Linseed is also freaking out about the mice and standing on her desk, and she eventually faints. From seeing mice. That aren’t real. Batgirl responds to this with, “I might have known you can’t get police women to help you catch mice!” Et tu, Batgirl?

Batman finally comes up with a solution, and he brings out three plastic recorders. He plays a tune on one, which the mechanical mice respond to. He then tells Robin and Batgirl to play the same tune and go through town and lure all the mechanical mice along behind them and they’ll meet up at the docks. Robin starts to question this strategy, but Batman tells him, “Just play, Robin. Play for all you’re worth!”

And so, the whole pied piper scheme works as expected, as the three heroes make their way through the city while being followed by mice. Soon, they’re “dockside”, which is clearly just a soundstage, and this scene plays out in front of a cheap backdrop that looks like it was borrowed from a local high school play.

Thank goodness there was a production of Our Town happening next door!

Thank goodness there was a production of Our Town happening next door!

They’re being followed by rows and rows of mechanical mice, which dutifully follow our heroes and soon go tumbling off the “docks” into the “water”.

I’m guessing Walt Disney staged this mass suicide, too.

I’m guessing Walt Disney staged this mass suicide, too.

Our heroes look pleased until they see one stubborn mouse left. So Batman gets down on the ground and plays to the one mouse until it finally offs itself and jumps in the water too.

At last, Batman explains that this worked due to “the guidance systems in the mice” which use “high-frequency radar”, and all he had to do was pick “the right combination of flute toots” to activate their homing systems. Batgirl says the three turned out to be “the Pied Pipers of Gotham City!” No shit, Barbara. I think everybody got that reference like 15 minutes ago.

And then a truck gets backed onto the soundstage, where Alfred is holding Nora and her Goddesses at… umbrella point. Jim Gordon and O’Hara jump out and say they defeated them and took them into custody, which all happened off-screen. Which makes this one of the few episodes of Batman that couldn’t even be bothered to give us a big Bat-fight to close out the episode. Admittedly, I doubt anyone wanted to see Batman punch a middle-aged woman in the face, but they could have found ways around that, like having the lady police officers take her down instead, in a rare show of competence.

Hooray! Feminism has been defeated!

Hooray! Feminism has been defeated!

Clavicle complains that Gordon and O’Hara have no authority to arrest her, but O’Hara calls this a “citizen’s arrest, me fine feathered females!” And then Robin quips that Clavicle should have bought some “prison insurance” instead, and Gordon adds she should have gotten a “long term policy, with Warden Crichton as the beneficiary!” I have no idea what these guys are on about, so I’ll just assume their firings were followed by several rounds of heavy drinking.

And just like that, all the men have their jobs back. In Gordon’s office, Chief O’Hara refers to Nora as “Nora Clavichord” and wonders if they’ll have a “breather” now. Gordon replies, “Oh, unless we get some disturbing phone call, Chief O’Hara!” And of course, they immediately get a call from Burgess Meredith as the Penguin to set up next week’s episode where they’ll have to deal with “lethal Lygerian fruit flies,” and Gordon quickly justifies his rehiring by running right to the red phone to call up Batman, and that’s the end.

I’m sure some will argue that this episode wasn’t actually sexist, and was merely attempting to make fun of sexist attitudes, but that’s a stretch. It mostly just comes off as bunch of out of touch men taking cheap pot shots at feminism and women’s lib. And while that adds an unpleasant layer to the proceedings, what really sinks this episode is the halfhearted feel of the whole thing, especially in how our big action climax is Batman playing the flute. The show had pretty much run out of steam at this point, so it’s not a big surprise that Batman’s cancellation was announced not long after this episode aired.

Tag: FAILING THE TEST OF TIME

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  • “and is generally considered one of the series’ worst episodes.” — Someone is keeping track? Also, who designed Batgirl’s motorcycle? Georgia O’Keefe?

  • Deneb T. Hall

    While I would certainly agree that it’s not one of the series’ better episodes, I think you’re perhaps being a touch hard on it. I mean, a large basis for the show’s humor is the use of ancient-even-then stereotypes being used in a ridiculously straight-faced manner. Look at the Chief Screaming Chicken episode, where the first word Batman says to him is ‘how’, followed by ‘what’ and ‘when’. Look at all the foreign dignitaries dressed up in turbans and robes; look at the three-part episode set in Britain where the entire point of everything is basically having people say things like ‘pip pip’,’blimey’ and ‘guv’nor’ as much as they possibly can. For that matter, look at the character of Shame. He’s a modern-day cowboy who still uses six-shooters, goes ‘yeehaw’ and dresses in buckskins – he’s a ridiculous stereotype, but that’s the point. And just as Shame is a stereotypical cowboy, so is Nora Clavicle a stereotypical ‘women’s libber’. Therefore, of COURSE the ancient sexist stereotypes come out in full force – that’s what the series DID; it took whatever issue or theme it was currently tackling and dealt with it in as unsubtle a manner as possible. It went over-the-top with everything, so it seems a trifle pointless to go after it for basically just doing what it did, especially given that the ‘women’s lib’ business was still fairly new at the time (or seen as such, anyway), and NOBODY was really sure what to make of it. (I will agree with you, though, that the lacy frills on the ‘Batgirlcycle’ are pretty silly-looking.)

  • I’m sure it was long before your time, but the aggreived wife going after the husband w/ a rolling pin, billy club style, is probably what was being referred here. See “Bringing up Father”, w/ Maggie & Jiggs.