In this post, I want to open up a discussion about psychoanalysis in relation to Batman: The Animated Series, and how it can be applied to the show. I am going to talk about the psyche and dreams, making reference to the work of Sigmund Freud’s, The Interpretation of Dreams, as well as Pamela Thurschwell’s Sigmund Freud, and other texts in this field.
By looking at the dual identity of Bruce Wayne/Batman, I aim to argue that Batman: The Animated Series can be deconstructed and re-read – not as a form of entertainment, but as a study of dreams. I believe that each episode of the show can be read as a single dream, with the characters and situations being part of the dream construct.
In this reading of the series, Gotham City is nothing more than a dream world created by Bruce Wayne. Each episode of Batman: The Animated Series is one of Bruce’s dreams, which is being retold to a psychoanalyst in the external world.
If you are a fan of Batman: The Animated Series, and you know the show intimately, by the end of this post I want you to rethink the way you view it. I want you to think of the series not as an adventure tale, but rather as a collection of dreams that are being recounted to a psychoanalyst (and to the audience).
Although I believe this approach can be applied to every episode of the show, for this discussion I am going to focus specifically on six episodes: The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne, P.O.V., The Forgotten, Dreams in Darkness, Perchance to Dream and Trial to explain my thought process. I believe these to be the ‘key dreams’ of the series and ones which help to define my ‘read’.
Now, before I begin my discussion on Batman: The Animated Series, I must first discuss the work of Freud and psychoanalysis, to help create some context.
Chapter One: Psychoanalysis: Freud, the psyche and dreams
What is psychoanalysis?
The study of psychoanalysis can be viewed as a way to understand our experiences and their meanings. Psychoanalysis is a study in which a person’s thoughts and feelings are analysed, to get a clearer picture of their motives.
To understand a person, we must also understand the psyche. The psyche is composed of three parts: The Id, the Ego, and the Super-Ego. Here’s a brief explanation:
The Id is the part of the psyche that wants instant satisfaction. As Pamela Thurschwell notes in her book, Sigmund Freud (2000), “when the child is born it is a mass of Id, amorphous unstructured set of desires; the demand ‘I want’ is the sum total of its mind’s contents.”
The Ego attempts to control the Id, to suppress it. It does this while protecting itself from an existence centred on urges and desires.
The third part of the psyche is the Super-Ego, which acts as an authority over the Id and the Ego. The Super-Ego acts as a control – an internal system that judges the actions within the psyche.
For the purpose of my discussion on Batman: The Animated Series, think of Bruce Wayne as the Id, Batman as the Ego, and Gotham City as the Super-Ego.
OK, so that’s the psyche – now let’s look at dreams.
In Sigmund Freud’s book, The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud explores how the psyche can be read through the hidden meanings and symbolism of an individual’s dreams. Freud notes, the dreams of an individual “always borrow their raw materials either from what has appeared before us in the world of the senses or from what has somehow already found a place in our waking thoughts – in other words, from what we have already experienced, outwardly or inwardly.”
The role of the dream is to create a realm in which the experiences and fantasies of the day or of the past, can play out, creating a dream world for the mind while the body rests. Anything from the waking world can enter the internal dream space and the ultimate goal within the dream is fulfilment of a wish, which stems from the Id’s repression in childhood.
The dream offers a place where the Id potentially could be satisfied, while keeping the dreamer from waking up. So, the Ego and the Super-Ego use the dream to offer the possibility of satisfaction through an incoherent and distorted reflection of reality.
Freud describes the different meanings of dreams as manifesting in four ways:
The first manifestation
The first manifestation is as “a recent and psychically significant experience which is represented directly in the dream.” As dreams mostly reflect issues left over from the previous day, these thoughts transpire in the dream world.
The second manifestation
The second manifestation of a dream can be from recent experiences, combined into an image within the dream. This could appear as the presence of the patient’s psychoanalyst from the external world, who re-emerges within the dream.
The third manifestion
The third manifestation of a dream stems from something significant appearing as something of little importance. This can be a dream in which an issue that is of vital importance externally, is exposed as being unimportant internally.
The fourth manifestation
Finally, the fourth way in which a dream can manifest is triggered by a memory, which can be represented as Freud explains, “by reference to a recent but trivial impression.”
Reordering dreams – secondary revision
In order to understand dreams, they need to be rearranged so they have some structure. A dream is not dreamt logically, so for a psychoanalyst to help their patient, the dream must be sorted into some semblance of order before the meaning of the dream can be reached.
This reconstruction of a dream is called secondary revision, and is helpful to understand the incoherence of the dream as a whole. Once this revision has taken place, the psychoanalyst will work through the dream and find the significance in the actions, situations and images within.
Through re-ordering, the psychoanalyst can look at the way in which different ideas appear through one image and the way in which one thing can come to represent something entirely different. An individual can represent themselves directly within a dream, or they can appear under another form.
Understanding dreams leads to the patient discovering much more about themselves – their fantasies, fears, anxieties, obsessions and so on. Now let’s look at how this can be applied to Batman.
Chapter Two: Establishing the Gotham dream world
After witnessing the death of his parents at an early age, Bruce Wayne made a vow to rid Gotham City of all forms of cruelty and corruption. Taking on the guise of Batman, Wayne became the city’s defender, saving countless citizens from the villains and criminals that lurk in the shadows.
This is how we generally understand the Batman backstory. But what if Batman, Robin, Gotham City and everything in between was just a construct in the mind of Bruce Wayne?
What if Bruce Wayne grew up traumatised by the death of his parents, then conjured up Batman and Gotham City in his dreams? Within this dreamscape, objects take on meanings, as do villains, locations, and situations.
Let me give you a few examples, explaining how I see objects, people and places, as symbols in what I believe could be a dream world.
Re-watch Batman: The Animated Series – specifically the early parts – and tell me how many times you see a rose. I can tell you now, it is a lot. But why?
Well, I don’t see the rose as just a flower – I believe that in Bruce’s dream world the rose represents his parents. The rose appears in Bruce’s dreams, as a way for Bruce to keep his parents near, even when his dreams do not concern them directly.
As Batman: The Animated Series progresses, watch as the rose begins to disappear from the dreams. To me, this is when Bruce is giving more and more of himself over to Batman, and losing sight of his parents in the process.
I believe that every villain that appears in Bruce’s dreams is either an extension of Bruce or they represent his emotions. As Freud explains, “where a strange figure, not my self, appears in the dream-content, I can assume without hesitation that my self is concealed behind that figure.”
Villains such as Mad Hatter, Harley Quinn, Baby Doll and the Joker are all connected to Bruce’s childhood (they are the books he read, the toys he played with etc). While a villain like Mr. Freeze, represents survivor guilt – guilt over an unwanted ‘immortality’ when he lived and his parents died.
The asylum is a place created by Bruce to put all his unwanted thoughts that he is unable to resolve in the dream world. When Bruce’s emotions become too much for him, or he simply cannot see a solution to a problem, he places them within Arkham Asylum.
Arkham reflects the dark shadowy corners of Gotham. It becomes a key location for a number of dreams, and ultimately helps him resolve his problems.
A way for Bruce to cope with the increasing onslaught of emotions is through the creation of a surrogate family, who offer reassurance and guidance. Bruce creates a family for both of his personas (one for himself and one for Batman).
Each member of family represents something missing from Bruce’s life, so Alfred becomes a father figure, Dick Grayson becomes Bruce’s lost childhood and so on.
Reading the dream
I believe the heroes, villains, locations and even objects of Bruce’s dreams exist for different reasons, but collectively they help him explore issues of guilt and sadness. In his dreams, Bruce can reconnect with his parents, explore friendships and conflicts, and live out a new life.
Now using this approach to the psyche, to dreams, characters and situations let’s break down some of the dreams which occur in Batman: The Animated Series.
Chapter Three: The dream journey in Batman: The Animated Series
As a reminder, I want you to forget the idea of ‘episodes’ and think of each story in Batman: The Animated Series as a dream. A dream which Bruce has discussed with a psychoanalyst, and through secondary revision, the audience is now seeing the events played out in a linear fashion.
I am using six different examples to show how I am approaching these dreams.
The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne
In The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne, Bruce comes into conflict with Dr. Hugo Strange – a doctor who almost exposes Bruce’s secret identity. The dream sees Strange attempt to unlock the secrets of Bruce’s mind, and this includes snapshots of Bruce’s childhood trauma.
So, what does all this mean?
The images and situations seen in this dream demonstrate that Bruce’s feelings of failure manifested from an early age. He has issues with abandonment and guilt concerning the death of his parents, and he has continually tried to suppress these issues.
Bruce’s guilt over being a child and unable to prevent the tragedy that claimed his parents, led to the emergence of the Batman personality – a personality that became so strong it took control of his dreams.
As Steve Pilen describes in The Body and the City, Psychoanalysis, Spectatorship and Culture, “the effect of repression is to produce an internal splitting of the mind into a conscious and unconscious. The unconscious is not static, but has its own dynamics. Most importantly, while the unconscious does not determine what goes on in the mind, it continually seeks to find expression by fighting a kind of Guerrilla war with the conscious: this is vividly experienced in dreams.”
This dream makes it clear that Bruce has developed two personalities within the dream space. Bruce has become the Id, while Batman is the Ego – at times the more dominant personality.
And as the more dominant personality, Batman took over Bruce’s dreams and created a new reality in order to control the Id. This new reality took the shape of Gotham City and represents the Super-Ego.
In P.O.V., Batman is buried alive and presumed dead, temporarily removing him from Gotham. Without Batman, the city is under threat and law and order is at risk.
So, what is this dream all about?
The root of this dream lies behind the mysterious name, Doc Hathcock which is mentioned frequently throughout the dream. I believe Doc Hathcock is a manifestation of Bruce’s psychoanalyst, who has come from the external world into the dream world.
With the psychoanalyst factoring so prominently in this dream, the Batman personality is somewhat subdued, which is why Batman barely appears. This dream is about Bruce considering what has been discussed in his sessions with his psychoanalyst, then using this to sift through the truths and lies surrounding the Batman personality.
And although not directly connected, I believe the events of this dream, spill into Bruce’s next dream, The Forgotten. When the psychoanalyst managed to manifest in Bruce’s dream, it caused a division in Bruce’s mind, leading him to forget both of his personas.
In The Forgotten, Gotham citizens begin to go missing from the homeless shelter known as the Dock Street Rescue Mission. Bruce investigates, but loses his memory in the process.
So, what is this dream about?
I believe the missing citizens represent Bruce’s dream world slowly starting to fall apart. ‘Dock Street’ is a holdover of the doctor/psychoanalyst from the previous dream (Dock = Doctor).
The psychoanalyst’s work at deconstructing Bruce’s dreams caused massive disruption to the dream world. As a result, Bruce spends the majority of this dream unsure who he is (not recognising himself as either Bruce or Batman).
Dreams in Darkness
In Dreams in Darkness, Batman is committed to Arkham Asylum as a patient. The dream sees him bound in a straight jacket and temporarily subdued.
I believe the Bruce/Batman conflict in this dream is once again the result of external sessions with his psychoanalyst. In this dream, the psychoanalyst takes on the guise of Dr. Bartholomew.
This dream is about the continual struggle between Bruce and Batman. Bruce attempts to wrestle control from Batman, even going so far as making Batman relive his childhood trauma.
Perchance to Dream
In Perchance to Dream, Bruce discovers the Batcave is sealed, Robin doesn’t exist, he is no longer Batman, and most important of all, the Waynes are alive. But even though the events of this dream are what Bruce wants, he finds it hard to accept, feeling like he is “living someone else’s life.”
This dream represents Bruce being given the chance to have his wish fulfilled – to have his parents returned to him. The theme of the dream is what Freud calls “recurrent”, which is a dream “first dreamed in childhood, which repeatedly reappears from time to time in the sleep of the adult.”
I believe this dream is a result of Bruce standing up to Batman in Dreams in Darkness. With the Id becoming dominant over the Ego, Bruce is able to move into the wish fulfilment stage of his dream world.
But this creates an imbalance. Without the self-preservation instinct that is supplied by the Ego, the Id becomes increasingly unsure of this new world and comes to realise that achieving the wish might not be a good thing.
As Ian Craib notes in Psychoanalysis, A Critical Introduction (2001), it is “too dangerous for the dreamer to dream the straightforward fulfilment of the wish or he or she would wake up.”
Bruce understands that having his wish fulfilled will end the dream. The only way to keep the dream going is to reject the wish fulfilment and let the Ego take back control.
He does this by exposing this dream as pure fantasy – a scheme dreamt up by the Mad Hatter. With the Mad Hatter taking the blame, Batman can resume control and Bruce eliminates the wish fulfilment.
Bruce is temporarily giving up his parents in this dream, so that he can bring them back again in a future dream. Although they will not manifest in his dreams in the same way as they did here, they can still return.
In Trial, Batman has to face a jury composed of his most fearsome villains. As the trial gets underway, the villains provide an account of why Batman is to blame for their existence.
I read this whole scenario as Bruce’s way of testing Batman in the dream world. He is trying to break him down and expose any weakness, by pitting him against his greatest foes.
In this dream, Bruce comes to accept that he can trust Batman. He also realises that without Batman, Bruce would no longer have Gotham, and would no longer have a way to revisit his parents.
What do the dreams tell us?
Ok, so what do these six dreams tell us?
The dreams tell us that the world Bruce has created has allowed him to establish a new life, and to have his parents nearby. The dreams also tell us that early on, the emergence of the Batman personality caused Bruce to feel as though his life had become an empty shell, controlled by Batman.
His sessions with a psychoanalyst allowed the external world to invade his dream world, and this caused tensions with Batman. But by working through this, and understanding Batman’s role in his psyche, Bruce was able to see Batman (and Gotham City) as necessary for his happiness.
But do you agree with any of this? Am I simply making connections that aren’t here? Can the whole series really be read as a collection of dreams?
I believe it can – but do you? Let me know your thoughts.
Whether you agree with my suggested ‘reading’ of Batman: The Animated Series or not, I hope this discussion has given you something to think about, and perhaps has given you a new way to approach the show.
If you want to simply watch Batman: The Animated Series and enjoy it the way you always have, as a piece of pure escapism, then please do. However, I hope this discussion has made you consider an alternative way to view the show. Maybe there is a lot of hidden meaning in this cartoon?
Feel free to go back through the series, and approach each episode as a dream. Think about what that dream is trying to say and what it could really mean to Bruce and his ongoing journey. Then come back and tell me if you agree/disagree with my analysis.
Thank you for taking the time to read this lengthy post about psychoanalysis and Batman: The Animated Series. Should you want to spend more time reading about Batman, please take a look around I’ll Get Drive-Thru or alternatively, check out one of the recommended reads below.