Vicki Vale would've gotten yelled at.
I still remember every detail of her first scene in Tim Burton’s Batman. Kim Basinger makes her entrance as Vale, in a bridal, off –the-shoulder white gown, stalking around Wayne Manor into a room devoted to exotic suits of armor, where she unknowingly encounters Bruce Wayne.
But now I know better: What self-respecting, award-winning photojournalist would head to the party of a confirmed recluse she’s interested in covering without knowing what he looks like?
Vale didn’t do her research before she attended his charity ball, so Wayne gets the drop on her with a two-way mirror in the hall of armor.
My editor would have screamed at me.
I’m an investigative reporter, writing about politics in New York City, and I’m unmarried and under thirty. So, basically, I’m the “intrepid girl reporter” you’ve been seeing in movies since at least the 1930s.
For many of my female reporter friends, our first exposure to a female reporter was on film. It was the only way, really, since you don’t meet Jane Pauley or Christiane Amanpour out on the street when you’re nine, in the same way you run into a doctor or a lawyer at a family dinner party (unless of course, you’re Olivia Wilde or some other scion of a great journalistic or literary family).
But we did have Batman, and Murphy Brown, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Smart little girls picked up on the fact that Penny and that dog were always doing the actual work for Inspector Gadget while he was busy ruining things. Somehow, he always ended up getting the credit.
In movies and on television, reporting is a glam job for both sexes (cf. Robert Redford, hair mussed, sleeves rolled up, in All the President’s Men).
But it’s a more noticeable trope for women. In movies they’re smart, they’re professional, they are wise-cracking, they’re good looking. To succeed, they have to be able to stick it to the man, whether it’s witty repartee or actually sticking it to someone, as in locking up a criminal. Female movie reporters don’t get into trouble for huffing paint or being faithless hussies. They get into trouble for boldly telling the truth.
Vicki Vale, who first appears in the 1948 Batman Comic “The Scoop of the Century!” was based on Superman’s intrepid reporter gal pal Lois Lane, who was, stick with me here, based on a movie character named Torchy Blane (no kidding), who is the star in a series of 1930s talkies about a wise-cracking, hustling, Jean-Harlow-esque girl reporter played by Glenda Farrell. One of the movies is named Smart Blonde. (Great stuff).
I first saw Batman when I was five. It’s one of my favorites. I’ve seen it dozens of times. I used to pop it into the VCR in the playroom while I situated my Barbies in the Barbie mansion. With a non-working cream-colored button dial phone, I reenacted the scene where Vale tells fellow reporter Knox to “find out what’s so special about the alley between Pearl and Philips streets.” At age six, the investigating wasn’t as fun as the pretending to have my own phone, but the idea of making important outcalls stuck.
You’ll recall the intrepid Vale heads to the alley after using a microfiche machine to determine the alley is the place where Bruce Wayne’s parents were brutally gunned down by the Joker. Microfiche is like early internet. I could not wait until I was old enough to go to the library to use the microfiche machine. And I badly wanted a pair of glasses like the big specs Vale dons when she’s doing serious work. I’ve got the glasses, a pair of Persol black frame lenses.
Sometimes the job has its own glamor. I do a lot of transcribing and reading budgets, but I also get to stand real close to the mayor of New York City sometimes and stick a recorder in people’s faces and I’ve got a press pass that theoretically allows me to cross police lines. (It doesn’t always work). I’ve even gotten ten feet from Justin Bieber. But so many things are different.
For one thing, if I end up looking glamorous, it’s on the cheap. In Vicki Vale’s opening scene, how can she, a photojournalist, afford the cream puff dress she wears to Bruce Wayne’s gambling charity ball? (Until recently I made so little as a news reporter that I still qualified for low-income housing. It’s not a growth industry.) Maybe she got it on consignment?
Also, crushingly, Batman is not real. I mean in the literal sense but also in the sense that in the movies, girl reporters almost always end up being saved by their male counterparts.
No one saves you in real life. If you miss your deadline, it is your own fault. If you write a story that’s wrong, it’s your byline, you’re the one getting sued for libel. If you get locked out of the press box in the state capitol after the building closes down, no one in a cape will break in so you can get all the stuff you left inside.
It’s not that some of the men you can encounter when you’re reporting won’t try to save you. Call me coarse, but they’re usually not doing it because they’re bona fide heroes. This is the flip side of the young unattached female reporter trope — that people sometimes assume you’re just waiting to fall in love with someone more powerful than you are.
It’s hard to overstate how verboten this is in an industry that requires you to be an unbiased conduit for important information. Don’t sleep with Batman. Don’t sleep with a source. It will pretty much always get you fired on the spot, unless you manage to fall in love with the editor of your own paper, a la Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post. The most succinct expression of the no-no-ness of this came from the former New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal: “I don't care if you fuck an elephant, just so long as you don't cover the circus.”
But that’s Vicki Vale’s biggest mistake, succumbing to the charms of her subject. If she had kept her guard up, maybe she’d have been able to hang onto the film she shot of Batman’s true identity, which she stored for safekeeping in her bosom. She lost the film, and her chance at a scoop, all for a tryst with the Caped Crusader.
The author with press pass