Batman and Robin: Attachment Theory In Action
Batman and Robin have been a dynamic duo since 1940, when the character of Robin was first introduced (Artifice, n.d.). Historically, four main characters have taken on the role of Batman's partner in the fight against crime: Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, Jason Todd, and Damien Wayne. Each has had challenges to overcome and has struggled with building a healthy relationship with the hero due to tragic pasts and personal obstacles. As a result, each character created a different type of attachment with Batman.
As noted in the textbook, Essentials of Life-Span Development, attachment is "a close emotional bond between two people." Relationships play a key role in healthy human development and influence multiple aspects of the individual's life. A person's style of attachment can help predict their likelihood to develop healthy relationships and help identify obstacles they will have to overcome to achieve this outcome. Placed against a backdrop of fighting villains in bizarre contexts, readers can clearly see representations of the styles of attachment, and different ways to overcome the challenges of each attachment style in Batman's sidekick partners.
What is Attachment Theory?
The idea of attachment theory was introduced by John Bowlby in 1969. This theory discusses the bonds of attachment that form between children and primary caregivers and suggests that these early interactions will influence relationships later in life (Maltese et al, 2017). This theory has aided in the discussion of what creates positive human relationships and the identification of barriers to positive relationships.
Attachment theory was further developed by Mary Ainsworth in 1979 when she developed a method called the strange situation to assess the attachment relationship between infants and their caregivers. This social experiment involved observing how infants reacted after being separated from caregivers and their responses when caregivers returned. The two broad categories of attachment she helped identify are secure, and insecure. A secure relationship in infancy is when the child sees the caregiver as a safe base that he can come back to as he explores new environments (Santrock, 2016). For example, Bruce Wayne, as a young child, had parents who consistently supported him, loved him, and met his needs. Even though he lost his parents at a young age, the strong relationship he had with them helps him to develop close relationships later in life.
Upbringing and childhood relationships will influence later relationships. If a child has consistent care and help, that child is more likely to have positive secure relationships in adulthood. Having secure attachments in childhood increases the likelihood of having secure attachments in relationships as an adult. But insecure attachments in childhood do not mean that a person cannot develop secure relationships later in life (Santrock, 2016).
What are the Styles of Attachment?
In adulthood, attachment styles are broken down into 3 main categories: secure, anxious, and avoidant (Santrock, 2016). Firestone (2013) described a 4th category of attachment known as anxious avoidant. Individuals who fall into this category exhibit characteristics of both the avoidant and fearful categories (Firestone, 2013). Understanding these attachment styles can help in the identification of obstacles to developing positive relationships.
Secure Attachment: Nightwing and Red Robin
When people have a secure attachment style in relationships, they tend to have positive relationships and romantic relationships do not cause them excessive stress. These individuals are able to develop close friendships and tend to experience sexual intimacy in committed relationships (Santrock, 2016).
Dick Grayson was the first Robin. Dick Grayson had loving parents who cared for him and made sure his needs as a child were consistently met, resulting in a secure relationship with his parents (Bosmans et al., 2020). After the tragic death of Dick's parents, Batman takes Dick in, and Dick assumes the identity of Robin. Batman supports Robin, trains him, and the two develop a strong and trusting relationship. This positive relationship continues for Dick after he leaves the role of Robin behind to become Nightwing (The Artifice, n.d.). He is shown to have strong relationships with his friends, such as the Teen Titans, and maintains a loyalty to Batman that continues as they assume a different partner relationship (see animated films Under the Red Hood, The Judas Contract, and Hush).
Tim Drake, who was the third individual to assume the role of Robin, also came from a loving home with both parents. Tim comes to Batman when Batman is without a partner and insists the Dark Knight needs a Robin to give him hope. Tim comes in to his partnership with Batman from a place of strength and is shown to have positive friendships with other superheroes. He shows himself to be a leader and someone with whom Batman develops a strong sense of trust. In newer versions of the comics, Tim later assumes the role of Red Robin, helping Batman in more of a partnership rather than sidekick role (Batman Wiki Fandom, n.d.).
Similar examples of the secure attachment style abound in every day life, as well. A woman has parents who love and care about her. She is supported in navigating new relationships with her parents and home as a safe place to retreat back to when she feels uncomfortable, unsure, or is experiencing a conflict in her relationships. When she gets married, she is able to more easily develop a healthy and secure relationship with her spouse. While a secure attachment allows the individual to feel resilient and strong they still experience life struggles but with a firm foundation in their support system, and their identity.
Anxious Attachment: The Red Hood
Those who develop an anxious attachment style crave close relationships but have difficulty developing trust (Santrock, 2016). This is related to having inconsistent responses from caregivers in childhood. Sometimes needs are met and sometimes they are not, causing children with this attachment style to desperately seek attention (Bosman et al., 2020). In adulthood, those with an anxious attachment style tend to be drama-oriented and need constant reassurance of love and acceptance (Ni, 2016).
After Dick Grayson assumed the role of Nightwing, Batman began to train a second Robin: Jason Todd. Jason had a different background than Dick. Batman's first interaction with Jason is when he catches the boy trying to steal the tires off the batmobile. Jason's father is not in the picture and his supposed mother was a drug addict who dies from an overdose. Jason's story is riddled with betrayal and inconsistent relationships.
In the Death in the Family story arc, Jason discovers that the woman who raised him is not his biological mother. He locates his real mother and the two are happily reunited, but she then hands him over to the Joker. Jason dies in an explosion, after receiving a brutal beating at the hands of the Joker, with Batman arriving too late to save him. His character is later resurrected, but comes out the other side feeling hurt and betrayed. Batman has replaced him with another Robin, and the Joker is still alive (Batman Wiki Fandom, n.d.).
Jason, in a twisted way, wants Batman to prove his acceptance of him as a son and a partner. In the animated film, Under the Red Hood, Jason creates a dramatic scenario where Batman has to choose to either kill the Joker or kill Jason, with Jason stating "It's him or me." Batman manages to find a different answer, but creates a situation where he has to choose to save the Joker or save Jason. He chooses Jason in a heartbeat. This indicates that Jason does have people who care deeply for him, but that he will need to overcome his sense that Batman betrayed him by letting the Joker live.
Developing positive relationships with an anxious attachment style involves learning to trust other people. This takes time, and it helps to be surrounded by people who are consistent and loving. Those with an anxious attachment style also tend to experience emotional turmoil and overthink situations. It can be helpful for them to practice techniques that help with moving on and not stressing over minute interactions. Participating in cognitive behavioral, dialectical behavioral, or acceptance and commitment therapy can allow for the practice and development of some of these coping strategies, which may include:
Those with an anxious attachment style can focus on developing relationships with people who have a secure attachment style and practice showing emotional vulnerability. Jason, to his credit, does grow close to those who have a secure attachment style. He becomes confident in his own ability and starts to move past how he believes people have wronged him.
Avoidant Attachment: Damien Wayne
Those who have an avoidant attachment style tend to distance themselves from close relationships (Santrock, 2016). They tend to act like they don't care and give off a sense of not needing anyone (Firestone, 2013). It is suggested that this attachment style develops in children whose needs are not met or who experience a negative response when they seek help from a caregiver. This could be in situations of abuse or in situations where parents are distant (Bosman et al., 2020).
Damien Wayne was first introduced as Robin in 2009 (The Artifice, n.d.) In the animated film, Son of Batman, Damien is shown to have a mother and grandfather who both push him to become highly self-reliant. While both show pride in Damien's birthright to become the next leader of the League of Assassins, they do not show him love. Damien tends to go off on his own and doesn't want to work with others (see animated film The Judas Contract). Batman is revealed to be Damien's biological father and gives Damien both love and boundaries that he has not experienced before (see animated films Son of Batman & Batman vs. Robin).
Developing positive relationships with an avoidant attachment style can be time consuming. The core idea comes back to learning how to trust people after previous violations of trust. Part of this involves finding people worthy of trust: people who are consistent and love you. For their part, the Teen Titans, Nightwing, and Batman are trustworthy people that Damien learns to count on over time as they work together to overcome obstacles. Damien begins to develop positive relationships with characters like Nightwing and the other Teen Titans. Damien also grows to love his father, someone who is there for him, unlike his distant and manipulative mother (see animated films Bad Blood & Justice League vs. Teen Titans).
Participating in cognitive behavioral, dialectical behavioral, or acceptance and commitment therapy can allow for the practice and development of some of these coping strategies, which may include:
Note: Those in religious communities such as the Christian community are often able to find help in trusting people due to their beliefs about God. God, in the Christian faith, is constant and His love is not based on performance. Christians see God as someone they can always count on, even when people fail them. This secure base acts for them as a launch point for developing secure relationships with other people.
Hope for these characters?
Jason has experienced betrayal and inconsistency by those closest to him. Damien has been surrounded by people who didn't love or care about him. These obstacles have made it much harder for them to develop positive relationships. As noted previously, while secure early attachment relationships increase the likelihood of secure relationships later in life, it is possible to develop secure relationships even after extremely difficult events, such as abuse.
It could be argued that Batman is one character who has helped each Robin develop secure relationships. In some way, he has been a father figure and a mentor to each Robin. Both Jason and Damien do begin to work through their attachment styles to make friends and other lasting relationships. They learn to trust other people again because of characters like Batman doing their best to be consistent while also doing their own work on themselves.
Jason, in more recent versions of the comic books has been able to develop a stronger sense of family connection and begins to see the other Robins as his brothers. His sense of abandonment by both his mother and by Batman are slowly overcome with the help of consistent friendships and love from other people. Damien has seen a similar transformation, with Batman showing more love for him than he was previously shown by his mother or grandfather. He also learns to become part of team by joining the Teen Titans. Over time, he learns to rely on other people and show moments of vulnerability, rather than avoid difficult conversations. Both of these heroes indicate the hope and growth that is possible in relationships.
Nightwing and Red Robin give examples of the secure attachment style and how this transitions into creating good relationships. Jason Todd and Damien Wayne's stories show that insecure attachment styles can be overcome, but that this process takes time. They facilitate the discussion of attachment theory, what helps create positive relationships, how to move on from the pain of the past, and the kind of help that is needed for this to happen. We are all in need of a strong support system, whether that is a masked Dark Knight, or a group of heroes (Teen Titans) along with doing our own individual work to identify those relationships that are positive, energizing, and healing in our lives while improving those relationships that could be.
Original Artwork by the Author: Jessica Norris
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