This essay was written a couple of years ago for a university class of mine, and I figured I’d share it. [Please note that this essay will only discuss Season 1, as it was written before Season 2 was released.]
Batwoman Breaking Through: A Personal Essay about Gender Roles and Sexuality
Superhero shows are always high in demand and popularity, and nowadays, it seems more and more keep popping out of the woodwork. Another fairly recent television series by the CW is Batwoman, which started this past September 2019. The lead of the show is obvious, Batwoman, otherwise known as Kate Kane, is a lesbian woman who is just trying to make her mark as a vigilante. This show, with its female lead and mostly female cast, is notoriously feminist and focused on gender and sexuality issues within society. The question here is, how far does Batwoman Season 1 go to try and separate itself from the canon beliefs of society? Using readings from Michel Foucault, Homi K. Bhabha, and Judith Butler, I will analyse the issues of gender and sexuality, as well as dive into the theories of “Otherness” and the use of isolation and discipline within this season to get a better understanding of how this show defines itself. However, I must first acknowledge that there is a personal aspect and bias in this essay, as I have made discoveries with my own sexuality, and I feel inspired by the strong female role who is not afraid to be herself. This representation is a big thing for me, and for others as well. Batwoman Season 1 is a stepping stone in bettering the ever-evolving human society by challenging and redefining beliefs.
A way of doing this first begins with the human brain and psyche. In his book, Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes a building known as the Panopticon. The general use of a building like this is to expose the subject – an inmate, student, or patient – in a cell, or, as Foucault describes, “like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible” (97). This aspect of exposure has certain effects on the inmate’s mind, thusly causing them to be more averse to adhering to a specific set of rules, as they feel more accountable for their actions. This concept, though lacking the distinct building, can be seen throughout several episodes and fights within the series, as, like with Batman, Batwoman is a promise of discipline, therefore making criminals afraid to appear during the day, where they are more exposed, and only attack at night, in the darkness. Darkness as Foucault points out, “ultimately protect[s]” (97) them with anonymity. An argument could be made against this point, however, as Batwoman is a vigilante – coming out at night – and this opposes the general aspect of the Panopticon: “Visibility is a trap” (Foucault 97). Some may think that this counteracts the effect of visibility, but what the show has demonstrated, taking away light from someone’s actions does not allow them to go unnoticed. Instead, the show proves that even in the dark, protected and hidden, the “light”, which is represented by the justice that the hero enacts, always exposes the villain’s schemes. It is a direct challenge to heroes such as Superman or the Flash, who generally face criminals during the daylight hours and are public figures, showing that even with a different approach, the end result is the same. A further point discussing visibility in Batwoman comes from one of the hero’s main problems, a private security company called The Crows. In the modern age, with security cameras almost everywhere and now nearly imperceptible, people must act as if they are always being filmed, always being watched, because they very well might be, whether they see a camera or not.
The Crows, as a security company, do not enjoy having Batwoman around because she acts outside the law. She, in this way, is disconnected from society, and even further separated after being revealed as a lesbian heroine in episode 13, as “it follows that the epithets racial and sexual come to be seen as modes of differentiation” (Bhadha 63). While not racially different, Batwoman is still removed from the general public as a vigilante – someone who dons a cape and cowl and hides her identity from view. She is seen as a symbol rather than a person, which defines her as fundamentally different from citizens. This is an important point in most superhero stories – to separate superheroes from the non-superheroes; it is a way to protect them, and also to allow their ideals to go forward without corruption, all on top of protecting their loved ones. So, while the article and argument that Homi K. Bhabha poses are originally applied to colonial power, it can also be applied to many other aspects of society, as long as there is the idea of “us” versus “them”, which can also be used to describe the relationship between the regular citizens of Gotham within the Batwoman TV show, and the criminals – specifically the series’ main villain, Alice, from the Wonderland gang. At one point, Alice was called Beth, and was a part of the regular citizens, but, as many within this field, something happened to her to move her into the opposing category, the “others”. Her madness is the main division from the everyday citizen and is also what drives the regular people against and away from her. Other television shows may use this same concept, but it is most well represented in this show, as all Batwoman villains are labelled as “insane” individuals, which is the main factor of differentiation for them, and Batwoman, as a vigilante and gay woman, faces criticism from the general public due to clashing political and cultural views.
This brings me to my final points, regarding gender and sexuality, and more specifically, the problems with feminist theory. Judith Butler wrote on this that “Feminist critique ought also to understand how the category of ‘women’, the subject of feminism, is produced and restrained by the very structures of power through which emancipation is sought” (192) meaning even as they fight against stereotypes, feminists don’t realize that they only create new stereotypes for themselves through their actions. Furthermore, it is “By conforming to a requirement of representational politics that feminism articulate a stable subject” (Butler 194) that feminism allows itself to be judged, sometimes in a negative light, as it is subjugated to “gross misrepresentation” (Butler 194). Because of this, one of the main problems that feminist television shows face is going “overboard”. For example, in Batwoman, in one of the first episodes, she says “I’m not about to let a man take credit for a woman’s work”, which in theory is a strong quote, as this is the reason she had the original bat-suit changed and added the bright red wig while out fighting crime, however, this quote received critique as viewers point out that she basically stole Batman’s gear and bat-cave to become Batwoman, therefore enacting the opposite of her statement. Writers and producers must always be careful when creating a show like this, a feminist show or otherwise, because it is this show that creates a new normal for what it represents. A feminist television show reforms a feminist view, and vice versa, which most people forget.
This, of course, is all done through language. Whether it be by speaking, reading, or otherwise engaging “in…linguistically rich social activities” (McConnell-Ginet 5), we interact with language and therefore ideas within language, on a constant basis. “Using language is fundamental to pursuing our various life projects: to coordinating actions with others, to sharing ideas, to reminding others and ourselves of plans and commitments, to amusing ourselves and others, to making sense of ourselves and our world.” (McMonnell-Ginet 5) There is no way around it or to avoid it, which is why we must be careful in choosing what language influences our perspectives. In each episode of Batwoman Season 1, we can pick up on many strong opinions. The main showrunner is an openly gay woman by the name of Caroline Dries, and immediately, the audience receives several hints to the everyday problems those in the LGBTQ face. From being kicked out of military school, a restaurant, and then to the city rejecting Batwoman when she comes out, these issues are always explored through language and how it is used. Rules, regulations, and criticisms all stem from language through the sharing of ideas, thus leading to separation between people.
With the careful balance of representational feminism, Batwoman Season 1 has already broken barriers. Pair that with its realistic view of “otherness”, attention to gender and sexuality, and the key focus of isolation and the effects of discipline, I believe that this show is pushing forward as unique in the face of society. It helps pave the way for more cinematic opportunities with strong female leads and heavy, real-life issues being dealt with, using language in a positive way to share its opinions and the problems that go on for real people in today’s society in an attempt to draw attention to what is wrong. There should be more shows like this because with more people becoming aware of the corruption within society, hopefully, they will finally start to look closer at what is going on around them, and work toward making real change.
McConnell-Ginet, S. (2011). Gender, Sexuality, and Meaning: Linguistic Practice and Politics. Oxford University Press.
Easthope, A., & McGowan, K. (2004). A critical and cultural theory reader (2nd ed.). University of Toronto Press.
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