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20 July 2018

A lesbian Batwoman on TV finally brings some of the diversity of comic books to the screen

The CW’s new Batwoman show features a gay lead in a mainstream comic TV adaptation for the first time.

By Kathleen Farmilo

US television network The CW has added another show to its eternally expanding DC universe – an adaptation of the Batwoman comics.

“Ah,” you might think, “another gritty pseudo-noir superhero TV show that isn’t quite as good as Daredevil? No thanks.”

But there is something different about this particular comic-to-televsion show that has ignited unprecedented excitement amongst fans. Batwoman, aka Kate Kane, is a lesbian.

The show’s synopsis describes Kane as an “out lesbian and highly trained street fighter” who is “armed with a passion for social justice and a flair for speaking her mind”. However, to become a true hero she must “overcome her own demons”. 

Social justice? A presumably tragic backstory? Lesbians? What’s not to love?

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The DC television universe (not to be confused with Zack Snyder’s DC cinematic universe) is already fairly commendable for its number of LGBTQ+ supporting characters. But crucially, they are supporting characters. Having an openly lesbian superhero front her own TV show is an important change. If Batwoman does well, it could lead the way for other queer characters taking centre stage. In the cinema, both DC and Marvel let down audiences with their lack of LGBTQ+ characters. And if Marvel can bring the largely uncalled for Sharon Carter/Steve Rogers romance to the big screen, they can definitely include explicitly LGBTQ+ narratives as well. 

In terms of representation, there is a marked difference between the world of comics and their big (and small) screen counterparts.

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The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) has one queer character, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie. But while director Taika Waititi and Thompson herself have asserted Valkyrie’s bisexuality, a scene confirming it was cut out of the final run of the film. Audiences deserve better than glimpses of the cutting room floor for representation.

That the Marvel and DC film and TV universes were populated by almost entirely white casts until very recently is also ridiculous, given comics have led the way on minority leads.

The alleged casting calls for Kate Kane request an openly lesbian actress of open ethnicity, which is a far cry from another white man called Chris. Scriptwriter Caroline Dries is also a lesbian. 

In the comic book world, companies like DC and Marvel has been commended over the last decade for their push towards greater representation. There is, of course, much more to be done. But in comparison with their filmed counterparts, this world is surprisingly progressive.  

The character of Kate Kane has been a lesbian since 2006, in the 52 comic book series. The 52 series was set up after Infinite Crisis, which was a sequel to the 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths run (please, bear with me) in which Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman temporarily retired.

At the time of its publication, DC Comics executive editor and senior vice president Dan DiDio said that “we wanted to have a cast that is much more reflective of today’s society and today’s fanbase”.

The character was also confirmed as Jewish, shown celebrating Hannukah with her girlfriend.

Comics as a medium require a certain level of character and narrative diversity. There are only so many versions of a heterosexual white Peter Parker that writers can create before it begins to feel stale. (Or, they decide to run a Spider-Man series where it’s revealed that Gwen Stacey died from prolonged exposure to Peter Parker’s radioactive sperm.) Comics require a constant stream of new, exciting and innovative ideas in a way film does not. Unpopular comic book runs can also be cancelled more quietly than a TV show. 

But that doesn’t mean that films and shows can’t learn from the success of representation in comics. 

The current iteration of Spider-Man, which is Marvel’s Earth-1610 universe, is Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager. This version of Spider-Man has been massively popular with both fans and critics.

Sony has also announced Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse, an animated film focussed on Morales. Into the Spider Verse also includes Peter Parker, and Spider-Gwen, who is presumably a Spider-Man version of Gwen Stacey, as characters. This indicates some level of change based on the positive reaction to Morales in the comics.

Marvel’s current Ms Marvel is Kamala Khan, a Muslim Pakistani-American teenage girl. Khan’s comic book line quickly became a fan favourite. There are rumours that both Morales and Khan might be joining the MCU. 

Characters like this have been essential to the accessibility and appeal of comics, allowing them to move their marketing away from Big Bang Theory-esque dudebros.

The need for constant new iterations of characters has led to some great storylines and compelling choices. But it has also led to some very, very questionable ones.

There is a story line where Iron Man’s suit comes to life and falls in love with him. Supergirl at one point had a flying horse with a very weird crush on her. 

Even more controversial, however, was the choice by Nick Spencer to make Captain America a secret agent of Hydra, the Marvel Universe’s parallel to the Nazis (and in some cases, an ally of the Nazis themselves).

Captain America, upholder of democracy and capitalism and good ol’ American values, was a literal fascist. Insert as many jokes about America’s current political climate as you like, but this was not Marvel’s most popular move.

Fans interpreted it as the destruction of a beloved character for mere shock value. It was also interpreted as anti-Semitic, particularly as Captain America’s creators were two Jewish men, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Captain America, a character who debuted punching Hitler in the face, had become a fascist. Solid proof that not every out-there comic book storyline is a good one. 

Even attempts to introduce interesting but more well thought out ideas have not always had it easy. The writers of the Batwoman comics quit in 2013 after DC executives refused to let Kate Kane marry her fiancée Maggie Sawyers. DiDio defended this choice, saying that “[superheroes’] personal lives kind of suck”. Comic books are not immune to controversy over representation. 

Given the variety of characters and their many, many narrative arcs in the comic book world, it’s impossible to translate all of them into TV shows or film. But there is still little excuse for the overwhelmingly white, heterosexual adaptations on screen, given the many alternatives available in the source material. 

Hopefully, Batwoman will prove that a lesbian superhero can be a commercial and critical success. It might embolden superhero cinema and TV to be a little more experimental in the stories they borrow from – as long as they leave out the radioactive sperm.