Heroes and Villains Explored in the Batman Universe

I don’t remember where I first heard it, but the idea that, in fiction, villains represent the things that we, as a society, reject while heroes represent the things that we support has interested me for a long time. At first, I wasn’t really sure how I felt about it, whether I agreed or disagreed. Because, on the one hand, the villains have typically been the characters that I felt a deeper connection with. The heroes were always boring. They were limited to the confines of certain rules, being forced to reflect what writers view as ‘the everyman’, while sticking to their very limited view of morality. Villains were much freer. They were allowed to be and do what they wanted, opening themselves up to further exploration.

But at the same time, I see where the argument comes from. Focusing on the Batman universe for a second here (because I’m familiar with it, and because Batman has a fuckton of villains), the majority of his villains are either foreign (Bane, Penguin, often Mr. Freeze), mentally ill (Two-Face, the Joker, Riddler), or queer (Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn). In some more specified cases, too, this argument presents very problematic aspects of the Batman universe.

For example: Poison Ivy. Poison Ivy is most commonly presented as a villain in the Batman universe. Created in 1966, when feminism and environmentalism were both issues that were frequently discussed, Poison Ivy is an ecoterrorist and a strong woman who is in charge of her own sexuality. On the one hand, when you apply this argument to this character, it looks like the text is offering a very sexist and a very anti-environmentalist message. But on the other hand, this is also part of what I love about her.

And the Batman universe hasn’t been entirely dismissive about who Poison Ivy is as a person either. Many writers have made deliberate attempts to humanize her, as well as to make the reader sympathize with her as a person. Her main conflict, for example, involves feeling like she is outside of society (being half-plant), and that she is incapable of connecting with any human being. Later comics allowed her to move passed this feeling by giving her a close relationship with Harley Quinn, but the point still stands that Batman writers have made an active attempt to make readers relate to her.

So what does that mean? Is Poison Ivy a representation of what society hates most?

And on the hero-side of things, what about Batman? Batman, after all, is a wealthy, white man who the comics have gone out of their way to prove is straight (for proof of this, look back to the creation of Batwoman as a character). All of this falls into the definition of what society accepts as ‘correct’. In most recent Batman texts, however, this has changed ever-so-slightly, as Batman has begun to be explored as someone who is very mentally ill. Although he still refuses to accept help for his illness, his PTSD surrounding the death of his parents is most evident, though there might be more beneath it all, considering the fact that he endangers his own life nightly to dress up as a giant bat and work as a vigilante.

And not only that, but Batman is not the only hero in the Batman universe.

Batwoman, for example, has been a lesbian in the comics since the 1990’s.

Oracle is a physically disabled woman, being confined to a wheelchair since she was shot by the Joker.

And Damian Wayne is represented as racially other, having a mother who is half-Chinese and half-Arab.

These, of course, are very small deviations from the norm, but they are present nonetheless. So what does that mean? Do Batman heroes represent the norm of society, and I’m just nit-picking a few small exceptions, or does this argument fail to apply to the Batman universe?

At the end of the day, I’m not sure that I have a conclusion. I’m not even sure if there is a conclusion to reach. There are many ways in which this argument rings true in the Batman universe, but there are also ways in which it deviates.

And either way, whether or not this rule applies, I have to admit, the level of variety that the Batman comics has is part of why I love the universe so much. Seeing so many issues explored, through so many different characters, is a truly fascinating experience, and one that I wish I saw in more fictional universes.

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The Faulty Queer Representation in Gotham

So I’ve been watching Gotham lately.

Let’s get one thing straight (tee hee) before I begin – I am not watching this show because of its promises to represent a wide range of people and sexual orientations. I am watching this show because I am a huge Batman geek, and I’m just so sadly amused by the prospect of seeing tiny baby Brucie when he was still all shy and awkward around girls.

Because if I was watching this show specifically for its representation of sexual orientations, I don’t think I’d be enjoying it as much as I am.

The first two seasons were somewhat limited in their definition of ‘sexual representation’, because they only ever featured bisexual women. Not bisexual men. Not young bisexual girls (despite the fact that they totally could explore young Selina Kyle’s bisexuality – but, no, it never gets a mention in the show). Just over-eighteen, totally hot girls who make out with each other without ever really speaking, and then run off to their more serious relationships with men. Even as a bisexual woman myself, I am disappointed by their definition of ‘representation’.

But then season three rolled around, and they did something that promised change.

Drum roll please.

Season three of Gotham introduced a bisexual male character!

I think.

You see, it’s never really really been made clear what Oswald Cobblepot’s sexual orientation is. I’m assuming that he’s supposed to be bisexual only because his character is based on the Penguin from the Batman comic books, TV shows, movies, and video games, and previous incarnations of his character has shown an interest in women before. As far as I know, this is the first time that Oswald has been revealed to have an interest in men as well. So I think he’s bisexual.

But, really, who the hell knows?

Because, yes, Oswald’s non-heterosexual orientation has only just been revealed in the show, but even still, they haven’t had him or anyone around him actually say that he isn’t heterosexual. The only reason that we know he isn’t is because he has confessed to having romantic feelings for another man. He never told anyone that he’s gay or bisexual, nobody around him expressed any surprise at discovering that he has feelings for another man (despite the fact that this is the first time that he’s expressed romantic feelings for anyone at all), and even weirder, the conflict between these two men seems to be that Edward (the one who Oswald has feelings for) is straight, and yet nobody is outright saying that this is the conflict. Which is weird, because there have been many opportunities for him or the people around him to state as much.

For example, when Edward learned that Oswald has feelings for him, he could have taken the opportunity to say something along the lines of, “but I’m not into men”, but he didn’t. Instead, he just seemed completely unaware that this was even a possibility at first, and then vaguely disturbed when it finally sunk in, and all of this without ever actually giving a reason for him to feel this way besides what the audience can fill in for themselves.

The writers of Gotham seem to be trying to treat the relationship between Oswald and Edward the same way that they would any relationship between a straight couple, which is a nice idea. I understand where it’s coming from, I do – it’s the same argument that many people take toward the fact that J.K. Rowling never textually stated that Dumbledore is gay. “It was never necessary to mention,” some people say, “because gay people aren’t special or different from straight people. They’re just people.”

Which is true. Gay people are just people. And writing queer characters who seem to be in denial about the fact that their relationships are at all different from heterosexual relationships is most certainly better than writing queer characters who only represent stereotypes around queer people. But at the same time, real life queer people are aware that they’re queer.

When I, as a bisexual woman, start to have feelings for a heterosexual woman, I’m totally aware that that’s the conflict between us. I don’t think that simply getting rid of her boyfriend will suddenly earn her a spot in my arms. If I decide to confess my feelings to her (which, honestly, I rarely would if I knew that she was straight), I would do so entirely within the context that she naturally does not feel attraction toward people of my gender. I might even use words like ‘straight’ and ‘bisexual’.

And even outside of that context, as much as being bisexual is not something that defines me, it isn’t something that I just completely ignore either. Sometimes I or my friends will make jokes about it, or play around with the stereotypes around it, or, hell, even just mention it! While I don’t know if there are many opportunities for the writers of Gotham to have Oswald play around with the stereotypes around being a bisexual or gay man, the fact that they absolutely refuse to have him even just say the word does strike me as a little odd and not truly reflective of the true queer experience.

Because as much as I know that Gotham does not exist in our reality, the reality in which is does exist does not seem to harbour a society all too different from our own. I would assume that the same prejudices and difficulties that queer people face in our world exist there as well, and the fact that Edward, Barbara, Butch, Tabatha, and Oswald’s bitter maid all receive the news of his crush just the same as they would if he was expressing attraction to a woman just doesn’t seem likely. It seems like the writers’ attempts to represent queer characters without actually having to discuss any of the issues that queer people face.

Which, don’t get me wrong – not every story featuring queer characters has to be an in-depth exploration of how difficult it can be to be a queer person, but the least that the writers can do is faithfully represent how this person would go through the world.

At the end of the day, I’m still going to watch Gotham. Like I said, I’m not watching it for the queer representation – I’m watching it because baby Ozzy and baby Eddie are just so adorable! All that I hope is that the writers learn and improve with time.