Bats, Bullet Casings and Questions
Kate Kane, Montoya, and Table-flipping Convention
Welcome back to our post-millennial analysis of the current state of fandom. Today we’ll be exploring Batwoman, an enduring lesbian icon for good reason. This article will explore her impact on both queer media and the larger sphere of pop culture.
Editor’s Note: When this series began, Zee Bowditch identified as a queer femme nonbinary woman. Today, Zee stands proud as a queer nonbinary trans genderfluid individual. We at The Unconventional are proud of Zee living his truth, support him completely, and will continue to do so in the future.
Kate Kane as Batwoman had an enduring mark on me as a young queer comics fan.
The 2005 universal reboot following the DC event Infinite Crisis led to a reboot of the well-known hero Batwoman. The moment this character was announced, DC also revealed that Kate Kane (Batwoman’s real identity) was going to be a lesbian. She wasn’t the first lesbian or queer character in DC continuity, but it was hard to tell from the media backlash; there was speculation running the gamut from celebration to defamation, to calls to boycott and everything in between. When asked where the idea came from, DC Comics Executive Editor Dan DiDio said in a 2006 interview with Wizard that:
It was from conversations we’ve had for expanding the DC Universe, for looking at levels of diversity. We wanted to have a cast that is much more reflective of today’s society and even today’s fanbase. One of the reasons we made her gay is that, again when you have the Batman Family—a series of characters that aren’t super-powered and inhabit the same circle and the same city—you really want to have a point of difference [ 1 ].
I treated this reveal with equal parts dubiousness and excitement. I was fully expecting it to be brushed aside, casually mentioned in passing as a way for DC to pat itself on the back with minimal effort to actually change anything, much in the way that Harley Quinn is attracted to Poison Ivy but still considered Joker is her one true love.
What I didn’t expect was multiple on-panel kisses and a wedding proposal. Kate was a tasteful example of lesbian representation in that she was allowed multiple complex relationships with fleshed-out figures; a prime example is her first girlfriend, Renee Montoya, herself a compelling and well-established hero, working with and later taking on the mantle of The Question. Both of them were given the space to exist outside their relationship—while it was important, it was very much a secondary story to their individual crime fighting. This was a refreshing change of pace from the usual stories that put queer identity front and center as a main driving arc. This is less true for Montoya herself, who is forcefully outed by Two-Face to try to discredit her, leading to a series of rather trope-laden conflicts with her conservative family and disapproving public. This also leads to her being so consumed with the need for revenge that she loses her job and becomes an alcoholic [ 2 ].
Life Out of The Closet
This is a problematic narrative for a couple of reasons. One, many queer people are rightfully wary of the narrative of being out as a negative, something that can be used as blackmail or a source of shame. It’s not because that isn’t the case for people in real life; to the contrary, it’s because it’s all too commonly a self-reinforced narrative. Coming out should be an intensely personal process that involves weighing a lot of different factors. The idea that losing that choice, and thus losing the protection of the closet, will always be a source of trauma and is one of the most common media tropes centered on the process of coming out. There are very few mainstream representations of positive coming-out stories; while personally I didn’t experience much difficulty coming out to my own family and community, I know how much anxiety coming out can create. If the media story surrounding coming out only highlights pain and suffering, queer people believe that their fates must also be pain and suffering.
On top of the nastiness of the outing itself, Renee then loses her job and sinks into alcoholism and debt. This reinforces the story’s whole “being out is suffering” narrative. Without a large pool of queer characters in comics, every single story matters; these stories need to push back against the main popular culture narrative in some way instead of embracing it. While this is a compelling and well-written story, Montoya’s character arcs rely too heavily on harmful tropes to feel at ease with it. However, her relationship with Kate, which grows out of this struggle, is portrayed as something that redeems and heals her, rather than being the source of the original conflict. The fact that the reaffirmation of Renee’s sexuality and the reconnection with other queer women is what heals her is an unusual message, one that needs to be shared. The queer community is often the only thing that the more vulnerable members of that community have to rely on and the explicit celebration of that is unusual and definitely a net positive for both Renee and Kate and their relationship.
I’ve never been someone who believes that queer characters shouldn’t face struggles because they are queer. After all, even the luckiest of us encounter hardship based on our identities as queer people, and fiction should be allowed to reflect that. However, queer identity shouldn’t only be a source of angst and pain, especially when there is plenty of that in the real world. The acceptance that Renee found with Kate was refreshing, even if it came from a thread that was, unfortunately, a bit cliché.
Queer Identity, Superhero Tropes, and How They Intersect
The intersection of queer identity and superhero tropes can be problematic, though not in the realm of overt homophobia. To be fair, difficulties with secret identities and relationships are definitely not solely the purview of queer characters. Yet the “superheroes can’t be happy” trope takes an unfortunate turn when applied to queer heroes. It’s a bit too easy to have “heroes can’t be happy” metamorphose into “queers can’t be happy” when there is so little queer representation, let alone queer relationships. This particular trope started affecting the story when Kate’s first girlfriend broke up with her after confusing her late-night vigilante activities with having an affair. Kate, refusing to reveal her superhero identity, had no defense. Later, mysterious circumstances interrupted her wedding. It turned out this was due to editorial pressure, which created a huge scandal.
To go back to why this ended up being such a big deal, it’s important to look back on Kate Kane’s history, and why her queer identity was so important. In 2009, when it was first announced that Batwoman was a lesbian, that made her the first headlining queer hero for DC [ 3 ]. She had been revealed to have been in a relationship with policewoman Renee Montoya in 2006, her orientation having been revealed by her creators, but she only had cameos up until this announcement after Batman himself apparently died (it never fails to amuse that her original introduction in 1956 as a love interest for Bruce Wayne was largely due to fears that Batman was gay). Writer Greg Rucka said in an interview with Comic Book Resources at the time that the introduction of a lesbian character into the DC roster was “long overdue” and when concerns that she was only there to be a queer character, he said “Yes, she’s a lesbian. She’s also a redhead. It is an element of her character. It is not her character” [ 4 ].
Batwoman Elegy, the first collection of Kate’s comics after her sexuality was revealed and confirmed, was met with both critical and fan acclaim and put Kate’s sexuality and sexual identity front and center [ 5 ]. There were moments that felt a little heavy handed, such as when she upsets her conservative family by showing up to a fancy party in a suit instead of a dress, but the comic itself has a lot of worthwhile things to say; Kate is a complex and engaging character beyond just her sexuality. Since then, Kate has played various roles, though none quite as prominent as this period until writer W. Haden Blackman and artist and co-writer J.H. Williams III started a reboot of Batwoman in 2011.
In this series, Kate was in a serious relationship with lawyer Maggie Sawyer [ 6 ]. Maggie first met Kate in Gotham, where she had arrived as a member of the Metropolis police department to help the city after a hurricane. They hit it off, but Kate’s secret identity was a burden on their relationship, with Maggie thinking that Kate was cheating on her. However, in issue #17, Kate revealed her identity as she proposed to Maggie. This was the first such scene in a major comic. Williams said that the comic was “…a socially important one that has meaning that extends well beyond the printed pages of the world (Batwoman) lives in, reaching out into ours, possibly affecting those who encounter her story [ 7 ]”.
However, long before the turbulence was revealed, Williams and Blackman expressed concerns. DC had been very hands off with this comic, letting the creative team have tremendous control, especially during the midst of the Nu52 reboot. However, this creative freedom was sharply curtailed regarding how Kate and Maggie could have their relationship.
In 2013, Williams and Blackman announced that they would be leaving Batwoman after issue 26. Blackman and Williams wrote in their announcement, “In recent months, DC has asked us to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines in ways that we feel compromise the character and the series.” They said that an increased editorial presence and “eleventh-hour” directives left them “frustrated and angry,” and that they were “most crushingly, prohibited from ever showing Kate and Maggie actually getting married.” The creators said they were heartbroken to leave, but that they could not continue if they had to tell someone else’s story [ 8 ].
“Heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives. They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their own personal interests,” chief editor Dan DiDio said in response to the uproar [ 9 ].
“That’s very important and something we reinforced. People in the Bat family their personal lives basically suck. Dick Grayson, rest in peace—oops shouldn’t have said that—Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, Barbara Gordon, and Kathy Kane. It’s wonderful that they try to establish personal lives, but it’s equally important that they set them aside. That is our mandate, that is our edict and that is our stand” [ 9 ]. This was especially hard to swallow in the wake of various choices by upper editorial staff at DC, including the hiring of notorious anti-gay advocate Orson Scott Card to write for a Superman anthology [ 10 ].
The problem is not, of course, that queer people always have happy relationships. The problem is that the pervasive narrative of queer identity is suffering and unhappiness. This traces its roots all the way back to censorship rules from the ’70s and ’80s where the only queer stories allowed to be told involved a couple being split apart, but to see that reinforced, especially in an otherwise compelling character, feels and felt a bit galling. There is no reason not to explore the dynamics of superhero life through the lens of marriage and relationships, especially not when there are other established married couples who are heroes. It’s an otherwise sour note in a tune played by an otherwise revolutionary character who paved the way for many other queer heroes, both at DC and in other studios.
Ultimately, this choice, and the ensuing fallout, almost felt like it had undone the amazing progress of the comic in terms of representation. The idea that heroes can’t be happy is not only unfounded within DC’s own canon and the genre as a whole but rings even more false when considering the narratives that queer people get. There is absolutely nothing about the character that requires endless pain and suffering, and even if there hadn’t been a happy ending before, why not now (or at least, why not for now)? It seemed less of a rational storytelling choice, but one made out of fear. Williams and Blackman had been trusted by DC only so far, and it is telling that the line was drawn at a queer wedding and not, say, the brutal torture of children.
Sadness isn’t the only thing that can make a compelling story. In a genre where people come to see heroes triumph over evil, let us have the joy of a victory, even if it is only fleeting.
In 2018, after a crossover was announced with the Arrowverse shows, a Batwoman TV show on the CW was announced, casting out lesbian and genderfluid actress Ruby Rose. While the CW’s desire to cast a queer actress in this iconic role, as well as featuring an explicit queer relationship on screen, was admirable, from the start there was tremendous backlash that drove Rose from Twitter due to claims that somehow her nonbinary identity invalidated her as a good choice to play a lesbian despite Rose’s own use of the lesbian identity [ 11 ]. This backlash, combined with a back injury during the filming of the first season, resulted in Rose leaving the show in the immediate interim, resulting in the show taking a much different direction [ 12 ]. An entirely new Batwoman, both in terms of the casting and the character herself, entered season two [ 13 ].
The character of Kate Kane remained a part of the show, and was eventually recast with the explanation that she had gotten plastic surgery, but the role she played was greatly reduced, instead focusing on the new Batwoman taking on Kane’s mantle [ 14 ]. All in all, the performance of the CW’s version of the Batwoman story was almost universally considered abysmal to say the least. The axe fell on April 22, 2022. Batwoman was cancelled, and the fans and staff were left to wonder quote how it’d gone this way [ 15 ].
This wasn’t the only adaption of Kate Kane, however. In the DC Animated Universe (following Bruce Timm’s work, which many of us grew up with), Batwoman was handled with the class befitting a member of the Bat Family, having her own triumphs, losses, and development [ 16 ]. The character herself has survived “cullings” that have taken other characters, becoming part of a last vanguard, rather than an early casualty (thus defying many tropes). Here’s hoping that, down the line, live-action Batwoman gets the even-handed adaption she deserves.
- “Kate Kane has so resonated with audiences that cosplay of her is far less niche than it once was.” William Tung. Flickr. “Cosplayer of Batwoman at 2018 San Diego.” https://www.flickr.com/photos/28277470@N05/43566096182/
- “Despite visually accurate depiction of it’s hero, Ruby Rose’s Batwoman on the CW has been beset with issues, leading to the lead actress stepping down after its first season, and the new lead experiencingsignificant critique.” Walter Cicchetti. Shutterstock. Hollywood, California – October 6, 2019: Billboard of BATWOMAN located on Vine Street, Hollywood. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/hollywood-california-october-6-2019-billboard-1561052279
Zee has shape-shifted across several genres, as a lover of all things geek. They’ve been a shop-assistant and sales rep for Steampunk props and accessories company Gartisan Works and a writer for Feminerdity. A recent graduate of Salem State’s English Bachelor’s program, Zee’s extracurricular and academics indicate a bright career in education. Since their recruitment to Steam-Funk Studios in 2016, they’ve transitioned from the core writing team to senior creative staff over just four years.
- Morse, Ben. “Dan Didio Talks Batwoman.” Wizard Entertainment (Archived), WIzard Entertainment, 31 May 2006. web.archive.org/web/20080121160605/http:/www.wizarduniverse.com/magazine/wizard/000326617.cfm.
- “Renee Montoya.” DC, Detective Comics, dccomics.com/characters/renee-montoya. Accessed 16 Mar. 2021.
- Angeles, By Caroline Hedley In Los. “Lesbian Batwoman Is DC Comics’ First Gay Superhero.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 11 Feb. 2009. telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/4587541/Lesbian-Batwoman-is-DC-Comics-first-gay-superhero.html.
- Renaud, Jeffrey. “Greg Rucka Talks ‘Detective Comics.’” Comic Book Reviews, Valnet Inc., 9 Feb. 2009. cbr.com/greg-rucka-talks-detective-comics.
- Thill, Scott. “Batwoman: Elegy Balances Surreal Suspense, Sexual Politics.” Wired, Condé Nast, 14 Jan. 2018. wired.com/2010/06/batwoman-elegy.
- “Maggie Sawyer.” DC Universe Ultimate, Detective Comics. dcuniverseinfinite.com/encyclopedia/maggie-sawyer. Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.
- Sieczkowski, Cavan. “Batwoman Gay Marriage Proposal: Heroine Proposes To Girlfriend In New Issue (PHOTO).” Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, 7 Dec. 2017. huffpost.com/entry/batwoman-gay-marriage-proposal-girlfriend-photo_n_2724732.
- Schindler, Rick. “‘Batwoman’ Creators Quit, Saying DC Comics Forbade Lesbian Marriage.” TODAY.com, NBCUniversal Television, 6 Sept. 2013. today.com/popculture/batwoman-creators-quit-saying-dc-comics-forbade-lesbian-marriage-8C11090322.
- McCormick, Joseph Patrick. “DC Comics Publisher: Batwoman Can’t Have a Gay Wedding as Heroes ‘Shouldn’t Have Happy Personal Lives.’” PinkNews, PinkNews, 9 Sept. 2013. pinknews.co.uk/2013/09/09/dc-comics-publisher-batwoman-cant-have-a-gay-wedding-as-heroes-shouldnt-have-happy-personal-lives.
- Romano, Aja. “Orson Scott Card’s Long History of Homophobia.” Salon, Salon, 8 May 2013. salon.com/2013/05/07/sci_fi_icon_orson_scott_card_hates_fan_fiction_the_homosexual_agenda_partner.
- Cavna, Michael. “Ruby Rose Leaves Twitter after Criticism That She Isn’t ‘Gay Enough’ for Batwoman.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 27 Apr. 2019, washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2018/08/13/ruby-rose-leaves-twitter-after-criticism-of-her-batwoman-casting/.
- Agard, Chancellor. “A recap of Ruby Rose’s Batwoman allegations and the responses.” Entertainment Weekly, Meredith Corporation, 25 Oct. 2021. ew.com/tv/ruby-rose-batwoman-allegations-explained.
- Aune, Sean P. “Batwoman showrunner explains decision to change characters.” Batman News, Fun Jug Media, LLC., 7 Jun. 2020. batman-news.com/2020/06/07/why-batwoman-isnt-recasting-kate-kane.
- Hatchett, Keisha. “Batwoman Recasts Ruby Rose’s Role; Krypton’s Wallis Day to Play Kate Kane.” TVLine, Penske Media Corporation, 21 Mar. 2021. tvline.com/2021/03/21/batwoman-recast-kate-kane-wallis-day-ruby-rose/.
- Otterson, Joe. “‘Batwoman’ Canceled After Three Seasons at CW.” Variety, Penske Media Corporation, 20 Apr. 2022. variety.com/2022/tv/news/batwoman-canceled-cw-1235254854/.
- Mendelson, Scott. “‘Batman: Bad Blood’ Blu-Ray Review: Newest DCAU Feature Keeps It All In The Family.” Forbes, Forbes, 1 Feb. 2016. forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2016/02/01/review-batman-bad-blood-keeps-it-all-in-the-family/.