Bat signals and caped crusading: the ins and outs of the CW's Batwoman

by Lynne Joyrich

In October 2019, Batwoman premiered on the cable channel, The CW, featuring an out queer actor, Ruby Rose, playing out lesbian character, Kate Kane aka Batwoman—"the first lesbian superhero to headline her own series."[1] [open endnotes in new window] Per the premise of the program, Kate decides to take on the mantle of "caped crusader" after her cousin Bruce Wayne has disappeared, abandoning the role of Batman and leaving Gotham City without the protection it so desperately needs. As suggested by this narrative device of a cousin swap, Batwoman is a superhero program that is also, at heart, a family melodrama, with the primary plots in its premiere season involving not simply crime-fighting but more so the miseries, masquerades, and misbehaviors (even criminal ones) that stem from Kate's family's complicated history and web of relations. These includes a traumatized and now villainous sister; another "good" version of that sister from a linked multi-verse; a tough father who treats Kate's ex-lover as almost more of a daughter than his own children even as he is tortured over what his family members have become; a second wife and her daughter, Kate's step-sister Mary, who longs to be close to Kate; a surrogate brother of the villainous sister; various lovers, exes, friends, associates, and partners-in-crime; and, constantly invoked if never seen, cousin Bruce Wayne/Batman himself. [2]

As all this implies, such a "super-melodrama" is well poised to take on questions of identity and difference, subjectivity and sociality, embodiment and enactment, self-knowledge and awareness (or lack of awareness) of others. After all, identity and its performances comprise a central concern not only of melodrama. The superhero genre has long been used, across comics, films, and television programs, to provide allegories for the challenges of identity-in-difference and difference-in-identity, deploying stories of masked heroes with alter-egos and secret identities to comment on political, racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and/or sexual formations that propel people into double lives—including, of course, the double life that can arise from being a closeted queer.

But that is not exactly Kate's problem. Living in a universe that seems oddly both more and less homophobic than our own, Kate is expelled from a military academy given her world's draconian "don't ask, don't tell" policy (whereas that policy was repealed in our world in 2011), yet she seems to face no other problems in being out. Rather, her problem is the imbrication of "out" and "in" that she cannot seem to escape, at least if she wants to save her city and all the people there she loves. In a kind of inversion of the usual "secret identity" trope, in which the superhero mask can stand in for other kinds of maskings (such as of sexuality), here sexual identity is invoked as a way to understand the tribulations and trade-offs of being a disguised savior.

The irony of this (or perhaps lack thereof, as inversion is precisely what both closet dynamics are all about) is made clear early in the series. The fourth episode, aptly titled "Who Are You?" (season 1, episode 4), [3] features Kate's voice-over as she expresses her thoughts about taking on the persona of "the bat," ostensibly musing to her absent cousin, Bruce Wayne (so, in effect, voicing these thoughts to herself), about the difficulties of being a superhero:

“I have never hidden who I am. I came out when Brad Morrison told all the kids at school that I was gay. I said "yeah, and?"; then punched him. Ever since then, I've been out and proud, as long as I can remember. So how the hell am I supposed to wake up every morning and hide who I am?”

After she vanquishes the villain-of-the-week as well as gets some clues about her villainess sister for that ongoing narrative arc, Kate returns to her voice-over at the end of the episode:

“Dear Bruce... Lies don't make anyone comfortable, especially the one telling them. But no one said anything about this job being comfortable. If I'm going to embrace the bat, then I'm going to have to embrace hiding a part of myself from the outside world. Living this double life is a sacrifice—but our city is worth it.”

The titular question of "Who Are You?" is not as easily answerable as it seems, and struggling with it—not simply (or even primarily) for the self but for others—is apparently inevitable. It is also not simply a question for Kate, as the episode's various subplots involve mysteries and misperceptions surrounding the outer appearances and inner character of several others on the show, all of whom have "secret identities" in one way or another.

Rather than this program, celebrated for its out lead character, being beyond the closet then, it is only possible through it. The maskings and secret identities provide the very basis of the plots and make the characters worth televising. For they are both like us yet unlike us, familiar but with more enigmatic and exciting lives that we thus want to watch. Without that closet, yet also without it's being breached, there would be no show—or certainly no queer show. Indeed, it is precisely the mix of "in" and "out" in Batwoman that, according to one reviewer of this episode, marks "the critical difference between stories with queer characters & queer stories."[4] That is, the play with and between closeting and uncloseting allows the program to comment on queerness and to produce a narrative that is not a simple story but a multiply inflected and multiply positioned one. In that way, the program is like its lead, a multi-media character in a show with its own multi-verse, a superhero with no actual superpowers, a singular person with a double life, saving her city while struggling with her family, figured as "woman" and "bat," situated as "out" and "in."

We are not then, in any simple way, "beyond the closet"—even in a time period that has been called "post-closet," not to mention one that has also been called "post-television"—as those "posts" depend upon the very terms that they simultaneously revoke and invoke (that they can only revoke by invoking). This is certainly not to say that there are not important historical changes, both in sexuality (as it intersects with gender, race, class, region, nation, and so on) and in television (as it intersects with other media formations). I would, though, argue that what I have called, in prior work, the "epistemology of the console" (after, of course, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's brilliant work on the "epistemology of the closet") is still important to consider—perhaps now more than ever.[5] Television, contrary to dismissals of its continuing impact, is not something that can simply be shut away in those old closet-like consoles but is everywhere via broadcasting and streaming services, across network programming and digitally/televisually convergent offerings, with long form continuing stories and seconds-length video bits, on giant screens in public places and tiny screens we can wear on our wrists. It thus calls out to us like an ever-present bat signal, with pervasive televisual logics truly founding (and confounding) our very senses of subjectivity, sexuality, and sociality.[6]

As I elaborated in that prior work, TV's mix of founding and confounding paradoxically impels yet impedes unmaskings, visibilities, and "broadcastings." Indeed, even as it is demanded given television's displays and confessional discourses, [7] any simple sense of "full disclosure" on television of sexual identity and desire is nonetheless rendered impossible because of television's existence precisely at and across the borders of the categories by which we even think "sexuality," "identity," and "disclosure." TV both asserts yet blurs the boundaries of inside/outside, private/public, domestic/social, personal/political, solitary/shared, expected/extraordinary, revelation/mystery, pleasure/boredom, reality/fantasy. It’s much like that bat signal—a beam of light and shadow, illuminating yet in the dark—or more precisely, only able to illuminate with and through darkness. Television thus produces its own shadows and blind spots along with its exposés and spectacles, which is why a politics simply of visibility, while generative in some ways, is inadequate to combating homophobia (and sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, etc.) in television.

Batwoman itself reflects upon the value yet limitations of a politics of visibility, showing the range of relations that may exist between media visibility/invisibility, knowledge/ignorance, and power/disempowerment. The self-reflexive episode "How Queer Everything Is Today!" (season 1, episode 10) [8] finds Batwoman "rescued" while trying to stop a run-away train (a rescue she does not really need) by a hunky, if publicity-seeking, Gotham City cop. The moment recreates the old melodramatic cliché of a woman being rescued off the train tracks, now immortalized for Gotham residents through numerous mobile camera images captured, in the show, by the people around them. These images make the Gotham City news. They are the subject of gossip spread by diegetic radio personality Vesper Fairchild, who encourages her audience to "ship" the heterosexual couple (i.e., to root, as fans, for a relationship between them). Not surprisingly, this does not please Kate Kane, who objects to her assistant Luke Fox that she's "very, very gay." But he reminds her that this gossip could be a good thing, keeping Gotham confused and thus helping to maintain the secret identity that is necessary for her work as Batwoman.

Here, then, visibility is shown to operate against knowledge and power, with their mismatch giving Batwoman an advantage. Still, Kate struggles with this, not happy about what this kind of visibility implies both about her sexual identity and about her supposed need, or lack thereof as a superhero, to be rescued by a man. Sophie, Kate's ex-lover, is also struggling, both with her own sexual identity and presentation and with what she too has been driven to do in her role of fighting crime as a member of Kate's father's elite (and not always equitable or ethical) security force. While investigating the train incident, Batwoman happens upon her and offers to talk; Sophie, who doesn't recognize Batwoman as Kate (and who is forbidden by her boss, Kate's dad, from working with the vigilante Batwoman), asks, "You ever feel like you're hiding from the world?" to which Batwoman, describing their surroundings, quips, "I'm literally standing in a shadow." Sophie goes on to retort, "You're one to talk," to Batwoman's statement, "We all wear a mask. Maybe it's time you took yours off."

The dynamics of visibility and knowledge are again more complex here than one might expect. Batwoman is suggesting that Sophie come out. Indeed, Kate has wanted Sophie to come out of the closet since they were in the military academy together, when Kate did, and was expelled, and Sophie did not, thereby allowing her to complete the program, get the job with Kate's dad, and become a substitute daughter to him. But it is, indeed, only because Batwoman is masked and, in the mise-en-scene, cloaked in darkness (thus protecting both of their identities, their jobs, and their understanding of their relationships and histories) that Batwoman can make this suggestion.

Unnecessary rescue │ Unsolicited romance: no damsel in distress on the train tracks.