In August 2018, pop culture buffs received the news that openly lesbian actress, Ruby Rose, had been cast in the role of Batwoman in the annual television crossover event of DC Comics characters on The CW network, which would feature the titular superheroes of Supergirl, Arrow, and The Flash. While most people and LGBTQ fans welcomed the news of the debut of perhaps the biggest LGBTQ superhero in comic-book history, there were a lot of mixed reactions to the casting of the Australian performer. The criticisms ranged in variety, from the milder debate around the seemingly convenient casting, seeing as Rose is one of the handfuls of openly gay women in Hollywood film productions who has had a string of commercial hits, and the question of whether her acting would live up to the expectations of a complex character as Batwoman, to more ridiculous ones, most of them stating that Rose was not Jewish like the DC heroine, or that she was “not gay enough”. A rather unimaginable backlash followed, but it is not the first when it comes to casting actors/actresses of different ethnicities and orientations (read: Kelly Marie Tran of Star Wars, Anna Diop in DC’s Titans), which prompted Rose to close her Twitter account and limit comments on the rest of her social media handles.
Batwoman was originally introduced as a potential love interest for Bruce Wayne’s Batman in the early 1950s, in an attempt to foil the then infamous notion that Batman and his protégé, Robin (Dick Grayson), were in a homosexual relationship. When this ploy failed to make any sort of change, DC Comics axed Batwoman from their comic continuity, while also stating that there was no need for a Batwoman when there was already a Batgirl. Subsequently, in the 2005 Infinite Crisis comic book issues, Batwoman was revamped and reintroduced, as Kate Kane, a wealthy Jewish socialite with a military background, who was discharged from service under the then prevalent “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. During this time in 2005-2006, Batwoman and her then-girlfriend Renee Montoya were the only queer female characters in comic book history, and even the then mainstream foreign cinema and television did not have a lot of diversity in this area. This time, DC’s fresh portrayal of Batwoman worked, and the non-superpowered heroine quickly gained a cult following of her own while also headlining her first solo title series. While Kate Kane is somewhat of a rebel, with her numerous tattoos and a past of wild partying, Batwoman is a stark contrast to Batman as well. Batman is of the opinion that Gotham is beyond saving, Batwoman has a more hopeful vision for their city, and will not hesitate to end her enemies, unlike Batman’s no-kill policy.
Kate Kane’s Batwoman has been a favourite superheroine of mine, and I have read through several issues of her solo outings, beginning from Elegy and the 24 issues that follow, which end with her proposing to her girlfriend, Detective Maggie Sawyer (a character that has already been shown on screen in The CW’s Supergirl, portrayed by Floriana Lima). More series follow afterward, and she is shown as a much more pivotal member of the Bat-family. In fact, historically speaking, she is one of the first members of the Bat-family, all non-superpowered humans who have chosen the vigilante life to protect Gotham and other cities such as Blüdhaven and Chicago. Marguerite Bennett, an openly lesbian writer, was hired by DC to breathe life into the red-haired vigilante in the DC Rebirth series, and in an interview with Autostraddle, she sums up perfectly why a character like Kate Kane matters so much in our time: “Kate is a queer Jewish woman in a world that has turned even more violent and hostile to who she is, before she even put on the cowl and mask. Her identity as a superheroine is a direct product of the contempt and discrimination she faced, for better or for worse. Frankly, she could have had a supervillain origin from the same story, but she chose, actively and with intent, to make the world a better and not a worse place. She chooses. Her identity is only not defined by whom she loves, but also by who she is. She lives and acts in defiance of what other people would have her be.“
Batwoman for me is a very human superhero. She is not a manic perfectionist like Batman, and her flaws are deeply human. Granted she is a woman who has had intensive army training and tactics under her utility belt, but Kate Kane is not a role model for girls the way Wonder Woman is. She is not invincible, she comes from a dysfunctional family, she frequently messes up, gets beaten up and bruised, and learns from the mistakes she makes; all in all, a very realistic representation of an everyday girl who decides to take up vigilantism, while still maintaining a more passionate and humanistic approach towards her city than Batman. Her civilian persona comes from a higher economic class, which is why she is able to access technology the way she does, but still faces everyday crises due to the changing outlook of people towards Jewish people and lesbian women. How she faces her different civilian problems also contributes to shaping her perspective while fighting crime as Batwoman.
Which brings me to this, there has been a steady rise in superheroes of colour and varying sexual/gender identities when it comes to the international comic book multiverse. For a long time, characters who were portrayed as villains or comic relief were shown so because of their alternate sexuality or gender identity. Surprisingly enough, DC has been more successful and honest with its portrayal of live-action queer superheroes and supporting characters, most of whom are from their TV universe, however, their only commercially successful film Wonder Woman, also hinted at the titular heroine’s bisexuality, while also showing her home, Themyscira, an island populated by an all-women immortal warrior tribe of Amazons. In the DC Comics, Wonder Woman is bisexual, and sex and sexuality is not a taboo amongst her fellow Themyscirans.
DC’s TV universe has introduced a whole legion of queer superheroes, taking the liberty to introduce some non-canonical characters, and also, in a more irresponsible way, erasing the alternate sexuality of certain characters. While characters like Supergirl have been subject to massive queerbaiting on her show, despite being canonically bisexual in the comics, DC TV has also taken the liberty to cast characters from all walks of life (queer, female, colour, sometimes intersecting) be it a Muslim superhero like Zari Tomaz (Legends of Tomorrow), openly bisexual time-traveller assassin Sara Lance/White Canary (Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow), openly lesbian head of the League of Assassins Nyssa al-Ghul (Arrow), R&D specialist Curtis Holt/Mr. Terrific (Arrow), the pansexual demon-hunter John Constantine (Constantine, Legends of Tomorrow), Time Bureau’s openly lesbian head Ava Sharpe (Legends of Tomorrow), openly lesbian secret agent Alex Danvers (Supergirl), Latino and lesbian detective Maggie Sawyer (Supergirl), openly gay and Indian-American captain of Central City Police David Singh (The Flash), the bisexual rogue antihero Captain Cold (The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow). More recently, The Flash has announced an LGBTQ character for its fifth season, while Supergirl has introduced the world’s first live-action transgender superheroine in its fourth season, Nia Nal aka The Dreamer, played by openly transgender actress Nicole Maines.
Marvel Comics and its incomparable Marvel Cinematic Universe have not been so vocal when it comes to queer superheroes and has just started delivering on superheroes of colours (as evidenced by last year’s Black Panther). Valkyrie and Loki from Thor’s celestial home of Asgard, are lesbian and pansexual in the comics, with Loki constantly shapeshifting into different genders to fool his brother, but these facts have been very conveniently glossed over in the films. While many people will believe that Black Widow’s potential as a feminist icon was brutally destroyed by Joss Whedon’s writing (ref: Avengers: Age of Ultron), it still took Marvel almost two decades to produce their first film with a female lead, Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson, due to hit theatres next year. However, it is worth noting that Marvel has come up with many superheroes of colour in its recent years of comic issues, from the African-Latin American Miles Morales version of Spiderman to the Pakistani-American Kamala Khan version of Ms. Marvel, and many many more.
In the Indian diaspora of comic book characters, there is a clear absence of any LGBTQ superheroes. We have our own native superheroes ranging from Diamond Comics’ Shaktimaan, Captain Vyom, and Chacha Chaudhary to Raj Comics’ Doga, Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruva, and Shakti, and original Bollywood superheroes such as Krrish, G.One, and Bhavesh Joshi and yet there is no native Indian superhero who is queer. Indian mythology is, however, more replete with such figures, and the most well-known example that could possibly straddle both the mythological and modern-day superhero categories would be Shikhandi, the warrior from the epic Mahabharata. Shikhandi was the princess Amba in their previous life and asked for a boon from Lord Shiva to destroy the demigod guardian of the Pandavas, Bhishma in her next life. After much severe penance, Amba is granted her wish and is reborn as Shikhandini, the daughter of King Drupada. However, to be able to take part in the battle, Shikhandini prays to a yaksha (spirit) in the forest and transforms into Shikhandi, a man. In the climactic Battle of Kurukshetra, Bhishma refuses to draw arms on Shikhandi, knowing that he was born a woman, and is thus slain by Shikhandi. Modern interpretations of Shikhandi mostly all read him as a transgender character, born and assigned female at birth, but changes to male later in their life.
While Indian comic book publishers are still yet to create any LGBTQ characters and bring them to the forefront, DC Comics has already gone ahead and done what many queer Indian pop culture buffs would love to read. In 2000, DC Comics introduced a transgender Dalit superheroine named Aruna, in Batgirl Annual #1. Batman and Batgirl cross paths with Aruna in the streets of Mumbai while investigating the same case of a young, aspiring Indian actor who had mysteriously vanished from Gotham. For Aruna, the case strikes a personal chord, as the boy was murdered by his casting agent for belonging to the Dalit community. By the end of the story, Aruna vows to use her shapeshifting powers for the greater good of her community, saying that if she does not fight for them, she does not know anyone else who would. Although the character appeared in only one story arc in the DC multiverse, and is thus a relatively obscure character when it comes to iconic characters such as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, etc., this is exactly the kind of superhero representation our country needs, particularly in the light of the recent legalization of same-sex individuals and relationships. We already have a massive lack of queer role models, despite the numerous notable queer celebrities and personalities in our country.