Friday, June 09, 2006

Batwoman and the Teachable Moment

from kolchak

More than a few years ago, Mattel Toys tried to market a Barbie doll that came in a wheelchair. I don’t know whether it was a sincere attempt to promote diversity or a sincere attempt to separate more kids from their money. (I imagine it was a little bit of both.) In any case, the effort didn’t last long. Someone quickly discovered that the wheelchair wouldn’t go through the doorways of the various Barbie playhouses and the toy was recalled.

I think I remember this incident because I always thought that Mattel missed what some educators like to call a Teachable Moment. IMHO, the official response should have been: “Yeah, we wanted to make it as much like the real world as we could.”

All of which brings us --believe it or not--to the new Batwoman.

In late May, DC Comics announced that it was going to reintroduce Batwoman, a character who first appeared in 1956. This version of the character, though, would be substantially different from the original; she would be a lesbian, a Gotham City socialite named Kate Kane. Her first appearance is scheduled for 52 #11, due out in July. (52 is a weekly comic that will feature a variety of characters over a year-long run.)

This announcement has resulted in an unexpected amount of publicity from themainstream news media. Most of it has been positive, although some of it has just been clueless. CNN’s Jeanne Moos did a spot which started with the theme of the Batman TV series, which, in this case, is equivalent to putting on a sign that says I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.

Anyway, it’s ironic to see the name Batwoman associated with an attempt to make Batman more edgy and modern, because, when it was first used, the intention was probably the reverse. The original Batwoman--who was called Kathy Kane, incidentally -- was introduced along with Batgirl to make Batman and Robin look more like a standard family (And if you want to replace the phrase “standard family” with“straighter,” I’m not going to disagree with you.)

Here’s how Jeff Rovin describes the first Batwoman’s weapons in his TheEncyclopedia of Super Heroes: “a powder puff with sneezing powder, lipstick which doubles as a smoke bomb, tear-gas disguised as perfume, bracelets which are actually handcuffs and a large super-strong ‘hairnet’ to snare fleeing adversaries...”

Another point that hasn’t been made often enough is that Kate Kane isn’t the first gay costumed character. The earliest one I can find is Extrano, who was a member of a team called the New Guardians, a comic that DC published in the late 1980s. Since then, comic fans have seen Spectral, in the Strangers; Apollo and Midnighter, in the Authority, and Hulkling and Wiccan in the Young Avengers.

Gay supporting characters have become more common too. According to DC’s press releases, Kate Kane had a relationship with Renee Montoya, a gay police officer who has been part of Batman’s supporting cast for a few years now.

Ultimately, though, this all boils down to: So Batwoman’s a lesbian...and? At this point, it’s not possible to say whether she’s going to be an intriguing character ( much less a successful one.) We don’t know what her motivation is; who the people in her life are or whether she has a distinctive approach to fighting crime.

Pictures of her costume have been released and the outfit is nothing special. It seems to borrow a lot from the futuristic Batman seen in the animated show Batman Beyond. (Although one post I’ve seen has criticized Kate for wearing the “Stripper Boots of the Patriarchy.”). So, in the long run, Batwoman’s sexuality is going to be only one facet of her character. I’m just hoping that, at some point, the Powers That Be at DC will say, “Yeah, we wanted to make it as much like the real world as we could.”

That would be a Teachable Moment.

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