How 'Gotham' Re-Invents Batman's Sexual Politics

Oswald Cobblepot, always thinking...

Fox's Gotham finally gives DC an edge over Marvel as it interweaves morality and sexuality into a sophisticated narrative.


Cast: Ben McKenzie, Jada Pinkett Smith, Donal Logue
Network: FOX
Air date: 2014-

Like many other DC films and shows, Fox's Gotham is all too often dismissed as a pale alternate to Marvel's superior products, most notably its neo-noir competitors DareDevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Not only, say the critics, is it less compelling drama, it also lacks the subtler socio-political nuances of some of its counterparts.

It's not very difficult to see where this argument stems from. Gotham's deliberately campy and outlandish style isn't as immediately palatable as DareDevil's mature, character-driven episodes. Further, the fact that most of the good characters seem straight, while most of the bad characters are female and/or seemingly homosexual, may lead one to the fatal mistakes of reducing Gotham to a collection of heteronormative clichés.

And yet this series is the exact opposite of that. Gotham isn't just an exceptionally original re-interpretation of the Batman mythos, it's also the most intriguing exploration of contemporary sexual politics and genre identity to have graced the superhero genre in a very long time, on either the Marvel or the DC barricade.

The three primary narratives concern the characters of James/Jim Gordon (Ben MacKenzie), Oswald Cobblepot aka Penguin (Robin Taylor), and young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz). Each of them must negotiate the decadence and moral corruption of the series' great protagonist, the city of Gotham. In one sense, each of these characters is looking for his ethical dimension: Gordon wants to be a good cop, Penguin wants to become the king of crime, and Bruce is beginning to turn into Batman. But their ethical journeys can also be read as a metaphorical quest through and towards sexual identity.

James/Jim Gordon (Ben MacKenzie)

That the nature of this quest has been mostly overlooked is understandable. Lead character Jim Gordon, the only policeman in the city who is unwilling to compromise his moral standards, initially comes across as a heteronormative stereotype. His moral straightness corresponds to a wealth of heterosexual connotations: he is a rugged, practical, simple fellow with inconspicuous clothing that remains largely uniform throughout the series; he has considerable strength and physical integrity, but never to the point of making it a show (no perfectly sculpted six-packs for you, old Jim).

Similarly, his antagonist Oswald Cobblepot is marked as evil and gay. He is always highly groomed (classical yellow teeth aside!) and seen in a varied number of outfits over the series, though most often in a showy suit with a garish purple waistcoat and an umbrella. His voice and mannerisms, his exaggerated histrionics, and his constant pleading, crying and whining, were all very distinctly feminine long before the big romantic 'reveal' in Season Three.

It doesn't help that the association good / straight and evil / deviant should apparently be reinforced elsewhere in the series. Gordon's partner Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) is initially presented as an equally sympathetic character, until it turns out she is cheating on him with agent Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena), correlating her untrustworthiness with her bisexuality. Edward Nygma aka Riddler (Cory Michael Smith) struggles with a double personality disorder in which his good side corresponds to a heterosexual love for colleague Kristen Kringle (Chelsea Spack), and his evil side to an auto-erotic, narcissistic infatuation with his mirror image.

Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) is the Penguin's competitor and the prototype of a short-haired lesbian climbing her way up in a man's world, killing all of the men she encounters except for her right-hand man Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell), and bonding only with female characters (her mother, her hired assassin, or Selina Kyle). Captain Nathaniel Barnes (Michael Chiklis) is a hyper-masculine super-ego figure who won't allow the law to be bent, whilst Theo Galavan (James Frain) is an evil mastermind with a vaguely paedophiliac obsession towards Bruce Wayne, and the list goes on.

Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz)

So it is understandable, as we mentioned, that Gotham's message may seem dubious. The series makes it such a strong point, after all, of linking the morality of its characters with markers of sexual identity, usually to a heteronormative effect. But the essence of Gotham is its (typically noir) investigation into the elusive nature of morality: we are constantly reminded that law and crime, like good and evil themselves, are muddled and knotted up in Gotham City, and are never clear-cut categories. “This city,” Gordon himself meditates in episode 1#06, “the law, the crime here, they're all twisted up on each other, like a maze.”

Since we've already established that morality and sexual identity are linked in Gotham, these moral complications then extend to the sexual signifiers of its characters. Gordon's ethical straightness is brought into question in the series' very first episode as he accepts a deal with crime-lord Don Falcone (John Doman), who orders him to kill Penguin. Jim's decision to fake Cobblepot's death keeps him from complete corruption, but also represents an initial compromise (the first of many) as he is suddenly involved with organised crime. It also inaugurates a bizarre love/hate relationship with Penguin, whose advances prompt Gordon into fits of classical heteronormative rage ('Never come back again!'), but which also allow for a whole new list of shady deals between the two.

Jim increasingly strays from moral and sexual straightness over the series, and then wonders in confusion whether (and how) to return to it. Hyper-masculine Captain Barnes and the pregnancy of his new partner Leslie Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) draw him back towards rectitude, whilst the challenges of dealing with Penguin, Galavan, Fish and other criminals encourage him towards deviancy.

This would only be a moralistic parable if the good and evil sides remained in correspondence to the straight and deviant ones, but Gotham destabilises this relationship at every turn. The Penguin becomes at least as sympathetic as Gordon, as do other 'evil' characters like Fish Mooney or Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova). Their 'evil' is a tag resulting from their refusal to side with the arbitrary dictum of the law, rather than from any action that may genuinely alienate viewers, whilst their violence remains cartoonish and largely inconsequential throughout.

Furthermore, the bad guys are among the series' most nuanced characters. Penguin's defining relationship is with his near-demented mother, whom he shields from any knowledge of his criminal activity -- a rather open metaphor for the difficult issue of coming out with one's parents. In Season Two, when Cobblepot is captured, tortured and brainwashed into being a 'good' person by mad scientist Hugo Strange (BD Wong), it's a sad allegory of pseudo-scientific attempts to 'cure' homosexuality by means of nightmarish abuse.

These constant sexual metaphors cast an entirely new light on the series' opening scene, which is also the foundational event in the Batman mythology: the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents. In Gotham, this trauma is presented (probably for the first time) as a metaphor for sexual anxiety: the removal of an 'ideal marriage' safety net representing the loss of heterosexuality as a standard moral referent. The death of Bruce's parents is not just the shock that occasions an ethical soul-searching, but also the beginning of a young adult's voyage into modern sexuality. (It's hardly surprising, on that note, that the only other witness to the murder should be Selina Kyle, herself a hugely ambivalent character who flirts with signifiers of straight and deviant identities alike).

Bruce Wayne's journey into the world of morality and sex runs parallel to Gordon's, but it's much more internalised. His exploration of the city of Gotham is in fact a descent into his own psyche, including a regression into the id (the bat-cave), the super-ego (the pristine offices of Wayne Enterprises), and the scrappy ego of his many physical fights.

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At one point Bruce seems to be lured towards heterosexuality by pretty Silver St Cloud (Natalie Alyn Lind), only to find that such a decision takes him into the most abject moral 'evil'. And in one of the most memorable scenes in the series, Bruce meets Jeri (Lori Petty), essentially a female proto-Joker. She is a grotesque muddle of sexual identities that personifies the young man's anxiety and that prefigures the moral folly of the Joker. Along with Silver, it's yet another instance of the series revealing how complicated its initially straightforward premises actually were.

While initially appearing to be fiercely heteronormative, Gotham slowly brings its good and bad characters to stand on an equal (and equally appealing) plane by mixing their respective signifiers, which in turn destabilises their sexual identities. As the spectrum of moral choice is widened, sexuality is correspondingly allowed much greater richness and diversity. Gotham suggests not only that alternatives to heteronormativity are both possible and morally acceptable, but (crucially) that heterosexual identity itself is a blurred and flexible concept, and not a determinate role.

Thus, Gotham invites us to a meditation that is a lot subtler than those of its rival shows. For all of their commendable effort, Marvel series such as Jessica Jones or Agent Carter merely respond to heteronormativity by flipping its clichés on its head, so that the correlation straight / good is swapped for an equally bland deviant / good. Gotham, on the other hand, proposes that norm and deviance have an equal potential for good and evil, while repeatedly questioning where the exact boundaries for these categories lie.

At a time when identity politics have become more polarised and divisive than they've ever been, Gotham's point strikes home: the target of its critique isn't just the privileged establishment, but also those elements of social activism that insist on an equally short-sighted, morally simplistic black-and-white approach to norm and deviance. The gargoyles of the Batman universe are those who set up barricades, who resort to blunt 'you're either with us or against us' slogans; the heroes are those who compromise, who understand the inhabitants of the other side, and who know how to find their own path whilst negotiating law and crime alike. The ambiguity and originality of this representation makes Gotham the most pertinent exploration of gender and sexuality politics in the superhero genre today, and by a mile.

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