Holy Diversity, Batman!
By Jase Peeples
Originally published: The Advocate 9/10/14
Photo: Gotham girls Victoria Cartagena as Renee Montoya, Jada Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney, Zabryna Guevara as Sarah Essen, and Erin Richards as Barbara Kean Gordon.
It’s no secret the superhero genre is practically overflowing with queer metaphors. Characters struggle with secret identities; mutants are despised by society because they are born different. However, viewers of Gotham — the new TV series from Fox based on the world of Batman long before he donned the cape and cowl — won’t need the detective skills of the Dark Knight to find LGBT visibility or racial diversity. In this reimagining, women of color are depicted in positions of power on both sides of the law, and strong LGBT characters are an essential part of the story from the first episode.
Though Gotham centers on James Gordon (played by Ben McKenzie) during his early days as a rookie detective in the Gotham City Police Department, it’s the rich cast of characters that breathes new life into this rendering of the famous fictional city. “Gotham is beautiful, dark, dangerous, and romantic. It’s the kind of cityscape you should look at and believe anything can happen, and that means everybody should exist there,” says co–executive producer Danny Cannon, who also directed the show’s pilot episode. “There’s no way on Earth we would have a show like this limit itself with out-of-date values.”
For Cannon and the other creative minds behind the series, that meant reintroducing characters from the Batman mythos including Sarah Essen (played by Zabryna Guevara) as a woman of color and placing her in a position of authority as the captain of the GCPD Homicide Squad and Gordon’s boss. It also meant creating new characters like mob boss Fish Mooney (played by Jada Pinkett Smith), a cunning and sadistic villain who is more than a match for the show’s heroes. Pinkett Smith hopes this depiction of women of color as a variety of authority figures in the series will leave a lasting impression on younger viewers. “I believe young girls of color are aware that women of color have positions of power available to them. The problem is how to obtain personal power as well as power in the workforce,” she says. “I believe this show could have the opportunity to demonstrate how to obtain personal power by witnessing how our characters relate to their own personal ethics through consequences of their actions or positive outcomes.”
Gotham’s groundbreaking inclusion of the Latina lesbian detective Renee Montoya as a recurring character, played by Victoria Cartagena (pictured below with Ben McKenzie), firmly places the show in a league of its own.
Debuting in Batman No. 475, Montoya became a favorite among LGBT comic readers when she was outed as lesbian in the 2003 comic book series Gotham Central. Her appearance in the TV series Gotham will mark not only the first time a lesbian character has appeared in a live-action adaptation of Batman’s world but also the first time a lesbian of color will be a recurring character on any prime-time superhero series.
“Growing up, I rarely saw people of color or gay people depicted in a positive light, and I know when you don’t see yourself reflected in the world around you, it does things to your self-esteem,” Cartagena says. “I know if I had seen a character like Renee on TV when I was younger — a Latina who is smart, powerful, and strong — it would’ve encouraged me to dream bigger. So I know what she means to people, and if watching me means that I can help someone else feel included, than that makes me very happy.”
Cartagena believes Gotham’s inclusion of strong women from a variety of underrepresented backgrounds will help usher in a new age of inclusion for film and TV based in the superhero realm. It’s a sentiment shared by her costar Pinkett Smith. “It’s a new day when we can have a show on television that is not afraid to explore various sexual orientations of women,” says Pinkett Smith. “Let us hope that this is a path toward even more change in regard to the perceptions of female sexuality, as well as our bodies in relation to sex.”
Gotham debuts September 22 on Fox.