The Undeniable Queerness of Superhero Stories

The genre is built on themes of transformation, disguise, and duality—a reality that LGBTQ folks live every day

A screen shot from the Batwoman TV show in which Kate Kane (Ruby Rose) and Sophie Moore (Meagan Tandy) hold hands and look into one another's eyes.
Kimberley French/ ©2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

In a film-and-television landscape increasingly saturated with superhero content, the CW network’s Batwoman—which debuted last fall and was renewed for a second season last week—is unique for at least two reasons: the title character, who is a lesbian, is the first openly LGBTQ superhero to headline a live action comic book adaptation; and the show’s star, Ruby Rose, who identifies as lesbian and gender fluid, is the first openly LGBTQ performer to portray a headlining superhero.

This isn’t a case of “in name only” diversity. The lesbian identity of Batwoman, civilian name Kate Kane, is woven into the show’s narrative premise. The show is adapted from a 2006 comic book reenvisioning of the character, which made her a former star recruit at West Point academy who is forced to abandon her dreams of a military career after an anonymous tip outs her as a lesbian. This compels Kate to find another way to serve, which leads to her becoming Batwoman. In the CW show, Kate is additionally compelled by necessity: Gotham City has descended into near anarchy after the mysterious disappearance of Batman three years earlier. Yet she is more directly compelled by love; she dons the Batsuit for the first time in order to save her military-academy ex-girlfriend, Sophie, from the clutches of a supervillain.

But, unlike the glowing reception enjoyed by other milestone-setting superhero adaptations such as Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and Netflix’s Luke Cage, critics have given Batwoman lukewarm reviews. Many have targeted the show’s genericness, with Hank Stuever’s review for the Washington Post being typical: “While I’d love to offer ‘Batwoman’ as the ideal antidote to the macho psychosis of Hollywood’s new ‘Joker’ movie,” he writes, “I’m sorry to report that, despite her big talk, Batwoman is pretty much a nobody on the TV screen.” He goes on to call Batwoman “just another paint-by-numbers CW superhero, joining a collection of other, steadfastly rote shows.”

Stuever is not wrong. Unlike HBO’s Watchmen or Amazon’s The Boys, the CW’s superhero shows are not self-reflexive deconstructions. Though Black Lightning and Supergirl are notable for their political engagement, CW superhero shows are, by and large, simple stories about beautiful people doing noble things. The expectation that Batwoman should be different likely extends from the title character’s lesbian identity: so-called diverse media is often expected to be experimental, political, and progressive in ways seldom expected from traditional media.

I’m not here to argue that Batwoman isn’t generic. Because it is. It does too much telling instead of showing, and it features nearly every cliché in the superhero playbook. The point is, something doesn’t have to be good to be important, and it can even do good by being entirely generic. In this case, Batwoman’s value lies precisely in the show’s ability to include queer themes without deconstructing a genre that’s historically repressed them. That the show can be both queer and generic testifies to one of the most chronically underexplored aspects of superhero stories since Clark Kent first tore open his drab business suit to become a gaudily clad Superman (or put on a drab suit to hide his true self): the queer potential of superheroes.

To understand the full scope and historical controversy of this potential, we need to go back sixty-six years to the events that led to the creation of the original Batwoman. In 1954, following a much-publicized United States Senate subcommittee investigation into the supposed links between comic books and juvenile delinquency, the American comic book industry saved itself from the threat of government regulation by creating an industry-run censorship program called the Comics Code Authority. The code prohibited American comic book publishers from producing any content that didn’t promote conservative moral values, demanding an absolute respect for authority figures and traditional gender roles. The code didn’t invent the lingering assumption that comic books are strictly “kid’s stuff,” but it did help to solidify it. While postwar European and Japanese comic books embraced an ever-widening diversity of genres and styles, most American comic books were forced to deny the complexities of a rapidly changing society.

The 1954 code banned “suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture” along with “illicit sex relations,” “sexual abnormalities,” and “sex perversion.” For most of the code’s history, LGBTQ desires were considered such a perversion. The original Batwoman, who debuted in Detective Comics number 233, in 1956, was a product of the code, likely added to the Batman universe to quell charges of homoeroticism between Batman and Robin. These charges were most famously made in a 1954 bestseller called Seduction of the Innocent by clinical-psychiatrist-turned-anti-comic-book-crusader Fredric Wertham; not coincidentally, Wertham was the star witness in the Senate investigation of comics books. For Wertham, and for the society that embraced his work, Batman and Robin’s relationship wasn’t just problematic—it was dangerous. Wertham makes this danger clear by sensationally and speciously grouping homoerotic fantasies along with psychological disturbance and violence.

A potential love interest for both Bruce Wayne and Batman, the original Batwoman was a circus daredevil, motorcycle stunt rider, and heiress named Kathy Kane. Clothed in a vivid yellow jumpsuit accessorized with a crimson cape and an oversized mask, she repeatedly beats Batman and Robin to the punch and saves the Caped Crusader’s life. She also employs ludicrously feminized weapons, including sneeze-inducing face powder, a blinding compact mirror, tear gas perfume, and a super-strong hairnet, all of which she stows inside a colour-coordinated “shoulder bag utility case” (in other words, a purse). Batwoman went on to appear semiregularly in Batman comics until the mid-1960s, when a younger, mod-styled, karate-chopping Batgirl eclipsed her in popularity.

Batwoman would also help expand the Dynamic Duo into a metaphorical family, one that eventually included various Batgirls as girlfriends (or sisters?) to Robin; a child in the guise of mischievous imp Bat-Mite; and even a dog, Ace the Bat-Hound. Yet, if these comics depicted a family, it was a decidedly nontraditional one, including aliens and intelligent animals wearing domino masks as well as women who, despite their feminized crime-fighting accessories and sensual-yet-tasteful curves, can’t reasonably be described as conforming to 1950s ideals of domesticity. Moreover, though Bruce Wayne occasionally courts Kathy Kane, Batman routinely spurns the affections of Batwoman; in the Bat-family of the 1950s and ’60s, everyone has a cave (or closet) to hide an alternate identity that justifies their resistance to the yoke of heteronormativity.

This resistance highlights something Wertham was right to notice, if wrong to fear, which is the inherent, even inescapable queer resonance of superhero stories. The genre’s defining themes of transformation, disguise, and duality are ready-made to evoke LGBTQ folks’ experiences of hiding in plain sight as well as the liberation—and consequences—of coming out. These themes are amplified by the queer deviance of superhero bodies, which routinely sprout sticky tentacles or fiery tendrils, merge with rock or metal, and liquefy, stretch, bend, or transform into a thousand different sexed and sexless shapes. Even superhero bodies that don’t do these things exist within a general atmosphere of queerness: many superhero stories feature intense homosocial bonding and, of course, lots of flamboyant outfits for women, men, girls, boys, animals, aliens, and robots alike.

This is where the CW show comes in. Batwoman‘s title character pays tribute to her namesake predecessor by actualizing this queer resonance more fully than any other live action adaptation has yet done. This is emblematized by the dramatic climax of the show’s pilot, in which Kate, wearing the Batsuit for the first time, swoops in to rescue Sophie after she’s dropped off a building by a supervillain. Some version of this scene is included in virtually every superhero TV pilot or film: having the superhero save a close friend, family member, or love interest is a classic way of heightening stakes and establishing the hero’s power and purpose. The Batwoman version is both excitingly different and intriguingly similar to what we’ve seen so many times before.

In the scene in question, Kate plucks Sophie out of the sky, envelops her in her Bat-cape, and swings them both through some scaffolding into a rough landing on a conveniently placed mattress. At this point, Kate hasn’t seen Sophie in years, not since their days at the military academy where Sophie, unlike Kate, signed a document, for the sake of her career, renouncing her participation in “homosexual conduct.” And Sophie doesn’t know her rescuer is Kate. She does, however, realize the smooth cheeks and glossy lips of her masked rescuer don’t belong to Batman. As she struggles to catch her breath, Sophie says, “You’re . . . not him.” Most of Gotham’s good guys have been pining for the Dark Knight’s return, yet the appearance of this new bat avenger doesn’t disappoint Sophie or scare her; instead, her eyes sparkle in a way they definitely don’t for her reunion, at the episode’s conclusion, with a man who’s introduced to us as her husband. Both Kate and Sophie, it seems, feel compelled to wear masks.

Importantly, though, where Sophie’s mask connotes sexual repression, Kate’s presages sexual liberation. In the scene described above and throughout the first episodes of Batwoman, Kate’s superhero mission doesn’t just involve saving Sophie from supervillains; it also involves saving Sophie from straightness. Kate’s superheroic identity reawakens Sophie’s lesbian desire, then becomes an excuse for her to stay close to Sophie, just as Sophie’s interest in Batwoman becomes an excuse for her to stay close to Kate. This story is certainly queer, yet once again, we’ve seen it before. The conventions of superheroism justify Kate and Sophie’s closeness just as they have always justified the closeness of Batman and Robin. There is just one important difference—Kate and Sophie’s relationship is officially legitimized in a way Batman and Robin’s never was.

One of the central generic features of superhero stories is the fantasy they offer of stripping off a disguise of sameness to reveal a spectacularly individual self that can flout social norms and be considered heroic for doing so. LGBTQ folks deserve such fantasies. And straight folks deserve to wonder what it means for the romantic tension between Kate and Sophie to exist so comfortably within a genre that, for most of its history, would have labelled it a perversion. It wasn’t until 1989 that the comics code was finally revised to include “homosexuals” on a list of “recognizable national, social, political, cultural, ethnic and racial groups” that must be “portrayed in a positive light.” Even then, it took nearly two decades for Kate Kane’s Batwoman to emerge as the first lesbian superhero in mainstream comics, and it took another decade after that for her to become the first lesbian superhero to headline a comic book adaptation.

Stuever’s review argues that Batwoman is diminished by its similarity to the CW’s other superhero shows. But there’s a competing possibility: that those shows—and a great many other superhero stories besides—might be enlarged through their similarly to Batwoman. If queer superheroes can be unabashedly generic, the superhero genre can, at last, be openly queer.

Anna Peppard
"Anna F. Peppard is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow at Brock University. She has published widely on representations of sex, gender, and race in popular media and is a regular panelist on the comic book podcast Three Panel Contrast.