Batwoman: Gotham's Finest
With Katherine "Kate" Kane the focus of a solo spot in DC's "New 52" lineup as Batwoman and redefined as a lesbian, this crimson warrior has made a surprising impact on dedicated fans and casual readers alike. She is a realistic portrait of a person first and foremost. Her gender, sexuality, etc., etc… are secondary aspects which appeal specifically to so far under-represented or poorly represented groups.
Kate's connections with her family, her experiences, and traumas progress through story arcs, continuing to impact both her and those around her. The challenges of being forced to leave West Point and nearly dying at the hands of The Religion of Crime are treated as the pivotal moments in her life that they are. Her relationships with Renee Montoya and current fiancée, Maggie Sawyer, treated realistically and with enough (sadly) necessary tact to bring light to Kate Kane, the heroine, and not a washed out sum of her sexuality and gender.
She can be cruel, she can be self-centered, and she can act in her own romantic interests without cheapening her character. Guilt and rage stalk her throughout interwoven narratives but they are accumulated consequences her past, not vaguely placed emotions used as rolling excuses for this and that.
Her time in, and expulsion from, military training by the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and her (presumably) forthcoming marriage make her story especially pertinent to women, queer or otherwise, today. The shame and stigma that have been associated with queer individuals is gradually being removed, but not everyone can afford to be as open and blasé as Kate. Part of this confidence stems from accepting and overcoming the shameful manner in which she was removed from the army. When confronted about her illicit relationship by a Colonel, instead of lying and forfeiting her rank, she opts for stark honesty in stemming from a strict code of honor. "A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal," she quotes, "or tolerate those who do." As Batwoman and assuming her civilian identity, Kate follows an absolute moral compass comparable to Wayne's own oaths against killing. Her leaning toward obsession and absolute resolve reflect the responsibility toward the mother and sister she could not save at the hand of ruthless criminals.
"Unmasking" herself as both a lesbian and (less figuratively) as Batwoman to family members, Kate is a mirror of what queer individuals face on a day to day basis. The costumes that comic book characters don have long been associated with separating from and hiding "secret identities." From a LGBTQ perspective, this is constant fear of discovery and exposure is too familiar. Physical disguises are a cornerstone of the superhero genre but the emotional aspects of remaining hidden are generally unexplored. Kate being an "out" gay woman, has come become comfortable with revealing one hidden aspect of herself. Even as she runs from the DEO and other entities investigating the identity of The Batwoman, the identity of Katherine Rebecca Kane is one shaped from heartache and an overwhelming desire to do good in Gotham.
The most talked about aspect of the new Batwoman is, be it for better or worse, her sexuality. An accurately depicted queer woman is a big deal and a step forward in the right direction. Kate may be the main focus of "Batwoman," but the women she becomes involved with help set her apart and depth to the body of work.
What Maggie and Renee have in common besides their work with the Gotham City Police Department is their ability to call Kate on her self-martyring tendencies. Love interests of any given superhero too often give up any personality of their own in being associated with a more central character. In "Batwoman" these leading ladies are not only written in to show support for the heroine, but as players in the story in their own right. During the "Elegy" and "Cutter" runs of "Detective Comics" (and in later events), Renee Montoya as The Question serves as a secondary storyline. Even when she and Kate separate, and she has not been shown in the new continuity (as of month 21), she is still referenced by Kate and remains on her mind and conscience. The women supporting Kate in "Batwoman" are not merely vehicles to carry intrigue and the new scandal-of-the-week to the story.
Romantic relationships consistently garner more attention than those formed by years of interaction in a family unit. That's almost a given for any work of fiction (by this point, what more is there to say regarding Kate's proposal to Maggie that isn't already common knowledge?). Some of the most crucial relationships are between Kate and her resurfacing and estranged sister Elizabeth, her cousin Bette and fellow vigilante, Flamebird, her father, and step-mother. Newly discharged from army training, Kate, for a time, distanced herself from all family members. Kate's overwhelming need to protect Bette stems from the loss of loved ones. Colonel Kane takes it upon himself to protect Kate and Bette in a similar way. He might at times disapprove of their riskier activities, both he does not withhold support or unconditional acceptance from his daughter or niece.
Kate Kane was by no means the first exceptional Bat-persona to stir up Gotham. The first to bear the Batwoman mantle was inspiring in a very different manner than Kate is. A lady love was introduced to the dark knight in 1956 to stifle any speculation of Batman and Robin being in a "morally corrupted" homosexual relationship (Similar fix-its were used for the Wonder Girl and Super Boy with their respective heroes). Kathy Kane, another wealthy heiress, still was not a failure as a character despite the circumstances of her creation. Wielding a crimson purse in place of a utility belt, a perfume atomizer to incapacitate thugs , and lipstick to leave her own bat-signals, she challenges rigid concepts of femininity in a time period when many real women were seen only as the fairer (read: lesser) sex.
The campy feel of The Silver Age of Batman comics can distract more modern reader from how groundbreaking Kathy Kane was. Outwardly she was being thrown at Batman to prove a point, but secondarily, she shows that feminine does not equate with weak or helpless.
In the notable "Marriage of Batman and Batwoman" she blatantly rejects that a woman's place is in the home, instead opting to fight crime by her husband's side*. In a subsequent issue, Kathy leaves a displaced child with Bruce Wayne to team up with Robin in order fulfill her duty as crime fighter and protector of the innocent on her terms.
However, due to a reported lack of success, Kathy Kane and a handful other non-essential Bat-characters were killed off or otherwise removed from the universe in the early eighties.
A lot has changed since then in terms of representation and depiction of "non-traditional" characters. Non-traditional being not straight, white, male leads and supporting casts. Kate Kane and the dramatic reinvention of The Batwoman show the growing trend toward diversity in comics and away from the outdated approach of targeting only the male demographic. Changes in popular media reflect changes in populations. In an industry that (not always unjustly) has gotten a bad rap for the treatment of female characters, this change is even more important.
Batman doesn't bat an eyelash when he sees his compatriot with another woman, so why should his readers?
* It is made fairly obvious from the beginning of the plotline as well as in the "big reveal" at the end that these events are taking place in Dick Grayson's dreams. Nevertheless the effect remains the same. Both Batman and Robin instantly feel threatened by Batwoman's failure to comply with her gender role. In nearly every appearance of Batwoman, Grayson is shown concerned with what will happen to him with Batman's attention otherwise occupied. This closely follows the "there's only room for one Bat in Gotham" logic. And certainly this one couldn't be a woman.