Something More: Kate Kane & the Masks We Let Define Us
Everyone wants a piece of the Batwoman. From the moment the character was reintroduced we have been consistently presented with a female hero who is running headfirst to the charge with strong convictions. She’s also trying to outrun a past that acts like the drag in her cape, tugging at her from all sides and directing her course. The modern Batwoman lives at the center of a storm, and as readers we get the sense that she likes it that way, for better and worse. She is the kind of woman I have always wanted to be; it just took being presented with the fictional reality of her to make me realize how strongly I needed the example.
When Kate Kane was introduced to the main DC lineup much of the media commentary focused on her sexuality. There has been disagreement among fans and critics as to how important Kate’s sexuality is to her character. Some view it as an attempt to pander to audiences vocally demanding greater diversity. Others praise it as a step firmly in the right direction. I would argue that DC’s initial motives aren’t as important as what they’ve done with the character and the types of stories they have been able to tell while normalizing the idea of same sex relationships for their readers.
The Batwoman title has been lucky to have talented, savvy, and emotionally intelligent teams working on it. She is a lesbian, but her lifestyle isn’t more outrageous because of it. She isn’t overly sexualized and is often drawn as muscular in stature rather than having the standard over-accentuated hips and bust of many of her peers. Her relationships are handled evenly and respectfully. The few scenes where we see her physically interacting with her girlfriends are not drawn to tantalize or titillate male readers, which is a trap that less talented teams could easily have fallen into.
Kate is a fully developed character with a strong interior life whose sexuality also happens to inform her decisions. Early in her run Kate leaves West Point because she’s been caught having a relationship with another woman. Her commanding officer asks her to denounce the relationship so she can go on to the great future he sees for her within the ranks of the military. She refuses, preferring instead to maintain her own honor in the face of a policy she sees as dishonorable. It’s this scene in particular that made me fall in love with the character and the comic.
The celebration of the students getting their Academy rings is presented to us in bright, colorful rushes of joy. Characters smile wide in open panels and chant the traditional words. Then Kate gets called into her commanding officer’s office, which is presented in muted colors and smaller panel spaces. By the end of their conversation the lonely, small figure of the ring on his desk tells us that neither the winning or the losing of it is to be taken lightly. Months after this issue was released, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was repealed here in the world outside of comics. We as readers are left to wonder how Kate’s life would be different without that pivotal moment, but I would like to think that she would have followed through with the same rebellious streak and aggressive intent no matter what side of the fight she ended up on.
Batwoman wears a mask literally formed for her by her father. He accepts the strength in his daughter that makes her leave West Point in some disgrace. He understands that her drive needs a focus. He steals military materials for her at great risk to his own career. He sends her across the world on dangerous missions so she can get a taste of what blood on one’s hands really means. He creates armor and a base, wanting to protect her even as he condones her actions. Kate’s father has worked hard to help his daughter become the weapon she wanted to be, but for all that he’s done he still can’t fire her with any precision. Kate knows exactly who she is and refuses to waver from her goals no matter what the people around her make of her.
When she’s not in Kevlar and leather she presents herself through other masks, sometimes to further her goals and sometimes to throw people off her scent. The night she meets Maggie Sawyer, Gotham PD detective and her current fiancée, Kate shows up to a formal event in a tuxedo. This choice of dress is slightly out of spite for having to attend the event at all, but it’s also a play at living up to the stereotypes the people in her life sometimes want to lay over her as shorthand. Her stepmother has a negative reaction to Kate’s appearance and it’s just the reaction Kate had hoped to provoke. The interest from Maggie, who has also shown up in a tux and is amused by the way Kate presents herself, is a plus.
There are other masks still that Kate uses to slip in and out of spaces with the exact amount of attention she wants to receive. Renee Montoya gives her grief several times for her party girl exterior, ostensibly because Kate isn’t living up to the expectations that Renee has for her. It’s a miscalculation on Renee’s part to think that Kate needs or wants to live up to the expectations of others. Kate very carefully shows people the sides of her she wants them to see. She uses this as its own sort of weapon just as often as not.
If Kate’s father and the women she loves can’t form her to their specifications then there’s almost no hope for the others who struggle to understand her. She continually rebuffs Batman’s attempts to bring her into the official Batman Inc. fold, not feeling comfortable with his network of vigilantes or the way that other people see the Bat as a symbol of fear or reckoning instead of inner strength. She lets herself be pulled into the workings of the Department of Extranormal Operations, but doesn’t toe their line either, using them instead as a scope to focus her intentions and then continuing to work to her own ends. Kate has a formidable inner compass and its needle is never pointing to any north but her own.
Kate’s status as a member of the LGBT community serves to augment the strength and loyalty we are shown as part of her character, but it does not define it. Everyone around Kate Kane wants her to be the version of her that they’ve created around the fact of who she is. They want her to be a good daughter, an obedient soldier, an attentive girlfriend, a supportive cousin, an open friend, a predictable teammate, and an unquestioning subordinate. She works to be those things, or at least to present the image that she is in the ways that they’re important to her, but she doesn’t waste her time trying squeeze herself into molds that don’t fit. The importance of Kate Kane as a character is that she shows us--not just the queer us, but also the straight and questioning and hurting and struggling us-- that we don’t have to be what the people around us want us to be in order to keep their love.
Queer women are no strangers to masks. We wear them every day. Most of them are of our own making, but some of them are created for us by the people around us. Our friends, family members, and co-workers have specific ideas of who we are and often we choose not to disabuse them of these notions, because it’s easier or because we’re afraid of what they’ll think or because it doesn’t matter. What’s most important is that we know who we are at our cores and let that guide us.
We don’t have to conform to gender or community stereotypes if we don’t respect them. We need only to be strong and loyal and love those close to us to the best of our abilities. Kate Kane is a reminder that the love and judgment of others doesn't have to define us. That as queer women there's still a long way to go before everyone around us will accept us for all that we are. Even if our secret lives don't involve kick-ass boots and a cape.