Batwoman's Recasting Gives the Show the Perfect Opportunity to Talk about Race and Policing

Ruby Rose as Batwoman, Javicia Leslie at a screening of Bombshell.
Ruby Rose as Batwoman, Javicia Leslie at a screening of Bombshell.
Photo: The CW, John Lamparski for Getty Images (Getty Images)

With Javicia Leslie set to lead Batwoman following Ruby Rose’s sudden departure, the series’ second season is in a rather interesting position to bring something fresh to the CW’s pantheon of superhero TV shows.

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Though Batwoman isn’t the first of the network’s shows to feature its central hero dealing with the police, the circumstances of Leslie’s character Ryan Wilder becoming the new Batwoman gives the show a unique opportunity. By passing the Batwoman mantle on to another character rather than simply recasting another actor to portray Kate Kane, Batwoman’s creative team is purposefully drawing attention to the fact that Ryan Wilder’s her own person, presumably with a distinct perspective and sense of justice informed by her lived experiences. The series can now explore important and complicated stories about how a superhero’s race, class, and wealth factor into the way they’re perceived by the public and how the police interact with them.

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When the CW announced Leslie’s arrival to the series, the network described Ryan as a former drug runner and street fighter who left her life of crime behind in search of something better for herself. Ryan, the CW emphasized, is “very much not your stereotypical All-American hero,” which could be interpreted in a number of different ways, but in the context of the network’s press release, it was very easy to read it as an acknowledgment of her being a Black woman.

Though Rose’s Kate Kane was something of a black sheep, her relationship with her family and with the Crows (by way of her father)—who more often than not act as Gotham’s police more than GCPD proper in Batwoman’s universe—made her every bit a member of the city’s elite that her cousin Bruce’s known for being. By contrast, Ryan’s origins place her squarely in Gotham’s poor and working-class who presumably are every bit as wary of the city’s police as they are of its countless criminals. In order for Ryan to really be a three-dimensional character, the series has to treat those aspects of Ryan’s larger identity as more than simple pieces of her backstory. Batwoman should actually do the work and dig into what it means to be a Black person raised on Gotham’s streets with particular attention paid to how the police interact with its Black citizens.

As Batwoman, Ryan’s going to be uniquely situated to act as Gotham’s best line of defense against supervillainy while also having to deal with GCPD on a regular basis. In a simpler, less bigoted world, one could imagine Ryan—who is clearly a Black woman—showing up in her Batsuit, doing the hero thing, and then grapple-gunning off into the night without making much of a fuss. But a more believable and compelling story would naturally feature a range of responses both positive and negative from civilians and police about the fact that a Black woman’s replaced the former hero who only just started operating as a vigilante in Gotham herself.

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Obviously, the arc of Ryan’s path bends towards justice, and her becoming a proper superhero is going to afford her the power to fight the good fight on a grander, more spectacular scale. Recognizing supervillains as a threat to society is easy enough to do and isn’t the most noteworthy thing about most heroes. Instead, it’s their personal senses of right and wrong that define them as people and give us a way to relate to them.

Series like Black Lightning and Watchmen have both recognized and leaned into the idea that even in a world filled with capes and near-apocalypses, systemic racism that’s in part perpetuated by corrupt, immoral police officers is a very real thing that can’t be solved with a few punches and kicks. Outsider though Kate may have been, both her privilege and her whiteness more than certainly afforded her the luxury of not having to actively guard herself against Gotham’s police every second of the day, something about both her and Batman that plays a role in how they interact with the GCPD in their capacities as superheroes.

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The same isn’t true of Ryan, and it would be interesting to see Batwoman account for that reality in her approach to crimefighting. It’s difficult to imagine a Gotham—or any of DC’s fictional cities, frankly—in which the police are free of the kinds of racial biases that lead to the over-policing of Black and brown neighborhoods. When you consider Crows like Miguel Robles, the officer who was paid to harass Lucius Fox only to then shoot and accidentally murder him and then frame another Black man for the killing, it’s hard not to think of Batwoman’s Gotham as a city that’s lousy with crooked cops with hundreds of complaints from the community having been filed about them. Based on the CW’s description of Ryan alone, it doesn’t seem as if she hasn’t had the best of histories with the police, and she’ll be a different sort of Batwoman because of that.

Ousting racists from GCPD isn’t Ryan’s job, and it shouldn’t be the whole of Batwoman’s focus for its new heroine, but the series would be much stronger for not shying away from these ideas and instead, using them to make its world feel more grounded in the reality its viewers are living in.

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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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DISCUSSION

F-D-BryantIII
F. D. Bryant III

I have to admit I don’t understand how diverse representation works sometimes. I mean I would have thought that replacing rich white lesbian superhero with black homeless drug runner & addict LGBQT+ superhero would have generated some controversy and commentary. But nope, zip that I have seen.

Reminds me of when they miraculously returned Barbara Gordon to being Batgirl. I thought there would be some outrage of taking a paralyzed character that made herself a valuable member of several superhero teams and restoring her to being an able-bodied character. But nothing that I ever saw.

Shrugs, kinda doesn’t matter to me, I watch TV and read comics for the entertainment - but given the Internets tendency to outrage at the drop of a hat I’d of thought these would be bigger issues.