Ryan Wilder, the New Batwoman: Fresh Take On a Popular Character? Or Obvious Damage Control?
We want representation and diversity but we also don’t want to be the cleanup crew for sinking ships.
Javicia Leslie has polarized CW viewers and the world alike in taking up the mantle of the CW’s Batwoman
For many of us in the LGBTQ+ community, the Batwoman character aka Kate Kane was an exciting prospect for representation, especially as an action lead. Finally, we could celebrate a superhero that’s no longer a supporting or side character. Maybe, just maybe, we might avoid the Bury Your Gays trope that has plagued the media for generations. It’s important to have someone who actually is part of the LGBTQ+ community play the lead character in entertainment that influences pop culture in significant ways.
They cast Ruby Rose, of Orange Is the New Black fame, as the titular character. Some people were excited, as finally someone who was actually queer could play a queer role and be the lead! I and many others were less than enthused. Quite frankly, Rose was never the strongest actress, especially one to carry an entire series. From the start, the CW made a massive judgement in error in their casting choice for their lead. Worse yet, they would make an even worse casting decision when they opted to whitewash Julia Pennyworth in the series.
Whoo Chile… The Whitewashing!
People must not have known that the Julia Pennyworth character existed, aside from hardcore comic fans. Thus the controversy for the character’s whitewashing didn’t exactly break the internet. For a little context, Julia Pennyworth is the daughter of Alfred Pennyworth of Batman lore. Julia actually was white in the Pre-Flashpoint or Pre-52 continuity. But it was the New 52/Rebirth version of the character the CW was pulling from when they chose their version.
In the New 52/Rebirth version, Julia, still the daughter of Alfred, was now a visibly Black biracial woman. It was the visibly Black Julia who interacted with Kate and may have had feelings for her, and vice versa. So when it came time for the CW to utilize the character, they opted to cast a white actress in the role, despite this particular version having been Black.
Let’s discuss the differences between racebending and whitewashing. Changing a previously white character to ethnic allows for more opportunities for ethnic performers and characters to be visible in otherwise white-dominated spaces of storytelling. Whitewashing erases the already rare representation of previously ethnic characters into white (especially in speculative fiction source materials), are not the same thing. In other words, racebending offers opportunities, whitewashing takes them away.
To deal with the mild backlash, Batwoman showrunner Caroline Dries claimed that the reason for the casting was because they planned to have Julia don the batsuit. They felt no one would mistake a Black woman for the white Kate Kane which is a flimsy excuse to say the least when trying to justify whitewashing. First of all (and let me know in the comments below…) did Kate Kane’s Batwoman pose for the tabloids? Did she take part in interviews? Would the criminals she beat up confess her race? Even then would anyone care or believe anything they would have to say about her? Don’t bat-vigilantes regularly operate in the shadows? Was Kate Kane regularly showing her masked face???
Better yet, did the showrunners have to have Julia wear the suit? Could they not have figured out another storyline altogether if race was really such an issue at the time? For more juicy tea on this casting controversy, I definitely recommend checking out Princess Weekes’ (editor of The Mary Sue also on YouTube as MelinaPendulum) two articles as well as video if you’d like to know more about the subject.
The Antiblackness of the CW Fandom
Maybe behind the scenes the developers thought, at the time, that having three Black main characters would be too much. There was already Sophie Moore and Luke Fox played by Meagan Tandy and Camrus Johnson, respectively. Everyone should be aware of the anti-black racist fandom of the CW by now. This is the same fandom that has discriminated against Kat Graham’s Bonnie Bennett from The Vampire Diaries and Candice Patton’s Iris West-Allen on The Flash, among various others, for years. But beyond fan reception, the CW has also failed at race when it comes to adapting various ethnic characters.
The CW Has Failed at Adapting Characters Many Times
Mister Terrific on Arrow was weakened considerably from the comics, whom the series also reimagined as gay. Now Black and gay, he had been made the weakest Arrow team member and a complete and utter baffoon. Batwoman had already stripped down the Luke Fox character in a similar vein. He is a civilian out of action playing a mission-control type role similar to Alfred instead of being the vigilante Batwing, like his comics counterpart. Believe it or not, even whiteness did not save other characters. The CW also weakened, disrespected, gaslit, constantly replaced, and unceremoniously killed off Dinah “Laurel” Lance (R.I.P.) on Arrow. The CW is not the best when it comes to adapting characters across the board.
But back to Batwoman y’all! Forgive me, I’m a Gemini and my mind often goes all over the place. Just follow my line of thinking, I assure you there’s method to this madness!
With the diminishing of the Luke Fox character as well as the whitewashing of Julia Pennyworth and the underwhelming performance of Ruby Rose, I gave up on the show. That was until we got word of Ruby Rose’s departure and the subsequent casting of Javicia Leslie as Ryan Wilder. I was simultaneously excited and dreading the decision. I was excited because finally a medium-dark skinned Black woman was going to be the lead of a superhero series. But I also dreaded the fact that white writers and showrunners were handling a Black lead for a notoriously anti-black fandom.
The CW Has Constantly Failed Black Talent, Especially Black Women
Aside from Black Lightning (and no, I don’t watch All-American), I have not expected the CW to get Black characters right. Plus it’s only just now that they are trying to make up for past mistakes such as the sidelining and/or vanishing of Black characters on other series such as Vanessa Morgan’s Toni Topaz (You go girl for speaking up and speaking out!), Ashleigh Murray’s Josie McCoy, Hayley Law as Valerie Brown, Asha Bromfield as Melody Valentine (I seriously can’t get over how they had an all-Black Josie and the Pussycats, with that gorgeous sound, and let them go!), Jordan Calloway as Chuck Clayton (who they villainized and turned into a slut-shamer and creep, and neglected to bring in his longtime Black girlfriend Nancy Woods), as well as Eli Goree as Mad Dog all on the CW’s Riverdale.
A Commitment to Show Up for a Promising Black Star, Who Needs Our Support
So no, I wasn’t expecting much from this new season of Batwoman given the CW’s track record with minority characters. But I knew I had to support Batwoman in order to show them that we want Javicia to stay. We also want them to continue to put Black talent in front of and behind the camera. I knew the production value might not be the best, that the writing and development might be sloppy, especially with the lack of Black writers, but I still needed to show my support.
Javicia’s Performance, Among Others, is Solid. The Rest of the Show is a Bit Lacking
In watching the first two episodes, I quickly noted how much more expressive and emotive Javicia was as a lead, a much stronger actress and character. The writing, especially the “I’m just a number” speech felt both contrived and unnecessary (Ryan didn’t know Luke or Mary. Why would, or should, she explain herself to them in the first place?) and the writing of the speech felt very ‘white person tries to handle blackness today’ realness without having any Black people in the room to authenticate it. I don’t know a Black person in this country who would speak like that. But this, again, is the fault of the writing, not the actress.
So to clarify, Javicia’s acting is an absolute delight, but unfortunately so far the production value, some of the performances of some of the other actors is noticeably lacking compared to hers, the writing is spotty, and I’m unsure of the direction the series will lead. But Alice remains a hammy delight for me, Meagan’s performance as Sophie is solid (though I see you, showrunners, using one Black woman to play bad cop against another Black woman, instead of allowing the harsh realities of antiblackness in the police force shine through with a nonblack officer), and the action sequences seem better to me than the initial five or six episodes of season one I saw before Julia’s casting announcement made me rage quit that season.
What was the reason for the Racebending?
Speaking of Julia, I can’t help but wonder if Javicia’s casting was to capitalize on the social climate of #BlackLivesMatter and the various deaths of innocent Black people we’ve suffered, to make up for the whitewashing of Julia, or some combination of the two. I suppose we might never know for sure, but I hope they improve on the series, allowing Javicia’s time and talents not to be wasted. Hopefully, we will get some suitable replacements for the now-ending Black Lightning (a Thunder/Grace-led Outsiders spin-off, anyone?) and that the CW does right by their Black and LGBTQ+ talent in front of and behind the camera as well as their fans who desperately need to see themselves reflected on the screen, and represented well.
Batwoman airs new episodes every Sunday on the CW.
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