The Well Written Female Characters of Gotham
If you haven’t watched Fox TV’s Gotham yet stop reading this post and read my spoiler-free introduction -unless you are one of those people who likes to know what will happen at the end of a series before you even start watching it.
As with many things, Gotham has its fans and its haters. Most of the complaints against the show are due to people not liking how many Batman characters are running around, and/or not liking the integration of modern technology amongst the steampunky landscape. Personally, I enjoy both of those features and I was instantly a fan after watching the first episode. I continue to be a fan in no small part because I can trust Gotham to depict women and girls fairly, honestly, and sans gratuitous gender-based violence or sexual objectification.
I want to take a moment to emphasize my feelings of trust, because trust is not a term I throw around lightly. It wasn’t until the final story arc of the first season that I realized Gotham had earned mine. I’m not the type to watch documentaries or crime shows about serial killers, but the Ogre serial killer plot in the last four episodes captivated me.
The Ogre, played by Milo Ventimiglia (aka Peter Patrelli in Heroes), is introduced to us as a rich, handsome romantic, not unlike the character Christian Grey from 50 Shades of Grey (a problematic story if you aren’t familiar with it).
We see him at a swanky bar with an attractive woman, confess that he is searching for unconditional love, successfully woo his date, and take her back to his place. In the morning he insists on her staying for breakfast, but she insists on having to leave. She has a demanding morning scheduled, and she needs to get to work. His insistence turns to violence and he physically prevents her from leaving.
Later on in the episode we return to the Ogre’s high end apartment, and the Ogre and the woman are sitting at opposite ends of the table. The woman is clearly distraught and her hands are bound. She trembles as she apologizes for the quality of the food she has prepared and is on the verge of a breakdown. The Ogre tries to create a sense of familial warmth (which reeks of falsehood), asking her how her day was and then waits for her to ask him the same question. She upsets him. She doesn’t act the way he wants her to act. She doesn’t love him unconditionally, and so, she isn’t “the one”. According to the logic of the Ogre, this means she must die.
He takes her to a chamber filled with implements of torture and hangs her by her wrists. He explains that it’s not her, it’s him. He’s the problem. She just isn’t “the one”. He murders her. We learn through Jim and Harvey that the Ogre has been kidnapping and murdering women for over a decade, and that the Gotham City Police Department (GCPD) has kept it under wraps out of fear of repercussions (the Ogre has murdered the family members of police officers who have tried to close the case). As Jim and Harvey get closer to the Ogre, he lashes out and captures Barbara. Instead of killing her, he decides that she is finally “the one” he has been looking for.
Everything I have described so far is terrible. The Ogre is a terrible character, and he does terrible things to women. In so many shows this would be an opportunity to fetishize* the violence and sexually objectify the victim. It’s the kind of story that other movies and shows have chosen to let the camera linger on, or pan the camera slowly across, the victim’s body for the male gaze. Instead, the camera focuses on the emotions playing across the characters faces. It captures the danger and precariousness of the victim’s situation without the threat of (or actual) sexual violence.
Normally, when a serial killer with a torture room is a plot to any story, I want no part in watching it. I realized I trusted the writers, producers, and directors of Gotham when I finished the series without batting an eye at the Ogre storyline. In retrospect, I think this is because throughout the first season we have seen other women and men in situations where they are going to be, or have been, tortured in some way and I knew how the writers handled these scenes. They didn’t force us to watch the violence to excess and they didn’t sexualize the violence. To reiterate my point, they captured the danger without showing us the details.
There is another scene within that same story arc where Harvey is going undercover at a high-class brothel called the Fox Glove. Brothel and strip club scenes are heavily made use of in the entertainment industry. It’s hard to sit through one that doesn’t have a camera shot between a stripper’s legs, or doesn’t spend time letting the audience be temporary patrons enjoying the show. Moreover, if the protagonists have to talk to any of the strippers in such scenes, the strippers are often portrayed as either unintelligent and happy or intelligent and broken. After watching the scene with Harvey at the Fox Glove, I wanted to give Gotham a standing ovation for avoiding all of those things.
The Fox Glove is a kinky place. Women and men, and background characters whose biological sex is indeterminable, are dressed to fulfill the patron’s fetishes. As Harvey walks through the brothel the camera gives us Harvey’s point of view and Harvey’s expressions as he steps way out of his comfort zone. The camera does not linger or pan any individual background characters, but instead gives us the overall bizarre scene. When Harvey reaches the stage a show is about to start and a voluptuous black woman, who is the owner of the Fox Glove, steps on stage to introduce the main event. The camera focuses on Harvey’s face as we hear a horse whinny, the oinking of a pig, a chainsaw, and other indecipherable sounds. “Ah, hell no,” Harvey says, then raises a hand clutching his badge and announces that everyone is under arrest by the GCPD.
What I love most about the scene was the decision to let what was happening on stage be up to the audience’s imagination. Instead of giving us a mini-burlesque show, we see Harvey’s reactions and his decision to bust the joint. Honestly, it made me laugh to see how uncomfortable he was. The brothel scene was humorous, confusing (what was happening on that stage?!), gave us insight into Harvey’s character, and furthered the storyline (after the bust they find information leading them to the Ogre).
If you haven’t seen the show, you’re probably wondering still why it’s worth watching Gotham if the most laudatory moments are for not depicting women in brothels and torture chambers through lenses of sexual objectification. I started with these two scenes because I think they say a lot about the pains the show takes to treat the women characters on equal footing with the men characters. The serial killer story arc is something I actively avoid, and stripper/brothel scenes usually leave a bad taste in my mouth, but in the case of Gotham my enjoyment of the show was not ruined by the inclusion of both of those things. I should also note that when it comes to violence, death, and torture, there is enough to go around for both the men and women characters in the show, as both victims and aggressors.
In my post on the first episode of Gotham I listed five characters that I thought showed promise, especially with regard to representing women in the media. Not all of the characters I originally listed became fully fleshed out, but other women characters were introduced as the season continued. Here are my top four favorite women characters, and my favorite scene they starred in:
Fish never disappoints. She has one mission, and that is to be in charge by any means necessary. She is cold and calculating, but her loyalty to those who have helped her runs deep. My favorite scenes of Fish Mooney are the ones that show her relationship with Butch. At first Butch seemed like any unremarkable lackey. Over time we realize these two love each other. Not romantic love, but the love of comrades and friends. My equally favorite scene is at the end of the series. Despite her warning to Maroni not to call her “babes”, he continues to do so while mocking her wishes. As with many cat-callers, he insists “babes” is a compliment. Each time he says it you can see the tension rise and her muscles twitch. Maroni doesn’t get the hint, and Fish releases the full wrath of her anger and pulls the trigger, shooting Maroni in the head.
The young Catwoman is a complicated girl. Abandoned by a mother she claims is a secret spy, Selina lives by her wits and has no moral qualms about doing whatever is best for her own interests. She cares about her friends, but she is temperamental. Watching the strange friendship unfold between her and the young Bruce Wayne is interesting, and Bruce frequently relies upon her knowledge and quickness to get them into and out of tough spots.
My favorite scene of Selina’s is when Barbara discovers Selina is freeloading off her apartment with Ivy Pepper. Instead of kicking the girls out, the desperately lonely and alcoholic Barbara embraces the young girls. At one point, Barbara enlists Selina’s help trying to pick out a dress for her planned visit to the GCPD, ostensibly to win back Jim Gordon. She attempts to pass on some “womanly wisdom” to Selina about embracing her prettiness and using it as a weapon. Selina looks at Barbara in disgust, and reprimands her (“What good’s it done you?”) for trying to thrust her worldview onto her. I liked this scene for multiple reasons. First, women who are conventionally attractive have the female privilege of using their looks to help get what they want, but that privilege only goes so far and must fit within a larger narrative of a patriarchal society who values a woman’s looks. Selina either sees the flaws in this system or she is too young to understand the power (and pitfalls) of being attractive.
Doctor Leslie Thompkins
Usually referred to as Thompkins rather than her first name Leslie, actress Morena Baccarin (aka Inara from Firefly) does a fantastic job playing this psych ward doctor turned GCPD medical examiner. She dates Jim, and their relationship is the polar opposite of Jim and Barbara’s. My favorite scene is when Thompkins convinces Jim to go with her to follow the obscure clues provided by the circus fortune teller in order to solve a murder. Jim is overbearing in wanting to protect her from harm as they walk under the Arkham Bridge in the dark of the night. Thompkins reprimands him for being hypocritical and saying he wants to be with a strong woman, but acting like he wants a stay at home wife.
The four women I’ve just waxed on about are not the only women characters worth watching, they just happen to be my favorite. One character that I am very curious about, whose storyline started then stopped, is Renee Montoya. What happened to her? After the first few episodes, the Major Crimes Unit (MCU) disappeared from the show completely. I’m not sure what decisions were behind that, but I was hoping to see more of her character and the clash between the MCU and Jim Gordon. Of course, Jim clashes with everyone so maybe they thought the MCU was one clash too many. Here’s hoping she’ll come back in season two.
In what is probably my longest post to-date for Her Story Arc, I hope I’ve left you hungering for more of Gotham. This show has won a place in my heart alongside Vikings. Alas, we must wait until September of this year for more!
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*I want to point out that I am not referring in any way to BDSM, which requires and demands consenting adult partners.