I’m used to getting raised eyebrows when I tell people that I enjoy Fox’s Gotham. As someone who often rails about the portrayal of women, why do I tune into a show that, on one hand, gives us complex women like Selina Kyle and Fish Mooney, but on the other hand, routinely batters and/or kills off its women? With the show returning for its third season, it’s a good question to explore. Can Gotham be considered a feminist show? Does the amount of stuffed fridges outweigh the number of strong female protagonists?
Gotham is a conundrum, much like Game of Thrones. Both shows feature a small handful of complex, well-written women trying to survive in a man’s world where violence is often the answer, and where women are often the victims of that violence. And like Game of Thrones, many of the major characters in Gotham are men. We have Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock, Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth, and Lucius Fox as the main protagonists, and Oswald Cobblepot and Edward Nygma as the usual antagonists slash occasional anti-heroes. When other heroes and villains are brought in, they’re men more often than not.
But does this mean then that Gotham is sexist? Un-feminist? That’s a complex question.
I think it would be disingenuous to say that Gotham, the city, is not sexist. Women are stalked, beaten, and/or killed in this world, largely at the whims of men. Jim, like most of the other men on the show, is emotionally constipated, and most problems end up getting solved with fists. Bruce, a sensitive and kind boy, is routinely taught by Alfred, a brusque former soldier, that he needs to man up and think more logically. The city is full of Nice Guys like Edward Nygma and The Ogre, who feel they’re entitled to women’s bodies and act out in abusive and murderous ways when they don’t get it. Gotham has always been a masculine, film noir-ish city, and all the female characters have to navigate around that.
It’s not likely Gotham passes the Bechdel-Wallace test every episode because there’s not enough women to always accomplish that. In terms of intersectional feminism, Gotham’s track record with women of color and queer women is also not great. As of episode one of season three, three of the four main black women introduced in the show have been killed, with one, Fish Mooney, resurrected at the end of season two. Season three added in Jamie Chung’s Valerie Vale, who is the first Asian woman to have a speaking role on the show. Renee Montoya, only one of two Latinas on the show, was treated as an antagonist to Jim for Barbara Kean’s affections, and she played into the evil lesbian trope before being inexplicably written out. The openly bisexual characters, Barbara and Tabitha, are psychotic murderers.
Fridging — a term coined by Gail Simone to describe when a woman’s death is used as a plot device — is also common in Gotham, and particularly used to establish the villains. Victor Fries officially becomes Mr. Freeze after the death of his wife. Oswald Cobblepot’s mother is killed in front of him, and then Oswald gains his father’s inheritance by murdering his father’s wife and kids. Edward Nygma becomes the Riddler because he accidentally chokes the woman he loves to death. Theo Galavan completes his full transformation into the villain Azrael by stabbing his sister Tabitha (who is shown to have survived the attempted murder in season three). Commissioner Sarah Essen is killed by Jerome Valeska, a Joker prototype, to show how truly awful he and the Arkham inmates are. Jerome was also originally sent to Arkham for murdering his mother. Carmine Falcone chokes a woman named Liza to death after finding out she’s betrayed him. And even Fish is killed off by Oswald, who takes over the turf she leaves behind.
And yes, all of these men are villains, so of course they’re going to be immoral and ruthless. But one of Gotham’s strengths is fleshing out the villains’ backstories and making them sympathetic in ways. Riddler and Penguin are both fascinating and often times funny characters, and their actors are young, attractive, and really inhabit the roles. Jerome, as awful as he was, was a mesmerizing Joker (and better than Leto’s version, fight me). The Ogre, a serial killer, was played by the handsome Milo Ventimiglia in a suit. Falcone is certainly not cute, but he’s portrayed as a wizened old man who used to be friends with Jim’s father. We’re inclined to like these men, and so we are complicit in normalizing the violence they enact.
So, that all sounds kind of terrible. But on the flip side of all of this, Fish Mooney and Selina Kyle undoubtedly pass the Mako Mori test, with both often carrying out their own plans completely separate from any of the men. And they are unapologetically feminist characters in their own right, with both often taking leadership roles and refusing to bend to any man’s will. Fish and Selina even team up occasionally, and season three opens with the two of them working together yet again.
Leslie Thompkins, while clearly brought in initially to play the Madonna to Barbara Kean’s whore, was important to several plot-lines as the GCPD medical practitioner and was instrumental in discovering that Ed Nygma killed his girlfriend. With season three it looks like she’s no longer going to be a major part of the show, but she was vital to the GCPD while she was around. And Barbara…well, I don’t know what to say about Barbara since she was written so unfairly in the past, but she has, at the very least, been given more to do than she ever was in the comics. Some say even with all it’s issues the writing of her is an improvement, and with season three it looks like she’s fully embracing the woman she’s become. I know a lot of people don’t like her, and by all accounts she’s absolutely mad. But she’s also a woman who’s being given free reign to be just as villainous and conniving as the men, and I am admittedly fond of her.
Do these things erase everything else? No, of course not. But I do appreciate that Gotham goes to lengths to show that even in an oppressively male and violent city, the women find ways to survive and support each other. I like that Selina watches out for her friends Ivy Pepper and Bridgit Pike. I like that Tabitha is shown to be a ruthless, masochistic assassin who will follow any order her brother gives her, but as soon as he reveals he means to hurt their niece Silver, Tabitha turns on him and pushes Silver out of harm’s way. I like that Leslie is the only one in the precinct who continues to ask where Nygma’s girlfriend is until she’s found. And I like that Bridgit Pike triumphs over her abusers.
I like that there are women who are fully fleshed out human beings with their own motivations, who look like they actually dressed themselves, and who aren’t framed in a way that’s clearly pandering to the male gaze. I like that Selina wears practical jeans and goggles while Fish wears gaudy jewelry and flashy outfits.
The show is not perfect, and I would never pretend that all these issues about women aren’t there. This past summer they announced that they would be swapping out the actress for Ivy from 14-year-old Clare Foley to 28-year-old Maggie Geha in a slinky green dress, so I already know there’s going to be plenty of reasons for me to continue giving the show the side-eye. But I’m hopeful too.
The newest episode by and far passed the Bechdel-Wallace and Mako Mori tests. We got treated to scenes of Selina protecting Ivy and being a cat burglar with Fish, and Tabitha and Barbara acting diabolical and running their own nightclub as a couple. Like the latest season of Game of Thrones, Gotham has an opportunity to really make all these female-driven alliances shine, and I’m excited to see them all rise up together. And Valerie Vale’s debut as a spunky, hard-nosed journalist makes me excited to see more of her interactions with Jim and the GCPD. I’m not expecting Gotham to be one big ode to women. I’m just hoping the show does right by them.