As readers of DC would know, Julia Pennyworth is an established character in the comics, a mixed-race character who presents as such. Her father is Alfred, a white man, but her mother was a woman of colour. Since the New 52 and DC Rebirth, Pennyworth has been a woman of colour and she looks like a Black woman.
So why, oh why, is the actor playing her in Batwoman a white woman?
Look, there was an earlier version of Pennyworth who was white. However, this version was erased and replaced in the ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ arc that created the New 52—with little to no fuss. I looked through reviews of the Batman: Eternal arc where Julia was featured prominently and nobody seemed to have taken any umbrage to the obvious change of race. Writer/creator of the New 52 Julia, Scott Snyder, explained the re-introduction of Julia to CBR thus: “You don’t often get a chance to change the mythology that way and [play with new things].”
Every part of the Batwoman version of Julia is definitely based on New 52 Julia, except for her race. As The Mary Sue explained, the Julia Pennyworth in Batwoman has a similar background—New 52 Julia was a former Special Reconnaissance Regiment Agent and joined the Bat Family in place of her father after he was attacked by Hush. Ever since, she has dipped in and out of Batwoman’s superhero team, and has coordinated the Bat Family and mentored Kate.
Which is exactly what the Julia Pennyworth in Batwoman is said to have done. Which means that a canonical character’s race has been changed in a live-action property. This is infuriating, especially in a show like Batwoman that is so deeply devoted to fighting against homophobia and misogyny.
My question when something like this happens—as it inevitably does in the entertainment arena—is why does race have to get left behind in these fights against marginalisation? If your stance against marginalisation conveniently leaves out race, then it isn’t intersectional and it is not the best political outlook for The CW, which has had a long history of whitewashing characters of colour and not standing by the characters or actors of colour it does have.
In the DC Comics, White Canary, Sin, and Ra’s Al Ghul all have Asian heritage, but in the Arrowverse, they are all played by white actors: Caity Lotz, Bex Taylor-Klaus, and Matt Nable. At least Al Ghul’s daughters—Nyssa and Talia—are played by Asian-heritage actors, but why not Al Ghul then?
Supergirl’s Detective Maggie Sawyer was effectively a Latina character, but she was played by the Italian-American Floriana Lima.
The Nerds of Color has a more complete breakdown of all the other whitewashing incidents in the Arrowverse so I won’t get into it here—suffice it to say it has happened far too often for this Julia Pennyworth snafu to be considered a one-off.
Things aren’t better behind the scenes either—Keiynan Lonsdale’s Kid Flash was all but forgotten on The Flash, and his short run on Legends of Tomorrow deserved to be longer. The Flash actor Candice Patton has dealt with racism from fans since she was cast, but The CW team, and even her white colleagues, have rarely stepped up to defend her or back her up.
While I was watching Batwoman: ‘Tell Me The Truth,’ I also wondered why they had Julia Pennyworth at all. She has the most ignominious of introductions—she essentially interrupts Batwoman’s mission, thus letting a dangerous villain get away, all so she can determine that Batwoman is Kate.
We eventually learn that she mentored Kate, and that their first meeting was based on a lie—Pennyworth didn’t tell Kate who she was or that Bruce Wayne had sent her to keep an eye on his cousin. This is all meant to show how Kate fits into Gotham and the larger Bat-verse. Still not a good excuse to change the race of a character, though.
Then the plot thickens—Kate and Pennyworth were actually a couple, which alludes to the Batwoman comics where she has mentioned her attraction to Kate. Which is yet another reminder of the fact that Pennyworth should be mixed-race!
It was only near the end of ‘Tell Me The Truth’ that I realised why Pennyworth was essential to the episode, and why a white woman—specifically—had been cast in the role.
Sophie Moore (Meagan Tandy), the love of Kate’s life and the woman who broke her heart, has pretty much discovered Batwoman’s identity. To get Sophie off her scent, Kate has Pennyworth dress up as Batwoman. The plan works, and Sophie accepts that Kate isn’t Batwoman, thus protecting her identity.
And that is the only reason why Pennyworth was in this episode, and why she “had” to be played by a white woman in Batwoman. For the purpose of that one scene, a canonical woman of colour—who are few and far between in the world of comics—was replaced by a white woman.
And Batwoman showrunner Caroline Dries confirmed my theory in an interview with EW. What Dries says actually makes the whole situation worse:
CAROLINE DRIES: Yeah, we stressed about that a lot. And the reason is we knew we wanted a character to come in [and] put on the Batwoman suit so we could fool Sophie, and we also fell in love with the idea of using Julia Pennyworth. Then when we realized that Sophie would not be fooled by a mixed race Batwoman, we were like, “Oh s–t, you know, but we decided just to own it and go with it anyway.”
In other words, Dries and co. needed someone who could pretend to be Kate, but they really wanted Julia Pennyworth, not some unknown or new character. So, they decided to just go for it, instead of considering the dodgy optics of replacing a Black woman with a white woman.
That’s not how this works! That’s not how any of this works! There could have been a myriad number of ways for Kate to distance herself from Batwoman without having to make Pennyworth white—use a mask, make a robot, make a clone. Batwoman has a ton of white make-up on her face to mask her identity anyway, just add some more on an actual mixed-race woman. Or don’t have Sophie going right up into Batwoman’s face for the scene.
The possibilities are endless if you don’t want to replace a woman of colour with a white woman, but The CW, Dries, et al, didn’t think of that, and now we canonically have one less person of colour in the Arrowverse.
This situation is made worse by the fact that the HBO Watchmen series has just revealed that a character of colour was able to pass as white in their vigilante costume due to some clever make-up use. This could have easily been accomplished on Batwoman if someone had been bold enough to recognise that the default for all characters doesn’t have to be white!
But is it surprising when the Batwoman writers’ room itself is overwhelmingly white? A quick search online has revealed that only two or three of the thirteen writers on Batwoman are people of colour, as opposed to eight of twelve Watchmen writers. Sigh.
What’s most frustrating about this scenario is that ‘Tell Me The Truth’ was a fairly good episode otherwise.
We got to see Sophie’s point of view about denouncing her homosexuality, which allowed her to stay on at the Point Rock military academy. We also saw how steadfast and strong she is about her work, her career, and the people in her life.
Despite losing Kate, whom she clearly loved, Sophie has gone on to do a lot of great things, though it does mean that she is back in the closet. Hopefully she will be able to rectify that situation, and one hopes that her husband will stand by her side through that process.
Alongside everything we now know about Sophie, we also got to revel in how out and proud Kate is. Not only did she willingly give up her military career to be her true self but she continues to fight homophobia whenever she can.
The scene at the restaurant where Kate and Sophie are almost thrown out by a homophobic proprietor was on-the-nose and fist-pumpingly cool. I loved how Kate unabashedly created a scene, and that, in wonderful queer revenge fashion, she bought the building opposite the restaurant to turn into a gay bar.
It was great to see all these moments about queer culture—so many of which are true to life and will resonate with queer audiences.
But some of that work is undone by changing Julia Pennyworth’s race. I have absolutely adored Batwoman thus far, and I will probably continue to do so, but I am deeply disturbed by the fact that something as essential as a character’s race could be so easily erased.
Especially because there is no quick remedy for this—unless it is announced that this Julia Pennyworth was fake all along and somehow managed to fool Bruce and Alfred (that’s not going to happen).
In a way, I’m glad that Julia Pennyworth only lasted one episode—but it does mean that if Batwoman were to bring her back in future episodes, the problem of erasure would continue.
Even though we know that Batwoman will strive to do great work with its queer representation and feminism, it needs to make a strong entry into the conversation about race—more than any other Arrowverse show, I was expecting better from Batwoman and I am seriously feeling let down.