Friday, 20 July 2012

"Honey, go wait for me in the kitchen": the Dark Knight Trilogy and Gender

I've got a couple of manufacturer's warnings to throw at you before we get on with today's post.

First off, over the next few days, Black Cat Reviews will be doing an overview of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. These posts are going to be full of spoilers. They're gonna be spoiler-riffic. Chock full of spoilers, with a side of spoilers. Why? Because it's damn near impossible to give a satisfactory overview of a film if you're only going to talk about the first two thirds of it. You have been warned. From hereon in it's spoilers here, spoilers there, spoilers spoilers everywhere. If that bothers you, watch and then read.

Second, this is a feminist film blog. From time to time I'm going to bore you by talking about un-fun things like the male gaze, institutionalized misogyny, and OTHER LADY STUFF. Today, I'm going to be talking about LADY STUFF. So if you're not a lady, or if you don't like ladies, let me send you elsewhere.

Those are my disclaimers. Why does this post have disclaimers? Because it's not a movie review exactly, but more my collected observations on a trend I've observed in the Dark Knight trilogy. I have dubbed this trend Christopher Nolan's Lady Problem. And it's a real doozy.

What lady problem?, you may ask. Where to start? Here are some people who exist in Chris Nolan's Dark Knight movie-verse:


Great! What a spiffy bunch.

But here are some people who do not exist in the Dark Knight movie-verse:

According to IMDB (disclaimer: I counted by hand so these numbers are guaranteed imperfect), there are roughly 570 characters in the Dark Knight trilogy as a whole (that's including everyone, even "Gotham Rogues Fan" and "Gangbanger/Assailant"). About 80 of them are ladies (again, I'm counting everyone, even "Ballerina" and "Angry Hospital Relative"). That's less than 15%.

Christopher Nolan. We need to talk. Why is your Gotham such a sausage fest?

Before the naysayers start saying nay, let me deal with what I imagine will be the two main objections to this line of thought:

1. That "lots of canon male characters didn't make it into the Dark Knight trilogy" and you "can't use everyone."

I know that you can't use (and for that matter, can't please) everyone. That's why I'm not throwing a hissy fit over the fact that the Riddler never popped up. But with a few exceptions -- Martha Wayne (Sara Stewart), Holly Robinson (Juno Temple), Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), Talia (Marion Cotillard) -- every canon Batman character used in these films is male. Furthermore, Catwoman and Talia were side characters in one film; Holly never gets the chance to distinguish herself as a character beyond being Catwoman's Blonde Roommate With Like Three Lines; and Martha Wayne is more a story device than a character (her jewelry gets more screentime than she does). If we're being really generous, we can also mention Anna Ramirez (Monique Gabriela Curnen) as a canon character. The Batman Wiki says she had one comic-book appearance, although I don't really think that qualifies, particularly given how little her movie role has to do with her comic-book cameo. Between them, these women might have 30 or 45 minutes of screen time over the course of three two-hour movies.

Compare these slim pickings to the fully realized canon male characters featured in the films, from the iconic (the Joker [Heath Ledger]) to the relatively unknown (Bane [Tom Hardy], Ra's al Ghul [Ken Watanabe/Liam Neeson]). As far as canon female characters go, there's a difference between not using everyone, and barely using anyone.

2. That adding female characters "just so there are women" is superficial from a story point of view.

With some reservations, I agree that this is true, and I'm more than willing to acknowledge that there are excellent movies without any female characters at all. But not only were there plenty of opportunities to feature canon female characters in the Dark Knight trilogy, there were moments in the films where to do otherwise required the filmmakers to diverge from established canon, and they did so anyway.

Two main plot points come to mind in this regard:

1. A Hispanic female cop Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) trusts enough that she has access to the Bat Signal? It's Renee Montoya, right? Regular player in Batman comics and TV shows since 1992? Awesome queer role model for LGBTQ folks? Currently the Question according to DC comic-book canon?

Nope! Joke's on you! It's a throwaway character named Anna Ramirez, who has been in one (count 'em, one) comic book before her big film outing and who will never be heard from again after The Dark Knight.

2. Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) kidnaps one of Commissioner Gordon's children in The Dark Knight (2008), but the child is rescued just in time by Batman. Eight years later, a young adult is inspired by Batman to take up masked crimefighting. It's Barbara Gordon!

Except it's not! You're wrong again.  In The Dark Knight, Two-Face specifically chooses Gordon's son (Gordon has a son?) to hold hostage over his wife and daughter because Gordon loves him more. As for Gotham's new crime fighter, some random cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) will suddenly declare his name is Robin at the end of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and crash the Bat Cave. This character has never appeared in the franchise before, but he seems really excited about it, so good for him, I guess.

I'm not trying to put on a tin foil hat here. I'm not saying that the exclusion of canon female characters was purposeful. But I am saying that when Batman Begins (2005) came out, the blogosphere was boggled that Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes/Maggie Gyllenhaal), not Harvey Dent, was district attorney. I didn't see anyone get nearly so bent out of shape over Commissioner Gordon's freshly pruned family tree.

For me, the main appeal of the Dark Knight trilogy is that it mythologizes comic-book heroes and villains in a fresh way -- dark, hyper-realistic. The payoff which we, as an audience, receive from seeing previously established characters (e. g. Commissioner Gordon), reinvented is significantly greater than our enjoyment of characters "born into" Nolan's universe (e. g. District Attorney Finch [Larry Holden]). It's as though someone working on the trilogy -- or everyone working on the trilogy -- assumed that (with the exception of a few side characters in one of the three films) the Batman franchise's women were not important or interesting enough to bother portraying.

Maybe the Dark Knight trilogy's disregard for canon female characters wouldn't matter if the women they did give us were of any interest whatsoever. Unfortunately....

Rachel Dawes. Unforgivably boring. Stuffed in a refrigerator.

Judge Sorillo (Nydia Rodriguez Terracina). In the movie for five seconds. Stuffed in a refrigerator.

Martha Wayne. Stuffed in a refrigerator before Bruce Wayne enrolled in junior high.

Anna Ramirez. Backstabber.

Talia al Ghul. Sexy backstabber.

Catwoman. Potentially reformed sexy backstabber.

Forget the Bechdel Test: the Dark Knight trilogy's women are either sexy and evil or dead. Me no gusta this trilogy's (sacrificial) virgin/whore complex.

I'm not sure I've expressed myself as clearly as I would have liked to in this post. The gender issues in the Dark Knight trilogy are less a case of "LOOK HOW SEXIST THIS ONE EXAMPLE IS" and more a case of the thousand straws that break a camel's back. I want to reiterate that I'm not saying that a movie needs female characters in order to be good. I'm also not saying that Christopher Nolan is compelled to put female characters in his Batman movies simply because they exist as part of the franchise. What I am saying is that opportunities in which it would have been convenient and, indeed, logical to feature canon female characters in the Dark Knight trilogy were ignored, and that the films are the worse for it.

There's a moment in The Dark Knight Rises when Bruce Wayne goes banging on doors trying to find police support from Gotham's finest. An officer's wife greets him and expresses concern over her husband's safety; then the officer in question appears behind her, orders "honey, go wait for me in the kitchen", and off she obediently trots. And, well, that's the Dark Knight trilogy's lady problem in a nutshell. In the Dark Knight treehouse -- with a token few exceptions -- there are No Girls Allowed.


  1. Your article was interesting but was discredited by your error at the end. It's Commissioner Gordon who knocks on Foley's (his second in command) house, and then yeah the wife is dismissed. If you fix the error, it seems like you know your stuff and still gets the same point across.

  2. How is Rachel Dawes "stuffed in the refrigerator" when one of TDK's primary antagonists suffers the same fate? The fact is that she's strong and she's plot-relevant. Whether she's "boring" is entirely a judgment call on your part, but that doesn't mean you get to handwave her away to fit your narrative.

    1. How is Rachel not "stuffed in the refrigerator" just because a male antagonist died? We can debate over Rachel is "boring" or "strong" or "plot-relevant" (and indeed none of these things are mutually exclusive), but to suggest that Rachel's death is not an example of the WIR cliche because Harvey Dent died is a logical fallacy.

  3. Another thought: The only characters who don't end up evil or dead are Batman, Gordon, Lucius Fox, and Alfred (all of these characters are canonically male). It seems like the criticisms you levied against Rachel and Catwoman can be levied against any male character as well, besides the four mentioned earlier. Harvey Dent? Backstabber. Joker? Ends up dead. Thomas Wayne? Stuck in a refrigerator. Etc.

    I just don't see how the films are hurt the way you're describing it.

    1. Interesting. This is a very good point. I would respond to this by asking again, then, why Barbara Gordon and Renee Montoya were replaced by no-name counterparts. There were opportunities to include these characters alongside Batman, Gordon, Alfred, etc. that were ignored. I'm annoyed about Renee, Barbara the same way I would be annoyed if Bruce Wayne had an elderly British butler inexplicably named Sanders rather than Alfred.

  4. excellent analysis of the depictions of gender in this film. thanks for this.