Reflecting on Gotham’s Bisexual Problem: The Life and Loves of Barbara Kean

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There’s a lot to love about Gotham. The noire aesthetic, the morally complex female characters peopling the City, and even the show’s self-conscious attempts at camp all have a certain appeal. But one thing Batman’s backstory gets wrong is its depiction of bisexuality. From the first season to the final episode, Gotham’s Barbara Kean embodies the Depraved Bisexual trope. Her sexuality is used to signpost that Barbara is unstable, perverse, and morally corrupt.

When we first meet Barbara, she is firmly on the side of light. She runs a successful gallery, lives in a penthouse apartment overlooking Gotham City, and is engaged to Officer Jim Gordon. One of Gotham’s finest, Jim not only becomes a surrogate father to a newly orphaned Bruce Wayne but serves as the show’s moral compass. And Barbara is his help-meet.

Yet, there is more to Barbara than first meets the eye. Detective Renee Montoya – one of Jim’s colleagues – visits her apartment when Barbara is alone and in the shower. Scantily clad and smoking a joint, Barbara listens as Renee casts doubts on Jim’s character. Something of what Renee says sinks in; she was once Barbara’s girlfriend for a year, after all. As life in Gotham becomes ever-more dangerous, Barbara leaves Jim and the city behind. It is heavily implied that she has abandoned our hero in his time of need. When we next see Barbara, she’s wrapped in bedsheets with Renee.

Like marijuana, Montoya is treated as a gateway drug – an illicit experience that leads Barbara to darker things. The Gotham writers frame Barbara’s relationship with a white man as legitimate and desirable. By contrast, her relationship with a brown-skinned Latina woman is shown to be unhealthy. As the affair progresses, Barbara’s behavior edges ever closer to villainy. The instability of this relationship is ultimately what drives Renee to leave. Having furthered the drama between a white, het couple, Montoya is written out of the series.

Not long afterward, in thrall to a serial killer, Barbara murders her own parents. She also becomes obsessed with killing Lee Thompkins, the woman Jim has taken up with in her absence. Her inability to return to the happy heterosexual fold with Jim triggers Barbara’s madness. This storyline reaches its climax when Barbara, wearing a white wedding dress, takes Jim and Lee prisoner in Gotham Cathedral. There is always the implication that if Jim would only take her back, Barbara’s killing spree would come to an end.

After a brief stint in Arkham Asylum, Barbara is released by Gotham’s next power player: Theo Galivan. But it is his sister, Tabitha, who captures Barbara’s interest. They begin a romantic relationship, quite figuratively becoming partners in crime. Together, they torture the Mayor and take over a night club: Sirens. For a time Tabitha and Barbara are an exquisite power couple. They even take in Selina Kyle, the future Catwoman, and act as adoptive mothers to her. For the first time in the series, Selina has a fixed address and adults who are committed to taking care of her.

As violence on the streets of Gotham City escalates to unbearable heights, Barbara makes a radical move. Sirens is open to women only. Men are granted brief entry only to provide her with the information Barbara needs to keep a tight grip on her stronghold.

Yet the writers soon retract the romantic side of Barbara/Tabitha. Tabitha falls in love with a mob henchman, devoting herself first to saving him then getting revenge on his killer. And Barbara is, of course, drawn back into the orbit of Jim Gordon. After Tabitha is killed off at the beginning of the final season, Barbara is wild with grief. Although she describes Tabitha as her best friend in the entire world, there is nothing platonic about their final kiss. And yet this loss is what drives Barbara back into Jim’s arms.

Just as the romance with Renee Montoya represented the beginning of Barbara’s evil, Tabitha’s death signaled the end. For Barbara to return to the side of good, she had to leave her Black girlfriend behind and return to Jim. As Gotham falls further into chaos, they have a one night stand. In the next episode, Barbara announces her pregnancy. Although Jim marries Lee, he expects Barbara to live on his terms and raise the child as he sees fit. The message is clear: only through starting a family with a white male character could Barbara find her road to redemption.

With his wife and babymama in tow, it could be argued that Jim Gordon had his cake and ate it too. Barbara was permitted no such narrative luxury. She put down her guns, closed her club, and left behind her relationships with women. That chapter of Barbara’s life ended with her career of evil. With no partner in sight, Barbara’s depravity is a thing of the past. Venture capitalism aside, it’s clear that she’s living on the straight and narrow by the Gotham finale. By raising her daughter in tandem with him and Lee, Barbara became the person Jim’s moralizing always said she should be. A heterosexual family structure, unconventional though it may be, is the ‘solution’ to Barbara’s evil.

Although Gotham was highly watchable television, its depiction of same-sex relationships left a lot to be desired. Barbara and Tabitha’s time together acted as a placeholder for partnerships with their ‘true’, male loves. Gotham reduced loving another woman to a reckless diversion from the heterosexual path. That Renee was Latina and Tabitha was Black made them doubly disposable to writers and viewers alike.

Lesbian and bisexual women of color corrupted their white, female partner. Conversely, a straight white man was her savior. Though Gotham was exciting in many ways, the biphobia and racism behind female character arcs was a big disappointment.