For those of you who have been keeping up with the most recent season of Fox’s, Gotham, you may have noticed a somewhat odd decision on the part of the writers. It’s a decision that I think requires some cross-examination as it actually forces us into an ethical dilemma in terms of how we choose to watch, support, and deal with the idea of sexuality as portrayed in media.
While this post will ultimately delve into the concept of sexuality and how it’s being portrayed on the show, it’s important to note that the idea of sexuality isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a very good thing. There’s nothing wrong with being sex positive and there’s nothing wrong with inherent sexuality or varying sexual identities. That having been said, it’s also something that can be abused and turned into something that is both destructive and harmful. It’s an area in writing that definitely has a line and sometimes that line can be blurred when appropriate to the story or the characters arch, but it’s also something that is all to often exploited for cheap thrills, poor motivations, or as shorthand to prove just how evil a character really is and it can reduce the writing from something of substance to something that is both generic and crude.
In the latest season of Gotham, the character of Ivy Pepper (originally played by 13 year old actress Clare Foley), who we know will grow up into the classic Batman villain, Poison Ivy, has been subjected to a meta-human attack that managed to expedite her aging process. The character, as originally portrayed, was depicted to be in her early teens. She was a child of Gotham who had been subjected to an abusive father, only to escape and find herself living on the streets, fighting for her daily survival. The aging process to which she was subject left her as a fully developed adult women with no clear definition of age. Mentally speaking the character is still the same young teen that she was before, but physically she is now an adult and this was done specifically so that the writers could work her sexuality into future story lines.
Please note that this isn’t speculation and was in fact stated by the shows producers. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Gotham executive producer, Ken Woodruff, explained that, “We made the change for two reasons: The character Ivy in the comics, one of her greatest powers is the power of seduction. Everyone was much more comfortable with that with an older actress as opposed to a teenager. We want to explore that classic, canonical power of Ivy. And we didn’t just make her older with that attack. When she’s changed and transformed, there’s a real character change as well. She’ll still have some of the same traits, but she’ll be much darker, more manipulative than the Ivy we’ve seen so far. There’s a more evil quality to her as well. It’s more than just physical.”
In both the comic book and cartoon source materials for which the character of Poison Ivy is ultimately drawing it’s inspiration from, she is frequently portrayed as a classic femme fatal that does utilize her sexuality as a weapon. She’s often used poison lipstick as a tool along with her frequently hyper-sexualized costumes to further her agendas, luring in unsuspecting male characters with a deadly kiss. It’s also been suggested that the character could identify as lesbian or bi-sexual. These are parts of the characters cannon and in the past they’ve often been treated with a certain level of respect, at least in that the character understands and owns her own sexuality. It’s not something she’s afraid or ashamed of and instead uses these aspects of herself to her own means, which, when coupled with her superior intellect, make her a formidable foe for the caped crusader and an interesting character for readers. While there have undoubtedly been better representations of the character than others, there are otherwise obvious elements of overt over-sexuality that are present within the majority of all comic books, particularly in terms of costume design, but for the purposes of this discussion we’re focusing on Gotham.
The problem with the show is that it gives these elements to a character that doesn’t yet understand or comprehend what they are. She went from a child who was uninterested in sex to a character who was sexualized by a predator in her first re-immersion. Even the new actress, Maggie Geha, explained that, “A lot of people are focused on her sexuality. I think Ivy, in my opinion, doesn’t really feel sexual about anybody,” and she’s exactly correct.
The character, as she’s been portrayed over the past two seasons, has shown no interest or inclination toward the the idea of sex. She’s been seen developing her love for botany and her ability to use it to her own means, another important aspect of the character, but in terms of dealing with sex, has been shown to be otherwise withdrawn or uninterested. The writers have opted to force this element of her character instead of allowing it to develop naturally and grow over time. While it’s perfectly understandable that the writers wouldn’t want to play too closely with those themes when writing a child’s character, they haven’t exactly corrected the problem by prematurely aging her. Instead they’ve taken a character who is clearly a minor and ambiguously aged her in order to accommodate their desires. This puts the viewer in an awkward position because we all know, while she may look like an adult, the character that we’ve already spent two seasons following is really just a minor in disguise. It’s a piece of knowledge that will always be in the back of our minds. When the writers decide to amp up her sexuality, we’ll all be forced to acknowledge that the character we’re watching is a minor and given that bit of information, we’re ultimately forced to watch her abuse. The source material treats her sexual nature as a tool for seduction and manipulation, but instead, because the character is unaware of the implications of these things, it results in her own manipulation by those who would use her to their own means. That’s a complete reversal of the character in a way that invites the viewer into the role of the predator as it casually asks us to sit back and watch this all unfold from the safety of our own living rooms. At its best it’s sloppy writing, at its worst it’s misogynistic child abuse.
The sad thing is that the show could have slowly introduced these ideas and themes and to have done this properly, it only needed to rely on some of it’s preexisting characters. Both Barbara Kean and Tabitha Galavan frequently utilize their sexuality to further their own agendas. It’s something that both characters own and choose to use at their own discretion. These characters also come into contact with Ivy and Selina Kyle in such a way that, if the writers were smart, could serve as mentors to the two girls. The girls could watch and learn from Kean and Galavan in a way that could prevent the writers from having to write the girls into sexual situations, while still learning the subtle arts of seduction and manipulation. This would also allow the writers to continue explore the ideas of sex as a weapon or as a manipulation tool, but without having to rely on the shows children to do it.
In addition to the inherent misogyny involved with forcing sexual situations onto a female character just because they can, it’s a device that also pulls us as viewers out of the show. It breaks the suspension of disbelief in such a way that it almost negates everything we’ve seen on the show so far. Gotham, at it’s inception, was designed to show us how the people of Gotham City grow and evolve into some of the characters we know and love from the comics, but by prematurely aging Ivy, they’ve managed to circumvent her growth thrusting her into unknown territory that the character won’t be able to come back from. How can the character go from a misguided child who has a nefarious interest in botany turn into a character who is, literally overnight, thrust into a world of sexual manipulation. Can she ever go back to becoming the plant powered super-villain that we all know her to be? As a child she was forced to use her botanical know how as a means for survival which works to strengthen her relationship to the plant world, but at what point will she learn to further develop and harness these skills if she’s able to rely on other means to get by? The plants are no longer a necessity for her which means that instead of using the characters inherent brilliance to develop her primary weapon, she’ll likely be subjected to something that gives her powers to her from an outside source. Again, this strips away the brilliance of the original character and an important aspect of the villain we know her to be, all of which only serve to break the story. It’s clear that at this point the writers aren’t sure of how they’ll develop the character further, but they’ve severely limited themselves by prematurely aging her in this way so that when they do, they’ll likely have to take a short cut and give her powers through outside sources, like a mad scientist or weird chemical spill, but it will almost certainly stem from means outside of her own.
The question now is can one continue to watch the show and just simply pretend that the character of Ivy Pepper is, for all practical purposes, a full grown adult, despite the fact that she clearly has the mind of a child? I do believe that there’s a place for sexually assertive women in media. It’s not a topic that needs to be shied away from, but it needs to be done so with respect to the character. The idea of the woman’s role in media to serve solely as the damsel in distress or the victim of a violent act or sexual assault as the sole means to motivate the male lead are tired devices used by lazy writers and they do a disservice to the women that exist in the real world, outside of media. It’s also a complete and total cliche. Woman are just as capable individuals as men and can and should be able to grow into and own their own sexualities naturally, and just as this is true in the real world, it should hold true in media as well.