Should a Jewish Actor Play Batwoman?
In August, the CW announced that Australian actor Ruby Rose had been cast to play Batwoman in a new series based on the comic books. Batwoman, who was first introduced in 1956 as a love interest for Batman, underwent a serious character makeover when she was revamped in the comics in 2006. It is this newer, edgier version of the character, named Kate Kane, who is the inspiration for the show. She will make her debut in a December crossover event featuring three other shows—Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl—which also make up the network’s extended universe of DC Comics-based shows, known as the Arrowverse. Many fans are excited for how the new series, which is scheduled to appear in 2019, will bring greater diversity to DC Comics’ TV lineup. Kate Kane is Jewish and a lesbian, and many are eager to see a character of this background onscreen.
Despite general excitement about the character herself, fan reactions to Rose’s casting have been mixed. While some have questioned Rose’s lesbianism or her abilities as an actor, others have criticized the casting choice primarily on the basis that Rose is not Jewish. Those who are upset specifically because Rose is not Jewish have created the hashtag #KeepKateJewish to ask the show’s creators not to ignore Kate Kane’s Jewish identity in the show. Thus far, series creator Greg Berlanti has defended Ruby Rose’s casting, but he has not specifically addressed concerns about the character’s Jewishness. Ruby Rose left Twitter shortly after backlash to her casting began and has not addressed the character’s ethnicity either.
Not only does ruby rose not identify as a lesbian but she’s not Jewish either. So…they basically lied about it wanting an actor that represented the diversity to stay true to who batwoman is and instead just picked a “hot” white person that isn’t too gay to offend the straights
— Kristin | 🌈🦄™️ (@negative_purple) August 7, 2018
There are enough Jewish women, and enough lesbians, that they should have been able to find a Jewish lesbian to play Batwoman.#KeepKateJewish
— 🦉 Iz | steelwave trash (@drnateheywood) August 7, 2018
For fans who criticize Rose’s casting, the question of how Kate Kane’s Jewishness will be treated by the show’s writers is also a central issue of the discussion. Many have based their criticism on how Jewish characters have been portrayed in other Arrowverse shows. Characters like Arrow’s Felicity Smoak are Jewish but are played by non-Jewish actors, and their Jewishness is only mentioned in passing, such as Felicity’s occasional passing references to celebrating Hanukkah. The one time the Arrowverse did seem to try to tackle a Jewish issue a central theme was in the Earth-X story arc, which dealt with an alternative universe in which Nazis won World War II. This arc, which was featured as a crossover of four Arrowverse shows in 2017, features several main heroes being put in a concentration camp and includes Felicity’s alternate universe doppelgänger as a concentration camp prisoner. Some fans did not appreciate the way the arc invoked the Holocaust, arguing that the material was not handled as sensitively as it should have been.
In recent years, social media has given fans the means to speak directly to creators of their favorite shows. Many have used this ability to call for greater representation of minority groups. Though many agree that increasing diversity in media is a worthy goal, there is no shortage of debate over where and how exactly media should be diversified. This is a particularly tricky subject when it comes to so-called “invisible” identities: those which are not apparent from a person’s appearance alone. The whitewashing of black and Asian characters has been a recent topic of debate, but it has generally been easier for people to agree that these characters should be played by black and Asian actors. This is evident from the way people have for many years decried Hollywood’s history of using blackface to more recent backlash over Scarlett Johansson accepting a role as a Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell. It is more difficult to say whether a Jewish character must be played by a Jewish actor, or if non-Jews such as Rose can take on those roles.
One argument in favor of having Jewish people play Jewish roles is that it brings greater authenticity to the performance; an actor would be better at playing a character to whose experiences they can personally relate. Some fans feel that this is particularly important in portraying Batwoman’s Kate Kane, whose Jewish identity informs a large part of her character in the comics. But the question of authenticity in a Jewish performance is complicated, says Henry Bial, a professor at the University of Kansas, who researches how Jews shape American media and how Jewishness has been understood by audiences. “What we think of as authentic Jewishness in performances is a very specific kind of Ashkenazic, New York Jewishness,” he says. “It’s actually a very limited part of the vast spectrum of Jews.” In other words, the Jewishness that many think of as “authentic” is itself a result of other portrayals of Jewish people in media and popular culture. An “authentically Jewish” portrayal of Kate Kane’s identity may have less to do with the choice of actor than whether certain markers of identity are included as plot points in the series. In the Batwoman comics, for example, Kate Kane’s Jewishness in communicated in several tangible ways: The red color of her suit references Kabbalah, she is shown celebrating Hanukkah and she fights against anti-Semites.
When a character’s identity is only briefly commented on, it can sometimes fall into the realm of tokenism. Michael Morgan, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who researches media and identity in adolescents, says that there is “a fine line” between a good portrayal of a minority group and tokenism. The problem, he says, is that certain minority groups “are so underrepresented that a single representation comes to stand for everybody.” A Jew whose only Jewish trait is celebrating Hanukkah is, as Bial suggests, technically realistic, but the overall lack of Jewish characters leads to more anxiety about specific individual representations. This anxiety is made worse by the fact that other characters who are Jewish in the comics, such as Ray Palmer, have had their Jewishness entirely erased on television. Because Kate Kane is one of the most identifiably Jewish characters in DC Comics’ lineup, fans are more concerned about how she is portrayed.
Because the show is still in its very early stages, it is difficult to say how Batwoman will negotiate the ongoing challenge of portraying Jews onscreen. Casting is not necessarily guaranteed to make or break Kate Kane’s Jewishness in the series. Many productions have gotten away with “good” portrayals of Jewish identity despite casting non-Jews (one recent example is Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which has won a number of awards and acclaim from audiences, including Jewish people who enjoy Brosnahan’s portrayal of the Jewish comedian). It is still possible that Kate’s Jewishness will be a big part of the show; according to Morgan, in the current climate where audiences demand diversity, network executives may see representation as “good marketing.” What goes on behind the scenes could potentially be more important than the choice of actor, and few hires have been announced so far. If the show moves to series, we’ll see if Ruby Rose’s Kate cooks latkes and fights Nazis like her comic book counterpart.