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Gotham Knights and Cullen Row

June 24, 2023.

This review contains spoilers.


A trans man with swept-back hair, wearing a collared shirt. He is smiling, and someone is holding his shoulder.

Cullen in S01E03.


This show is, initially, exactly what you think it'll be; it's a cheesy, predictable superhero series stuffed to the brim with conventionally attractive young adults who could be models. But, for all the flak this series is getting, it's no worse than other superhero shows I've watched, and the young actors offer decent performances. (In fact, the worst acting comes courtesy of Misha Collins, a veteran of procedural fantasy drama.) It's genuinely fun and engaging, once you get past the pilot. As season 1 goes on, it gets better and finds its footing. At the time of writing, I'm up to the finale and am really excited for its release.


FTM inclusivity doesn't automatically make any show or film good, as Relish (2019) proved when it sacrificed Tyler DiChiara at the altar of terrible writing and directing, but thankfully DiChiara has a better time in Gotham Knights. Would I call this show the pinnacle of its genre? Nah. But I do love the occasional unrealistic, ridiculous superhero show, and the fact that I can have that viewing experience with the added bonus of a trans male character, played by a trans man, is really nice. Gotham Knights is silly and fun. Given that I was most recently watching season 3 of Happy Valley (the opposite of silly and fun in every imaginable way), it's a relief to watch something that isn't depressing or painfully serious, and to have an FTM storyline included.


A trans man and a cis woman sitting together in a prison transport van.

Cullen and Harper in S01E01.


DiChiara plays Cullen Row, who is accompanied throughout the series by his sister, Harper Row, a bisexual woman. The pair are thieves who are falsely accused of killing Batman, and team up with Batman's adopted son to clear their names and find the real killers.


A dark haired trans man, in a shirt and leather jacket, being forcefully arrested by police.

Cullen being wrongfully arrested in S01E01.


The show establishes Cullen's trans male identity in episode 1, while he's being interrogated by police officers. It's a pretty stilted and rushed scene, as is the rest of the pilot, but it's not too bad. Ford, a minor character and an antagonist, is about to read Cullen's birth name aloud when Harvey Dent interrupts him, saying, "Don't use his deadname". The next reference to Cullen's trans status comes when he says he's determined to defend his name because he "chose the damn thing", and after that point the series only references his transition when fleshing out his and Harper's backstory.


Much of the time, and with every character other than Harper, Cullen is just a normal dude with other traits and hobbies, which I find really awesome. As the episodes go on, other characters are more thoroughly explored and Cullen is treated as a typical guy (extralegal skills aside). The only person who thinks about his transition is his sister.


A cis woman smiling at her trans brother. She has braided hair with blue streaks.

Harper sitting with Cullen in S01E05.


In S01E05, Harper makes use of a mob connection, much to Cullen's shock as he was unaware that she ever dealt with mobsters. I absolutely loved a scene at the end of the episode, where Harper reveals that she got only involved with them in order to finance Cullen's mastectomy. "I could see how hard things were for you before the surgery," she explains, "We got away from dad, but you were still trapped. So, getting you that money was a no-brainer. And I would do it again." It's utterly adorable.


A man holding a notebook, on which he is sketching a man with a moustache.

Cullen drawing in S01E04.


The show does well to give Cullen personality beyond his transition. He's an artist too, and is repeatedly shown sketching in a notebook. He falsifies important documents, makes replicas of precious stones, impersonates a police officer, and steals cars during heists. He has a skillset and personality separate from being FTM, just like his sister has a skillset and personality separate from being bisexual.


A shirtless trans man standing upright. He has flat chest and no post operative scars.

Cullen in S01E11.


Cullen is shown shirtless, which I really loved. The fact that young trans men can see themselves casually represented in such a way makes this show worthwhile. And the fact that the rest of his characterisation is good, without the kinds of scenes which have historically caused so much trauma to FTM communities, adds so much value to both Gotham Knights and Cullen.


A trans man and a cis man hugging. The trans man looks very emotional, and is holding onto his friend very tightly.

Cullen and Turner in S01E11.


Cullen, like many other trans men, is desperate for a found family. The scene where he expresses that desperation shows that Gotham Knights meaningfully incorporates his transition into the foundations of who he is.


Two young women kissing. One has wavy black hair and the other has wavy blonde hair.

Harper and Stephanie in S01E11.


The show also has a fantastic lesbian/bisexual relationship, which made me so happy. It develops in a way which is really compelling. Stephanie's epiphany, when she finally experiences genuine attraction, was utterly wonderful and reframed several of her earlier comments about being romantically close with guys. I hope young lesbians are encouraged by her scenes and can recognise themselves in her. Stephan's arc shows viewers that it's okay to embrace a lesbian identity after having experiences with men, and experimentation doesn't disqualify you from anything.


Honestly, even without Cullen's storyline, I think Harper and Stephanie make this a worthwhile watch. The beauty of Stephanie's story is that she's not introduced as a lesbian, but rather, is assumed to be heterosexual and is making out with a guy in her first scene. We ultimately find out that she was doing this as a form of experimentation.


Viewers are led to assume that Stephanie will be the love interest of either Turner or Brody, but neither is the case. Just because those two guys are attracted to her doesn't mean she's attracted to either of them, which is how Gotham Knights set up a predictable romantic subplot and then defied it.


While Cullen's trans identity is established and then his other qualities are brought to the forefront, Stephanie's journey is inverse. She is defined by her intelligence, family situation, and loyalty before her lesbian identity is made fully apparent.


In terms of general themes, Gotham Knights has the following:

  • Violence typical in superhero shows (murder, combat, blood, light torture, hostage-taking, etc).

  • Consensual sexual interactions between people below the age of 18 (played by early 20s actors). No nudity or explicit visuals, but they are shown kissing and in their underwear.

  • A firearm suicide.

  • Misrepresentations of Dissociative Identity Disorder, complete with a classic smashed mirror motif. It isn't the worst depiction of DID out there, à la Split (2017), but it's not the best. The writers tried to deflect criticism by using the term "identity dysmorphia" instead of DID, but it's nonetheless a depiction of "multiple personalities" causing a person to be violent and cruel.

  • Prescription drug addiction and alcohol addiction, particularly in relation to family dysfunction. A husband illegally obtains opioids in order to keep his wife addicted to pain medication. There is also general alcohol and drug use.

  • A man who describes being physically abused as a child, by his father.

  • The kidnapping and physical intimidation of an elderly woman. She is evil, yes, but if you're sensitive to depictions of elder abuse then you should proceed with caution.


Probably the only other note about Gotham Knights is that the most insufferable character is Turner, Batman's adopted son and ostensibly the main character.


 

Update:


I have now watched the finale, and am happy to report that no instances of misgendering/deadnaming need to be added to the list of warnings! All in all, Cullen's trans status is wonderfully irrelevant by the end of the season, and he instead plays a central role in evacuating a large area of the city.


The episode deals with the trolley problem on a city-wide scale, offers some more misrepresentations of what it means to have an alter, and ultimately offers a good launch pad for season 2. Unfortunately, it apparently hasn't been renewed, which is a genuine shame. I wanted to see Cullen's story continue in further episodes. Still, it's awesome that trans guys have this piece of representation in one solid season, and I'm glad DiChiara stepped up and took the role.


One reason I am glad Gotham Knights won't be renewed is the direction Harvey Dent took, which is similar to his classic origin story. I had hoped that, following the burning of his face, he would exhibit the same kindness, patience, and personality that he displayed throughout the majority of the season. That would be a great way to show viewers with facial differences that they can still be gentle and loved, even after being hugely changed by an accident/incident. A scene reuniting him with his child, perhaps in the hospital, would've allowed such a message. That wasn't what happened. Instead, the show leans on characterising his alter as "an evil twin riding shotgun in his brain", and makes his severely burned body the catalyst for turning this alter into a monster. The alter who only killed once, prior to this episode (to protect Harvey from an abusive father), is suddenly an unhinged murderer. The message that this sends is simple... having facial differences means you're evil. I had hoped this show would do better.


To learn more about things discussed in this review, see the following links:


I highly recommend watching this interview, which features a young man who survived extensive burns to his body:



I know I'm taking Gotham Knights very seriously here, and being quite critical of the show's demonisation of facial differences. But this really does matter. Being burned, injured, or born with a different face to most people doesn't make you violent. In fact, such people are more likely to be the targets of violence and discrimination, on the basis of their appearance. It's long past time for the superhero genre to give up on this outdated, nasty stereotype.

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