Gotham is a 2014 television series developed by Bruno Heller for Primrose Hill Productions, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Television. The series takes place in the fictional Gotham city, setting of the Batman comics, movies, etc. (but before the first appearance of Batman himself) and focuses mainly on a young Detective Jim Gordon and on Oswald Cobblepot (better known as the Penguin).
Other characters include the young Bruce Wayne (not yet Batman) and Selina Kyle (not yet Catwoman), and it is these two that this essay will focus on. Bruce has lived a life of comfort and privilege up until the death of his parents, whereas Selina, an orphan, has grown up on the streets, turning to petty crime to survive. Each of them, in their own way, challenges the normal power dynamic between adults and children. Bruce, as the employer of his legal guardian, and Selina because she has no guardian and is in frequent conflict with police and other authorities.
“As early as the seventeenth century … it was still 'much controverted, whether it be better … to bring up children under the severity of discipline … or no'” (Cleverley & Phillips 1987: 33) and Gotham has an interesting twist on this debate, with Bruce living a very ordered and sheltered life (before his parents' deaths) and Selina living without any sort of order or control at all, beyond the basic necessities of survival.
At first, it appears that Bruce is a very generous, compassionate person and Selina is more selfish and callous, but as we get to know these characters better it becomes clear that the main difference between them is not a difference in levels of empathy or kindness but in culture. “Each community … has its own sets of expectations, rules and consequences” (Mah 2007: 16); Bruce's formality and politeness are appropriate to upper class society while Selina's more straight-forward and aggressive pose is necessary to life amongst the city's poor and criminal elements.
When Selina enters Bruce's world (as his guest at a party) she is uncomfortable, she feels out of place. People find her presence amusing, they behave in condescending ways toward her. And when Bruce enters Selina's world (seeking information on the man who killed his parents) he feels uncomfortable. People find his presence amusing and behave in condescending ways toward him.
And yet the characters in the show do not necessarily see things this way. Alfred, Bruce's employee and legal guardian, sees Selina as morally defective and a threat to his ward. In the context of Bruce's normal life, Selina's behaviour is disruptive due to their cultural mismatch. Alfred at first attempts to prevent Bruce from associating with Selina, and failing this, then attempts to reform Selina herself.
In both cases, Alfred follows a somewhat Puritanical model, attempting to restrain the children and overcome their “natural” inclinations (Cleverley & Phillips 1987: 35) to make them conform to his more disciplined ideal. He wants Bruce to go to school, to study, to stay out of trouble, and he wants Selina to learn the manners and mode of Bruce's peers and to stop tempting him into danger and disrepute.
Eventually Alfred relents and allows Bruce to pursue his quest for revenge with Selina's help, allowing them to “[follow their] natural impulses in an unconstrained way” (Cleverley & Phillips 1987: 35).
Alfred's early attempts to impose discipline failed because, as Mah (2007: 14) points out, when discipline is strictly imposed from the outside, “children may not … internalize behavioral boundaries”. Bruce sees Alfred's rules as impediments to what he wants to do rather than guidelines for ensuring his safety, and so he breaks those rules whenever it suits him.
Once Alfred relents and allows Bruce the freedom to make his own mistakes, Bruce learns the real cost of breaking the rules. In the end, no one needs to tell him not to murder his parents' killer. The scene plays out in accordance with the theories of AS Neill (Cleverley & Phillips 1987: 39), in as much as Bruce, away from adult interference, comes on his own to the correct and moral decision; he spares the killer's life, realising that revenge will not restore his parents or make him happy.
However, despite Alfred's leniency toward Bruce, his attitude to Selina remains hostile. One explanation for this could simply be familiarity – he knows Bruce and therefore trusts his motives and his restraint. He does not know Selina and so cannot predict her behaviour.
But Bulman (2005) suggests another possible explanation; Bruce is wealthy and well-mannered, Selina is poor and uneducated. The expectations placed on them by society, personified in this case by Alfred, are very different. Bruce is “oppressed … by pressures to conform, and by career expectations” (Bulman 2005: 82) and it is seen as a positive step for him to fight for his freedom. Selina, on the other hand, is required to work to earn her place within the system – for her it's a matter of breaking in rather than breaking out.
Whenever Bruce struggles against authority, he is seen as fighting for truth and justice in a corrupt world. When Selina does the same she is seen as selfishly attempting to stand outside of society, to benefit from its positive aspects without contributing in return. Bruce is a hero, standing up to crime and corporate greed. Selina is a thief.
But in their personal relationships, Selina is often the less selfish of the two. She puts herself in harm's way to help Bruce, and to protect her friends – Ivy Pepper (Poison Ivy) and Bridgit Pike (Firefly) – from the criminals and other unsavoury types their poverty forces them to associate with. Bruce, on the other hand, continually puts his own interests ahead of anyone else's and puts Alfred, Selina and others in danger to get what he wants. And yet this seems to go completely unnoticed by the adult characters in the show.
One other example of this is Jim Gordon, who is far from the straight-laced paragon of law and order found in other versions of the Batman story, and yet who still treats Bruce with deference and respect. A major plot arc focuses on his promise to catch the man who killed Bruce's parents, and his need to fulfil that promise. He feels no such responsibility to Selina, however, frequently making deals with her he has no intention of honouring, pressuring her for information or manipulating and deceiving her.
Her position in society, her low class and lack of social standing, allow him to justify this behaviour to himself. She is positioned as criminal and deviant and therefore as needing to be brought into line and made to work for the good of society, while Bruce is accorded a level of respect that he has not earned and assumed to be responsible by default.
For Bruce, the assumption is that he will find his way to doing the right thing if he is given the freedom to do so. For Selina, the assumption is reverse, that without reigning in she will turn to crime, mischief and betrayal. Bruce must be free to take his place in society in whatever way he chooses, to be free of undue influence. Selina must be moulded and constrained if she is to have any hope of doing the same.
Bulman, Robert C. (2005) Hollywood Goes to High School: Cinema, Schools, and American Culture. New York: Worth Publishing Group.
Cleverley, John and Phillips, Dennis (1987) Visions of Childhood. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Gotham (2014-2016), Fox, 22 September 2014 - present.
Mah, Ronald (2007) Difficult Behavior in Early Childhood: Positive Discipline for PreK-3 Classrooms and Beyond. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.