Why The Riddler Should’ve Been A Black Woman
In discussions surrounding representation, we often hear the exasperated cry from the black community: Let black women be heroes, the good guys. Let them be redeemable, nuanced characters. However, in superhero franchises such as The Batman, heroism and good characters don’t equate to compelling representation. In many ways, The Batman’s The Riddler is one of the most nuanced and interesting portrayals of a superhero villain we’ve seen in recent years. Shunned by society and abused in Gotham’s City orphanage system, The Riddler, Edward Nashton, is angry at the world and the system that neglected him. Proceeding to torture and murder high-ranking and corrupt individuals in Gotham City, The Riddler is established as a sociopathic genius who forms an online terrorist group that almost ruins Gotham City before he is arrested. Intriguing, autonomous, and mysterious, The Riddler sans balaclava calls to mind outcasted and mentally ill villains such as The Joker — pale, thin-lipped, and of course, white. But he should’ve been a black woman.
The Riddler cast a mysterious shadow over 2022’s The Batman that drove a riveting story. Matt Reeves lets the audience wonder what connection, if any, The Riddler has to Batman and the tumultuous Gotham City. The answer is revealed towards the tail end of the nearly 3-hour production when Batman visits The Riddler in jail.
“I’ve been invisible my whole life, I guess I won’t be anymore, will I?” muses The Riddler, handcuffed behind a glass partition. “They’ll remember me now.”
This moment reveals The Riddler as a traumatized inner-city orphan who uses “fear and focused violence” to revolt against the corruption and greed rampant in Gotham City. The Riddler’s monologue, brilliantly performed by Paul Dano, brings to mind themes such as classism, poverty, and the glorification of celebrities such as Bruce Wayne that are deeply relevant in contemporary discourse. Few demographics in America are greater victims of these struggles than black women.
Silenced, abused, and ignored for centuries, black women continue to fight for increased visibility, racial justice, and political representation. The Riddler, also a victim of state violence and neglect, takes down some of the most important figures in Gotham City to achieve his own version of justice before he is arrested. In his monologue, the Riddler discusses being an orphan and witnessing 12-year-old drug addicts and fatally cold winters. Since Gotham City is widely considered to be based on New York City, it is worth noting that as of 2020, over 52% of NYC’s foster care population was black, over 36% were Latino and less than 6% were white. He also continues to note how Bruce Wayne’s orphan story was broadcasted due to his billionaire father at the cost of ignoring multitudes of impoverished children like himself. In reality, as of January 2022, while less than 12% of white children experienced poverty in the U.S., over 25% of black children did. Additionally, the poverty rate of black women in the U.S. is even higher at over 28%. Black women are discarded and ignored due to their race and gender, facing classism, poverty, and misogynoir on a daily basis. As Malcolm X famously stated, “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
In many ways, the core of The Riddler’s motivations to be seen, to wrest control over a corrupt political system that doesn’t serve people like him, to enact revenge upon one’s abusers and to be remembered are emblematic of the black woman’s story, not the white man’s. While it is important to note that The Riddler’s villainous and sociopathic actions and characterization are in no way a representation of black women or their aims, black women deserve characters that explore the justified emotions that they have been judged, stereotyped, and killed for feelings such as anger and vengeance.
The Batman did have two notable black woman characters — Selina Kayle (Catwoman), played by Zoë Kravitz, and the Gotham city mayoral candidate, Bella Reál, played by Jayme Lawson. Selina is fierce and independent and Bella is altruistic and intelligent, but they are both ultimately guided and saved by Batman. Both women are arguably good people — in fact, Bella is nearly flawless. However, good and flawless people often don’t make riveting or autonomous characters and can easily fall into one-dimensional characters whose narratives are controlled by other, more well-developed protagonists. For instance, Selina, who was also in the Gotham City foster care system, is almost killed by her father, Gotham mob boss Carmine Falcone, before Batman saves her. When Selina wants to kill her father for abandoning her as a child and killing her mother, Batman convinces her not to, arguing that if she kills him she’ll become just as bad as he is. Shortly after, Falcone is shot and killed by, you guessed it, The Riddler. Selina is robbed of the opportunity to deliver vengeance with her own hands due to abstract moral gestures by a white man who is himself morally ambiguous. Bella Reál, who mostly exhibits concern for Gotham throughout the film, is celebrating her election when, according to The Riddler’s master plan, Gotham City descends into chaos. When the stadium in which Bella Reál is celebrating gets wrecked by explosions ordered by The Riddler, Batman rescues her under a pile of debris and leads her, Christ-like, into Gotham’s next chapter. Despite her drive to save Gotham City and lead effectively, she is shown comforting other citizens, cowering and frightened at Gotham City’s most tumultuous moment. Despite her position in power, she is not given the opportunity to be a hero when it matters most. Within these characters’ stories lies outdated narratives of black women — that they must “turn the other cheek” and not fight fire with fire, even when doing so is justified, and that they must be guided and ultimately saved by a white benefactor. In the murder of Falcone and the destruction of the stadium, it is The Riddler who has the privilege to weaponize his anger and exact revenge. It is The Riddler who is given the chance and the power to actualize his goals, however gruesome they may be. It is The Riddler who is able to resist and act decisively while Selina and Bella must follow Batman’s will and react to The Riddler’s actions. It is The Riddler who gets to be a villain.
Quick disclaimer — villainization as a literary and artistic process should be reserved for fiction only. While moral ambiguity and justified murder plots can dramatize movie and book characters, these vehicles should not condone or normalize that violence in real life. The widespread gun violence, gang activity and terrorism igniting tragedies across the globe should not be conflated with the centuries-old practice of writing villainous characters to explore basic human experiences of anger, frustration and marginalization. Villains in the media should not create senseless tragedy as The Riddler did. Ideally, they should resist the structures that cause these tragedies and wrest controls over their own stories. The distinction between fiction and reality is one to be deeply conscious and responsible of when considering the impact of any villainous character upon its audience.
Obviously, villains are bad characters. They are often violent, malicious, or chock-full of ill intent. However, villains are at times the most powerful and interesting characters in a story because they grant dimension, danger and radical social critiques to the dominant narrative. Viewers can empathize with their backstories and motivations to think more deeply about what it means to be a villain versus a hero. Towards the end of Edward Nashton’s monologue, he tells Batman that his role as The Riddler allowed him to fully be himself without limits or shame. To be villainized is a sort of liberation typically only afforded to white male characters. From 2007-2016, there were 67 white action-movie villains. By contrast, there were 7 Asian villains, 6 Latino villains, and 5 black villains — one for each finger. In fact, there were over twice as many non-human and machine villains than black ones. In that same period, 99% of villains were male or machine and only 1% were female. The importance and privilege of being skillfully villainized is telling if machines and non-humans get more opportunities to be villains than black women.
“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a system that abandons him and treats him like trash? I’ll tell you what you get. You get what you fucking deserve.”
This line is famously delivered by The Joker, played by Joaquin Pheonix, a white man, before he shoots Murray, the comedian that outcasted and made fun of him throughout the film. The Joker is one of pop culture’s favorite villains and has become emblematic of the extreme results of social neglect and mental illness. However, in reality, black women are the greatest and most long-standing victims of the system The Joker references, while white men have always been its most privileged demographic. Why, then, are vendettas against the state perpetrated by the ones that benefit the most from it? For centuries, black woman characters in film have been deeply limited — they are either utterly helpless and motherly via the “Mammy” trope, sexualized and evil via the “Jezebel” trope, or one-dimensional and hyperbolic in the “Angry Black Woman” trope. There are ways to explore black womens’ anger and frustration without minimizing or stereotyping their characters. There are ways for black women to be nuanced and memorable villains in their own rite, and these stories and characters should be embraced, not avoided and feared as they have been so far in Hollywood.
Let black women carry out the revenge that belongs to them. Let black women be wildly, maliciously intelligent on-screen. Let black women resist and be radical. Let black women be evil. Let black women be angry in multiple dimensions and for multiple reasons. Let black women be active instead of reactive. Let black women be memorable. Let black women be unsettling in the minds and eyes of viewers. Let black women be the next Riddler. Instead of villainizing and marginalizing black woman characters, let us be villains.
Edited by: Cecilia Innis