Girls on Film: A Guide to the Rise of Catwoman

Girls on Film: A Guide to the Rise of Catwoman

Jul 26, 2012

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.

Catwoman Promo Still

As soon as The Dark Knight Rises flooded the IMAX screen, I was convinced that nothing could eclipse the beauty of a crisp, 3D-free superhero action film. There was no blurry movement forcing your eye to one single spot on a gigantic screen. There was no jumpiness from a 3D feature flattened into 2D. It was a visual playground that made me smile with awe like a little kid discovering film for the first time. Then Anne Hathaway entered the frame. Through her skill and Christopher Nolan’s artistry, she distilled Catwoman into her perfect feline essence, employing the iconic aspects of the antiheroine while filtering out the problematic interpretations of the last 70 years.

In 1940, “The Cat” was introduced to spice up Gotham. She would be, at once, an intriguing femme fatale invoking lust in Batman’s world and in male comic fans, and a female Batman – a character women could relate to. It was a confused and problematic mix of oil and water, the male gaze clashing against female empowerment. It was a battle that reflected Batman creator Bob Kane’s own views of women (as explained in Batman and Me):

Catwoman Panel“I felt that women were feline creatures and men were more like dogs. While dogs are faithful and friendly, cats are cool, detached and unreliable. I felt much warmer with dogs around me—cats are as hard to understand as women are. Men feel more sure of themselves with a male friend than a woman. You always need to keep women at arm's length. We don't want anyone taking over our souls, and women have a habit of doing that. So there's a love-resentment thing with women. I guess women will feel that I'm being chauvinistic to speak this way, but I do feel that I've had better relationships with male friends than women. With women, once the romance is over, somehow they never remain my friends.”

In her first appearance, Catwoman is caught while in disguise. She struggles as Batman wipes off her makeup and responds: “Quiet or Papa spank!” She might be a formidable opponent, but she’s also a conquest, their battles acting as a metaphor for the sex they can never have on the page. Selina continues to appear for over a decade, becoming an amnesiac flight attendant and a lying thief until she disappears in the '50s, presumably a victim of the rigid Comics Code Authority that wouldn’t look kindly on a powerful, sexual, thieving woman.

It was Julie Newmar who made the old character an icon in 1966 with the beloved television whirlwind Batman.  The sleek, black catsuit became Catwoman’s costume of choice, matched with a modest mask and ears on top of flowing hair. Though an object of Bat lust, she gives just as much (maybe more) than she receives. In "The Cat’s Meow," Catwoman even dares to make Batman’s mind Jell-O and uses him for his body, explaining her plan as her eyes scour up and down Batman’s tights-clad form. The show asks: "Will Batman be reduced to a handsome robot, fit only to serve Catwoman?"

Catwoman, as a formidable sex object, had the ability to turn the tables, to sexualize the hero and create a hungry, female gaze long before the catcalls during Magic Mike. Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt added their own spins in the movie and third television season, with a little more purring and grooming here, some more rolling wordplay there. As Catwoman, however, these actresses were always, ultimately, the temporary foil to Batman and Robin. Their job was to flirt and manipulate – to sexually distract Batman and give him a challenge until he prevailed. Nevertheless, they were competent women in command of their sexuality years before pieces like Charlie’s Angels or Kill Bill. They strove to make sex and battle a level playing field while creating a firm idea in the mainstream psyche about what Catwoman should be.

By the '80s, a void began to emerge between the woman on the page and the woman on the screen. Frank Miller thrust Gotham into an exacerbated world of depravity, framing Selina Kyle as a prostitute in the city’s seedy underworld, who creates her feline persona in response to Batman. There are no flirtatious encounters and she barely interacts with our favorite crusader. Unlike the television series, Catwoman’s sexuality teases at male lecherousness and power, rather than any level, flirting tête-à-tête. On the page she becomes everything from a dominatrix to mayoral hopeful, and today, a spine-free sexpot of ridiculous comic covers.

While the comics strove to give Catwoman a sexy, seedy past, cinema strove to frame Catwoman as the dead, repressed, inept office help brought back to life as a feline thief with strong dominatrix tendencies. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle had the right sexy charisma to charm audiences, a queen thriving in a terrible film, wreaking her revenge while showing off an uncanny ability to make facial licking look sexy. She became a new comic icon during the sex-positive world of third-wave feminism; sex was her empowerment more than strength or cleverness. Selina is fragmented and off-kilter, powerful but unhinged. Her existential crisis makes her appealing to Bruce Wayne and Batman, but she’s at a frazzled disadvantage, even with her rather poetic moment of inner resolve when she “kisses” Max Shrek, kills him along with her eighth life, and disappears to live her last life.

Undoubtedly, Warner Bros. was hoping to elaborate on Pfeiffer’s incarnation when they made Catwoman in 2004, taking the same basic idea and infusing it with more inner resolve and feminist declarations, but it was hollow feminism framed through men’s eyes (John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris and John Rogers), and it was utterly ridiculous. Halle Berry’s Patience Phillips is a talented but socially awkward office minion, killed when she snoops on her baddie bosses and brought back to life by magical cat breath like a twisted version of Cat’s Eye. She might get a chance to be on her own – there’s not even a mention of Bruce Wayne – but Patience/Catwoman is tied down in a whirlwind of bad acting, bad writing, bad CG and, basically, bad everything. Declarations of freedom, womanhood and power ring hollow, and instead of acting like an empowering female figure, or a problematically entertaining antiheroine, she became the opposite – the leading reason why Hollywood shouldn’t offer female-centric superhero movies. Female empowerment became a sign of cinematic oppression and discomfort.

Catwoman, mid-fight

Though 2012 kindly ushered in a world of action heroine excitement, between the sharp arrows of Katniss Everdeen and the wild gun-wielding skills of Natasha Romanov, Anne Hathaway had everything against her in The Dark Knight Returns. In one supporting role, she had to wipe away memories of Patience “Catwoman” Phillips while also eradicating the casting fears that bubbled forth when her name was released. She was entering a world still sore about the awkward casting of Katie Holmes and the demise of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes. Her Catwoman had to rise above complaints about Nolan’s heroines.

Like many modern heroines, oppressive expectations were laid on her shoulders and Hathaway tackled them as if she was the real Catwoman. It begins the minute she enters the film, delivering Bruce Wayne his dinner, snooping and getting caught. In one brief moment, she morphs from meek, curious help to self-assured powerhouse. Catwoman’s power is exemplified as much through Hathaway’s slight mannerisms as it is through exposition and plot, and it’s real, human authority. She isn’t magically licked or hot-breathed back to life. Her power isn’t some magical construct – it’s the manifestation of her life and experience, just like Batman’s.

For any critique that may have been lobbed at Nolan in the past, with the help of David S. Goyer he created a heroine who manages to stay true to her roots while simultaneously pleasing both male and female audiences with varied expectations. She’s the first true embodiment of Kane’s decades-old plan to be tantalizing and empowering, the female version of Bruce Wayne without any gratuitous leaps or feminine traps.

Catwoman in CostumeShe’s never “Catwoman” with quirky feline movements. Her catsuit is functional for her acrobatic thieving, its sexiness exemplified in her power and form rather than zippers unzipped to the navel and magically suctioned to the body. “I love the costume because everything has a purpose, nothing is in place for fantasy’s sake,” she said on set. Her “ears” are goggles that flip up when not in use. Like the cat women before her (and practically every sexy ass-kicker) she wears stilettos, but they’re practical – metallic spears she wields as weapons. Her voice lowers as Catwoman, breathing like Hedy Lamarr (one of Bob Kane’s inspirations for the character) but not purring and meowing. She flips, kicks and battles, but as a human woman rather than an almost-cat.

She is a mother figure to Holly, a character from Frank Miller’s incarnation, but neither are prostitutes struggling under oppressive pimps. In fact, their relationship allows a wildly masculine film pass the Bechdel test. Selina loves jewelry, but it’s a random desire rather than defining characteristic. She has romantic feelings but isn’t a puppet to them. She’s never a helpless victim; instead, she holds her own easily and gets to be the charisma behind the turmoil, a modern and female Han Solo torn between good deeds and bad – instrumental to Gotham, and Wayne’s, salvation.

Being given the same rights and humanity as the heroes who came before her – men like Batman, Spider-Man and Superman – Catwoman is given the chance to be just as attention-demanding as her male counterparts. The script and subsequent film aren’t clutching for some intangible magic to make her a sexpot, or to give her feminist power. She manages to exude both because her character just is that way. She’s sexy because she looks great in her clothes (without having to unzip them or partake in raunchy sex scenes in ejaculate-producing owl ships), she has charisma just like Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, and she’s a feminist powerhouse because she exudes competent power rather than spewing hollow manifestos.

Hathaway is interested, yet cautious, about the rising idea of a new Catwoman spin-off: “I think it would be lovely to see more of her, but only if it’s with the right people. She lives in this Gotham City and so it would have to be established by the people who have made this Gotham City. For me, at least.” Nolan’s officially out, but loves the idea of a spin-off and maybe – just maybe – he can find capable hands that would lure Hathaway back to help fill the screen with more superheroine awe. And then, if we’re lucky, the idea of kick-ass, capable women can break out of the strict sexual mold, gain respect for their power, and interviewers won’t flood actresses with questions about diets as costars gush about cuteness and sexiness.

Could Catwoman be our (anti)superheroine salvation? She might just be the best bet DC/Warner Bros. has.

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