“Just the Kitty I’ve Been Looking For”: Defending the character of Catwoman

Well, well, well, it seems that Batman’s feline femme fatale, Catwoman is back in the spotlight as a result of her latest comic cover – essentially breaking her spine to emphasise all her enticing lady lumps at the same time. Much to the amusement of various cartoonists.


Basically the online reaction to this cover pose – which varies between eye-rolling and outrage – is a resurgence of the controversy that greeted the character’s relaunch in September last year during the first wave of #1s unveiled as part of DC’s New 52 reboot of their entire comics universe. Catwoman #1 began with Selina Kyle fleeing her apartment, half undressed, and ended with her astride Batman for a little rooftop nookie. (More pages from Catwoman #1 here, and from #2 here).



Now the reason I feel the need to weigh in is because too often lately I’ve seen Catwoman dismissively referred to as Batman’s one-dimensional “fuck buddy,” and that angers me. For sure, Warner-DC’s current treatment of the character on the printed page and in the Arkham City video game (where Selina moaned every single line as if she was writhing around on bed sheets), reinforces that view. However, I feel the need to stand up for the character; to help reclaim some of her importance and validity. Catwoman deserves more than to be written off as simply another babe in comics – sex on legs, to figuratively stroke between the legs of young male readers.

To start with, Catwoman has always been sexy, and I refuse to count “sexy” in the Negatives column when asking the questions “Is this character complex?” and “Would women like this character?” Growing up in the 1980s, my animated heroines were the likes of She-Ra, Cheetara and April O’Neil, and looking back now they were pretty high on in the hotness stakes, while still demonstrating traits like courage, determination, capability and loyalty to their friends – all of which a little girl could happily admire. I didn’t feel alienated by their looks, nor made to feel inferior. I was too busy thinking “How cool would it be to be Cheetara?”

Anyway, sexiness has always been integral to the character of Catwoman so it would be stupid to ever exorcise that aspect in some misguided, politically correct attempt to make the character more “real” and “relatable”. For one thing, such a change would convey the message that it's unacceptable for women to be playful and assertive regarding their sexuality. For another, Batman’s origins are in pulp detective fiction, and the femme fatale – of which Catwoman is a classic example – is one of the vital ingredients in such a warped world of crime, shadows and all-round extremes. It made sense for Catwoman, Batman’s first female villain, to initially appear as a raven-haired Veronica Lake-type, a sultry seductress and jewellery thief who nonetheless refuses to be bullied by the tough guys around her.


Catwoman is arguably one of Batman’s most dangerous foes because of her sexiness – which she has complete, coherent control over. She’s not an emotionally torn Daddy’s Girl like Talia al Ghul; she’s not like those crazy dames Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, whose manipulation of the Dark Knight is as the result of pheromones and mind-control kisses . Boasting an unfailing Chaotic Neutral character alignment, Catwoman is sane and unquestionably her own person, seducing, scratching or assisting Batman as she sees fit. She has no tricks or super abilities to manipulate Batman. She alone has that effect on him.

So yeah, there’s no problem with being sexy. Problems arise though when you don’t trust a character to be “naturally” and effortlessly sexy while going about their business. By overtly trying to be sexy, the effect is ruined, and that’s where Warner-DC is failing at the moment. Pop culture consumers aren’t stupid. They can easily detect desperate attempts at titillation. And as Catwoman is rapidly stripped of all defining characteristics except for “permanently horny sex kitten” and “allergic to clothing”, things become blatantly ridiculous. The character becomes caricature... which alienates serious, passionate comic readers. Of which there are a good chunk of women.


At this point though, I do feel the need to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment. I do worry that my perceptions of how Catwoman is being portrayed right now are being twisted by what’s receiving online commentary. There was a similar surge of criticism regarding Catwoman when the animated Batman: Year One DVD was released in October last year. The disc included a 15-minute Catwoman short, and this strip-tease clip was released to market it.




Out of context, this sequence appears horribly exploitative. However, viewing the short in its entirety (which you can do online here), paints a very different picture. Written by Batman: The Animated SeriesPaul Dini and taking its cue from Frank Miller’s gritty 80s reinvention of the character – where Selina Kyle is a cynical, streetwise Skid Row prostitute – I thought it was pretty great actually. Catwoman and sex go hand in hand, and here the latter was cleverly infused into the narrative.

I also confess that I haven’t been able to get my paws on the Catwoman comic since the New 52 relaunch, so I don’t know what Selina’s behaviour is like within the pages of her solo title. I haven’t read the new series but “Bad” is what I hear a lot. I've really got a great deal of Catwoman catching up to do, with recommendations that I check out Ed Brubaker’s relaunch run from 2001/2 especially.


The last time I religiously read Catwoman was while Jim Balent was drawing the character. This of course was during the early to mid 1990s – a period that Grant Morrison, in Supergods (my review), labels the Image Era – where, with artists like Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and Michael Turner leading the charge, there was basically only one physical character model for each sex and it was all about big muscles, big tits, gritted teeth and costume pouches. Catwoman was magnificently endowed in her purple bodysuit at this time, with her stories little more than featherlight, action-packed escapism. They were at their best though when Doug Moench was writing, and introducing a little more depth to proceedings.


With over 70 years of comic book mythology behind her, I refuse to believe Catwoman is a simplistic, superficial character, and it angers me to see her described as such. I also don’t think she has nothing to offer female readers. Catwoman is a fantasy figure as much as Batman. Men want to be with her; women want to be her. Selina Kyle may not be as upstanding as someone like Wonder Woman, but this anti-heroine is admirable as an ultra-resourceful, self-made woman who had clawed herself out of the gutter. She doesn’t brood like Batman. She’s put aside the pain of her past to focus on the here and now, embracing playfulness and fun instead. And she’s a smart, highly competent fighter, survivor and free-running acrobat, very good at looking after herself and those she loves.




As for her potent sexuality, who wouldn’t want Catwoman’s unwavering confidence in her body and the power it gives her to get what she wants? Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns was miles from canon, but nonetheless demonstrates the fantasy appeal of the character in our reality. Catwoman is an unapologetic bad girl, giving the finger to conservatives, rich capitalists and stiff law enforcers alike.

Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle doesn’t cope particularly well with her post-murder personality split – torn between two polarised definitions of womanhood: submissive pink, "cutesy" femininity, and dark, empowered S&M temptress. However, there’s no denying the liberation she feels after slipping on that home-stitched catsuit, and how her new “Hear me roar!” attitude comes with multiple benefits, perking up her life in all areas.


I can also guarantee that the way Anne Hathaway will portray the character in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming The Dark Knight Rises will be nothing like the current come-hither legs-splayed Catwoman in the comics. Which makes for a bizarre contradiction in characterisation, coming from the same company who owns the character... Although Hathaway’s Catwoman has appeared quite flavourless so far in marketing material for the 20 July release, it may fall to her to reclaim some admiration for the character before "tits and ass" Selina Kyle, as she is depicted in the current comics continuity, becomes the standardised – and highly disappointing – interpretation.


P.S. For the record, I have no problem with Batman and Catwoman’s rooftop trysts. If you think about it, in a warped world of men and women donning tights and masks it makes sense for some sexual kinks to creep in. You’re on an endorphin high after illegally beating the crap out of some criminals. You’re in absolute peak physical condition. You’re anonymous. Why wouldn’t you get it on with a similarly hot freak?

Then again, if you’re a comic creator heading down this controversial route, events have to be handled with more taste – depicting such hook-ups as a mutually desired union of equals instead of some one-sided erotic fan fiction. Compare this image with that of the cowgirl coupling near the beginning of this post and I hope you'll understand what I mean.

Comments

I loved this take on Catwoman! I also always loved her and was more than a little annoyed when I was told she's no more than Batman's fuck buddy.
Anonymous said…
I too missed out on the original new52 run of Catwoman but recently picked up the collected trade and I quite enjoyed it. I always enjoy characters that give Batman a run for his money (probably why I love Damian Wayne so much :P). I didn't find her overly sexual either. Yes she is often in some state of undress but almost always in context and frankly it works.

With regards to great Catwoman runs I highly recommend the Brubaker/Cooke re-launch. Brubakers great writing aside, Cookes art is amazing. While current artists may draw her as sleazy or slutty, Cooke made her just plain sexy.
phr0ggi said…
Great article. I've been reading the DC 52 Catwoman series since it launched and I'm a huge fan. The rooftop tryst (with the keep the masks on bit) sold me on it. For me it signalled an evolution into a more adult version of the character, one where Catwoman is portrayed without the coyness of previous years. Catwoman is sexy. It's one of her weapons and she uses it to get what she wants but there's more to her than just that.

Sure, it's not as dark a portrayal as Frank Miller's excellent telling of her story but in the issues of the DC 52 incarnation, Catwoman has been given more than just 2 dimensions. She deals with loss, with persecution, with struggling to survive in a male-dominated world. It's not as layered as the DC 52 Batwoman but there's signs of great character exploration here - and that includes her masked and unmasked personas.

Personally, I think the fanboys just need to CTFD and take a moment to give the character a chance. Anyway, what is it about this world that it freaks out over a woman expressing and enjoying her sexuality?
Dante said…
It is pretty simple really. Batman uses fear to fight his enemies. Catwoman uses sex. She uses it like any tool, and it works. It is hard to fight someone while your jaw is on the ground.

Now that might be a very simplistic view but lets be honest, men can be simple creatures. Probably because I am a man, i have always looked at the sexism of catwoman from the other side of the fence. No one mentions all the men that are being portrayed as sex starved, think with their dick types. Oh no, poor catwoman who is half naked all the time. Thinking that her sexiness is just a ploy to cash in is what a lazy writer would do. She is a very complex character. I also wouldn't call batman's foe. They have the craziest most unhealthy relationship I have ever come across(i haven't come across many btw, i only read batman)

Nice write up

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