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50 Years of Catwoman: In Her Satin Tights, Fighting for Women's Rights

This article was jointly authored by Cady McClain and Matt Rozsa. 

When news began to leak that an actress who once played Catwoman had criticized The Dark Knight Rises, which includes the latest incarnation of that character, the blogosphere was naturally all aflutter. Fortunately, Julie Newmar – whose turn with the whip came during the 1960s TV series – quickly corrected those misapprehensions in a letter to The Huffington Post. "Every girl is a Catwoman," she wrote. "Like Bizet’s Carmen there will always be Catwoman. Catwoman is forever."

 

While it is certainly true that the Catwoman character has endured for several generations, the manner in which she has manifested herself in our popular cultural consciousness has often varied dramatically. What have these different depictions revealed about ourselves? What do they tell us about the mythologies our society adopts as its own, in particular through the superhero genre? How are they able to integrate this iconic character into not only the narratives they wish to present to their audiences, but also the larger social and political messages they inject into those stories? Perhaps most importantly, what do they tell us about how we perceive women?

Catwoman has historically been a highly sexualized character representing an overt rebellion to tradition while still paying homage to it. She is the classic female anti-hero, the “bad girl” thumbing her kitten nose at her polar opposite – the “good girl” or “girl next door” – the one who shies from overt displays of either emotion or sex. Throughout the years both men and women have been drawn to this representation of the female id as the seductress, villain, destructive temptress, and seeker of revenge – and to her very specific costume. Her tight black suit, black gloves, leather whip and stiletto boots bring to mind images of a dominatrix (generally considered an “outsider” profession), while her long hair and nails emphasize traditional feminine “wiles.” Non-threatening, pert kitten ears parlay a coquettish (albeit animalistic) charm – an important part of her deception.

 

Variations of the costume have helped audiences draw different conclusions of each version of the character. In comparison to Catwomen to come, Julie Newmar’s sparkly black suit was the most tame (re-enacted almost exactly by Lee Meriwether in the 1966 film Batman) yet the most “kitten-ish.”  Even her eyebrows were brushed straight up to give her a more feline appeal. Newmar has made it clear the gold belt that looped her corset-modified hips was her addition, not the costumers (as if the iconic character would not be the same without this radical fashion statement.) During the third season of the TV series, Eartha Kitt donned almost the same outfit when taking over for Newmar, but pulled the necklace higher to create the effect of a tribal breastplate, perhaps to emphasize the power of her dark goddess’s “sauvage” fashion instincts or perhaps as a nod to the radical movements the season was beginning to draw upon for material. Twenty-four years later in the film Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer’s costume became far and away the most disquieting rendition. Pieces of PVC roughly sewn, sometimes stapled together supported the idea that now Catwoman was a fragile, damaged person who had barely managed to stitch together her own psyche. A mere 10 years on, Halle Berry was equally unforgettable (perhaps regrettably so) in the only film titled, Catwoman. Even though the character was the film’s lead, hers was yet another “broken woman,” born again by releasing the aggressive side of her sexuality via a change of costume ­­– replete with push up bra, bare torso, leather gloves and whips. Throughout the years, each one of these “Catwomen” dealt with embracing their power through a breakdown that lead to a very specific fashion choice. How they looked was as much of a statement as what they did or said, if not more so. How different are women today?

 

The past 30 years have been full of suggestions, from psychological “experts” and fashionistas alike, telling women they can assert and better themselves by donning a “new look.”  The “strong, independent woman” began as a feminist’s outcry and somehow ended up at Century 21. To be fair, clothing has always played a part in women’s politics. From the corset free, knee length dresses of 20’s flappers to the bra-less protesters of the 1960’s, women have been rebelling against the constraints of fashion’s latest trend in order to be identified as individuals – free from the domination of society’s latest expectations, free to define themselves as equals. From this perspective, any woman’s fashion choice, whether it embraces or rejects a current or past convention, could be seen as political as much as personal. 

Why any Catwoman would want to put on tight pants and high heels after being ripped apart emotionally is an interesting and important part of her character. It is possible that the catsuit is a type of "power suit," akin to the various ensembles worn by Hillary Clinton during her bid for the presidency and as Secretary of State. However Catwoman, like many female anti-heroes, rather than donning what is traditionally male garb, instead embraces the “female as sexual object” principal and twists it in order to claim power for herself. The message is repeated in movie after movie: Women are indistinguishable from their image, whether they are disempowered or empowered. How they look is how they are defined, and worse, how they define themselves.

 

This is what made Anne Hathaway’s recent Catwoman so refreshing. The clothes Hathaway’s Catwoman wore supported a certain amount of liberation from the slavery to fashion that other versions of Catwoman have endured. Her tight black costume somehow reminded us less of Betty Page in a gimp suit and more of To Catch a Thief.  In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne points out the similarity to Cary Grant’s black garb, with some obvious differences. “That’s a brazen costume for a cat burglar,” he states as she drops down from the house in her all black outfit. In effect, Christopher Nolan has created a Catwoman where her clothes are a functional means to an end, not an end in themselves. In another example, when the villain Stryver asks her if her heels make it difficult to walk, she responds with a swift kick and the query, “I don’t know.  Do they?” It’s even possible to imagine her cat suit is meant to be worn like the gear traditionally reserved for the male superhero characters – it is what she dons for stealth, fighting, and function far more than it is a fashion statement meant to provoke members of the opposite sex or as a means for her to express her emotional issues.

There is also a great deal to be learned about how the Catwoman character has been integrated into the larger social messages of the various films in which she has appeared. While the 1966 Batman film was openly light-hearted and insubstantial, touching only slightly on the social strife of its time, the other three movies that featured her all took more definitive stabs at some level of social commentary and used her character as an integral and active agent in those aspects of the narrative which advanced the story's larger message. In Batman Returns Tim Burton boldly decided to make a much darker and more tragic version than its predecessors, focusing on the futility of man’s fight against evil. Although she spends much of the movie perpetrating random acts of civic terrorism or vigilante justice, Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman has a larger goal – to murder the man who destroyed her life before he can cripple Gotham City. Her anger towards her sexist and demeaning boss (played to unctuous perfection by Christopher Walken), a man who regularly dismissed her ideas and humiliated her in front of his colleagues before “killing” her, provokes a personal desire to exact revenge that overtakes any social or political goal she might have had to save the city. Ultimately, true to Burton fashion, Kyle's vendetta turns out to be a self-destructive one.

 

In Catwoman, Halle Berry's Patience Phillips is likewise driven by a desire to avenge her own death at the hands of her employers. This time, however, the primary villain is another woman (played by Sharon Stone), and the central social theme isn't interoffice gender dynamics, but the burdens placed upon women to remain beautiful. The sinister plot involves an immoral major corporation trying to pass off a beauty cream that deforms the faces of those who use it unless they continue to do so for the rest of their lives (essentially using the aesthetic expectations placed on women to make them addicted to the company's product). Stone's character as the head of the corporation is driven by her anger at having been "thrown away" by the beauty industry once she turned forty (a subplot that Stone herself insisted be included during talks with the film's producer, in light of her own experiences with ageist prejudice.) In the end, Barry’s fresh-faced young Catwoman enacts her revenge against her tortured older boss by damaging her skin.   Unfortunately this version of Catwoman was based on the misconception that generational hatred exists among women where it might not except for the provocation of a few misogynistic males.

 

Both Batman Returns and Catwoman insist on using their major female characters to make social points that are specifically linked to gender, be it inequality in the workplace or societal aesthetic expectations, along with the parallels in the origin stories they provide for the Catwoman characters. In both films Catwoman reacts to issues she shares with other members of her gender – that of having been exploited by callous men and the beauty and fashion industries. It is true that Batman Returns does this less insultingly than Catwoman, in part due to the former film having a superior script and in part because the latter obnoxiously painted all women as obsessively vain and male-dependent (as well as absurdly assumed the audience would believe the age of Sharon Stone's character actually detracted from her stunning looks). Nevertheless, both movies still define their Catwoman characters by their sexuality first and foremost, even when using them to present broader commentary.

In The Dark Knight Rises, however, Selina Kyle (who is never actually referred to as "Catwoman" during the film) is an ideologue who advocates a thinly-veiled left-wing agenda as she steals from the wealthy and attempts to create a more economically egalitarian society. Much of this is summarized in her now-famous line, "There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne ... you and your friends better batten down the hatches. Cause when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." Just as significantly, however, is her remorse later in the film, when she quietly comments to a rabble that has invaded a large mansion, "This used to be somebody's home" (prompting the eerily collectivist reply, "Now it's everyone's!"). Instead of using this moment to mark an about-face in the character's ideals, The Dark Knight Rises wisely uses it to add a nuance to them. The film's overall message, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat astutely pointed out, is to "simultaneously acknowledge the injustices of the existing regime while suggesting that both the revolutionary and anarchic alternatives would be much, much worse.” This is indicated by its use of a quote at the end from A Tale of Two Cities, the Charles Dickens novel that skewered both the conservative and liberal elements during the French Revolution.

"I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle, more than any other character in the film, is used to convey that argument, and as a result emerges as the first cinematic Catwoman whose relevance to her movie's social message can be decoupled from her gender and costume. No matter how she may appear, it is her intelligence and message that is the most captivating.

If there is truth in Julie Newmar’s quote, "We are all Catwoman. Catwoman is forever,” it is clear she is ever evolving, reflecting a side of women that is only just beginning to be seen free from the constraints of traditionalism. She loves, but is no man's object to own, she fights side by side for her own purposes and ideals, she is allowed her opinions without fear of retribution from men. Hopefully Hathaway’s Catwoman will represent not only a glimpse of what women's power and individualism can bring about in film, but also give us hope for a future where women can peruse their goals without the snark and condescension so typically found when a woman stands up for herself, with or without high heels.

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