Catwalk: Images of Female Power

[12 August 2010]

By James Orbesen

Sporting high-heels and a whip, Catwoman has slunk and slid over the rooftops of Gotham mere steps ahead of the police and, of course, Batman for more than 70 years. Throughout her complex, contradictory and provoking publication history, Catwoman has been invented and perceived in a myriad of ways. This speaks volumes about the character’s resilience as a concept. Only the strongest properties can stand the test of time and lend themselves well to reinvention and recreation as time progresses. However, the most striking feature about Catwoman is her femininity and her ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with Batman’s criminal adversaries, the vast majority of them male. More interestingly is her power over Batman and her ability to control, provoke and intrigue one of comic’s most psychologically daunting figures. Moving beyond simply Batman’s circle of influence, Catwoman has a strong presence within the greater DC Universe, with excellent treatments by Frank Miller, Ed Brubaker and Jeph Loeb. Her appeal is widespread and she is perhaps the strongest female voice in mainstream superhero comics.

Initially conceived as a femme fatale Catwoman had a strong, early presence in Gotham. Springing from the noir inspired roots of Batman, she acted as both an irritant and attraction to the Bat. Early Catwoman was plucked right from such film noir settings as The Maltese Falcon. Indeed, Selina Kyle, Catwoman’s civilian alter ego, might as well have been named Marlene Dietrich, the famous German actress who embodied and established the modern concept of the femme fatale. Like the persona Dietrich crafted for her onscreen presence, Catwoman was a glamorous woman who also also illicit activities on the seedier side of town. And like Dietrich, there was an almost day/night binary to Catwoman’s glamour and her allure towards the criminal. Just as the femme fatale dynamic requires a leading man to seduce and beguile, so Catwoman was originally drawn to Batman.

Early Batman had all the qualities of a film noir leading man like Humphrey Bogart mugging it up in a Raymond Chandler inspired movie. The chemistry between Batman and Catwoman instantly blossomed. Catwoman would engage in a seedy activity, only to be thwarted and then pursued by the Dark Knight. The occasional hint would be dropped about an undercurrent of physical attraction, a love that they dare not give in to. While often apprehended Catwoman would ultimately return again and again to plague the Caped Crusader. This was the Golden Age. Characters were inherently simplistic and two dimensional and the good guy always won in the end.

With the end of the Golden Age however, came the Comics Code Authority and a strict set of regulations regarding the content allowed in comics. Batman became campy and chummed it up with Robin. Joker became simply a prankster. Catwoman was seen acting exactly as a lady should not. As a result, her publication entered into a long hiatus. For an extended period of time, Selina Kyle was absent from comics.

While the world didn’t implode and Batman fans certainly kept coming back, there was a palpable sense of the missing dynamic. When Catwoman was finally allowed back onto the page, but she had lost her luster. She simply became another gimmicky villain who could, conceivably, leap from rooftop to rooftop in a dress and high heels. This move only perpetuated the sense of unbalancing, and of unease. Bruce Wayne’s world just didn’t seem right with him grinning at the good citizens of Gotham, giving the bad guys a ‘pow’ ‘bam’ and ‘biff’ every evening and being bereft of his seductress.

The mid- to late ‘80s Batman renaissance also signaled a revival in his rogues gallery. Frank Miller’s perennial tale Batman: Year One, now the official origin tale for Batman, places Selina Kyle as the very first rogue encountered. Miller grasped the significance of Catwoman and placed her prominently in his reimagining. Selina is a sex worker clad in leather with a fondness for whips. She plies her femininity on the dirty streets of Gotham. Already, in this retooling of her origins, Selina embodies two of Catwoman’s defining traits, her feminine sexuality and her risqué power. The specter of the femme fatale creeps back in to her modern origin.

When Bruce Wayne first takes to the Gotham streets to battle crime, he does so disguised as a vagrant and not in his traditional bat-motif cowl. He has yet to understand the potency of symbols and theatrics. Selina is a witness, indeed Wayne’s first real opponent, in this inauspicious start to crime fighting. Miller’s update is interesting because Selina takes her cues to become a costumed icon from the newly emerged Batman.

The positioning of these two in this origin story is provocative. Catwoman is given primacy over all other Batman rogues. It isn’t the Joker, or Two-Face, or the Riddler, or even Ra’s al Ghul that bloodies and challenges the Caped Crusader first, it is Catwoman. She is a mirror image of Bruce Wayne, very different but also strikingly similar. Selina is a destitute woman, but also an orphan with an axe to grind against a cruel world. Shortly after the pair first encounter each other and after Bruce’s donning of the costume, Selina creates a costume of her own inspired by his presence and her own personal sense of justice. The mere fact of Catwoman’s dominating presence in Batman’s earliest adventures is testament to her resilience and underlines the necessity for a female presence in the Dark Knight’s world.

The pair encounter each other frequently throughout their history. More often than not these run-ins are the result of Catwoman slinking off with ill-gotten gains. However, Ed Brubaker, with his revamped Catwoman ongoing series in 2001, positions Selina as a career rival to Batman. In this revitalization, Catwoman becomes a defender of the weak and those forced to do unsavory things to survive, towing the distinction between right and wrong, in Gotham’s East End, an area of ill-repute.

In this capacity, minus the costumed cat burglar and costumed vigilantism, she is very much a Mary Tyler Moore figure. She’s an independent woman who can turn the world on with her smile, moving out on her own into new territory and one who’s gonna make it after all. Catwoman muscles in on male turf by becoming a new protector of Gotham. Furthermore, just as Mary Tyler Moore labored under the watchful eye of Lou Grant, the two harboring a secret love for each other, so does Catwoman operate under Batman’s scowl, also indulging in a secret love affair.

Brubaker’s take on Catwoman is a mixture of the femme fatale, Miller’s origin story and his own injection of feminist themes such as Selina making it in a very male dominated career. She actually succeeds to the point that Batman becomes more and more involved in her affairs than ever before. She becomes an even more potent feminine comic icon than Wonder Woman. While Wonder Woman is the often recognized pioneer of female superheroes, her importance and presence is often just assumed due to her long publication history. Readers lump Wonder Woman in the same league as Superman and Batman simply because of the three’s long publication history.

But there is a sense in which, Wonder Woman remains an untapped resource. Her place in the DC Trinity appears more honorary than guaranteed if one counts the number of iconic stories and adventures Wonder Woman can claim. Catwoman however, has earned her recognition. She climbed way up from risqué distraction and established herself as a true voice of female power. Wonder Woman succeeds in “Man’s World” because of her superhuman gifts. She doesn’t have to compete against a vast majority of males because she clearly overpowers them in her demigod-hood. Catwoman is on the ground level, sans superpowers. She’s had to work hard for her share and do so in a world belonging to men. Selina has beaten most of her competition, predominantly male, to ensure her primacy.

Catwoman’s ability to reinvent herself allows her to be such a potent symbol. Moving from femme fatale, to love interest, onward to gimmicky villain, to cat burglar, then costumed vigilante and, eventually, a mother, Selina Kyle demonstrates that she is many things. In Jeph Loeb’s Dark Victory, she sums herself up perfectly to Batman. “What am I to you? An ally? Competition? A criminal? Some stupid damsel in distress!”

Against the backdrop of Tim Sale’s beautifully rendered Gotham night, Loeb frames the character perfectly. Is she Batman’s competition or his ally? A criminal or a masked vigilante? Maybe she is all or these things, or none of these things. Or perhaps, even more. The enigmatic nature of Catwoman’s role in Gotham and her association with its vigilante-in-chief mirror the lived complexities of everyday superwomen for whom the world is not simply black and white.

Rocketed to Chicago as a young adult from a doomed suburb, James now writes for truth, justice and the conspicuous consumption of comic books. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Jacobin, The New Humanism, Salon, Bookslut, and elsewhere. He blogs, occasionally, at Graphically Apparent.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/129446-catwalk-images-of-female-power/