Is ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Catwoman a Feminist?

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Anne Hathaway won the role of Selina Kyle over actresses Keira Knightly and Jessica Biel. Photo courtesy of Lost in the Multiplex.

Anne Hathaway won the role of Selina Kyle over actresses Keira Knightly and Jessica Biel. Photo courtesy of Lost in the Multiplex.

Today is the day The Dark Knight Rises comes out on DVD and Blu-ray. In honor, let’s all get out our copies of Batman: Four Film Favorites, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight to have a marathon. While watching my personal favorite, Batman & Robin, don’t forget to drink (water or whatever you’ve got) every time Dr. Freeze or Poison Ivy make a pun. While looking for a way of celebrating TDKR coming out on DVD today, I remembered a blog post I wrote during my junior year of college. In my spring semester, I took a women’s studies course and we were required to keep a blog during the semester to comment on something feminism-related once or twice a week.

When I created Femi-whaaat? I didn’t know how to describe my feminism blog: “so like lesbians and combat boots and unshaved armpits right? Maybe. Debates about why Catwoman is the worst villain ever because her entire shtick is just a mix of the worst two stereotypes about women (old cat lady & femme fatale)? Definitely; as soon as I develop my argument further.” For my final post on the blog I decided to actually write out my full argument. When I reread the post, I realized I still believed Catwoman to be a terrible feminist icon. However, since this argument was written in May 2011, long before The Dark Knight Rises premiered, I thought I should reexamine my argument.

When I first created this blog a couple months ago for my Intro to Women’s Studies class, I wrote in the description that I would like to argue why Catwoman is anti-feminist but would need to develop my argument first. Well, research has been done, and my opinion stays the same.  Here’s why:

NPR mostly just surmised the way Catwoman has changed over the years between the comics, the television show and the movies she has appeared in. They also surmised the basic points of why Catwoman is seen as a symbol of strong women: “sexy, pretty, take-charge.” Am I the only one who noticed that two out of three of those characteristics have to do with appearance? I can’t be.

More information about Suzan Colon can be found at her website: suzancolon.net. Photo courtesy of My Comic Shop.

More information about Suzan Colon can be found at her website: suzancolon.net. Photo courtesy of My Comic Shop.

The article also quotes Suzanne Colon author of Catwoman: The Life and Times of a Feline Fatale: “This woman had her own gang of men who wore little cat ears … to please her.” At first I thought, well, that’s sort of empowering. Until I realized that Catwoman empowers herself by dominating men and making them do whatever she wants. If you show Catwoman as a symbol of feminine power and dominance over men and say that that’s feminism you’re perpetuating the myth that feminism is about women being better than men, which is not what feminism is about at all.

On the blog Feminism and Tea, writer Linnéa explains her revelation about the drawbacks of Catwoman’s sexualization:

It's rumoured that Catwoman was based on actress Hedy Lamarr. Photo courtesy of DC Comics.

It’s rumoured that Catwoman was based on actress Hedy Lamarr. Photo courtesy of DC Comics.

“Essentially what you are doing when you are sexualizing yourself in this way is just trading one kind of oppression – the one seeing you as at least partly incapable – to another one – the one where you are seen as used goods, or even filthy. By empowering yourself in one way through using your sexuality, you are also allowing yourself to become an object for trade, or sale – a commodity.” This is an argument I can get behind. Catwoman is inherently anti-feminist even though she is a powerful female because she gains power by being violently over-sexualized. In other words, where the Penguin is creepy-scary and the Joker is crazy-scary, Catwoman is sexy-scary. There are no sexy-scary male villains, but because Catwoman is a woman, she must use her sexuality to gain and maintain power. It perpetuates the idea that a woman’s looks are her only power.

Catwoman, created by Bob Kane, was first introduced in Batman #1. Photo courtesy of DC Comics.

Catwoman, created by Bob Kane, was first introduced in Batman #1. Photo courtesy of DC Comics.

My favorite look, however, at Catwoman as a bad feminist symbol came from Cracked.com’s Jennifer Liang in her article Hollywood’s 5 Saddest Attempts at Feminism. Liang writes that Catwoman is a sad attempt at feminism because she is a femme fatale: “So basically the femme fatale was created by insecure males to represent the dangers of unrestrained female sexuality. In these stories she’s always a corrupting influence for the male hero and is always eventually punished for it, usually with a violent death.” Spoiler Alert! Catwoman is an awful feminist symbol because she’s just a reincarnation of an anti-feminist archetype.

I do have to concede that the character of Catwoman was created in the 1940’s and maybe it’s taking her a long time to make some progress. I understand that it could be hard for the writers to take an anti-feminist archetype and turn it around, especially within the comics universe (both because of writer attitudes and character continuation). All I’m saying is that there are much better written cartoon female characters out there, like Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender, written by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Toph is a blind 12-year-old girl and could kick Catwoman’s ass, both literally and in the feminist blogosphere.

While I still maintain all of this is true, since The Dark Knight Rises I did some research into what others thought about Anne Hathaway and Christopher Nolan’s reinvention of Catwoman. I found some pretty interesting points.

Gloria Steinem was quoted in Indiewire saying “Catwoman is a feminist superhero with a story line and transformation of her own — plus class consciousness, a girl buddy, equal skills with the Batman equipment, and an apartment of her own in Old Town. And she gets the guy.” Steinem makes a very good point here: Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman having a female friend instead of an emasculated goon squad was an improvement. Not only does it help the film pass the Bechdel Test, it also establishes that Selina Kyle and Catwoman had a life before meeting Batman; he does not define her existence.

Julie Newmar was the first actress to play Catwoman in the live-action 1960's 'Batman'. Photo courtesy of the LA Times.

Julie Newmar was the first actress to play Catwoman in the live-action 1960’s ‘Batman’. Photo courtesy of the LA Times.

In The Dark Knight Rises Catwoman also seemed to be an embodiment of the voice of repression. She was smart and just as badass as Christian Bale’s Batman. In heels no less, which is no easy feat (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.) So yes, she was a type of reboot of the character. Hathaway brought something very interesting to the role, as Ms. magazine’s Natalie Wilson commented “she is most like Julie Newmar’s interpretation from the 1960s TV show, with the same traits that Newmar defined as integral to the role: ‘determined, calculating, wise.’” However, the main theme surrounding Catwoman that makes her an anti-feminist symbol still prevails.

Marion Cotilliard played Miranda Tate in 'The Dark Knight Rises'. Photo courtesy of Collider.

Marion Cotilliard played Miranda Tate in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. Photo courtesy of Collider.

It was a twist when Miranda Tate was revealed to be Talia al Ghul and the main villain of the film, but it actually plays right into an anti-feminist movie trope: the “nice” girl won’t get the guy until the end of the movie. This also brings back the femme fatale archetype. Catwoman is not a femme fatale in The Dark Knight Rises, but Talia al Ghul acts as the contrast to Catwoman. She sleeps with the leading man and then turns out to be evil. The actions of both of the women in the film reinforce the idea that shameless female sexuality is dangerous and if a girl keeps her legs closed and she’s “good,” she’ll get the guy at the end.

As I said in my earlier post, this is not to say Catwoman hasn’t made any progress. I agree with Alyssa Rosenberg of Slate that Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is the best yet. But I suppose my main idea is still the same: there are better female characters out there. Even this year if you put The Dark Knight Rises up against The Avengers, Catwoman falls short of Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. Johansson was quoted in an article on /Film saying, “There’s no time for romance, we have shit to avenge.” In The Dark Knight Rises, that is not the case.

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3 thoughts on “Is ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Catwoman a Feminist?

  1. Kayleigh

    Im guessing you’ve never read any comics with Catwoman in it? She has never needed Batman or Bruce, she always been able to stand alone. Secondly, i see Avengers Black Widow is be more sexist than any Catwoman. The whole im a tough female i cant have feelings is bullshit. So im suppose to have no feelings, not ever have a relationship or else im weak? Nope no buying that. It just a firm of sexism with the gender and im sick of other woman putting eachother down.

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