Catwoman and Cleopatra: Inkblots of an AgeApril 25, 2011
After Practical Cats, a reader asked me to summarize my Cleopatra theory as it pertains to Catwoman. With shooting under way on The Dark Knight Rises, and Batman circles abuzz with speculation on what Christopher Nolan’s take will be, it seemed the perfect time.
Briefly: Cleopatra lived and died over 2,000 years ago, and what’s known about her life hasn’t changed. There is the sensational Roman account, juicy but questionable material dating from a propaganda war with Augustus Caesar, and a drier but more flattering picture of her political accomplishments recorded by the historian Flavius Josephus. That’s it. It’s not like any new unauthorized biographies were unearthed in the 1300s, 1500s, or 1800s to account for the drastically differing images of her. There is only one set of facts from which different ages have formed completely different Cleopatras: from “The Nile Slut” to a childlike innocent, from a murderous man-eater to a savvy politician, from a devoted mother to a tragic “slave to love.” Obviously, they can’t all be right. Obviously, what each era chooses to focus on—and what it chooses to ignore—says more about them than it does the real Cleopatra.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s fascinating Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions does a remarkable job analyzing each of these incarnations and what they reveal about the eras which romanticized and vilified her. Not surprisingly, it is the spin each age puts on the sexual aspects of her story that is most telling about their attitudes about women in general, and women’s sexuality in particular.
Like Cleopatra, Catwoman is a sex symbol who has spanned many generations and gone through many incarnations. From her first appearance in Batman #1, the draw between male and female has always been the distinguishing feature of Bat/Cat encounters. Tame and subtextual under the early comics code: Batman saw through Catwoman’s disguise in that first appearance by noticing her shapely legs. Amusingly brazen by the time Julie Newmar donned her claws and Adam West’s Batman declared “You give me curious stirrings in my utility belt.” Of course there is more to Catwoman’s appeal that the physical. You can’t throw a batarang in mainstream comics without hitting a beautiful and voluptuous woman. What made Catwoman particularly well-suited to the role as the Batman’s romantic foil was her playful free-spirited disposition. In an era that was finally acknowledging that sex is fun, the Bat/Cat titillation reached its zenith in Batman #324 when Selina awoke naked in the Batcave after her costume had been torn to pieces. Batman tosses her a replacement saying she was lucky he’d kept one of her old costumes in his trophy room, and she responds—just barely covering herself with the sheet—that she “got lucky in more ways than one.”
Approved by the Comics Code. And that’s probably what made it so much fun: the tingle of being bad, of getting away with something a little naughty. It is the appeal of Catwoman, and in scenes like that, the reader got a taste.
And therein lies one of the essential elements of a successful Catwoman portrayal that has often eluded DC Comics. A simple comparison of the merchandise dating from Denny O’Neil’s day as Bat editor, where it seemed to be a mandate that her features be distorted by a hostile snarl, to the turning point when a Japanese company, Yamoto Toys, released a limited edition figurine based on manga artist Kia Asamiya’s design. The sexy come hither pose and naughty grin sold out in days in many U.S. comic shops and was voted The Sexiest Batman-related Action Figure by Wizard’s ToyFare Magazine. After a second equally successful figurine from Yamoto, again featuring the Jim Balent costume with an appealing pose and smile, DC appears to have got the message. Recent offerings of the Balent costume from DC Direct have certainly featured an attractive pose and naughty grin.
But the detour into snarling hostility illustrates how, like Cleopatra, Catwoman has undergone reinvention after reinvention reflecting the insights, fetishes or fears of those doing the re-imaging. Consider her Bob Kane origin from “The Secret Life of Catwoman,” an airline stewardess who suffered amnesia after a plane crash. (Yes, amnesia. It’s a comic book.) In the 1940s and 50s, stewardesses were incredibly glamorous figures. Beautiful, svelt single girls, traveling the world, meeting exciting people and working side-by-side with pilots! It is in this story that Catwoman’s real name is revealed to be Selina Kyle. Selina meaning “daughter of the moon.” Kane clearly gave his Catwoman a glamorous and romantic cache befitting her status as the Queen of the Night in Batman’s world. This Catwoman, despite her criminal activities, was far from evil. She bargained away loot to save Robin from Joker, and on regaining her memory, worked with Batman to bring down a crime boss and ultimately her own criminal brother.
The next origin revealed that the amnesia story was a lie. Selina Kyle had been married to a rich man who beat her. When she left him, he tried to ruin her. Her first robbery was stealing back the jewelry he’d given her and, titillated by the thrill, she continued. The attitudes expressed by this version of Catwoman are not at all difficult to decode, for the author puts it right in the text: Selina tells Batman she made up the amnesia story to get out of the life of crime because “I was thirty years old and I didn’t want to die without love… without children.” That Selina does marry Bruce Wayne and has a child with him: Helena Wayne. While modern sensibilities may kneejerk at the notion that every woman must pang for motherhood, I submit that the root idea that all humans, both men and women, want love is a timeless and valid one.
Things took a bit of a turn when the in-your-face feminism of the Sixties sent the comics boys into a tizzy. Consider the mentality of a writer who had the Green Lantern’s girlfriend become evil Star Sapphire for 5 days each month. How does such a man respond to images on the news of women shouting for equality and burning their bras? Well, Catwoman donned go-go boots and snarled about “The Battle of the Sexes” and how “No man would ever tame her,” and that same writer gave Batman a new enemy/love interest, a submissive Asian who “was good company even when she was quiet.”
Yeah. Seriously. Amazing, isn’t it?
The Catwoman of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is of a period that lost the most fundamental “Look, up in the sky” aspect of superhero comics: the wish fulfillment of a child, the adventures of characters we would all want to be if we could. To fly, to be strong, to swing across the city on a silken Batline, to have exciting adventures in a world of larger than life color… In the spirit of remaking all the known characters as damaged human beings that no sane person would ever want to be, Selina was a meek, repressed, overworked secretary whose boss killed her. All of her ‘empowerment’ was a reaction to oppression and victimization, but it should be noted that this is not really a gender attitude. The men in Burton’s world fare no better.
Of Frank Miller’s Year One and subsequent comics based on its Catwoman origin, all that any enlightened reader need do is look at the body of Miller’s work. The sheer number of prostitutes, rapes and castrations paint a vivid portrait of the man doing the writing and his attitudes, but just in case anyone doubts, Rob Bricken has taken the trouble to map it all out in 6 Hints that Frank Miller Might Have Issues with Women. What all this says about Miller is – well, it’s Miller. It doesn’t have to represent the rest of us. We don’t have to be the generation that was so terrified of women’s sexuality they had to demonize it. It was DC who let this guy with obvious issues about women’s sexuality define a woman’s icon. It is DC Comics who refuses to remedy or even admit that error. It falls to other media to do so.
Mr. Nolan, I’m looking at you. The 21st Century is eagerly waiting to see what “Our” Catwoman will be.
Article first published as Catwoman and Cleopatra: Inkblots of an Age on Blogcritics.