History of a Femme Fatale
CREATED IN 1940 as a love interest for Batman, Selina Kyle originally debuted alongside the Joker in Batman issue #1 as the Cat. "She was a kind of female Batman, except that she was a villainess and Batman was a hero" (Kane 107). Inspired by screen temptress Jean Harlow, Selina was a glamorous, ball gown-wearing cat burglar. A former heiress suffering from amnesia, she was a sympathetic criminal who "was never a murderer or entirely evil like the Joker....she was put into the strip for both the boys and the girls, as a female counterpart to Batman" (Kane 107, 108). Designed for females to relate to and males to lust after, the Catwoman filled a void in Gotham City and quickly became a recurring character.
Like Batman, the Catwoman operated outside the law within her own code of morality. She predated the creation of Alfred, the Penguin, and even famous heroines like Wonder Woman, Miss Fury, and Black Cat (Robbins). Catwoman broke the glass ceiling of the comic industry and raised the bar for future female characters. From their first battle in Batman #1, the caped crusader has uniquely allowed her to escape (Boichel 9). Selina Kyle became a foil to Batman, a reflection of his own dark desires and need for healing, as well a Jungian anima to his animus. Catwoman resembled "the shady ladies of Will Eisner's comic strip The Spirit , who harbor soft spots in their hearts for the hero and are never really bad" (Robbins 34).
Though not featured in the war-era Columbia Studios serials of 1943 and 1949, Catwoman returned with a vengeance in the 1966 television series Batman. Sporting a black catsuit and a cat o' nine tails, the "nefarious temptress" appeared in 15 episodes during its three seasons. She was played by three different actresses, including the African-American Eartha Kitt. Even in this campy series, Catwoman's dangerous femininity was used to tease males as she flaunted her keen intellect. Portrayed as would be paramours separated by the law, the image of Catwoman and Batman as two sides of the same coin was cemented on this children's television show. Original actress Julie Newmar expressed discontent with this version of Catwoman to the producers. "Julie felt that Catwoman should be pure evil, teasing Batman rather than actually falling in love with him...she established the character for every actress that followed....including Michelle Pfeiffer" (West 133).
In the Silver Age of comics (the 1970's), writers continued this role of foil/lover to the next degree by reforming Catwoman. In one Elseworlds (DC Comics' fictional alternate reality) tale, the pair even married and bore a daughter Helena, the future crime fighter the Huntress. With no where left to grow, it looked like the Batman mythos was winding down. Then the comic world was rocked in 1985 by the publishing of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. An adult graphic novel that featured gritty violence, moody panels and informed character analysis, Miller's vision became an instant cult classic. He was credited for rejuvenating the sales of a sagging comic industry and refueling a new era of myths starring complex and realistic characters. Miller saw the value of Catwoman and featured her as a main character in his seminal revision of Batman's origins in 1987's Batman: Year One.
Envisioning Selina Kyle as a dominatrix prostitute, her new origin became a teenage runaway and victim of incest. Inspired by the fear Batman's cowl invokes, Selina creates the antithesis alter ego of Catwoman. An embittered feminist fighting to survive the chaotic streets of Gotham, this version of Selina portrays a more dangerous reality for eighties women than most time capsules would dare address. Again, the wounded souls of Batman and Catwoman are attracted and ultimately severed by their similarities.
The new fervor in the comic industry inspired the development of the long mired Batman movie, finally completed in 1989 by Warner Brothers and followed by a franchise of three sequels. 1992 saw the release of Batman Returns , which combined Frank Miller and Bob Kane conceptions to portray Selina Kyle as an S and M clad villainess with the newly created origin of spurned secretary turned supernatural trickster. Actress Michelle Pfeiffer (who cites Julie Newmar as her inspiration) was "attracted to this character because of the idea of a woman making a power move in her life and appearing strong" (Shapiro 43). Sporting blonde hair for the first time (perhaps in homage to Jean Harlow), Selina spat feminist one liners ("Life's a bitch, now so am I") and skipped through the dark streets of Gotham. The film reveled in her outsider status as a woman shirking gender boundaries, and remarkably ended with her rejection of domesticity. Again, Bruce and Selina fall in love by day as their ids battle each other on the rooftops at night. But this time, Selina leaves Bruce pining for her as she rejects his marriage proposal and slinks off into the night.
The initial success of the movie franchise created more Batmedia, and at last Catwoman was awarded her own eponymous monthly title. Currently seven years old at issue 81, Catwoman is an amalgam of all the past variations. As insouciant as the 1966 television show, sexy as the 1980's dominatrix, and fun-loving as the original runaway heiress back story, Selina skips through the pages of her comic book title alone, occasionally battling evil and righting wrongs, but most often planning immoral jewel capers for fun and profit.
Because she is now a member of the "Batman Family" (the monthly Dark Knight spin-off titles), Selina has frequent guest shots in other comics, cross-overs, miniseries, and publications of original graphic novels and trade paperbacks (larger one-shot stories, often not taking place in the current DC time continuity). These opportunities allow for many more writers and artists to expand the Catwoman character. For instance, a recent Elseworlds two-parter titled Catwoman: Guardian of Gotham detailed an alternate reality where Catwoman and Batman had switched roles. The Fall of 1999 Batman/Tarzan: Claws of the Catwoman also featured a new interpretation. This Catwoman was the Afican-American queen of an endangered tribe, forever separated from Bruce because of their loyalty to protecting their respective cities.
The Emmy award winning Batman: the Animated Series began airing on the Fox network in 1992. Filled with art deco style, gritty drawings, and pulp noir characters, the cartoon is considered the "definitive Batman." (Print Magazine). The show debuted with a two- part episode starring Catwoman as a sympathetic (and again blonde) thief stealing to finance the protection of endangered animals. The character was retooled for the sequel series New Batman/Superman Adventures as a less virtuous incarnation. In the 1997 version, Selina Kyle is a wealthy socialite by day who cases her rich chums to steal from at night. Like Robin Hood, she only takes what others can afford to give and uses the stolen merchandise for the good of society. Then again, sometimes she keeps the pretty baubles for herself. Though still a children's show, this amoral, murky characterization of Selina Kyle is closer to that of the comic book. Writers/artists Paul Dini and Chip Kidd developed her new playful and predatory attitude (including a new attraction to the grown Robin and a return to black hair), as well as a more feline silhouette (Dini 132). The inclusion of selfishness, mind games and double-crosses in her arsenal make her a villainess once more.
Analysis of a Dangerous Woman
NO MATTER WHAT origin is used to explain her criminal motives, there are characteristics present in each Catwoman incarnation. Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio's in-depth analysis of the fluctuating Batman mystique explores the ability of our folk heroes to shift identities. Together they explore on Jim Collins definition of "superheroes as an assemblage of intertextual representations rather than a set definition" (Collins 180). Pearson and Uricchio conclude that as long as the four traits of Batman myth remain consistent, multiple writers may expand the character how they choose (Pearson, Uricchio 186). They refer to this floating signifier phenomena as character elasticity. Likewise, I posit that Catwoman must have nine traits to be recognizable to her fans:
As long as these traits remain present, the dozens of writers contributing to Selina's stories over the last sixty years have expanded her mythology like a rubber band. Character elasticity is unique and essential component of aggregate narratives. Because the many Batmedia have different authors, "they appeal to disparate but often overlapping audiences by presenting different incarnations of the superhero simultaneously" (Collins 180). Thus fans will accept multiple visions of Catwoman. This point is crucial, because fans are the ultimate character authority, the judge and jury that has killed many a comic myth.
There are several extraordinary elements to the Catwoman myth that defy the sexist stereotypes found in most of modern media. Unlike token females who must be represented as perfect, Selina is not virtuous, gentle, or whitewashed by a lack of human frailties. Selina Kyle is always portrayed as a very complicated woman, full of conflicting emotions and desires, and not afraid to change her mind. She admits when she is wrong but does not accept patriarchal punishments Rather, she operates under a self-regulated morality kept in delicate check by her own will. Though operating outside the laws of gender and society, she is never punished for her transgressions.
Indeed, she is almost impossible for the law to catch, and always escapes. This is unheard of in fiction, where even feminist authors like Kate Chopin and Margaret Atwood unilaterally kill the female heroine who can not be reprocessed back into society. Instead Selina is championed as a female trickster, an insouciant who laughs at society's rules and wins (Landay 206). This unpunished insolence might not be so astonishing if the behavior was confined to the underground world of comics. But this phenomenon continues in every Batmedia form. The last image of Batman Returns is of Catwoman eclipsing the Batsignal in triumph, free to roam Gotham once more. Catwoman is the first highly visible female character in modern media to escape the wrath of patriarchy.
Feminist Role Model
The problem is that the super-heroes who perform magical feats--indeed, even mortal heroes who are merely competent--are almost always men....For little girls, the only alternative is suppressing a crucial part of ourselves by transplanting our consciouness into male characters.
CATWOMAN'S CONTINUED existence is even more puzzling in that her dangerous influence on young girls is well established. Even the campy 1966 television show introduced impressionable children to contradictions surrounding gender. In Lynn Spiegel and Henry Jenkin's interviews with Baby Boomers raised on the "harmless" show, many cite Batman as a seminal influence on the development of their psyche. Grown men and women remember Catwoman's authority over her henchmen and resistance to Batman as their first glimpse of "the possibility of feminine power" (Spiegel, Jenkins 138). One woman "recalled discussing with her playmates the pleasure they took in Catwoman's antisocial antics" (Spiegel, Jenkins 138). While many boys experienced their first erotic memories due to Catwoman, girls were particularly impressed with how much fun this bad girl was having in contrast to Batman. They were left with the impression that resisting sex-role stereotyping was a possibility for them. (Spiegel, Jenkins 139).
Apparently 1990's boys think it is a possibility for them as well. In the summer of 1999, the television show The Hollywood Squares asked a trivia question based on a recen Internet poll. "8-12 year old boys were surveyed as to who they would like to be and 60% of them said Catwoman" (Delirium 1). The possibility of a majority of this public wanting to be any woman in this society indicates the potential influence of fictional role models, even the much maligned female comic book character.
Fans of different generations of the Catwoman archetype make their own attractions to the character. Obviously she fills a void in comics of complex female characters; women that both male and female readers can relate to and admire. The largest difference between our modern mythology and the fairy tales and Greek myths of yore is the silent exclusion of half of our population. Originally comics were bought by almost as many females as males (Parsons 69), so economics does not explain the lack of female representation in the DC universe. Unlike societies that told tales of Hera, Diana, the Amazons, Boadicea, Judith, Matilda, Cleopatra, Inana, Jinga, Queen Elizabeth, Morgan, Joan of Ark, and many other strong women, as a culture Americans lacked the archetype of the Warrior Queen (Fraser 7-13).
The invention of Catwoman begat a new generation of powerful characters like Wonder Woman, Xena, and Agent Scully that may not have been heard without Selina's birth in 1940. With more stories circulated in our culture about the powers and capabilities of women, perhaps we will experience political leaders of the fairer sex. Historically this is an unusual discrepancy due in part to America's lack of a hereditary monarchy (Fraser 9). The burden of representation falls on singular archetypes like Catwoman to prove women's capabilities in the man's world of modern cities.
Copyright © 1999 by Elisabeth Fies
All comic characters and their likeness are the intellectual property of DC Comics.