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12Jun/1117

Catwoman: The Hyper-Sexualisation of a Sexual Woman

Looking at the new covers to début in DC's continuity reboot later this year, it seems that the as yet unconfirmed "women in trousers" edict is almost certainly in effect to a large extent. It's become increasingly clear too that this focus on covering up bare legs has little do with any de-sexualisation trend: the women are still in tight fitting outfits and busty to the point of falling out their tops (if I was Harley Quinn I'd at least like some straps on that top but perhaps my rack isn't so well behaved).

One of the first casualties is Catwoman, whose playful covers of the last 10 years have enamoured her to a new generation of fans. At first glance, the cover of the upcoming Catwoman #1 may not be seen as terribly out of place for a character who is so openly sexual and enjoys revelling in the power she holds over lustful men. But female fans of the frisky feline beg to differ; the hyper-sexualisation of a proud sexual woman is still exploitation, exactly the same as for any other woman in comics.

But is it possible, as a feminist, to defend Catwoman at all? And where is the line between non-passive sexualisation and objectification?

Suicide Squad #1 and Catwoman #1

I've been a fan of Catwoman for 20 years now, long before I ever got my hands on my first comic. Batman Returns was the film of my childhood, and I knew immediately that of all the superwomen and action heroes I'd seen, I wanted to be Catwoman. A mysterious femme fatale with her own agenda, a transition from oppressed office worker to a self-assured independent woman, and a woman who able to match the predominantly male heroes I was aware of at their own game: Catwoman cut an inspiring figure. Sure her powers came at the expense of her mental health, and okay, the outfit wasn't something I could really see myself cavorting across the rooftops in, but the power she commanded, not least over men, was intoxicating.

Catwoman was one of the very earliest female comic book heroes, débuting in the first issue of Batman's self titled comic in 1940 (Wonder Woman arrived a year later in '41). This early incarnation of Selina was known as The Cat, and was introduced by the creator of Batman, Bob Kane. Kane's intent for Selina was for her to be a non-evil villain who could provide some romantic interest in Batman's life, at the same time making the comic appeal to women readers. The inspirations for the glamorous Cat were Hedy Lamarr (note: a woman who led an amazing life!) and Jean Harlow, screen goddesses and gorgeous sex symbols.

http://www.comicbookgrrrl.com/2011/04/13/women-in-comics-the-platinum-golden-ages/The height of respect.

However, the early personality of Catwoman – a dim, scowling, easily manipulated glamourpuss – can perhaps be explained by Kane's now infamous quote:

"I felt that women were feline creatures and men were more like dogs. While dogs are faithful and friendly, cats are cool, detached, and unreliable. I felt much warmer with dogs around me - cats are as hard to understand as women are. Men feel more sure of themselves with a male friend than a woman. You always need to keep women at arm's length. We don't want anyone taking over our souls, and women have a habit of doing that. So there's a love-resentment thing with women. I guess women will feel that I'm being chauvinistic to speak this way, but I do feel that I've had better relationships with male friends than women. With women, once the romance is over, somehow they never remain my friends."

Selina's journey over the years can in many ways be compared to the growing feminism movement itself. Originally seen as being purely style over substance, a bit of glamour to attract the ladies and some sex appeal for the men, Catwoman was effectively banned from comics in the conservative 50s due to the infamous Comic Code ruling that crime should never be seen to pay, and that women should behave as society expected. Re-emerging in the 60s, Catwoman was really thrown under the bus in order to better demonstrate how progressive the new Barbara Gordon truly was. On television too, Catwoman was a campy gimmicky character: attractive but ultimately non-threatening.

Handbags at dawnCatwoman's green phase. Green for envy. Subtle!

After second wave feminism was firmly under way, Catwoman's origins were further confused in 1986 with Frank Miller's Batman: Year One establishing her as a former prostitute; a history of trauma was evidently seen as required to give her focus as a strong woman. Batman Returns in '92 sees Selina exuding independence and resisting the status quo as Catwoman, but confused in her daily life – a situation that many women could empathise with. She rejects her previous oppression and embraces her new power, albeit one she uses her body to harness in that killer costume. Selina is finally taken seriously, but only as an object to admire and desire. The 90s comics subsequently saw a highly sexualised take on Selina in her purple costume, with bulging bosoms and phallic imagery. Suffice to say, it would be impossible to imagine Batman in her place in any of the covers to these comics!

Eyes wandering?Not much else to say really other than BOOBS.

Finally in the new century, Catwoman was given a more serious title of her own, with eye-catching and non-degrading covers, most famously by Adam Hughes. But this was immediately followed by Birds of Prey and Gotham City Sirens with art that was once more hyper-sexualised, valuing a body ideal over a expression of personality. The latest trailer for the game Batman: Arkham City shows a sexpot Catwoman strutting down the streets, working that ass, and winning a fight with a kiss. Much like contemporary feminism, Selina is caught between the capitalist truth that sex sells, and a struggle for recognition as a strong woman.

The problem with this parallel to the feminism movement is that Catwoman's progression is almost entirely superficial. The comics industry is dominated by men, not just those behind the creation process (Catwoman has had three women writers in her time but all male artists), but by the male dominated society we live in as a whole. Films and music videos are a fantastic example of how media is (often unconsciously) constructed by and for the male gaze. Men make up the majority of comic buyers, cinema ticket purchasers, and memorabilia collectors. As a result, women in the media are tailored towards being a projection of male fantasy. They do not reflect the variety of women we see around us every day, but a highly sexualised image of an ideal female body. While this is the case women are less likely to consume such media, and so a vicious circle continues.

Personality and power = meow!Now these are gorgeous covers. Much love to Adam Hughes.

The term "male gaze" was defined in 1975 by Laura Mulvey in her book Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, as that which denies women agency and reduces them to the status of objects. Outwardly, Catwoman displays great power as she tackles the men of Gotham on their own privileged playing field but this power is not intrinsic to her character. While Batman and Nightwing possess great strength and intelligence of their own, and the Joker and Two Face have a near genius level of criminal brilliance, Catwoman's great strength is her body and the effect it has on others. Even though ostensibly this power is controlled by Catwoman herself, the power relies not within Catwoman but on the weakness (lust) of the men around her.

No matter how much character progression Selina is granted, every time she puts on her bondage inspired costume and engages the male gaze, sexuality and power become confused. It could be argued that Batman wears a similarly tight costume, however his outfit serves to demonstrate his strength and agility, while Catwoman's only to highlight her curves and ideal sexualised body. Were she to wear the same amount of armoured costume as Batman, the effect would be rather different – still perhaps idealised, but not as sexualised.

More boob focus, that's what we need!As much as I love these covers, they are very obviously hyper-sexualised.

Her strength as a woman hero is admirable, particularly in the non-powered world of Gotham; Selina is not the spoiled rich kid dressing up (Bruce) or a villain obsessed by one objective (Joker), instead living within the grey area of anti-heroism. As neither the traditional "good girl" or the twisted "bad girl" who must inevitably face punishment (ideally, Frank Miller take note), Catwoman does enjoy the freedom to express her sexuality without (in story) repercussions. If any woman in comics was to have permission to behaved in a sexualised manner, it would surely be Catwoman.

The problem lies within the scope of comics; because of the absolute commercial power of the male gaze, Catwoman can only ever operate within the passive female archetype. Within the comics, Catwoman is not considered a real threat, nor someone to take seriously in comparison with the many male characters whose voices are listened to. Her vast experience (one of the first women in comics remember) counts for nothing it seems, and even her greatest fans are far more likely to point to her sexual power than to Selina as a character in her own right.

In Batman Begins in 2005, the caped crusader was given a new lease of life, in a serious and dark outing. Spider-Man was given similar treatment in 2002, as were the X-Men in 2000. This year we see Green Hornet, Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America and more dominating our cinemas. Could a woman in comics be granted the same chance? Would a serious Wonder Woman film make it big at the box office? The ill-fated and ill-advised campy TV pilot would indicate otherwise. As would the 2004 Catwoman film, which kept the Catwoman name and changed everything else, making the costume even more revealing than every before. Looking at the last few years in film, there have been many comic book films that have been huge financial (and sometimes critical) successes. Looking at the films starring women in a comic or action role, the difference is stark: flops, critically panned, not made or taken seriously.

Can you see Batman in this costume and pose?Just, what. WHAT.

In films starring both male and female heroes (X-Men), far more emphasis is put on the men and the films barely pass the Bechdel Test as a result. (The Bechdel Test asks: does the film star women?; Do the women speak to each other?; About something other than a man? - it sounds terribly simple but astoundingly the majority of films fail.) In the recent X-Men: First Class, despite a diverse top billed cast (40% women), all the leading women take their clothes off in the film. All are easily led by men. None speak of their own hopes and desires outside of the men they follow.

Yet 30 years ago, one film was made that suggested everything was about to change. Ellen Ripley was a woman action hero like none we had ever seen before. With the success of Star Wars, studios were desperate to capitalise on the sci-fi craze. One film was already on the desk: Alien. With its Giger designed Alien and environment, and a note in the script explicitly stating "The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women" this was inspirational film making. The young Sigourney Weaver was cast in the lead role as it was thought a woman star would help the film stand out from the crowd. Ripley wasn't sexualised, she was simply a person, the same as any leading man would be. Yes there was the running around in underpants scene – Alien isn't perfect – but at least the camera wasn't following that pink material with lingering looks.

This was 1979 and Ripley remains one of the few, and certainly best, non-sexualised strong women in Western cinema history. Others would perhaps be Jenette Vasquez from the sequel Aliens and Sarah Connor from The Terminator. As you can see, all in the 80s. Perhaps less of a sign of change then and more a blip in the radar. Where are our Ellen Ripley's today? Without her, there can be no serious Wonder Woman or Catwoman portrayal: it will always be sexualisation above all else.

Catwoman in The Dark Knight Returns? I admire Christopher Nolan for his great filmwork, but his history with female characters has not been great. I'm not holding my breath.

MeowPurrfection. But flawed. Tricky!

Historically, women have been expected to be passive and deferential, while men have been expected to show aggression and be domineering. As time has passed, we have learned more about the artificial nature of these social constructs of gender, but our media continues to reflect older beliefs back at us. The Catwoman of today is a long way from the obsessive man-chaser of the Golden Age, but this new cover shows that she is still defined, like the majority of women in comics, by her costume and body, her sexualisation, and by how she can progress the storyline of the male characters.

It has been argued that the number of titles being revamped that star women should be something to celebrate. But as I discussed in X-Women: First Class?, volume of women does not negate crap usage of them. Nor does it address the lack of women behind the scenes.

Can a feminist enjoy Catwoman? Sure. She's a strong woman, a sexy ass-kicking hero, and an intriguing character who uses her sex as a weapon and thrills at it. But whenever we defend women in comics, we must always remember the limited scope in which they exist.

Comments (17) Trackbacks (3)
  1. Hello,

    Very interesting stuff. Would be really cool to have a female feminist writer to write Catwman adventures. The result could be very intellectually stimulating. DC should consider it!

    Sincerelly,

  2. very nice article. i’m also a long time fan of catwoman. and i am often pained and disappointed in her representation and by my awareness of exactly who DC feels her audience is/maybe should be. as a matter of taste, i still love cameron stewart’s covers the most :) anyway, excellent piece! thanks!

    • Those are gorgeous covers. It’s such a shame that Catwoman has had so many wonderful cover artists and yet we’re returning to a more sexualised, less arty look.

      Thank you!

  3. Great work! Thanks for writing this down.

    I’m about to start the 2002-2008 series of ‘Catwoman’.

    After Winnicks “she’s addicted to Batman” solicitation last week, I had a conversation with a feminist friend of mine – named Kitty, of all things:

    http://stefanmesch.wordpress.com/2011/06/08/crazy-for-batman-catwoman-melon-breasted-damsel/

    Enjoy. And keep up the good work!

    • Hee, interesting – it was that trailer that really made me sit down and think through how I felt about Catwoman. My initial reaction to the trailer was one of sheer glee, and to reason that Catwoman can get away with that behaviour because of her sexual nature. If only it were that simple! :)

  4. I’m sorry, but as a woman and Catwoman fan, non-passive sexualisation and objectification is relative (rather you like it or not). I’ve been reading Catwoman comics since I was a kid in the 90′s – yes, she’s very very sexual, and dresses quite provocatively; that’s what she does, but not who she is.

    I love the cover work by Adam Hughes, more than any artist i’ve seen on Catwoman, nevertheless, you need different view points in “artwork”. Plus, the argument could be made for some male characters as well; I never mind seeing Batman in a snug uniform ^_<.

    Todays feminists aren't what they were 30+ years ago, it's become cliche and mundane; not to mention the word "feminist", now (sadly) has a negative connotation.

    I don't want some "I secretly hate being fat, even though I tell myself it's ok because i'm a strong woman, crap", with a chip on her shoulder – writing my Catwoman stories. I like seeing visualy appealing images of "sexual" woman – if it's appropriate to the material. They can become an inspiration, like Catwoman has for me.

    People will always strive for some level of physical beauty, in every society, and that's the way the world will always work. If you don't like the hypersexualization of Catwoman, read the new Batgirl, don't hijack something that works.

    • As I’ve said in the article, Catwoman is my favourite woman hero and remains so: it’s simply that I cannot defend her hyper-sexualisation given she is primarily written by, and for, men. Were she a real person it would be different, but as a character, her clothing and demeanour isn’t something she chooses – it is something put upon her.

      With male heroes, the idealised versions of their bodies signify strength, not sexuality; with women it’s about the gaze and making sure they are perceived as physically weaker than the men. A variety of women is what we should strive for, and again, within a variety then the hyper-sexualisation of a few wouldn’t be so significant. It’s interesting that the opposite of a hyper-sexualised buxom slim woman must automatically be an overweight woman with a chip on her shoulder! Catwoman’s characterisation, to me at least, is extremely interesting, and I love the stories best where the art work matches, rather than detracts from, her personality.

      Catwoman is sexual and can be sexual, but that is far different from being hyper-sexualised. I like Catwoman’s looks, I find her very attractive. But I also recognise that my liking her, doesn’t necessitate my defending of her. I enjoy reading Catwoman while maintaining awareness of her scope, just as with everything else, and continue to hope that women in comics will get a better deal. Hope that helps!

      • Some women have written Catwoman stories, you would have to look back in the archives of Catwoman comics, but they are there. I will admit, though, probably under the “guidance” of male DC execs.

        What’s wrong with a black jumpsuit, boots, and goggles? That’s exactly what I would wear lol. Never in the comcs has she had true stiletto type boots, not even much of a heel. Some have drawn her suit with a pvc look, and some have done basic leather/ cloth.

        For me, the biggest difference in her look (back in 01/02), outside of the Catwoman persona, was her short hair. Now, I can see from your picture, your hair is basicly just like Selina’s, – so is mine, or it was :P. I’ve asked and heard from sooo many guys, that they generally prefer longer hair. Catwoman is, and has been sporting shorter hair than even some of the male heroes, and that decision was from a man; they still haven’t changed it – 10 years later!

        As for the male heroes, how many guys do you see IRL, that look like Green Lantern, Batman, Superman, The Flash, etc? Not many, i’m guessing – for me, seeing guys super muscular, in skin-tight outfits, is super sexy. But if you’re a straight male, or gay female, you wouldn’t even notice it. We all know that more men read comics, than women, but I think the sexualisation can be seen from both sides, if you’re looking for it.

        Maybe I was a bit harsh on the “overweight feminazi” comment, but I sometimes feel that any woman who goes for the more “sexy” persona, always gets dumped on. We have a lot of female characters in DC (not sure about Marvel) that are much less hypersexualised than Catwoman.

        Just like the men in comics are always muscular, women are always thin with big ta-tas – but that’s changing, slowly. I do agree that we could use less of it, than more. One thing to note, Catwoman has ALWAYS been 10000x more sexual in movies, than in comics. I’m not for the Batman Returns, fetish, with thigh high boots version. I’m for the Darwyn Cooke/ Adam Hughes version, super sexy, but not a lush, posey facebook girl, ass brain, femme-douche.

        • Yeah, there were a couple of women back in the 90s who wrote for Catwoman – great stories, but I just can’t get over the purple suit. The proportions inside the black suit are much better I think!

          I’m not at all picking on Catwoman… she’s my example because she’s the one woman in comics I’ve defended the most, and I don’t think it’s been entirely fair of me to do so. You can see from my other articles that I definitely don’t fall into the “blame the sexualised clothes” camp (the Power Girl article in particular!) and I like Catwoman’s current style – which is why the new cover disappoints me as to me, that is NOT Selina. Selina is predatory, playful, and more recently, zipped up! This cover looks like someone pretending to be her and not quite hitting the right notes. The Harley cover is of course a million times worse, but I think as long as hyper-sexualised is the norm, neither can be defended.

          Were there a whole variety of women in comics, with all different body shapes and styles, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Were there more women behind the scenes at DC it wouldn’t matter either. But there aren’t, so for me to defend Catwoman at the expense of forgetting the scope she has to exist in… It’s hypocritical of me, and that’s the realisation I came to.

          Honestly, you’re the first woman I’ve come across personally who finds the supermen sexy! But again, it’s very much about the idealisation of their body – any sexualisation is secondary, not primary. Additionally, you can look at the supporting cast of male characters (Jimmy Olsen, James Gordon etc) and see non-idealised men. With women, even the scant few that feature as recurring supporting characters, the same ideals exist for them as for the superwomen. The women are defined by the effect they have on men, and how they advance the plot for the men. Not so for the many men of the comics.

          So yeah, like I say – I love Catwoman, I love her style, I love her attitude. But I hate that she is defined primarily for and by men, and that she does not exist beside a variety of other female characters that would give her balance. I can love her, but not defend her on the current terms. To be honest – we probably mostly agree!

          • The Harley cover is ridiculous, no doubt. I was appalled by the seemingly random sexuality (we’re not alone).

            I understand that it’s hard to defend her, but we have to remember, the new cover is just from one guy – we’ll see other artists soon (hopefully). I’m more worried about the new story. :/

            One of my favorite quotes about Catwoman came from Adam Hughes – “There’s nothing like a bad gril gone good”. I hope she remains a bit on the heroic side, although she can’t be a good-guy all the time!

            One thing that you did mention, the supporting cast of male characters, and how they’re “non-idealised” men. What about Holly Madison, Catwomans friend/sidekick. She’s been arround for years and she’s hardly the ideal female persona. Also, Amanda Waller, (she’s usually with the Superman crowd) an overweight older woman – you see her arround alot. They’re there, not in great numbers, but still there.

          • There are definitely some good supporting women characters but they are very much in the minority as you say. Really the main problem with mainstream comics is that they are very much targeted at the straight white abled male audience, thus the vast majority of characters all fall within that category. If DC is really intent on becoming more accessible to new fans, then there need to be some drastic changes. I’ve spent a long time being optimistic, only to see DC now going backwards :/

  5. Great article.

    I like the basic cat suit she’s had for a while, but I’d like to see it become more practical and less objectifying. Body armor might be a good addition. Catwoman shouldn’t be showing cleavage in a outfit she’s supposed to be beating people up and running on rooftops in.

    And I’d like to see more sneakin’ around! Isn’t she supposed to have been an expert thief? I’d like to see her do that splinter-cell, infiltration stuff.

  6. Interesting and relevant thoughts, especially with the new film coming in.
    I’ve always been a big Catwoman fan, always groaned at her treatment at the hands of people like Frank Miller.
    I have no problem with a female character being feminine, mind. I appreciate and celebrate being different than a man, which many feminists, sadly, don’t seem to do.
    I certainly wouldn’t want Catwoman interchangeable with a male character, but celebrating femininity and exploiting it are different things.
    I have talked to Adam Hughes once or twice via deviantart, once to simply praise him on an ensemble work for drawing several images of gorgeous women all together, and managing to make them all look unique and distinctive simply by facial expressions and stances. I admire his treatment of Catwoman as a personality, not just a body, and the fact that while he clearly celebrates her being female and sexy, he doesn’t exploit it. He respects her as a character, and I wish more men in the industry did that.

    …And women too. Because, by the same token, I wouldn’t have my female characters turned into male characters with just different bits.

  7. So, I’m a relatively fit girl (size 4 waist) and double d’s. last Halloween, I decided to put together a pretty high quality Catwoman costume. Even with a bra under it, there were problems. Unless I zipped it all the way up to my neck, the zipper would fall down. In other words, Cat woman’s costume is absolutely ridiculous *unless* it is fully zipped up. I can’t stand that it’s so common for it to be zipped all the way down…because apparently this busty lady is not wearing a bra and it is only the good grace of God that is keeping those things in.

    …boobs don’t work that way.

    Awesome article, though! I was a little dissapointed however, due to the lack of mention of the Catwoman in the animated series of the 90s. Successful, independent, and with a greater cause than just stealing crap. She was my absolute favorite growing up. And her interest in Batman was reasonably tempered by her greater interest in whatever her purpose at the time was.

    Half the time, I think Batman ended up being the far more emotional of the pair, really.

  8. Who the shit wants to see a female running around causing destruction? That’s about all those ‘superheroes’, bunch of unreasonably overpowered wankers, do.

    This whole ‘superhero’ thing is pretty manly. It’s dumb, it’s pure destruction, explosions and all that shit that excites braindead people. You seriously want more female superheroes? Aren’t females more about subtlety? I couldn’t give a fuck less about feminism, women and men’s rights movements and all that, so I don’t know. But female superheroes? Sweet Jesus, NO. I remember seeing that female version of Hulk. A green female bodybuilder with oversized tits. Oh hell no..

  9. Loved the article. Just DO NOT even GET ME STARTED on what they did to Poison Ivy in that wretched movie in the 90s.


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