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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.