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Caught In Between Good and Bad: Catwoman’s Feminism

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I often find myself in arguments about Catwoman: who played the best Selina Kyle in movies and who writes her the best in comics. I talk about her a lot. I mean, a lot. I’ve developed a really deep love for her as a character because she has never been easily pinned down or definable. She holds a special place for me because as a female character, she holds a lot of power for progressive and offensive representation and thought. She is not easily definable as good or bad, and this tension provides the room for her to become something more than just Batman’s love interest or Gotham’s ultimate femme fatale.

While I’ve felt this way about Catwoman in many different instances, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Catwoman: When In Rome  really hits the nail on the head for me. It raises — whether intentionally or not — all these questions about Selina’s identity, but also the role of Catwoman as a feminist character in a world rife with problems when it comes to writing and representing women. Warning, I’m absolutely going to be spoiling the heck out of this run.

Still with me? Okay, good.

‘Kay, so here goes: When In Rome is about Selina’s search for self — but also parallels a search for feminist representation of self. I’m not saying this is Loeb and Sale’s intent with the character and their run with her, but I am saying that it can be read this way. After all, gender studies and feminist analyses matter all the more when a work isn’t explicitly dealing with the ideas. I say this because the way we treat gender and gendered interactions shows up any time we write or read about humans interacting with each other. We cannot escape this: if humans are involved, so is gender.

So back to plot: in When In Rome Selina flies to Rome to search down the answers to who she is. This story comes thematically on the heels of Long Halloween, and placed relatively early in the time line of Selina’s life. It starts with Catwoman having a dream, a nightmare of fighting in Gotham and being saved by Batman. Right from the get go Loeb establishes that Selina wants nothing to do with the Dark Knight; importantly, that she she definitely does not want to be saved from him. This run is about her finding herself and she absolutely does not want to be defined in relative terms to Batman. She is not his damsel, she is not his lover. But more on this in a moment.

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It’s important to note now that there are only two other female characters in the whole run. And they both look like Selina Kyle. They don’t just look like her, they are thematic plays on the two manifests of her identity. There’s Cheetah, whose “taken the cat thing way too far,” a sultry villainness that is all foe and represents the Catwoman aspect of Selina Kyle. Then there’s Louisa Falcone, visually an older version of our titular character, who represents the unknown personal aspect, the Selina Kyle part of Catwoman.

And this is very fitting, since the run is about Selina’s search to find her origins. She believes Louisa to be her mother, the person who can unlock the secrets of her past. But this quest also functions as a symbolic searching for the Mother. In literature, gender studies often speaks to the feminist pursuit of a Mother, rather than a Father, in order for female writers and characters to find their voice. In a world dominated by men, and where women are relegated to the fridge to further male’s storylines/characterizations, Selina’s quest in Rome signals a search for a Mother, a figure who can represent a past and a light through the darkness. It is important that this search happens in Rome, a place untouched by masked and caped crusaders. This is the only setting for Catwoman to find and understand herself because here she can, temporarily, exist without and outside of the norms and standards of Gotham (a microcosm for the entire DC universe).

Except she can never fully escape the rules of Gotham and the typical representations that come with it, so When In Rome  finds Catwoman haunted by spectres of Gotham. Her villains, while for the most part new characters, use the weapons of the Gotham baddies: Joker’s poison, Scarecrow’s fear gas, and Mr. Freeze’s freeze-ray. While trying to find her identity and carve out her own space, she must constantly deal with remnants of a world she has temporarily left. In feminist undertakings, we cannot simply create anew, we must deal with the old, as well. Thematically and symbolically, the Bat-villains chosen to haunt Selina echo her pursuit for self: in the nightmare that begins When In Rome, it is Two-Face who shoots her after her triumphant victory over the Joker, signalling that even if Catwoman proves to be the stronger character, she still must deal with her dual selves and the tensions between reconciling both halves. And Catwoman very much is a woman caught in the middle: not just the middle ground between being a hero and a foe, but the middle ground of being a tired cliché of a female superhero and a progressive, feminist depiction.

CWIR #1.final.qxEven the fear of intimacy with Batman is predicated on a fear of unveiling/revealing one’s true self. While Selina was initially the one who wanted them to open themselves to each other, she spends the entirety of When In Rome resisting this very intimacy with him. Batman represents her fears and the tensions surrounding them: she wants to know who she is, to reveal herself, but she can’t, because she’s afraid. There’s room to carve out your own identity in liminal, ambigious spaces. This tenuous, undefined space is exactly the space that Selina inhabits in the Batman universe: caught between good and evil, hero and foe, Catwoman straddles the line, dips her toes on both sides, but ultimately never settles in one category for very long.

Beyond this, Selina’s nightmares (as she calls them) of Batman symbolically work to highlight the feminist fear of female characters always being the damsel in distress. Selina is actively fighting against this form of characterization, since it is often the most visible trope available to women in comics. Selina resists this at every turn in her search to know herself.

At the end of the run, when she says she stole from Falcone to carve out a place for herself in society — a place she deserves — she is speaking to the ways in which female characters have to fight for their respected positions. Her identity, her life, is of her own creation and which, this is important, she stole from her possible father. The father figure here is important because it goes back to what I was saying about the feminist search for the Mother: female characters often have to claim their representation and position by force from an existing masculine framework.

So why does all of this matter? Because it goes to show that sometimes what’s important is the journey — the process — and not necessarily the end result.  When In Rome ends with Selina rejecting the Father. She goes to Falcone’s grave, tells him that she stole from him to make her own name, and that she doesn’t need him. He is silenced, and she is allowed to live as she is. And the important realization here is that the way she will be from now on, knowing more of herself, is exactly the same way she was before: a character caught between being good and bad, and all the more powerful because of this undefinable ambiguity. Holding the ring (literally the one ring to rule them all), she acknowledges the power she holds, and rather than revel in being holier than thou as a hero, she smirks at her own potential. She can do what she wants, unrestricted by rules and definitions. And it is in this very undefinable aspect that I find Catwoman’s feminism powerful — once we abolish all tired tropes and definitions of what it means to be “good” or “bad” we can have a more robust representation of characters that exist outside of tired binary thought.

10 Comments

I haven’t read this particular story, but I really like your articles and think this is an invaluable perspective in looking at these stories. I loved this piece in particular, since I have a similar view of Catwoman as a character who should be much better than she is ( I keep thinking back to Arkham City, where Selina had a prominent role and was fun to play, but had little to actually say beyond cliche innuendos. Total waste of Grey DeLisle…)

Interesting, I like this brief piece. Looking forward to reading the other pieces you linked to. Hope they explore the effect of feminism on concepts of good and bad more. I don’t like to think that they have to be wiped out to achieve the goals of feminism, but I acknowledge that culturally gender is interlinked w/ the Privilege that we are ordered under.

I enjoyed this article and look forward to more, Kaitlin. We need more feminism-inspired writing that it is thoughtful and respectful to both genders.

I liked this story a lot. I think because its Catwoman, people may dismiss the book as something boys stare at. There are a few superhero comic characters whose psyche and reason for being have been analyzed, male or female, as well as Catwoman and this book does that.
Your insight on the story is interesting. Keep it coming.

I apologize upfront for diverting this away from the field of comics. But: “[F]emale characters often have to claim their representation and position by force from an existing masculine framework.” You seem to understand what you’re saying, and be fully in control of it; as well as understanding the mode of thought you’re representing. Drop out “character” and close the gap between the e and s and you’ve pretty thoroughly summarized feminist thought in the real world; or at least a real-world definition. Are you surprised, then, that there’s such a backlash? All the while we’re told–whether honestly and ignorantly, or inflected with cynical subversion–it’s not a “zero-sum game”–but as soon as we’re discussing fiction, as soon as things can become metabolized through character, symbol or allegory, the truth comes out. Come on! We (human beings, social animals) have known from the very beginning that the weaker, the lesser, or the younger are preoccupied with wresting power from those who hold it (and held it brutally, in a state of nature, like “the Father”), and are more than willing, on occassion, to find a way to subvert and destroy the higher to get it–and yet the HIGHER is blamed constantly for ITS preoccupation with power (that is, its defensive, conservative posture). …Subvert and destroy, regardless of the cost; regardless of subverting family, state, ethics into underhanded criminal shadowacts or outright, out-of-hand bloodshed. Honestly! You mention “her own potential,” but you put that before the fact it is potential to win at a purely self-interested, free-for-all disregard for order.

Otherwise, intelligent and articulate analysis. Even if it articulates a little too well. ;)

Loved this article. As a fellow Catwoman obsessive (obsessed!) I’ve noticed that many writers haven’t know what to do with her when she is separated from Batman, the character she was created to be a sexy foil for. Loeb and Sale handled her very well. We know what the result will be (we saw Selina’s final panel in Dark Victory) and at the time it felt a little hollow and unfinished. I love the way it was flushed out in her own mini series.

Loved your interpretation of the other female figures. I would say that your thoughts on the search for the mother are backed up by having her steal an important ring from within the statue of the Virgin Mary holding Christ La Pieta. The panel of her looking at the statue moved me but until I read your piece I didn’t connect it to her own search for Mother.

VERY lovely article! I ADORE Selina and the LH/DV/CWiR books are huge favorites of mine. You did a nice job breaking WiR down.

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[...] But sometimes a revamp of a franchise is not enough for the fan because the movies or readings do not go as they would like them to go, which leads to fanfiction. Jenkins points out that most fanfiction writers are actually women, who are writing to empower the female role in the franchise. The most popular Batman fanfiction, especially for women writers, is about the romance between Batman and Catwoman. I believe we see most of those stories as just love stories not only because women fans want to see the two together but also because Catwoman is already a powerful female character so there is no need to improve her. I personally love Catwoman because of how independent she is. She takes care of herself and while she is in love with Bruce Wayne, she does not require any help from Batman and sometimes even goes against him. She is neither evil nor good, it depends on the situation and how the outcome will benefit her. She can be seen as one of the working class women who Hooks talks about in Feminist Class Struggle because in real life Selena Kyle is lower class. In The Dark Knight Rises we see how tired she is about how her life has not become easier then she sees all these rich women who have it so easy, which relates to how high class women “gained greater access to economic power..” (Hooks, 109)  To some women, Catwoman is seen as a symbol of Feminism symbol in a male world of comic books. [...]

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