Is Catwoman sexist?
I digress from my usual topic on this blog, to comment on something which has been rubbing me the wrong way during this whole week. Namely, I want to talk about one of the titles of DCs "New 52" line and the massive outcry against it. I'm talking about Catwoman.
Ever since the release of the number 1 issue of said line last week, self-appointed internet crusaders have been up in arms against it and the perceived sexism with which the character is treated. Now, I would understand if female readers would take offense on some titles of the new lineup („Voodoo“, "Wonder Woman" and - especially - "Red Hood and the Outlaws" leave a lot to be desired in the area of strong female characters), its just that I can't wrap my head around the idea of Catwoman suddenly taking the heat for this.
Mind you, the Cat has been a sexually charged character since her creation and some artists (like Jim Balent, because this is kinda his thing) have had her drawn and act in a way that isn't very flattering to modern women, to say at least. From the moment she was allowed a bit of backstory, she was portayed as a character who has been to hell and back (first as a prostitute who put on a costume to get back at the pimp abusing her, later as an orphan from an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother). She wasn't a well-adjusted character, but someone who thinks that "the world owes me something". A character who doesn't deal with her trauma in a very healthy way, but with a "devil-may-care" attitude that takes place in the here and now. No wonder she is such a perfect foil for the Batman.
This changed a bit during Brubakers run of the series, making Catwoman into more heroical, less whimsical character and having her settle down a bit, even sharing (and protecting) Batmans secret and having a daughter of her own (even if she was later erased, because of inter-universe-shenanigans). This was all well and good, but I still feel this interpretation quit a bit of what made the character so compelling.
Interestingly, despite the modern tendencies of a strong, independent woman, who cares only for herself (something which was still considered revolutionary during the first half of the last century), when it came to the implied sexual tension between her and the Batman (which was always there, even in shows like The Animated Series), she was always placed in the role of a woman (emotionally) dependent a distant, aloof male. Basically, Catwoman was written to be defined by the Batman - she was confident and independent only when she denied her sexuality.
Depiction of a woman, circa 1847.
Yeah, not a great way to portray a modern woman.
Cue to the release of Catwoman #1: in the opening scenes we see Catwoman hastily scooping up her things and abandoning her hideout, before some goons with hostile intentions can catch her. I think the scene has comedic value (Selina scooping up her cats and placing them all in one box is priceless), yet many people seem to have a problem with the cleavage and butt shots in these panels (specifically: that we see a brief flash of Catwomans tit and ass, before we get to see her face).
This is probably going to draw fire from PETA…
But think about it: if this was a male character in roughly the same situation, having to escape a situating in his undies. Is this offensive? I don't recall anyone complaining when it happened to Alan Harper in Two and a Half Men and this is hardly the first time the trope of "hasty, comedic flight in undergarments" has been used. My point is, we encounter Catwoman in a normal situation (for her anyway), doing normal things - while being sloppily dressed.
I just don't see why a woman in her underwear or skimpy dress as sexist , per se. As MovieBob so aptly said, its not what she is wearing, but how she is wearing it. Ask yourself: does she pose or thrust out her "assets" for the reader, like so many superheroines (Wonder Woman, I'm talking about you) or is she is just a woman who doesn't have time to dress? And if you are offended by this, then why aren't you offended by the fact that Action Comics introduces us to Superman by showing us a shot of his crotch?
Next, we get to see her face. This is an important moment, because this is the moment we are properly introduced to the character in the close-up of her seeing her apartment go up in flames. I have to say, this drawing is pure brilliance: in one single panel March manages to make a statement about the character which completely sums up her situation and emotional makeup.
This picture tells a story.
Most comic books are not known for being strong on the whole "facial expressions" issue and this goes double for books featuring female characters. Usually you get a mix of really bland stares and sultry smiles, with little or nothing in between. Catwoman ist different. The character really has something to say and words aren't the primary form of communication for her (because she doesn't bother to think about her actions) - the only information we get about her is from the emotions vividly painted on her face. And boy, isn't that a huge canvas, containing everything from fear, annoyance, security, anger, lust and many more in an unmistakable fashion.
Then, Selina meets up with her fence, who happens to be a woman who isn't built like a supermodel (not that it matters, but interestingly it is something, which most reviewers on the "sexism"-bandwagon fail to mention). Lola is actually a quite compelling character and I'm looking forward to seeing more of her in future issues. Anyway, Selina gets a job where she has to spy on some members on the Russian Mafia at an exclusive, private party. She briefly considers entering the party disguised as an escort, but decides against it (not because she would be generally opposed to wearing this kind of disguise, but because it would complicate her mission). She decides on working the bar. Again, the artist could have chosen to place her in a skimpy, demeaning costume and have her engage in graticious cockteasery, but that would have made no sense, since she - as mentioned in her narrative - is trying to AVOID drawing attention to her person. So she goes for "classy, but not sexualized", causing the russians to ignore her in favor of the escorts in the room.
Things heat up, when she encounters a russian gangster - who beat up and murdered a fellow girl in front of young Selinas eyes - among the guests of the party. She is obviously deeply offended by the fact that he escaped justice (she thought he was still in prison) and decides to take it out on him, resulting in her cover being blown and her having to fight her way out.
Back at her new lair she is paid a visit by Batman, who questions her about the incident. After her whole operation went bust, she decides "what the hell" and tries to seduce him into a night of carnal passion (something which happened between them before). Some protest Selina throwing herself at Batman after he refused her advances and ask, what you would call a male hero, who would do the same thing to a woman. Heres what I would call such a person: a jerk. And that is exactly, what Catwoman is in this situation, engaging in an egoistic sating of lust. But did you really expecting a lead who is designed to be the smart, whimsical anti-heroine to take suddenly the moral high ground, just because it relates to matters sexual? This would have been completely out of character.
The act of sex itself (if it happens at all) is clumsy and awkward , not romantic or sexy in any way (which is why I can't understand how some reviewers have the gall to call this "fanfiction-like" - did you actually READ a slashfiction? Stuff like that would never fly!), the product of two characters who don't trust each other and who are at least partially ashamed of their own behavior (though Bruce probably more than Selina).
So we have a whimsical anti-hero who is good at her job, who is opinated and sometimes conflicted, but who we can relate to. We have a character, who relies on herself and who isn't above acting agressively to get what she wants. Is that really that bad? Would you be offended it were a man doing this?
And do you think that because the main character of a story is drawn as an attractive female and engages in sexual intercourse in some way detracts from the fact, that she actually has thoughtful and intelligent things to say? Because if you are, it isn't the comic that is sexist, but you.
I for one can't wait for Catwoman #2.