The Kitty Conundrum

The news that Anne Hathaway had been cast as Catwoman prompted me to take a look at the sleek-suited supervillain’s backstory.

(I don’t have strong feelings regarding Hathaway in the role. I loved her in “Rachel Getting Married,” hated her in Tim Burton’s “Alice” and didn’t much care for her in “The Devil Wears Prada.” I think she’s a lovely girl with serious dramatic chops and iffy comic timing. Not a popular view, I know.)

I was surprised at how many different backstories Catwoman has had: She’s been a prostitute, a mousy secretary and, no lie, “an amnesiac flight attendant.” Catwoman started out as just another villain, a (sexy) thief wielding a whip and her wiles to befuddle the Big Bat. Then the writers tried to justify her badgirl ways through an escalating series of traumas. (She survived a plane crash but her brain got muddled! She had an abusive boyfriend, an abusive husband, an abusive pimp! She was stuffed into a bag and drowned– like a cat, geddit?)

Origin stories for hero and villain alike are often loaded with disaster, misery, and death. After all, something big has to prompt one to put on a costume and wreak havoc on the world or right its wrongs. (Although, once upon a time, “I must have the world’s biggest diamond!” or “That diamond doesn’t belong to you!” seemed to be motivation enough.)

I think Catwoman’s origin stories are so muddled and disparate because she really does freak us out. She isn’t just sexy like your average villainess; she’s sexy in a very specific way– in a whip-cracking, black latex, fetish-focused way. Her “look” has meaning and resonance outside of the superhero universe in a way that other villains’ costumes do not. (I mean, purple suits and and monocles are not the stuff of nightmare and fantasy… unless you have a fear of being tacky or a Mr. Peanut fetish.) All badgirls wear high heels, but Catwoman’s high heels mean something else.

Maybe because she freaks us out, we try to declaw Catwoman. We turn her into an anti-hero instead of just letting her be a villain. For once, I’d like to see a Catwoman who doesn’t just titillate but genuinely terrifies, who gets to be really and truly, and, yes, even unrepentantly bad. I don’t know what Christopher Nolan has planned or what Hathaway will bring to the role, but I hope that, this time around, we get a Catwoman that’s more crouching tiger, less wounded kitten.



Filed under The Violet Hour

8 responses to “The Kitty Conundrum

  1. Hey Leigh–I’m over here from Casey’s blog. Just wanted to say CONGRATS and thanks so much for sharing your story. It booted me in the tush and got me moving on my writing again. I run a “martha stewarty” type of blog, to alleviate some of my writing addiction, but I also had to say, I think it is so funny that we creative types have many different talents. I think it’s so AWESOME that you are a makeup artist and a writer. Mazel! I did makeup and waxing on the side during college for extra cash, so how funny now I am trying to become a published author.
    I’m also so intrigued by you being born in Jerusalem! I was there for the first time a few years ago and it was just MAGICAL. My whole family lives in Israel, so very cool.

    Keep up the great work, I can’t wait to see what is in store for you, and mazel on the three book deal! Talk to you soon!


  2. I’d like to see a Catwoman who doesn’t just titillate but genuinely terrifies

    The sex problem for superhero females has long been crazy-making to me but I wonder if Nolan could do something interesting with the titillating side of Catwoman. As you note, the fetish element of her character is well established. I’m not the biggest Dark Knight fan, but Nolan was nothing if not ambitious by elevating the Joker from criminal to font of anarchic violence. (He coulda talked about it a little less.) Is there a similarly ambitious approach to sex? If you really look in the depths, you don’t know what you’ll drag up.

  3. You have to be traumatized to don a cloak and mask? I never thought of it that way. So thanks for making me think. The masked avenger/spandexed villain motivated by massive personal trauma thing actually does not make a lot of sense. Megalomania is a more likely motivator. Wouldn’t someone who has been severely traumatized not want to draw that much attention? A hero or villain who stays in the background makes sense, a spandex special less so.

    • Interesting point Christina.
      The superhero/supervillain world is all about externalization: I take my damage and make it public, often with bright colors and a cape or a ray that blots out the sun… With heroes, we could call it megalomania, but the fact is, these guys are usually better equipped than the rest of us to save the world because, well, they have powers (or in Bruce Wayne’s case, lots and lots of money). I was about to say that villains might just as easily have become heroes if they made different choices, but that’s not entirely true. I’m going to make an ill-informed claim here and suggest that hero trauma is usually psychological (parents killed in front of you, uncle killed in front of you, home planet destroyed) as opposed to physical (burned by acid, maimed in explosion, born with webbed feet). Villains are forced to wear their trauma. They don’t really have a choice about externalizing it. EXCEPT for female villains. They just look like sexy ladies.

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  6. Hello there! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I genuinely enjoy
    reading through your articles. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same subjects?
    Many thanks!

  7. Pingback: The Bad Girls Club: Female Villains | Pub(lishing) Crawl

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