Catwoman's Many Lives, From D.C. Comics to Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway_Catwoman.jpg

Warner Bros./DC Comics


The moment it was announced that Anne Hathaway would play Selina Kyle in Christopher Nolan's next Batman movie, the Internet lit up with dismay. Selina Kyle, of course, is the secret identity of Catwoman, one of the more iconic characters in Batman's long history. And, though some greeted the news with excitement, many fans argued that casting Hathaway was a fatal choice. She was too sweet for the role, they said; she wasn't serious enough; she didn't have enough edge.

But whether or not time proves these fans right, the controversy seems inevitable. The moment Nolan condemned himself to casting an actress as Catwoman, he condemned himself to casting the wrong one. The truth is, Selina Kyle has had so many personalities, backstories, and identities that the question isn't whether Hathaway's casting is faulty, but whether any potential casting could possibly be correct.

Catwoman's backstory started off simply enough in the original comic: A pretty, brunette, unexceptional stewardess boarded an airplane. The plane crashed. She survived, but could recall nothing about her former life. And so, she did what anyone would do: She committed a variety of extremely complicated robberies, while dressed as a cat. During an early heist (very early; this would be Batman #1, published in 1940) she crossed paths with a man whose hobby was preventing extremely complicated robberies, while dressed as a bat. Sparks flew. (Memorable pick-up line: "Quiet, or Papa spank!") Things went on from there.

But they became more complicated in subsequent comics and film adaptations. Catwoman's backstory eventually became a dizzying tangle of revisions. She didn't turn to crime because she had amnesia; she did it to rob her abusive ex-husband. And she wasn't a flight attendant; she was a wealthy socialite. Or, wait, no: She was a poor prostitute, beaten and raped by her pimp. Or, wait, no: She only pretended to be a prostitute. Or, wait, how about this? She was a secretary whose sexist boss pushed her out of a window. And she wasn't brunette, she was blonde. But wait, wasn't she also a black woman? She looked like Eartha Kitt. And Halle Berry. But she also looked like Julie Newmar, so... okay, wait, wait, wait: Catwoman is a poor girl, with an abusive father, and at one point she tried to be a prostitute, but she didn't get any clients, so she poses as a socialite, and has turned to a life of crime. Simple. Sorry for any confusion.

In fact, only one thing about Catwoman has remained consistent: She has always been a very bad girl. In fact, she's been just about every kind of bad girl you can imagine. The impressive part is been how thoroughly she's managed to position herself, in every era, as the exact opposite of a well-behaved woman.

In 1940, when women were aiding the war effort, she was an aggressively selfish, sexual character—in that first issue, after "Papa spank," we were treated to a shot of Catwoman lounging on a chair, making double-entendres about being "licked," as Batman knelt between her legs; in their future encounters, she'd be the one with the whip, who'd rather steal than work. In the 1950s, when "femininity" and domesticity were on the rise, she revealed a past in the workforce, "reformed" briefly, and then changed her mind, worrying that her feelings for Batman were impeding her burgling career. In the 1960s, she was a black woman who flirted openly with a white man, when she wasn't tying up his loved ones. In the 70s, as feminism gained acceptance, she became a housewife. (In an alternate reality, and in stately Wayne manor. Still!) And when the 1980s hit, and the anti-feminist backlash rose, the characterizations exploded: Vindictive ex-wife. Prostitute. Rape her, beat her up: Make her suffer, it makes her more realistic. It explains why she's so angry at men. And she deserves it.href> Frank Miller, one of the more notoriously misogynisthref> writers in the industry, even wrote her as an aging, brothel-running spinster, placing lonely booty calls to the Bat Cave.

Presented by

Sady Doyle is a freelance writer based in New York City. She blogs at Tiger Beatdown. More

Sady Doyle is a writer living in New York. She has contributed to Salon's Broadsheet, the American Prospect, the Guardian's Comment is Free, and Feministe. She blogs at Tigerbeatdown.com.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Entertainment

Just In