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

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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.

But all of this was only a prelude to Catwoman's most shocking transformation: Feminist, and star of her own series. Catwoman's contemporary rebirth is largely credited to Michelle Pfeiffer's rightly lauded performance in 1992's Batman Returns. But not enough attention has been paid to her storyline in the film. Written largely by Daniel Waters, of the cult girl-hit Heathers, it both returns Catwoman to the basics (a single girl, a crap job, a bump on the head) and moves her forward. Once again, she's the bogeyman of the moment - a single, professional woman in the city, alone and unloved, living in some Liz-Lemon-scripted-by-Ingmar-Bergman personal hell—but she's not merely sassy, or sexily victimized and enraged. She's political. And, as such, she commands our attention to a greater extent than ever.

"The world tells boys to conquer the world, and girls to wear clean panties," goes one line, cut from the final version of the movie. "A man dressed as a bat is a he-man, but a woman dressed as a cat is a she-devil. I'm just living down to my expectations."After decades of taking on every vilified female identity in the books, Selina took on the most dangerous one; that of a woman who's noticed that she's being vilified, and won't put up with it. "Life's a bitch—now so am I," runs the conclusion to that line. They kept that part in. The character's popularity soared. And within a year, the Catwoman series, featuring Selina Kyle as lead character and protagonist, had launched. There were plans for a stand-alone Catwoman movie, starring Pfeiffer.

We got the movie. It had Halle Berry in it. It did not pan out. Let us speak of it no more. But it was, if nothing else, a gratifying gesture. Catwoman was the first female superhero—Wonder Woman didn't launch until 1941, the year after her first appearance—but it took her 65 years of playing bad guy, love interest, and other supporting roles before she finally got top billing.

Which, of course, she won't have in Nolan's movie. It's hard to know how he'll handle the character—the rumors that he's drawing his inspiration from Frank Miller are, um, discouraging—but he'll have a lot of Selinas from which to choose. And no matter who she is, the odds are high that her characterization will tell us a lot about what it means, right now, to be a woman who misbehaves.

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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.
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