I honestly don’t think it can get any better than Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns. It was 1992, and her incarnation of Catwoman, under Tim Burton’s writing and direction, did as all great mythologies do: adapt for the times. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, aka Selina Kyle, embodied the contemporary feminist dilemma of how to exercise female power in a patriarchal society. Her city, Gotham, part of the DC dude universe, was particularly plenty with hardy patriarchs, like the megalomaniac business tycoon Max Shrek, played by Christopher Walken, who throws Ms. Kyle out of a window to protect his business; the childhood trauma grotesquery of the Penguin (Danny Devito) who, spitting black bile, still manages to win Gotham’s political favor for a while; and, of course, the elusive “dark knight” enforcer, Batman, and his lazy money-is-power RL persona of Bruce Wayne, goofily portrayed by Michael Keaton. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman represented the double-bind of femininity (sex=power, power=patriarchy, patriarchy=patriarchy) and did so in the most binding clothing.
After Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle is pushed from a high-story window by her boss Max Shrek, she’s left for dead, and presumably does die, but is reanimated by the scratchy licks of dozens of alley cats, and gifted eight more lives. The twitching, cadaverous Selina limps back to her rose pink apartment—single, 30-something maiden that she is—chugs a carton of milk, breaks shit, spray paints the place black, and starts sewing her own sex kitten costume.That she sews her own costume, from a Belle de Jour style black vinyl trench in her closet (an alluring wink to that earlier film of female fantasy and bdsm role play), with sewing notions as claws, is a perfect bit of feminine craftwork. Costume designer Bob Ringwood said the exposed stitching on Pfeiffer’s catsuit was designed to represent the character’s patchwork, fragmented psyche. It was also totally punk rock.
Pfeiffer’s Catwoman costume wouldn’t have been out of place on the runways of Thierry Mugler who, for his Fall/Winter 1992 collection, showed 29 minutes of looks of black leather, lace, and latex in his signature violent femme proportions—pinched waists, sharp hips, and sharper heels. That season, Mugler’s girls wore cat ear like up-dos and Julie Newmar, the original flesh and blood incarnation of Catwoman, 1966-1968 on the Adam West Batman television series, and then 59 years old, walked the runway in a Morticia Adams dress with Joan Crawford shoulders. Mugler dressed his supers, like Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, in hypersexual fetish gear, making women so desirable but so untouchable; the spikes on their collars and busts sharp enough to break skin.
In Batman Returns, Catwoman wields a whip, a stand in for her tail. She destroys a department store. She saves a woman from an alleyway assault and then chastises her for always waiting for a Batman to save her. “I am Catwoman, hear me roar.” She exploits her sexuality to get what she wants from the Penguin and exploits her feminine “weakness” to gain physical advantage over Batman. Knocked down by the Bat during a rooftop scuffle, she mock wails, “How could you? I’m a woman.” When he, apologizing in stutter, starts to help her up, she retaliates: “As I was saying, I’m a woman and can’t be taken for granted. Life’s a bitch, now so am I.” She rejects the feminine materialism of other Cats—begging for his life, Max Shrek offers her money and jewels but she only wants revenge—and rejects Batman’s pleas to save her. “Bruce, I would love to live in your castle, forever, just like in a fairy tale,” she says, “I just couldn’t live with myself, so don’t pretend this is a happy ending.”
There was a Tim Burton/Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman spin-off film in negotiation but that never happened. Instead, we got Halle Berry in the titular role in 2004, during the height of the comic book film adaptation race. It was, well, I’m not sure. I’ve only seen clips of the film on YouTube (one from a video entitled The Worst Comic Book Movies Ever Made). Berry’s Catwoman was styled, in a push-up bra with belly straps and flared leather pants, like Britney Spears circa “I’m A Slave 4 U,” with elements of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One (1986) Grace Jones-esque feline anti-hero. They called her Patience Phillips, not Selina Kyle, in that movie. Patience’s off-duty clothes included various pastel tracksuits. First Oscar winner maybe, but Berry wasn’t, FYI, and in case it’s an argument for her casting, the first black Catwoman. Before that there was the aforementioned Miller/Mazzucchelli brush top streetwalker and, before that, the purring Eartha Kitt of the Batman television series post-1968 and Julie Newmar.
Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, in the third of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, most resembles Julie Newmar, of the indomitable, swinging sixties, hips. She’s the classic jewel thief, self-assured and sexy, whose goodness is always in question and who just may be Batman’s one true love. Hathaway’s costume harks back to Newmar’s, with a hipster utility belt below a wasp waist, a prominent bust, and long, shiny brown hair; almost annoyingly purrrfect. Nolan’s costume designer, Lindy Hemming, says that they intentionally avoided the bondage connotations of Cats past, opting instead for a utilitarian suit, “as though she’s the kind of the opposite, the female version of Batman in a way, someone who produced a suit that has a technology of its own, which is in the fabric.” The neoprene fabric of Hathaway’s suit works with the sportswear trend of this Spring 2012, but the ‘60s silhouette is anachronistic, just like Hathaway, whose retro female comedian thing (she sings! she dances! she giggles!) at the 2011 Oscars grated at me like claws on a chalkboard.
I was prepared to hate Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises. I hissed at Nolan’s choice when the casting notice was posted. First Katie Holmes and now this! But, I’ll give it to her, Hathaway does a pretty good job. She’s no Michelle Pfeiffer but that’s it—she’s no Michelle Pfeiffer. Every incarnation of Catwoman is different and to pit one against each other is the worst feminist stance one could take. Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s original (that’s 1940) Catwoman was partly inspired by Jean Harlow and the brilliant actress/inventor Hedi Lamarr. I remember wanting to kiss Julie Newmar through my cathode ray tube TV screen. Hathaway iterates some pretty interesting things about wealth disparity and gender in the Occupy Gotham of 2012. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman may be my spirit animal but she doesn’t have to be yours. I’m starting to think we all have a Catwoman inside of us, just waiting to be unleashed. Let’s let our animas pounce. Haider Ackermann and Givenchy and Lanvin have some hot leather offerings for Fall 2012. Meow.
Original artwork by Jack Dylan.