The representation of female super heroes in the media can be said to have had huge institutional, political and social influences that would suggest those in power are favoured at the expense of those without. Female super heroes tend to promote sexualisation and stereotypical gender roles of women, throughout comic books and super hero movies, but why? In this essay I will look at the character of Catwoman, and her representation as a female, particularly in the 2004 adaptation film “Catwoman”. Originally, she is an iconic character in the batman series.
Created in 1940 by Bob Kane (batman creator) and Bill Finger, she has had a strong presence in batman comics and adaptations since then. Her role as a mysterious burglar and jewel thief led her to just miss out on a place in the top ten, ranking 11th in IGN’s ‘Top 100 comic book Villains of all time’ (2009) and 51st in Wizard magazines ‘100 greatest villains of all time’ list (2006). The character has been used in hundreds of comic books, as well as video games, radio stations, TV series, animated series and films.
Although she is featured in mostly batman productions and texts, Catwoman was given her first comic book series in 1993, written mostly by Jim Balent. Several years down the line, Catwoman stared as the lead role in the feature film, made in 2004. The movie was an example of post feminism at its best, as in the 1970’s, only 15% of action adventure movies cast female leads. The movie was directed by Pitof and was released on July 23 by Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures. The cast members include Halle Berry, who plays Catwoman, Benjamin Bratt, Sharon Stone and Frances Conroy.
I have chosen to analyse this movie because females are not usually given dominant roles in superhero movies, especially as the lead character. There are many stereotypes that surround women, and I believe this movie challenges those. The film was inspired by the DC comics villain of the same name, however stars a new character, Patience Phillips. There are several similarities to the original character. For example, she has similar office job and is killed by someone she works for. In the 1992 movie staring Michelle Pfeiffer, she uncovers a dark secret in the company and is thrown to her death from a great height.
The plot for the more recent movie is very like its predecessor. In both versions she is brought back to life by a group of wild cats. However the most relevant similarity is her appearance and costume. Throughout the film, Catwoman is dressed in a tight black latex costume, black connoting mystery and evil. This material is often associated with sexuality; it clings to her body and shows off her curves. Over the years her costumes have become even more provocative, with this Catwoman being more fetish than ever.
These clothes represent Catwoman as a sexual image to be looked at by the opposite sex. Laura Mulvey describes this as the Male Gaze. She explains “In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed with their appearance, coded for strong visual and erotic impact so it can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. ” (1975, p33). It is arguable that woman in the genre of action, drama and super hero are not represented as women, rather an object of sexual desire. The women featured in such genres are slim, pretty, and all wear tight clothing.
Lillian Robinson refers to woman super heroes as a pin up girl in a cape, rather than genuine characters (2006). The skimpy outfit has great erotic significance (Richard Reynolds 1994) and could create a negative portrayal of females, as well as being a very bad influence for the young women and girls who watch the movie, or read the comics. Clearly, the media heavily influences teenagers already. They follow the latest fashion trends from celebrities, coolest haircuts, and they diet and loose weight to look like the people they see on TV and in magazines.
They look up to the people in the media, and the image of Halle Berry in the cat suit, may encourage young girls to objectify themselves in a similar way. Already, Playboy as a brand has become a fashionable thing, for young girls even at the age of 8. They have the playboy bunny pencil cases, posters and duvet covers. Just like this, cat woman may encourage youthful girls to dress inappropriately with increased sexuality. Even Catwoman’s make-up connotes sexualisation. Her lips are painted scarlet red, which draws your attention straight to her mouth, as well as being the colour of lust to stimulate sexual arousal.
This idea is due to the fact men and women have more blood flowing through their lips whilst aroused, turning them a darker shade. Halle Berry was most likely cast because of her beauty. Her eyes, lips, body and sex appeal come before everything else in the movie, (Roger Ebert, 2006). The director of this movie has chosen to portray her as an object of sexual desire for men, rather than a role model for the power and liberation of women. Typical of Hollywood movies, the overtly sexualised view of women is rooted in the darkest chamber of male desire, (Kevin Maher, 2005).
She appears powerful and dominant, however, she is in fact the opposite, and inferior to the gaze of men. Laura Mulvey says in her book Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, “Women as image, men as bearer of the look”, (1975). Personally this idea is predictable and brings nothing new to the genre. Wonder Woman first appeared on screen wearing a gold bra and blue knickers, and in those 36 years gone by, you have to ask yourself, why do superheroes need to be dressed so provocatively? Why can’t the action hero fight crime and ‘kick ass’ in a baggy jumper and a pair of dungarees? Kevin Maher, 2005).
I believe the reason behind this is due to the fact that the representation of characters such as Catwoman and Wonder Woman where created by those with power over women. The institution DC comics created both in the 1940’s, which was largely if not entirely controlled by men. Women had no control over their creation and as powerful as Catwoman may be, she is still just an image of the male gaze. Created in a time where females had no authority, they where not able to argue against what could be considered as an unfair representation.
Angelia McRobbie has a theory in defence of this sexualised representation, and believes men did not create this image. Women have gained the equality they where fighting for, and now they are using their assets to their advantages. In this case, Catwoman is willingly showing of her body to attract the male gaze, because it gives her power over men. She summarises that post feminism positively draws on and invokes feminism, (1994). However it’s not all negative, Over time things have changed, the presence of female leads in the super hero genre has increased, and to an extent therefore, time has favoured the female lead.
Some 50 years ago, males where seen as the hero, there to protect the fragile women. Superman and Lois Lane are a classic example of where the lead role is given to a man, he is strong and courageous, while Lois is inferior to him, she has no special abilities and relies on him completely. However, the number of women in this genre proves a success for the feminist woman and an improvement in today’s society. Iconic actresses such as Angelina Jolie and Uma Thurman have stared as the female lead in modern action movies.
Lara Croft, Tomb Raider and Kill Bill are both examples of woman taking active roles, and how accepting it is in this particular genre. Jolie also stared in Mr and Mrs Smith, which showed her as an equal to her husband, just as strong and just as capable of fulfilling the dominant lead. Catwoman has evolved over time, first known as The Cat in DC comics; she then progressed onto TV screens. Her sexual appearance made her an object of desire to the eyes of the male audience, and a role model to girls who wanted to be her, Suzan Colon (2004).
In the Halle Berry adaptation, Catwoman is reborn a new woman, sleek, sexy, ambitious and not held back by the restraints of society. She is rebellious and follows her own desires as a feline crime fighter. This representation of Catwoman forces the question that perhaps contemporary women are constrained by the rules of society and are not free. Catwoman challenges the female stereotype and adopts the masculine lead role in this superhero movie. She is a protagonist, independent and capable of standing alone. A crucial scene in the movie shows Catwoman arguing with a large masculine looking man.
She demands he turn down his music, which results in her physically attacking him. The argument ends with him lying on the floor with her foot on top of him. This scene portrays her as superior to the man, and the physical pose makes him vulnerable to her. This scene is important, because when she was her human self, known as Patience, the man would not listen to her. As Catwoman, her voice is heard. Simone de Beauvior Invokes ‘the independent women’ who wants to be active, wants to take things for themselves and refuses the passivity men try and want to impose on her.
The modern woman accepts masculine values; she prides herself on thinking, getting a job and working to pay her own way, existing on the same terms as man, (1949). Catwoman does exactly that. She completely demolishes feminine stereotypes at the end of the movie when she rejects the love interest and chooses to be a free independent woman. She is not reliant on anyone, especially a man and because of that, I believe this movie demonstrates a victory for women. “Freedom is power” (Catwoman, 2004). Motivated by revenge, no man stands in her way.
However another scene tells a very different story and shows off Catwoman as purely a vision of sexual desire. As she is transformed from patience Phillips, into Catwoman, supposedly now free and independent, we are reminded of her physical qualities. ‘Reminded’ is an understatement actually; it’s thrown in our faces. As she walks across a rooftop the camera angle starts from her feet, moves up her legs and to the top of her body. Paying particular attention to her bum, first impressions are everything!
This scene completely confirms Mulvey’s theory, and as Liz Wells suggests, certain films objectify the female star, (2004). However Catwoman is not the only dominant female in this movie. Hedare Beauty is the company Patience works for, and is run by a man named George, or so you are made to believe. Yet in fact, the one calling all the shots is his wife, Laurel. She is controlling the strings of her puppet husband and forces him to her way of thinking. She is an evil, sinister character, full of greed, and in the end she kills her husband in cold blood.
She is the villain in this movie, but also a woman in power and free from the constraints of society. In the early 1970’s, after the second wave of feminism, more women were gaining better professions and breaking out of the stereotypical roles. The post modern figure of a female became more appealing to both genders, and resulted in women wanting to achieve higher status in the world of work. An example of such acceptance was seen in the recently released song by male pop artist Ne-Yo, called ‘Miss Independent’.
This continues the suggestion of the need for change in the way female super heroes where represented in order to capture the post-modern audience. Catwoman and Laurel Hedare are both great examples of female presence in superhero movies and the result of female empowerment. Judith Butler brings an interesting theory to the table. She believes gender is free floating, rather than fixed, that males and females aren’t simply masculine and feminine. She says that gender is a performance, rather than an aspect of our identity and we behave differently on different occasions.
This theory suggests Catwoman isn’t necessarily challenging gender roles by taking on the masculine super hero, but rather an act she’s choosing to play. Women can be masculine because the individual chooses their gender identity. “When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one” (Judith Butler, 1990, p6).
Interestingly she suggests that if there where no longer conventional roles for either gender it would be considered the norm for a woman to be in a position of power at work or for a man to stay at home looking after the children. After looking into the history of Catwoman, her creation, and other adaptations in the past, I believe her image is over sexualised. The film is centralised around a beautiful woman, wearing the sexy, tight black costume to do none other than attract male attention.
They do however promote that she is a powerful woman and has the freedom to do as she pleases. The fact that a female is the lead role in a movie of this genre is a positive thing. Although the message left behind is that to have freedom and power, you have to entail being objectified. In the end, this movie has done the same as its predecessors, portray woman in a sexualised, unrealistic and in a possibly insulting way.
Courtney from Study Moose
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