Wednesday, 14 May 2008


Catwoman, with a central female protagonist, might be seen as victory for women. However Catwoman is a sex symbol, thus the film is guilty of double standards in terms of gender representation

In 1970s action-adventure shows, only 15 per cent of the leading characters were women[1]. This highlights how crucial it was for women to be accurately represented in the genre as they were under- represented as it was. Arguably however women within the superhero genre were not actually women but a sexual fantasy projection[2]; Catwoman reinforces this idea and as time has passed it is questionable whether the superhero genre’s representation of women has changed over time or not. It has been claimed that women superheroes traditionally are, or were, simply objects of sexual voyeurism, more pinup girls in capes than genuine characters[3]. Consequently, a media literate audience can see that Catwoman proves Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze correct by the focus being too much on the character of Catwoman.

To a certain extent time demonstrates diverse representations of women, though it is questionable whether there has been a significant change over time in the representation of women within the superhero genre. Initially in the past, males were the dominant protagonists and women were generally under represented in accordance to society at the time. Now the exceeding number of women superheroes in film proves success hence the notable change in todays society. Although unforgettable characters existed in the past such a Wonder Woman, it has almost become a trend for iconic actresses to play active roles within the genre; Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Jennifer Garner in Electra and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: Vol 1. Subsequently they oppose Propps theory of the male being the hero and the woman being the princess, beginning a particular fashion of women with active roles, as it seems to be more excepted and common within the genre. Furthermore the cult of the celebrity is recognisable and the iconic actresses importance in these films suggest culture industries, as Adorno described, the film industry constantly seek greater audiences because of the profit motive.

When Catwoman first appeared as The Cat in DC comics, The Batman series, she was recognised as a character that boys wanted to be with[4] and women wanted to be. Her character evolved over time and began appearing on screen when it was recognised that she had a distinct sexual quality[5], and in many ways Catwoman was the character most rooted in the world of fetish and sadomasochism[6]. In 2004’s attempt to continue a legacy Halle Berry appears as Patience Phillips who is reborn and becomes the sexy, sleek and mysterious Catwoman[7], who is not ‘contained by the rules of society’[8] and follows her own desires as the feline crime-fighter[9]. This suggests that normal women are constrained by the rules of society and Catwoman represents what women cannot be, indicating women in contemporary society are not free. Verifying the uses and gratifications theory, the film provides the female audience with diversion, escape from their lack of freedom in their everyday lives. They may also actively consume Catwoman for personal identity by constructing their own objectives and identities from the character of Catwoman.

Catwoman represents a strong active woman, as do many other protagonists within the superhero genre. Catwoman remains significant as the narrative reflects the nature of women well and the protagonist becoming Catwoman appears to be for a purpose.[10] To a certain extent the role of the Catwoman does not fit into gender stereotypes, subverting what is typical of the superhero genre. She appears as independent and capable, this is suggested when the protagonist tackles a situation against a man and gets what she wants. In that scene, when she enforces her demand of keeping the music down, she appears superior to a man who becomes vulnerable to her, body language also suggests so as her foot is on top of him and he lands on the floor after she ruins his speakers and tackles him physically. This scene remains significant, as when she was just Patience Philips she was ignored when she requested for the noise to be kept down. Her transformation is therefore recognised as she is able to make herself heard.

The end of the film demonstrates victory for women, as Catwoman chooses to not be vulnerable, fall in love and be with a man; instead she chooses to be free, and says ‘freedom is power’, and follows her own desires. This proves that she is the ultimate fierce, independent woman who only desires her own freedom and the ability to do whatever she likes to do without being held back, being good and bad at times. The voiceover at the beginning of the film and at the end suggests that she is in control and in power. This remains significant throughout the film as she has the power to tell her story to the audience.

Catwoman demonstrates power and authority; she pursues what she wants, fights men and gets what she wants, hence her not being contained by the rules of society.[11] She is motivated initially by revenge to find out who killed her and why. Remaining unidentified behind her mask she appears to tease others and has power over everyone. This raises the theme of women and make up an important theme in the film. Makeup acts as a mask for ordinary women who similarly can tease men and have certain powers over them. Essentially this emphasises the fact that women are strong beings and have many capabilities.

The film subverts the audiences expectations to a certain extent in terms of gender roles. For example, in the scene when the Ferris wheel has technical difficulties and the people on it are essentially in danger. The macho male character typically attempts to go save everyone, which is expected. Catwoman subverts expectations as when a childs life is in danger, Patience saves him also, this consequently subverts the audiences expectations as the women also reaches out to save others and is successful in doing so, distinguishing she has the same capabilities as a man does. Furthermore at the beginning of the film and the end a clear role reversal is identified. At the beginning, when Patience is in danger and is about to fall out of her apartments window, the man predictably comes to her rescue and saves her. In return at the end of the film when he is in danger of getting killed by the villain, Catwoman comes to his rescue and saves him. This ultimately changes the audiences expectations and the typical gender roles that they witness within the superhero genre.

Fans of the superhero genre are predominantly male, however; as are comic book artists and film producers and directors. If we look more closely at Catwoman, what we see is not a feminist role model, but yet another objectified female character. The 007 series is a prime example of women being misrepresented within film, and the man always winning over women. The women playing the roles of characters within the series were identified as ‘the Bond girls’[12], and had exotic names like Honey, Kissy, Pussy[13] which are patronizing and demeaning name as Pussy for example has sexual connotations to it. To a certain extent the Bond films were part of the influence on the audience, considering the effects theory and the hypodermic needle model, as ideologies can be injected into the passive audiences. Thus the audience begin to assume that male heroes in action adventure films are accompanied by predictable women who are sex objects and that though women would try and win over men, the man is always successful. Catwoman as a contribution to the superhero genre therefore typifies audience expectations, as women portrayed as sex objects is a repetitive pattern in the genre. The male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure, while in their traditional exhibitionist role women are both displayed and, as it were, coded to connote “to-be-looked-at-ness”.[14]

The makeup on the actress has sexual connotations, Catwoman is about Halle Berry’s beauty, sex appeal, figure, eyes, lips, and costume design…everything else is secondary.[15] This is an important note to consider. Halle Berry’s lips are painted scarlet red as Catwoman, this simulates sexual arousal, as in such a state both men and women have more blood flowing to the lips, which become redder and slightly swollen,[16] red lipstick thus sends out very powerful sexual signals[17] to the male audience. It is important to question do they have to show supposedly powerful women in these heavily sexualised contexts?[18] Furthermore, the continuous focus of Berry’s eyes also remains significant to imply sexual arousal. Thus Berry caters to men’s sexual desires more than power and the liberation of women. The narrative follows one woman fulfilling supposedly her desires appearing as dominant…dynamic … ambitious[19]; in fact she is represented as inferior and incompetent compared to men, as Tuchmen suggested in 1978.

Costumes are traditionally of great significance within the superhero genre. Both genders are usually dressed in iconic costumes, and these generally define the character. History demonstrates that in films such as Wonder Woman and Catwoman, costumes are either sexless, denying the humanity of the hero within, or garments of great erotic significance.[20] Catwoman, in her most recent incarnations, appears to be more skimpily clad than ever in fetishistic black leather,[21] black connoting evil and mystery, not being seen through hence being unpredictable. The original Catwoman who appeared on screen in the Batman spring series 1940 was dressed in a rather tight leather outfit to emphasise her curves. 2004’s Catwoman however has a reconstructed suit to reveal more sinuous muscle and skin than ever before[22]. Is this supposed to represent Patience Phillips in freedom and power, whilst she is being gazed at by men? She appears to be sub-ordinate and is objectified; was she not better off when she was wearing loose clothes at the beginning of the film, when she was dressed as a stereotypical ‘nerd’. Germaine Greer once suggested that every woman knows that, regardless of all her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful[23]. Furthermore in accordance to Greer’s point, despite being financially independent at the start of the film, it is suggested that Patience is not happy because she is not pretty.

In fact, the first the audience see of Catwoman sets the tone for what is to come. When Patience becomes Catwoman, supposedly completely free to do and be what she wants, as she walks the camera moves from below and moves its way up slowly, with particular focus on her backside. It proves to be particularly significant as it is clearly established that she is Catwoman and that is the initial impression that the audience get of her. This confirms Mulvey’s theory very well, that certain films objectify the female star[24] and women being displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified[25]. Thus ‘the leather-clad [heroine]…could be advertising an entire genre of Hollywood movies that speak of post-feminist kick-ass action heroines while offering an overtly sexualised view of women that’s utterly rooted in the darkest chambers of male desire’.[26]

Sadly, films with female superheroes focus more on their sexuality than their powers and abilities. Where once the ‘kick-ass heroine’ was a curiously compelling screen anomaly, offering the genuinely liberating spectacle…it has now become defined by a rigid formula,[27] a formula which is displayed well in Catwoman as well as films like The Matrix, X-Men and Underworld. The audience witness the depiction of the action women is immersed in the stylistics of bondage and has the emotional texture of sado-masochism.[28] Since 1976, when Wonder Woman appeared on screen dressed in a golden bra and blue pants, we have been forced to ask: why must a super-heroines be dressed so provocatively? Why can’t the action heroine ‘kick ass’ in a baggy jumper or pair of dungarees?[29]

An essential prop which appears in Catwoman is the whip, which is essentially designed to tap into sadomasochism aspects[30] and almost testifies the protagonist’s importance. Sadomasochism refers to sexual gratification in the infliction of pain or suffering upon or by another person.[31] In essence this provides the male audience with a satisfaction which yet again leads away from the protagonist having power. The sexualized context detracts from the narrative.

The film also reveals women being very materialistic. This is shown as Berry is distracted by jewelry and women needing makeup. Thus elements of what may help women feel better and their insecurities are highlighted in the film by stressing the importance of make up. One of the first degrading representations the audience see is when a character gains a exclusive cosmetic product, the protagonist asks her how she got it, whilst she replies ‘we have our ways’ and flaunts her chest. In addition, Sharon Stone who plays the villain in the film appears to be envious of the new younger model; this is also reflective in her blonde hair which connotes coldness.

In 1972, Sharon Smith argued that the role of women in a film almost always revolves around her physical attraction and the mating games she plays with the male characters[32]. Sadly, Catwoman -produced 32 years later- appears to bear this out. When Berry plays basketball against a male character, Berry leads the game. The music which plays is a song called ‘Scandalous’[33], with lyrics such as ‘you know you should be scared of us’[34], initially indicating feminist ideologies as ‘us’ suggests women. However, the action contradicts this, as Berry and her opponent are flirting. Later, a character says ‘you never beat a guy at sports…it messes them up’[35] is demeaning as it suggests it is best not to challenge men as it is better to please them.

Catwoman has been called the ultimate femme fatale.[36] The femme fatale is one of the most alluring characters in a novel, comic or film. They are usually beautiful, charming and seductive.[37] Catwoman illustrates this very well in the film in fact it seems that her appearance and her sexuality overshadows her desires, power and freedom as a Catwoman. Catwoman remains particularly significant as there appears to be a history behind it and a reason. Catwoman represents ‘the duality in all women…docile yet aggressive…nurturing yet ferocious.’[38]

Regardless of the significant number of women taking lead roles within the superhero genre, then, the objectification of women has been consistent throughout the years, reinforcing audience’s expectations. When a woman is the protagonist of a film, it seems to be a necessity that they are portrayed in sexualized contexts. Catwoman is one of many attempts to highlight independent women, however this idea is neglected along with character’s objectives; instead she is identified as sub-ordinate and an object of male desire. Although the film does not fit certain gender stereotypes and opposes certain narrative theories, it is evident that Catwoman remains a sex symbol and confirms theories such a Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’. Catwoman appears on screen for the satisfaction of male audiences, the formula becomes so effective that the plot of the film is lost and the most important part of the film becomes the actress and her appeal to that audience. By mixing sexuality and power, however, the film is guilty of a double standard in terms of gender[39], because while it represents women with 'fierce independence'[40], it also represents them as objects for the male gaze. Catwoman’s clothing, makeup and whip were designed to fulfill the male audience’s sexual desires. Catwoman displays the ultimate freedom of women thus reflects all the women’s inner feelings and desires. This therefore also highlights the double standards within the film as she is representing a strong women however what the audience see on screen contradicts this as it appears that she is there for the male gaze. The underlying message that Catwoman offers its audience is that being in power as a woman entails being objectified, as when Patience becomes Catwoman she becomes a sex symbol. When she was just Patience Phillips at the beginning of the film, she was not objectified, but she was powerless. If a woman wants power, she must submit to the male gaze- she cannot be powerful, and independent. Ultimately Catwoman provides the audience with a certain portrayal of women which is typical of the genre; degrading, insulting, and unrealistic.[41]

[1] ‘Media, Gender & Identity : An introduction’ David Gauntlett, (2002), pp 43

[2] ‘Strips, Toons, and bluesies’ D.B. Dowd Todd Hignite, (2006), pp 71

[3] ‘Wonder women: Feminisms and Superheroes’ Lillian S. Robinson, (2004), pp 125

[4] ‘The many faces of Catwoman’ documentary, Suzan Colon, (2004)

[5] ‘The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women on Screen’ Mainon & Ursini, (2006), pp 120

[6] ‘The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women on Screen’ Mainon & Ursini, (2006), pp 119

[7] ‘Catwoman’ DVD movie synopsis, (2004)

[8] ‘Catwoman’ dialogue, (2004)


[10] ‘The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women on Screen’ Mainon & Ursini, (2006), pp 129

[11] ‘Catwoman’ dialogue, (2004)



[14] ‘Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide’ Patricia Waugh, (2006), pp 510

[15] ‘Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2006’ Roger Ebert, (2006), pp106

[18] ‘A hard woman is good to find’ The Times article, Kevin Maher, (2005)

[19] ‘The many faces of Catwoman’ documentary, (2004)

[20] ‘Superheroes: A Modern Mythology’ Richard Reynolds, (1994), pp 30


[22] ‘The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women on Screen’ Mainon & Ursini, (2006), pp 125

[23] ‘The Whole Woman’ Germaine Greer, (2000)

[24] ‘Photography: A Critical Introduction’ Liz Wells, (2004), pp 172

[25] ‘Photography: A critical introduction’ Liz Wells, (2004), pp 172

[26] ‘A hard woman is good to find’ The Times article, Kevin Maher, (2005)

[27] ‘A hard woman is good to find’ The Times article, Kevin Maher, (2005)

[28] ‘A hard woman is good to find’ The Times article, Kevin Maher, (2005)

[29] ‘A hard woman is good to find’ The Times article, Kevin Maher, (2005)

[30] ‘The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women on Screen’ Mainon & Ursini, (2006), pp 115


[32] ‘Media, Gender & Identity : An introduction’ David Gauntlett, (2002), pp 48

[33] Song by Mystique

[34] Lyrics from the song Scandalous

[35] ‘Catwoman’ dialogue, (2004)

[36] ‘Catwoman: The Life and Times of a Feline Fatale’, Suzan Colon, (2003), pp 8


[38] ‘Catwoman’ dialogue, (2004)

[39] ‘A hard woman is good to find’ The Times article, Kevin Maher, (2005)

[40] ‘Catwoman’ dialogue, (2004)

[41] ‘When Women Call the Shots’ Linda Seger, (2003), pp 158



Media, Gender & Identity: An introduction

Strips, Toons, and Bluesies

Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes

The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women on Screen

Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide

Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2006

When Women Call the Shots

Superheroes: A Modern Mythology

Photography: A Critical Introduction

Catwoman: The Life and Times of a Feline Fatale



Catwoman’ DVD movie synopsis

Lyrics of ‘Scandalous’ sang by Mystique


The Times: A hard woman is good to find

The Independent: Limping heroes and toasters for bombs- now that's a spy movie


The many faces of Catwoman