Gender, troubled (Bat vs Cat)October 24, 2008 at 4:30 pm | Posted in pop culture, the art of bullshit, the forg | Leave a comment
Seems like every woman you try to save ends up dead… or deeply resentful. Maybe you should retire. – Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992)
The Dark Knight, perhaps the most anticipated of 2008’s summer blockbusters, opened on July 18 and had the biggest opening weekend in movie history, earning more than $155M. The DVD is slated to be released December 9, just in time for the Christmas rush. Even if you haven’t seen the film [spoilers spoilers spoilers to come] though, its commercials set the scene: Christian Bale’s troubled and arrogant Bruce Wayne against Heath Ledger’s even more troubled and arrogant Joker. While I found myself absorbed and troubled by a complicated look at the mythology of heroes and manhood, as well as a great summer action flick, I had to ask: Where’s Catwoman? Where’s the reality check on the Gender Trope Parade of our comic book blockbusters?
This summer, as in others, we had plenty of familiar, troubled heroes struggling with the burden of Masculinity, Inc: saving lives and safeguarding the status quo. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight. –each collides with the extreme consequences of their heroic potential. Luckily, in their universe, heroes get a standard-issue Feminine Counterpart, women who are passionate but, more importantly, compassionate; committed to justice but, first and foremost, committed to their men. These women remain true to their genesis in postwar/Cold War paranoia and idealized gender roles. Tony Starks/Iron Man has Pepper Potts, Bruce Banner/Hulk has Betty Ross, and in the latest installments in the Batman franchise, Bruce Wayne/Batman has Rachel Dawes. Instead of Catwoman/Selena Kyle, whose character in 1992’s Batman Returns inhabits the marginal space between lady & tramp, Rachel Dawes is a woman whose simplistic views of justice keep her at a pedestal-appropriate distance from the film’s more complicated hero. She’s also mercifully killed off before her new dude shows how flimsy a concept ‘justice’ can be in the face of tragedy. But while the heroes get to question and push against (and, of course, ultimately endorse) their conceptions of masculinity, without a Catwoman to push back, the women of these films are simply supportive spectators.
To some extent this trend reflects what Susan Faludi discusses in her recent book The Terror Dream, in which men are heroes and women need saving. Post-9/11, there’s a perceived need for cultural mythology that re-centers the country’s image in strength and justice after that tragic and disturbing de-centering. This leads to stories in which the tragic hero must sacrifice other aspects of his humanity in favor of heroism for the greater good. These also tend to be stories in which other characters’ struggles are minimized or nonexistent. About midway into Batman Returns, released 16 years ago, Selina Kyle (as herself, not Catwoman) catches sight of herself in a store window and ask her reflection, “What are you doing?” In today’s Gotham, Rachel Dawes asks that question of Batman – not herself.
What makes The Dark Knight worth talking about (besides its many problems, including a true dive into sentimentality and yet another appearance of the Magical Negro in the social experiment the Joker conducts on the two ferries) is, of course, the Joker. How many sequels take on their predecessor’s very premise? [Note: I'd love some examples!] Batman Begins focused entirely on Wayne’s metamorphosis from Brat to Bat. In The Dark Knight, the Joker mocks the concept of an origin story. He tells two different versions of How I Got My Scars and is interrupted later (by Batman) as he’s about to tell another. During his brief, choreographed stay in the police station we learn that he’s deliberately obscured any traces of an identity. What we learn of him relates entirely to his obsession with Batman, with the ultimate masculine persona. This extends beyond their conflicting views on law and order and into their costumes: Batman wears a sculpted chestplate; the Joker wears make-up and, at one point, drag. The result is a sexy, bloody pas de deux that, because this is a blockbuster, ends with a boring monologue by Commissioner Gordon on making sacrifices, including the (obviously temporary) sacrifice of a good public image, in the name of that other, more nebulous good. Gordon’s speech hits a false note — as does the ferry standoff — because by this point the Joker has thrown such cheap and easy dichotomies into question.
All well and good. But where is Ms. Dawes in all this? Dead. She’s made the real sacrifice, right? She died so that we could see Harvey Dent flip his shit and prove that Bruce Wayne is, finally, the better man — that there is no easy way to win. It’s that kind of character resolution that makes me crave Catwoman, who (in Burton’s film) literally shreds the comfortable, inviting feminine pillow on which a wounded hero might rest his weary head. She’s the awkward, frazzled secretary turned villain with a thing for leather and animals — but neither role fits. You can’t forget Pfeiffer’s dry-as-a-bone intonation as she comes home (after what should have been her murder by her boss, Max Shreck) and announces ‘Honey, I’m home… oh, right. I forgot. I’m not married’. Then she attacks her frilly bachelorette’s flat with scissors and black spraypaint. Over the course of the film Selina Kyle/Catwoman continues to unravel — but even unmasked, with a few lives left, she resists resolution.
Catwoman: Bruce… I would – I would love to live with you in your castle… forever, just like in a fairy tale.
[Batman caresses the back of her head]
Catwoman: [She claws Batman on the cheek] I just couldn’t live with myself, so don’t pretend this is a happy ending!
A note: Although I focus on the Batman franchise, I’m keenly aware of the 2004 film Catwoman, which was a critical and commercial flop, mainly because it focused on the Sexy Crime Cat to the detriment of any plot.