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Catwoman show her claws in "Dark Knight Rises"

Batman’s most enduring villainess has been marketed for her sex appeal since the 1940s. Christopher Nolan’s version sets the bar for a more respectable Catwoman.

When Christopher Nolan launched his Batman franchise with “Batman Begins,” people started speculating immediately about which villains would appear in the later two movies. Everyone’s knee-jerk choice was the Joker, believing him to be Batman’s oldest nemesis and the most fitting foil to the Caped Crusader.

It’s like people forgot that the Joker’s first comic, Batman #1 in 1940, also featured another villain, a masked jewel thief called the Cat—the original Catwoman.

When I was a kid, Catwoman was my favorite Batman character simply because she was the most prominent female. Little did I know that that’s exactly why she was created. The writers wanted not only to give male readers a sensuous female to look at, but to provide female readers with a character they could relate to as much as Batman. In fact, Catwoman was meant to parallel Batman in many ways: her mystery, her adventurousness, her ability to toe the line between renegade and vigilante hero.

When the main difference between her and the hero is her gender, obviously Catwoman’s sexuality is a major defining trait. Over the years, the role and extent of Catwoman’s sex appeal has changed with each of her evolutions. How does Christopher Nolan’s updated Catwoman compare to the previous versions?

In the 1940s, before the Comics Code Authority decided cleavage had no place in comic books (it was a very different time), Catwoman ran around Gotham in a low-cut dress with a slit up to her hip and high heels. In the 1960s, Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt each played Catwoman in the Batman TV show (that’s right, the Adam West one) and introduced the world to a look that would dominate later portrayals of the Feline Fatale: the skintight black bodysuit. Catwoman’s slinky bearing and signature purr only augmented her sex appeal, especially when she appeared alongside guys as gorgeous as, well, the Penguin.

Most portrayals of Catwoman, especially the earlier ones, pay lip service to her athletic capabilities as a burglar and nighttime adventurer but rarely show her actually accomplishing these feats of skill. Her sensuality is often prioritized over her other physical traits, mostly because she’s usually the only female in the ranks of high-profile Batman villains and therefore the “token girl.” Her femininity is her core trait and overemphasized to a fault.

Since the 2000s, comic writers have recognized this trend and attempted to make Catwoman’s costume more practical. The addition of accessories like goggles and utility belts draws attention to Catwoman’s adventurous and daring lifestyle. It helps that Catwoman has starred in her own series several times, often as a vigilante heroine whose exploits necessarily branch out beyond a few pin-up girl appearances.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a wrong way to portray a more athletic, practical Catwoman. I’m not the only woman who cringed when Halle Berry donned BDSM-inspired fan service fodder for 2004’s “Catwoman” and showed us what fanboys wish female empowerment would look like. And I’m certainly not the only woman who cringed when DC’s “The New 52” featured a completely exploitative Catwoman portrayal who exists only to flash her breasts and show off her ass in black latex. I defer to Laura Hudson for more thorough analysis.

Thankfully, Christopher Nolan has demonstrated the right way to create a villainess who balances capability and sexuality. His version of Catwoman dons a black bodysuit made of a more functional material than Newmar’s glittery duds, looking more like a military uniform than a slinky costume. Even when Selina Kyle steps out in an evening gown or a cute maid’s dress, her sexuality is understated and discreet.

More importantly, when it’s time to kick some butt, Catwoman behaves like she’s actually there to hurt someone, not to pose for the camera while also throwing a punch. Her sexuality is more natural, arising from our appreciation for her confidence and independence, not just from an occasional panty shot.

When Catwoman’s sexuality is thrown at the reader overtly, as in Halle Berry’s disastrous portrayal, it’s easy to get sick of it. But when her sensuality lurks under the surface and peeks out from under its lashes, we, like the Caped Crusader, long to see more.