If you had watched Halle Berry in Catwoman, you too might have turned to 1992’s Batman Returns to undo some of the damage. Lucky for me, Michelle Pfeiffer‘s portrayal of the edgy Selina Kyle turned deadly feline superhero was just the thing.
Berry’s pre-Catwoman Patience Phillips was a fairly typical woman with good friends, a well-paying professional job (albeit with a mean boss), and an upcoming date with a cute cop. Pfeiffer’s pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle is not any of those things. Her mother calls and leaves guilt-tripping messages on her answering machine, her possible boyfriend just broke up with her via same answering machine, and her only other social contact seems to be her cat. She’s a seemingly incompetent secretary to a condescending jerk, and she’s more than a little bitter about her relationship history. She’s dowdy and flighty – and judging from how quickly she takes to using a taser when presented with the opportunity, a disaster waiting to happen.
She also doesn’t seem terribly bright.
Randomly blurting out that you have a business idea in the middle of pouring coffee during a meeting of kingmakers is at best ill thought out. Guessing your boss’s secret password and using it to go through hidden files about his latest project, and then TELLING him you did it – without a blackmail plan to back it up – is either naive or suicidal. When she wails “How can you be so mean to someone so meaningless?” as her boss is closing in, I felt frustrated with her instead of sympathetic.
When Selina arises from her death transformed (which by the way did not seem to require scores of horrible CGI cats a la Halle), she looks completely different. Her bizarre milk drinking when she gets back to her apartment is disturbing instead of being played for laughs. Her face is bloody, she’s stabbing stuffed animals to death and running them down the disposal, and smashing everything that reminds her of her previous life. Her walk is different, her speech is different. There is no “gee, am I going to be Catwoman or not, I don’t know…” agonizing over several weeks. Something has changed. She isn’t Selina trying to decide whether to be Catwoman. She is Catwoman, and during the rest of the film she is trying to decide whether to make her way back to being a new and different Selina.
Her first act as Catwoman is to save a woman in an alley who is being attacked. Instead of providing reassurance, though, she criticizes the victim: “You make it so easy, don’t you, always waiting for some Batman to save you.” I got the sense, though, that instead of talking to the woman she saved, she was talking to her former self. She is finally being the actor instead of the acted upon, causing the sparks instead of waiting for a man to save her and take her away from her dull and boring existence.
There is no confusion in this Catwoman’s mind about the purpose of her existence. Unlike Berry-Catwoman’s bizarre jewelry store break-in for no apparent reason, Pfeiffer-Catwoman’s romp through a department store is aligned with her single obsessive goal: revenge on her boss and murderer.
As her confrontations with Batman escalate, and her encounters with Bruce Wayne become more intimate, she has a choice: live outside the law as Catwoman, or give up her revenge and be Selina again. In the end, she chooses to be true to her Catwoman-self rather than let Batman seduce her back to being mostly Selina the way he is mostly Bruce Wayne. Choosing to fulfill her own goal instead of shack up with a man is a choice we rarely see – and despite making the “bad” choice, she gets away with it.
Elisabeth Fies puts it like this in Catwoman and Batmedia: The Creation of A Twentieth Century Goddess:
Indeed, she is almost impossible for the law to catch, and always escapes. This is unheard of in fiction, where even feminist authors like Kate Chopin and Margaret Atwood unilaterally kill the female heroine who can not be reprocessed back into society. Instead Selina is championed as a female trickster, an insouciant who laughs at society’s rules and wins (Landay 206). This unpunished insolence might not be so astonishing if the behavior was confined to the underground world of comics. But this phenomenon continues in every Batmedia form. The last image of Batman Returns is of Catwoman eclipsing the Batsignal in triumph, free to roam Gotham once more. Catwoman is the first highly visible female character in modern media to escape the wrath of patriarchy.
Does Pfieffer’s Catwoman contribute to diversity in action roles for women? No and yes. For those who don’t take Lara Croft seriously because she doesn’t look more like Sarah Connor, this Catwoman is no improvement. She is skinny, conventionally pretty, and highly sexualized. The Penguin propositions her, complaining “You send all the signals!” when she refuses, though it’s obvious to the audience that she never offered him anything of the sort – but she definitely used his infatuation with her to advance her goals. (Batman doesn’t seem confused about this at all. In their first encounter, he punches her right in the face.)
It is enlightening, though, to see a female character in an action role that is so complicated. Even in her supposed duality as Selina and Catwoman, it’s isn’t some on/off switch of bad and good that gets flipped back and forth. She is stronger and more confident as Catwoman, a strength and confidence that bleeds over into Selina, and Selina’s attraction to Bruce Wayne bleeds into Catwoman’s desires as well. She is struggling with punishment, revenge, and love, and a private agenda versus public justice.
That’s where my personal reaction ends up, and I did love watching her give Batman a serious physical challenge during their fight scenes. She owns a big chunk of the film, and she owns it well in my opinion.
Unfortunately, this film is basically full of white people, so I’m going to knock it down for that and give it three stars.
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.