A superhero “tends to fit most of the classic patterns of heroism in Western culture” (Inge 142). These superhumans are said to possess, including but not limited to, superhuman capabilities such as psychokinesis, immortality, precognition, or even omnipotence. As kids, we would look up to these ideal representations and wish that someday, a part of us could resemble what a true hero would stand for. However, the entire comic book genre devolved into hypersexual portrayals of the female gender and said comic-book characters ended up becoming caricatures of themselves.
This paved the way for the film industry to adapt a somewhat flawed concept of female portrayal in the comic-book film industry. It is worth noting that the success and reception gained by Marvel Studios and DC Films translates to a large fan-base of either die-hard supporters or just casual viewers who crave for more content and releases. But throughout the age of the comic-book era, superheroines are depicted under a different spotlight; a spotlight where they are sexualized and eroticized for a presumed male audience, and not focusing on what they stood or fought for. This essay will analyze the objectification of female superheroes, specifically the film Catwoman in 2004, and how the sexual aspects inaccurately represent the female gender’s role in the patriarchal system whilst being used to promote viewership for their respective comic universes.
Catwoman made a cinematic appearance in Pitof’s direction of the film ‘Catwoman’ in 2004. An avid comic-book reader or film viewer would have certain expectations before diving into the experience. These standards have been set by some impressive creations and portrayal of specific superheroes such as Superman, Spiderman, or Captain America. They resemble an image that resonates in a positive manner with the audience. These characters are well-built, possess unique superpowers, and strive to work towards an important goal.
The common genre includes fighting villainous characters to save humanity from impending doom. But with female characters, the writers are more concerned with how they are physically depicted rather than focus on the storylines. Catwoman did poorly in the film industry after it was released, raking in a lesser amount than the budget. The plot revolves around an unassertive protagonist played by Halle Berry, who is an employee for a cosmetics company.
After overhearing some negative news about a product, she is chased and later killed; only to be reborn as Catwoman. Her superpowers are limited to feline-like abilities such as stealth or hissing, a strong bond with felines, and good combat skills. The film provides a degrading viewpoint towards Catwoman as the plot is not substantial enough on its own to entertain the viewers. Instead, the film relies on the protagonist’s sexual identity, such as the revealing dominatrix costume. With films such as Spiderman (Raimi), for example, we can witness the character change that Peter Parker undergoes.
From being a nerd to saving the citizens from various villains suits the heroic genre very well. Batman poses as a masked vigilante who faces severe backlash from the people of Gotham. However, that never stops him from performing his role as a protector from the many villains residing in the same city. Catwoman, on the other hand, falls into a non-heroic normative archetype (Race, iii). She is wrongly framed for a murder and her only task is to foil the plans of a cosmetic company who have created a harmful, toxic skincare product. The stark contrast between the plotlines of the mentioned films proves the fact that body image supersedes the role of an important plot, or the character’s mission.
Along with the objectification, another observation can be made about the importance of female roles in a superhero film. We are introduced to the Natasha Romanoff (who later poses as the Black Widow) in Iron Man 2, who is applying as Stark’s personal assistant. But instead of looking at her credentials, he decides to scroll through pictures of her in lingerie. In the comics, she had relationships with Daredevil, Hawkeye, and Bucky Barnes, and the first Avengers movie (Whedon) throws some light into the vague relationship of Hawkeye and Black Widow. Her skills in martial-arts cannot go unnoticed in the film ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (Russo), but that somehow goes missing in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ where a crucial part of her narrative focusses on an unlikely romance with the Hulk (Sequeira).
This shift in character is shameful, as in the first installation of the Avengers film, she plays a vital role in shutting down the alien portal and her fight sequences are essential towards the end. Later, we see a glimpse of her past in the second part of the Avengers series, where she is afraid of her dark past. The courage that the Black Widow possessed goes missing as the series progresses, but the fact that she is used as a means of introducing an unusual romance, further validifies the insignificance of a female plotline in a superhero film.
The Dark Knight Rises was the third film as part of the trilogy series directed by Christopher Nolan in 2012. A major concern in the DC universe revolves around the lack of female involvement and the lack of importance given to them. The role of Catwoman was played by Anne Hathaway, and although it was a significant improvement from its 2004 (Catwoman, Pitof) counterpart, it does not do justice to the past treatment of female superheroes in the DC universe. The first, most obvious difference is the iconography displayed by Batman and Catwoman throughout the comics and films. Batman seems to have an armored suit with a surplus of technological gadgets, including his own Batmobile.
However, we see the Catwoman donning a tight bodysuit without any gadgets. Once again, we see the over-sexualized appearance of a female character in a superhero film when there is no need for it. However, with the introduction of the trilogy series (Nolan), we see Catwoman as a strong, supporting role in the Dark Knight Rises (Nolan). She is wanting to pursue a clean slate; a computer program that can help her erase all her criminal activities from any existent database.
From the apparent sexism to the female character’s neglected plot-roles, it is noticeable that this attribute will take a while to evolve into something positive. The Catwoman film tries to overcompensate for the evident lack of a strong plot by accessorizing the protagonist, and this misguided trend has shaped the female role in superhero films under a negative light. The film plot generally focusses on the male superhero trying to fix all the wrongs in their respective universes whilst the female characters generally star in a supporting role, usually fulfilling a side-mission of their own. However, over time these films attract a larger audience who crave for a wholesome, unbiased storyline, and a shift in the patriarchal system is apparent as the comic universe evolves.