One of the most talked about aspects of the DC Universe reboot is its controversial treatment of female characters. Some of the decisions have been great: JH Williams III’s Batwoman title has been bold enough to put a lesbian superhero front and centre (and, rather than relying on tokenism to sell the book, is using top level writing and artistic talent to bring in the punters). Some… less than great. The decision to lobotomise Starfire and turn her into a breathing sex toy is probably the one that has gathered most ire, as has the dubious idea of turning one of the few disabled characters in the cannon (wheelchair-bound Barbara Gordon) back into an able bodied heroine. (For a far more informed take on this than mine – I’m a bit of a shallow dilettante when it comes to comics – I would heartily recommend female-oriented sites such as DC Women Kicking Ass or Girls Gone Geek).
But one of the most controversial titles is the one that I find myself least able to make up my mind about. The new Catwoman book has outraged fans for a number of reasons: the fact that the opening pages of the first issue concentrated more on Selina Kyle’s cleavage than her face drew complaints of sexual objectification, and the fact that the book ended with her having sex with Batman was a wide cause of outrage.
The problem is that treating these as the same issue is misguiding, because it conflates two separate things: 1) it’s too sexy (no less authority than, ahem, Fox News has weighed in and called it ‘porn’ – though you may not want to find yourself on the same side as Fox News about anything) and 2) it’s just plain sexist. The first of these criticisms is, Jeez, do we need to actually see Catwoman boffing Batman? A number of commentators have said that Batman’s crime fighting stance seems a lot less noble when you realise he’s having booty calls with Gotham’s master thief. The second, and the more serious, is that the comic is sexist, pure and simple. It treats Catwoman as a body not a brain – opening sequences that concentrate almost solely on her lingerie, and her tendency to strip down to her scanties as a means of distracting the bad guys seems to back up this critique. But these are two completely separate arguments; one is an artistic choice you might not like but have to respect, the other is an offensive ideology that the writers should, correctly, be called out on.
Now, as I said I’m no expert in comics – I tend to dip in and out as the mood takes me – but as a woman, and a feminist, I have no problem with a comic character being overtly sexy. Of course real women don’t look like that: but real men don’t look like Bruce Wayne, either – if they did they’d have to widen all the doors in the world at shoulder level. And I’m fairly mystified by readers who are clutching their pearls over the fact that, gasp, you see Batman and Catwoman actually getting frisky – hasn’t this been implied in their relationship, with varying degrees of overtness, since Catwoman first twitched her whiskers? I certainly find this version of Catwoman – enjoying some healthy sex with a man to whom she has a strong attraction, even if they both know it’s a bad idea – more welcome than, say, Frank Miller’s portrayal of Catwoman as a washed up old whore dependent on Wayne’s pity.
I can even – just about – get away with the breastacular illustrative style, especially as this does seem to calm down after the first couple of issues. Once the writers have established that Catwoman is sexy – she’s really, really sexy, guys! Did you see how sexy she is? Really sexy! – she manages to keep her clothes on a bit more, and the story moves away from ‘how I beat the bad guys by dressing like a hooker’. Sure, she’s still over the top curvy, but that isn’t a massive problem for me, as it’s pretty in keeping with how all comics are drawn.
But you know what really bugs me? Catwoman is now sorta stupid. Tough, yes, and smart-mouthed – there’s the makings of an interesting noir character there, which is the only reason I’ve stuck with the book thus far – but basically almost dim. The first few issues have her stumbling from one disaster of her own making to the next, and while Batman is – of course – smart enough to see instantly through whatever disguise she adopts, she can’t recognise that the Bruce Wayne she’s just snogged full on the mouth is the same man she had sex with only hours before. Seriously? They might as well have her distracted by a ball of wool. And that, to me, is what’s offensive.
Remember, I’ll be writing these Fangirl Unleashed columns every two weeks – so see you in a fortnight, or feel free to swing by my blog Body of a Geek Goddess.