Comic books and their movie counterparts have been full of scantily clad, proportionally-challenged characterizations of women since the golden age of comics. While some writers broke out of the mold to develop their female characters as independent women, many ended up being what could charitably known as “fan service,” relegated to tiny costumes and two-dimensionality. Yet in the age of female geek power, comic book movies have gone through the painstaking process of evolving their super heroines and female villains into real people. Where that has happened, a fragile balance has been managed by comic writers and directors to keep the sex but also include the empowerment.
A perfect example of this dance comes in the portrayal of two women in comic book films from this year: Anne Hathaway’s much awaited Catwoman performance in the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in the mega-hit, The Avengers.
(Warning: Minor Avengers spoilers for Black Widow related goodness!)
Catwoman: Not Just Whips and Leather Anymore
I don’t have to discuss the hype over The Dark Knight Rises. But when the announcement went out that Catwoman was going to be in this movie, concerns began to sound off. Fans all remembered in horror the Halle Berry debacle that was the Razzy-winning Catwoman. Tragic film choices aside, Catwoman is also a very charged female character because of the sexualization ingrained into her character. She is the epitome of the femme fatale in the Batman universe — she wears sleek spandex suits, carries a whip and shamelessly uses her sexuality as a weapon against the Big Bad Bat. As a character, she fit right into the rogue’s gallery with ultimately grey morality. As a woman, she challenged readers to be okay with (and even root for) a woman who aggressively uses her feminine whiles to pursue her goals without apology.
Then came the announcement — consummate Hollywood darling Anne Hathaway was going to play Catwoman. Hathaway has gone out of her way to depart from her Disney roots to prove herself a versatile actress, going from innocent Hepbern-like class to powerful sexuality in Havoc. When the trailers for the film were released, teasing audiences with a view of Hathaway’s Catwoman, a broader view of Nolan’s choice of actress and portrayal began to emerge. Hathaway and Nolan’s Catwoman isn’t a desexualization or a return to the old hyper-sexed Selina Kyle. Hathaway’s Catwoman seems a balanced woman for the modern comic book film, encompassing her female power as well as her independence. From the moment that Catwoman appears in the trailer, she is a woman of grace and mystery. Less bombastic and busty, she seems thoughtful, careful and yet still sensual.
Where Halle Berry’s Catwoman was sexually aggressive to the point of absurd, Hathaway seems powerful without needing to be over the top. The trailer manages to convey a sense of the classic noir femme fatale, with a story all her own and the brains and capability to achieve her aims. And when she rolls out beside Batman in a fight, the film seems intent to show us that she can hold her own. Gone are the gratuitous breast shots, the butt angles and the bend-over poses. Also gone are is the gratuitous, overdone swagger that previous Catwoman’s have built their entire portrayal around (sorry Michelle Pfieffer, but you know it’s true). By comparison to Pfieffer and Berry’s portrayal, Anne Hathaway makes poise and capability look sexy and that’s all she needs.
Move Over James Bond, The Widow’s Your Competition
Speaking of being capable and sexy, let’s switch to the Marvel side of the cinema fence and talk about Black Widow. Scarlett Johansson is known as one of the sexiest women in Hollywood — hers is the body that launched a thousand websites. So when they put her into Black Widow’s slinky spandex for Iron Man, people wondered whether she could play the deadly Natasha Romanov with any kind of depth. In the comics, the Widow is a deadly Russian agent who also uses her sexuality to her advantage. Yet Black Widow is so much more than a comic cover girl — she is a female James Bond, deadly serious and capable on her own. While it is debatable whether or not she achieved that status in the Iron Man 2, there is no question that Johansson’s Widow proves she has the chops in Joss Whedon’s Avengers.
The subtle difference in the characterization lies in the equal time given to Black Widow in the Avengers film. Where she is only an associate to the plot for Iron Man, in the Avengers the Black Widow is a woman with her own goals, concerns and capabilities. She is not simply a thing to be hypersexualized but an equal member of the team, capable of utilizing every weapon in her arsenal to get the job done. When she walks into a room with Loki to try and get information out of him, we as the audience know she’s been sent in because she’s a woman. She manipulates Loki into giving himself away, however, by playing on the fact that she’s a woman. In many ways, Black Widow is reclaiming the vulnerable, emotional woman stereotype as a point of power for woman.
Capability Is the New Sexy
The common thread between these two portrayals is the idea of both as serious and capable. Where both have emotional ties in the films (Catwoman to Batman and Black Widow in her complex friendship/romantic tension with Hawkeye) neither is defined by their relationship with a male character. This may be only postulation off of the Dark Knight Rises trailers, but Catwoman as well as Black Widow seem to transcend the “slink when you walk” absurdity of the comic book woman in spandex and challenge us to expect more from female characters in these movies. These women are empowering, complicated, and powerful characters all their own and as a female viewer, I say well done. These may just be the evolved female portrayals we’ve been looking for.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com