Making sure she can’t (Catwalk)

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It’s September 13, 1995, a day before “A Bullet for Bullock,” so see that entry for headlines and charts. In Batman: The Animated Series, we have “Catwalk,” which in many ways is a reiteration of themes we’ve already seen with Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, namely that the women of BTAS feel trapped.

It is important here to note a distinction which seems to be forming, at least within BTAS, between male and female supervillains. We’ve discussed before that superheroes are not, generally, power fantasies, but supervillains are. Supervillains represent our desire to be able to force the world to be the way we want it to be, whether that’s the ability to make other people do what we want on an interpersonal level (Mad Hatter), the ability to transform ourselves to fit into any situation and get away with anything (Clayface), or being able to indulge our every impulse and caprice at a whim because everyone around us is too frightened to stop us (Joker and Two-Face). But increasingly, as we approach the midpoint of Season 2, the female villains are representing a very different kind of fantasy, not a power fantasy but an empowerment fantasy.

The difference lies in an important distinction which our culture has an unfortunate tendency to elide, to the point that it’s built into our language: namely, the difference between two distinct concepts for which I have chosen the terms freedom and power, even though under certain circumstances we use both words for both concepts. Briefly, freedom is a sufficient space in which one can make meaningful choices between plausible courses of action; power is the capacity to influence or direct the choices of others. When we speak of empowerment, what we are usually referring to is actually freedom; on the other hand, the word freedom is also frequently used to refer to the unrestrained exercise of power, as in the phrase “free market.”

But let’s unpack empowerment a bit more as a concept, because like basically any binary, the power/freedom distinction elides gradations between the two poles, and empowerment is a good example of one such. Ultimately, the concept of empowerment only really has meaning within a context of oppression, which is to say a context in which people or institutions with power apply it to strip others of their freedom. Empowerment is, essentially, the acquisition of power with which to push back against power, because only power can oppose power–by definition, taking away someone’s power to oppress you is taking away at least one of their possible courses of action, and thus an exercise of power in itself. When a person becomes empowered, they gain the power with which to destroy, disrupt, or defend against the power of others, thus creating a space in which they can be more free.

It is exactly this that Catwoman seeks in “Catwalk.” The references to Rudyard Kipling’s “The Cat Who Walked by Itself” in Catwoman’s opening and ending monologue are apropos; in that story, one of Kipling’s series of Just So Stories providing fanciful answers for children to questions of why the world is as it is, Cat negotiates with Woman to be allowed access to the warm fire and food humans possess, without surrendering its freedom as Dog and Horse do.  But because it insists on independence, it is subject to eternal animosity from Man and Dog, who were not present for the negotiations. Although it was almost certainly not Kipling’s intent, given his role as an apologist for colonialism and apparently happy embrace of the inherently regressive notion of writing stories that root specific cultural norms in a primordial, universalized humanity living at the dawn of time–the family from “The Cat Who Walks by Himself” also appear in another of the Just So Stories, in which they create the first alphabet, which just happens to be the one used for English–the story nonetheless depicts the animosity of the powerful toward those who claim freedom for themselves.

This is Catwoman’s experience of the world. Remember, she began in a position of power–indeed, much the same kind of power as Batman: athleticism, fighting skills, the technical skills necessary for breaking and entering and beating security systems, and of course substantial wealth. Even with that power, however, she lacks freedom–as she puts it, she feels she is still in a cage, restrained by a society (represented by Veronica Vreeland) that rejects her quite reasonable critiques. This is not, of course, to say that she is straightforwardly a wronged innocent–she does rob and injure people fairly frequently, after all. Then again, Batman hurts people all the time, as we’ve observed frequently in these essays, and he gets to be a hero. The only real difference between the two is that Batman wields his power against people whom our society judges undeserving of freedom–criminals–while Catwoman mostly wields her power against people who have either wronged her or, in her eyes, abused their power. Catwoman, in other words, wields power against the established power approved of by social authority; Batman wields power in accordance with that social authority.

Or to put it yet another way, Catwoman is a revolutionary. What we are seeing here is, as I said, the emergence of two different types of villain. Both are, more or less, power fantasies, but one is a fantasy of ambition, seeking to climb to the top of existing power structures, and the other a fantasy of revolution, seeking to destroy those power structures. Broadly these have broken out along gender lines, but that makes sense within a patriarchal society: men have, or believe they should have, access to the top of the heap and therefore seek to climb it; women live within a power structure designed to oppress them, and hence seek to break it. Certainly one can have a male villain who seeks only to topple existing power structures (the Joker at least imagines himself to be one such) or a female villain who seeks to use or rise within those power structures (Livewire comes to mind), but it makes sense that villains with experience of oppression would fit more readily into the former group than villains with relative privilege.

Either way, it is difficult to find better examples of this division than the next two  episodes, both of which introduce new villains.


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