Every once in a while, usually in art associated with comic books or video games, I come across an image that stirs something in me. Generally, it’s a sort of shudder, a cringe at being associated with something crass or sexually exploitative. Most recently, some character design for the video game Batman: Arkham City awakened some dormant frustrations. In its flaunting of excessive and impractical cleavage, images like this of Catwoman or other similar characters embarrass me. But why? Is it appropriate feminist defensiveness? Or is it mere prudishness?
For whatever reason, I have a tendency to assume abstinence and borderline asexuality of my most cherished heroes. I’m not anti-sex, or at least I hope I’m not. I’ve always found that the greater a hero’s suffering, the more profound their nobility impacts me. Sexuality is one of life’s great pleasures, one of many that a character like Batman has denied himself. I don’t picture him playing video games, or having wonderful Thanksgiving dinners, either. Simply put, it’s difficult to frame sex as a noble or selfless act. If it is, nobody’s getting what they want, which defeats the purpose. Unwavering stoicism seems to be what I find most interesting an hero, and it’s a trait female heroes are rarely given.
The problem is, it’s a pretty phalocentric, heterosexual perspective from which I’m coming. In a world where so many peoples still vilify and persecute out of shame and jealousy, there can certainly be nobility in an insistence on sexual freedom and openness. Countless figures real and fictional have justly become icons for bravery and sexual honesty. Madonna, Mae West, Freddy Mercury… Even a character like Kirk on the television show Glee has been sanctified in many circles. There’s great and genuine heroism in anyone who shirks the scowls and clucking tongues of those who would try to belittle or marginalize, and the more images of people like that the better. And sure, Catwoman’s figure and clothing may emphasize an unlikely idealization of the female form, but they’re no more ridiculous than Batman’s enormous muscles and trademark crotch/ass highlighting shorts.
Sex is not something to be demonized, but an essential element of existence. Resisting puritanical oppression is a commendable deed, without a doubt. ‘The slut’ is obviously no longer an acceptable archetype for villainy. So where’s that leave us with Catwoman, a character who skirts back and forth along the line between avenger and criminal? Or any other femme fatale for that matter? Are they to be condemned for weaponizing sexuality, or revered for their freedom and self-assuredness?
Generally, any character who has agency and exerts thorough control over their existence and desires is commendable, and Catwoman certainly fits the bill there. But is a commendable character the genuine motivation behind the formation of this particular interpretation? Or is this design exploitative? Does she exist to titillate and excite the sensibilities of a predominantly male demographic? Sexually submissive imagery like this certainly seems to suggest that’s the case. While Batman is shrouded and obscured, Catwoman arches her back, highlighting her assets, so to speak.
In the end, I realize my reaction comes from an incomplete evaluation of Arkham City’s intentions. Sadly, I’ve yet to play the game, so I can’t fairly evaluate Catwoman’s characterization. Maybe my beef is not with the writers and designers, but merely with the advertisers. Images like these can assume baseness of its audience, and I like to think I appreciate characters like Catwoman for reasons beyond libido. But maybe I’m just too down on libidos. Maybe I’m what’s wrong. And round and round we go…