Trying to get an edge on the world as a 6-year-old in the early ’70s had its challenges, but on Tuesdays after ballet, I was at a definite advantage. Racing home in my black leotard and tights, I would cross my fingers and promise God whatever He wanted if He could just make sure Catwoman was the villain du jour on that afternoon’s rerun of Batman. Sometimes He would let me down — the Riddler, the Joker, or some other fabulous loser was taking his turn battling the Caped Crusader. But when Julie Newmar and later Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt slithered onto the screen all curves, confidence, and cool ambition, now that was a role model worth rushing home for. For the next half hour, clad in my makeshift catsuit, I was a hopeful copycat tuned in to the most powerful character on before-bedtime TV.
Ranged against the bland Brady girls, anorexic Laurie Partridge, and helpless Ginger and Mary Ann stranded on Gilligan’s Island, Catwoman offered a major alternative. Sure, there was always Batgirl, a breath of fresh air next to the wooden Batman. Just a backup babe, she never actually made anything happen. Catwoman, on the other hand, was always causing a ruckus. So what if she was evil? At least she had her own agenda and plans that were ”purrrrfect,” in theory anyway.
But Catwoman’s dark power — even if I was vague about this back then — clearly had to do with the sexuality she so effortlessly exuded. Vacuum-packed in black gloss, she strutted around with more self-assurance than Madonna. Batman may have feigned immunity to this mysterious weapon, but several of my male peers will attest to this power; she starred in their very first sexual fantasies. That Catwoman had some major advantage over all the other villains was a point not lost on a kid in a one-size-fits-all Danskin.
In the current Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer takes over — and then some — where the small screen’s catwomen left off. Now, Catwoman doesn’t think twice about adding gender to her arsenal. When Batman (Michael Keaton) gets the upper hand during a rollicking rooftop fight, she stops the action and, feigning feline outrage, demands, ”How could you? I’m a woman!” Dumb hero. She nearly kickboxes the guano out of him.
But Catwoman is not thoroughly bad; there is a mysterious, dangerous ambiguity about her. She’s good, she’s evil, and sometimes this mother of all sex kittens struggles to reconcile the two. Unlike the obvious polarities in movies like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Basic Instinct, it’s a nice change to see the villainess and the heroine duking it out under the same hairdo.
Twenty years later, I’m still in awe of Catwoman’s ability to use whatever she has to get whatever she wants, be it revenge, justice, or just getting Batman hot and bothered. Perhaps the most ironic lines of the movie come when Pfeiffer declares, ”I am Catwoman. Hear me roar!” a direct allusion to Helen Reddy’s ’70s feminist mantra. Back then I didn’t know who Helen Reddy was, but I was certainly hearing Catwoman loud and clear.