If there’s one thing that mainstream movie-goers love, it’s superhero films. Superheroes always have a positive message to convey, they save the day, and they look cool doing it! But what about villains? We know they’re bad and we know they don’t save the day…but do they have an important message? Women villains have the capacity to contribute important thematic messages regarding issues of gender and patriarchy in superhero films. In this regard, two notable female villains create a unified message: Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) from Batman Returns and Barbara Minerva/Cheetah (Kristen Wiig) from Wonder Woman 1984.
Selina and Barbara have many overlapping similarities and carry a unified message that play out in both films. This message articulates that being a demure, polite, and quiet woman will not get you what you want in a patriarchal society. Being this kind of woman will only get you ignored, taken advantage of, or forgotten. The character arcs of Selina and Barbara provide social commentary on the disadvantages of being this type of woman working within a patriarchal society. The most exciting part of Selina and Barbara’s unique transitions into feline villains is that both women comprehend this message and only then do they finally move from a passive secondary character into an active primary antagonist. Through this process, Selina and Barbara denounce a passive embodiment of femininity and embrace an active and wicked femininity that makes them central to the film plot.
Selina Kyle and Barbara Minerva are both hard-working women simply trying to make a living wage and build a sustainable life for themselves. Selina Kyle is an executive assistant to an abusive and corrupt department store business owner and Barbara is a geologist, gemologist, lithologist, and part-time cryptozoologist. Both Selina and Barbara are career women who are treated with varying degrees of insolence by their fellow colleagues — primarily men. In terms of physical appearance, both women are mousey. They wear frumpy clothes and their self-esteem is deeply repressed. Coincidentally, both of them wear glasses — perhaps ironically poking fun at the “beautiful all along” trope commonly found in the romantic comedy genre. This trope portrays a woman who wears glasses and is deemed by mostly male characters to be unattractive and therefore unworthy of their respect or attention. However, when the woman takes her glasses off and goes through a physical and self-esteem makeover, she is suddenly considered by men to have been beautiful all along.
The second similarity between Selina and Barbara is the abuse and manipulation from men. Both characters have a dangerous experience with a man that pushes her in the direction to become an active antagonist. These defining moments of patriarchal circumstance occur just before they achieve and discover their feline alter egos. Afterward, both women seek revenge on the men they had these encounters with using their newfound superpowers. In Batman Returns, Selina Kyle is pushed out of a window and murdered by her abusive boss Max Shreck when Selina threatens to expose the truth behind his corrupt business. Selina lies deceased in an alleyway before a clowder of alleyway cats resurrect her and bring Selina back to life from the dead. Barbara Minerva has an alarming encounter with a strange man on the way home from the laboratory before Diana Prince saves Barbara just in time and physically knocks the man unconscious. Soon after the incident, a shaken Barbara finds an ancient stone that she is studying at her laboratory and makes a wish to be exactly like Diana — and so the stone grants her wish.
While Selina and Barbara achieve their power in different ways, both exhibit similar behaviour after accepting their villainous alter egos. Both show improved self-esteem and confidence, wear stylish new clothing, and take distinct pleasure of exercising their new primal and predatory feline abilities. Both women also denounce their old identities in different ways. Selina Kyle destroys her girlish apartment, slicing up her childhood stuffed animals with a pair of scissors, smashing all the art and mirrors with a frying pan, spray painting her shabby cat lady clothes, breaking her dollhouse and tosses it on the ground, and smashing two letters of the pink neon sign in her bedroom that reads “Hello There” into “Hell Here.” Finally, Selina grabs a black vinyl leather ensemble to sew herself a skin-tight catsuit. Barbara finds herself no longer stumbling around in the heels she usually wears to the laboratory and becomes social and popular among her fellow scientist colleagues. Barbara laughs, jokes, and basks in being the center of attention. Selina and Barbara transition from timid, shy, and reserved into independent, outgoing, and fierce women. Both women bask in the gratification that comes with possessing newly acquired powers — having the utmost mental confidence and athletic ability. After Selina puts on her vinyl catsuit for the first time, she says in a sultry voice “I don’t know about you, Miss Kitty, but I feel…hmmm…so much yummier.” Similarly, when Barbara is asked what she wants after gaining her powers she declares: “I don’t wanna be like anyone anymore. I want to be number one…an apex predator. Like nothing there’s ever been before.” Selina and Barbara externalize their pleasure after embracing new powers and only then do they become an essential part of cause-and-effect in the film plot.
Selina and Barbara sacrifice fundamental parts of their identity in order to become villains. Both women fight to the bitter end in order to keep their feline power from being taken away from opposing forces. At the end of Batman Returns, Catwoman sacrifices her nine lives in order to mass electrocute and kill her abusive and corrupt boss Max Schreck. Max tries to save himself by offering to give her valuable objects but Catwoman responds that she only wants his blood. The only true retribution for Catwoman and way to honour her powers is to kill the one man who took away her power as her normal self — as Selina Kyle. Now as Catwoman, she wants to take away Max’s power by killing him. When Batman tries to talk her out of doing so, Catwoman replies: “The law doesn’t apply to people like him or us.” In Catwoman’s mind, the only way to abolish Max’s abusive capitalist power is to destroy it completely.
In Wonder Woman 1984, Barbara sacrifices her warmth, joy, and empathy in exchange for her powers. After a greedy businessman named Maxwell Lord makes a wish to become the ancient stone himself, Diana tries to stop Max and reverse the power of the ancient stone. The stone is solely responsible for sustaining Barbara and her feline abilities. When Diana tries to capture Max, Barbara arrives to stop her in a rough physical fight. After Barbara defeats Diana in combat, it is clear that Barbara will do anything to protect Max, who is responsible for keeping Barbara’s powers. Barbara says to Diana: “You always had everything. While people like me have had nothing. Well now it’s my turn. And you’re not taking it from me, ever! If you go after Max Lord or hurt him in any way, I will destroy you.” Barbara ignores the consequences of using the ancient stone and is willing to hurt others in order to protect her power at all costs.
A more obvious similarity that Selina and Barbara share is the ferocious alter ego of a feline villain. The symbol of a cat is one that represents predatory instincts, primal power, and duality. While cats can be shy, timid or fearful like Selina and Barbara were before they met their alter egos, cats can also be outgoing, dominant, and fierce like Catwoman and Cheetah. In patriarchal society, women are shamed for craving or externalizing any sort of primal or animalistic behaviour — unlike men who are often excused for similar behaviour. Women are often chastened for having a salacious appetite. This appetite can be sexual, materialistic, social, or economic. Both Catwoman and Cheetah actively indulge in their unique appetites which motivates their narrative agency.
Selina and Barbara experience disrespect in a patriarchal work environment and harmful incidents with men who try to overpower them. These incidents immediately lead to a resurrection and rebirth of their thoughts and feelings about themselves — a reckoning with their identity — and soon their powers emerge. Selina and Barbara immediately change when they begin to embrace their new feline abilities. From that point on, they involve themselves in the plot and rebel against the moral cause of superheroes in order to defend their power.
Both Catwoman and Cheetah exercise their primal power in contemporary ways: stealing valuable possessions, using their super strength to overpower dangerous men, or simply basking in a newfound identity — perhaps they feel stronger, sexier, and more confident. The comparable character arcs of Catwoman and Cheetah convey a unified message — that a passive woman is secondary, and an active woman is primary. These female villains remind audiences that being a timid woman is a passive embodiment of femininity — one without power or narrative agency. When Selina and Barbara become villains, they embrace active embodiments of femininity, acquire power, and exhibit narrative agency in the plot of each film. After Selina and Barbara become villains, they finally acquire the power to fight for themselves and achieve their objectives. Women need to have power in every story — even if they’re villains — because women without power have no agency. In patriarchal society women are rarely given power and must continuously fight to keep it from being taken away, while most men flaunt their power to simply show it off. These famous words sum it up perfectly in a scene where Catwoman uses her leather whip to dangle Batman over a high-rise balcony: “As I was saying…I’m a woman and can’t be taken for granted. Life’s a bitch, now so am I.”