***Spoilers*** A couple of weeks ago, DC Comics released Justice League Of America #4. In that issue, Catwoman is captured, tied to a chair, and shot through the head at point-blank range. The issue ends with her body lying on the floor, in a pool of blood.
What I found troubling about this wasn’t the death of an iconic character – I have no objection to creators killing off characters, and history shows that pretty much no one in comics stays dead for long – it’s that it revolves around the humiliation and dehumanization of a woman. Catwoman has no specific service to the story except as a prop: to be bait for Batman, bound and killed, graphically, on-panel. This isn’t just the usual portrayal of Catwoman as simple sex object – she is literally an object, a device with no power and no motive, existing merely to advance the story.
I’m certain there are defensive fans who will cry that “it could just as easily be anyone else”… Well, they’re right. But if this were a male hero tied to a chair, shot through the head, it would have a different impact. I’m not saying that you can’t create a story that includes a woman being assaulted – I’m saying that if you do, you’d be well served to consider the implications of that scene, and realize that it is now part of a larger societal conversation. If this was a scene of Catwoman dying in the midst of a fight, it would convey a wildly different meaning. But presented this way, in this context, the character bound and powerless, it’s a clear instance of violence against women. When you present an image that reflects a larger cultural context, it is ignorant to claim that the image stands on its own.
When you read a story where a gay man is assaulted with a baseball bat, you react not just to that instance, but to the cultural implications it conveys. When you read a story in which a black man is hung from a tree, everyone knows that the statement is larger than the death of that one single man. And when you read about a powerful woman being reduced to a pawn for male protagonists, it’s a similar trope. These tropes can be powerful story elements, but only when the weight of their symbolism is acknowledged. The story in JLA #4 doesn’t offer any commentary. It’s exploitation.
Unlike hate crimes based on race or sexual orientation, violence against women rarely happens in the public eye, and we don’t have a few clear-cut universal images to define it. Violence against women frequently goes unnoticed and unaddressed, in fiction as in real life, and its impact needs to be acknowledged when used as an element of a story.
And even there, on that basic level of storytelling, this story fails. There’s no impact, no shock to the viciousness. DC already has a reputation for brutality toward female characters, encapsulated by Gail Simone’s coining of the terms ’fridging’ and ’women in refrigerators’ as shorthand for mistreatment of fictional women (after a 1994 issue of Green Lantern featured the title character returning home to find his girlfriend murdered and stuffed into a refrigerator). The shooting of Catwoman is an act of violence that serves only to advance the plot, and is brutal without being in any way surprising.
This is what we’ve grown to expect, to the point where we barely even pay attention; we recoil for an instant and move on. A woman appears, she is degraded, she is abused, she is disposed of, and nobody will notice or remember because it’s all just a device to get us to the next big Batman battle.
This piece was written in collaboration with Marnie Joyce of Feminist Advisory. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of MTV Geek.