It was two years ago this week that Selina Kyle, the femme fatale known as Catwoman, got her tenth life as the new mob boss of Gotham City under the pen of writer Genevieve Valentine. It was a stunning status quo shake-up for those who were following Catwoman in her New 52-branded series, and indeed, the revelations didn’t stop there.
In the fifth chapter of Valentine’s magnum opus, fans were faced with a moment that for some, confirmed something they had always believed, and for others, was a shock to the system. With a single kiss shared between Selina Kyle and her erstwhile replacement Eiko Hasigawa, Catwoman was revealed to be bisexual — a fact then discussed both in an interview with Comicosity and on Valentine’s own blog.
To say this development pleased me would be an understatement.
And not just the kiss, of course, but the readiness to acknowledge an iconic woman’s queer sexuality in canon had a profound effect on me. Mind you, this was months before Harley Quinn would be clearly identified by her writers as queer and almost 18 months before Wonder Woman would experience the same. Today, four of DC Comics’ six most prominent female characters now identify as lesbian (Batwoman), bisexual (Catwoman, Wonder Woman), or more broadly queer (Harley Quinn).
But for Catwoman, with a nearly 75 year history behind her at that point, coming out felt surprisingly natural. In fact, many pundits proclaimed — in some cases, rather dismissively — that this kiss merely confirmed something everyone already knew. Not a big deal.
I get a little bit of where that feeling comes from. I understand the balance between wanting hyper-visibility on one hand and to reject the need for permission from heteronormativity to define characters as queer. I’m a long-standing adherent to what many call “out politics.” I truly believe being out is, while not something I expect of those not prepared for it, one of the most political and ethical things an individual can do to support others in the LBGTA community. And yet.
And yet I bristle at queerness needing to be confirmed through oral declaration or “proof of life” as I like to now call it — a kiss or other more graphic sexual activity between two people of the same gender identification. For a long time, these two factors were all I could accept in terms of passing the test of queerness. Once one of those factors arose, I was sold — unless of course (as was the case with Marvel’s Angela), a meta-textual push back into the closet occurred.
But there is a palpable worry among queer fans, particularly of late, regarding the regression of character queerness even when this kind of editorial fiat doesn’t occur. And this apprehension is most strongly felt among those characters who are, to date, defined as bisexual.
Wonder Woman, of course, falls into this category, and despite an acknowledgement from her current writer — supported in multiple instances of text, by multiple former creators, and vetted by the company itself prior to publication — worries still remain about how “sticky” her queerness will be across canon. Will she be bisexual in the movie? Is she really bisexual in her comic? If we don’t get reconfirmation of her explicit queerness in every iteration, doesn’t that simply mean she’s straight? What if a future writer decides to re-closet the character? What’s to stop that from happening?
It would be a fascinating academic conundrum if it didn’t feel so disheartening and painful to consider.
Catwoman, in particular, feels at great risk for this kind of vanishing of queer sexuality, despite the rather big picture moment between her and Eiko Hasigawa. Partly because the character no longer has her own solo book, after a nearly uninterrupted 23 year run that included three separate solo ongoings and a leading role in Batman: Gotham City Sirens. Partly because we’ve now had a short run post-Valentine that returned the character mostly to who she was prior to this revolutionary big step.
In fact, Frank Tieri and Inaki Miranda’s recent six issue burst on the Catwoman title, now collected in Catwoman Volume 8: Run Like Hell, does little to undermine or support Selina Kyle’s newfound queerness, choosing mostly to set sexuality aside and concentrate on the action and adventure surrounding the heist life. By comparison to nearly every issue leading up to Valentine’s run, this post-run is a revelation of its own in that regard. Confirmation of queerness aside, the ability for Selina to simply keep her top zipped for an entire six issues might warrant an award in itself.
Miranda’s art throughout the volume is quite dynamic, and while it exudes its own sense of sexuality through environment, gesture, and line, it never feels as though it trades on Selina as an object in the process. The artist’s Catwoman is lithe, athletic, and even self-possessed in the single panel she appears in a bikini — the only panel, in fact, where Selina isn’t fully clothed.
For any other book, I might not make SUCH a big deal about this factoid, but given the provenance of the character in her first 31 issues this run, well, it’s a pretty astounding break from “tradition.”
Miranda takes Selina’s portrayal a step further, giving her a cropped haircut, deep smoky eyes, and a modern European sense of fashion outside of the catsuit, but never quite abandons her ability to hold a room no matter who she’s up against. Tieri too does an admirable job of bringing Selina’s smarts and wit to the forefront. While the plot of the volume doesn’t go to very much length to compel, the writer certainly pays great tribute to Selina as an independent woman.
At the end of the day, returning the character to a standard heist-gone-wrong adventure isn’t exactly what I was hoping for in the wake of a much more dramatic change, but Tieri’s efforts to not undermine Valentine’s run wholesale, and not tread on the question of Selina’s queerness, must be taken as a plus.
But the question remains in the back of my head… will we ever see Catwoman’s sexuality addressed again or will it simply be relegated to what it was before that fateful kiss — an understanding among fans that never gets realized. And what does that mean for our expectations of the character and her books?
Because I must ask, at what point, post-reveal of a character’s bisexuality, do we understand that closeting has occurred once again? A month without a same sex kiss? Surely not. A year? Two? Does it ever?
If Tom King and Mikel Janin’s “I Am Suicide” story, running through Batman #9-13, reunites Catwoman and Batman in romantic terms, does that matter? If Meredith Finch and Shane Davis’s Catwoman: Election Night Special pairs Selina off with a man — or no one — does that matter? Frankly, if Catwoman can get out of that story without falsely refuting the tenets of feminism, I’d probably be happy enough.
But it’s a real question: is Catwoman still not-straight when all we see of her is traditionally straight behavior?
It’s a difficult scenario from a literary standpoint, because Selina Kyle doesn’t have the agency that a real human being does. Her sexual decisions are made by writers, editors, possibly even producers and studio heads. And those decisions can be made for a variety of reasons, not simply ones driven by desire and genetics. Catwoman kissing another woman may be a political act. Or it may simply be an acknowledgement of a long-held belief in her innate character as developed over 75 years. Likewise, the withholding of sexual evidence for queerness can be a political act, or simply a pre-disposed enactment of heterosexism.
On the flipside, what kind of disservice is that to those for whom bisexuality is a genuine orientation — not despite, but in concert with an opposite sex relationship?
Are we doing the work for those wanting a queerphobic status quo by disregarding all those those things bisexual or queer individuals experience (i.e. daily life) that don’t necessarily involve being in a relationship or showing sexual activity? Are we helping along an egregious assumption that if someone is in an opposite sex relationship, they are BY DEFAULT straight, and not bisexual, pansexual, or queer?
The danger in this tactic is support of a system that denies genuine bisexuality to, among others: virgins, people temporarily (or decisively) celibate, married couples, or otherwise monogamous individuals. In other words, only those sexually active with both sexes can claim bisexuality without positively, verbally asserting it.
That’s not a progressive understanding of sexuality, but it is one that supports the mission of heteronormativity, full force.
So, is Catwoman still bisexual even if she hooks back up with the Dark Knight? Does she need to subtly flirt with Batwoman to allay our fears of a queer eraser? Does she need to stop mid-kiss to explicitly make note of her attraction to both men and women? I know that’s ridiculous. I get that. And there are a million subtle ways for every writer to let readers know a character is queer no matter who they may be involved with.
But what if they don’t?
What do we do as fans if that reveal we cheered just a few months ago goes away in the next retcon or crisis-wave? Or even more likely, just fades from interest? Is it ok because bisexuality embraces a spectrum of behavior that encompasses almost any choice (short of an affirmative “I don’t like the ladies.”) or are we still at a place where we need affirmation at any cost, because we still don’t trust in a character’s queerness without constant reiteration?
I honestly don’t know the answer, sadly. Sorry if you got to the end of the article expecting me to have it.
But I do know this much: there’s nothing wrong with expecting writers and artists to live up to the best of a character’s representations. If Wonder Woman were to face Steve Trevor on the big screen and say, “I’ve never loved any woman, but I love you.” there’s no reason not to call bullshit. There’s no reason to not just look up and say, that’s not Wonder Woman. The creators just got it wrong. Because Wonder Woman is queer. Any rendition where she isn’t, isn’t Wonder Woman. Flat out.
There may be a lot of gray area in how some sexualities are expressed, reconfirmed, and upon what terms they are managed in a fictional landscape. But once the queer genie is out of the bottle — for Catwoman, for Wonder Woman, for any queer character — popping that cork back in just isn’t an option. It can’t be. We deserve better than that. The legacies of these characters deserve better than that.