January is a time of fresh starts and new beginnings. The way we kick off a new year informs the months that follow and that's why we're living our best Capricorn-season lives and declaring it the Month of the GOAT, celebrating the Greatests of All Time in genre. From the best Star Trek captains to our favorite strong female characters, we're honoring the greats all month long.
For nearly as long as there's been a Batman, there's been a Catwoman to fight and fluster him. Since her appearance in Batman #1 in 1940, the vivacious villainess has stolen scenes and hearts, popping up in comic books, cartoons, television shows, and films. She's been played by the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Lee Meriwether, Eliza Dushku, Anne Hathaway, Eartha Kitt, Julie Newmar, and Halle Berry. She's been a purring, pun-loving antagonist, a chic cat burglar, an animal-loving activist, and a vengeance-seeking vigilante. But which of her incarnations is the very best?
In honor of our GOAT celebration, two of our favorite Fangrrls have sunk their claws into the debate of who is the Greatest Catwoman of All Time.
Kristy Puchko: Okay. So let's begin. You and I have been tasked to identify the Greatest Of All Time Catwoman, or GOATC. In this "choose your fighter moment," mine is hands down Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, from 1992's Batman Returns. What's yours?
Sara Century: It's agonizing. I'm not as decisive with Catwoman. I love every single iteration of her. There is literally no era of Catwoman I'm not obsessed with, including Michelle Pfeiffer so my side of this debate is going to be very soft. I'm going to go with Eartha Kitt Catwoman [from the Batman TV series], but I also adore Batman: The Animated Series' Catwoman and comics Catwoman of all eras.
Kristy: I'm with you on that. There's plenty of great Catwomen from which to choose. Why does Eartha Kitt's come out on top for you?
Sara: Julie Newmar and Lee Meriwether, who were Catwoman before Eartha, both played the role as more statuesque, manipulative, and cool, while Eartha Kitt 100% threw herself into the role of Catwoman and all the cat puns and words ending in hisses that entails. There's such an expressiveness and such a pettiness to her that never reduces how really unique and empowered she is. Her crimes consisted of doing things like ruining an awards show just because she didn't want Batgirl to win an award. Pettiness off the charts, and any good Catwoman has to be at least a little petty. And because Kitt's the underdog, really. A lot of people look back on Batman '66 as camp, which is accurate, but the appeal of camp and its satirical value is usually dismissed. Eartha Kitt had her whole career shut down after Batman because of political comments she made that I would tend to agree with. She spoke out against the Vietnam War and was blacklisted by LBJ.
Sara: Also, the Kitty Car. Have you seen this? A car basically covered in green shag carpet she goes cruising in. Yes, generally people will say this Batmobile is the coolest superhero car, but I argue that there is still a case to be made for Eartha Kitt Catwoman's Kitty Car, which has a weird kind of terrifying cat face on it and I believe only appears one time.
Kristy: I like the camp appeal of Kitt's Catwoman to be sure. But for me, Pfeiffer's is the Catwoman to who all others compare. She wasn't just a va-va-voom bombshell who made Batman go batty. She was a furious hellcat, dedicating her nine lives to tearing down the bad men and patriarchal bullshit that wronged her.
When we first meet her Selina Kyle, she's a meek secretary — excuse me — executive assistant. She's too timid to catch anyone's eye and she's a doormat for her big bad boss Max Shreck. Then he kills her for uncovering his shady dealings, and she rises with a dark heart and a killer fashion sense to burn Gotham and its horrid men in power down to the ground. I like my Catwoman furious and taking no shit, be it from muggers, abusive bosses, entitled Penguins, or white knighting Batmen.
Sara: One interesting thing about Pfeiffer's Catwoman is that she's really the one that strays the furthest from the comic, but she still strikes true as Catwoman. What you describe, she's never really like that in other media, but that Catwomanian disdain for white knights is consistent across the board.
Meanwhile, Eartha Kitt Catwoman was on TV directly after Catwoman had returned to the comics after a 10-year absence due to being literally prohibited from appearing in Batman comics by the comic code authority for being "too sexy" for their censorship board. Likewise, the love affair between Catwoman and Batman on Batman '66 ended when Kitt came in because an interracial flirtation was considered too risky. The result was an actually really self-empowered take on the character, although it's interesting that so much of the time period was so concerned about the offensiveness of Catwoman's sexuality. Pfeiffer's Catwoman, however, was no question super sexy but more powerful for it.
Kristy: That's wild how in Kitt's era, her Catwoman flirting with Batman was considered too hot for TV, but by 1992 you had Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton full-on making out, in and out of their leather/nylon costumes! And if there's a steamier kiss in a superhero movie, I haven't seen it.
Kristy: Totally! That kittens got claws and purrs!
Sara: Seriously, the weird desperation of their relationship is so unique in that movie!
Kristy: Sexiness is often a component of the Catwoman character. But how that's expressed is so different from version to version. Kitt's had to be way tamer, while Pfeiffer's had a dominatrix angle — whip and all — that was sexy, but pushed back against the idea of this vixen being some cooing sex kitten. I mean, her kiss literally kills at the end of the movie!
Sara: Yes, one of the things that appeals to me so much about Kitt's Catwoman is she is unabashedly ambitious, and that is her defining characteristic. The sexiness is obvious but goes mostly unaddressed in script. To me, Catwoman's ambition is an equally appealing part of her character, and it appears in every take on her. Pfeiffer introduces a really complex sexuality that is truly fascinating.
Kristy: Right. And in Batman Returns, Selina Kyle is punished for her ambition. When her boss deems she's gotten too high, he literally throws her off a skyscraper. So her return is very horror, very return of the repressed. The good girl is dead. She returns as an unapologetic bad girl who doesn't give a damn what the world thinks of her. Her sexuality is unleashed along with her long withheld rage. Thus this so-called villainess becomes a power fantasy for women who crave this kind of freedom and payback.
Sara: It's really cool.
Kristy: We get to see a world lust after and be terrified by a Catwoman we can relate to, because who among us hasn't been demeaned at work, hit on by a creep, or pressured to just play nice?
Sara: Yeah definitely. The time period it was released, too, she was truly exceptional.
Kristy: And same for Kitt's! They're two very strong candidates. Frankly, I still think Pfeiffer has the edge, but that's in part thanks to a time and film context that allowed her to go where the Kitty Car couldn't.
Sara: Fair. I will concede that Kitt was confined by her time period, but she still created a highly individualist take on the character and — for me — she remains the one that gives me the most joy. Also, seriously, I will take a ride in that Kitty Car any day.