What Does It Mean For Catwoman To Be An Abuse Survivor?

Apparently, in The Dark Knight Rises, Catwoman “has a history of abuse and works as a stripper and is also a pickpocket.” That Catwoman is or has been an abuse victim is, of course, canonical — though she’s introduced as an amnesiac flight attendant, that is later revealed to be a cover story for her flight from an abusive husband, from whom she stole her jewelry, launching her career as a cat burglar.

I feel some ambivalence about this. Trauma is a frequent trigger for a turn to superheroics, and of course women are more likely to be subject to certain kinds of trauma than men are. But if you’re going to use trauma as a motivating factor, it’s awfully easy to fall into the trap of using it as shorthand rather than as an opportunity to tell a personalized story. And abuse victim —> stripper is an awfully cliche sort of shorthand. It also perpetuates the idea that the only reason anyone could possibly have for doing sex work is because of trauma in their past.

The key is to hit upon a certain alchemy, a combination of signifiers that will give audiences a general idea of where the story is going, while having enough specificity and idiosyncrasy that they don’t actually know where it’ll end up. I actually thought Batman Returns did quite a nice job with this, using workplace harassment and violence instead of domestic violence for variation. And in the end, her murderous, electrified smooch isn’t straight retaliation, and is couched in an insight that “the law doesn’t apply to people like him, or us.” She won’t let herself get bought by the fairy tale, which by the expectations of conventional storytelling is surprising, discomfiting, and ultimately satisfying — being wrapped in cotton at Wayne Manor ultimately doesn’t satisfy her need for justice. I don’t think Nolan’s Bruce Wayne is going to get his kinky happy ending either. But it matters why that happens.