thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Catwoman’s Class

In Film on July 25, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Sarah T.

* spoilers ahead *

Cat burglars are the Condé Nast editors of the criminal underworld. Sleek and sharp and clad in black, they’re surrounded by riches but too cool to be fazed by them. They don’t come much classier than Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle: from her blowout and pearl choker to the four-inch gold stilettos that double as daggers, this Catwoman positively oozes swank.

But at the end of the day, after she’s backflipped out her last mansion window, she returns to a modest walkup in an unfashionable neighborhood. She even has a roommate: a petite, scraggly blonde who appears to be some combination of friend and lover. Kyle grew up with nothing, in and out of juvenile detention, and today even jewel thievery can’t help her work her way up the ladder. After she’s finished distributing profits from her stolen goods to all the criminals with whom she’s in deep, Kyle barely has enough dough left over to form a cracker.

That’s the triple class tension at the heart of the best character in The Dark Knight Rises. Kyle must maintain the appearance of class in order to gain access to the homes and pockets of Gotham’s self-satisfied fat cats. But her economic reality is far from posh. Given the circumstances, it’s no surprise that she’s pro-class warfare. Her speech to billionaire Bruce Wayne is so Occupy, she might as well be delivering it via the people’s mic:

“You think this can last? There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

As the film’s main representative of disenfranchisement, Kyle presents a complicated case. On one hand, since she can seamlessly blend into groups both elite and proletarian, her character exposes the constructed nature of social orders. Like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in The Avengers, Kyle takes advantage of people’s prejudices—their pre-formed opinions about how a maid or a socialite ought to look and behave—in order to come out on top.

Her first appearance in the film hammers this strategy home. Kyle has infiltrated a party at Bruce Wayne’s mansion by disguising herself as a maid. The camera tracks her downstairs/upstairs journey as she carries a tray up to Wayne, clad in the white collar and pinafore that announce her position as a woman in the service sector. When Wayne catches her snooping, she adopts the subservient attitude that’s expected of a meek member of the help.

But as soon as she realizes the jig is up—Wayne knows she broke into his foolproof safe—the frightened, apologetic maid fades away. Hathaway’s transformation is a triumph of body language: she relaxes her shoulders, pops a hip, arches an eyebrow. Her mouth stretches into a crooked grin. She’s still wearing the same uniform, but she looks like a completely new woman. “Oops,” she purrs. “Nobody told me it was uncrackable.”

But Kyle’s not done transforming yet. As she escapes from the mansion, she strips away the telltale class signifiers of her uniform so that only a slinky black dress remains. Now she looks like any pretty young woman who might circulate among the privileged few, and she can climb into a limo with a congressman without causing a second glance.

This kind of class fluidity is part and parcel of Hathaway’s star text. She frequently plays a girl next door type — frizzy hair, nasal voice, baggy sweaters — who ascends social ladders. In her Princess Diaries debut, she’s just your average middle-class nerd until Julie Andrews swans in to make her over and help her ascend to the Genovian throne. In The Devil Wears Prada, she’s a scruffy, Gap-wearing college grad who transforms into a polished member of the fashion elite, complete with thigh-high Chanel boots. The romantic comedy One Day follows in these familiar footsteps, featuring Hathaway as a brainy, working-class student who starts off waiting tables at a cheesy Mexican restaurant and ends up an elegantly successful author, complete with a bohemian apartment in Paris. Audiences love to watch Hathaway go from ordinary to extraordinary; she’s our human Voyager probe, an average girl vaulted into stratospheres far beyond most people’s reach.

In The Dark Knight Rises, however, class mobility is far more limited. Kyle’s chances of rising are about as likely as most prisoners’ are of getting out of Bane’s hopelessness pit. That’s why the blank slate drive—technology that can wipe computer records clean—matters so much to Kyle. Without it, she’s stuck in a cycle of poverty and crime: a hamster wheel familiar to many people today who grapple with various combinations of low incomes, bad credit, and overwhelming debt.

This kind of class won’t stay behind bars for long.

But for a movie that draws on contemporary class tensions to fuel its drama, DKR is surprisingly anti-populist. Bad-guy Bane appropriates egalitarian rhetoric to fuel his agenda, but we never get an idea of what a real people’s movement might look like. Instead, the film borrows images of the French Revolution—kangaroo courts, everyday thugs storming mansions-cum-castles—to convey Gotham’s chaos under Bane’s rule.

Ultimately, DKR proposes to remedy inequalities via stewardship rather than reform. Wayne’s philanthropy extends to all the characters from underprivileged backgrounds by the film’s end: he bequeaths his estate to an orphanage, takes Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake under his wing, and helps Kyle escape her past for good. These solutions encourage marginalized people to put their trust in the benevolence of the rich: after all, they may toss some nice scraps from their banquets. At the very least, they probably won’t lace the concrete with explosives or try to blow up the city with a nuclear bomb.

Much like the movie, under the surface, Kyle’s no revolutionary. When Wayne tells her she sounds as if she’s looking forward to the coming storm, she shrugs: “I’m adaptable.” For all her class frustrations, she mostly just wants to survive. Her sly self-interest and buried but tangible morals make her a compelling character, and it’s satisfying to see her finally get out of the game. At last sighting, she’s sitting at a Roman café across from a tousled Wayne. She’s slightly out of focus, a little hazy in the Mediterranean light. But from the calm in her expression and the pale blue top that’s replaced her mandatory black, it’s clear she’s found a way to escape the trap that she was born into. Would that others—say, roughly 99 percent of them—could be so lucky.

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  1. Such a perfect analysis of the whole film via Kyle! Also, I love your point about how DKR adapts Hathaway’s star text.

  2. [...] and protectiveness that I often feel for actresses a lot of other people find annoying, Anne Hathaway and Lena Dunham and Zooey Deschanel among them. If enough people find a woman irritating, [...]

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