top of page

Batman Returns














[section published‏ July 29, 2012.]


So, this combined with Tank Girl is a chapter from my thesis. The academically inclined might be interested.



Entangled Identities and Cyborg Territories


“In myth the meaning is distorted by the concept”

Roland Barthes, Mythologies (122)


            This chapter will focus on hybrid identities and couplings which challenge normative notions of gender and sexuality. I theorize drag as cross-species-dressing where second skins and stitchings fall apart, along with notions of coherent rather than fluid identities. Hybridization and a theoretical notion of the cyborg move into territories which include the conceptual proliferation of identities and sexualities.

            Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in her groundbreaking book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, develops a political myth around the image of the cyborg, “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (1991a, 149). I will use certain aspects of the notion of the cyborg myth as developed by Haraway and refashion it to open up the theoretical possibilities for breached boundaries in drag. The body is doubled in a vision which questions what counts as the natural body when contemporary technological interventions such as “bodybuilding, colored contact lenses, liposuction” alter its “dimensions and markers” (Balsamo 1997, 1).

            The cyborg is a fascinating but until now unexplored application in which to consider hybridization and resistance to fixed identities in drag and camp. I will consider how the individual and social identities of the characters Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1989) and Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995) splinter and meld into new meanings and undiscovered territory. The characters expand beyond traditional binaries in their transgression of boundaries by combining perceived opposites such as human and animal, man and woman, human and machine. They disturb normative sexuality; the erotic aspects of cyborg identities undo the “mundane fiction of Man and Woman” (Haraway 1991a, 180). These are examples of couplings which undo heterosexual structures of desire, located in the fusions of human and animal/animal and machine. I am regarding cyborg identity as a subversive celebration of illegitimate fusions: “the couplings which make Man and Woman so problematic, subverting the structure of desire . . . and so subverting the structure and modes of reproduction of ‘Western’ identity, of nature and culture, of mirror and eye, slave and master, body and mind” (1991a, 176).

            I will examine the sexual practice of consensual sadomasochism (S/M) as a parodic structuring device in the film Batman Returns and explore the meanings which make S/M a cyborg practice within the film. Ann McClintock’s essay “Maid to Order:  Commercial S/M and Gender Power” in Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power (1993) will be used as an intertext to establish the meanings various S/M scenes connote. This is useful for understanding how gendered notions of power are played out in S/M’s performative practices.  In this context McClintock’s essay highlights my own analysis regarding the characters’ relationships in Batman Returns. I will explore how within a camp context the signs and scenarios of S/M are parodied and rendered hyperbolic. S/M is parodied by attaching its signs to superheroes, Batman and Catwoman, characters which are established in popular culture in relation to notions of fantasy and play. This section will show that within S/M’s context notions of power and domination are played out in reversals. Brought into a camp context there is a doubling effect of those reversals. Further, in relation to parody, we are not watching people play out S/M scenes and roles. We are watching cross-species-superheroes who intermingle qualities of animality, bestiality and sexuality. I will explore the connections that certain S/M fetish-wear has with the costumes the characters wear and how this too resonates with reversals in gender. Again, what is presented is not “simply” fetish-wear. The already hyperbolic notion of fetish is rendered further hyperbolic and parodied in the context of cross-species-dressing where leather and vinyl garments take the form of a Batsuit and Catsuit, for example.

            I will begin my analysis with examples from Tank Girl which will be used to explore notions of the cyborg myth. In this film characters are symbolic extensions of their favorite machines or are crossed-DNA lab experiments. Hybridization and couplings between humans, cross-bred kangaroos and machines abound. Animals, people and machines are entangled in a complex hybrid relationship which explodes notions of the organic dimensions of body as self. Notions of crossing encompass notions of combining.


            My interest in Haraway’s argument begins with her invitation “to contest the meanings of the breached boundary” beyond the position of biological-determinist  ideology in scientific culture (1991a, 152). The breached boundary takes the form of cross-species-dressing in Batman Returns and Tank Girl and unsettles the separation between human and animal in entangled identities and queer sexualities, disturbing normative notions of self and sexuality. I call the characters’ costumes cross-species-dressing in a similar manner to the way I characterized Lois Weaver in chapter three as cross-feminist-dressing. Like Weaver, the characters expand the notion of cross-dressing to include a hybridization of sorts outside the conventional sartorial system. In this case they hybridize human and animal; they cross species. Hybridization and the various types of relationships the characters have with themselves and one another in Batman Returns and Tank Girl open up conventional ideas of sexual boundaries and human/animal boundaries and move into what Haraway calls “cyborg.” By regarding the cyborg as a myth about identity and boundaries I am embracing “the possibilities inherent in the breakdown of clean distinctions between organism and machine and similar distinctions structuring the Western self” (Haraway 1991a, 174). In this case, the breakdown of fixed and coherent identity takes place in notions of hybridization and cross-species-dressing.


Leather, Feathers and Fur:  Cross-Species-Dressing in Batman Returns


            In chapter two I explored how the Hollywood film form contains, restrains and recuperates the problems of cross-dressing. Haraway talks about “machines given ghostly souls to make them speak” (1991a, 178). Vida in To Wong Foo exemplified this as a literal manifestation, an angel created by a Hollywood film to speak its ideology. In Batman Returns, Hollywood film is still the machine –– a cinematic apparatus whose characters represent offspring resisting their “origins” or the form by which they are contained, who are nevertheless in kinship with the form. Kinship exists because of contradictions, that is, the film expands and doubles because of the contradictions taking place there. Like Tank Girl, Batman Returns can be explored beyond conventional notions of cross-dressing as drag. Because the structuring device is not normative sexuality or normative gender the form expands or doubles with (in kinship) the active contradictions that are taking place there. Both films, as  leaky wholes, contain active aspects of domination and possibility –– becoming cyborg, where drag as cross-species-dressing explodes the conventions of traditional cross-dressing.

            In Batman Returns the main characters, Batman, Catwoman and Penguin are human-animal hybrids. They are brought into the cyborg myth by the film’s structuring device of consensual S/M which unsettles normative notions of sexuality and which offers resistance to the unitary Western subject making possible multiple and shifting identities. S/M, camp and hybridization function integrally with costume which is the means to transformation from human to animal. I will show that the animal and human guises, like identity, are unstable and are subject to injury and rupture. I use the term S/M in its broad sense to refer to the “general subculture of organized fetishism,” including;

B and D (bondage and discipline), CP (corporeal punishment). TV (transvestitism)...body piercing, foot fetishism and so on. These fetishes should be seen as overlapping, sometimes distinct sub-genres in a general sub-culture of collective fetish ritual...within these genres there may be distinct forms: there are different forms of TV, for example, and different forms of B and D. Indeed, understanding and negotiating these distinctions serves as a crucial source of the pleasure, intimacy, identity and communality that can be engendered by consensual S/M. (McClintock, 228)

            The distance from the straight sexual world view often entangled with camp, conventionally seen to be achieved almost exclusively in a gay male subculture (chapter three), can be located in the queer sexual arena of S/M. Camp's fascination with drag, cross-dressing, fusing and diffusing (body) parts that do or do not usually “belong” is taken to the extreme in Batman Returns in tails, claws and ears which strain to empower in mutation and (re)creation. I will explore certain commonalties which exist between S/M and camp, namely, their shared fascination with the hyperbolic, excess, costumes and the switching of conventional roles. Camp and S/M are melded together with great theatricality in Batman Returns. The film uses theatrical paraphernalia associated with both camp and S/M in the form of leather, vinyl, spiked boots, feathers, fur, whips, masks, costumes and S/M scenarios. Like camp, consensual S/M’s theatricality foregrounds notions of “being as playing role” and offers a further model for critiques of sex and gender identity. It expands camp’s articulation within and outside a gay male subculture, feminist or lesbian performance practice to include various other sexual practices which are likewise marginalized.

            My analysis of S/M in Batman Returns is inflected by certain strains in Foucauldian distinctions between domination and power.[v] For Foucault “domination” refers to a situation where resistance is impossible.[vi] The subject is not able to overturn or reverse the dominant relation whereas relations of “power” are “flexible, mutable, fluid, and even reversible” (Sawicki 1996, 170): “[A] system of constraint becomes truly intolerable when the individuals who are affected by it don’t have the means of modifying it” (Foucault 1988, 294). Within parodic scenarios of consensual S/M, relations of power are fluid and play upon fixed notions of domination. Literal constraints (handcuffs, leather garments) are modified in cyborg fashion, exchanged and thrown away. Reversals of power are played out in parodic scenarios of domination and submission, where social roles are “played backwards.” Placed within the theatrical context of camp and S/M, notions of nature and identity in Batman Returns explode, undoing conventional structures of desire.


            The relationships the characters of Batman, Catwoman and the Penguin hold with one another and with the spectator can be described as partaking in the social sub-culture of consensual fetishism. Consensual fetishism is distinct from the unbridled sadism usually used in defining and demonizing S/M, where the master has power and absolute control over the slave. In consensual S/M slave and master share power; to see the master as having power and the slave as not having power is to read it as simply imitating cultural prescriptions for power and submission. Consensual S/M plays upon the meanings of sexual difference in apparent reversals; that is, it refutes the qualities associated with that division as stable. “Contrary to popular stigma, S/M theatricality flouts the edict that manhood is synonymous with mastery, and submission a female fate” (McClintock, 207). Batman Returns’ S/M is a theatre of transformation which, with its attendant props and costuming, makes way for species mutation and ironic self-reflection.

            As animal-human hybrids involved in S/M practices, the characters in Batman Returns are cyborg. The cyborg world includes a doubling of vision, explored in terms of drag and camp in the last two chapters which, in this film, includes holding up the contrasting notions of power/domination and freedom/possibilities. In the cyborg world it is necessary to see from both –– positions of kinship and positions of domination at once –– because “each reveals both dominations and possibilities, unimaginable from the other vantage point. Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision or many-headed monsters” (Haraway 1991a, 154). S/M practice is cyborg in Batman Returns because it includes the notion of breached boundaries regarding normative sexuality and gendered positions of power and submission, manifesting sexual couplings which do resonate with unconventional practices which, as seen in Tank Girl, include conceptual “bestiality” for the hybridized characters.

            The costumes in the film take on the qualities associated with S/M paraphernalia in excessive forms of leather, vinyl, spiked boots, feathers, fur, whips and masks. Batman appears to be wearing some type of reinforced leather and/or rubber garment and cape. He wears black gloves, and a hooded mask resembling an executioner's mask with bat ears morphing through. Batman's closet in the Batcave (S/M read: dungeon) looks like a vault, inside which hang rows of Batsuits with attendant paraphernalia and props. A description by a visitor of an S/M dungeon recalls "the sheer volume of props and costumes. It was like a theatre warehouse or a film set. Hanging on pegs on all the walls and corridors were hundreds of outfits . . . anything you can imagine having a fetish about" (McClintock, 225). The spectator of Batman Returns is given a brief look inside Batman’s vault/closet resembling the position of “a client helplessly fascinated by fetish images of authority –– handcuffs, badges, uniforms –– and most domina have rackfuls of costumes: ‘Uniformists’ desire to wear or be serviced by someone wearing a uniform” (McClintock, 225). Like a “domina” (a term usually attributed to the female dominant partner), Batman has rackfuls of Batsuits. Batman both wears the uniform and “services” the spectator’s fetishistic desire.  Consensual fetishism opens up the relationship of audience as fetishistic consumer. When David Bordwell said that “every film trains its spectator,” (1985, 45) within the context of S/M fetishism, he could not have been more precise.

            The costumes and associated paraphernalia of Batman and Catwoman engender extraordinary physical power in the film. The idea of the cyborg illicits notions of improvement or enhancement. Combinations are formed and melded together which increase performance, such as the Rippers in Tank Girl and science fiction films which hybridize human and machine to create the ultimate soldier-as-weapon (the Schwarzenegger Terminator [James Cameron, 1986 & 1991] films, Van Damme’s Universal Soldier [Roland Emerich, 1992], the Borg in the Star Trek [David Carson, 1995] film and television series etc.). Hence, the idea of the hyperbolic, embodied by the cyborg, becomes linked to the film through S/M fetish gear. The Master is able to dominate his/her slave with the use of props such as paddles, feathers, chains and whips. Batman comes equipped with various aids or theatrical props to help him “master” various super-normal feats and save himself in dangerous circumstances. These props become technological extensions and enhancements of his animal-human hybridization. The notion of improvement in this film, however, is distinguished from ideas of control and power because these aspects are unstable and shifting in the context of consensual S/M. For example, Batman carries a lethal boomerang, and can shoot cable into surfaces to swing out and save himself in apparent no-way-out scenes. It is characteristic of consensual S/M to have a scripted “save word” which would indicate to the Master to increase or decrease the intensity of the “scene” or to stop all together. “Many S/M fetishists claim that it is thus the ‘bottom’ who is in control” (McClintock, 226). Power, in the realm of the hyperbolic, is shifting as Batman oscillates between the boundaries of Master and Slave in his costume with its attendant props, where he can dominate and/or escape if dominated.


Reversals of Power and Identities


            In camp's fashion, consensual S/M in Batman Returns parodically emphasizes gendered signs of power through the hyperbolization of conventional social roles. The transformation of the ordinary into something more spectacular functions to emphasize play rather than existence.  It is not so much “the actuality of power or submission that holds the S/Mer in its thrall but the signs of power: images, words, costumes, uniforms, scripts” (McClintock, 225). These signs of power are in full evidence in the costumes/uniforms and props of the cross-species characters. Likewise, there are numerous examples of drag in relation to the re-vision of power structured relationships in consensual S/M to be found in Batman Returns. For example, Catwoman wears vinyl while Batman is armoured with a bulletproof torso vest: “The domina’s breasts are bare; the slave is armoured” (McClintock, 207). Catwoman plays the role of domina in her more “fragile” (traditionally read as feminine) costume to Batman’s armoured (traditionally read as masculine) slave role. Costumes play upon significations for consensual S/M in drag fashion. The meanings associated with traditionally gendered clothing are layered, doubled and reversed in S/M’s context.

            Catwoman's costume resonates with camp excess, S/M costumes and fetishistic desire. Through cross-species-dressing her costume signals a tension between the hybridized and unstable boundaries of original self, animal other and marginalized sexuality. Catwoman carries a whip and wears a mask attached to the suit. Sharp, piercing claws are attached to her vinyl covered fingers. On her feet, high-heeled boots extend up her leg as part of the suit signalling a foot fetishist's fantasy or cyborg enhancement. Her lips are painted a blood red, with a gloss to match the vinyl on her body. “Endearingly klutzy initially as Selina, she looks amazing in her skin-tight, S/M-like leather skin, [and] wins the viewer over to her new incarnation with her intimidating display of whip mastery” (McCarthy, 56). While Catwoman wears vinyl, her close association with cats, including her own black one, serves to mirror her in the film, and connects her with fur. The catsuit enables the manifestation of extraordinary strength and gymnastic feats including tumbling, jumping from great heights, springing and sprinting. Catwoman is also given nine lives. She can play with her life with the confidence she is in no real danger – consensual S/M is the embodiment of that fantasy. S/M is theatre, not reality:  life is not threatened.

            Popular descriptions about the characters in the film include notions of transformation and fragmented personal identity: "Michelle Pfeiffer's schizophrenic Catwoman, a ditzy loser reincarnated as a PVC pervert" (Newman 1992, 49).[vii] Selina’s shattered sense of self and “perversion” subvert through the fragmentation of stable identity and sexuality. In S/M, characters partake in the “economy of S/M [as] the economy of conversion: slave to master, adult to baby, pain to pleasure, [human to animal,] and back again” (McClintock, 207). As was elaborated upon in Tank Girl, hybridization in Batman Returns “includes” and “connects” across seemingly irreconcilable opposites or boundaries; hybridization shatters, rejects and reabsorbs.

Catwoman's shiny, black vinyl Catsuit looks like a second skin she has been sewn into. Indeed, the obvious, botched suit stitching resembles surgical stitching gone amiss and the idea of piercing skin: "The knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole, simply there and original: it is always constructed and stitched together imperfectly; and therefore able to join with another, to see together without claiming to be another" (emphasis added, Haraway 1991b, 22). Sewing herself a “self,” Catwoman embodies a notion of the bricoleur, one who works with the tools at hand and engineer, working with the tools she creates anew. Lévi-Strauss describes the bricoleur in opposition to the engineer (or scientist) and says that the engineer questions “the universe, while the bricoleur addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavours . . .” (1966, 19). Not only does this description resonate with how Catwoman sews herself into the vinyl which becomes her second skin from left-over materials found in her home as Selina Kyle; as “engineer” of her new identity, she questions universal notions of identity. There is a constant “oscillation between these two distinct, absorption-resistant presences.”[viii] 


In Writing and Difference  (1978) Jacques Derrida says:

A subject who supposedly would be the absolute origin of his own discourse and supposedly would construct it ‘out of nothing,’ ‘out of whole cloth,’ would appear to be the creator of the verb, the verb itself. The notion of the engineer who supposedly breaks with all forms of bricolage is therefore a theological idea . . . the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur. As soon as we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse which breaks with received historical discourse, and as soon as we admit that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs, then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning breaks down. (285)


            Shifting subjectivity and experience as Selina Kyle and as Catwoman affords her multiple experiences in different worlds; that is, one world does not mutually exclude the other. The boundaries between an original self and an animal other are fused, fragmented and linked through sexuality. For instance, Catwoman/Selina's sexuality also leaks into the various worlds and scenes she experiences. She retains a sexuality as Selina that pervades her character in the cat suit. This is significant in that, as Selina, she retains no other hyperbolic traits such as the gymnastics she is able to perform in the catsuit.

            The Catsuit is her bridge between worlds, and comprises a tension which is palpable as the film progresses and her stitches fall apart and can no longer hide the human skin underneath, leaving her vulnerable to being identified as Selina Kyle. The idea of fixed identification, located in a whole self as Selina or Catwoman, is disrupted because Selina’s human flesh/skin/boundary is subject to injury through her costume’s skin/boundary. The wound of the flesh mimics and exceeds the tear of vinyl. Her costume is fragile and subject to injury in as much as her skin and identity are. Resonating with notions of cross-dressing and the “real” body beneath the clothes, cat skin and human skin are no longer the defining parameters of self. The tension between the boundaries for Catwoman and Selina Kyle’s identity, where there is play between signification and expectation, contextualized by consensual S/M, is self-referential and shifts off stable models of categorization.      


            The costumes, linked to consensual S/M, destabilize normative notions of sexuality in terms of passivity/female, domination/male, complicating  the idea of sexual difference. This becomes further complex by the search for the man behind the bat and woman behind the cat. Ruptured vinyl (cat skin) and ruptured human skin occur in a fight with Batman who likewise has his Bat costume and human skin torn. Catwoman seductively says to him, “Who is the man behind the bat? Maybe you could help me find the woman behind the cat.” Feeling his armour suit she says “No, that's not you,” discovering a vulnerable spot in the armour she claws and pierces his suit and flesh into which she loses a claw. He punches her and she falls over the building into a sand truck, her vinyl and flesh torn. Her camp response is, “Saved by kitty litter.” The quest for the man behind the bat and woman behind the cat is fraught with injury and ruptured identity.  Back at the Bat Cave, Batman pulls out the claw from his side and calls Alfred, the butler, to bring him antiseptic ointment. In keeping with the S/M structure of the relationship between Catwoman and Batman, Alfred asks him if he is in pain. Bleeding, and looking at the claw he says, “No, not really,” and then says “Meow!” Consensual S/M is parodically connected to notions of identity in the film, as the sexual dynamic between Batman and Catwoman made apparent by this sequence suggests. The next time Batman and Catwoman meet, it is as Bruce and Selina. They begin a sexual encounter on a couch in Bruce Wayne's estate which necessitates constant manoeuvring in order to avoid the other’s touch of the injured parts of their bodies. They are obviously in pain from their fight as Batman and Catwoman while simultaneously enjoying their encounter as Selina and Bruce. The injuries incurred by the fight scene, in disguise, bleed over into the lives of their supposedly “natural” selves unsettling the categories of disguise, nature and self-identity. The examples of injury and sexual attraction, in and out of costume, suggest that these are not split subjects in a binary sense, in that one life (Catwoman, Batman) would mutually exclude the other (Selina Kyle, Bruce Wayne). Splitting includes the notion of combining. Fragmentation is not about separate or disassociated parts, but how these parts may combine and include to create new meanings.


   The switching of dominant/submissive (top/bottom) roles between Batman and Catwoman continues and is effected on several levels destabilizing crossings associated with fixed referents. Examples can be found in the fight for power and control in their various scenes. In one fight scene Catwoman uses the traditional helpless appeal to being female, “How could you? I'm a woman!” To which Batman lets his guard down long enough for Catwoman to give him a swift kick in the face. Being a woman has little to do with being submissive. Traditional expectations regarding femininity, such as Catwoman's line in the previous example, are manipulated in a visible arena (S/M), playing social power backwards. My explorations of the femme-feminist in chapter three expand into new territories here to include notions for a camp S/M feminist avenger. For instance, a review in Rolling Stone says, "Meow, indeed. Though her lusty kicking of Batman's face may arouse kinky thoughts, Catwoman is no bimbo in black leather. Pfeiffer gives this feminist avenger a tough core of intelligence and wit" (Travers 1992, 110).

            Notions of recognition and disguise are further contorted in Batman Returns. The adoption of the Bat or Cat costume may be described as the attempt to disguise oneself (masking) and as an excess of self (cyborg-like extensions). The mask as a part of the costume is referred to in terms of something to hide in the film. For example, when Penguin and Batman meet for the first time Batman asks Penguin what he wants. Penguin responds, “The direct approach –– I admire that in a man with a mask.” Marked by their resistance to self-identity by playing upon notions of truth and disguise, the characters actualize a theoretical notion of liminal subjects. They embody the notion of boundary creatures and inappropriate/d others (Trinh) “who cannot adopt the mask of either ‘self’ or ‘other’ offered by previously dominant Western narratives of identity and politics” (Haraway 1991b, 23). For example, the relationship between truth and disguise in relation to notions of self and other is played out most prominently in the following scene. Bruce and Selina arrive independently at a masquerade ball and are the only ones not wearing masks or conventional costumes. Selina says to Bruce, “There's a big comfy California King in bedding –– what do you say . . . We could take off our costumes.” Bruce, responding to Selina’s ironic observation that they were not costumed to begin with, says, “I guess I'm tired of wearing masks.” “Me too,” Selina replies. They are nonetheless disguised from each other. Masking, which takes human form (which is not “self”) for Selina and Bruce during the masquerade ball, uses human identity to hide animal identity. There is nothing to find beneath human skin, which like costume disturbs notions of the parameters for self. Costumes, masks, apparel that suggest the hidden truth about the identity of the wearer evaporate as effective markers. The concealed “true” self cannot be revealed with proper attire or outside costume. By resisting the conventional narrative of disguise, they do not adopt the mask of “self” or “other.” Issues of hidden identity and appearance are ironically engaged and played with self-referentially.They play upon notions of self and other.

            The build up to the moment of recognition of each other’s animal identity is layered with references to self-identity. Selina pulls out a gun saying she came for her ex-boss, Max Shreck. Bruce asks her “Who do you think you are?” “I really don't know,” she says. Finally, in human guise, their superhero animal guises are revealed to each other. The revelation takes place not by the removal of masks or costumes but through a reference to a sexual repartee that had occurred between them during a fight as Batman and Catwoman under a mistletoe. At the masquerade ball it is Selina who begins the phrase previously said by Batman (an instant reversal) and the moment Bruce begins to respond -- they “know.” Selina's response to the recognition is “Does this mean we'll have to fight?” Indeed, what ground do they stand on now that they are supposedly revealed to one another? The meanings and interpretations of disguise shift along with the uncertainty of personal identity for the characters and their actions.


            The association in Batman Returns of the human characters with their animal guises can be related to the historical conceiving of S/M with relation to nature and the primitive. Commenting upon the demonization of S/M by sexologists like Krafft-Ebing, McClintock notes how S/M was regarded as the “psychopathology of the atavistic individual, as a blood-flaw and stigma of the flesh. S/M, like other fetishisms, was figured as a regression in time to the ‘prehistory’ of racial ‘degeneration’, existing ominously in the heart of the imperial metropolis” (208-210). An interesting connection can be made between the primitivization of S/M and the cross-species characters. In Batman Returns the “imperial metropolis” is Gotham City in which “individuals adopt totemic animals and react with unrelieved psychopathic violence” (Newman, 1992, 49). Historically, natural male aggression was conceived of as a “fait accompli of nature” and genuine sadism existed in “civilized man”

only in a ‘weak and rather rudimentary degree.’ While Sadism is a natural trait of ‘primitive’ peoples, atavistic traces of sadism in ‘civilized man’ stem, not from environment or social accident, but from a primordial past: 'Sadism must . . . be counted among the primitive anomalies of the sexual life. It is a disturbance (a deviation) in the evolution of the psychosexual processes sprouting from the soil of psychical degeneration .’[ix]

The “primitive” existence of the Bat, Cat and Penguin in the ominous metropolis of Gotham City are comic book examples of Krafft-Ebbing's theorization: a Darwinian regression into a primordial site, unleashing “uncivilized” sexual desire and response. Within a camp context, notions of the primitive attached to S/M are played upon and rendered hyperbolic in cross-species-dressing.

            Notions of the primitive are further unhinged by playing upon notions of origins in relation to power. Power in Batman Returns is found in the multiple and shifting subject located in the margins of sexuality and cross-species-dressing. As in Tank Girl hybridization occurs outside the contractual (marriage) parameters (organic coupling) of Western culture. Catwoman is conceived out of a violent plunge to earth after which she is bitten by cats until she bleeds: a transfusion of the species occurs metaphysically. “People are nowhere near so fluid, being both material and opaque. Cyborgs are ether, quintessence” (Haraway 1991a, 153). Catwoman finally gives birth to herself, sewing together the vinyl which becomes her skin. Significantly, the eroticization of the body – ears which strain under masks, feet in spiked boots, nails as claws – expands beyond genitals to include non-procreational sites. The Bat, Cat and Penguin rupture the confines of a (primordial) past and refuse a Western Oedipal narrative: they escape and exceed familial models[x] within a context of animal hybridization and S/M. “Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein's monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration in the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos” (Haraway 1991a, 151).

            Catwoman’s nine lives facilitate  a continual metaphysical re-birth or re-incarnation. In cyborg fashion she self-regenerates outside the human parameters of the meanings of life and death. Re-birth is aligned with the idea of breeding, associated with animals and connected to the notion of cyborg.[xi] Haraway invokes the notion of a “bastard race” as a metaphor for the transgression of boundaries that delineate race, gender, sexuality, the human body – that is, individual and social identity. Transgressions of the self in terms of “procreation” for the characters find them on the margins of meaning for that term.

            Indeed, Penguin is born “flawed” to human parents who throw him away into a dark Nile on a cold winter night. His subsequent parentage is by penguins whom he resembles closely and whom he calls his children, extending the theme of kinship between animal and human. Penguin's costume appears to come closer to his skin than even Catwoman’s “second” skin. We see Penguin’s guise as his apparent “natural” bodily state throughout the film. His skin is a whitish grey, his eyes are bloodshot, he appears cold and clammy like a fish, he is short, fat and waddles like the penguins who raised him. In fetish custom Penguin is associated with the feathers of the birds who surround him. Penguin says to Batman, “You're just jealous because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask.” To which Batman replies, “You may be right.” As I considered earlier the mask does not alter notions of identity. Identity is uncertain and unstable with or without a mask. Penguin's costume is primarily as flesh which could mistakenly appear more stable, defining or real than that of Catwoman and Batman because it is a product of his birth by human parents, that is, he appears to have secure origins not located in the margins or in the bastard race that created him to look as he does. His “original” birth does not constitute him as a finished whole, however. He continues to self-breed in the film. Born a monster[xii] and soon-after discarded by his parents, Oswald was raised by Penguins since he was a baby. He lives in an icy underground world and eats live fish. As an outcast, living on the margins, his survival depends upon the kindness of “strangers” in the very strange sense of the term. Haraway says “the bastard race teaches us about the power of the margins” (1991a, 176).”[xiii] His society is comprised of side-show circus performers, those who live on the margins, and who are usually defined by their inappropriate and “unnatural” combinings (hybridizations), for example, the bearded lady or Siamese twins.

            The notion of origins becomes foregrounded within the plot for Penguin. When Penguin comes to the surface of the city, the “real” world, already distorted by the dark eerieness of Gotham City, it is under the pretence of searching for his origins, his birth parents. Penguin’s actual motives are revenge. Ideas of legitimacy as linked to origins play out in a contentious arena of truth or disguise. Disguise for Penguin takes the form of legitimate politics; he runs for mayor. The business suit Penguin wears does nothing to change his “natural” physique or strengthen his tyrannical power as the Batsuit and Catsuit do. The business suit is in keeping with the penguin metaphor associated with the business man look and generic quality that distinguishes it. The suit does, however, carry codes of legitimacy which distort illegitimate behaviour (popular reading: “power-suit”). It is not that the “true” behaviour of the character resides underneath, but that the clothing carries along with it meanings which can further the motives of the characters. In cyborg style, Penguin carries a refined umbrella that, like a gun, can kill with bullets. Without a Catsuit or Batsuit equivalent to engender him with superhero abilities, Penguin appropriates an enhanced cyborg extension: “It all comes down to who’s holding the umbrella,” he says.


  Ideas of legitimacy evoked by the metaphor of the “bastard” take place in subtle variations of the notion of criminality and are linked to gendered reversals of power. Boundaries are progressively transgressed in terms of the distinction between city officials and gangsters. Where the corrupt city officials and gangsters appear to have everything in common in couplings locked “in a relationship of mutual interdependence, locked tight in their circle of power” (Lowentrout 1992, 27), Catwoman springs out of that configuration.

            The skyscraper and awning that Selina falls through, owned by Shreck, are projections of excess and legitimate (normalized) corporate criminal behaviour. Like a “cyborg Alice” (Haraway 1991a, 154) it is significant that Selina Kyle is transformed into Catwoman like Alice in ‘Corporate’ Wonderland, in a Gotham City which mirrors the strange and dream-like quality of Alice’s fall into a different world.[xiv] The fall, in Selina’s case, is instigated by her evil boss, Max Shreck, who pushes her out the window of a skyscraper for discovering his criminal plot to build an unnecessary power plant. Selina falls through an awning, which has Shreck’s corporate symbol of the cat, until she hits icy ground, where she is rescued by cats. The residue of corporate criminality attaches itself to her transformation where she “survives, her personality shattered, to become a criminal vigilante, Catwoman” (Newman, 48). Significantly, survival, fragmentation (shattered personality), transformation and her criminal behaviour are connected to the strange and dark city’s architecture throughout the film (tall buildings are Catwoman’s potential death trap in the film) and the “legitimate” corporate criminal behaviour of Max Shreck and Penguin when he runs for mayor. Masks of legitimacy, however, do not disguise illegitimate behaviour; rather there is a play upon the meanings for that behaviour.

            Catwoman is an illegitimate criminal compared to the criminal behaviour of those who maintain social power. Her criminal behaviour places her beyond the boundaries of the law, a notion which she articulates to Batman in one of the final scenes in Penguin's underground cave, where she electrocutes Shreck with a kiss. “The law doesn't apply to people like him or to us,” she says. Batman replies, “Wrong, on both counts.” As justice would have it, and in cyborg fashion, Max burns beneath Catwoman's electric kiss and she is spared. The law, in terms of justice and life and death, counters Batman’s negative response: Catwoman exceeds the law on all counts, as a criminal vigilante and marginal subject. She exceeds the legitimate parameters for female/feline behaviour. In one scene “criminal” Catwoman appears just in time to rescue a woman from a rapist. In camp context she announces, “I am Catwoman hear me roar” and proceeds to scare him off.[xv]


            Boundaries for notions of legitimacy explode along with notions of legitimate boundaries in this film. Catwoman, Batman and Penguin rupture the boundaries of skin as the defining costume of identity. The cross-species characters in Batman Returns cross the boundaries of human (civilized) and animal (primitive) through cross-species-dressing within S/M, and visibly show those boundaries to be convention. Reversals of recognition in cross-species-dressing resonate with reversals in power which occur on the level of identification with the human-self and animal-self and the fragmentation which blurs the distinction between human and animal form. Catwoman's reference to being a “woman” while wearing a catsuit makes apparent the hybridized distinction. Before she is thrown out of Max Shreck's (city) skyscraper window Shreck asks her, “What did curiosity do?” She replies, “I'm no cat.” She is subsequently transformed into Catwoman. In a rejection of his human roots the Penguin says to his carnival followers, “My name is not Oswald. It's Penguin. I am not human. I'm an animal –– cold blooded.” Identifying with the animal or human form is unstable as the form undermines and destabilizes categorization. Cross-species-dressing in Batman Returns plays upon notions of identity embracing the image of the cyborg, who as hybrid, subverts myths of origin and unity that structure Western culture. Meaning is distorted by the concept.



            The notion of entangled identities and cyborg territories opens up the possibilities for drag in contexts which move beyond gender binaries and conventional boundaries. Crossings are made up of combinings which include expanding upon already broadened notions such as hybridization. For example, this chapter showed that the hybrid, a notion which expands upon traditional binaries in new combinations, can be animal/animal, human/human or machine/machine. And beyond that, there are further interventions through couplings and sexual practices which move off directions located in an “appropriate” body or sex. Notions of truth and disguise play off each other in a dialogue which emphasizes not performance over existence as much as the changeable and permutational qualities available for performance in drag.






[i] Fan testimonials in Diva magazine (June 1995) attest to the appeal of her look and the lesbian icon status she maintains. For example “Joelle” says: “The reason I like Tank Girl is that she looks just like me. . . . Our dyke look came before hers and that sort of fashion is an offshoot from the days of punk” (34). Her appeal  is also cited in an article by Louise Carolin in the same magazine as spanning a variety of interested and different fans. The film’s director, Rachel Talalay, says “She’s more the strong woman type . . . not a dyke, more a bisexual kangaroo shagger” (33).

[ii] See Rebecca Bragg’s article “Where to Get Organs for Transplant?  Animal donors, cash for kidneys, raise ethical dilemmas,” in The Toronto Star (12 July 1998: A 11). She relays that the problematic shortage of organ donors might be resolved by xenotransplantation in the next few years –– “Grafting the organs of specially bred animals, most likely pigs, into human bodies.” Over 3,500 transplant doctors and researchers met in Montreal for the 17th biannual World Congress for the Transplantation Society in July 1998. Dr. Calvin Stiller is quoted as saying that “The science of xenotransplantation is advancing so fast that within two to three years, the hearts, lungs and kidneys of pigs may routinely be grafted into human recipients.”

[iii] Lois McNay describes a myth of the feminine in her chapter on “Power, Body  and Experience” (1992, 22).

[iv] The references to fantasy genres appear throughout the film. For instance, when Tank Girl decides to rescue the 10 year old Sam from Liquid Silver she says, “To the Bat Cave!”

[v] There are a considerable number of  feminist interpretations of Foucault’s usefulness in critiques of power and domination. (See Feminist Interpretations of Michel Foucault, Ed. Susan J. Hekman, 1996.) My attempt is not to provide an anlysis of Foucault in relation to his writings on power and domination. Rather, my analysis resonates with the Foucauldian tradition of moving off the Enlightenment rational of certain divisions as coherent and stable. S/M destabilizes  the positions of female/submissive, male/dominant, for instance, and within a camp context renders them hyperbolic.

[vi] Star Trek:  The Next Generation’s cyborg hybrid species the “Borg” maintain this notion as their calling card: “Resistance is futile:  You will assimilate.”

[vii] Locating this fragmentation in “schizophrenia” is obviously not an ideal nor should fragmentation necessarily be reduced to that description.

[viii] Trinh, 62. Trinh discusses Strauss’ notion of bricolage with respect to anthropologists and notions of observation.

[ix] Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, trans. Franklin S. Klaf (New York: Stein and Day,  1965). Cited in McClintock, 210.

[x] See Penley and Ross, 1991, 9.

[xi] Even the actress who plays Catwoman is awarded hybridized cyborg status through connotations of breeding in her portrayal of the character:  “Michelle Pfeiffer leaps into the film as Catwoman, giving birth to a whole new breed of femme fatale” (Magnuson 1992, 94).

[xii] “On all counts Batman Returns is a monster,” says Variety (McCarthy 1992, 56). Indeed, Haraway describes her boundary creatures literally as “monsters, a word that shares more than its root with the verb to demonstrate.  . . . The power-differentiated and highly contested modes of being of monsters may be signs of possible worlds” (1991b, 21-22). In the film, the Penguin refers to Max Shreck and himself as “monsters” saying that the only difference between them is that Shreck is a “respectable” monster and Penguin is not.

[xiii] Likewise, it has been noted that “to be camp is to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits” (Ross, 146).

[xiv] Notions of recognition and disguise are disturbed and disturbing in Gotham City, a cyborg world. Notions of identity are bound up with rituals of recognition in the film which occur on several levels and within the context of Gotham City: “The city is perceived as a kind of dream space, a delirious world of psychic projection rather than sociological delineation” (Lowentrout 1992, 25). I would add that a kind of dream space is what constitutes the cyborg world, most notably because Batman Returns’ dream space refuses to reconcile recognition. In dream space, through rituals of recognition, the S/M relationship between Catwoman and Batman “threatens to reconcile their fractured personalities, but remains hauntingly unfulfilled” (Newman 1992, 49). Within this dream space or cyborg world, the potential for reconciled personalities like couplings is distinct from the idea of parts combining to make a whole. Rituals of recognition take place in the city, a triumph “of delirious unconscious desires. . . . Urban fears and fantasies surface in the weird architectural visions that are constantly being straight-jacketed by order and good sense, yet constantly break through to leave a residue of madness that gives the city its potency and charm” (Wollen 1992, 25). The “residue of madness” or excess that the Bat or Cat suit leaves behind can be found on bodies after fight scenes on the city’s buildings. It is the residue from their various S/M scenes, bound up with the city in which these scenes are played out, which leaks and threatens recognition.

[xv] A review in Premiere comments, "Holy Helen Reddy! As Catwoman in this batty sequel, curvaceous Michelle Pfeiffer is a 90's . . . version of the '70's feminist chanteuse. . . . [She] claws and one-twos the guy so efficiently, she makes Arnold and Jean-Claude . . . look downright girlish" (Bibby 1992, 119).Catwoman exceeds the historical positioning of the feminist in the public eye, she is a 90's version, a criminal vigilante, which entails power and gender-bending. Catwoman opens up new possibilities for identification beyond traditional female/male gender binarisms in Hollywood film: She can hold her own with larger than life macho film heroes such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme. In a Harper’s Bazaar fashion spread, Catwoman's costume is regarded as “high style,” and “decked out from head-to toe in a slinky black catsuit-complete with knee-high lace-up boots and shiny elbow-length gloves –– Catwoman is destined to become both a cinematic and style trendsetter” (Magnuson 1992, 94). Catwoman has been appropriated, from multiple perspectives as a possible “new” feminist subject from the margins: an evidently powerful site for exceeding traditional and binary coding. Power, however, is manifest “illegitimately” within the already illegitimate confines of the term criminal.

© 1999 by Romy  Shiller. All rights reserved.


bottom of page