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Cat Got Your Tongue? The Purrrfect Evolution of Gotham's Favorite Feline

Out of all the female characters in the DC comic universe, Catwoman is easily one of the most notable. The reason people are so intrigued by her is that she’s an intense and gritty antihero who goes from being the complete adversary of Batman to eventually changing her behavior. She does bad things, but she does them for the right reasons — and there’s something endearing about that.

Catwoman is an integral part of the Batman franchise in DC comics. When she doesn’t go by her pseudonym, she is also known as Selina Kyle, a jewel thief in Gotham city. Catwoman made her comic debut in Batman issue number one in 1940 as Bob Kane and Bill Finger sought to give Bruce Wayne a romantic love interest that would somehow fit in Gotham City. Over many years the iconic character has been played by a number of actresses including Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfeiffer, Halle Berry and Anne Hathaway. 

Most recently, it has been announced that Zoë Kravitz will be portraying her in the upcoming Matt Reeves adaptation of Batman alongside Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne/Batman ahead of its upcoming release in March 2022. Kravitz’s casting as Catwoman is substantial considering she is a Black actress. For decades, Catwoman was portrayed by a handful of white actresses, and most recently Anne Hathaway in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises.

While it is notable that a Black actress will be playing Catwoman, it is worth noting that the racial barrier of the character was broken over 50 years ago, when Eartha Kitt played Catwoman in the series adaptation of Batman in the 1960s.

By this time, Kitt was a worldwide sensation in Hollywood known for many films and a sensational music career, gaining international acclaim. This was in 1967, and there were no women of color at that time wearing skin-tight bodysuits, playing opposite a white male with the sexual tension between them. This was a truly important moment in film history as Kitt was one of the few Black women at the time — along with Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge — who were allowed to be sexy, without being stereotyped. It does take a village, however, Kitt was definitely a trailblazer. 

For young Black girls, Kitt’s casting served as an important representation as they were able to see themselves on television, and especially as a character that was so alluring, independent,  confident, and oozed with sex appeal. It was a time where Black girls and women could see themselves in a different light, and Kitt’s portrayal has had a lasting impact as it led to more Black women being cast in the role, like Halle Berry in the namesake spinoff and now Zoë Kravitz. When she starred in Catwoman (2004) Berry said in Collier, “When I first saw Eartha [as Catwoman], I didn't know what it meant, but I knew it was important and that I connected to it and felt good about myself after watching her… . I'm reviving something she originated.”

Additionally, Kitt’s impact was so crucial given the time period.1960s America, in the height of the Civil Rights Movement and when segregation and racial injustice was at its peak, Kitt’s Catwoman became a dubious mixture of protest, racial inclusion, and post-racial cultural politics. When her casting was announced television network affiliates in the Southern states were outraged. Fitzsimons and the other producers however didn't care. But they did agree that the romance between Batman and Catwoman had to end.

The next woman of color to play a live-action Catwoman was Halle Berry, in the box office bomb of the same name. Although Halle Berry can acknowledge the negative criticism she received after starring in 2004’s Catwoman, she’s still revered as one of the most unforgettable to play the role.

Not many people are aware of this, but Sanaa Lathan is also amongst the Black women who have graced the screens as this iconic character. Although we don’t get to actually see Sanaa Lathan‘s face as Catwoman, we do get to hear her voice. She voices the character of Catwoman in the animated series Harley Quinn (2019) in its second season.  Lathan’s character still serves as a representation as Catwoman is portrayed as a Black woman in the series, in which creators Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Loren said that they made this decision in order to diversify the series. 

Additionally, before Naya Rivera’s tragic passing in 2020, she did a bit of voice acting. Prior to the death of the actress, she voiced the character of Catwoman in Batman: The Long Halloween Part 1. Her voice acting role as Catwoman is the last official project she was part of before she passed away.

Zoë Kravitz is no stranger to Batman, however. Back when they were casting The Dark Knight Rises, Kravitz said she was turned down for a role because she's a woman of color. "In the last Batman movie [The Dark Knight Rises], they told me that I couldn't get an audition for a small role they were casting because they weren't going urban,'" she told Nylon. 

It is not common to have such diversity and Black representation in comic books and superhero franchises as many superhero comics were written in the 1940s. Black characters weren’t introduced into comics until the late 1960s. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Black Panther is often credited as the first Black superhero, debuting in Marvel's Fantastic Four #52 in 1966. The fact that Catwoman was written and portrayed originally as a white character, and has been portrayed by Black women for the past few decades is such an important development for representation for Black girls especially. A lack of Black representation in the superhero genre has created an aperture for many Black fans, as they could not connect nor see themselves as the superheroes being portrayed. 

As superheroes are meant to inspire the hope that someone will stand up to do the right thing, and embodies the potential of humankind, it is important for Black girls and boys to be able to see themselves represented in these roles. That is what makes the tradition of Catwoman portrayed by Black women so powerful, and the casting of Zoë Kravitz continues that tradition.

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