Transformations of Female Villains in Batman Films

The female villains of the Batman franchise films each have unique storylines pertaining to how they came to be. Cat woman of Batman Returns (1992), Poison Ivy of Batman and Robin (1997) and Harley Quinn of the more recent Suicide Squad (2016) will be the focus of this discussion. The film Suicide Squad (2016), although not centered around Batman, is produced by DC Comics and features the Joker and his girlfriend, Harley Quinn, who is captured and jailed by Batman. The characters of Selena Kyle, Dr. Pamela Isley and Dr. Harleen Quinzel, share similarities in their personality and appearance prior to their femme fatal transformations. All three experience violent events which ultimately change everything about them catering to the classic female stereotyping of the male gaze. All three transformations coincidently are triggered by direct and deliberate actions of a male counterpart. When compared to the accidental or self-inspired transformations of male villain counterparts of the Batman franchise, one can’t help but wonder what the subliminal message of these films convey. Are everyday or “basic” women boring and unattractive unless they have a seductive villainous or “beautiful” alter ego? Furthermore, is male interference and manipulation necessary to bring out the “beautiful” in these women? The actions of these men seem to symbolically represent gender expectations and pressure placed on women by western patriarchal culture.

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The three civilian characters of Cat Woman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, share similar characteristics downplaying their looks prior to their femme fatale transformations. Selena Kyle, Dr. Pamela Isley and Dr. Harleen Quinzel all seem insecure, or introverted, and career oriented. Their appearance is toned down with baggy, unflattering wardrobes and glasses. All are introduced in their professional work environment interacting with men in varying degrees. Selena Kyle mainly interacts with her boss Max Shrek, Pamela Lillian Isley is paired to work with colleague Dr. Jason Woodrue, and Dr. Harleen Quinzel is seen in therapy sessions working with The Joker. The tumultuous relationships between each of these pairs results in violence. Selena Kyle gets tossed out of the window of a skyscraper, Dr. Pamela Isley buried under lab equipment and covered in toxic chemicals, and electroshock therapy is performed on Dr. Harleen Quinzel. Shortly after each encounter, the women wake up and assume the new identities of Cat Woman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn respectively. Each woman suddenly embodies the epitome of allure and appeal to the desires of the male gaze to the point that their perpetrators become overly enamored and almost spellbound by them. Each femme fatale exudes confidence, sex appeal, prefers more revealing and figure flattering attire, and no longer needs corrective lenses. The villainous transformation is complete and these women are now dangerous and beautiful.

The transformation stories of most male villains featured in the Batman franchise don’t involve the same physical violence through direct contact. The characters of The Joker from Batman (1989), Penguin from Batman Returns (1992), The Riddler of Batman Forever (1995), Mr. Freeze of Batman and Robin (1997) and Two-Face from both Batman Forever (1995) and The Dark Knight (2008) are all examples of male villains who each experience some triggering event to change their personalities and behavior.

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Two-Face and The Riddler, Batman Forever (1995)

Three of these five characters fall victim to accidents. The Joker falls over a railing into a chemical plant, Mr. Freeze falls into subzero liquid nitrogen and Two-Face, in one film gets acid thrown on his face by a third party, and in the second film gets half his face burned. The Riddler is the only villain who makes the conscious choice to become a villain when his invention is rejected by both his immediate supervisor and Bruce Wayne.

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The Penguin, Batman Returns (1992)

The Penguin’s transformation is unfortunate but non violent. For him it occurs at a young age when his parents abandon him by sending him down a river in Gotham where he ultimately ends up in the city sewer. One could argue that Two-Face experiences some degree of violence at the hands of another male, but in both Batman films his face is mutilated by another from a distance, not through direct physical contact. Although each of these transformations are traumatic these men are not directly subjected to the same degree of violence as the women previously described.

The villains of Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise movies starring Christian Bale are somewhat more progressive with their transformation storylines. Both female villains in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Cat Woman and Miranda Tate (Banes sidekick and Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter), begin the film with their secret villainous identity established. With her opening introduction to the audience, we see this Selena Kyle character steal pearls from a decrepit Bruce Wayne. The character of Miranda Tate has the hidden agenda to gain power over Wayne Enterprises and ultimately of the company’s nuclear reactor. No true transformation for either character takes place on film, only our perspective of their true selves is revealed. Female sexual undertone, however, is ever present throughout the film as expected and depicted in western pop culture.

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Cat Woman, TheDark Knight Rises (2012)
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Miranda Tate, The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The character of Bane inThe Dark Knight Rises (2012), Miranda’s protector, does have an on screen transformation and is one exception of a male villain that does suffer direct physical violence by other men as a result. While protecting Miranda Tate as she successfully escapes from the prison beneath the surface, the other inmates attack and smother him mutilating his face in the process. His injuries are so extreme that he must forever wear a mask to maintain some structure in it and to avoid feeling pain. Once he escapes the prison his intentions of working for the greater good are obsolete. His dark, violent upbringing and experiences in the prison corrupt him into assisting Miranda in her endeavor to obliterate Gotham City and Batman.

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Bane, The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The similarities between each of the female villains in the earlier Batman films, consistently display what it means to be unattractive and dull in contrast to what a sexy, confident and ideal female should look like according to cultural norms. The male violence inflicted on all three women is almost symbolic of gender expectations and judgements set forth by western patriarchal society. Until the women satisfy the male gaze they are punished and almost put to death. Subliminal cues such as these in both Hollywood and pop culture reinforce and support gender stereotypes of western patriarchal culture.

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Written by:  Rachel Swygert