Femme Fatales and Bitch Goddesses: A Critique of the Villainesses of Batman

Often the comic book industry is met with nothing but contempt for its portrayal of women. The reactions to cover art and the design of the female characters are often extremely negative especially in the eyes of feminists: Harley Quinn is a well educated woman driven mad over her one-sided obsession with a madman while Catowman and Poison Ivy are often seen as nothing more than eye candy for male readers.  However, most of these critics are making assumptions based on the art and not looking at the characters themselves. Many comics hold fascinating female characters that are fully developed and well rounded.

One series in particular that holds many fascinating female characters is the Batman franchise. Batman is filled with beloved characters, many of which, interestingly enough, are villains. The Batman universe has always been well known for its development of characters who all have their own motivations and goals. In particular, several of these are female and what I will be concentrating on in this essay. The main three characters to focus on are Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn.

The comic book genre has gotten flak from critics for its overtly sexual portrayal of women. While women have always read and been a part of the creation of comics; the industry has a tendency to shift its focus towards its male audience. That being the case, the women in these comics then grow out of male fantasy. According to Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation, the comic book industry learned long ago that if white adolescent males were not buying the comics then no one was (250-51Wright). Because of this, the genre began to cater to this demographic.The case that only adolescent males are the main factor in the sale of comic or not is no longer true since the recent rise in comic book popularity. However, the costumes and overtly sexual imagery remains. Very few comic book female protagonists and antagonists received new costumes in the last few years. The ones who have gained a new wardrobe have not always benefitted from it.

One major issue is the cover art. Many comic books use overtly sexual images on the cover art of their books to draw in male readers. The art on the cover, however, often has nothing to do with the interior art or even the plot of the comic. The Gotham City Sirens series is no stranger to this problem. The covers consist of such evocative images as Harley suggestively blowing on the barrel of a gun that has a spring protruding from out of the barrel which has tally marks scratched into it. Another cover features all three villainesses standing (or in Catwoman’s case crouching) on what appears to possibly be the Batsignal, their bodies alluringly accented by the light from below.

Image: http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Gotham_City_Sirens

Image: http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Gotham_City_Sirens

The blatant sexual imagery used on the covers to draw in readers is a side effect of the targeted audience. One has to wonder if these images discourage any female readers. One of the interesting things is that the image being portrayed of Harley is extremely opposite of how we often see her in the pages of the comics. Here she is so suggestively sexual it’s ridiculous; however within the series, she is, to put it bluntly, silly and childlike. Even in scenes when she attempts to be sexual (like trying to seduce the Joker) she looks out of place, like a child playing dress up. (*1)

Catwoman in particular, having been around the longest, has gone through several costume changes. Her costume has gone from a low cut dress slit up the sides to her hips to the now well known catsuit. Feline imagery is usually considered feminine. However, felines have always held a negative connotation since “toying with one’s prey instead of killing it immediately and ending its suffering contributes to Western cultures negative view of this creature” (Lecker 19).  The negative imagery associated with Catwoman is part of her entire persona. She is a “Femme Fatal”. She represents a dangerous woman that can dominate and control men. In this way, she is very much like Joanna Russ’s “Bitch Goddess”.

The “Bitch Goddess” is a female character that has no real motivation for her actions “except that she is a bitch” (203 Russ). The Bitch Goddess is wanted by men but she will consume them. She is a cruel character that always acts as a symbol and not as a person.  So is the idea of the Femme Fatale and the Bitch Goddess the same? In fact, it seems that these ideas are similar. Catwoman herself is capable of using men’s sexual desires against them. She uses her sexuality to gain the upper hand against her opponents and to get what she wants.

Poison Ivy fits much better in the Bitch Goddess class. Everything about her imagery and actions falls into the category. Ivy became what she is when she was poisoned with ancient herbs by a fellow scientist. He thought he could implicate her for a theft. Since her transformation, Ivy now appears as a beautiful woman but her very biology could kill anyone who would try to advance on her. In a way, Ivy is both Eve and the apple. She can singlehandedly become the downfall of any man. Ivy is seen several times in the comics using her powers over men-literally. In the first issue of Gotham City Sirens, Catwoman accompanies Ivy to her home only to discover that her “home” is really the Riddler’s apartment. Ivy has seduced him and then kept him drugged so that Ivy and Harley could live there.

However, according to Russ, the Bitch Goddess does not have any reasons for what she does; Bitch Goddess’ motivation is that she is the Bitch Goddess. These character traits do not seem to agree with either of these characters. They both have motivations for their actions. As mentioned, a Bitch Goddess’s motivation is that she is a Bitch Goddess.

While no one will say their driving forces are always noble, they have basis for their actions. Why didn’t Poison Ivy just find her own place? Did she just feel like antagonizing the Riddler? Maybe, but mainly because she gave away all the money Catwoman had given her for helping her to a rainforest fund (GCS #1) and this was her solution to her homeless situation. Ivy often has motivations related to her sense of conservation and even, as shown in Batman: The Animated Series, to have a family. One could easily argue that Harley has become her family and by using her powers to subdue the Riddler she was ensuring her family had a home.

Similarly, Harley Quinn could easily have become a flat character with no driving force except her devotion to the Joker. As mentioned before, Harley was originally created as a throwaway character, having no background or personality of her own except her devotion to her male counterpart. However, with the inclusion of a backstory and motivations, her creators rounded out her character to create a well-developed and likable character. Does including a back story automatically make the character more real? It does as we watch her world expand around her to include not only the Joker but a family that she came from and friends she can trust. The reader eventually discovers that Harley’s motive to become a psychiatrist in the first place is an attempt to understand her father.

However, Harley’s mad love for the Joker is one of her main motivations. Their dangerous relationship is something that leads her to her friendship with Poison Ivy and, eventually, Catwoman. Their friendship also becomes a driving force for each of the women.

These three characters have not always been friends. Ivy and Catwoman particularly have had their issues in the past, such as Ivy’s kidnapping and manipulation of Bruce Wayne in Batman: The Long Halloween and Ivy’s similar treatment of Catwoman in Batman: Hush. However, in the newest series, Gotham City Sirens, the three women team up. The beginning of the series has Ivy rescuing Catwoman who (because she is in bad health) is about to be killed by a punk out to make a name for himself in the absence of Batman. Ivy makes it known that even if they don’t get along, she doesn’t want to see Catwoman killed, saying, “Catwoman and I don’t always see eye to eye but I’m not going to watch her be manhandled by some meat sack” (GCS #1).

Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own that within fiction, women often aren’t portrayed as being friends, at least not often. They are often portrayed as being rivals for a man’s love. However, the relationship between these three villainesses is a deep friendship despite their past differences. And while jokes are cracked in Sirens about Harley dating Bruce Wayne (a.k.a. Batman) there is never seriously a rivalry between the three characters for a man’s affections.

Harley and Ivy’s relationship is already strong before this series. They first met in the Harley Quinn’s self-titled series. They met when the Joker strapped Harley to a rocket which then landed in a park where Ivy discovered her. Upon hearing Harley’s story she takes her in and they begin their relationship. Their relationship begins through Poison Ivy’s seemingly uncharacteristic need to care for Harley. Ivy even gives Harley a special shot that makes Harley immune to her poison; making Harley the only one she can have full physical contact with. This gesture implies a strong bond between the two that runs deeper than mere friendship. Ivy trusts Harley not only enough to live with her but to make herself vulnerable to her physically. They have no rivalry, no ulterior motives-their friendship grows out of Ivy being a constant and positive force in Harley’s life while Harley is continuously abused and rejected by the Joker.

Adrienne Rich writes about “female support networks” in the midst of male domination; “Woman-to-woman relationships, female support networks, a female and feminist value system, are relied on and cherished, in doctrinarian in male credibility and status can still create synapses in thought, denials of feeling, wishful thinking, a profound sexual and intellectual confusion” (Rich 16).

Here Adrienne Rich is referring to what women can gain from a “network,” as she calls it, of female companions. By having this network, women can fully be themselves without the influence of men.  Ivy and Catwoman serve as Harley’s support network. They can understand her in ways that no one else ever will, while at the same time discouraging her relationship with the Joker.

When the three finally team up in Gotham City Sirens, Harley’s support network grows to include Catwoman. Ivy continues her pleads to get Harley to forget the Joker and now Catwoman is a part in this attempt to get Harley to see the light. Unfortunately for them, Joker’s domination over Harley is a bit too deep for her to ever really walk away from him. He is the very cause of her madness. Mad Love shows us the origins of Harley’s relationship with the Joker and therefore her origin in general. She wouldn’t exist without her male counterpart. This is all very negative and doesn’t look very good for the beloved Harley Quinn, but it is what she is. She is essentially the abused girlfriend of a madman. When Ivy discovers her in the park after Joker’s rejection, Ivy thinks about killing her-an idea that Harley doesn’t object to. But Ivy, as mentioned before, chooses to become her female support network instead. Before this point Harley’s world consisted of only the Joker and his henchmen.

But in Gotham City Sirens, when the readers finally met Harley’s family, they get a further look into her psychology. We meet her mother, brother, niece, nephew, and, finally, her father. Harley’s father, it turns out, is a con man that is now in prison. We discover that Harley became a psychiatrist in order to further understand her father.

There seems to be a suggested Electra complex involved in Harley’s psychology. The first male in her life, her father, is clearly a manipulative man. Whether she likes him or not, and the scene would imply she doesn’t, she is influenced by what she saw as a male role model as a child.

The Joker’s manipulation of Harley is possible because of her need to “take care of him”. When she meets him he influences her with fabricated tales of his childhood. She develops a love for him based on her pity for what she now sees as a damaged individual and not a psychotic madman. As mentioned before, her very persona is grown out of the Joker; she picked a costume that she thought would please him; not one that she herself felt attracted to. Unlike Catwoman and Poison Ivy, we cannot see Harley without associating her with the Joker. We may associate Catwoman with Batman because of their love affairs as well but her persona is not directly connected to his.

However, Harley has recently made headway in Gotham City Sirens, when our girls thought the Joker was out to kill them, Catwoman and Ivy convinced Harley that they needed to take him down. She, of course, protested at first and it was Ivy who convinced Harley that her life was in danger. The panels for this scene are particularly touching and reinforce the idea of the female support network. The physical contact given to Harley isn’t sexual; it is a comforting gesture from a friend with absolutely none of the voyeuristic overtones that one would expect from a series that involves three villainesses living together.

So what can we conclude from this? Yes, these characters are extremely sexualized in order to draw in the targeted audience. Their sexuality is what keeps the readers coming back. In a way, they would be nothing without the sexual powers that drive them, especially Ivy. However, even with all this super-sexual imagery, the characters themselves have their own personalities and are much more complex than many critics give them credit for. The very ambiguity of their characters in this way is what makes them complex. This complexity is something that many people, especially female comic fans, have trouble grappling with. While on the one hand, one can see the sexist portrayal of one’s own sex; yet knowing that there can be so much more to it than what you see at first glance.

Written by Kelly Okler


1) Dini, Paul, and Guillem March. Gotham City Sirens. Vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2010. Print.

 2) Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism: a Norton Reader. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. Print.

 3) Lecker, Micheal. “Trecherous, Deviant, and Submissive: Female Sexuality Represented in the Character Catwoman.” (2007). Print.

 4) Madrid, Mike. The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. [Ashland, Or.]: Exterminating Angel, 2009. Print.

 5) Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: the Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. Print.

6)Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism A Norton Reader (2007). Print.

7) Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism A Norton Reader (2007). Print.

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