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Feminist Heroine? Dagny Taggart Vs. Catwoman
The newest movie in Christopher Nolan's Batman series, The Dark Knight Rises, comes to theaters tomorrow, July 20. A new face in the movie will be Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle-- you might know the character better by her alias, Catwoman. One thread of commentary about the character of Catwoman is whether she counts as a feminist heroine.
Indiewire asks "Will Catwoman Be A Breakout Feminist Character?" and quotes Gloria Steinem:
"I saw The Dark Knight Returns last night, and among other things, Catwoman is a feminist superhero with a story line and transformation of her own -- plus class consciousness, a girl buddy, equal skills with the Batman equipment, and an apartment of her own in Old Town. And she gets the guy."
We might look at these criteria as they apply to another female lead coming to the screen this year: Dagny Taggart. Played by Samantha Mathis in Atlas Shrugged Part 2, in theaters October 12, Dagny is the protagonist of Atlas Shrugged and arguably the referent of its title. The main story line is her transformation-- from a woman exploited by her government and society to a liberated individual. In the novel, she develops a friendship-- or "girl-buddy" relationship-- with her sister-in-law, Cherryl Taggart (although Cherryl's sub-plot is shortened in the film). And while Dagny doesn't have a belt full of gadgets, her skills in the business world are uncontested-- she is the COO of her railroad company and she deals with other industry leaders on an equal basis. She has not only a sleek apartment in New York, but her own country cabin, her own car, her own company car and her own plane. And she gets both the guys (Hank Rearden and Francisco D'Anconia). Plus the respect and admiration of almost all the men with whom she interacts (Eddie Willers, Ken Dannager, Quentin Daniels, Jeff Allen, etc.). And while I won't knock a great leather catsuit, Dagny accrues all these achievements in modest business attire.
You won't find Dagny exemplifying the "class consciousness" that Steinem describes, Marxist concept that it is. Dagny Taggart is a capitalist heroine. But you will find Dagny fighting cronyism at every step. And the plot of Atlas Shrugged is driven by Dagny's quest to rebuild a mysterious motor that converts static electricity, which she knows will revive not only her railroad but the global economy as a whole.
But the major difference between Catwoman and Dagny Taggart is their code of morality. The world of Nolan's Batman, like many superhero realities, riffs on the false dichotomy of sacrificing others to one's self vs. sacrifing one's self to others. Batman uses his strength in service of Gotham's victimized citizenry-- but is this genuine altruism, if his larger motivation is personal revenge? While I haven't yet seen The Dark Knight Rises, I'll venture that a major part of Catwoman's credibility-- her power-- as a feminist superhero is that she spends some time on the "sacrificing others to self" side of the equation (as opposed to the character of Rachel Dawes in Nolan's first two Batman movies; committed to her social services and often a damsel-in-distress.) Anne Hathaway says Catwoman "does what is necessary to survive" and "has her own code of ethics, which sometimes involves doing things that other people might consider questionable." The trait that will distinguish Catwoman from villains like Bain is some ambivalence between the two alternatives-- able to hold her own in a superhero warrior culture, but not letting her aggression go unchecked against all of the human race. Rather, she steals from the rich. Perhaps these people did not all come honestly to their wealth-- despite myths to the contrary, Ayn Rand did not believe wealth is inherently moral. And in a government as corrupt as Gotham's, the principles of property and ownership are compromised. But what is the code for producing the wealth for a cat-burgler to steal?
It is Dagny Taggart's code: a creator's code. Her morality of rational self-interest explodes the false dichotomy of self vs. others. And Dagny lives this code with integrity and certainty. When the government enacts Directive 10-289, fully socializing the economy in Atlas Shrugged Part 2, she quits in protest, declaring "I won't work as a slave or as a slave-driver." She will neither sacrifice herself to others, nor will she exploit others. Her entrepreneurialism at Taggart Transcontinental is her own joy and emancipation; it is also to the benefit of each person who uses her trains. Dagny Taggart's power is the power to create wealth.
If independence, intelligence, strength, and an equal relationship with her peers are truly the criteria, hopefully Steinem, as well as the larger feminist blogosphere, will consider a feminist heroine when they see one-- in Dagny Taggart. And hopefully they will consider the alternative morality that her character offers to women: a code of rational self-interest and creative power. Catsuit optional.
7.19.12. My thoughts and goodwill to the victims of the attack in Aurora, Colorado, as well as their friends and families. I've donated to Bonfils Blood Center, a nonprofit providing services in the area.
7.20.12 This article was picked up by The Feminist Daily by @BCain.
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