Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Obama Must Ask "The $2,000 Question"

This editorial was first published in "The Morning Call" and on PolicyMic (September 6, 2012). It can be found here:

More than a month ago, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center revealed that Mitt Romney's proposed tax cuts for the affluent will require him to increase taxes on middle-class families by an average of $2,000 a year.

Since then, President Obama has put a calculator on his campaign website to help ordinary citizens calculate exactly how much their taxes will go up under a Romney administration. Occasionally he even mentions this statistic in his speeches. Apart from that, however, he has done little else with this precious information.

The fact that he has not transformed this figure into "The $2,000 Question" goes a long way toward explaining why he is in danger of losing.

It is not, as his opponents like to claim, because of the economy. While voters generally aren't pleased with Obama's performance on that front — a recent CBS News poll found that 55% disapproved of how he has handled economic issues, compared to only 39% who approve — this doesn't work against the president as much as his critics suggest.

As an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed this summer far more Americans believe that Obama inherited this economic crisis from his predecessor, George W. Bush, than that he caused these conditions himself (60% to 26%).

That doesn't free the president from the responsibility for cleaning up this mess. However, it does mean that this election is generally perceived not as a contest between a candidate whose brand is conflated with a poor economy and one freed from that burden (as was the case with Roosevelt and Hoover in 1932, Reagan and Carter in 1980, and Clinton and Bush in 1992), but rather as a choice between two competing approaches to dealing with a pre-existing crisis (as was the case with Roosevelt and Landon in 1936, Reagan and Mondale in 1984, and Clinton and Dole in 1996). That notion has been reinforced by past polls that showed, before Romney's PR offensive, voters had not decisively backed either candidate as being superior on the economic front.

Of course, now that Republicans have aggressively cranked up their offensive against Obama, those numbers have begun to shift more decisively to Romney's favor. The last time CBS News poll took the nation's temperature, 52% felt Romney would better handle the economy, compared to only 38% for the president. Even so, the fact that those figures have fluctuated in the past indicates that they aren't set in stone.

The good news is that the president has incontrovertible evidence that can destroy Romney's claim to being the better candidate on economic issues. The bad news is that he seems to have no idea what to do with it.

Simply shuffling it into a larger potpourri of attacks against Romney isn't enough. Because voters are bombarded with information during the course of an election campaign, they generally will only walk away with one or two key details as to the message each side is sending about its opponent.
Obama's strategy up to now has been to throw everything he can think of at Romney and hope that some of it sticks, from pointing out Romney's refusal to release his tax returns to condemning the misogynistic stances of the conservative base.

Romney, on the other hand, has wisely maintained a sharp focus on the message he believes will best work to his advantage — that Obama should be blamed for our economic problems and that the only solution is to replace Obama with him. As a result, while most voters can easily reiterate the case Romney has made for his candidacy, they are generally confused as to reasons Obama has offered as to why he should receive their vote.

The Tax Policy Center's findings offer him the clearest opportunity to change that. For one thing, polls already show voters feel Obama is more sympathetic to the needs of the working class than Romney, a perception obviously reinforced by last month's report.

More important, however, is the simple fact that widely disseminating this information would fatally undermine Romney's ability to claim he is the best candidate for voters' pocketbooks. While average Americans don't begrudge the affluent for their success, they certainly don't believe they should be forced to pay more so the rich can have a few extra breaks. Since that is what Romney proposes to do, Obama owes it to the American people to make sure they are aware of that.

Indeed, if Obama loses in November and has not made "The $2,000 Question" into a household term, he will have no one but himself to blame for his defeat.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Racism at RNC 2012: Why the Media Has a Responsibility to Cover It

This editorial was first published at PolicyMic on August 29, 2012.
If you want to refute the widely-disseminated myth of the media having an anti-Republican bias in this election, one need not look any further than this recent incident at the Republican National Convention:
The controversy should have been over the type of partisan parliamentary maneuvers that normally define such major political gatherings, as Ron Paul supporters were in the process of contesting the decision of the Romney-run Republican National Committee not to seat several of the delegates that the quixotic libertarian had won during the Maine caucuses. Yet attention was quickly taken away from that matter when Zoraida Fonalledas, a Puerto Rican delegate and chairwoman of the Committee on Permanent Organization, took the stage. As soon as the crowd heard her begin to speak in accented English, some of the delegates began to shout her down by chanting, "USA! USA! USA!"
This went on for nearly a minute, although it has been recorded for eternity on YouTube. By the time it was finally stopped by RNC chairman Reince Priebus, the damage had already been done. A large sub-section of the GOP delegates had just exposed their racism to the world.
The media, meanwhile, decided that this wasn't headline news.
That isn't because the story itself isn't newsworthy. Even if one ignores the long-standing rumors of racist streaks within the conservative movement, there is still plenty of objective evidence that such a story is relevant, from the racial bias of Arizona's anti-immigration laws to studies like one conducted a couple of years ago by the University of Washington which found Tea Partiers were far more likely to hold bigoted views against blacks, Hispanics, and homosexuals. All of this information is readily accessible to anyone who seeks to find it — but while journalists report it, their editors and corporate bosses decide to tuck those stories away and focus on other matters.
A similar decision was made last week, after Mitt Romney quipped at a campaign rally in Michigan that "no one's ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know this is the place where I was born and raised." This was an obvious appeal to birtherism, the popular right-wing conspiracy theory that insists that President Barack Obama wasn't actually born in Hawaii. This canard has long since been proven groundless. Even before Obama received special permission from the Hawaiian government to show his birth certificate last year, there were already the birth notices that had been printed at the time in both the "Honolulu Advertiser" and the "Star Bulletin," eyewitnesses who could attested to having seen the president shortly after his birth, and the sheer impracticality of the notion that his parents would have made a 21,458 mile round-trip flight from Hawaii to Kenya just so their son (who they intended to raise in America anyway) could be born in his father's native country. 
Yet the myth has persisted precisely because it appeals to what experts in racist psychology refer to as "Othering," or the marginalizing of members of a minority by finding ways of highlighting their perceived "differentness" in the eyes of others. It is hardly coincidental that the first black president is, to many of his more zealous critics, somehow so much of an "Other" that the only conclusion they can draw is that he wasn't even born here in the first place. Not only would this validate their sense that any non-white president is fundamentally un-American (unless he happens to adhere to a right-wing self-denigrating philosophy), but it would also delegitimize his entire administration on a very real legal basis. While their theory may lack any kind of sound factual or logical foundation, such niceties are hardly necessary when racial animus serves as such a potent fuel.
And when Romney decided to use this fuel to help move forward his sputtering campaign, the media paid the story only scant attention.
There are several theories as to why the media is pushing these stories aside. One speculation is that they're overcompensating against allegations of left-wing bias by not reporting harsher realities about modern conservatives that could get them into hot water among their critics; others argue that the media (wrongly) believes Americans are as racist as the more vehement right-wingers who claim to represent them, and as such steer clear of avoiding those sensibilities. Either way, the insufficient attention paid to this issue is nothing short of shameful, as the American people have the right to know about such bigoted tendencies among any group it intends to potentially elevate to a position of national power.
The author would like to thank fellow PolicyMic contributor Cady McClain for the link including the RNC footage referenced in this article.

7 Years On, One NOLA Icon Faces a Different Kind of Storm

This article was jointly authored by Cady McClain and myself. It first appeared on PolicyMic (August 29, 2012).
For Cady's excellent blog, "Professional Muse," see

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans seven years ago, 80% of the Crescent City was buried under water, spanning an area approximately eight times the size of Manhattan. Katrina caused “the largest diaspora in the history of the United States,” driving over 1,000,000 citizens from their homes, many of them for good. Yet as thousands fled for safety, the legendary New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayunestayed put.
As the Times-Picayune Editor-in-Chief Jim Amoss later spoke about reporter James O'Byrne, who found himself on a railroad bridge overlooking his flooded neighborhood, "He stood frozen on the bridge for several minutes as it dawned on him that his house was drowning, that there would be no coming home when this was over. Then he shook himself back into reporter mode, grabbed his pad and continued writing."
There can be no arguing that during Hurricane Katrina, the Times-Picayune became essential to the community in a way no paper has ever been before or since. Throughout the disaster, New Orleanians found consistent and passionate reporting in both the paper itself and its attendant website,  Residents stuck at the Convention Center latched onto copies of theTimes-Picayune like it was their only link to civilization, which in a very real sense it was. Those who had evacuated were able to use as a way to search for lost loved ones and discover the latest information about their homes. An emotional connection was forged between the readers and theTimes-Picayune. Indeed, the journalists and reporters who stayed behind from both the Biloxi, Mississippi, Sun-Herald and the Times-Picayune were locals themselves, experiencing the same grief and horror as their readers, often pushing their code of objectivity to the limit.
As a result of what has been described as the “heroic circumstances” of its staff, the privately owned Times-Picayune wound up sharing a Pulitzer Prize with the Biloxi Sun-Herald in 2006 forPublic Service, as well as winning another for Breaking News. One would assume that the memories of such laudable actions would linger for years. Instead, the events of the past few months have caused the Times-Picayune to be on the receiving end of some shockingly bitter vitriol.
It all started on May 23rd, when the New York Times reported the Times-Picayune was going to "enact large staff cuts and may cut back its daily print publishing schedule." Soon it emerged that the Newhouses (the family that owns the Times-Picayune) had brought in a pinch hitter in the form of Ricky Matthews. He was to act as president of the newly created NOLA Media Group to represent the merging of the Times-Picayune and its website Indeed, the paper was only going to produce three printed copies a week instead of the usual seven while moving more of its content onto to its digital affiliate. The backlash was surprising in its intensity. 
"It's New Orleans' bad luck that our city has become the latest laboratory for the Newhouse family's ongoing experiment in digital-age publishing," wrote the editorial staff at Gambit Magazinea local publication that could very well reap some of the benefits of any anti-Times-Picayune controversy.  Three weeks later various luminaries calling themselves “The Times-Picayune Citizen’s Group” signed a public letter backed by the consortium Greater New Orleans Inc. Their members included James CarvilleMary MatalinWynton MarsalisCokie Roberts, the presidents of TulaneXavier, and Loyola Universities, and Archie Manning (the quarterback and father of Peyton and Eli Manning). The letter urged the Newhouses, "If you have ever valued the friendship you have shared with our city and your loyal readers, we ask that you sell the Times-Picayune" to a group that would continue printing daily editions.  
Other responses have been less respectfully worded. Take the comment on the "Save the PicayuneFacebook pageinsisting that "New Orleanians will wrestle this gator to the ground even if they get bitten." 
Or the incident in which a website called “” created a faux “wanted” poster to denounce and threaten Ricky Matthews. 
The website has perhaps been the most alarming. “Unlike the Fifth-Avenue Newhouse’s, Ricky is here. Though he hasn't had the nuts to show himself in the newsroom, he's here in town, living it up on the blood money the Newhouse’s have paid him to swing axe. They outbid BP for his services — here he is quaffing drinks at our bars, eating at our restaurants, maybe even walking our streets. Let's find opportunities to give Ricky Mathews the welcome he deserves.”
 One detail many of the critics seem to ignore is that the Times-Picayune is reacting to global trends beyond its control. As Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor and blogger at BuzzMachine.comexplained during an online debate with John Griffin, the president of the National Geographic Society's magazine group, "Media defines themselves by the pipes that feed them but the public does not; we want what we want when, where, and how we want it. The wise media company will be there with us; the stubborn ones will die." This mentality has been abundantly reinforced by the events of the past few years, in which major metropolitan newspapers from the Baltimore Examiner to the Honolulu Advertiser  to the Rocky Mountain News have been closing down. Indeed, entire websites like have been created for the sole objective of chronicling this phenomenon.
Another point overlooked by the Times-Picayune's detractors is that, even as they vaunt their disdain about the pecuniary motives of the Newhouse family, they are playing right into the hands of other businesses who are attempting to capitalize on the Times-Picayune's plight. On July 23, barely two months after the TP announcement, the Baton Rouge Advocate announced that it would be more aggressively entering the New Orleans market. "We are looking at the day that they (the Times-Picayune) cease to be a seven-day newspaper and I think that's around the first of October," said Richard Manship, president and CEO of Capital City Press. Meanwhile, four local online newsrooms –– The Lens, My Spilt Milk, NOLA Defender, and Uptown Messenger –– have united to form the New Orleans Digital News Alliance, which plans on availing themselves of the same cyberspace advantages as the Times-Picayune. Finally, on July 27th, 2012, the Wall Street Journal released the story that "National Public Radio, the University of New Orleans, and a group of business and community leaders" are creating a "nonprofit newsroom to compete against the city's for-profit newspaper, the Times-Picayune” called  In a strange twist, Greater New Orleans Inc., a consortium that is supposed to help instead of hinder innovation, backed both the public letter requesting the Times-Picayune sell its paper and the NPR-backed digital news site. All of these digital news sites are moving forward without the stigma or intense criticism now being attached to the Times-Picayune's decision and without a print product to burden the bottom line. 
It is important to note that seven years after Katrina, despite the tremendous economic recovery of New Orleans, the emotional recovery continues. Stories about the devastation wrought upon homes and lives continue to be a part of daily conversation. It seems fair to consider that some of the stronger reactions to the Times-Picayune controversy might be driven by these disturbing memories.  According to the American Psychological Association (APA), certain responses can be a natural reaction to extraordinary events, in essence a byproduct of trauma. "Events that last longer and pose a greater threat, and where loss of life or substantial loss of property is involved, often take longer to resolve. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea." 
What also must be considered when analyzing the backlash against the Times-Picayune is the deep attachment and commitment to tradition particular to New Orleans. The city has a deep dedication to its pastimes: its culture of street parades, local sports, local music, and Southern cuisine are steeped in a rich appreciation for its unique history and culture –– a jambalaya (if you will) that draws millions of visitors a year. Theirs is not a dead tradition or some kind of pitch for the tourist to "come back and visit us y'all," but a genuine way of life, one that the seven-days-a-week Times-Picayune has been a part for over 175 years. In response to the Times-Picayune’s announcement, local writer Jim Gabour expressed succinctly the feelings of many locals by observing, "We are an analogue planet in a digital universe."
Despite Gabour’s sentiment, the technological revolution has been moving to his neighborhood for a while. In 2000, a company called Idea Village began a mission to “identify, support and retain entrepreneurial talent in New Orleans.” Although not all entrepreneurs work in tech, because of Katrina, hundreds of students who came to help with the recovery effort saw the benefits of starting a tech-based company in the Crescent City and brought their Silicon Valley connections with them. "This whole thing has been very grass roots," says Tim Williamson, the CEO of Idea Village. "We had MBAs from Stanford, and then those kids went to work for and Google and now their companies are involved." By April 2011, Inc. Magazine was calling New Orleans "The Coolest Start Up City in America," and as recently as June 2012, the Wall Street Journal announced that New Orleans is in the middle of a mini-tech boom. "A metric of technology jobs generated by Moody's Analytics — a broad category that includes everything from pharmaceutical manufacturers to software publishers — shows New Orleans's stock of tech jobs grew 19% from October 2005 to April 2012, compared with 3% nationwide."
The Newhouses’ company, Advance Publications, feels strongly that the future is digital, although they insist they are not planning on getting rid of print. As Randy Siegel (president of local digital strategy at Advance) stated in the American Journalism Review, "We knew that standing still was not an option for us. Not evolving was not going to be a winning strategy. And we've watched very closely in all our markets how our readers and advertisers are using digital products and services to get their news and information. For us, this is not about print versus digital. It's about print and digital, and there's a huge difference."
Ricky Matthews picked up where Siegel left off in a June 17th editorial when he explained:
"The number of people who pay for their copy of the Times-Picayune continues to fall while readers have moved in dramatic numbers to the Web for news and information. Our visitors to more than doubled between 2009 and today, going from 2 million visitors to more than 4 million visitors a month. Newspaper advertising revenue continues to decline year after year, as advertisers reduce advertising budgets in response to the challenges of a tough economy, while shifting more and more dollars to a few high-value print days and into digital advertising."
It isn't that the Newhouse family has been free from error. Steven Newhouse himself admittedthat "some of the criticism was well founded. We could have communicated our decisions more openly and sensitively to our employees, our readers and our communities." 
Indeed, one might question whether it was even necessary at all for the Newshouses to fire 201 of their workers (nearly one-third of their total staff), especially at a time when corporations across the country are being criticized for maintaining the lofty incomes of their own higher-ups while laying off employees and increasing the workloads of those left behind, often at lower salaries. In a city as challenged as New Orleans, these jobs were considered sacrosanct, the journalists almost like priests who during times of crisis had given Holy Communion to a congregation hanging on by a thread. 
At the same time, the Times-Picayune's business interest is ultimately the same as the best interest of the paper itself ­­–– it can't survive, after all, if it doesn't make a viable profit –– and there was no way it could make enough money printing seven days a week if its customers continued to turn away from print and toward digital alternatives. It seems fair to surmise that if New Orleanians had been extremely determined to keep the daily print editions alive, they would have bucked national trends and purchased subscriptions at a higher level. Barring that, Newhouse rightly observed that "ignoring the existing trends and insisting on the status quo would have been a recipe for failure, and that only taking small, incremental steps in the face of massive change was also a losing proposition. By taking transformational actions now, painful as some of them are, we have a chance to continue doing what we do best, as publishers, journalists, business partners and community leaders, for decades to come."
Business, as they say, is business. In any business, the rule is the same: move forward or die.  Hopefully, locals will come to accept their city paper is doing what most newspapers across America are being forced to do –– adjust with the times to stay relevant in a changing world –– and be there for the journalistic force that in the worst of times, was there for them. They might also do well to remember those few original reporters that remain at the Times-Picayune may also be feeling the strain of change as they watch long time friends and colleagues lose their jobs. How can they complain if they have mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay, especially in these tough economic times? It seems the best response to critics has come from long time Times-Picayune reporter O’Byrne, now editor-in-chief for When cornered in his local bar, forced to listen to more outrage from a local about a situation over which he had no control, he had three words that seemed to sum up the whole problem: “Did you subscribe?”

In Her Satin Tights, Fighting For Her Rights

This article was jointly authored by Cady McClain and myself. It first appeared on PolicyMic (August 28, 2012).
For Cady's excellent blog, "Professional Muse," see
When news began to leak that an actress who once played Catwoman had criticized The Dark Knight Rises, which includes the latest incarnation of that character, the blogosphere was naturally all aflutter. Fortunately, Julie Newmar – whose turn with the whip came during the 1960s TV series – quickly corrected those misapprehensions in a letter to The Huffington Post. "Every girl is a Catwoman," she wrote. "Like Bizet’s Carmen there will always be Catwoman. Catwoman is forever."
While it is certainly true that the Catwoman character has endured for several generations, the manner in which she has manifested herself in our popular cultural consciousness has often varied dramatically. What have these different depictions revealed about ourselves? What do they tell us about the mythologies our society adopts as its own, in particular through the superhero genre? How are they able to integrate this iconic character into not only the narratives they wish to present to their audiences, but also the larger social and political messages they inject into those stories? Perhaps most importantly, what do they tell us about how we perceive women?
Catwoman has historically been a highly sexualized character representing an overt rebellion to tradition while still paying homage to it. She is the classic female anti-hero, the “bad girl” thumbing her kitten nose at her polar opposite – the “good girl” or “girl next door” – the one who shies from overt displays of either emotion or sex. Throughout the years both men and women have been drawn to this representation of the female id as the seductress, villain, destructive temptress, and seeker of revenge – and to her very specific costume. Her tight black suit, black gloves, leather whip and stiletto boots bring to mind images of a dominatrix (generally considered an “outsider” profession), while her long hair and nails emphasize traditional feminine “wiles.” Non-threatening, pert kitten ears parlay a coquettish (albeit animalistic) charm – an important part of her deception.
Variations of the costume have helped audiences draw different conclusions of each version of the character. In comparison to Catwomen to come, Julie Newmar’s sparkly black suit was the most tame (re-enacted almost exactly by Lee Meriwether in the 1966 film Batman) yet the most “kitten-ish.”  Even her eyebrows were brushed straight up to give her a more feline appeal. Newmar has made it clear the gold belt that looped her corset-modified hips was her addition, not the costumers (as if the iconic character would not be the same without this radical fashion statement.) During the third season of the TV series, Eartha Kitt donned almost the same outfit when taking over for Newmar, but pulled the necklace higher to create the effect of a tribal breastplate, perhaps to emphasize the power of her dark goddess’s “sauvage” fashion instincts or perhaps as a nod to the radical movements the season was beginning to draw upon for material. Twenty-four years later in the film Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer’s costume became far and away the most disquieting rendition. Pieces of PVC roughly sewn, sometimes stapled together supported the idea that now Catwoman was a fragile, damaged person who had barely managed to stitch together her own psyche. A mere 10 years on, Halle Berry was equally unforgettable (perhaps regrettably so) in the only film titled, Catwoman. Even though the character was the film’s lead, hers was yet another “broken woman,” born again by releasing the aggressive side of her sexuality via a change of costume ­­– replete with push up bra, bare torso, leather gloves and whips. Throughout the years, each one of these “Catwomen” dealt with embracing their power through a breakdown that lead to a very specific fashion choice. How they looked was as much of a statement as what they did or said, if not more so. How different are women today?
The past 30 years have been full of suggestions, from psychological “experts” and fashionistas alike, telling women they can assert and better themselves by donning a “new look.”  The “strong, independent woman” began as a feminist’s outcry and somehow ended up at Century 21. To be fair, clothing has always played a part in women’s politics. From the corset free, knee length dresses of 20’s flappers to the bra-less protesters of the 1960’s, women have been rebelling against the constraints of fashion’s latest trend in order to be identified as individuals – free from the domination of society’s latest expectations, free to define themselves as equals. From this perspective, any woman’s fashion choice, whether it embraces or rejects a current or past convention, could be seen as political as much as personal. 
Why any Catwoman would want to put on tight pants and high heels after being ripped apart emotionally is an interesting and important part of her character. It is possible that the catsuit is a type of "power suit," akin to the various ensembles worn by Hillary Clinton during her bid for the presidency and as Secretary of State. However Catwoman, like many female anti-heroes, rather than donning what is traditionally male garb, instead embraces the “female as sexual object” principal and twists it in order to claim power for herself. The message is repeated in movie after movie: Women are indistinguishable from their image, whether they are disempowered or empowered. How they look is how they are defined, and worse, how they define themselves.
This is what made Anne Hathaway’s recent Catwoman so refreshing. The clothes Hathaway’s Catwoman wore supported a certain amount of liberation from the slavery to fashion that other versions of Catwoman have endured. Her tight black costume somehow reminded us less of Betty Page in a gimp suit and more of To Catch a Thief.  In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne points out the similarity to Cary Grant’s black garb, with some obvious differences. “That’s a brazen costume for a cat burglar,” he states as she drops down from the house in her all black outfit. In effect, Christopher Nolan has created a Catwoman where her clothes are a functional means to an end, not an end in themselves. In another example, when the villain Stryver asks her if her heels make it difficult to walk, she responds with a swift kick and the query, “I don’t know.  Do they?” It’s even possible to imagine her cat suit is meant to be worn like the gear traditionally reserved for the male superhero characters – it is what she dons for stealth, fighting, and function far more than it is a fashion statement meant to provoke members of the opposite sex or as a means for her to express her emotional issues.
There is also a great deal to be learned about how the Catwoman character has been integrated into the larger social messages of the various films in which she has appeared. While the 1966Batman film was openly light-hearted and insubstantial, touching only slightly on the social strife of its time, the other three movies that featured her all took more definitive stabs at some level of social commentary and used her character as an integral and active agent in those aspects of the narrative which advanced the story's larger message. In Batman Returns Tim Burton boldly decided to make a much darker and more tragic version than its predecessors, focusing on the futility of man’s fight against evil. Although she spends much of the movie perpetrating random acts of civic terrorism or vigilante justice, Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman has a larger goal – to murder the man who destroyed her life before he can cripple Gotham City. Her anger towards her sexist and demeaning boss (played to unctuous perfection by Christopher Walken), a man who regularly dismissed her ideas and humiliated her in front of his colleagues before “killing” her, provokes a personal desire to exact revenge that overtakes any social or political goal she might have had to save the city. Ultimately, true to Burton fashion, Kyle's vendetta turns out to be a self-destructive one.
In Catwoman, Halle Berry's Patience Phillips is likewise driven by a desire to avenge her own death at the hands of her employers. This time, however, the primary villain is another woman (played by Sharon Stone), and the central social theme isn't interoffice gender dynamics, but the burdens placed upon women to remain beautiful. The sinister plot involves an immoral major corporation trying to pass off a beauty cream that deforms the faces of those who use it unless they continue to do so for the rest of their lives (essentially using the aesthetic expectations placed on women to make them addicted to the company's product). Stone's character as the head of the corporation is driven by her anger at having been "thrown away" by the beauty industry once she turned forty (a subplot that Stone herself insisted be included during talks with the film's producer, in light of her own experiences with ageist prejudice.) In the end, Barry’s fresh-faced young Catwoman enacts her revenge against her tortured older boss by damaging her skin.   Unfortunately this version of Catwoman was based on the misconception that generational hatred exists among women where it might not except for the provocation of a few misogynistic males.
Both Batman Returns and Catwoman insist on using their major female characters to make social points that are specifically linked to gender, be it inequality in the workplace or societal aesthetic expectations, along with the parallels in the origin stories they provide for the Catwoman characters. In both films Catwoman reacts to issues she shares with other members of her gender – that of having been exploited by callous men and the beauty and fashion industries. It is true that Batman Returns does this less insultingly than Catwoman, in part due to the former film having a superior script and in part because the latter obnoxiously painted all women as obsessively vain and male-dependent (as well as absurdly assumed the audience would believe the age of Sharon Stone's character actually detracted from her stunning looks). Nevertheless, both movies still define their Catwoman characters by their sexuality first and foremost, even when using them to present broader commentary.
In The Dark Knight Rises, however, Selina Kyle (who is never actually referred to as "Catwoman" during the film) is an ideologue who advocates a thinly-veiled left-wing agenda as she steals from the wealthy and attempts to create a more economically egalitarian society. Much of this is summarized in her now-famous line, "There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne ... you and your friends better batten down the hatches. Cause when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." Just as significantly, however, is her remorse later in the film, when she quietly comments to a rabble that has invaded a large mansion, "This used to be somebody's home" (prompting the eerily collectivist reply, "Now it's everyone's!"). Instead of using this moment to mark an about-face in the character's ideals, The Dark Knight Rises wisely uses it to add a nuance to them. The film's overall message, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat astutely pointed out, is to "simultaneously acknowledge the injustices of the existing regime while suggesting that both the revolutionary and anarchic alternatives would be much, much worse.” This is indicated by its use of a quote at the end from A Tale of Two Cities, the Charles Dickens novel that skewered both the conservative and liberal elements during the French Revolution.
"I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle, more than any other character in the film, is used to convey that argument, and as a result emerges as the first cinematic Catwoman whose relevance to her movie's social message can be decoupled from her gender and costume. No matter how she may appear, it is her intelligence and message that is the most captivating.
If there is truth in Julie Newmar’s quote, "We are all Catwoman. Catwoman is forever,” it is clear she is ever evolving, reflecting a side of women that is only just beginning to be seen free from the constraints of traditionalism. She loves, but is no man's object to own, she fights side by side for her own purposes and ideals, she is allowed her opinions without fear of retribution from men. Hopefully Hathaway’s Catwoman will represent not only a glimpse of what women's power and individualism can bring about in film, but also give us hope for a future where women can peruse their goals without the snark and condescension so typically found when a woman stands up for herself, with or without high heels.