Friday, June 14, 2013

Femme-spiration Friday: Julie Newmar

Batman: Catwoman...well, I—you're...well, you're very beautiful, Catwoman.
Catwoman: Yes. You're quite right. I am.
Batman: Your...propinquity...could make a man forget himself.
Catwoman: I don't know what that means....but it sure sounds nice.
Batman: I refer to...the nearness of you.
Catwoman: Batman! Let's throw caution to the wind. I mean, after all, we're two adult human beings, and we're both interested in the same thing—happiness. I can give you more happiness than anyone in the world...

In the above scene from the 1960s television series Batman, a sensual and arresting Julie Newmar as Catwoman tempts Adam West's Batman to abandon his life with Robin for a more pleasurable future with her. Of course, she's only trying to get close enough to make him inhale her poisonous perfume; she drops her seductress act with dismay when nothing happens, exclaiming that  he "should be writhing around in the floor in pain!" Although the campy 60s series is much less dark than the early 90s animated franchise that played such a pivotal role in my early feminist and queer development, in this scene Julie Newmar is everything I love in a good villainess: completely and utterly confident in her own sexiness without the slightest indication of needing masculine romantic validation. As with Poison Ivy, her seductive posturing is merely a way to gain control, of exploiting the available weaknesses of the patriarch who strives to limit her agency by thwarting her attempts to derive pleasure from the material possessions she steals.

Plus, I mean, me-OW.

There are a lot of reasons to love Julie Newmar, especially as Catwoman. The hair is high on the list, with her perfectly set coif ranking only second to Barbarella's in terms of 60s dos I dream about every single night of my meager 21st century existence. The campy high-femme sassiness she brought to the role of Catwoman is up there, too (as she explains, she would often stand to the side filing her nails during fight scenes, clearly filled with ennui at the prospect of watching men flex their muscles). And we can't forget those killer curves. It's easy to see why Newmar emerged as a major sex symbol of 60s television and film, and a figure that frequently featured in gay male subculture (see To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar—a baffling but fascinating 1995 American remake of Australian classic Priscilla Queen of the Desert—starring Patrick Swayze. If you have no idea what I am talking about, watch them. They are about drag queens, and once you see Priscilla, watching the Matrix will never be the same again).

On the set of To Wong Foo in 1995
This image pretty clearly establishes why Newmar played so many femme fatales & temptresses.
But I have an even more personal reason for finding Julie Newmar to be an ultimate source of femme-spiration. In 2000, the actress was diagnosed with Charcot Marie Tooth, a progressive hereditary neurodegenerative disorder that has slowly restricted her mobility to the point where it has become difficult for her to walk.

It's the same neurodegenerative disorder that I was diagnosed with at age 10. I had never heard of a celebrity with CMT—let alone someone who was such a cultural icon, known for her unapologetic sensuality and singular beauty. Over the years, I've struggled a lot to combat internalized ableism within and outside of myself & my communities, and to find a way to understand myself as beautiful within a body that experiences pain and mobility restrictions—a body that does not work or look or move like "normal" bodies. Growing up with a whole mess of doctors telling me that I had a life of comfort brand shoes, leg braces, and mobility issues ahead of me made me feel that I had an icicle's chance in hell of ever feeling sexy or feminine. I quickly vowed to disappear. I think this should probably be part of a larger post, but as an adult, it's been vital for me to define a femme identity that allows me to reconcile my disability with my expression of femininity and sexuality. Queer spaces (along with graduate work in disability studies) have allowed me to do this in a way that felt utterly impossible during adolescence, and for that, I am forever grateful.

Although I had already made great strides towards embracing my body by the time I first read about Julie's diagnosis, I have never forgotten the tears of joy and laughter that streamed down my face when I read her flippant discussion of her increasing loss of balance and mobility.

"People might think I've had too much to drink," she quipped to a reporter [an assumption I was all too familiar with], "but I never drank, smoked or took drugs my entire life. If I'm out in public, I just grab on to some charming, darling fellow who can steady me."

By the way, can we talk about how fabulous this whole look is here? She's 79, and rocking the hell out of those red lips & that hat.
As charming, flirtatious, and utterly confident as ever, Julie Newmar has seemingly responded to the diagnosis as Catwoman might have responded to Batman's pesky interferences. The disease is not something she feels the need to hide in shame or to preserve a sense of attractiveness, nor do the diagnostic terminology and increasing changes to her body even remotely preclude her sense of her own femininity, desirability, or sensuality. Instead, they become just part of the plan all along, a new dimension of her campy, femme affectation—simply more evidence of her daring, presumptuous, and utterly delicious presentation of herself as the kind of woman that a "dear, charming fellow" would be pretty freaking jazzed about steadying. But again, it's a momentary steadying—in a body that others might interpret as losing its agency and ability, she's knows she's in control.

It's not the only way to conceptualize disability or to frame the complex negotiations of body/mind/identity that emerge when we confront mainstream ableism and its refusal to engage with disabled bodies as desirable, as desiring, as capable of embodying, challenging and transforming our cultural ideals of femininity and masculinity. But it's a frank acknowledgement of her body's limitations that becomes linked with, rather than opposed to, her sense of desirability and strength. And it's a pretty rad rejection of a whole lot of problematic misogynist, ageist and ableist BS. 

And for that, Julie Newmar will forever be a source of femme-spiration.


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