Dana Heller / Visual Culture

In Defence of the Catfight

When engaging with queer theory, Dana Heller argues the catfight is able to move beyond simply luxuriating in the image of femininity as wanton eye candy.

In Defense of the Catfight

Catfight!  It’s difficult to think, let alone write about catfights without exclamation points. That’s because the catfight is one of popular culture’s loudest forms of gender excess. They are pure performative sensationalism, enabling the recognition of imitation, repetition, and the stylised behaviours that have underwritten the myth of normative femininity. Yet despite the uproar, catfights have been overlooked and misunderstood. They certainly have never been critically dignified in the way that Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble gave scholarly credibility and intellectual currency to the drag show. And it’s time to change that.

To begin, when I use the term ‘catfight’, I do not refer to verbal sparring, polite disagreements, mundane political rivalries, or any of the broader usages that have only served to dilute the term. When I say, ‘catfight’, or rather when I say, ‘catfight!’ I refer to the hardcore throw down, the visual spectacle of two women engaged in a wild physical altercation that typically involves scratching, biting, slapping, strangling, straddling and hair pulling.  In its soft porn variety, it may also involve the shredding and/or yanking off of clothing as the fight intensifies. The catfight is an unredeemable component of low culture, always unapologetically in bad taste.

According to historians of popular culture, the catfight became a staple of American media in the 1950s and 60s, in the context of post-war pornography, low budget B movies, such as ‘the women in prison’ exploitation genre, and Russ Myers’ campy cinematic obsession with large-bosomed, ass-kicking biker chicks. The catfight gained mainstream popularity in the golden age of 1970s U.S. television, thanks largely to the American primetime soap operas, Dallas (CBS, 1978- 91) and Dynasty (ABC, 1981-89).  And it has continued to circulate in contemporary culture through its use in television advertising, situation comedy, ensemble drama, and reality programming, not to mention the countless websites devoted to the catfight’s pornographic appeal.

That appeal has made the catfight a highly problematic and politically charged object for some feminist critics.  In the essay ‘Catfight: A Feminist Analysis’, Rachel Reinke argues that the catfight, which represents women fighting in ‘erotic, humorous, and ineffective ways,’ claims that the pervasiveness of the catfight image is symptomatic of a ‘catfight culture,’ which dehumanises and disempowers women (164).  In Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, Susan J. Douglas sees the catfight as a larger metaphor ‘for the struggle between feminism and antifeminism,’ or as a patriarchal means of repudiating and ridiculing the myth of feminist sisterhood  (233).  A caricature of female competition for power, the catfight is above all a source of cheap erotic entertainment for the male gaze, which, by sexually objectifying physical altercations between women dressed only in under garments, mocks the notion of female solidarity and denies women the right to define their own sexuality.

Implicit in these analyses is the assumption that the eroticisation of competition between women is not only destructive to but ideologically objectionable – an affront to the legitimate goals of feminism. These analyses grow out of a certain moralistic strain of second-wave feminist identity politics that has sanitised women’s sexuality, rendered taboo representations of female abjection, or the unequal distribution of power, and denied women the capacity to enjoy cultural fantasies that eroticise same-sex rivalries or explore links between violence and sex. Such analyses, as limited as they are limiting, suggest that the catfight has been misread as a result of its cooption by a mode of feminist critique at odds with queer theory.

Which brings me to Showtime’s The L Word, the first show in television history to place recurring lesbian, genderqueer, and bisexual characters front and centre and, arguably, the show that turned the gender and sexual politics of the catfight on its head. Fans of the show cultivated a passionate sense of cultural ownership over The L Word’s stories and characters, and their expectations for authenticity and political-correctness weighed mightily on the show’s producer, Ilene Chaiken, who admitted, in response to the many smart critiques of the show’s adherence to classism, racism, and stereotypical gender scripts, that she refused to ‘take on the mantle of social responsibility.’  ‘That’s not compatible with entertainment,’ she claimed. ‘I am making serialised melodrama.  I’m not a cultural missionary.’ Chaiken craftily maneuvered around the expectations and demands of fans and critics, in no small part by placing the very possibility of lesbian authenticity in quotation marks, acknowledging it is a contradiction, a mythical construct that’s been largely perpetuated by a popular historical iconography of cinematic melodrama, exploitation and pulp fiction images that have become the property of certain exaggerated, stylised performances.

For example, in Season Five, Helena’s conviction for stealing money to pay off gambling debts leads to a tongue-in-cheek homage to the ‘Women in Prison’ cinematic subgenre, notorious for titillating viewers with lurid combinations of lesbian homoeroticism and sadomasochism. As Helena prepares for incarceration, friends offer her advice: ‘Whatever you do, don’t drop the soap,’ Alice cautions, invoking the iconic prison rape scene.  Once in jail, of course, Helena promptly proceeds to drop the soap, which provides ample opportunities for script writers to lampoon the sexual clichés of classic homoerotic exploitation films such as Caged Heat (1974).  In this manner, The L Word established a camp catalogue of self-reflexive tropes referencing the insider knowledge, rituals, and pulp cultural properties through and against which lesbians have historically fashioned a sense of identity and community. And perhaps nowhere throughout the series was the convergence of camp, parody, and gender performativity rendered more hyperbolically than in the recurring trope of the lesbian catfight.

Indeed, the catfight evolved over six seasons into a signature satirical trope of The L Word, so much that Showtime trumpeted its centrality in a promotional video montage that opens with words, ‘Sometimes love just hurts’ before cutting to a scene of Tina smacking her longtime partner, Bette, ferociously across the face. This is followed by fast-cut shots that convey non-stop trainwreck intensity: bitch-slapping, obscenity shouting, bird-flipping, hair-pulling, and food-throwing tantrums, all singed with homoerotic tension. The montage pays special attention to a scene from Season Four, where the catfight finds its perfect expression.  In ‘Luck Be a Lady’, two women vying for the affections of lesbian lothario Eva ‘Papi’ Torres become enraged with jealousy during a high-stakes poker game. Their shouting match quickly erupts into a full-blown lady brawl with tables overturned, and poker chips flying. As the newcomer to the group, Alice, looks on in stunned bewilderment, her butch partner, Tasha, orders Papi to ‘Handle your bitches!’ The frenzied women continue lunging at one other, eventually drawing everyone into the choreographed, comical mayhem.

The L Word made particular use of the catfight as a convention of queer aesthetics or camp, by which I mean performances of excess aimed at exaggerating the artificiality of the gender and sexual divide. More than a leitmotif of dyke drama per se, the signature L Word catfight staged gender as the sum total of images gleaned from a pop culture archive that reads authentic femininity as inherently competitive and authentic masculinity as inherently proprietary in relation to women (‘Handle your bitches!’).  Feminist critics are correct when they argue that the catfight luxuriates in the image of femininity as wanton eye candy, an erotic fantasy composed of soft-porn clichés and pulp fiction sensationalism. However when feminist criticism engages with queer theory we see that the stylised nature of the catfight has always functioned as a wink to viewers, an acknowledgement of the shared stock of fantasies, anxieties, and lurid staged spectacles out of which gender and sexual authenticity, or its cultural affect, gains resonance. ■

Loving the L WordDana Heller is editor of the new collection Loving the L Word: The Complete Series in Focus. Professor and Chair of the English Department at Old Dominion University, she writes about popular culture, television, queer studies, and most things considered to be in bad taste. A four-time Senior Fulbright Fellow, her books include Family Plots: The De-oedipalization of Popular Culture (1997), The Great American Makeover: Television History, Nation (2006), Makeover Television: Realities Remodelled (I.B.Tauris, 2007) and Hairspray (2011).

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