JACKI LYDEN, host:

And now for a very different kind of classic, and a very different kind of tale: Catwoman. From the 1940s through today, comic book readers have known her as the Princess of Plunder. She's the arch-villainess created as a foil for Gotham City's dark knight, Batman. And there's clearly an attraction between the two of them, and it just about boils over in this scene from the Batman TV series of the 1960s.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Batman")

Ms. JULIE NEWMAR (Actress): (as Catwoman) I can give you more happiness than anyone in the world.

Mr. ADAM WEST (Actor): (as Batman) Catwoman, it would be so easy for you to tread the path of righteousness.

Ms. NEWMAR: (as Catwoman) I'm afraid not, Batman.

LYDEN: For In Character, our series on famous fictional characters, NPR's Allison Keyes tells us how Catwoman's hisses and purrs have made her a symbol of feminine power.

ALLISON KEYES: The first glimpse many people got of Catwoman was watching her strut onto the campy set of the 1960s TV series Batman.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: Jaws around the country dropped as the 6-foot-tall Julie Newmar oozed onto the set. Shimmering in a black Lurex cat suit, complete with cat ears and a low-slung golden belt, this villain definitely had a feline's fascination with shiny objects. But the crime-fighting duo Batman and Robin made her arch her back — and not in a good way.

(Soundbite of TV series, "Batman")

Mr. WEST: (as Batman) You feline devil. What have you done with Robin?

Ms. NEWMAR: (as Catwoman) Ah, is that any way to greet an old friend, Batman? Not even a hello, how are you?

(Soundbite of meowing)

Ms. NEWMAR: (as Catwoman) (unintelligible), fellas.

KEYES: Catwoman, says Julie Newmar, is comprised of the most delicious human traits. She even made a list: determined, calculating, wise. She says men tell her she was their first crush. But women tell Newmar they love the character because she's smart, gorgeous, and…

Ms. NEWMAR: …you feel more power. You're both hidden and exposed at the same. You're hidden by the black; you're exposed by the tightness of the outfit. You have on these high heels, long nails, and then your eyelashes, your hair, you know, that…

(Soundbite of roaring)

KEYES: Newmar's Catwoman tempered her amoral heart with a wistful innocence. Eartha Kitt's version was fierce.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Batman")

Mr. WEST: (as Batman) Now, are you coming quietly, Catwoman, or must we use force?

Ms. EARTHA KITT (Actress): (as Catwoman) Your silver tongued oratorical has convinced me, Batman, I hereby remit myself to your muscular custody.

KEYES: Kitt says she didn't think of her Catwoman as a superhero, but she did see her as powerful and autobiographical.

Ms. KITT: That's the way I am, according to the way the character is. I didn't have to think about how would Catwoman be. I just went ahead and did myself.

Mr. ADAM WEST (Actor): They all gave me curious stirrings in my utility belt.

KEYES: Adam West played Batman, and, of course, Bruce Wayne on the classic 60s TV series. He says Catwoman was a confusing bad girl but never boring. And, West says, Batman really had feelings for her.

Mr. WEST: She was, you know, sexy and attractive. But she certainly had her own agenda, even though it wasn't terribly honest.

KEYES: Eighty-six-year-old Jerry Robinson helped define the character of Catwoman, along with the creator of Batman, Bob Kane. Catwoman's real name is Selina Kyle. Robinson says he visualized her as a master criminal.

Mr. JERRY ROBINSON (Created Catwoman): Well, she was agile and she was athletic. She was a highly proficient burglar, but she was not a heroine. She was one of the protagonists.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Batman")

Ms. KITT: (as Catwoman) You can't deny there's something between us.

Mr. WEST: (as Batman) You're right, and I'm afraid it's the law.

Ms. KITT: (as Catwoman) Never trifle with the affections of a woman. Until next time.

KEYES: Today's Catwoman has changed with the times. Will Pfeifer writes the current Catwoman comic. He says her back-story is as tangled as, well, a ball of string. She was orphaned, has a sister, and has a shadowy past as a prostitute.

Mr. WILL PFEIFER (Writer, Catwoman Comic): But she's never been beaten. She really comes out on top. She uses her experiences and moves on from them and she has fun while she's doing it, I think.

KEYES: Catwoman isn't the type to sit around twiddling her claws, waiting for anyone to bail her out of trouble — even when the offer comes from Bruce Wayne.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Batman")

Mr. WEST: (as Batman) Selina, if you're some kind of trouble, I wish you'd tell me. Perhaps I could help. I really care about you. I haven't felt this way in a long, long time.

Ms. KITT: (as Catwoman) Thanks, Bruce, but I've never been able to play the damsel in distress.

Ms. SUZAN COLON (Author, "Catwoman: The Life and Times of a Feline Fatale"): This was one of the first female characters we saw on television that really spoke to empowerment.

KEYES: Suzan Colon is author of Catwoman: The Life and Times of a Feline Fatale.

Ms. COLON: Not only empowerment but a proto-feminism that was very sexy and pretty and female, and yet very take-charge. I mean, this woman had her own gang of men who wore little cat ears and striped shirts to please her, knowing that she was the boss.

KEYES: Colon points to a scene from the 1992 movie, "Batman Returns," where Michelle Pfeiffer rescues a robbery victim, then scolds him.

(Soundbite of movie, "Batman Returns")

Ms. MICHELLE PFEIFFER (Actress): (as Catwoman) You make it so easy, don't you? Always waiting for some Batman to save you. I am Catwoman, hear me roar.

Ms. COLON: She doesn't like the goody two shoes side of women that we're taught to be. You know, women are taught to be trusting, we're taught to be nice. Better nice than offensive and possibly get ourselves out of a dangerous situation.

KEYES: A few things have changed since Catwoman started out in 1940. She's had her own comic for 15 years. Sure, she still wears the suit, but it's functional now. She still has the whip, but no more high heels that could slip off of a rooftop. Selina's had some martial arts training. And she has a daughter.

Catwoman sees herself now as a guardian of the poor and disadvantaged, but that doesn't stop her from committing a little larceny every now and then. Bottom line: Catwoman wants what she wants, and drat the consequences.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Batman")

Mr. WEST: (as Batman) I'll do everything I can to rehabilitate you.

Ms. NEWMAR: (as Catwoman) Marry me.

Mr. WEST: (as Batman) Everything except that. A wife, no matter how beauteous, or affectionate, would severely impair my crime fighting.

Ms. NEWMAR: (as Catwoman) I can reform, honestly, I can.

Mr. WEST: (as Batman) What about Robin?

Ms. NEWMAR: (as Catwoman) Robin? Oh, I've got it. We'll kill him.

KEYES: Oh well, some things never change.

Author Suzan Colon says Catwoman gives us a sense of what we might be able to do but it's not necessarily a good idea to unleash all that in daily life.

Allison Keyes, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Catwoman, gosh. I remember her. You know, sometimes on this show I not only wish I had pointy ears, I wish I had a whip.

We'd like to know what characters have saved your life. Head to the In Character blog at NPR.org. Your essay could end up on the radio.

(Soundbite of meowing)

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Andrea Seabrook is back next week. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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