Catwoman's oral sex scene erasure is just one more way media denies women sexual pleasure

A "Harley Quinn" scene in which Batman goes down on Catwoman has been cut. Why? "Heroes don't do that"

Published June 15, 2021 5:58PM (EDT)

Batman and Catwoman in "Harley Quinn" (Warner Bros. Television Distribution/HBO Max)
Batman and Catwoman in "Harley Quinn" (Warner Bros. Television Distribution/HBO Max)

"What is or isn't in Batman's bedroom repertoire?" is a question that most of us did not foresee being answered this week. But 2021 continues to be just full of surprises.

Buried in an otherwise ordinary interview with Variety on subverting superhero tropes, Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacher, co-creators of HBO Max's adult animated series "Harley Quinn," shared why a scene of Batman performing oral sex on Catwoman wound up being removed. Apparently, pleasing a woman is just not what heroes do, according to DC Entertainment, which ordered for the scene to be cut, and as nonsensical as this thinking seems to be, it certainly follows a long history of puritannical policing and erasure of female pleasure in movies and TV.

Halpern's full quote to Variety on the scene in question reads:

"It's incredibly gratifying and free to be using characters that are considered villains because you just have so much more leeway," he said. "A perfect example of that is in this third season of 'Harley' [when] we had a moment where Batman was going down on Catwoman. And DC was like, 'You can't do that. You absolutely cannot do that.' They're like, 'Heroes don't do that.' So, we said, 'Are you saying heroes are just selfish lovers?' They were like, 'No, it's that we sell consumer toys for heroes. It's hard to sell a toy if Batman is also going down on someone.'"

While this revelation has caused any number of humorous reactions on social media and in the superhero sexual discourse, the underlying reason for erasing this scene is more upsetting. Somehow, that toy marketing argument just doesn't wash. "Harley Quinn" is billed as a show for adults and even carries a TV-MA rating. Its adult content – rampant portrayals of murder, blood, other violence and racy humor – hasn't been a deterrent for selling toys of so-called "heroes" so far.

DC can attempt to make any excuse it wants, in this case, pretty explicitly discouraging men from going down on a woman if they have any dream of being a superhero. But Halpern's recollection of the exchange with DC reads pretty transparently as what it is, which is discomfort with female sexuality and pleasure, when it's not catered to the male gaze, or in service of male pleasure. 

In fact, if a powerful, macho superhero is supposedly the pinnacle of masculinity to which men must aspire, the message here is pretty bleak — that pleasing a female partner is somehow less masculine, and masculinity is defined only by being pleased. With male superheroes being defined by their refusal to give women head, it's no surprise supervillains are becoming more and more appealing.

The recurring theme of erasure of women's sexual pleasure onscreen unfortunately mirrors everyday realities. Researchers from the Archives of Sexual Behavior found the group most likely to always experience orgasm during sex is heterosexual men, 95% of whom responded that they usually or always climax, compared with just 65% of heterosexual women, the lowest of all demographics the researchers studied. A 2017 study by Durex found 20% of women said they don't orgasm compared with 2% of men. Nearly 75% of women said they can't orgasm during sex itself, while, incidentally, 30% of men said the best way to help a woman orgasm is through penetrative sexual acts. 

If men with female sexual partners are getting their inspiration from TV and movies, DC — and Batman — certainly aren't doing women any favors. 

"Harley Quinn" is a show that's more comfortable with over-the-top violence and yet is uncomfortable with an oral sex scene featuring a man going down on a woman; this is frustratingly par for the course in Hollywood. There is, after all, a notable history of movies portraying women receiving oral sex being more likely to receive R-ratings than movies that portray the reverse of this, or other scenes of rampant violence, as if there's something inherently more explicit, vulgar and taboo about seeing a woman given pleasure.

But there is some hope for the future of cinema — namely from an online forum created by two women that evaluates whether shows and movies, and even books and music, with sex scenes or sexual references, pass "the Clit Test," created in 2020. To do so, these scenes must simply acknowledge the clitoris exists, be that through suggestions of oral sex or other clitoral stimulation, or perhaps a character expressing disappointment after a sexual encounter that only included penetrative sex. There have been a number of recent passes, according to the Clit Test's website, including Adult Swim's "Tuca & Bertie," Apple TV+'s "Ted Lasso," Netflix's "Ginny and Georgia," and, in terms of music, certainly Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's "WAP."

As much of society has become increasingly sex positive in recent years, thanks entirely to bold women and queer people paving the way, slut-shaming has been forced to become a lot more subtle. DC's overt hostility to portrayals of women receiving oral sex almost feels like a bitter reality check. For all the empowering anthems and odes to female sexuality of late, from 2019's "Hustlers" to 2020's "WAP," there are still a lot of people and a greater culture that disdain women having and enjoying sex. 

As the old feminist adage goes, the personal is the political, and there's almost nothing more personal than pleasure. The discouragement of women enjoying and having sex for fun rather than procreation or simply cishet male wish fulfillment is a part of why there's constant controversy and bad policymaking around birth control and abortion. It's why conservatives warn of the collapse of society seemingly every time Cardi B breathes. And it's why DC deemed it "unheroic" for Batman to go down on Catwoman in "Harley Quinn."

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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Batman Commmentary Dc Female Sexuality Harley Quinn Hbo Max Tv