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Posted on July 22, 2015

Cat People (1942): Coding Lesbianism Via Otherness

Elizabeth Erwin

For every lesbian horror victim, such as Brandy in Hallow’s End (2003), there exists a murderous lesbian, such as May Canady in May (2002), to remind us of the perversion traditionally associated with lesbian desire. Previously we looked at how Dracula’s Daughter coded its lesbian narrative in order to escape censor from the Legion of Decency. This week we will take a look at how Cat People (1942) established markers of “otherness” in order to code its queerness.

Just as in Dracula’s Daughter, the main character of Cat People, Irena Dubrovna, struggles against a part of her true identity she fears will render her an outcast. Irena, a Serbian immigrant, believes she is descended from a cursed tribe in which any woman who has her passions aroused will shape-shift into a killing panther. Irena’s life is complicated when she impulsively marries Oliver, a New York architect. Unable to be intimate with him for fear of the curse, Irena is sent to a psychiatrist in search of a cure. The audience is left guessing whether Irena’s paranoia is the result of sexual repression or whether her fears may be well founded.

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