Scoop has an Ethical Paywall
Work smarter with a Pro licence Learn More
Top Scoops

Book Reviews | Gordon Campbell | Scoop News | Wellington Scoop | Community Scoop | Search


Alan Moore ( and I ) have some gender issues

Alan Moore ( and I ) have some gender issues

By Robyn Kenealy

Do you ever wonder what would have happened to the Soviet Union if Trotsky had succeeded Lenin instead of Stalin? No? I do. I frequently ask myself that question: are the forces of history subject to the whim of the individual? Or is human society so diverse and so fluid, and ideologies so airtight that Trotsky’s ascension would have preceded an equally bloody purge, albeit through a slightly different avenue. In much the same fashion, I was given to wonder, recently, what would have happened to comics if Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ had not come out in the same year as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s ‘Watchmen’.

Moore’s objection to the post-‘Watchmen’ (ahem) “grittification” of traditional comics narratives is well documented, (most notably for me through a couple of lectures given by Dylan Horrocks on the subject of the latter’s tenure at DC,) and this objection came to my mind while watching the film version of ‘Watchmen’ for the second time the other night. As one might reasonably expect, the film sucks and the book is awesome, but what was interesting to me was that the film sucked at reproducing the awesome in much the same way that comic books following in that line of “realist” influence sucked at reproducing the awesome.

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading

Are you getting our free newsletter?

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.

It is too simple to blame Frank Miller (though I love doing it, because while ‘Watchmen’ attempted to destroy superheroes through muddying and humanizing their motives, as well as the reader’s desire for them, ‘Dark Knight’ had the same conversation but concluded that a man has to do what a man has to do, and preferably as violently as he can.) Actually, it’s too simple to blame anyone. What I really should be blaming is simplicity itself, which means I’ve probably answered my opening question, unless I start talking about capitalism. But, long story short, ‘Watchmen’ is very, very complex, and simplicity is far easier to reproduce.

I’m tempted, but I’m not going to give a piecemeal rundown of the graphic novel. If you haven’t read it, you really should, because it is a comics classic the way ‘Tristram Shandy’ is a literary classic, and also because it is a master-work of comics excellence. It is about humanity and it is about politics and it is probably one of the most consummate unpickings of the way ideology flows through representation that I have ever come across. I have read it about a million times, and it offers layers upon layers of interconnectivity at each investigation. You’ve probably heard that from comics fans before, but you should still read it. In the meantime, you can read this little article, which is about ‘Watchmen’s treatment of gender.

I was thinking about this because the ‘Watchmen’ narrative contains a very familiar trope for the woman reader. The trope where a woman gets raped (or threatened with rape) and then later ends up having willing, consensual sex with the attacker. In some cases, this is a romance novel trope – you know, where at the start the male lead does a whole bunch that would make you call the police in real life, and then it ends with undying love (see, or rather, don’t see ‘Twilight’.)

I always get a little bit shirty about this kind of thing because it’s like the narrative is trying to tell me to… well, to get back in the kitchen, basically. To accept my subjugated role and not bitch when a man tells me what’s what because it’s what I really want, deep down inside. And I know that romance novels are not really about rape, but I also know that our sexual subjectivities relate to our cultural ones. No, really. I think it is true, and I find it interesting. I found it especially interesting in the lead up to my 2008 Civil Union, when I realised that despite being an educated, and actually fairly combative feminist, I still wanted everyone to look at me in my pretty wedding dress.

It made me think a lot about John Berger’s statement about gender and ideology, ‘men act and women appear.’ It made me think about sex, and sex fantasies, and it made me think, maybe, just maybe, romance stories for women are like that because being looked at, being desired, and in some cases being so desired that the one doing the desiring is prepared to hurt you to get you, is the only time women have socially sanctioned power. I did wear my pretty wedding dress, of course, but I still thought about it. And I am still thinking about it, especially where these patterns spill out of romance and into the general mainstream.

Because it’s not like that for Sally ‘Silk Spectre’ Jupiter and Edward ‘The Comedian’ Blake. It’s not like a romance novel. Even though The Comedian does try to rape Silk Spectre, and even though she has consensual sex with him later, it is something different. I only became aware of this when I was watching the movie, basically because what the movie choses to leave in and take out turns Silk Spectre and Comedian’s story into one of those romance novel classics, but I got very excited that it was there in the comic nonetheless. What ‘Watchmen’ does, when it is in comics form, is mine these kinds of tropes for the information inside. What it does then is level an accusation at comics for reproducing that kind of ideology. When The Comedian attempts to rape Silk Spectre, instead of acting as the personification of desirably masculinity, he is instead acting as critique of it.

In both comic and film, Comedian’s attempted rape is stopped by Hooded Justice. But, rather than rushing to Silk Spectre’s aid once The Comedian has gone, Hooded Justice stalks out and tells her “for godsakes, cover yourself,” as if it is her fault. There are layers to that scene – as my esteemed college Brady Hammond points out, Hooded Justice in part reacts to Comedian’s accusation of homosexuality and love of S&M, and so his anger at Sally is really his anger at being revealed – but imagine that, for Sally. She’s been beaten, and is bleeding, and a man who is much stronger than she is has tried very hard to rape her. She has only escaped because another strong man has intervened. She is then told, only moments after The Comedian has accused her of “asking for it” because of the costume she wears (a fairly standard chick superhero get-up), she is told to cover herself. And that’s where I noticed it. Because that line, from Hooded Justice, is absent from the movie.

This is moment that is absent. This is the panel that Hooded Justice’s line is over: Silk Spectre’s face, covered in blood. She’s in her underpants, hunched over on the floor. She is crying. She’s not very sexy in her underpants, because Dave Gibbons doesn’t draw women in that sexy way. Her bra flattens her breasts rather that pushing them up. It is in no way a sexy scene. That’s the panel with Hooded Justice’s line. A crying, bleeding woman is looking, pleadingly at her rescuer and being blamed for an attempted rape upon her person. Did she ask for it? Of course not. Do comics invite rape? Of course not.

But do superhero comics fetishize violence? Do comics frequently present women in costumes that sexualize them, even putting them in high-heels despite the sheer ludicrousness of kung-fu fighting in stilettos? Are comics asking you to fantasize about these women? Well, um. Yes. Now, does Silk Spectre turn you on?

Click for big version

It is worth pointing out that Superhero comics fetishize male bodies too. However, it may interest you to know that Superman has no penis. I’m actually totally serious. I gave a workshop about comics narrative and “othering” in 2008 and one of the things I did for it was assemble a visual timeline of Supermans, all the way from the Golden Age to the most recent. He is much, much more muscled now that he was in the 1940s but he is also completely flat in front. If he’s smart, of course, he’s tucking, but given the controversy highlighted for me by Claire Harris, of ‘Chicks with Knives’ over the Alex Ross covers for D.C. (cliff notes: visible bulge on Citizen Steel incites male comics fans to write angry letters about being sexualized) I think the real truth is that I’m just not meant to be thinking about Superman as someone with whom I can have sex, even if he does have the maritals with Lois Lane.

I have, however, read enough work by angsty 90’s auto-bio comics artists to know that fantasizing about comics heroines is something that definitely goes on. I’m even trying to remember all the separate comics in which I have read the story of the male protagonist tracing or reproducing a drawing of Cat Woman, or whomever, for their own personal pleasure. I definitely remember it from Dan Clowes, and possibly from Chester Brown, and I just know there are others.

So: given the ads that accompany the stories in single issue hero comics (when not for computer games, they are for the Army, and even until the mid nineties, for Charles Atlas body building sets) I don’t think I would be drawing a crazy line to suggest that the general gendered thrust of the superhero world is sexy girls, strong boys. And they are marketed at straight boys, even if they are read by gay boys or by girls or by people who couldn’t be put into any of those categories, and the assumption is that you, as straight boy audience want to be tougher, like the strong boys in the comic, and you want to have sex with the sexy girls in the comic.

I’m by no means the first person to say this, about any of this, or even about Superman, but there it is. Superhero comics, to a point, are one hundred percent Classical Realist Text in their treatment of gender, a la Laura Mulvey’s classic essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. Men act, women appear, and text is constructed in such a way as to put the audience behind heteronormatively male eyes. Mulvey’s thesis is all about the way that being placed behind patriarchal eye-sockets also clues us in to the psychology of patriarchy, in that the repressed desire of the male gaze spills over into a kind of textual violence. Mulvey mostly talks about this in terms of the kind of shots (or film panels!) which are used, like cutting a woman’s body into hot little pieces, or that oh-so-familiar camera pan from pins to pony-tail that accompanies every good-looking woman’s filmic entrance, but if we wanted to keep it comics (and to be really mean) we could level some accusations at Frank Miller again, because he makes such secret neuroses so, so very unsecret. ‘Sin City’ in particular is unbelievably awful for this kind of thing, which, of course, incites comics fans to describe it as “cool”.

But back, thankfully, to ‘Watchmen’. I’ve already told you about the rape scene. You remember how it was. But Silk Spectre sleeps with The Comedian, later on, after the ‘Minutemen’ have disbanded. She sleeps with him consensually. We don’t see this, it happens in ellipsis, but it becomes apparent and even is a major plot point. Why on earth would she sleep with him after he tried to rape her? I wonder that during romance novels (my absolute favourite being one where the female protagonist is kidnapped and repeatedly raped in order to produce an heir for the male lead. And then they fall in love and get married. No, honestly. It’s called ‘Catriona/Kate’, and written by an author from Taranaki.) I wondered that after watching the movie. I did not wonder that after reading the comic. I knew why she did it. And I felt the burn of that knowledge deep down in my soul.

What happened is that Silk Spectre slept with The Comedian because he respected her power. Because, in the Classical Realist Text of comics, the power to incite desire was the only power that Sally was allowed. Because she acted and dressed exactly the way comics required her to act and dress and men enacted vengeance upon her for that crime. Silhouette, the other female character in the ‘Minutemen’, was murdered for being a lesbian (or as Rorschach puts it, is ‘a victim of her own indecent lifestyle’ and Sally was threatened with rape by one of her own team-mates. And she was not allowed to be powerful in any other way.

Call it Stockholm Syndrome if you like, especially given the way she fondly fingers her Tijuana Bibles and keeps every one of her highly sexual fan letters, but call it recognition too. Because once Sally marries and gives up her role as superhero, she is somebody’s wife in the absolute 1950s stereotype meanings of the word. Those are Sally’s options: power through sexual spectacle, or no power at all. They are not great options. But for women of that time, they were very goddamn real.

This is where ‘Watchmen’ becomes astronomically complex, and where the alterations in the movie show themselves as simplifications. The comic story does not make rape okay. It presents Sally Jupiter as an intelligent, complex women with a real psychology and real choices, in tension with a real, and very violent patriarchal structure. The world of 1940s superheroes is presented in ‘Watchmen’ just like the world of 1940’s gender in real life, and just like the comics of the 1940’s. If Sally is to be powerful in these contexts at all, she must accept a limited definition of power, and she must expect to be punished for any transgression. Not because that’s right, but because that world sucks, which is why ‘Watchmen’ so relentlessly brings it to my attention.

Naturally, The Comedian, who functions (to quote Rorschach again) as a hyper-real “parody” of the human condition, is the man to make this plain. Her consensual sex with him later is not a recognition that she really wanted to be raped after all, but the recognition that the structural violence of past patriarchy had many homes, and that women’s power was gradually found in the spaces between them. To be strong again, Sally had to be the one in charge of that power. And, out of their consensual union, as Dr. Manhattan muses at great length, came the one and only Laurel Jane Juspeczyk.

I could go into rhapsodies about the sensational feminism in just having Laurie accuse Sally of failing in her feminist duties and having to eventually understand the changes between the times they inhabit, not to mention all the intricacies of the subjugated-to-men statuses that Laurie negotiates in the comic (the fact that Laurie is the one teach to teach Dan “Nite Owl” Dreiberg to enjoy wearing his Nite Owl costume for sex is also something I’d like to talk about at length.) I could go into these rhapsodies because I have these conversations with my mother. Not about her being raped by vile libertarians, but because she occupied a successful position in a male dominated field, because she stuck rigidly to her own surname despite two marriages, because she raised two children while doing a law degree, but she still freaks out when I won’t wear make-up and heels. “Girls wear high-heels, Robyn” is actually something she has said to me. Feminism has been a long fight. And it changes all the freaking time, and just having two women, in the same place, talking about it, having different views about it, in a medium that is designed for male readers is maybe the coolest thing that has ever happened to me as a comics reader with lady parts since Roberta Gregory’s ‘Bitchy Bitch’.

The thing about this is, after a while, as a girl reading comics, it becomes just as irritating to read about women who are strong and powerful because they don’t get weighed down by that “women stuff” as it is to read about women who aren’t allowed to do anything because they are women. Women are and have been subject to different social pressures than men have been. ‘Watchmen’ is a comics story does not make rape okay, it simply presents all superheroes, INCLUDING the women ones, as incredibly fucked up people and the world they live in as an incredibly fucked up world. It is not the world of the movie.

I keep going on about these differences, but I think I should just sum it up for you thusly: one of the magazines in the narrative, New Frontiersman, has an advertising sign that reads “in your hearts, you know it’s right.” About half way through, the sign gets tagged with the word “wing” (...under “right”, of course.) The film reproduces the advertisement but not the graffiti. You with me? The film reproduces Sally’s love of her Tijuana Bibles but not her clipped out, and very, very savage review of a porn film which is pretty much about her.

The film reproduces Dan and Laurie having wild sex after dressing up their costumes and doing violence, but the violence goes for way longer and Laurie’s reassurance about the costumes is cut. And so on. And et cetera. We’re not meant to think about what we’re seeing here. We’re meant to absorb it. That patriarchal structure is still there, of course, in ‘Watchmen’ film version, it’s just invisible. Which makes it the frame. Which makes it the “truth”. The point of this comic is to drag that frame into focus and in so doing, rip it apart, not just in terms not just in terms of gender, but in terms of heroes and politics and everything else. But it failed. The movie is proof of this failure, and the whole thing makes me want to reach for my Walter Benjamin and cry.

It’s much too big a task for one comic, of course. Comics, being what they are, have simply moved on. I don’t know where the whim of the individual goes, but probably to Zinefest. And in the meantime, for attempting the narrative destruction of heroes, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons remain mine.

1. As Christopher Butcher of Comics 212 writes, “to be fair, it’s not just comics fans, lots of dudes are completely and utterly uncomfortable with their sexuality, but Comic Fans are pretty special in that regard, and comics characters have long been so artistically dickless as to be concave where their genitals should be it’s not surprising that they’re a little on edge.”

2. For serious, if I hear one more fan-boy defending the depth of Miller’s constant ritualizing of violence upon women, I swear I will turn into She-Hulk.

Robyn Kenealy is a Wellington writer and cartoonist.

© Scoop Media

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading
Top Scoops Headlines


Join Our Free Newsletter

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.