Well, I didn’t get around to writing this second post on Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen (for Arts One) as quickly as I’d have liked. That’s a four-day holiday weekend for you, I guess. But I did still want to write out my thoughts on something about this text, in order to clarify them for myself if nothing else.
In this post I want to think through the treatment of women in the text.
Apparently a number of people have criticized Alan Moore for having so many scenes of rape, or discussion of rapes that have happened in the past, in his comics. He replies to these concerns in a very long interview (scroll down to the “sexual violence against women” section). I’m not so much worried about having an attempted rape scene in this book as I am about how the characters react.
Sally Jupiter, who suffered an attempted rape at the hands of the Comedian, apparently blames herself, at least in part, for the rape. In an interview published at the end of issue 9, she says:
You know, rape is rape and there’s no excuses for it, absolutely none, but for me, I felt … I felt like I’d contributed in some way. … I really felt that, that I was somehow as much to blame for … for letting myself be his victim not in a physical sense, but … but, it’s like what if, y’know? What if, just for a moment, maybe I really did want ….
And this is just after we’ve discovered that Sally went back to the Comedian, slept with him, and had her daughter Laurie as a result.
One could try to argue, well, this could be read just as a potentially accurate portrayal of how some women feel after they’ve been raped, that maybe it was their fault somehow. And it’s true that women do sometimes feel that way. But this feeling of Sally’s is not questioned in any clear sense, not problematized. In fact, it’s supported by the fact that she went back to the guy and had sex with him later. Worse, in the last scene we see of Sally she has kissed the picture of the Comedian in tears.
Now, this doesn’t show that the text suggests the attempted rape was okay, but it does suggest that perhaps he was more right than he realized when he forced her, thinking she wanted it too. It not only blames the victim to some extent, it could appear to reduce the evil of what he did because, after all, her “no” did kind of mean “yes.” In an era in which sexual violence against women is still alarmingly high, I think this is a very bad thing to portray without problematizing it.
[But after writing the rest of this post, now I’m wondering if maybe it IS problematized? See last section of the post, below.]
Sure, this was published in the mid-80s, and maybe that should make a difference in the degree to which we blame the author, but nevertheless, I find it very disturbing regardless of whether he/they should have known better at the time. That doesn’t mean we can’t still criticize it now.
Women and sex
I also got the sense that pretty much every woman who is a prominent character in the text is somehow connected to sex.
- There is all that above about Sally Jupiter
- Laurie is the one who initiates sex with Dan Dreiburg at first.
- Malcolm’s wife Gloria complains that he works when she wants to have sex (6.13), and when she leaves him she subjects him to “crude sexual insults” (6.28).
- Josephine (Joey) talks about just wanting to sleep with Aline towards the end (11.9).
- Rorschach’s mother was a sex worker (as is his landlady).
- Janey wasn’t too terribly connected with sex in the text, only being shown having sex with Jon once.
The only major-ish female characters I could think of who were not connected to sex were in the pirate comic-within-a-comic (the narrator’s wife, and the woman he kills and puts on a horse to ride with her into town).
It just struck me that there are a good number of men in the text who are portrayed doing many things, none of them being sex, but few women. E.g., Bernard & Bernie, Rorschach, Veidt, Hollis Mason, Malcolm…. It feels like when there is a woman in the text who has a major role, she must be shown having sex, or wanting to have sex, or being subjected to sexual violence. But that men can do other things.
One good thing, at least
I do like how Laurie complains about her costume off and on, and at the end says that she needs something that protects her, maybe with a mask, and that she ought to carry a gun (12.30). She, at least, doesn’t buy into the idea that female costumed heroes should be wearing skimpy clothes and be treated as sexual objects. This is in contrast to her mother, who likes it that she is portrayed in a sexually objectifying way in a “Tijuana Bible” (2.4).
Now that I think about it, though, perhaps we can take this fact about the difference between Sally and Laurie as a critique of Sally in the text. Laurie realizes how degrading the images of her mother are, but her mother finds them flattering. Laurie is angry about what the Comedian did to her mother, while her mother can’t sustain her anger (interview published at the end of chapter 9; 12.29).
Perhaps the text is portraying Sally’s attitudes towards and actions after the attempted rape as problematic, whereas Laurie’s attitude is better? Hmmmm…. Now I’ve written myself into not being sure of my own earlier views. That’s one of the powers of writing!