This is my first time reading Watchmen and and after having read through chapter 9 I’m still struggling to decide if Watchmen is sexist or not. So bare with me as I try to sort it all out. Also I don’t really want to focus too much on the scenes in Watchman that demonstrate an oversexed diastolic where women are abused and used as objects. My arguments and/or musings over sexism in Watchmen has nothing to do with the representation of a corrupt society where women are abused. I don’t think the mere fact that there are things like rape and objectification of women make the work sexist. I think in these scenes, Watchmen is trying to really bring us a corrupt disgusting world where evil things happen, a world that the main characters don’t endorse or believe that these things should happen. If anything, Watchmen is probably critiquing this theme of violence against women.
So all the female characters that I can think of in order of significance are Laurie Juspeczyk, Sally Jupiter, Janey Slater, Silhouette, and Rorschach’s mother. First lets just look at the female costumed vigilantes. Laurie and Sally both share the Silk Specter persona and Silhouette never actually makes an appearance in the novel as she has been murdered. Now just with their names for their secret identities you could argue sexism. No male character would call himself Silk Specter or Silhouette nor would he wear a costume as revealing. I think this kind of sexism goes par for the course in the world of super heroes and comics (look at the popular blog post women drawn in comics). Now I think we also see Watchmen criticizing this type of sexism in the comic book and superhero type genre. Watchmen can be seen to be making commentary of the marketing of sex as Silk Specter’s character is used in a movie described as too awful to be called pornography. There are multiple times when there are direct comments by characters about the ridiculousness of Silk Specter’s costume. One of the people being saved from the tenement fire remarks that Laurie is the one who looks like she has just gotten out of bed in her costume.
If we consider the list of female characters as a whole, all of these women’s plot lines tie in to the narrative as through sex. Rorschach’s mother is a prostitute, Janey Slater is Dr. Manhattan’s first lover, Sally Jupiter is almost a victim of sexual assault by the comedian, Silhouette is outed from minutemen because she is openly gay, and Laurie is first the romantic partner who replaces Janey Slater for Dr. Manhattan but then leaves him and rather quickly starts up another romantic relationship with Dan. It unfortunately seems that for Watchmen, the novel can’t escape linking its female characters to a sexual plot line. Sure Dr. Manhattan may walk around naked, but he does it in the way one would walk around naked at a nudist colony, its matter of fact not a peep show.
Now in this way we can argue that Watchmen is sexist in a way that can overshadow it’s efforts to critique an overwhelmingly patriarchal society. I think the Bechdel test can easily demonstrate what I am getting at.
Are there 2 or more female characters? For Watchmen yes. Do they talk to each other? Yes. Does their conversation involve something else besides a man? Unfortunately, I believe this is where Watchmen fails the Bechdel test. So far the only conversation between two women has been between Laurie and her mother Sally in chapter II. They talk about Dr. Manhattan and they talk about the Comedian. They also talk about a pornographic Silk Specter comic that was sent to Sally by some guy.
The female characters in Watchmen don’t exist independently of a man or independently of the definition of a woman as something someone can have sex with. Watchmen can’t portray Rorschach’s mother as an evil women without making her a woman who sells herself. Laurie seems to have to be romantically attached to a male character(and perhaps is presented as over emotional?). Silhouette gets kicked out of Minutemen because of her sexuality. Janey is a woman scorned out to get her revenge by talking to a reporter. We care more about Sally and her psychology as an almost rape victim then we care about any other aspect of her character as either as Laurie’s mother or the original Silk Specter.
So is Watchmen sexist? Not in the overt chauvinist way no its not. However, its unfortunate that something as good as Watchmen can’t give use something that escapes the subtle subconscious sexism that persists in most media.