Rosie and The Allusion to Female Character Complexity in Will Eisner’s A Contract with God

During class, we briefly discussed Eisner’s portrayal of women in A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, and someone noted how all the women tend to be either a Madonna figure or the whore. Even though I think that the female characters throughout Eisner’s book are a bit more complex than the traditional good girl/ bad girl stereotypes, they are more so only through allusion to complexity rather than expressed complexity, and Rosie, the little seductress in “The Super,” is a great example.

The first time that the super, and the reader for that matter, is introduced to Rosie, she is wet and wrapped in a towel, fresh from a bath. Without any knowledge of her age, the shape of her body and her expression lead the reader to think that she must be at least a teenager; most ten year old girls do not have curves like that. Yet, when she visits the super, Mr. Scuggs,  her short, collared dress, Mary Jane shoes, and scrunched socks allude that she is much younger than her first appearance, but her actions suggest that the outfit is a rouse; she offers to let Mr. Scuggs have a peak under her dress, kills his dog, and steals his money.  It is only after her confrontation with the super, and his subsequent suicide, that we learn that Rosie is only ten years old; however, when she is sitting on the step, singing and counting the stolen money, she again looks much older than ten years old.

To me, it is very interesting that the only time that Rosie looks her age is when she is using it to con Mr. Scuggs. This suggests that Rosie is a much more complex character, yet we only get to know the super, Mr. Scuggs, in any sort of intimate way. We feel sympathy for him even though he is a very flawed character; he is an anti-Semitic pervert. Yet, we are not led to feel sympathy for Rosie, a ten year old who uses her body to manipulate and steal. It is in that way that Eisner’s story and illustrations allude to Rosie’s character’s complexity.  We only see her bad side, but we never know what happened to the good.

  2 comments for “Rosie and The Allusion to Female Character Complexity in Will Eisner’s A Contract with God

  1. Cass
    September 14, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Very intriguing post, Jessica! I really like how you took an idea we spent little time on in class and expanded it into this question of character complexity. However, in the beginning of your post you mentioned that the female characters throughout Eisner’s book are more complex than they seem; I wish you would have expanded more on different characters because your insight into Rosie was spot on! I thought it was interesting that your main focus was on Rosie’s body. A lot of what shocked me was simply the different characters’ actions. See, I usually see characters drawn in a bit of an over-exaggerated manner, so I didn’t think anything of Rosie’s curves, I simply just saw her as a daughter; however, when she then started seducing the super, that is was shocked me because, regardless of exact age, any child should not be performing such an act, let alone know that the super would enjoy such a proposition. Also, when you state, “Yet, we are not led to feel sympathy for Rosie, a ten year old who uses her body to manipulate and steal,” I actually believe the opposite. I think that because she uses her body to manipulate and steal, that is exactly what leads the audience to feel sorry for her. It may just be my reading of the comic; however, in order for a young girl to sell herself out like that, something terrible must have happened to her in the past. This is precisely why I agree with you that there is complexity to Rosie, however, I think that the lack of knowledge about her past is what makes the reader feel bad for her; the reader can only imagine the horrible events Rosie had to endure to turn out so messed up. This type of behavior is seen throughout other female characters in Eisner’s novel as well. For example, you have the opera singer who seduces the street singer. Now, this may not seem as shocking as Rosie because the age isn’t an issue, however, the opera singer’s actions do allude to a complexity. This makes the reader ponder what she could possibly have gone through in the past that makes her think that in order to gain success she needs to manipulate this man. It’s rather sad thinking about what her background could be, it’s almost as if she could appear in another comic in which she tries to manipulate another man, because the street singer abandoned her, fueling her need to find the one person that will stay with her and guide her to success. This trend is not only depicted amongst the female characters in Eisner’s novel, but is also present in some male characters such as Willie. We briefly discussed Willie’s character in class and I think it fits perfectly in this discussion. In Willie’s case, he is the one being seduced by an older woman, however, his reaction to her seduction is a response that is far more mature than his age. The only time we see Willie act his age is when he is forced to watch two adults have sex in front of him; He becomes coward in this moment and curls up like an infant. Who knows, this moment could be the start of Willie’s potential complex background. Willie was, in fact, scarred by this situation, and it seems that all of these female characters are acting in surprising ways because they had something scarring happen to them. We do see Willie, at the end, pondering off, physically looking older than before; this could very well be the scene that starts a different comic in which the reader might say “Hm, that character seems rather complex in his stature” and little do the readers know, he was abused in a barn in his past. It makes it interesting to take the characters and put them at the start of a new hypothetical comic because then you can set them up where they appear complex to a reader who has never seen them, but we secretly know why they are troubled from reading this story. Again, awesome post, I would love to hear your insight on the other characters you reference because you did a great job describing the odd behavior of Rosie!

  2. egajeton
    September 14, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Likewise, I find Rosie a very interesting and complex character to read. I agree with you in that, in a very quick reading, she is portrayed as an antagonistic character. It is only through speculation that we are allowed to dive deeper into her conscious to determine what exactly motivates her to behave in the way that she does. Unfortunately, Eisner doesn’t really give us any background information which, as you point out, makes it difficult for us to find any redeeming qualities in her. It is also very intriguing that, as you’ve addressed, her portrayal in the images seems to mold and change according to how we are to read her, whether as a mature, sexual character or an innocent girl, and it’s definitely interesting that Eisner has created her in a way that not only manipulates the super, but us as readers. Her portrayal forces us to see her as a femme fatal without a back story. The different styles in which she is drawn contrive emotional reactions from us that create her as a more dimensional character than she first appears. I think Cass brings up a very interesting point concerning feeling sympathy for Rosie. I agree that, in a way, we are meant to feel sorry for her, or even pity her. The fact that she isn’t given a back story allows us to speculate and leads to some uncertainty, which I think creates a sense of sympathy for Rosie. Because we can’t know for sure what has happened to her, the mystery of it all, at least for me, leads me to feel sorry for her. Likewise, it forces me to wonder what role society plays in allowing for such a (what I assume to be) terrible thing to happen to such a young girl that she is forced into the kind of life she leads. All in all, it is the information we aren’t given, rather than the information we are able to perceive through Eisner’s story, that largely creates the character of Rosie.

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