In Will Eisner’s graphic novel “A Contract with God,” women play interesting roles in each of the stories. Ranging from minor characters, to beloved daughters, and even possible nymphomaniacs, Eisner gives us a strange view of women throughout the novel.
The first woman we see playing a pivotal role is Frimme Hersh’s daughter Rachele. She seems to have been the happiest part of hiswomanlife,and when we first meet Frimme, we learn he has lost her. Her death is the catalyst to his rejection of his contract and his spiral downward into evil. After Frimme changes his ways and becomes a greedy landlord, he meets his mistress. She is a rich-lookingwho clearly has no special affection towards Frimme, other than his money. They never marry, and she seems too young for him. She encourages him to drink, and throws herself at his feet. His mistress is not around when Frimme finally collapses of a heart attack and dies. It seems like daughters like Rachele who are good and sweet are little seen throughout the stories, and women like Frimme’s mistress who are greedy and all-around flaky are seen throughout.
In “The Street Singer” the main character has two women in his life: his pregnant wife, Sophie, and Diva Marta Maria, his lover / teacher / newfound ticket to fame and fortune. Both of these women differ vastly, but both of them rely on a man who is simply unreliable. Sophie is the stereotypical housewife, kept ‘barefoot andpregnant’ while she, desperate for money, urges her husband Eddie to stop his career of street singing and get a steady job. While Eddie is singing one day, he meets Diva Marta Maria, who recognizes his talent and urges him to let her train him. She promises to be his lover and his trainer, clearly obsessed with his good looks and turned on by his baritone voice. She uses him in desperation to get her fame back. Eddie disappoints both of these women with his drinking habit.”
The Super” shows a man who is obsessed with the objectification of women. He is a lonely man and a drunk who has pornography plastered all over the walls of his room. When he first sees a tenant’s niece, she seems adult and sexual. Scuggs later fantasizes about her in his room. Later, the niece (unnamed) comes into his room, telling him she will let him see her body for a nickel. Scuggs agrees to this transaction, showing furthermore that he sees her as an object, and that she probably disrespects herself. Eisner draws her in a short, simple, childish dress- much unlike the pouty lips and dark stare he gave her earlier. She looks like a child (it is later revealed she is only 10) and we see that Scuggs may be a pervert. However, the little girl uses her sexuality to overpower Scuggs by stealing his money and poisoning his dog. She gets away with her actions, showing a very malicious temperament.
The story “Cookalein” has many women throughout the story, but they all play the role of a sexual object. Fannie, a mother, works hard as a mother to save enough money to provide for her family. Her husband cheats on her with another woman, who begs him to leave his wife. Fannie is aware that she is no longer attractive to her husband and tells him that he can cheat on her so long as their sons never
find out. This shows the disrespect that women will undergo in order to keep their families together. Her resignation to such an act is nothing short of depressing. Goldie is a receptionist who dreams of marrying rich. She splurges during her vacation to make it seem as if she’s richer than she really is. When a man, under a similar guise, discovers she isn’t what she appeared, he rapes her and leaves her alone in the woods. She is treated by a man she had previously rejected, and becomes attracted to him when she discovers he’s a doctor. Her shallowness is apparent but she gets what she wanted (sort of) in the end.
The way that Eisner portrays all of the women in this story is not positive. The only woman he mentioned that could have been a good role model would be Rachele, and she is mentioned briefly; she is hardly shown and never seen into adulthood. We will never know what her actions would have been when she reached sexual maturity like the other women in this novel. Women who are sexually charged are not a bad thing. Women who use their sexuality to manipulate and women who are seen as sexual objects are extremely negative. It is clear here that Eisner may not have had very many upstanding women to base his stories off of, and that’s a shame.
When reflecting on A Contract With God, I think it’s easy to overlook the very important aspect of women in the stories. I really appreciated that you took the time to identify and reflect on each woman in the story, and it served as a good reminder to extract their roles from the overall plot of each story. To take your analysis one step further, I think it is important to recognize the importance of the images in this graphic novel and how they serve to enhance Eisner’s negative opinion of women. For instance, when looking at the image of the Frimme’s mistress, she constantly looks wide-eyed and naïve, as if to imply that her role as an unmarried woman throwing herself at a man’s feet makes her simultaneously clueless and lost in a state of ignorant bliss. She is not portrayed through the panel images as an intelligent and grounded woman, but rather as someone who is so taken with the man she has fallen for that she is unable to stand on her own. In a different but related example, in “The Street Singer” the Diva is portrayed as overweight and not very attractive, and as a result she is also used and unloved; this negative physical image of the woman is in alignment with a negative opinion that Eisner has of women. It is as if he is saying it is impossible for the man to fall for this Diva despite her ability to help him because she is unattractive. Without the use of the images in the graphic novel, this underlying opinion may not have been brought to light. I think you touched on “The Super” enough, and it is easy to see how the images of that story provide a perverted and taboo subject matter as well. Finally, the women of “The Cookalein” serve in a similar manner as those in the opening story, as their wide-eyed and blissful stares seem to give them a sense of ignorance and thus give the men in the story, and the readers, an inability to take them as serious, thoughtful women. Ironically enough, the only women who may have held some ground as a strong character is never shown in the graphic novel; we are left only to imagine what she may look like and to fantasize of a beautiful young daughter who has passed.
I think it is also relevant to note the representation of rape of Goldie in Eisner’s “Cookalein.” On page 171, the last panel of the page, Goldie’s expression is ambiguous. Taken out of context, it could be taken as a rapturous expression with her head thrown back, mouth open, and eyes closed. There is also not much mention of what may essentially be rape with Mrs. Minks. When her husband finds her with Willie, he physically abuses her. He threatens her with “Wotsamatter?! I’m not ENOUGH for you??” It is not unreasonable to assume that she has sex with him simply to subdue his rage. An interesting parallel occurs in the panel on page 165, where Mr. Minks carries Mrs. Minks out after her “rape,” and where Herbie carries Goldie on page 173. It is further emphasis to the physical exploitation and weakness of these women, but it also gives an illusion that everything will be okay and is resolved, with Mister and Missus Minks silhouetted, walking into the distance, and Herbie examining Goldie and deciding to marry her. These women also serve as corrupting influences. Mrs. Minks takes advantage of Willie and her interaction with her husband reveals that this has happened before. Petey’s young cousin also introduces him to sexual play. They witness Goldie’s rape, and through the cousin’s behavior, this experience is normalized to Petey. Although these women are often exploited, it seems there is an element of “you brought it upon yourself” and therefore these encounters are somehow justified.
I really enjoyed reading your analysis of Eisner’s portrayal of women, as it was something I was always noticing while reading Contract with God. I did a (tiny) bit of research on Eisner, and found out that his mother actually did not believe in his skills as an artist and thought he was foolish for having such dreams. An article on Eisner written by Charles Moss (http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/67080-will-eisners-dual-identity-the-spirit-of-an-artist) describes his Romanian mother as “the more practical and realistic parent, firmly believing that her son’s artistic tendencies would never amount to any kind of success in life.” Meanwhile his father, also an artist, encouraged him to “value creativity and art.” It seems to me that the lack of support Eisner got from his mother might have colored his attitude towards women in Contract with God. They are all either selfish succubi, like the man’s “shiksey” in Cookalein who wants him to leave his wife or the young girl who seduces the man in The Super, or they are vapid bimbos like Goldie. As for the rape of Goldie in Cookalein, the offender is never truly punished. The doctor threatens to tell Willie’s new love interest about his sexual impotency but this is hardly a fitting punishment for any sort of crime because let’s face it–she’ll find out soon enough anyway. It’s really more of a slap on the wrist, and he still gets the happy ending he always wanted from the beginning (to marry a rich woman and become wealthy by default) and the idea that men can use women as objects as means to satisfy their own self-gratification, is perpetuated by Eisner here. Again, really great analysis of an already interesting subject here.
I agree that the portrayals of women in A Contract With God are problematic overall. The stories of Goldie and Mrs. Minks, in particular, show women as powerless against male aggression – and, in Mrs. Minks’ case, apparently happy with that. While it would be possible to write a story that presented female characters as powerless in order to comment on social inequality, the fact that Goldie’s story ends not with her rape but with her happy marriage suggests that she is not intended to be an ultimately tragic figure. (I have no idea what Eisner actually intended, of course; my interpretation is based solely on the text.)
Fannie’s narrative, in which she decides to let her husband cheat on her rather than incurring the emotional toll a divorce would take on their children, is more clearly tragic. Considered together, the roles of these three women in “Cookalein” show women as being trapped in certain roles – mother, wife, object of men’s sexual desire (or notably not the object of it, in Fannie’s case) – and I think this is valid as social commentary. The fact that this is only presented as a tragedy in one out of three cases, though, makes that interpretation less clear.
I think it’s important to note that not all female characters’ roles in this collection are like those in “Cookalein.” Sophie in “The Street Singer” does seem to be stuck in a victim role, abused by her husband but dependent on him for income. Diva Marta Maria, however, is certainly not a victim of male sexuality; on the contrary, she uses the promise of fame and fortune to seduce Eddie, a younger man. She is not particularly powerful, being poor and apparently jobless, but she still holds power over the even-poorer Eddie.
The girl in “The Super” exerts her power even more strongly. She recognizes that as a woman, even a very young one, she is an object of sexual desire (note that Goldie does not seem to realize this about herself), and she uses this knowledge to steal a man’s money and kill his dog. Because of her manipulative and somewhat predatory nature, I can’t exactly classify her as a positive representation of women, but she is certainly powerful. The fact that she derives her power from her own objectification is particularly interesting.
As you pointed out, the only female character in these stories who is presented truly positively is Rachele, who is dead from the beginning and appears only in a brief flashback. I suspect her positive representation is due to her role in the story as Frimme’s mourned daughter – her purpose in the narrative is to cause Frimme grief with her absence. This is problematic, since it doesn’t allow her to function as a character in her own right. I see this type of structure a lot in modern superhero comics, although the woman created to be mourned is more often the hero’s girlfriend or mother.
The portrayal of women in A Contract With God is overwhelmingly negative, but so is the portrayal of men; these are not stories in which morally upstanding men are wronged by immoral women, but rather stories in which immoral men and women prey on one another, exemplified in “The Super.” (It would be possible to argue that Willie and Mrs. Minks are an exception to this pattern.) Furthermore, while some of Eisner’s women seem to be one-note caricatures, like the shikseh in “A Contract With God,” others show a great deal of depth, like Fannie in “Cookalein.” The stories in this collection certainly do create a problematic representation of women, but I think they’re more nuanced than that, and worthy of more examination.
Women in A Contract With God! I’m glad this topic was pursued by bloggers and commenters alike.
Womens’ roles throughout Eisner’s graphic novels are, as Cottontail put it, “problematic”. Though, another query is the visual relation similarity between the shikseh in “A Contract With God” and Goldie from “Cookalein”.
Using KFortier’s original post, we can see examples of, first, the shikseh and then Goldie in the third panel. Throughout their respective stories, these women are represented with blonde hair with a part down the middle and curls at the end. Thought, this is hardly where the similiarity ends.
The panels used in the examples from the original post also present similar torsional positions of both the characters (shoulders back, chest forward), assumingly resting their weight on their male counterparts as well as similar full body poses at the bottom of each panel.
What is the possibility of the shikseh and Goldie being the same girl? Well, we do know that all four of these stories take place in the same tenement and roughly coincide with the childhood of the author. We also know that the doe-eyed shikseh in “A Contract With God” is with a much older gentleman and that she goes unnamed throughout Frimme’s story. We also know, from “Cookalein” that Goldie has been seeking a rich counterpart for some time now (at least, multiple attempts have been made) though we aren’t given much else to connect the two characters from here.
One important difference may be the manner in which Goldie reacts at the beginning of the rape scene in “Cookalein”. If the shikseh and Goldie were, in fact, the same character, I’d imagine a more subdued reaction regarding what was expected to occur next. Instead, we hear Goldie scream “I’m a good girl!”
Is this Eisner implying that these two characters are, in fact, different characters? Are they merely represented similarly?
I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I do know the OP could not have done a better job at picking these two panels for this comment.