Sexism in Watchmen?

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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.

  9 comments for “Sexism in Watchmen?

  1. ahunter2
    February 22, 2013 at 12:56 am

    After reading a couple of the new blog posts this week this one struck me as the most succinct entry. Given the evidence you’ve presented, your argument arrived at a well-organized and reasonable conclusion.

    Your acknowledgement of the “subconscious sexism” pervasive amongst representations of female role models is admirable, and, is exemplified within Watchmen’s females.

    ‘Women Drawn In Comics’ was one of the earliest submissions and has dramatically framed my perception of this class (ENGL 386). I have frequented Escher Girls more than once since its mentioning and, throughout the novel, found myself mesmerized by the representation of female characters as opposed to their male counter parts.

  2. Sara
    February 22, 2013 at 9:35 am

    I find that most graphic novels I have read, even if they don’t mean to be, are in fact sexist since they are geared towards a mostly male audience. I am not saying that all men are all sexist, but when men write the female characters tend to be less independent and more intertwined with what the men need. Debra Tannen, a linguist, argues that when men speak and write they do so on “men’s language”, which is much more vulgar and tends to be sexist. Like you said in your blog it isn’t chauvinist, but it is still putting women in a bubble where they cannot exist outside of a man.

    I really enjoyed your blog post. I found it to be very insightful and knowledgable. I am interested in seeing how the rest of the novels in this class compare to Watchmen on the sexism level. I think that will be a very cool comparison at the end of the semester.

  3. cottontail
    February 22, 2013 at 9:55 am

    I really appreciate that you identify a difference between portraying sexism and having a sexist message; that’s an important distinction, and one that I think you make very well. It would be easy to say, for example, that it was sexist of the authors to give Sally and Laurie more sexualized costumes than their male counterparts, but I agree with your reading of it as a deliberate commentary on how women are constantly sexualized in American culture, and specifically in superhero comics.

    There are also certainly underlying sexist implications in the narrative, though, and I think they go even further than what you discuss in this post. While Chapter IX contributes to the reader’s understanding of Laurie in what I think is a positive way – she is the focus of the chapter, rather than an accessory to Dr. Manhattan or Dan Dreiberg, as she seems to have been treated in Chapters IV and VII – it also reveals something about Sally that seems very problematic to me. After having known since Chapter II that Edward Blake attempted to rape Sally, the reader now discovers (along with Laurie) that Sally “couldn’t sustain the anger” at Blake for his assault, and came back to him for a consensual sexual relationship. The interview with Sally that follows this chapter quotes her as saying that she “felt like [she]’d contributed in some way” to the rape attempt.

    It’s possible to read this purely as social commentary, depicting the fact that victims of assault often do blame themselves. I feel uneasy categorizing it that way, though, for a few reasons. Sally is not externally blamed for Blake’s attempt to rape her – instead, she acknowledges in the interview that her “analyst” would call what she’s feeling “misplaced guilt” – so the victim-blaming does not seem to be portrayed as a societal evil, but rather as an insight she has about herself. Furthermore, what is the meaning of this as a plot element? Why did Moore choose to tell this story as part of the larger narrative of Watchmen? The reason I can best imagine is to have Laurie realize that the world does not make sense from a clear-cut moral perspective (echoing the conclusion that Rorschach comes to), but this realization does not have to occur via a story about a woman choosing to become sexually involved with the man who tried to rape her, so the fact that Moore made that particular narrative choice is very troubling to me.

    • February 23, 2013 at 5:16 pm
      The reason I can best imagine is to have Laurie realize that the world does not make sense from a clear-cut moral perspective (echoing the conclusion that Rorschach comes to), but this realization does not have to occur via a story about a woman choosing to become sexually involved with the man who tried to rape her, so the fact that Moore made that particular narrative choice is very troubling to me.

      Yeah, that’s an interesting way to think about it: What does Sally’s decision do for the narrative as a whole? I think you’re right on the one hand, that it has to do with the rather-pervasive theme of moral uncertainty, relativism (relativity?), etc. But notice how for Chapter IX, at least, this information is crucial to Dr. Manhattan’s changing his mind (which of course should be something he knew he was going to do — but anyway), because the specific unlikelihood of Laurie’s being the Comedian’s daughter impresses upon him the general unlikelihood of any human’s ever existing, so therefore he decides that humanity is worth saving.

      The thing is, though, that if we buy that plot explanation, if we move out of social and moral commentary, then we’re left with a woman who needs to undergo this trauma (displaced, in away, but still traumatic) in order for the world to be saved.

      All that’s to say, I don’t know how I feel about it either.

  4. February 24, 2013 at 3:26 pm
    … oversexed diastolic …

    Is this a typo?

    Kbusch, your use of the Bechdel test here is certainly appropriate and revealing. I think there could be a possible “yes” answer for question 3 (between Aline and Joey, if you’ve finished the novel), but even then, it’s close. The fact alone that it’s so close, that it might just barely pass still makes the point.

    • kbusch
      February 24, 2013 at 6:03 pm

      that is a typo, it should have read oversexed society. I have no idea how diastolic ended up there.

      Joey and Aline’s conversation is the only thing that would make Watchmen pass the Bechdel test. I would argue that it still leaves the concerns of conversations of women on either men or romantic relationships though. Joey is presented as very masculine herself although she is still a woman. Moore could have easily incorporated a conversation where its two women just talking about their concerns for the end of the world and inevitable nuclear war.

      Even if it does pass the Bechdel test, I am still uncomfortable with the whole plot twist of the Comedian being Laurie’s father. The narrative itself is very much driven by the actions of male characters, so I don’t think there is a solid way to argue that is progressive work for female characters in comics.

  5. rcrow
    March 14, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    Running with the conclusion that Watchmen shows signs of being a sexist comic, in all its gritty realism it says a lot about the social consciousness of the 1980s. I think you are right to say it’s done subconsciously. Women have long been defined by their relationships with men, while men have been defined by their jobs. Not because it is done on purpose, but because it’s yet another tool that has effectively perpetuated patriarchal society. So why not just keep chugging along as usual? Rorschach and Night Owl are mildly to dangerously obsessed with their work as minutemen, and Laurie is disinterested in fighting crime but in some way linked to basically every sexual relationship depicted in the novel. Writers can only tell stories that draw on their own experience as a human in the world. Unfortunately, that sometimes means that aspects of sexism (racism, classism, ablism, etc.) show up without perhaps even the writer’s knowledge. Alan Moore is a man, and though he may be sympathetic to the feminist cause he may not recognize every dark corner of sexism simply because he experiences the world as a straight, white, dude.

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