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Watch Men save the planet March 17, 2009

Posted by Sarah in random, women.
Tags: , , , , ,

I saw the film Watchmen last week, the adaption of a classic in the graphic novel genre with the same title by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It’s pretty enjoyable, especially if you’re in the mood for some great visual effects and gore. Lots of blood and bone-crunching. I’ve never been a big comic or graphic novel fan but I decided to read the book and in fact it’s really good! The drawings are beautiful and the writing is very imaginative with lots of depth. So if you want to know what the hype is all about but aren’t a fan of severed limbs and arteries then I recommend the book. I do want to say something about the female characters though.

<soapbox> Many writers, particularly in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, come up with really imaginative scenarios and storylines. The US wins the Vietnam war with the help of a superhero created in a freak quantum physics-y accident. Nixon is President of the US in the 1980s, serving 5 terms. Is it really too much to ask that some of them try applying that imagination and creativity to their female characters?! Even in this ground-breaker of its genre, women are prostitutes, lesbians (-> promiscuous -> prostitutes), paranoid, jealous, narcissistic, drunks, and sexual assault victims who later sleep with their assailers and later still reminisce fondly of the time they were beautiful enough to be, you know,  sexual assault victims. And they do all this in holdups, stiletto boots and leather suspenders.

One of the female characters is a nuclear physicist and clearly this makes her intelligent enough to be truly vindictive and evil, rather than just pathetic and stupid or a prostitute.

Dear Mr. Moore & Mr. Gibbons: Are you kidding me?

A few (of many) excerpts…

[Dr. Manhattan:] Outside, Janey accuses me of “chasing jailbait”. She bursts into angry tears and, asking if it’s because she’s getting older.

[Rohrschach:] The first Silk Spectre is a bloated aging whore, dying in a Californian rest resort.

[Hollis Mason:] After that, things deteriorated. […] the Silhouette was with another woman in a lesbian relationship.


Interestingly, Alan Moore’s latest work is a pornographic novel (/pornographic graphic novel/porno graphic novel?!) that the Guardian calls equally “groundbreaking”. Hmmm.

On a related note, Juliet Lapidos reports in Slate how one of the only woman-friendly sci-fi series, Battlestar Galactica, is losing its feminist credentials.

OK, back to astronomy now.


1. Phil Plait - March 18, 2009

I agree with you overall that women are not treated well in this movie/novel (the most empowered one, Silk Spectre, still seems enslaved by her own emotions like a stereotypical comic book woman).

However, don’t mistake the characters’ voices for the author’s. Rorschach is a mess: a sexist, homophobic misanthrope. Well, he hates certain individuals and certain groups, but does have faith, for lack of a better word, in humanity as a whole. That’s why (spoiler) he is against the grand scheme at the end, and has to face his own destiny on the ice. He’d rather tell people and have them sort it out on their own.

So his personal message is not really the message the movie is portraying. Of course, all the characters are flawed in some way, seriously in most of them. But it sure would have been nice to see a woman not flawed in a stereotypical way, and perhaps to have had a strong female role model who accepted her femininity without compromising that inner strength. BSG does it, as do lots of other shows (Firefly, for example).

Sarah - March 19, 2009

I agree with you overall that women are not treated well in this movie/novel (the most empowered one, Silk Spectre, still seems enslaved by her own emotions like a stereotypical comic book woman).

Her character is definitely more nuanced in the book compared with the film – so the Hollywood-isation I guess didn’t help matters either!

2. "Starman" Matt Morrison - March 21, 2009

… the most empowered one, Silk Spectre, still seems enslaved by her own emotions like a stereotypical comic book woman…

There’s the rub, actually. Moore’s intent with Watchmen was to satirize and deconstruct the Silver Age superhero genre and the various character archtypes within and what they would be like forced into the real world.

This was easy enough with most of the male characters. It doesn’t take much imagination for a comic fan to see The Comedian as a jingoistic Captain America, Rorscach as an over-the-edge Batman or Nite Owl as a middle-aged and angsty as ever Spider-Man. But we get into a problem with the female characters since most Silver Age heroines didn’t get much characterization past hoping they don’t break a nail in a fight or complaining about their teammates not noticing their new hairdo.

It’s hard to parody the sexist portrayal of the Silver Age heroines without stereotyping, which is why Moore had to limit their screen-time as much as possible. He had little to say about Silhouette past parodying the claims put forth by Dr. Fredrich Wertham that Wonder Woman was an obvious lesbian by virtue of being an athletic woman who didn’t do traditional womanly things. Hence why we don’t learn much of anything about Silhouette outside of her sexual preference and her death.

Sally, as Silk Spectre I, is pretty much a deconstruction of the inherit silliness of ever Silver Age heroine who dressed in a costume that was better suited for a cabaret act than crime fighting, with a little of the old “she was asking for it” fallacy thrown in and, disturbingly, confirmed.

Laurie’s crisis, for better or worse, is a lack of identity. She was raised to be a replacement for her mother and was never given a chance to consider a life outside of superheroics. Throw in her lack of a strong father figure and this leaves her searching for the approval of a male figure that she never had. Which is why, driven to rebel against her mother’s plans for her life, she throws herself into the role of being Dr. Manhattan’s girlfriend. And then, when Dr. Manhattan disappears – seemingly for good – she falls into the same trap and sets about trying to put herself in a similar position with Nite Owl.

It is fair to say that nobody in Watchmen is really portrayed very well. It just seems to be more obvious in the case of the female characters, since the tropes they are deconstructing were never that well developed to begin with.

3. Sarah - March 25, 2009

Thanks Starman, that’s a nice bit of background. I hadn’t really spotted the parody element in the Watchmen characters, but it makes perfect sense. It’s disappointing that in what is essentially a very intelligent book the women are portrayed in such an unimaginative way (particularly since, judging by the description of his latest work in the Guardian profile, Moore has *plenty* of imagination).

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