As more and more rights are granted to minorities in society, their quest for social legitimization and acceptance can be traced throughout various artistic mediums. Recently, the first gay wedding occurred in mainstream comic books (ASTONISHING X-MEN), and more and more characters are coming out as homosexual (Green Lantern, Karma, Anole). Today, there are more characters of varying racial backgrounds than ever before. Characters of international origin are featured and given storylines that are rich with culture. Unfortunately, one minority’s evolution, although evident, has permeated the male-dominated world of comics less than their racial and cultural siblings — women. Women enjoy a significance they have never before seen in the world of comics. Wonder Woman is the most recognizable of all female superheros. Storm is the most famous black superhero — female or otherwise. Brian K. Vaughn’s Y, THE LAST MAN is nothing less than a great work of feminism that depicts a world where women are the dominant gender. Works like FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel continue to shatter glass ceilings and break barriers, exalting women to an equal place to that of men in the social hierarchies contained within the diegesis and the industry of comics. In Alan Moore’s masterpiece, WATCHMEN, Moore himself speaks to the treatment of female superheroes prior to his work, but there is some dissonance between his stand for women’s rights within his work and the visual and literary portrayal of the second Silk Spectre, Laurie Juspeczyk, one of the great female superheroes.

WATCHMEN is a ground-breaking work, even for female superheroes. It is as much a commentary on 1980’s America as it is a story about what would happen if real life superheroes existed. In WATCHMEN, superheroes thought up until this point as two-dimensional, have questionable morals. In the parallel reality contained within the comic, they experience sexual dysfunction and identity crises in the face of their own obsoletion. Through it all, one character connects events and other characters through her meaning and relationships — Laurie Juspeczyk.

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Both because comics are a relatively new medium and their validity as an art form is constantly called into question, no model for inspecting the female superheroes’ role in comics exists. One has to look to a similar medium, film, in order to use a model close enough to comics to analyze its female superheroes. The premiere model in film, which will be used as a lens through which we will inspect WATCHMEN, is Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey’s essay employs Freudian analysis as a “political weapon” used to expose the oppressed role of women and the oppressive role of men in the male-dominated system at the time of the Hollywood Golden Age. This essay will employ both Mulvey’s Freudian analysis of women in film and Mulvey’s own psychoanalyses in her essay as dual wield political weapons against the remnants of the patriarchal system embedded in the subconscious of both the author of WATCHMEN and its male audience.

When looking at the role of the of female superheros in comics, one cannot hope to escape the dissonance created by the pivotal role she plays as well as the underdevelopment of her character. She is important to the male spectator who derives pleasure from looking at her and the story contained within the comic itself. This is in deep contrast with her complexities as a human being, which given her importance to comics, should be as developed as any male character. According to Mulvey, the female character (or in this case one of the female superheroes) represents the “castrated woman (489),” and the female character as the castrated womanf is central to comics, providing the story with meaning as well as providing the male spectator with an object of desire. “The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated women to give order and meaning to its world (483).” In the case of Laurie Juspeczyk, Mulvey’s model can be upheld as she is central to WATCHMEN. First, Sally Juspeczyk becomes pregnant with her daughter, Laurie, and effectively retires from a life of crime fighting. Sally’s pregnancy officially marks the beginning of the end of the era of the Minute Men who fought in World World II. There is more than meets the eye where this transition is involved. Sally exits before the Minute Men are no longer needed after the war. Her retirement marks the end of their necessity to the United States of America as a crime fighting team until Nixon utilizes Jon and the Comedian in the Vietnam War, though they aren’t banded together as a single unit. Sally’s attempted rape and the sexual orientation of two members aside, a sense of innocence is gone from the Minute Men. The team is never reconstituted and held at the high regard it was during the second world war despite the best efforts of Captain Metropolis who attempts to reform the group with some new members into the Crime Busters. The Comedian’s attempted rape of Sally is integral to the plot of WATCHMEN. Perhaps even more integral is the fact that Sally and the Comedian had a consensual intimate encounter in the late 1940’s that resulted in Sally becoming pregnant with Laurie. Laurie’s very existence adds a new dimension to the relationship between the Comedian and Sally in addition to the work as a whole. By Laurie existing as a consequence of the Comedian and Sally’s intimate encounter, the audience is treated to the knowledge that relationships are more complicated than what they seem. Her existence goes on to prove that true feelings existed between her mother and the Comedian and that relationships can change. After the death of the Comedian, a photo of Sally is found in his apartment, no doubt a reminder to him of the passionate feelings they share for one another and the offspring that resulted from such feelings. When Laurie makes the discovery that the Comedian is her biological father, she is on Mars with Jon. At this point in the story, Jon believes he has given people he cared about in his life cancer and flees to Mars to further separate from his own humanity and humanity itself. Jon later teleports Laurie to Mars where she questions Jon’s role in the events of their lives given that he can see the future and the past simultaneously. Here, she serves as an anchor for his humanity. Her frustration with her inability to understand Jon is a reference point for how far he has drifted from being human. Again, it is her mere existence that saves Jon from from an emotionless life of solitude on Mars. Her realization of her true parentage inspires and breathes new life into Jon, changing his way of thinking and reconnecting him with his humanity all because she is who she is and exists at all despite the cosmic improbabilities Jon speaks of. Upon Jon’s catharsis, the two return to Earth and the plot of the story moves forward. Laurie’s importance in furthering the plot doesn’t end there. She serves a similar purpose to Dan as she does to Jon. At the beginning of WATCHMEN, Dan is in retirement from being the Nite Owl and is essentially a shell of his former self from when he was active in the superhero community prior to the passing of the Keene Act which outlawed masked vigilantism. As Jon grew further and further away from his humanity, Laurie grew more and more distant from Jon, driving her into the arms of Dan, a major force within the plot of WATCHMEN. Laurie’s involvement in Dan’s life provides him with a reawakening, both sexual and otherwise. It is her fascination with his gadgets that literally bring both them and him back to life and use. She literally wipes the dust off of Nite Owl’s things, paving the way for Dan’s ignited passions to manifest into his return to crime fighting as Nite Owl. After a failed attempt at intimacy due to Dan’s sexual dysfunction, Dan is able to perform after assuming his true identity as Nite Owl, which can be interpreted as his removing the mask of his civilian “Dan” self and assuming his true identity, all thanks to Laurie.

Scopophilia is essential to the feminist theories put forward in Mulvey’s essay. Mulvey defines scopophilia as an active form of “pleasure in looking: fascination with the human form (485).” Cinema is rife with viewing pleasure. According to Mulvey, “the cinema offers a number of possible pleasures (485),” however there are differences between the viewing pleasures of cinema and comics. Cinema is enjoyed in the darkness, something which isolates the spectator from one another (486). Comics obviously cannot be viewed in total darkness without light illuminating the page, a clear divergence from cinema. Also, the position of the comic audience is inherently different from the spectator in the cinema auditorium. In cinema, the spectator is positioned far from the screen. “The position of the spectator in the cinema is blatantly one of repression (486)” while the position of the spectator viewing the comic is in an active position, hunched over a desk, reading on his lap, or in active missionary position situated over the comic while it folds out under him on his bed. The concept of the isolated spectator is even more active in comics as he is often in the privacy of his own home, safe to gaze in an intimate and undisturbed setting. Moreover, the spectator watching a film is held captive to its forward-moving temporality while the comic spectator can turn the pages of the comic, moving backward and forward in time at his will. The “brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen (486)” are under the control of the spectator with the shift mostly occurring in the mind of the viewer through closure between panels. Costumes also play an important role in attracting the gaze of the male spectator. They are colorful, provocative, and “connote to-be-looked-at-ness (487).”

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The visual portrayal of men in comics maintains some similarities to men’s portrayal in film, however, a divergence exists when Mulvey insists the male spectator will turn away from the sexual objectification of his own likeness. “According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up; the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification (488).” Mulvey clarifies this later by pointing out the glamorous way in which male stars are depicted in cinema. “A male movie star’s glamorous characteristics are thus not those of the erotic object of the gaze, but those of the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego (488).” While the Comics Code Authority, an entity created to ensure comics self-regulate and create content only for general audiences, held strict guidelines for how women could be visually depicted in comics, there were no guidelines for men, only rules that limited “suggestive posture.” Thus, creators had license to depict men in comics with relatively no restrictions. They were often drawn with exaggerated muscles and ideal physical proportions as if they were sculpted by Polykleitos in Ancient Greece. Their faces often contained only as much visual information as was necessary for the male spectator to identify with the male character, a process Scott McCloud, in his book, UNDERSTANDING COMICS, refers to as “amplification through simplification (30).” Comics, usually designed for adolescent boys, allow for the male spectator to identify with the male protagonist by the spectator imagining their bodies growing into the ideal proportions depicted on the page in front of them. They engage in a fantasy just like the cinema spectator would, imagining themselves as “more perfect, more complete”, and “more powerful (488).” Amplification through simplification used in this sense does not only apply to adolescent boys. When the spectator is an adult male, they experience a sense of nostalgia, a return to adolescence and the notion of physical perfection as a looming possibility only out of reach until the increase in hormones and formulation of the adult male body caused by puberty occurs. In WATCHMEN, which was not published under the Comics Code, Jon is naked throughout most of the comic, his body physically perfect in every sense. Identification with Jon enables the reader to feel both as powerful and as desirable to women as he is. Laurie attempts at establishing a relationship with Jon while he is already married to his first wife. Jon is ageless and immortal which are empowering qualities that entice the male spectator to identify with him. His blue skin and the way in which his eyes are depicted may be construed as an attempt by the auteurs of WATCHMEN to depict Jon as “other,” however one need only play a recent MMORPG in which users (usually adolescents) are able to customize the look of their hero or villain to notice things like blue skin as a preference over the mundane look of human pink skin. There is an excitement in establishing a link with someone as powerful and unique as Jon. Adrian is also depicted with ideal physical qualities. Reasons for identification with the main antagonist in WATCHMEN will be discussed more thoroughly in a later section of this essay. Perhaps Dan, an average looking, and aging man, is depicted the way he is in order for the adult spectator to have someone more similar to them to identify with, bypassing the adolescent nostalgia earlier mentioned. This empowers the adult male spectator through Dan’s empowering and triumphant return to his identity as Nite Owl towards the end of the work.

Despite the existence of the Comics Code Authority, which WATCHMEN was not published under, women’s depictions in cinema and comics share many commonalities. Female superheroes were drawn suggestively but not with enough suggestion as to trigger the code’s safeguards against such depictions. Their bodies were placed on display, attracting the gaze of both the male spectator and the male character or characters diegetically. They served as “erotic spectacle (487),” a drawn version of a pinup that plays to male desire. This supports Mulvey’s assertions of women in cinema. “In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Women displayed as sexual object is the leitmotiv of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease…she holds the look, plays to, and signifies male desire (487).” Laurie’s appearance and posture is often “coded for strong visual and erotic impact.”

Laurie, one of Watchmen's female superheroes, and Jon, Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre #2 in WATCHMEN

As is evident by the preceding image, Laurie cannot breathe on Mars. If it were not for the interdependent text and speech balloons, the panels could easily be looked at as if Laurie were in the act of performing fellatio on Jon with the actual penetration of the mouth occurring during closure between panels. Here, Laurie’s “performance” as one of the female superheroes is twofold, attracting both the gaze of Jon and the male audience which coincides with Mulvey’s argument. “A woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are nearly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude. For a moment the sexual impact of the performing women takes the [work] into a no-man’s land outside its own time and space (488).” In addition, Laurie is further objectified by her body being broken up by the gutters between panels.

Dan's Dream Sequence in Watchmen with Laurie the Silk Spectre #2, one of the Watchmen female superheroes, and Nite Owl

As seen in the preceding image, breaking up a woman’s body and utilizing closeups of their body parts narrows the gaze of the spectator, focusing it on specific iconic body parts that evoke sexual arousal. This separates Laurie, the human being, from Laurie, the female sex symbol and object of desire in WATCHMEN. The breaking up of the space she occupies dehumanizes her by making her into an object or series of shapes that can be gazed upon outside the diegesis of the comic instead of a three-dimensional person integral to the narrative for the depth of her character. “Similarly, conventional close-ups of legs or a face integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism. One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative, it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon rather than verisimilitude to the screen (488).”

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As Mulvey tells us, the female character is a symbol for the castrated female, the “bearer of the wound.” By symbolizing this through her physical objectification, the female character evokes castration anxiety in the male spectator who is afraid to lose his own genitalia. He attempts to soothe his anxiety in one of two ways: investigation of the female’s genital region (preoccupation with the original trauma), and by exerting his influence over the female, usually through sadistic means. “The woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified [castration anxiety]. The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the reenactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment (489).” Interestingly, both demystification of women and their devaluation is accomplished by separating the woman into pieces and exhibiting her as icon, all of which happens to Laurie. In addition, she is indeed punished by men through the course of WATCHMEN. As earlier stated, Jon brings Laurie to Mars in order to have a conversation with her. Her options seem limited as it is implied due to predestination that she must join him. Once she arrives at Mars, she cannot breathe, and for several panels, Jon doesn’t even notice her suffocating. First, she is robbed of choice. Second, she is punished for obeying. Near the conclusion of the story, Laurie seems to exhibit strength by attacking Adrian, who plays possum and convinces her she’s hurt him. He responds by kicking her in the stomach. A sacred area of the body for women who carry their unborn child there. She is sadistically punished by Adrian for her naiveté in believing she hurt him, and Dan comes to her defense before being infantilized by Adrian who tells him to “grow up.” Laurie’s punishment at the hands of Adrian and Jon are congruent to the treatment of women in cinema. “The first avenue, voyeurism, on the contrary, has associations with sadism: pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt (immediately associated with castration), asserting control, and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness (490). The sadistic side fits in well with narrative. Sadism demands a story, depends on making something happen, forcing a change in another person, a battle of will and strength, victory/defeat (490).” Visually, Adrian is drawn simplistically. Amplification through simplification is most associated with his character as he appears the most human throughout the work while we are unaware of his true motives. Perhaps unconsciously on the part of the author, identification with Adrian occurs so that the spectator can take pleasure in sadistically punishing Laurie. After Adrian kicks her in the stomach, she is indeed defeated and rendered useless as a fighter for the duration of the scene. While not as obvious, man exerts his influence over the female character as she falls in love with him. Laurie goes from “belonging” to Jon to belonging to Dan. She is essentially traded like a possession, passed from person to person without a thought given to her free will. Although it may appear Laurie leaves Jon out of her own recognizance, Jon is aware of the future and that she will become a part of Dan’s life, something which he does absolutely nothing about. It doesn’t even appear to be of concern to him until he tells her that once she left him, he left Earth. Once Laurie is established as a “possession” of Dan’s, she is depicted differently. Her outfit more and more resembles that of a housewife wearing an apron, or worse yet a servant belonging to Dan.

Dan and Laurie, Silk Spectre #2 one of the Watchmen female superheroes and Nite Owl in WATCHMEN

Mulvey deals with this head on in her essay. Discussing how the character “… falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her outward glamorous characteristics, her generalized sexuality, her showgirl connotations; her eroticism is subjected to the male stare alone. By means of identification with him, through participation in this power, the spectator can indirectly possess her too (489).” This also supports the notion that Dan is visually represented the way he is in order to attract the identification of the older male audience who’s castration anxiety is quelled once Laurie, one of the female superheroes, is subdued and matronized.

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Although Laura Mulvey’s work “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is the premiere work for feminism in the cinema, no theory is perfect, especially not when it is applied to a medium which it never originally intended to address, in this case, female superheroes. Contrary to the theories contained within this essay and Laura Mulvey’s work, the female character, Laurie in WATCHMEN, does participate in amplification through simplification and audience identification. She is given her own flashbacks. As an audience, we are privy to her experiences as a young woman training to be a superhero as well as her earliest memory, her mother and stepfather engaged in an argument over Laurie’s existence. One way Laurie strikes out on her own is by returning her surname to its Polish origin, something her mother Sally sought to hide by referring to herself as Sally “Jupiter.” Despite several scenes involving our identification with Laurie, they are few and far between, not to mention far less than any other member of the ensemble cast of WATCHMEN. Mulvey does address this in her essay in regards to women in film who are allotted some scenes from their perspective. Here, Mulvey discusses the female protagonist’s scenes in VERTIGO. “Apart from one flash-back from Judy’s point of view, the narrative is woven around what Scottie sees or fails to see (492).” This relates to Laurie and WATCHMEN as well, apart from her two scenes from her perspective, the narrative of WATCHMEN is told through the eyes of mostly Rorschach, Dan, and Jon. Thanks to writers like Alan Moore, who appears to have consciously written scenes from Laurie’s perspective, the future of comics from this point on is and will be better for female superheroes, not that there isn’t more work to be done. More female writers and comic book artists exist and are working in the industry than ever before. More comics center around female characters whose soul purpose isn’t to bear the gaze of the male spectator. More importantly, more women than ever are reading comics, as the industry has made greater and greater efforts to court them. As the female audience for comics continues to grow, more and more strong female superheroes who echo those found in the growing female audience continue to emerge, making comics a battleground for feminism where women are winning the war.

Works Cited

“Comics Code Authority.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 31 July 2012. Web. 10 Aug. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comics_Code_Authority>

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.

Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: Warner Books, 1987. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.

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