This post is a small review of the women of Watchmen (2009) and will provide an interpretation of their presentation in the film!
The first images of women in Watchmen appear artificial and objectified by the Comedian; a TV advert that he sits and relaxes to, and a pin-up mock-up of Silk Spectre, suggesting that women exist solely for his pleasure. That during the fight between the Comedian and his assailant both items are destroyed (the first smashed and the second pierced with a knife and then shattered) hints at the destructive nature of the males in this domain towards women as will be a continued theme throughout the film in none other than...
Sally Jupiter AKA Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino)
Jupiter's appearances in the film's opening credits outline quite a lot of what will follow in the representation of women in Watchmen and present conflicted portrayals of both female roles and sexuality. For instance, Jupiter stands with a group of policemen for a photo shoot. She is both confident and exuberant in this world of men, groomed, beautiful and burlesque glamour. Our view of her body is partially blocked by a newspaper emblazoned 'Criminal World Goes Ga-Ga Over Silk Spectre', suggesting that her power as a crime fighting superhero is perhaps heightened and exploited by her sexual presence. This is emphasised by the men on screen, a couple of whom are quite blatantly checking out the goods (see below) before the camera pans back to reveal her scantily-clad thighs to us. As such both cops and audience view Spectre as a sexual object, although it is clear that she, literally bathing in the spotlight, is very comfortable with this and even revels in the attention.
Jupiter's appearance as Spectre recalls 1940/50s pin-up icons such as Rita Hayworth and Bettie Page and is a blend of Burlesque glamour and dominatrix power (see first pic below). Such a blend of femininity and aggression exudes sexual confidence and female power, yet reminds the viewer that during this era a woman's potential remained inextricably tied to her sexuality and how 'available' she appeared. This is heightened by an aged Jupiter proudly showing her daughter some explicit fan-fiction amidst the remnants of her faded past, as she clings to memories of a life long gone. With this is mind, that Jupiter's costumed appearance is coded as willing and available is a controversial inclusion that clouds her throughout the film and upholds several damaging images of women, as will be discussed further in a little while. It is also of note that Jupiter's pregnancy is coded as her exit point from her superhero days. If one observes the second picture below, this 'Last Supper' mock-up has Jupiter, heavily pregnant, as the focal point of the shot. This implies that her gender defines both her actions and her fate as pregnancy causes her to quit the workplace, highlighting the limits (or bounds) of the female body intrinsically maternal and hindering the progression of females. She is, however, still highly sexualised, suggesting the clash of progressive and traditional attitudes emphasised by the lesbian couple at the table.
The scene of the Comedian's attempted rape and it's aftermath present a more problematic approach to the portrayal of women in Watchmen. For one, it is presented as a memory desirable to Jupiter as she reminisces upon days gone by, a controversial inclusion for victims of rape. Secondly, it is highly sexualised in presentation. For example, we see her making eyes at the Comedian before closing the door to get changed, and as she does so, the viewer is invited into the room to witness her undress. The camera moves close, invading her physical space and forcing us to focus on her actions as she unties her belt, releases her halter, drops her skirt and unclasps her suspenders. More so, there is a lingering and gratuitous boob shot as she strips to her basque and wriggles out of her clothing! All this sounds awesome until she notices the Comedian watching, "You gotta have a reason for dressing in an outfit like this!" The ensuing smack down of Spectre by Comedian as he laughs remains closely shot and emphasises her pain and helplessness as he throws her around. Once subdued, Comedian touches Spectre gently as he prepares to rape her, intrinsically linking sex with violence. After the damsel in distress is rescued by Hooded Justice, the camera focuses on her bloodied face. Has she realised that girl power thing was all an illusion, and that she had bartered sex for power? Or did she want it to happen? That she goes back and has sex with him years later following the Comedian's savage attack "to let him finish what he started" upholds the long-standing myth that women like to be raped, which ultimately positions the portrayal of women in a very negative light in Watchmen (for more on this myth and its discussion see Williams' 1989 book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the "Frenzy of the Visible") and reinforces typical gender associations with them. Alas, Jupiter's daughter Laurie does not fare much better.
Laurie Jupiter AKA Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman)
Laurie often appears confident and able. She takes Dan (Nite Owl) out for dinner and is cool as a cucumber compared to his bumbling geekery. She looks good and she knows it! Whilst she clearly wishes to differentiate herself from her mother in an updated latex-dominatrix costume, Laurie enjoys the same things, namely fighting bad guys and having superhero-related sexual shenanigans. The sex scene between herself and Dr. Manhattan foregrounds her sexual enjoyment over his, supported in overtly sexual imagery as she grips the bedsheets and the camera pans out to show multiple blue hands there for her pleasure. However, this image is abruptly replaced with one of the disappointed and nagging woman, as she realises Manhattan is working at the same time and leaves him. Her following sex scene with Dan shows her taking control and seducing him, again only to be rebuffed by his impotence. As such, female desire and aggression is depicted as threatening and demasculating. It is only when Dan gets his confidence back whilst dressed as Nite Owl that the two have sex to the ironic strains of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallilujah' and are finally portrayed as equals, both in amounts of nudity and in portrayals of sexual pleasure.
Despite Laurie's very able fighting skills, presented during a street fight and a prison fight where she can clearly take care of herself, she is also often portrayed as being damsel-like and needing rescue. Such imagery supports the conflicted presentation of women in Watchmen as being both progressive and upholding more conventional images of women. For instance, Laurie lovingly fondles the buttons inside Archie the flying machine and is technologically capable. However, she sets fire to the tunnel and has to be rescued by Dan, who charges in with a fire extinguisher. Similarly, Laurie's daring feat in rescuing civilians from a burning building is undermined by Dan, who saves her from a fiery furnace by slamming the door closed just in time. She is also objectified, particularly in a scene when she re-emerges through fog as Silk Spectre II and Dan's jaw drops; the audience see his gaze as the camera tracks, slo-mo style, over Spectre II's latex-clad body, which is in conflict with her action-hero status and capabilities. As such, the portrayal of women in the film, at once progressive and regressive, is fragmented and incomplete, much like the female-characters' sense of identity in Watchmen.
Other Watchwomen that are both progressive yet victimised for this include Janey Slater (Laura Mennell), Manhattan's first girlfriend. Although she is portrayed as breaking the boundaries of what was previously regarded as permissible for women, buying men pints and becoming a notable scientist whilst still retaining her feminine identity, Manhattan dumps her unceremoniously for a younger model because she has become 'old', positioning women as commodities with sell-by-dates. More so, poor Janey is presented later in the film as a hideous and witch-like old lady that shocks the observers around her. Worse still, she is used as a tool by Ozymandias to ruin Manhattan. Janie's youthful beauty and grace is juxtaposed against her aged state and hatred for her former lover, presenting women in Watchmen that are haunted by their former selves and better lives.
Other prominent women in Watchmen appear during the opening credits; costumed vigilante Silhouette and her nurse girlfriend (Apollonia Vanova and Leah Gibson). They challenge conventional images and roles of men and women by replicating the famous 'V-J Day in Times square' sailor-nurse kiss amidst joyous young women (see below), providing an ironic reworking of an iconic moment in American history that openly challenges rigid gender roles and gender coding. The pair also make up the table in the 'Last Supper' scene, suggesting that their lesbian relationship is not regarded as problematic by the other Watchmen.
As such, these two can be regarded as positive representations of women in Watchmen. However, they are 'punished' for the sexual and gender transgressions. Coded as good (white, feminine, maternal) and bad (black, masculine, dominatrix) in life and death, the pair are used to link transgressive sex with death, as their murder shot pans out to reveal 'lesbian Whores' scrawled on the wall behind them in blood. The camera over them suggests that they are immortalised in death as they were in life, and are still subject to the overbearing gaze of men. Even in death, their bodies are sexualised as they lay side by side in underwear and blood (see below). Again, the women are depicted as commodities that are extinguished once they loose their usefulness to men.
And so! It seems that amidst some progressive representations of women in Watchmen, such as strong females that kick some ass and are not afraid to make sexual advances or seek sexual fulfilment, they are also often punished for such behaviour, with no woman's actions in the film being free from consequences. Stagnant images of women's traditional roles and responsibilities permeate the film, presenting a portrayal of women that is wholly torn between classic and modern images. But that is not to say that my interpretation cannot be argued against! Watch the Watchmen and voice your opinion!
Thanks for reading :)