HBO’s new TV series “Watchmen” premiered on Oct. 20. It serves as a “remixed” sequel to Alan Moore’s original comic of the same name, which gained widespread popularity at the time of its original release in 1986-1987. Known for other works including but not limited to, “V for Vendetta,” “Watchmen” and “The Killing Joke,” Moore has made a historic name for himself amidst the genre of comic books and graphic novels. As a fan of his work myself, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the philosophical and alternative edge he’s brought to the superhero genre.
As an artist and storyteller, the man can write like few others can. But it’s hard for me to admit that Moore’s narratives are incredible, yet he writes like he hasn’t interacted with a woman in his entire life.
I was in high school when I watched “V for Vendetta” for the first time and fell in love with the movie immediately. One of the elements that stood out to me was the protagonist named Evey. In short, she was incredible. She had the perfect balance of inner and outer strength and was an inspiring force alongside the mysterious vigilante “V.” The movie was fun, terrifying, philosophical and inspiring to my budding political heart.
But within the first few pages of the graphic novel, I could tell something was off. Evey wasn’t the strong yet vulnerable woman I had been enamoured with in the film. Instead, she was a victim, needing to be saved by V at nearly every turn. She was young – much younger than how she was depicted in the film – and a large part of her character was her growing infatuation with him. She was a victim of sexual violence in a way that felt very exhibitionist and wrong.
It was the first time I ever finished a book and realized I liked the movie more. The story still thrilled me in the same way the movie did – but the sexism was blatantly spread across the pages in ways that made me question why I had read through the whole novel at all.
There isn’t much more to be said about the victimization of women in media. I feel as though today, even the most clueless of sexist, male writers seem to at least understand that. But what I’ve only seen talked about recently is the problem with subjecting women to graphic, sexual violence as a means of tragedy porn to viewership. “V for Vendetta” was problematic across the spectrum of poor ways to depict women.
But I liked the story enough to give Moore another chance; I read and watched “The Killing Joke” next. And, predictably enough, I had an almost identical response to the story.
“The Killing Joke” was great. It was thought-provoking and unsettling, balancing psychological and physical violence in a perfect, disturbing exploration of Batman’s archnemesis, The Joker. While the movie left much to be desired in more ways than one, it was still enjoyable and left me impressed (as long as I ignored the first 15 minutes of the film).
But again, I was left with the same, visceral disappointment and my suspicions about Moore were all but confirmed: he can’t write women. Batgirl is subjected to mortifying sexual objectification and abuse in the comic with no resolution or regaining of her own personhood or power. Her abuse is meant for the horror of another man – in this case, her father – with no resolve or exploration of what it meant for her.
Fast forward several years, and I’m in my junior year of college in philosophy class. We were assigned to read Moore’s famous graphic novel “Watchmen.” This time, I came in supposedly “prepared” for what I was going to read. Like clockwork, I immensely enjoyed the novel and found it thrilling and disturbing in the best ways a book can deliver. But I also went in anticipating a fair dose of misogyny and still found myself shocked by the tone-deaf nature that Moore approaches sexual assault – again.
One of the minor characters (Silk Spectre) is raped in the novel, only to fall in love with her rapist and have his child later down the line. Her daughter, Silk Spectre II, one of the new members of the vigilante-superhero group that had been officially disbanded years ago, wears a revealing, impractical outfit and serves a passive role as the lover to two different men in the story, and as a plot-twist element when it is revealed that she is the daughter to the terrifying former “hero” who raped her mother. Her only real moment of stark heroism is immediately shut down when her gun does nothing to the bulletproof villain.
Funny enough, I almost saw a roundabout point to the narrative choice of her mother falling in love with her rapist. “Watchmen” is meant to serve as a grim, realistic depiction of what would actually happen should superheroes actually exist in the real world. And, for the most part, it doesn’t seem too far from the truth. At best, superheroes would be uninterested and passive. At worst, they would be fascist terrorists, just as “Watchmen” skillfully depicts.
In the real world, female superheroes would be expected to serve as sex symbols to civlians, just as Silk Spectre and her daughter were. And when you grow up with that traumatic expectation in your life as Silk Spectre did, any abuse you would suffer would translate to love in the mind of the victim. It’s the cycle of abuse that happens far too often outside Watchmen’s dystopian narrative.
But I’m not going to give Moore that much credit. Not when sexual abuse seems to be his go-to defining characteristic for his female characters, who have little other purpose in his stories separate from objectifying violence.
I was disappointed when not once in the numerous discussions my class held about the novel did anyone bring up the sexism. It’s a great book with a plethora of philosophical constructs to deconstruct that willfully leaves women out of the deeper narrative.
I’ll be curious to see that, since the “Watchmen” show has no involvement from Moore himself, how the depiction of female characters will change. But overall, I think it’s time that we talk about Moore in a different way. No one’s saying we can’t enjoy his work – I still do, despite its number of flaws – but even a comic book legend should not be exempt from criticism. With the influence Moore has on the world of comic books, there is no reason we shouldn’t consider what his influence has meant for women in media and women trying to work in an industry that profits off of graphic depictions of their dehumanization.
Samantha Walsh is a fourth year student majoring in English and special education. SW850037@wcupa.edu