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The Culturally Constituted Gaze: Fetishizing the Feminine from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen to Zack Snyder's Watchmen

By Paul Petrovic

Critics of the graphic novel Watchmen (1986-7) traditionally marginalize Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre) in favor of mapping out more overt complex characters like Dr. Manhattan or Rorschach. Even monographs on Alan Moore's fiction, such as Annalisa Di Liddo's otherwise illuminating study, fail to address both the archetypal referents and the psychological and sexual politics inherent to Laurie's character.[1] Only Sarah Donovan and Nick Richardson articulate the complexities of the women in Moore and Gibbons's Watchmen, yet none have yet analyzed the one-dimensional, pornographic depiction of women as Zack Snyder's film adaptation of Watchmen (2009) constructs them. This essay, then, offers a corrective to the undervalued Silk Spectre, positioning her characterizations in the graphic novel and film against one another to assess each not in terms of historical fidelity to the other. Rather, the essay articulates why the visual choices that Snyder makes defuse so much of Laurie's sexual resistance found in Moore's text. That is to say, Snyder's Watchmen fetishizes Laurie's initial sexuality, recapitulating that erotic power into a far more regressive and objectified passivity.

Sketching out the criticism testifies to the disinterest with which scholars view Laurie. For example, in one of the first critical studies on Watchmen, Brent Fishbaugh rightly attends to Laurie's trajectory in the narrative, but ultimately sees her as little more than a counterpoint to Rorschach. Fishbaugh contends, "While Rorschach raises the question of ‘nature versus nurture,' Laurie answers it to some extent when she breaks free of her mother's conditioning and begins to make realizations and choices for herself" (197). Jamie A. Hughes's research concerns Watchmen in light of Louis Althusser's theory on the necessity of antagonistic classes as represented by Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) and Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan) (554). While such an idea breathes new life into readings of the text's end, it neglects Laurie almost completely. Elizabeth Rosen's analysis reveals a similar neglect even as it focuses on the role that nostalgia plays in forming Rorschach, Nite Owl, Sally Jupiter, and Ozymandias's identities. Again the lack of study on Laurie stands out. James Bucky Carter explores Watchmen and terrorism through a post-9/11 lens and draws "connections between Ozymandias and Osama bin Laden" (103). Brandy Ball Blake comes close to a sustained analysis in her examination of psychological trauma and the way that Laurie "contends with the rape of her mother" (para. 3), but Blake soon abandons that thought to concentrate on Dr. Manhattan and the way that time, and his existence outside of it, complicates his traumas. Finally, although Bryan D. Dietrich is interested in how Laurie and Dan Dreiberg have "so descended into their alternate identities that they cannot remember how they are without the costume, without the cape," he too is ultimately more invested in how pictorial stains repeat and are alluded to throughout the course of Watchmen. Time and again, Laurie Juspeczyk is treated like a secondary character in critics' analyses. The release of the Watchmen film, however, reveals anew the subtlety with which Moore and Gibbons instilled agency in Laurie.

These criticisms on Snyder's adaptation choices are not to be viewed through the restrictive and essentialist complaint about the filmic Watchmen's lack of narrative fidelity. As film theorist Robert Stam notoriously asks, "Do not adaptations 'adapt to' changing environments and changing tastes, as well as to a new medium, with its distinct industrial demands, commercial pressures, censorship taboos, and aesthetic norms?" (3). Stam's question, of course, is merely rhetorical. Any transfer of a text's medium or authorship will inevitably alter its meaning, however minutely, as the content is recoded and reinterpreted. That itself is not the problem. What this essay analyzes is the extent to which Snyder's "changing tastes" reveal an adverse taxonomy of sexual objectification. Such a maneuver fetishizes Laurie, a character who works so resolutely in Moore and Gibbons's graphic novel to attain resistance from her familial and social objectification. The filmic Watchmen thus simplifies Moore and Gibbons's most important female character into a subjectless object.

It is best to briefly sketch Laurie's role in the Watchmen narrative. Laurie is thrown into the superhero mix by her mother Sally, the first Silk Spectre, who feels nostalgic about her crime-fighting past and tries to relive it through Laurie. However, neither Sally nor Laurie is able to circumvent the power relations instituted by the patriarchal society in which they belong, so their respective empowerment can only be understood when constructed through sexuality. Indeed, Laurie's costume is self-consciously designed to be form-fitting, with her mother sexualizing her as more of a fetish model than a crime-fighter. Picking up on this point, Sarah Donovan and Nick Richardson contend that "it is acceptable for women to be crime fighters (and thereby take on a masculine social role), but only if their femininity remains beyond question (by their dressing according to a hyperfeminine social role)" (176). Similarly attacking the cultural stigma of the sexualized body, Florence Dee Boodakian suggests a coded surveillance inherent to eroticism, writing, "The culturally constituted gaze is more than a cultural lens because it has this auto-surveillance aspect that implies a controlling of the […] body for culturally determined reasons that later become internalized" (63, emphasis in original).[2] For their part, both Sally and Laurie accept and internalize the restrictions placed on them by society, wearing costumes that certify their submission to the patriarchal surveillance, which is made worse because Sally designs Laurie's suggestive garb. The filmic Watchmen tries to deconstruct notions of the sexualized woman by being overt about this kind of sexual construction, changing Laurie's costume from a short black skirt and yellow gauze material in the graphic novel to a seemingly intertextual gloss of Comic Bad Girl dominatrix garb through her latex and thigh-high boots (Figures 1-2).[3]

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However, though it seeks to hybridize the two, Snyder's Watchmen loses a clear sense of where postmodern irony is intended and where simple objectification comes into play. In an interview with Anne Thompson of Variety, Snyder ignores any mention of a patriarchal influence to the costume's construction, positing instead a naïve reading that Laurie "is clearly using sex as a weapon" (para. 6). Such gross simplification misreads the extent of patriarchal dominion over Sally and Laurie and, furthermore, collapses all of patriarchy's desires onto Laurie herself.

Boodakian's notion of the culturally constituted gaze, despite lacking any visible referent to feminist film criticism, builds on Laura Mulvey's concept of a male gaze instituted through the apparatus of the camera. Indeed, remember Mulvey's central argument: "The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. 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" (11). Especially in the film, Laurie's costume seems constructed to such a mandate, offering a culturally determined and auto-surveyed objectification. Sadly, this notion of a patriarchally mediated costume extends far beyond Laurie's Silk Spectre identity. In both texts, the United States government tolerates her only insofar as they can depend on her body to placate Jon sexually. In their eyes she is only useful to keep him from becoming disinterested in protecting earth and, specifically, the United States.

Although both texts allow Laurie to be dismissive toward her costume, when Laurie enjoys a dinner conversation with Dan Dreiberg (the Nite Owl), the filmic Watchmen adopts a facetious rather than critical tone. As the graphic narrative of Watchmen conceives of the scene, Laurie asks Dan, "Do you remember that costume? With that stupid little short skirt and the neckline going down to my navel? God, that was so dreadful" (I.25). Her choice of adjective descriptors precludes an ironic reading and testifies to the rancor she felt when she donned the apparel her mother made her wear. However, the filmic Watchmen tellingly disposes of such bitterness when Laurie reminisces, "Do you remember my costume? All that tight latex… it was awful." Lacking any negative descriptors, Laurie's attitude here becomes coy and playful. The film features no residue of the culturally constituted gaze, or the psychological oppression that it fortifies, even though the graphic novel deliberately emphasizes this damage. Instead, whereas Moore and Gibbons construct Laurie as consciously resentful toward her mother for the attire that she wears while on patrol, Snyder's adaptation foregoes this kind of acknowledgment. The effect of such a change is that the filmic Watchmen conceals any recognition that it exists within a patriarchal world mediated by forces which objectify and otherwise marginalize social roles for women.

The next noteworthy difference between the two Watchmen texts occurs when Laurie and Jon begin to make love. Laurie mentions that licking Jon's finger is "like licking a flash light battery," conveying eroticism but denying the kind of fetishized close-ups in which pornographic features specialize (III.4) (Figure 3).

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Indeed, Moore and Gibbons's text obviates that need precisely because Laurie's words already narrate what transpires between the panels, what Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, following generations of artists, calls "the gutter" (66).[4] Moore and Gibbons exploit the gutter for two diametrically opposite purposes. First, they allow readers to imagine scandalous imagery greater than they could ever include in the panel, and, second, Moore and Gibbons prevent Laurie from being objectified because of her sexuality. As French theorist Guy Gauthier writes, "to choose, for a figurative image, is not only to decide what is going to be visible, but also what must be concealed" (11). By censoring the images in the panel, Moore and Gibbons enable Laurie to continue being viewed as a woman, and not just as a fetishized sex object. Contrary to this concealment of the erotic, Snyder frames the scene to include extended hyper-sexualized close-ups of Laurie's open mouth and the suggestive image of Jon's thumb sliding into it (Figures 4-5).

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Furthermore, the visual power relations invert between the graphic novel and film. In the graphic novel, Laurie licks him. In the filmic text, Jon thrusts his thumb into her mouth, positioning him as the dominant subject and Laurie as the sexual object who exists to fulfill him.

A further distinction between the two Watchmen texts lies in Laurie's realization of the two Jons that she finds in bed with her. In Moore and Gibbons's Watchmen, Laurie is irrefutably horrified that Jon would transgress against their sexual intimacy by generating a multiplicity of selves to pleasure her, and she screams out in terror. Moore and Gibbons position Jon in a state of confusion himself, pleading, "Laurie? Don't be upset. I thought you'd enjoy it" (III.4). Ominously, Jon cannot envisage what will please Laurie, despite his ability to see through the constructs of time. Snyder, for his part, reframes Laurie's sexual, and subjective, resistance to the three-way by seeming surprised but not entirely horrified, which is a tacit suggestion that such sexual progressiveness has already occurred. The film emphasizes the past tense on the verb, with Jon trying to calm Laurie by saying, "Please don't be upset. I always thought you liked this." The use of "liked," with its stress on their already having experimented with such coupling, certifies that what was suggested through her nonchalance is, indeed, an irreproachable fact. Critics can, of course, contend that such progressiveness merely keeps the characters up-to-date with present-day discourse on the acceptance of sexual experimentation in the bedroom. However, such a move enters into a logical, as well as a linguistic, double bind. In the film, Laurie is positioned as the body which multiple Jons penetrate, which again relegates her to the role of object. His sexual dominance forces her to adhere to models of patriarchal subservience, even though Laurie's response, weakly vocalized, contends that "I don't—No. I don't want that." Moreover, and more severely, the linguistic pun of "Jons" becomes noticeable, setting up Laurie as a woman who is in effect prostituting herself. Regardless of Snyder's intention, his alteration here only affirms the extent of Laurie's internalization of the culturally constituted gaze.

When Jon abandons earth for Mars, she becomes, as she herself says, "so damn disposable" to the government (V.10). Afterwards, Laurie finds meaning to her life with Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl), but again Moore and Snyder suggest different aims through Laurie's dependence on sex to recover agency as she comes to terms with her own confused familial history. In the film, following the trajectory of the graphic novel, the two have sex in Archimedes, Dan's airship, after rescuing civilians from a burning building. Energized by the vitality of their actions, they are spurred toward sexual fulfillment after Dan's inability earlier in the night. By focusing on their embrace through a full-body shot (Figure 6), Moore and Gibbons neither privilege nor fetishize the titillation of these two individuals traumatized and reaching out for any kind of comfort, be it sexual or psychological (VII.27).

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Rather, they again exploit the gutter to suggest action through its ability to suspend time and motion. While Laurie's boots are present in the eighth panel, they are not cut to and focused on apart from her body, which, in turn, does not fetishize their appearance. The filmic Watchmen, however, amplifies the erotic into soft-core pornography (Figures 7-9).

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Boodakian, in her analysis of erotic aesthetics, states that "[i]t is the covering/clothing that creates the sexual titillation, rather than the fully nude body itself […]And while this works to enhance sexual titillation, it has nothing to do with erotic power" (15). Snyder uses frequent cuts and tracking shots during the sex scene to highlight and fetishize Laurie's body, destabilizing her erotic power, which should be present in the scene, and instead favoring empty titillation. Laurie's thigh-high boots are given extensive coverage by the camera as it tracks up her leg, all but conferring more attention on her costume than on her actual body. She does not wield the erotic power; only her costume wields it.

The filmic Watchmen also surrenders to commercial pressure by focusing on Laurie during this encounter. In the graphic novel, Dan felt "so impotent" earlier that night, before they endeavored on the rescue (VII.19). Afterwards, though, Dan internalizes the excitement and gains renewed virility with Laurie. Their lovemaking finds its metaphoric fulfillment in Laurie's accidental trigger of Archimedes's flamethrower through the night sky, which is an image that affirms Dan's orgasm. Against this unambiguous referent, Snyder again falls prey to fetishizing Laurie's sexual satisfaction. Snyder privileges Laurie's orgasm by cutting between medium shots of Laurie's body gyrating and close-up shots of her face contorting with mounting pleasure. When Laurie accidentally triggers Archimedes's flamethrower here, it seems to signify her orgasm. Yet this scene is superfluous since there has been no prior indication that Laurie's orgasm is a newfound experience. Further, it perpetuates a filmic focus on women during the peak of the sexual encounter. Writing on the gendered treatment of the body in pornographic media, Linda Williams asserts that "even when the pleasure of viewing has traditionally been constructed for masculine spectators, as is the case in most traditional heterosexual pornography, it is the female body in the grips of an out-of-control ecstasy that has offered the most sensational sight" (4). This same single-minded focus on Laurie's pleasure, and orgasm, affirms that Snyder has been lulled into appropriating the tenets of pornographic discourse at the expense of being able to clearly attribute the orgasm to Dan. At best, by forcing the symbolism onto Laurie, the filmic Watchmen collapses the symbolism into kitsch.[5] At worst, it consigns Laurie to be little more than a doll trumpeted out to be penetrated and then discarded.

The idea that the filmic Laurie resists the culturally constituted gaze receives another strike at the end of Watchmen, when everyone has gathered at Ozymandias's lair. After Laurie, Jon, and Dan succumb to accepting silence as the only way to keep Ozymandias's vision for world peace afloat, Snyder again includes a moment that has no correlative in Moore and Gibbons's Watchmen. What is problematic is that this aesthetic decision constructs another scene where Laurie is relegated to a secondary object to be passed around. Snyder closes the scene at Ozymandias's lair with Laurie giving Jon a final kiss goodbye before he leaves earth for good (Figure 10).

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This moment, far from adding an operatic, melancholy touch, suggests a psychological indeterminacy between her desire to remain with Jon or Dan. She ends up waffling in her affection, seeming like a child rather than the grown woman that Moore and Gibbons testify she's become. Indeed, although both texts show how Laurie learns the truth about her father, the Comedian, while with Jon on Mars, Jon becomes the expository mouthpiece in the film, telling her about the familial connections rather than letting her come to them via epiphany, as Moore and Gibbons construct the scene. Time and again Snyder devalues the importance that Laurie has in the text, abandoning her so that he can play with the visual iconography of the era or hyper-masculinize a(nother) fight scene.

After these numerous instances of objectification, Snyder struggles to return Laurie to the status of a real and subjective being. The penultimate refrain of the text, uttered by Jon to Ozymandias in the graphic novel to sober him about peace's lasting potential, is that "Nothing ever ends," especially not world conflicts (XII.27). Snyder, however, transposes that line from Jon to Laurie in a closing conversation she has with Dan. As she opines in her first true embrace of agency, "I know what Jon would say, nothing ends. Nothing ever ends." This iteration of the refrain should shift the power relations that were once tied to Jon onto Laurie. That is to say, she should be privileged precisely because this line is the haunting refrain that so much of the text cumulatively operates under, from the opening panel of the smiley face button to the closing repetition of Seymour's smiley-face t-shirt. However, precisely because the film has hitherto deconstructed all semblances of Laurie's agency, the line fails to find the prophetic peaks which Moore and Gibbons so successfully scaled. Instead, the line becomes a limp attempt to tap into the graphic novel's power, failing since Laurie has been so thoroughly determined by the culturally mediating gaze. Indeed, Laurie does not even receive her own words in this last gasp of an equalizing gesture. She is merely the vocal effect of what she affirms to be Jon's words.

Snyder has contended in interviews that his adaptation is exhaustive in its fidelity to the graphic novel, quipping that "I'm certain I changed 'Watchmen' less than the Coen brothers changed 'No Country for Old Men'" (Itzkoff para. 8). This essay reveals the fallacy of that claim and, moreover, it critiques the magnitude of Snyder's specious language. Although Laurie Juspeczyk certainly operates with sexual characteristics throughout Moore and Gibbons's Watchmen, her creators are careful not to overextend the sense of sexual objectification. After numerous other Hollywood filmmakers' all-out failures to adapt Alan Moore's work, critics' hostility seems tempered by the fact that Snyder's adaptation is not an outright disaster. However, critics who have focused overwhelmingly on such issues as global politics in Snyder's Watchmen overlook its regressive gender politics (17).[6] Critics seem to have accepted this marginalized and pornographic depiction of women as an unfortunate side-effect, if they even recognize it as unfortunate. Nonetheless, the film's depiction of Laurie reveals that still greater attention needs to be given to the construction of the feminine, not so much because these films honestly care about bestowing agency to female characters, but precisely because they do not care that their portrayals of women are pornographic and part of the industrial demands of Hollywood cinema.

Notes

[1] Di Liddo's disinterest is best exemplified when, after listing how the male Watchmen characters draw from distinct comic archetypes, she neglects to include any referent between Laurie's Silk Spectre and Charlton Comics's character the Phantom Lady (56-7), as Moore has indicated in numerous interviews.

[2] Boodakian is concerned with auto-surveillance of the nude body in particular, arguing that society is taught to hide it away from any kind of panoptic gaze, even on beaches, but this aspect of nudity is circumvented here because it will be covered in greater detail later in the essay.

[3] It is worth noting that Snyder's re-imagining of Silk Spectre's outfit paradoxically matches up with much of DC Comics's current revival of the Phantom Lady character. Meanwhile, representative examples of Bad Girls can be found in the exaggerated appearance of characters like Chaos Comics's Lady Death and many of Image Comics's early female-centered titles. Summarizing the Bad Girl, Geoff Klock states that they become "more pinup girls in capes than genuine characters" (111). Jeffrey A. Brown is more descriptive, stating that they are "uniformly illustrated as impossibly sexy, silicone injected, and scantily clad babes wielding phallically obvious swords" (176).

[4] In The System of Comics, Thierry Groensteen builds on McCloud, articulating how this hermeneutic exclusive to the graphic narrative medium operates, for "More than a zone on the paper, it [the gutter] is the interior screen on which every reader projects the missing image (or images)" (113).

[5] This sense of kitsch finds corroboration since the sex scene is scored to Leonard Cohen's classic song "Hallelujah," an ironic song choice that undermines any sense of Dan and Laurie's sexual, but more specifically psychological, release.

[6] To be fair, critic Ron Thomas is insightful in his consideration of Snyder's narrative end choice concerning the destruction of New York City. Rather than utilizing the teleported in "alien" squid that Moore and Gibbons weave throughout multiple back stories, Snyder opts instead to have Jon's teleportation from Mars back to New York City trigger tachyons that raze the city. Thomas argues then that the U.S. and the Soviets unite "against Dr. Manhattan, the American Doomsday device gone awry, and it puts the United States in a subordinate role" (17).

References

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