Man and Super Woman-Feminist Ethics and Superheros
Welcome back, heroes.
With the release of Before Watchmen, this seems like a great time to look back at Alan Moore’s classic and see what the modern day master has to teach us. But any attempt to scratch the surface of Moore’s work takes us, quickly, to some very, very dark places. So before proceeding, a warning. This piece starts in a very dark place on a very dark topic. This next part deals with rape and sexual violence, so if you don’t want to read that, I direct you the back button now.
Probably the most horrifying, stomach clenching scene in Watchmen happens at the beginning of the second issue. I refer to the rape of Sally Jupiter, aka The Silk Spectre, by Edward Blake, the Comedian. Here’s the scene from the original comic:
In addition to highlighting Blake’s moral ambiguity and psychopathy, this scene also plays as a great introduction to the evils feminist ethics seek to address. Note Blake’s reasoning for coming onto the Spectre: “you gotta have some reason for wearin’ an outfit like this”. The Spectre’s initial refusal is ignored as simple toying, and after resisting violently she is beaten for withholding what Blake assumed he could get without effort. She is rescued by Hooded Justice, another superhero, feeding the assumption that Silk Spectre could not take care of herself. After Hooded Justice beats the stuffing out of the Comedian, he turns to Silk Spectre and tells her to “Get up…and for God’s sake cover yourself”, implicitly linking Sally’s refusal to handle herself (“Get up”) and her state of dress (“cover yourself”) with her culpability in the attack.
(By the way, I’ve got to give Zach Synder credit, he got this scene horrfyingly correct down to every gut-wrenching detail in the film version of Watchmen)
Those familiar with the story know it doesn’t end there. Sally Jupiter later goes back to Blake, and the two form a relationship which culminates in the birth of Laurie Juspeczyk, the second Silk Spectre. This weighs on Sally, who understands that, as a rape victim, she should hate her attacker. Both her daughter and her husband ostracize Sally and resent her for not fighting back in every way possible against her attacker, even after the attack. A more thorough analysis has been done on this topic (whose final conclusion I disagree with, but the narrative analysis is spot on), but the end result is the same, Sally Jupiter’s attempts to define her own identity are rebuffed at every turn. When she dresses like a female superhero, it is used as a justification to rape her. After being brutally assaulted, she is identified as responsible. And after the attack, her family expects her to behave as a rape victim and despise herself for having a child with the man who assaulted her.
Moore’s point: female superheros are not treated as rational beings with morality and ability on par with their male counterparts. Instead, they become less than human objects which are expected to behave in the roles they are placed.
Oh, and the female superheros often perpetuate this myth themselves.
Recall Sally Jupiter’s reaction to her daughter finding the Tijuana Bible- Sally was pleased someone had thought of her that way. She’d embraced the life of the objectified woman- and when she found herself behaving counter to her image, it shocked even herself. Only at the end of the comic could she bring herself to cry for Edward Blake, her attacker and her lover- but also her choice. In the same scene, she gives away the Tijuana Bible.
Final point: women should be allowed to define themselves, just like men. But any attempt to do so is stymied by a variety of factors. Especially in comics.
********DISCUSSION OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE OVER****************
This bring us to our topic for today: feminist ethics. The basis of feminist ethics is that traditional philosophy, and the ethics which we derive from it, has devalued and discounted the female perspective. And to be fair, they are absolutely correct. According to many early psychologists, “the very traits that have been traditionally associated with women’s goodness, their concern for and sensitivity to the needs of others, are the very qualities that have led psychologists to describe them as morally inferior to men.” This is why the earliest feminist ethicists, namely Nel Noddings and Carol Gilligan, focused on critiquing traditional ethics which argued women were inferior simply by virtue of their differences. Noddings further argued that many traditional “female” traits were in reality the superior ones, and that traditional ethics had replaced those natural tendencies with rigid, philosophical, yet inferior replacements.
Later, a second branch of feminist ethics, the liberal feminists, rose up, arguing that the subjugation of women was due to social norms, not biological imperatives. To wit:
Liberal feminists maintain that the primary cause of women’s subordination to men is a set of social norms and formal laws that make it hard for women to succeed in the public world. Unless women have the same opportunities that men have, women will not be able to achieve their full potential in the academy, the forum, the marketplace, the operating room, and so forth. Although many people think that liberal feminism is passe and that the ethical issues that preoccupied it have been resolved, truth be told as of 2009, the Bill of (Women’s) Rights proclaimed by NOW in 1967 in the United States, for example, has yet to be fully implemented. U.S. women’s reproductive rights are still not secure and the Equal Rights Amendment has yet to pass. Moreover, as of 2009, the average U.S. female worker still earns about 20% less than the average male worker (Maher, The Wall Street Journal, 2008); only 17 of 100 U.S. Senators are women (Confessore and Hakim, NYTimes, January 21, 2009); and as of December, 2008, only 13 Fortune 500 CEOs are women (CNNMoney.com, 2009). If the goal of liberal feminism is to push women full force into the public world and catapult women to its higher orbits, then its work is far from done. Women tend to do mostly dependency work—the work upon which Eva Feder Kittay focuses—and, in the public world, that caregiving work is some of the lowest-status, lowest paid work to be had.
Far be it from us to weigh in on such weighty issues. We, as men, do have a role to play in feminism, but we will also acknowledge that many schools of feminism seem to clash, and we are thus reluctant to call one school superior to another. We do, however, affirm the central tenet of feminism, that women should, in all ways possible, be regarded as equal to men in their ability to utilize their talents freely and ethically.
While we can’t weigh in on differing schools of feminism, we will weigh in on women superheroes. First of all, we’ve come a long way. Thank God the days are past when the Justice
League Society of America recruited Wonder Woman to serve alongside them as a secretary.
But that doesn’t mean we’re past the point where women superheroes are valued as more than stock character types. For example, up until the 2011 DC reboot, this was Amanda Waller:
Amanda Waller was a take-no-prisoners, ass kicking, downright awesome woman. She was slightly morally ambiguous, like Wolverine, which only made her more amazing, and she’s nicknamed “The Wall.” How badass is she? Well, here’s Batman taking her on, and failing:
Amanda Waller is a well developed hero who is interesting, complex, and has every opportunity to succeed based on her smarts, strength, and being tough as nails. Which is why DC tried to “improve” her in the reboot…
…and failed. Remember our earlier point about female superheroes painted into roles? Well, DC took a great character and pushed her back into a traditional role. The new Amanda Waller’s government outfit shows as much lacy bra and cleavage as possible. ‘Cause that’s what super-heroines “look like”. They rebooted a whole universe and managed to leave behind the most interesting woman in it.
Now, I’m not saying the “sexy super-heroine” can’t be a unique character. Emma Frost is a great play on the anti-hero, and her use of her sexuality makes her character more interesting. And God bless Chris Nolan for making Catwoman an interesting, layered, and conflicted protagonist. But these are the exceptions: for each great Catwoman, there are dozens of Black Widows who are the token female of a super team – often the lamest member (See: Wasp, Wonder Woman is in the bottom half of the JLA) or the homicidal one who tries to kill everyone (Dark Phoenix, Scarlett Witch), every one one of them in heels and skin tight outfits with no pockets.
We’ll go more into feminist ethics in the next post, but we can’t let that Amanda Waller thing stand. Graphic Policy has a petition out to bring back the old Amanda Waller. And we signed it, and hope you will too. Because women should be more than an image – the best of them are our partners, friends, and allies whom we stand alongside as we change the world for the better. So guess what? They deserve every opportunity to succeed or fail in that task, in the manner they choose, without having to fight an image problem as well.