Class: Approaches to Literary Study
Major: English & Writing, Class of 2016
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online presents a twofold definition of feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”1 This is perhaps the only place where feminism is defined so easily. Since its inception, feminism has expanded to include a myriad of subheadings and groups, each putting forth its own feminist criticism. These groups include, but are not limited to, the first, second and third waves of feminism, radical feminism, African-American feminism, queer theory, cyberfeminism, eco-feminism and post-feminism. There are certainly others (masculinity studies, for example, is an offshoot of feminism), but these are the largest and most historically important. Further complicating the matter is the fact that few women writers fall into one category, especially given that the groups are reaching their highest number of participants yet.
At the beginning, the women and goals of feminism were fairly simple, if having two main goals—namely suffrage and the abolishment of inequality—can be considered simple. The first wave of feminism covered all women writing and fighting for suffrage from the late 1700s to early 1900s. Of all the feminists then and thereafter, perhaps the most famous were Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Also important were Mary Wollstonecraft (author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” 1792) and Victoria Woodhull, whose writings on women’s rights to equality and suffrage would propel the group forward through the suffrage struggle. As Wollstonecraft wrote, “But, whether [a woman] be loved or neglected, her first wish should be to make herself respectable, and not to rely for all her happiness on a being subject to like infirmities with herself.”2
The decade between the early 1960s and the late 1970s belonged to the second-wave feminists. They were women of power, building off the independence women had exhibited during World War II and dovetailing their efforts with the American Civil Rights movement. These were the women who would finally see the fight for suffrage turn into a victory. The beginning of second-wave feminism is credited to Betty Friedan and her book The Feminine Mystique (1963), which nationally introduced the idea of the unhappiness of housewives deriving from something called “The feminine mystique, … a single, over-protective, life-restricting, future-deriving note for women.”3 During this time, organizations like the National Organization of Women (NOW) were founded and had a huge impact on women all over the United States. Second-wave feminists include Simone de Beauvoir, whose work Le deuxième sexe (trans. The Second Sex) (1972) continues to be important to contemporary feminists. Elaine Showalter turned toward how women were unrepresented in literature as writers and characters with her work A Literature of Their Own (1977). She implored women to not be afraid “to express anger and passion, to confront their own raging emotions instead of burying them or sublimating them into madness” and be “ready to risk the abuse of male critics by dealing honestly with the full range of female experience.”4
Third-wave feminism is the last division to have a particular time stamp, though it began in the 1990s and continues into present day. Third-wave is a mixture of all the divisions of feminism that currently exist, mostly focusing on responding to what third-wavers deem the failure of second-wave feminism. They seek to move away from the idea that feminism is an essentialist part of womanhood, especially in terms of its representation in media and stereotypes surrounding it. A prominent third-waver, who coined the term in 1991 in her essay “Becoming the Third Wave,” was Rebecca Walker. She wrote the essay in response to the Anita Hill case, in which Hill accused a nominee for the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment. The US Senate voted against Hill and sparked substantial feminist backlash. Third-wave feminism also sparked the riot grrrl movement, an underground community for music and art that literally screamed about women’s power and the right to be heard. Riot grrrls formed their own bands, such as Bikini Kill and L7, and they published many underground magazines filled with comments and editorials written by fellow riot grrrls. One of the first riot grrrl bands was headed by Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer for Bikini Kill and author of “The Riot Grrrl Manifesto.” Third-wave feminism can be seen as the sphere inhabited by academia, whereas the riot grrrl movement was for the young teens and women looking to express themselves through loud music and loud words. One potent issue to third-wavers and riot grrrls was sexual violence, particularly rape.
In terms of feminists without a specific time period, the most important were those who identified as radical feminists. As the word “radical” suggests, these women were not convinced by the ideals of equality and lobbied for a full overthrow of the patriarchal society, the downfall of the male-centric system. Early radical feminism began with the second-wave, but moved away from them and continued on a separate path to present day. Though different than Marxist feminists, these women relied (and continue to rely) heavily on Marxist ideas of revolution and overthrowing the ruling class. Prominent radical feminists included Ti-Grace Atkinson, who founded the original radical feminist group and wrote many pamphlets on the subject. Her most famous work is her novel Amazon Odyssey (1974), a collection of radical feminist essays with topics ranging from sex to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Two others were Ellen Willis and Shulamith Firestone, the co-founders of the radical feminist group Redstockings. Willis’s essay “Lust Horizons” contains the origin of the term “pro-sex.” Firestone’s most famous work, The Dialectic of Sex (1970), combined the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Marx, Wilhelm Reich, Sigmund Freud and Fredrick Engels into the seminal radical feminist book on politics.
Throughout the three waves of feminism, African-American women were constantly marginalized by the white, middle-class woman agenda. This eventually spawned the division of African-American feminism. Though it can be integrated into any other wave, it also speaks with its own important voice. It broke away from mainstream feminism to speak for the unique experiences of African-American women who believed—rightly so—that they were being shut out from other feminist groups. One important voice among the many was Audre Lorde, a black lesbian feminist, who wrote both fiery poetry and gripping essays such as “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” which openly used the discourse of slavery and racism to speak for the African-American woman’s plight. She told women to respond to racism with anger: “the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, or racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation.”5
Queer theory walks a borderline feminist road, but it would be remiss to not mention it here. Like the African-American feminists, queer theorists speak for the experiences and voices of (in this narrow context) lesbians who have long been shut out of the feminist movement. Alice Echols, for example, publishes queer theory essays from her post at the University of Southern California. Anita Cornwell is the author of Black Lesbianism in White America (1983). Adrienne Rich is as known for her poetry as for her theory essays, such as “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.”
One newer faction of feminism is known as cyberfeminism. The inspiration from the movement came from Donna Harraway and her 1985 essay “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.” Cyberfeminism attempts to connect women to the new age of technology, and to cyberspace in particular. Cyberfeminism promotes the idea that women are like cyborgs, and men don’t have the dominance they used to have due to the onset of all this new technology. Another cyberfeminist, Sadie Plant, says, “Cyberfeminism is information technology as a fluid attack, an onslaught on human agency and the solidity of identity.”6 These women saw “cyberspace as the possibility for multiple and polymorphous re-embodiments,” according to Rosi Braidotti, insofar as cyberspace creates an environment where identity can literally be constructed and changed over and over again.7
One section of feminism, post-feminism, came into being right before the riot grrrl movement, and it can be said that the riot grrls were rebelling against the ideas of this section more than anything else. The earliest use of the term “post-feminism” was by Susan Bolotin in her 1982 essay “Voices of a Post-Feminist Generation.” Post-feminism is the school of thought that insists females have reached their equality with males, and that nothing more should be said on the matter. It condemns those who continue to push for change in the social strata.
The list of feminist sections goes on; included are eco-feminism, transgender theory, populist feminism, masculinity studies and general gender theory. But these topics have been widely assumed under the umbrellas of other factions, or include the discussion of gender more broadly than feminism itself. With the factions I have listed, I would stress one very important thing: the aforementioned writers are hardly the only ones. There are important feminist theorists by the dozens whom I have not mentioned. It must be noted that until very recently, none of these labels actually existed, and therefore it is almost impossible to classify those writers who wrote on concepts or in between waves. Even the women I have listed could fall under two or more categories at times.
A great example that represents this proliferation of ideas as related to feminism is Alan Moore’s Watchmen. While it is more a demonstration of the stereotypes and ideas that feminists were writing against than those they were writing for, it depicts some of the most serious issues feminism has ever faced. The number of female characters in Watchmen can be counted on two hands. Of those ten women with speaking roles, only two are part of the league of superheroes—but for different reasons they are shown to be worse superheroes than the men. Moore does attempt to include queer feminists, but only three are lesbians, one of whom is dead before the book even begins. Only one is African-American, and only one has a nationality other than American. Despite all these disparities, however, these characters all deal with the stereotypical image of women, rape and violence against women, domesticity, prostitution, pornography and general patriarchal dominance. For the purposes of this essay, we will explore only one representation of these ideas—the representation that brings us to the most obvious example of objectification and stereotyping of women in the entire comic.
Laurie Juspeczyk enters the story in Chapter I, page 20, where she is staying in a government lab with Jon, otherwise known as Dr. Manhattan. Instantly, she showcases extreme emotion, flying off the handle in anger at Rorschach. Her entire purpose in this scene is to appear so emotional that Jon throws Rorschach out because he is upsetting her.
When she reenters the story, she is out to dinner with Dan Dreiberg, the second generation Nite Owl. Here she explains how she has spent the last eight years as a “kept woman” who is only “kept around to keep Jon relaxed and happy.”8 This phrase attacks Laurie’s initiative on two fronts, as it appears she is exemplifying the stereotypical woman who becomes, as explained by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “her husband’s holy refuge from the blood and sweat that inevitably accompanies a ‘life of significant action.’”9 One is that her literal purpose for eight years of her life has been to supply a man with comfort and sex. The other is that her life has been the reverse of “significant action,” rather “insignificant inaction.” This purpose is later ripped apart by her mother, when Laurie goes to visit her instead of attending the Comedian’s funeral. Her mother treats her like a government prostitute, saying that the only difference between Jon and an H-bomb is that “they didn’t have to get the H-bomb laid every once in a while.”10 Laurie’s treatment here and later by the government is more that of government property, recalling the idea that “what is required of a ‘normal’ feminine sexuality is oddly evocative of the characteristics of the status of a commodity.”11
Interestingly enough, and despite these claims, it appears to be Laurie herself who is more focused on the sexual aspect of her and Jon’s relationship. Upon discovering that Jon has literally been dividing his attention between their sex life and his work, she decides to leave him. Though this could be seen as her one act of independence, it is undercut because her anger stems from Jon’s inattentiveness during sex. Only if we accept the idea that “sensual pleasure has as much to do with cultural identity as it has to do with physical sensation” can we understand why Laurie almost desperately throws herself into the arms of another man, Dan Dreiberg, so quickly.12 The loss of Jon has caused her to suffer a loss of identity. Yes, Laurie is exhibiting stereotypical feminine qualities, but once again “the feminine finds itself defined as lack, deficiency, or as imitation and negative image of the subject.”13
The following scene where she and Dan are getting mugged is the only time in the entire book where Laurie showcases her “superhero” abilities. It must be noted that Laurie most certainly holds her own against the gang that attacks her and Dan, yet it is also one of the most subtle instances of Laurie’s character being undermined. As soon as the fighting stops, multiple frames on pages 15 and 16 of chapter III make a point of highlighting Laurie’s bared cleavage and leg almost up to her hip. The previous fight scene, once possibly rendered a show of her strength, now becomes highly eroticized. Now, the act of fighting can be seen not as a method of self-defense, but rather as an action to arouse male passion. If we take Catherine MacKinnon’s belief that “Women cope with objectification through trying to meet the male standard, and measure their self-worth by the degree to which they succeed,” this can be seen as Laurie at once trying to meet the standards of male dominance while also showcasing her objectification.14 Her text, too, attempts to squash any bud of female power that might have been seen, as she tells Dan she’s going to “think [her] relationship over …[and] See if [she] can come up with one good reason to stick around.”15 Despite her show of strength, she has still created her life up until that point to be around a man, and now she has no direction because she is on her own. To use the words of Alison Light, “Romance thus emerges as a form of oppressive ideology which works to keep women in their socially and sexually subordinate place.”16
She may spend the night at a hotel, but the next time she is seen she is returning to her and Jon’s apartment. We can only speculate what might have happened if Jon had been there, though her actions can be seen as her defenses breaking and returning to the man that she depends on. In any event, when she gets there, she discovers that Jon has fled to Mars and that the government is confiscating all their things for fear of cancerous radiation. Only one frame—the first frame—of this scene, on page 23 of chapter III, shows Laurie distraught from Jon’s absence. In the other frames she is raging against the government for their taking her material possessions and blaming her for Jon’s leaving. This description of her actions conforms to stereotypes, and it is not a kind one: “Emblems of filthy materiality, committed only to their own private ends, these women are accidents of nature, deformities meant to repel…”17 The agent that takes her in for cancer screening crudely tells her that her “meal ticket has flown the coop” and now she’s “in big trouble” because she no longer has a man to provide for her and protect her.18
Laurie answers this comment by running back into the arms of Dan Dreiberg. She continues to rail against the government for taking “her” money—which she only possessed because of Jon’s work with the government. She belittles herself, calling herself “disposable” and “leftover” until Dan offers to let her stay at his place.19 Once there, it takes only three frames until Laurie shows an amount of cleavage that sends Dan away to bed, unable to sleep, muttering “Hell and damnation.”20 To say that Dan has been bewitched by her beauty would not be a stretch—but nor would it be a stretch to connect this to the idea that “All witchcraft comes from carnal Lust which is in Women insatiable.”21 Laurie seems to be embodying the female lustiness, from which no man is safe.
After this scene, Laurie’s actions become almost comically stereotypical and completely sexualized. She is supposed to have been a superhero for years, but she admits that crime “on the news scare[s] the hell out of” her.22 When checking out Dan’s mechanical flying owl in the basement, hitting one button almost burns the house down and he has to rescue her. She only appears to find Dan attractive once he takes off his glasses. She then proceeds to apparently seduce him. We are supposed to find this romantic because the text believes it is a given that the act will be filed “as an attribute of vanity … to which women are legendarily thought to be excessively prey,” which Abigail Solomon Godeau suggests is yet another stereotype perpetrated by the patriarchy.23 Dan takes on the persona of the virtuous male, asking “Jesus, Laurie, are you sure you…” at which she cuts him off with “Shh.”24
Despite having just been an emotional wreck over Jon, Laurie’s emotions of desire and love seem to flip towards Dan. When Dan is unable to perform during the following attempt at sex, Laurie makes several assumptions. One is that the problem isn’t her, as she says after Dan’s apology: “It doesn’t matter. I know how it is when something isn’t right.” 25She says “something,” as if it doesn’t relate to her, because she is confident in her abilities as a seductress and as an object of male passion. The other assumption is that Dan will want to try again. As she says: “We’ve got as long as it takes. And don’t worry. You’re doing fine.”26 It does not occur to her that perhaps she is the problem simply because Dan isn’t interested in her. His interest and sexual passion are something she takes for granted. As Rosalind Coward says, “The real problem lies in women’s readiness to buy into the myths of sexual desirability as the ultimate source of female potency, as if for women the only power they can wield is sexual power.”27
After Dan admits that perhaps the costume would allow him to feel less “impotent,” Laurie is quick to suggest taking Dan’s ship out.28 Somehow or another, this new opportunity to show her strength—saving the people from the burning building—is used to degrade her image even further. When the victims ask who she is, Laurie replies, “I’m Smoky the Bear’s secret mistress.”29 She also tells them that she doesn’t “care about [their] ‘allergies’ or [their] ‘medicine’” but to “just get in the ship, you asshole.”30 Even in this moment of crises, when Laurie could portray a number of other stereotypes (such as the rescuing angel), she puts herself in the role of the prostitute and the emotionally detached woman. This “typical” degradation of the female takes on new power when it comes from Laurie herself. Perhaps the answer lies, as Adrienne Rich believes, in the fact that “taught to view our bodies as our totality … many women have become dissociated from their own bodies … viewing themselves as objects to be possessed by men rather than as the subjects of an existence.”31 After all the victims leave the ship, Laurie immediately turns to kiss Dan and undress him. In the end, consistently conscious of her own image, Laurie asks “Dan, was tonight good? Did you like it? Did the costume make it good?”32 These questions provide further evidence of Laurie dealing with her objectification by measuring her self-worth to the level at which she succeeds. It can also be used as proof for the idea that “All women live in sexual objectification the way fish live in water.”33
Perhaps the most important thing that Laurie does in the entirety of Watchmen is convince Jon to come back to Earth, but even in that she represents a negative nature. The purpose of this trip should be to convince Jon to remember his compassion. However, he is not impressed, because Laurie was his “only link, [his] only concern with the world.”34 Because he no longer possesses Laurie (since she’s now with Dan), he has no care about the rest of the Earth. Though Laurie does originally attempt to convince Jon to come back due to her belief that humanity is worth saving, she continuously falls into a narcissistic trap, constantly turning the world’s troubles back onto her own. They discuss her first memory, her life and in the end the focal point of the chapter is not Jon’s future return to Earth, but rather a discovery of the identity of Laurie’s father. Also, the only reason that Jon returns to Earth is because he now sees humanity as a bunch of Laurie-replicas. As Laurie says, “But … if me, my birth, if that’s a thermodynamic miracle… I mean, you could say that about anybody in the world!”35 She cannot inspire him to do the right thing, but she can use his obsession with her for her own means. The entire chapter is about Laurie, her life and her hold on men—not getting Jon to see humanity in the world, as it is posited. Once again, however, readers are encouraged to agree with this lilt towards the Laurie-centric chapter, even to support it. As Susan Sontag says, “It does not take someone in the throes of advanced feminist awareness to perceive that the way women are taught to be involved with beauty encourages narcissism, reinforces dependency and immaturity.”36 Through her own actions, Laurie encourages the reader to believe that everything is all about her.
The world may end with thousands dead, but for Laurie the outcome is as it’s always been: sex. She quickly flips her views on Veidt’s actions from “You can’t get away with that…” to “Jesus. He was right” just to escape the consequential reality.37 This could be overlooked, for it works with the history of women being “depicted as general whimsical, deceitful, subtle, vacillating.”38 When she finally breaks down beside the pool with Dan it is not because all these other people are dead but rather because she’s alive, and she tells Dan she wants him “to love [her] because [they’re] not dead” and because he smells of “Nostalgia.”39 No mention of actual love or emotion is given. She wants to have sex with him to make her feel better about what has happened. She wants to forget on the deepest level, for “Orgasm shares, briefly, the characteristics we imagine death to have, the annihilation … of consciousness.”40
No matter which way you look at it, the character of Laurie is no superhero for women. She lives her life defined by males and the sexual pleasure she derives from them. She is perfectly described by one of Rosalind Coward’s generalizations of sexualized stereotypes: “…she is still essentially a passive subject, yet she is expected more and more to be defined by her ability to provoke and satisfy a sexual response in men.”41 Laurie is emotional and incompetent, her greatest weapon being the hold she has over the emotions of men. She is insensitive to the feelings of the men she juggles, and she has no problem transferring the small attachment and sexual attraction she has to the next willing male. She is in constant need of a protector and a partner of the opposite gender. In the end, Laurie is not a subject who utilizes her sexuality. Laurie is a sexualized object whose worth is decided by male opinion and approval. She is an image to be admired, lusted for and obtained. She is not a multi-dimensional human being—or, as Eve Sedgwick would say, “Each element of the female gender stereotype is revealed as, in fact, sexual.”42 Her best qualities exist only in the male sphere of dominance, where they can be glorified or degraded as men choose. Laurie’s failure at being a superhero exemplifies Elaine Showalter’s rumination that “The vigilante violence … is offered to men avenging their women. Feminist vigilante action … is seen as crazy, futile, and absurd.”43
1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online. “Feminism.” Accessed December 6, 2012, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feminism.
2. Mary Wollstonecraft, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” in Women’s Voices: Visions and Perspectives, ed. Robert DiYanni, Pat C. Hoy II, and Esther H. Schor (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1990), 443.
3. Betty Friedan, “The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud,” in The Feminine Mystique.
4. Elaine Showalter, “Rethinking the Seventies: Women Writers and Violence,” in Women’s Voices: Visions and Perspectives, ed. Robert DiYanni, Pat C. Hoy II, and Esther H. Schor (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1990), 572.
5. Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” in Women’s Voices: Visions and Perspectives, ed. Robert DiYanni, Pat C. Hoy II, and Esther H. Schor (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1990), 170.
6. Sadie Plant, “Beyond the Screens: Film, Cyberpunk and Cyberfeminism,” in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), 503.
7. Rosi Braidotti, “Cyberfeminism wiht a Difference,” in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), 521.
8. Alan Moore, Watchmen (New York: DC Comics, 1986), 25.
9. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “The Madwoman in the Attic,” in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, 2nd ed. (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 816.
10. Moore, Watchmen II, 8.
11. Luce Irigary, “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine,” in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, 2nd ed. (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 808.
12. Kadiatu Kanneh, “Love, Mourning and Metaphor: Terms of Identity,” in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), 296.
13. Irigary, “The Power of Discourse,” 796.
14. Catherine MacKinnon, “Towards a Feminist Theory of State,” in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), 356.
15. Moore, Watchmen III, 16.
16. Alison Light, “‘Returning to Manderley’–Romance Fiction, Female Sexuality and Class,” in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), 336.
17. Gilbert and Gubar, “The Madwoman in the Attic,” 820.
18. Moore, Watchmen III, 23.
19. Moore, Watchmen V, 10.
20. Ibid, 19.
21. Nancy Mairs, “On Not Liking Sex,” in Women’s Voices: Visions and Perspectives, ed. Robert DiYanni, Pat C. Hoy II, and Esther H. Schor (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1990), 197.
22. Moore, Watchmen VII, 12.
23. Abigail Solomon Godeau, “Just Like a Woman,” in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), 441.
24. Moore, Watchmen VII, 14.
25. Ibid, 15.
27. Rosalind Coward, “Slim and Sexy: Modern Women’s Holy Grail,” in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), 362.
28. Moore, Watchmen VII, 20.
29. Ibid, 25.
31. Adrienne Rich, “Caryatid: Two Columns,” in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (New York:W.W. Norton and Company, 1979), 110.
32. Moore, Watchmen VII, 28.
33. MacKinnon, “Towards a Feminist Theory of State,” 356.
34. Moore, Watchmen IX, 8.
35. Ibid, 27.
36. Susan Sontag, “A Women’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source?” in Women’s Voices: Visions and Perspectives, ed. Robert DiYanni, Pat C. Hoy II, and Esther H. Schor (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1990), 360.
37. Moore, Watchmen XII, 20.
38. Rich, “Caryatid: Two Columns,” 186.
39. Moore, Watchmen XII, 22.
40. Mairs, “On Not Liking Sex,” 193.
41. Coward, “Slim and Sexy,” 361.
42. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Sexual Politics and Sexual Meaning,” in Feminisms, ed. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), 341.
43. Showalter, “Rethinking the Seventies,” 581.