The Female Link

I really enjoyed Erin Keating’s essay The Female Link: Citation and Continuity in Watchmen. She does an analysis into the role that both Silk Spectre’s play in Watchmen, and questions whether the masculine conventions of the superhero genre are actually revised by these two characters.  Her analysis of the text argues that it does the exact opposite of what it is thought to do, namely it reinforces and at times strengthens the “conservative, heterosexual framework” (1266) that pervades the medium.   Keating builds upon critical theory pioneered by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler and she utilizes both theory in interesting ways.  By addressing both gender performativity and male homosocial desire, Keating looks at Watchmen in terms of both feminist and gender studies.

She first analyzes the characters performative roles within the text.  Now putting on a superhero costume in itself is performative, but Keating demonstrates that the costume (or lack thereof in the case of Dr. Manhattan) actually help to reinforce the gender stereotypes and their performative functions.  While the male heroes are non-sexualized both Silk Spectres are from the onset hyper-sexualized, and yet these two women are virtually invisible in the text.  Both of these women have very little power, other than the power imbued in them through gender.   She goes on to show other examples, namely Sue Storm/Invisible Woman and Wonder Woman. By stripping them down to their basest parts, Keating shows how Moore and Gibbons have not revised the female superhero at all.  Keating does a good job of explaining Butler’s theory of gender performativity and applying it to Watchmen.

Keating also analyzes the power structure of the novel through Kosofsky-Sedgwick’s idea of male homosocial desire.  Keating effectively shows the triangulation of power between the characters (most notably Jon, Dan and Laurie).  Again, here Keating does a fine job of explaining Kosfsky-Sedgwick’s theory and applying it to the text.  Her incorporation of specific panels helps cement in the idea of the triangulation.


Here are some questions that I had after reading the text:

  1. Keating argues that “Watchmen reveals a conservative, heterosexual framework operating as a foundation for the moral ambiguity and the displacement of traditional superhero tropes enacted by the revisionist aspects of the text” (1226).  Do you agree with her assessment.  Why or why not?
  2.  Keating uses Butler’s idea of gender performativity to enhance ideas of superheroic performativity.  How is the role of a costumed hero similar to the gender performative?  How is it different?
  3. Keating talk of Laurie and Sally being “invisible.”  She uses the examples of Wonder Woman and Sue Storm to further her argument that superheroic women are an appendage of their male counterpart.  Can you think of a counter-example or could this theory also be applied to other female characters like Storm or Jean Grey/Phoenix?
  4. Keating focuses on the triangle between Jon, Dan and Laurie.  While this is the largest of the triangulations at play in Watchmen, can you think of some others that are in the text?
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4 thoughts on “The Female Link

  1. Solid post, Alison. I also enjoyed reading Erin Keating’s essay “The Female Link: Citation and Continuity in Watchmen” and found her analysis about “invisibility in regards to a female comic hero” fascinating.

    That being said, you asked: Can you think of a counter-example or could this theory also be applied to other female characters like Storm or Jean Grey/Phoenix?

    I think Storm and Jean Grey/Phoenix could be applied to Keating’s argument that superhero women are an appendage to their male counterpart for the simple fact that they’re grouped with the X-Men as part of a collective. And that collective is majority male. Now, Storm and Jean Grey/Phoenix are each strong enough to stand on their own. In my opinion, Storm’s command over the weather, as she’s able to manipulate it to her desire, and Jean Grey’s mind powers are two of the most-dynamic super powers of all time. While they have their moments, solo and at the forefront, they’re purposely grouped as part of the X-Men and in my opinion overshadowed by the likes of the contingent’s male members, who are positioned as leaders of the group. And that, in itself, lends towards Keating’s analysis of “invisibility.” The invisibility factor is not as egregious as Laurie not having any super powers as the Silk Spectre and her relationship with her invisible predecessors — things that can be used to help us understand her critical invisibility, as Keating points out. Yet, Storm and Jean Grey being part of a collective, in my opinion, is a form of invisibility because of the overshadowing that their male counterparts have on them. Furthermore, part of Storm’s mastery of the weather is her being able to use mist and fog to be essentially invisible, so Keating’s analysis can definitely be applied to Storm even more so that Grey.

  2. I agree with her assessment because Watchmen is the type of comic that traditional superheroes aren’t being presented as. In the Watchmen you have serval types of very different characters. The characters in the Watchmen all go through very different experiences that makes up who they are. The characters also question who they are, as well as what purpose do they have in doing what they do. For example, you have Rorschach who wears a mask that portrays different images that are used in psychology in order to figure out the psyche of the patient. Thus, figuring out how to treat them or what progress they have made. Rorschach went through bad experiences and in some form portrays those experiences in his need for justice. You also have Night Owl who people would say lack the go to be a superhero nonetheless is one based on his own motives or people that keep up his motivation to continue being Night Owl. As a result, it’s in this way that the Watchmen portray a realism in the way other comics have not done. It is in this way that the Watchmen as Keating argues that their foundation does operate for “moral ambiguity” and the “revisionist aspects of the text”. The Watchmen are not your average perfect superheroes they struggle with their morality in their own way and that is what makes the Watchmen more real than other comics that don’t portray the aspects of a revisionary superhero.

  3. Alisone, thanks for the great analysis!
    I agree with Keating about her analysis that a heterosexual, conservative society that is created within Watchmen. What I find most interesting is the consistent portrayal of the women superheroes as opposed to the truly revolutionary male superheroes in Watchmen. I don’t know if I’ll properly articulate it, but here I go. I think the superheroes of this comic book are meant to be completely and totally sadly dysfunctional. That goes for the men and the women. In that sense, the women are not as revolutionary as the men because women tend to be portrayed on the weaker side so the difference really shows when it comes to the men. The women are portrayed as hopelessly weak. You have Walt’s mom who is a prostitute, and two women who are stuck in the same love triangle. Laurie’s superheroics and love-making are actually used to empower Dan. Janey Slater looks kind of silly blaming Jon for her cancer while smoking a cigarette. So, perhaps Watchmen aims to tear apart all heroic society. It doesn’t end well for anyone, but I think the men are still portrayed stronger than the women, even in this crappy, dissolving case of superheroic universe. So,yes I agree with Keating that these women are caught within a stereotypical superhero world. Making them stronger than the men would have been a revolutionary play. They are “both hero and sex symbol”(1270) but Laurie certainly uses sex as a tool several times throughout as I mentioned before and I particularly like Keating’s catch of her saying “I wore it to help you”(1271). She may be more like Walt’s mom but for power and effectiveness. She knows her body is her most important weapon, and has actually accepted it. A women’s performance of sex relates to power. Sex is the performative action which highlights the displaying of her power and her acceptance of her identity.

  4. I think that Keating certainly does show that there is something at work within the way gender is performed and expressed within the graphic novel. I would mostly agree with her assessment, but one moment where she “loses” me during her argumentation (to put it colloquially) is when she writes of Jon acting as a God-like figure that not only “blesses” Dan and Laurie’s relationship by the end of the graphic novel, but then also “blesses” the heterosexual structure that will endure beyond Viedt’s success (or failure) of his new world. She writes that despite his efforts, Jon perceives Veidt’s efforts as becoming “a repetition of history rather than the radical new world…the unchanging element. The heterosexual (and by extension homosocial) relationship, in which the woman acts as a bond between men” (Keating 1284). I fully appreciate what Keating does here with the idea that the unchanging thing Jon implies is also the heteonormative hegemony within the society, but I am not sure that I fully support the fact that Jon is “blessing” whatever world Veidt helps (or doesn’t help) to continue.

    I really liked Keating’s discussion of gender performativity. Particularly, if we think of back on the ways in which Peter Coogan defines the superhero, the costume itself becomes a key role in the construction of a hero’s identity. If a hero’s costume is clearly gendered in some way, that it speaks highly to performativity. In Watchmen this is particularly obvious, but in thinking about The Dark Knight Returns (and even the Golden-Age Superman comics) there is a donning of masculinity that also occurs in male super heroes, which would also warrant a sort of support of the idea of performativity of gender. In Watchmen, I think it can be argued that Dan is cured of his impotence not simply because of Laurie’s costume, but also because he then “performs” in a more masculine manner, heroics included. It can be different in that, not so much in Watchmen perhaps, but a female character may don a traditiionally male costume — here I am thinking of Carrie Kelly in TDKR — becoming Robin, a role normally donned by male characters (Jason Todd and Dick Grayson).

    I’m not sure that I can think of “counter-examples” to the invisibility that characters like Laurie or Sue Storm inhabit, but in thinking about other “triangles” in Watchmen, there is also the love triangle between Jon, Laurie, and his pre-Manhattan love-interest, Janey Slater, but this one plays more into the traditional “romantic love triangle,” and adds an interesting aspect to heteronormative relationships, in the preference over a younger and more attractive woman rather than an aging one — something Janey is acutely aware of.

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