There were lots of things to hate about Watchmen the movie, but for me the most revelatory was what was done to the Silk Spectre. As I noted here and here, the Watchmen movie thoroughly disemboweled the character of Laurie Juspeczyk, replacing her with a standard-issue brain-dead supermodel in latex.
The fact that Snyder chose to lobotomize the main female character wasn’t surprising — that’s Hollywood, after all. But what did startle me was how much I minded. When I was 16, first reading the Watchmen books, my favorite character was undoubtedly Rorschach, both for his cool-as-shit bad-ass violence and for his traumatized, tragic commitment to a noble, if nonsensical, moral code. Somewhere in the intervening twenty years, though, Rorschach got a lot less interesting, and watching the movie from which she had been excised, I realized that Laurie had for some time been my favorite character in the book. You don’t know how much you’ll miss someone till they’re gone, I guess.
I got a second shock on seeing the reaction to the Silk Spectre character in the reviews. Pretty much everyone noted that the character in the movie sucked. But I’ve seen a lot of people argue that Laurie in the comic was lame as well. For example, in
comments, looking2dastars said:
…not only was the part of Silk Spectre II not given much to do but the character was probably the worst developed out of the next generation of heroes. It was the same way in the comic, where the main thrust of Laurie’s story is that her entire identity has never been her own. Her mother tried to turn her into a younger version of herself and when Laurie began to rebel against that, she defined herself entirely by her romantic relationship. Even after she breaks free of John, she immediately falls into the same pattern, attaching herself to Dan.
Or, as another example, Spencer Ackerman argued that:
Laurie is the most functional character in the film, where in the comic, she’s one of its most broken. Laurie Juspeczyk resents her mother, is desperate for a father, and is unable to function as a normal human being.
This perspective — that Laurie is uniquely dysfunctional and uninteresting, and that her character is uniquely defined by her relationships with others — is so far from my own experience of the character that I have trouble believing that we all read the same comic. In the first place, to say that Laurie is “among the most broken” characters seems to be willfully blind. Of the six main protagonists, Rorschach is a sexually stunted homicidal nutcase, completely trapped by his childhood trauma. Adrian is a megalomaniacal mass-murderer. The Comedian is a vicious amoral rapist, thug, and murderer. Jon is isolated and cripplingly passive — if there’s anyone who’s defined by others, it’s him. He lets his father choose his career for him, not once but twice, and when his girlfriend leaves him, his mature, adult reaction is to *go to Mars*. Moore suggests pretty strongly that Dr. Manhattan’s alienation and passivity can be read as psychological; he’s that way because that’s who Jon Ostermann is, not because of his super-consciousness. Next to these folks, Dan and Laurie’s garden-variety neuroses seem like pretty small beer.
Along those lines, it’s certainly true that Laurie is seen interacting with others more than, and that those relationships are more important to her than, is the case for most of the other characters. But that’s because she’s *normal*. For most people, human relationships are a big deal. It’s only for sociopaths like Rorschach and the Comedian and Adrian that other people don’t matter.
That’s not to say that Laurie’s relationships are all healthy. She has an extremely tangled relationship with her mother, complicated by an absent father, and her story in the comic is very much about coming to terms with that and figuring out who she is and who she wants to be — in accepting responsibility for her own actions. Or, to put it another way, *Moore* doesn’t define Laurie by her relationships, but *Laurie* often does. Most conspicuously, rather than admit that she rather likes being a super-hero, she blames her mother for forcing her to dress up against her will. There’s a lovely scene in which she tries to pull the same thing on Dan, telling him she put on the costume to help him out with his sexual and personal frustrations — to which he replies, with great amusement, that she’s full of shit.
A lot of Laurie’s character is tied to her absent father. Her stepfather, she notes, was mean to her and constantly bullying. She notes that that’s “probably why I’m edgy in relationships with strong, forceful guys…;” but it’s also why she seeks them out. Jon is pretty clearly the ultimate father-figure; the great blue god who will make all the troubles go away. Laurie’s reaction to stress is often to wish for someone to make it all okay — Jon functions as a kind of super-protector, teleporting away everyone who makes her uncomfortable, swooping in to pick her up when she’s depressed after the jail-break. He’s the surrogate, all-powerful parent she never had…or that she did have, considering his distance.
The trick with Laurie is that, what she’s hiding from herself, what she wants Jon to protect her from, isn’t her weakness, but her strength. She clings to an image of herself as wounded and needy, but there are lots of indications that that’s not really who she is at all. On the contrary, the Laurie who comes across throughout much of the book is absolutely able to take care of herself — she’s a tough, take-no-bullshit fighter, with a nasty mean-streak. She walks out on Jon, for example, for exactly the right reasons; he’s treating her badly, and she’s sick of taking it.
She also, incidentally, has a wicked sense of humor. There are lots of funny moments in Watchmen, but Laurie is one of the few characters who is actually, consciously, and repeatedly witty. When she’s rescuing the tenement dwellers from the fire, and one of them asks her if she’s with the fire department, she snaps out, “Listen, I’m smokey the bear’s secret mistress. Now will you please just move or throw yourself over the side or something?” Her byplay with Dan about how “Devo” he looks is laugh-out loud funny, too. Moore seems to have loved writing her dialogue, which sparkles throughout. After Jon leaves earth and the military tosses her out, and Dan suggests she go to her mother, she tells him, “Oh, she’d love that. I’d sooner sleep on a grating. Nah, I’ll get by. It just burns my ass to be so damn disposable.” It’s just a throw away, but I love the mix of profanity, self-awareness, and self-revelation. (And incidentally, when she goes to the Red Planet, the line is supposed to be “Oh, shit. I’m on Mars” — which suggests disbelief and an almost resigned wonder, not “Oh wow, I’m on Mars” as in the movie, which suggests that the character sees interplanetary star-hopping as a kind of amusement park ride)
Of course, it makes sense that Laurie is funny. She’s the Comedian’s daughter. It’s interesting that, in the handful of comments I’ve seen accusing Laurie of being dependent on other characters, nobody has pointed out how, throughout the book, we subtly and poignantly see her father in her. Laurie’s earthiness and her no-nonsense attitude echo her father’s; during the roof rescue, it’s Dan who’s the calm and reassuring one; Laurie’s busting people’s chops for their own good — mirroring the dynamic between Dan and the Comedian when they handled the ’77 riots . Laurie’s smoking also links her and her father. In one flashback, we see her Dad helping her to light a cigarette. After she mistakes the flame-thrower button for the lighter and nearly sets his basement on fire, Dan tells her that the Comedian made the same mistake. And then there are visual echoes, like this:
Finally, in her final panel in the book, Laurie is shown speculating about getting a new costume with protective leather and a mask, and perhaps a gun. She also says “Silk Spectre” is too girly and she wants a new name. The implication is that she’s going to become the Comedian.
I guess you could use this to say that she’s just racing to another father figure; defining herself in relation to someone else, etc. etc. But the point here is that she’s not *going to* a father figure. She’s becoming a father figure herself — or accepting the part of herself that is strong, like her father. In discovering who her father is, Laurie seems able to let go of her anger that he wasn’t there for her growing up, and at her need to be weak in order to draw him (or someone like him) back to her. In doing so, she’s able to forgive her mother…or perhaps to realize that there isn’t anything to forgive. “You never did anything wrong by me,” she tells her mom. Directly, she’s telling her mom that sleeping with Eddie Blake was okay — but she’s also saying that she’s not mad at her mom for pushing her to be a super-hero. A few panels later, Laurie’s telling Dan that she’s not going to have kids until she’s had some more adventures. Accepting her parents, she’s able to love her Mom, and be (at least in part) her father.
She’s also able to sleep with somebody who really has nothing to do with either of them. It’s true that at times Laurie turns to Dan for comfort and help — notably after she’s seen the destruction of New York, and she asks him to make love to her. But he also turns to her; it’s she who makes the first move in their relationsip, and she who figures out a way to aleviate his malaise; she saves him by putting on her costume. You could see it as a typical wish fulfillment nerdy loser guy – sexy girl dynamic, I guess — except that Dan, while a nerd in some ways, is hardly a loser — he’s incredibly physically tough; he’s a scientific genius, he’s wealthy, he’s caring and thoughtful, and while his fashion sense is not ideal, he’s quite good looking (“why Mr. Dreiberg, you’re ravishing.”) You can totally see why she likes him, as well as vice versa. I think it’s definitely the case, too, that she is in a lot of ways more butch than he is…though he can be kind of commanding and domineering as well. Ultimately, it doesn’t seem like either of them has to wear the pants (or tights or whatever) in the relationship; they seem like partners and friends. I don’t think it’s any more correct to say that she’s defined in relationship to Dan than it is to say that he’s defined in relationship to her. That is, it’s somewhat correct for both; they’re a couple. They’ve chosen to be together. That’s not a sign of weakness or a lack of character development. It just means that, in contrast to Rorschach or even Adrian, they’re adults.
Laurie convinces Jon to come back to earth by demonstrating to him the improbability of human life; the unlikelihood that this man would love this woman, and so produce this particular child. For Moore, in other words, the miracle of human life is a miracle of *relationships.* That’s why Jon smiles when he sees Laurie and Dan sleeping together at the end; love and the way people create one another is, for him, the beauty of life. People are miraculous because they are made of, or come out of, other people. In accepting her parents, in admitting how she is connected to them, Laurie is able to accept herself, and make choices about what she wants to take and leave from each. Finding that she’s not alone, she realizes that she doesn’t need a savior, but can instead be the hero she was pretending not to be all along.
This is the first entry in a roundtable on female characters in comics. Tom, Miriam, and Bill will be along with posts on the topic as the week goes along.
Update: I have a follow-up post on Alan Moore’s female characters here
Update:Looking2dastars feels I mischaracterized his comments. His objections are here.