A look at Watchmen, the Alpha/Beta Theory, and unusually isolated heterosexuals.

When I first read the Watchmen many years ago, some of the more frustrating aspects of the story involved Eddie Blake, the Comedian. Blake was an attempted rapist, the murderer of a woman bearing his child, Kennedy’s assassin and a ruthless plumber for Richard Nixon. Yet, throughout the entire story, all but two of the characters express some degree of admiration for him. Nobody calls him on it. The woman he tried to rape goes on to bear his child and becomes something of an apologist for him. Any reasonable reading of the character would paint him not as a hero but as a villain.

I don’t disagree with that, but as I’ve gotten older and repeatedly re-read and now watched the story unfold on screen, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the character and an understanding of why he is viewed as he is.

The hardest aspect of the story to fully grasp is his exoneration at the hands of Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre. The notion of a victim forgiving her would-be rapist is, on its face, abhorrant. How she could go on to bear his child and remember him fondly at his death is maddening. And, as I originally read it, seemingly unrealistic. But to understand their complex relationship means, in part, boiling it down to the relative simplicity of their characters.

Blake is the embodiment of unchecked masculinity. The prototypical “alpha male”, as powerful and forceful as anyone in the story whose skin isn’t blue. As morality and social propriety are primarily feminine contributions to society, he is naturally devoid of them. To his detriment, in the end.

Blake, in the end, loved Sally Jupiter. She is the only character throughout the entire work that he said even one positive thing about. The only person he allowed to emotionally injure him. As repulsive as the notion sounds and as much as it will sound like an apology that it is most definitely not meant to be, the attempted rape boiled down to a misunderstanding. He was sixteen (in the comic, 24 in the movie), intelligent but relatively uneducated and poorly socialized. In his way of thinking, if they both wanted sex (and he believed that they both did), the rest (such feminine things as morality and decency) were beside the point. When his initial move was rebutted, he flew into a rage and compounded the error.

This doesn’t make Blake an okay guy nor does it excuse what he did. More than nothing else, it exemplifies how dangerous he really is. A walking id with a mask and a gun. But with good looks and pure testosterone, a baser sort of woman could ask for little more.

Sally Jupiter, then, is exactly that baser woman. Whereas Blake embodies the dark sides of masculinity, she exemplifies that shallowness of femininity. Her beauty is her primary asset. Other than the ability to fight, her only asset. She becomes a hero not out of a desire to do good or instill justice, but out of self-interest and vanity. Whatever her physical strength, she displays almost no emotional strength whatsoever. Her sense of morality is based on little more than arbitrary rules built primarily to make herself look better and others (including her daughter) look worse. When she interceded on Eddie Blake’s attempts to introduce himself to their daughter, her primary motivation isn’t so much to protect her as it is to bury that which makes her look bad.

But just as Blake’s personality allows him to make a woman feel like a woman with his forcefulness, her (pre-bitterness) boisterousness and raw sexuality would almost certainly make a man feel like a man around her. He prized his masculinity; she prized her femininity. They brought it out in one another. The attempted rape is one of the darker scenes in a dark piece. But because it prevented these two people from being able to make the most of their shallow weaknesses, it was in its own way a tragic one.

If the love (and sexual tension) between Eddie and Sally was a case of two well-stacked people that should have been in love failing to partner up due to circumstances and their individual foibles, the romance between Dan Drieberg and Sally Jupiter’s daughter, Laurie Jespeczyk, was a case of two people only marginally compatible that partnered up mostly because circumstances allowed for it and neither was sufficiently flawed to blow it.

Neither the comic book nor the movie made a particularly convincing case for why Dan and Laurie were well matched. In fact, there is sort of the feeling you get when watching an action movie where the hero has a love interest mostly because he is supposed to and they run through the motions mostly because the genre requires it.

But I would argue that it was more significant than that. The complete lack of electricity in their relationship was indicative, in a way, of the situation that they were in.

It parallels the situation with Laurie’s mother a little bit. As far as the Minutemen were concerned, Eddie and Sally were the only two verified straight characters there were. Captain Metropolis, Hooded Justice, and the Silhouette were verified homosexuals. There were hints that Dollar Bill and Mothman were close enough that Bill’s death precipitated Mothman’s descent into madness. Hollis Mason was established as straight in a companion to the movie, but in the comic book he is a life-long bachelor with no mentioned romantic asperations. So there you had them, the man’s man and the woman’s woman in a room full of homosexuals and/or people without sexual conviction or success.

As far as the Watchmen/Crimebusters are concerned, you have gay Captain Metropolis (in the comic but not the movie), seemingly asexual Rorschach and Ozymandias, and four heterosexual characters (Eddie Blake, Dr Manhattan, Laurie, and Dan). Removing Blake from consideration because he is the only female character’s father, you have two straight males and a straight female. And in the course of the comic book (and the movie), you have the female (Laurie) leaving one male (Manhattan) for the other (Dan).

Whether or not there are heroes outside of the east coast is never fully established, but if there were they were never mentioned as being in contract with the main characters of the story. So there you are with three characters that spent much of their lives doing things that only a handful of people in the entire country ever do and as far as Laurie and Dan are concerned, those people are not potential romantic partners (except Dr Manhattan, whom Laurie is dissatisfied with at the start and whose sexuality is dissipating with his humanity at any rate).

So that Laurie and Dan would end up together by process of elimination is relatively significant. The only thing they have in common is their costumes, but when neither of them have that central part of their existence in common with anyone else, it’s enough to give one another a second and third look and however many looks it takes to fall in love.

It takes fewer looks for Dan because he is at the outset the classic beta male who, even if he were willing to put away his childish things, would probably have some trouble with women anyway. Even at the height of his career, during the Crimebusters meeting, Laurie comments that nobody but Dr Manhattan interested her. Dan was a relatively uncompelling fellow even before being washed up and overweight.

But that he was sidelined by the Keene Act was devestating to him. He was deprived of the one thing that gave him purpose. He only lit up when he was able to reach back into his glory days. While Hollis Mason and Veidt had careers to go to and Eddie Blake found an alternate outlet for his activities, Dan lacked the drive and motivation to do much with himself.

And socially speaking, he had the same sorts of problems that a lot of nerds do. His rich history of excitement and intrigue was somewhat off-limits due to his secret identity. His amazing inventions are geek toys. Everything that he does have to offer, intelligence and physical prowess, had been spent in service of something that was stripped from him and that he cannot talk about. He is probably the nicest guy in the whole story, but his only two friends are his predecessor and Laurie, who lives mostly in isolation with her big blue boyfriend.

In the comic (though not the movie), Laurie finds a signed picture of a vice queen that Dan busted wherein the queen expressed romantic interest. So remote was he prior to Laurie’s split with Manhattan that I had to wonder why precisely it was that he didn’t pursue that. She may have been a villain, but she was there and she probably understood his life better than most. It was a good thing he didn’t, of course, because he found Laurie, which given the givens is probably the best he could ever expect to do.

But what about Laurie? After having slept with the Most Powerful Man in the History of the World, why would she end up with an introverted gizmonerd? The romantic explanation would be that she left the powerful man that didn’t really care for her (in a way she could appreciate) for the sincere beta. As you’ve probably figured, I associate it mostly with his availability and her relative isolation.

Apart from her attractiveness, of course, she didn’t have much to offer. She’s somewhat like the unattractive girl in the Anime Club, where it doesn’t take much to get some sort of interest from somebody. Laurie is beautiful, of course, but she’s also obnoxious. In a sense, though, she is also a creature of the path of least resistance like Dan is. The main differences are that she was raised by her wildly extroverted mother and she has the striking looks that he lacks. If you’re going to be listless and pretty, it works out a lot better if you’re female.

It’s a sort of by-the-numbers thinking that lead her to completely overlook Dan at the Crimebusters/Watchmen meeting. She also had the perspective of a sixteen year old. But Manhattan was the biggest, most powerful thing around. It’s not surprising at all that she would gravitate towards that, blue skin or no. In the world in which she was raised, he was the biggest thing there was. It was only after years of emotional exhaustion that she gave up on that and figured that Dan would do.

In the action movies I mentioned where the romantic storylines are by-the-numbers and present only because of genreic requirements, when there is a sequel it’s often the case that the leading woman from that movie is conspicuously absent from the next so that they can start from scratch with another (usually uncompelling) romantic plot. Despite, or maybe because of, the somewhat electricity-free nature that Laurie transitioned from the powerful Manhattan to the meek Owl, I would suspect that ten years down the line that they would actually still be together.

Where else could they possibly go?

Category: Coffeehouse, Theater

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8 Responses to Masks and Masculinity

  1. a_c says:

    Reminds me of a study on whether speed-dating sessions varied based on composition of daters. When relatively few attractive women showed up, the men lowered their standards accordingly. (I don’t remember if it worked the other way, but I wouldn’t be surprised.) Even when the expense would be only wasting a single night, people are perfectly willing to adjust their standards based on the quality of the immediate population.

  2. logtar says:

    I agree with pretty much everything you said here. One thing to add is that Rorschach does note in his book his suspicion Ozymandias homosexuality. Yeap, I am reading the book now.

  3. Kevin says:

    Lots of food for thought, and I will probably post again later, but I do want to note that Rorschach is definitely not asexual, at least in the comic. He describes his menial work in the garment shop as bearable but unpleasant, unpleasant at least in part because he had to handle women’s clothes. Rorschach’s sexuality is repressed because of his shame at his mother’s profession, but I think he’s definitely heterosexual. An alternative theory would be that he’s homosexual, one reason he preoccupies himself with others who are, or may also be homosexual.

  4. trumwill says:

    I think that when people know their limitations, they have the ability to adjust expectations accordingly. Some don’t, but most do. It’s why I’m skeptical of some of David Alexander’s theories about how marriage is such a miserable institution because each partner is quietly seething at their inability to get someone hotter.

    Rorschach has some hang-ups, sexually speaking, so I don’t take his suspicions about Ozymandias as authoritative. Had Dan Drieberg said the same thing, I’d take it more seriously. On the other hand…

    Functionally, all indications are that both Rorschach and Ozymandias do not pursue sexual activity. For whatever reason. My personal take is that Rorschach is probably a latent heterosexual who would, if his mind hadn’t gotten twisted around, pursue women. Despite what I say above, I think that Rorschach is probably partially right about Ozymandias, a latent homosexual who would be pursuing men if he weren’t so preoccupied with other activities.

  5. Transplanted Lawyer says:

    Agreed that Rorschach is repressed, but I say, his repression is of his homosexuality.

    As a young child, Walter Kovacs witnesses his mother in an act of prostitution. He is rewarded for this primal fantasy with an act of violence — from his mother, which is a reversal of the classic gender role. The john does nothing to Walter and Walter and the john largely ignore each other. Walter does not see the john as a threat, but his mother is.

    Certainly he never pursues actual sexual contact with anyone. His stern, inflexible sense of morality and conformity will not allow that. But at the same time he demands everyone else in society conform to his social and moral code, he is deliberately deviating from it himself — he wears disguises, relishes in “costumed heroes” being outlawed, and he reserves to himself the license to commit violence that he condemns in others. He is a deviant and he knows it.

    He shows revulsion towards both homosexuals and women, but his revulsion towards homosexuals is because they are deviants from social and ethical norms. His revulsion of women is simply because they are sexual beings.

    His revulsion prominently manifests in his distaste for handling women’s clothes in his “civilian” job. He conquers this when he changes the Kitty Genovese dress into his mask — incorporating something intended to make a woman sexually attractive into something that obscures his identity as Kovacs.

    Although he has frequent opportunities to do so, he rarely even acknowledges Silk Spectre’s existence.

    In the book, Kovacs “becomes a man” when, as a just post-pubescent boy, he inserts a cigarette into a bully’s eye. In the film, he “becomes a man” when he inserts a blade into another man’s skull.

    He’s paranoid. Granted, he has reason to be, but paranoia is a manifestation of the fear of one’s own homosexuality. The internal defense mechanism against the fear of homosexuality is a translation of “I want you,” to “You want me,” to “You hate me,” to “I must protect myself from you.” This dovetails nicely into a strong primal fantasy as a formative experience, in that sex and violence become inextricably associated. And the only gesture of love he ever manages to offer anyone is offered to a man (Drieberg/Nite Owl).

    I say, Rorschach has teh ghey, at least way down deep he does.

  6. Transplanted Lawyer says:

    Ah, but you were really reaching the point of saying Laurie and Dr. Manhattan were a bad couple because it was alpha male + beta female, and she and Dan were a not-so-bad couple because they were beta male + beta female. Sorry for the threadjack; I got sidetracked.

    Manhattan becomes asexual after Laurie rejects him. He simply takes himself out of the mating pool; he goes through the motions of expressing shock and betrayal when Laurie confesses her infidelity, but he gets over it pretty quickly. Indeed, his sexual aggressiveness (manifesting himself as multiple partners) is a clumsy effort to please Laurie rather than something he did to enjoy himself — what he really wanted to do was science stuff, not have sex with Laurie. So he had already rejected her before she rejects him.

    I’m totally in agreement that Dan is a big ol’ beta. He’s not just figuratively but literally impotent when the story begins, and only by re-assuming his role as Nite Owl and engaging in violent behavior can he perform sexually, even with a woman whom he desires very much. He needs props and excuses to assert himself. This is big-time beta behavior, big-time making up for perceived shortcomings.

    Contrast him with an actual alpha male, Ozymandias. Ozy may be gay (remember the “boys” file Rorschach finds in Ozy’s corporate HQ) but he has mastered his own identity, demonstrates his power on many occasions (the gymnastics display, the staged assassination, the bullet-catching) and when he has to engage in actual conflict with the other heroes, he singlehandedly bests them all. It is only when he fights another alpha, Manhattan, that there is any possibility he could be defeated.

  7. trumwill says:


    Hey, as long as the subject is Watchmen, no worries on threadjacking.

    Since Rorschach is neither heterosexual or homosexual in practice, it’s all speculation. Same with Ozy. But speculation is fun!

    I think that more than anything, Rorschach is utterly incapable of relating to women. I agree that the mask is a sort of reach-out to femininity, but I don’t think it’s his femininity. Genovese is, in a way, the only safe connection he’s had with a woman. He is her avenger. She was his inspiration. And best of all, he never had to actually do that which he cannot do: try to connect on an emotional level. Safe distance. And it allowed to take something uncomfortably female, a dress, and refashion it on his own terms.

    But sex is connected to his mother which is connected to crime which is connected to everything Rorschach loathes. Homosexuals wear their sexuality more conspicuously, so they are a greater target.

    A couple comments about homosexuality aside, his hostility is mostly (discounting criminals) directed towards women. I think it’s an outgrowth of his inability to relate and a latent feeling that they have something that he wants on some level and yet cannot get. His views of women remind me more than anything of frustrated virgins that go misogynistic.

    So that’s my take on the subject.

  8. trumwill says:

    I hadn’t given much thought to whether Laurie is a beta or not with the alpha/beta dichotomy usually being reserved for men in the relationship/sex context.

    I agree with you about Manhattan rejecting her before she rejected him. That, more than anything, is why the relationship failed. His alphahood was paramount at the beginning of their relationship, but not particularly relevant at the end.

    What cuts against Ozymandias as an alpha is not necessarily his homosexuality, but rather his complete and utter lack of sexual charisma. At least it was never demonstrated. Presumably, to be as successful as he was, he had to have some sort of charisma, but judging from his letters and whatnot he seemed to operate mostly by being non-threatening. He really comes across as a eunich. More Merlin than Arthur.

    Regarding the one who bested him… he was bested by the Comedian early in his career. Comedian bested him when Ozymandias was young and Ozy bested Comedian when he was past 60. It’s far from clear that Comedian would not have been able to stop him had he not been washed up by that point. Either way, since Comedian is the other dominant alpha here, that still supports your case for Ozy alphahood.

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