If it wasn’t apparent from the title, this post contains description and discussion about rape within a film. If this would upset or trigger you, please do not read further.
Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen is unforgettable (and underrated) in a myriad of ways, but one of the most talked about aspects of the film is the sexual violence committed by Edward Blake (The Comedian). He brutally assaults Sally Jupiter (Silk Spectre) in an attempted rape, but is stopped by the other Minutemen. Throughout the movie Sally and Eddie’s relationship is a strong undertow of the larger events, and it carries the audience unknowingly with it. The big question is: Why did Sally forgive Eddie for beating the shit out of her, and is this okay?
This particular plot line challenges notions of rape and victim-hood in an uncomfortably head-on way. As always, we end up with more questions than answers, but despite attempted rape and violence between them, it is established that Sally and Eddie had an intimate relationship that shaped both of them as characters.
The most and yet least obvious aspect to the portrayal of these characters is that almost all of their relationship is subtext – it is hidden from the audience and only espoused via the characters themselves. The only part of their complex love affair we are shown is presumably the most violent: when Eddie attempts to rape Sally. And since this is the most public part of their affair (for both the audience and the other Minutemen, who walk in and stop Eddie short of rape), it is the focal point of their entire relationship. It becomes one of the Comedian’s most notorious wrongdoings – all else in the film pales in comparison to the graphic beating he issues Sally. And Snyder got it right – it is horrifying and painful to watch.
Sally Jupiter is a highly sexual woman who takes pride in being known for her beauty and allure. She is delighted by her sexualized image, and even shows her daughter, Laurie, a small pornographic comic featuring the Silk Spectre (called a “Tijuana Bible”). Laurie reacts with disgust at the grotesquely sexual images, but Sally snatches the comic back and tells Laurie that she “thinks it’s kind of flattering.”
Like Sally, Eddie also collects nostalgia – but almost all of it is images of the Silk Spectre. In the opening scene where Eddie is murdered, we see a large, pin-up style drawing of Sally on his wall. Later on, when he burns Ozymandias’s map at the Watchmen meeting, his lighter is also adorned with the Silk Spectre’s image. Both characters long for one another in a complex way, and collect bits of the past to attempt to be close to one another despite the tumultuous and violent relationship they had. Sally also keeps the portrait of the Minutemen, taken only moments before Eddie assaults her, next to her chair in her living room, and she is seen affectionately touching the portrait as she reminisces about the past. Both characters are steeped in nostalgia of each other, and never truly escape what has bound them together in the past – not only their relationship, but the outcome of that relationship: their daughter, Laurie, who takes up the costume of the Silk Spectre when she becomes part of the Watchmen.
After being nearly raped, and later consensually having sex with the Comedian, Sally is pushed into a realm of shame and guilt. Not because she was beaten and almost sexually assaulted, but because she didn’t necessarily resent or hate Eddie like she was expected to in the aftermath of trauma. This is problematic because there is an expectation that victims of rape harbor ill feelings and even full-blown hatred towards their aggressor, and harboring those feelings is acceptable and understood. Yet, when someone does not fully resent and fight back against the event, they are ostracized, ridiculed and, as in Sally’s case, forced to bear a burden of shame and guilt. We see both Sally’s daughter, Laurie, wonder in an accusing way at how Sally could forgive Eddie. We also see Sally’s ex-husband demean her for having sex with Eddie – he says: “a guy tries to rape you and years later you let him finish the job? Were you drunk or just lonely?” Sally asks, in tears, if she will ever be able to live this down. Her consensual relationship with Eddie becomes a soft spot which Sally is demeaned for, rather than a point of triumph over sexual trauma. She is trapped in her own guilt for pursuing some form of happiness.
But Sally puts up a fight to justify her choice to pursue a relationship with Eddie after he assaults her. In response to Laurie’s horrified reaction at her mother’s sentimentality for the Comedian, Sally says:
“Laurie, you’re still young. You don’t know. Things … change. What happened happened 40 years ago. I’m 67 years old. Every day the future looks a little bit darker. But the past? Even the grimy parts keep on getting brighter.”
She further defends Eddie himself and his questionable actions by telling Laurie:
“Things were tough all over, cupcake. It rains on the just and unjust alike. The Comedian was a bit of both. And he always thought he’d get the last laugh.”
The Comedian is, of course, the crux of the entire film. His character is incredibly morally ambiguous, and we see few moments of emotion from him. One is when he encounters his daughter (Laurie). Another is after he shoots a Vietnamese girl presumably pregnant with his child, and Manhattan does nothing to stop the death. The most obvious, of course, is in a flashback before his murder when he breaks down in tears after finding out information about Veidt industries and Adrien’s plan to “save the world.”
The Comedian also serves as a nihilistic voice throughout the film. Although he is morally ambiguous, he also has an intense grasp on the finality and potential destruction human beings have brought upon themselves. He says at one point that the Watchmen are society’s only protection – from themselves. It is not a popular view in the wake of “peaceful protests” and political movements and activism so widely accepted today – but in the end, there is a disturbing amount of truth in what he says. The Comedian rattles the audience and their expectations because what he says is never bullshit – there is always something to it. He calls Manhattan out on his shit when John refuses to save the pregnant girl Eddie shoots – even though he saw it coming and could have done something to stop it. Eddie accuses John of not giving a shit about humanity, and asks that god help us all.*
It’s never fully clear whether or not his attempted rape of Sally weighs on his conscience more than other morally bankrupt things that the Comedian has done, but it would seem his desire for Sally and, apparently, his affection makes him regret something about the encounter. Eddie does, however, understand the gravity of he and Sally’s relationship, and the importance of the outcome. He does make a small effort to connect with his daughter, Laurie, but steps down in the wake of Sally’s disapproval. Some part of Eddie, to be sure, wants to know his daughter and reconcile with Sally, but he does not attempt to do more than the minimum required to be accepted as a father figure in Laurie’s life.
Throughout most of the film, Laurie doesn’t realize Eddie is her father, despite it being rather obvious to the audience. Eventually, Manhattan shows her the truth of her lineage, and she breaks down at the revelation, saying her whole life is “one big joke.” She is horrified to learn the Comedian is her father, because it confirms that her mother had a consensual relationship with a man who once beat her badly and attempted to force sex on her. But Manhattan sees it differently – he claims Laurie is a “miracle” because she is the culmination of lineage and an event that, against astronomical odds, happened. Laurie is the product of the love between a woman and man that woman had every reason to hate. Laurie is the outcome of something rare. Thus the relationship between the Comedian and the Silk Spectre prompts Manhattan to see reason and return to earth in order to help solve and impending crisis. Of course this doesn’t go as planned, but Laurie is the reason Manhattan remains connected to humanity; by proxy, the sexual union of the Comedian and Silk Spectre is the event that links everything together.
In the end of the film, Laurie confronts her mother about her and Eddie’s relationship. Laurie tells Sally she knows Edward Blake is her father – and at this Sally breaks down crying, and apologizes for never telling her because she felt “ashamed and stupid.” Laurie forgives her mother and offers understanding: “It doesn’t matter. People’s lives take them strange places. I just want you to know, you never did anything wrong by me.”
Sally tells Laurie: “You asked me why I wasn’t mad at him. Because he gave me you.”
Sally finally gets the validation she desperately wanted for seeking out Eddie and having an intimate relationship with him despite past wrongs. It is a difficult thing for most to understand – but it also makes an unconventional statement about rape, and victims of rape.
In short, nobody has the right to tell a rape victim how they should feel about what happened to them. In fact, nobody should be reduced to “a rape victim.” People and relationships are more complex than that, and Sally has every right to own her experience, and do what she chooses with it. She has every right to confront Eddie, she has every right to snub him, and yes – she has every right to fall in love and sleep with him, and she should not be judged for doing so, because judging is one more confinement that a victim of a sex crime has to live with. Sally was imprisoned by her shame and guilt for her choice to have a (presumably) positive relationship with Eddie after her assault, and it weighed on her nearly her entire life. It is important that we never see their shared moments aside from the rape scene, because it truly is none of our business, and furthermore shouldn’t factor into judgment. We don’t know what goes on behind closed doors between them. What it exposes is the assumptions and judgments of the audience, rather than the weakness or victim-hood or oppression of Sally Jupiter. The message is simply that we must allow victims to seek their own methods of recovery, even if we don’t agree with them. Sally remained a strong character despite what happened to her, and despite the failed relationship between her and Eddie Blake. Indeed, it is not a fairy-tale romance, but it is still a complex intimacy that can’t possibly be clear cut and black and white. Sexuality, violence, and love are complex things and can’t simply be reduced to understandable components.
*If anything, the Comedian (along with Manhattan, Rorschach and Ozymandias) proves a certain thesis about humanity: in order to do any vast good for our species, one must carry a certain amount of resentment and disregard for morality and ethical actions. All these characters succeed in doing something useful (ultimately, Ozymandias destroys a city and murders thousands, but the outcome is incredibly positive for humanity as a whole, and all other characters recognize this – even Rorschach who, faced with a moral dilemma too great, allows himself to be killed by Manhattan – yes, his journal does get out in the end, but I think it is a safe assumption that Rorschach does see the good in what was done and his pain comes from his inability to waver from his moral ground to allow the good to function) because they are morally ambiguous or corrupt. This is perhaps the most disturbing statement of Watchmen: those who take the most needed action to help humankind are those who hate and resent humankind the most. It is a cynical and wildly unpopular view of what it takes to be a “hero”.