Our modern world of superheroes and arch enemies has been defined by certain aspects. Heroes and villains each have their own set of qualities. Hybrids of the anti-hero and mercenary have sprung up as we have come to realize that there is not only good and evil out there in the world.
Beyond psychological qualities, what physical attributes are most noted in both heroes and villains? Whether overdone in the comics or played down in the cinema, costumes have become a staple within the genre.
In Watchmen, costumes are a major plot point not only as the over-the-top cliché for identifying the characters, but to symbolize the inner battle inside of each character who lives a double life. Focusing toward a more specific aspect of the costume itself deals with the root purpose behind having a costume in the first place. A costume is meant to mask the true identity of the hero or villain. Specifically, a large amount of superheroes cover their faces with masks. In Watchmen, however, only certain characters are masked, yet all of them are in costume.
If you are wearing a mask, you are more or less wearing a costume. But if you are wearing a costume, why not go the extra step to secure the secret of your identity by wearing a mask?
I propose that there could be issues related to gender role recognition at play here as a driving force behind the decision to wear the mask or not. For the purposes of this post, I will be focusing on the images portrayed in the movie.
Let’s examine the unmasked characters. From the flashbacks of the superheroes during 1940, “The Minutemen,” out of the eight heroes only two are unmasked: Silhouette and Silk Specter.
Both are women, but their gender roles during this period in history were unclear. In the 1930s and 40s women were leaving the kitchen due to the men being sent off to war. Leaving the kitchens to work was entirely different from choosing to wear a costume and fight crime, however. The costumes that these women wore were provocative and sexy, which was an accepted feminized role in only certain specified locations. Combining sex appeal with the ability to fight crime in the 1940s would’ve definitely been walking a fine line between social acceptance and social outcast.
Going back to the issue of these two women not wearing masks, their extreme gender roles as vivacious hard-core crime fighters became their masks. No ordinary woman would fight crime, let alone do it while wearing outfits accentuating every curve of the female form. That social taboo became their metaphoric mask that guaranteed the protection of their true identity. When they were wearing their civilian clothes, whatever would’ve been acceptable for a woman of their age and social class to be wearing, they became a regular female. Making a correlation between them as a regular female citizen and them as a crime fighting sex object would have been the rudest of insults, regardless of the truth behind it.
How does that relate to the unmasked characters 40 years later, especially when two out of the three are male?
First of all, feminized beings are not always female. In social gender roles, the terms masculine and feminine describe qualities and traits of your character and your role within society, not of your sexual organs. Therefore, females can be viewed as masculinized members of society, and males can be viewed as feminized members of society.
Certain careers and pursuits have been deemed as feminized. While intellectuals possess the knowledge, their ability to apply their knowledge to the phallocentric political structure defines their gender role in society, according to Irigaray’s theories.
Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) is an extreme intellectual who is also superhumanly fast and strong. While his latter qualities would deem him as masculinized, he instead depends on his intellect as his weapon of choice. Veidt publicly displays his intellect through his speeches, business practices, and legislation. His rage, anger, and physicality are masculinized traits that he keeps completely hidden from society. Furthermore, everything that makes him a superhero has alienated him from humanity. Regardless of his power, other masculinized leaders view Veidt as a threat and a wild-card. There attempts to gang up against him, even though they are futile attempts, show how he has been deemed by society as an outcasted feminized subject.
Dr. Jon Osterman (Doctor Manhattan) ceases in many ways to still be human, and is androgynous at best. In the movie his masculinity is decreased according to gender theory because society has turned him into their commodity and possession to fight nuclear war. He allows himself to be in this subservient role because it serves the greater good. When he realizes that he is nothing more than a tool, an alienated feminized subject, if you will, he leaves the planet due to his inability to relate to the dominant masculinized species.
Both Veidt and Osterman have no need for the mask because as alienated outcasts they have no need to hide their identities. They accept the phallocentric order turning its back on them, but they do not require permission or acceptance from the patriarchy to go ahead with their own actions. Under the patriarchy’s nose, these outcasts have managed to gain the power and ability to do what needs to be done so that the very society that has shunned them can indeed carry on existing.
The final unmasked character, Laurie Juspeczyk (The Silk Specter), has been able to remain mask-free due to the groundwork set up by the unmasked characters of the 1940s, combined with the established freedom of the alienated feminized subjects Veidt and Osterman. Juspeczyk is the daughter and protégé of the original Silk Specter. Raised with the ideology from that era has given Juspeczyk the strength to leave the mask behind. However, while she may be a feminized subject, she as a citizen is not alienated in the same ways as both Veidt and Osterman. Her alienation comes from being a superhero. With the public going against vigilantes, but yet needing heroes at this their darkest hour, Juspeczyk and the other Watchmen become confused and ostracized for their heroic desires. When she decides to put the costume back on and be the hero, she accepts her role as a vigilante outcast who has no need to hide by wearing a mask.
 Irigaray, Luce. “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine.” This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. New York: Cornell University Press, 1985. 68-85.