Thursday, March 6, 2014

Gender Roles in Jimmy Corrigan

(Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, page three, Super-Man scene)


The opening scene of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth introduces each of the conflicts that plague Jimmy’s life in the novel. I divided the various conflicts and subplots into four categories: (1) the search for identity represented by the Super-man’s mask; (2) the objectification of women; (3) the absence and need for a paternal presence; and (4) the denouncement of cultural ideals of modern America. In this scene, the search for identity is represented by Super-Man’s mask (and the passing of his mask to Jimmy after sleeping with his mother). The objectification of women is seen through the depiction of Jimmy’s mother, the search for and need for a paternal presence is represented by the Super-man character who fails to fulfill this role, and the negative, satirical depiction of Super-Man exemplifies the denouncement of cultural ideals of modern America (the superhero complex). Jimmy’s fantastical expectations (such as his idolization of Super-Man) are constantly degraded. His daydreams, while they are not illustrated in this scene, are blanketed across each of the conflicts, and later serve as Jimmy’s solution to the conflicts and tensions of his life.

While all of these conflicts are closely connected, the role of gender in the novel seemed to be the most obscure. The majority of the novel focuses on Jimmy and his paternal ancestors. However, the novel begins with Jimmy’s mother speaking, and the first scene is largely dominated by the tension between male and female roles. Jimmy’s mother’s role is very restricted both in the opening scene and throughout the novel. In the Super-Man scene, she is only given dialogue when she is acting as a mother. She only speaks to her son, and she never speaks to Super-Man. The interaction between Jimmy’s mother and Super-Man is dominated and directed by Super-Man. In opposition to the illustrations of Jimmy and Super-Man, Jimmy’s mother is only ever depicted by her body parts. The reader never sees her entire face or her entire body at one time. Instead, we see her ear and cheek, her chin and neck, her hand, her shoulder and back, and her breast (many times) all in different frames. The depiction of Jimmy’s mother is a physical deconstruction of the role of women. The roles of women in this novel are reduced to their pre-feminism stereotype where women are mothers and sexual objects for their husbands. Jimmy’s mother appears in the Super-Man seen seven times, five of those times she is only illustrated by her breast, once she is pulling Jimmy’s arm, and the other time Super-Man has his hand on the small of her back almost in a possessive, dominant way.

But Jimmy’s mother is not the only character depicted in a negative way in this scene; Super-Man is also criticized. The Super-Man is a very dynamic character in this scene, so much so that he can almost be considered two different characters. First, he is the Super-Man in his red and yellow costume boasting to an empty audience about how “Fighting crime is hungry work.” As the setting changes from the show to the restaurant, the change in Super-Man’s outfit parallels the change of his character’s role.

Approaching the scene with an American cultural background, I immediately thought the Super-Man would be the superior character. Super-Man, an obvious reference to Superman, the iconic American superhero, is generally depicted as a brave, altruistic superhuman. Before reading through the comic, my attention was immediately focused on Super-Man because his costume is the only color on the page. The black page is chunked into eighteen boxes, all of which have brown backgrounds and various shades of brown objects: folding chairs, Jimmy’s mother’s dress, the wall-mounted speaker, the other audience members. The three characters of the scene move to four different locations – the show, the restaurant, the car, and Jimmy’s house. The dull, monotonous color scheme of the page is offset only by the pop of the red and yellow of Super-man’s costume. As soon as you read begin reading the page sequentially, however, this classic depiction of a superhero ideal is immediately undermined, if not reversed. Jimmy is one of few audience members in attendance, Super-Man’s only comment about fighting crime is that it is “HUNGRY WORK” and then he precedes to pull a piece of fried chicken from his pocketed waistband. Jimmy’s Super-Man is not like the American Super-Man. While Jimmy’s mother is portrayed as a stereotypical pre-feminist mother and sex object, Super-Man is depicted as the sex-crazed, financially-dominant stereotype.

This scene foreshadows, but never clarifies, the tension between the sexes. While both Jimmy’s mother and Super-Man are depicted negatively, but when put together in a scene Super-Man is more dominant/powerful/superior to Jimmy’s mother.





Works Cited/ Consulted:

Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.

Image from


Jake Stambaugh said...

I think that if you choose this essay to revise, you should focus on only one of the four categories that you outline. The deconstructions of Superman as an American Ideal and the objectification of the mother are both good and potentially worth an entire paper of their own. I feel that the idea of the mask as identity is underdeveloped, and could probably be cut. I think that approaching Superman from the opposite direction, taking him as a character and showing the elements he represents (dominant over women, American ideal, father figure) would create a more tangible thesis to build from.

Adam said...

I really like your four conflicts - that's how you start with *real* material. Minor point - Jimmy's breakfast is also part of the attack upon contemporary America. Excellent introduction.

"While all of these conflicts are closely connected, the role of gender in the novel seemed to be the most obscure." - I agree, which is one reason why I take accusations of misogyny against Ware somewhat seriously. Your analysis through this paragraph is quite good - the one thing that bothers me is the role played by the absence of the traditional father in the way she is viewed and depicted.

Re: what you say about superman - don't you think that Ware is drawing connections between negative, objectifying patriarchy and our ideas about masculinity & heroism? Superman is interested in nothing but a one-night stand; that's not an accident.

What does it *mean* that superman is so colorful in a dull world? You do a good job laying it out - but what do we do with it?

"While Jimmy’s mother is portrayed as a stereotypical pre-feminist mother and sex object, Super-Man is depicted as the sex-crazed, financially-dominant stereotype." This is clear and smart, but the fact that she is unmarried and sexually active troubles that stereotype.

Overall: This is very good, thoughtful raw material. Maybe it's too scattered (4 points rather than one) or maybe you just haven't started to draw the connections yet. There's certainly room just to expand this into a more detailed analysis of femininity, masculinity and Ware's critique of both - you aren't yet connecting all of your ideas as thoroughly as you might be.