It’s that simple. Power is cyclical; to have power is to relinquish power. A king needs the political support of nobles, the military support of an army, the financial support of a treasury, or all three to maintain authority. Celebrities often relinquish control of their personal life for stardom. American presidents, “leaders of the free world,” are bound by partisan politics, polls, and putrescence. So, simply, power isn’t. You have to spend money to make money? Well, you also have to lose power to gain power.
(Dark Horse Comics)
The corollary to this notion: Those who divest themselves of power also gain influence. Power becomes a side-effect. The private who gives himself over to a military chain-of-command may also gain hometown respect and the ability to inspire patriotism. The manservant who dedicates his life to butlerhood may end up in time having the ear of an otherwise untouchable industry mogul. In fact, being an object, by definition, is to be “something that when viewed stirs a particular emotion.” That is, control can actually be held by either the viewer or the viewee.
Three examples: The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, for starters. For better or for worse, the women are not in there for their intellect nor for their fashion sense. Morality aside, they are there to be ogled they are objectified for their bodies. But, behind the scenes the tables are turned. Models like Daniele Petrova, this year’s cover girl, aggressively negotiate salaries of over $2 million a year. She has status, celebrity, and a bank account full of little green rectangles of power. All before the age of thirty. Is it a fair argument to say that being the object of the male gaze renders Ms. Petrova powerless? The porn industry has a far more clear-cut money-for-debasement equation. The most primal, carnal instincts of Man are put on display in exchange for a multi-million dollar industry. Porn stars, the few that are paid equitably and treated decently, emerge from the deal much more wealthy than a majority of their viewers. Whether they are “better off” is something I leave for each individual to judge. However, stars like Ginger Lynn and Traci Lords have been able trade in their infamy for legitimate C-List film careers…which either proves the point or makes the exceptions to the rule.
Somewhere along this sliding scale of disempowerment-for-empowerment are the women of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Miller, winner of numerous Eisner comic industry awards, was already a legend before creating Sin City at Dark Horse Comics. He resuscitated the Marvel Comics hero Daredevil with his “Born Again” plot arc. He revitalized the comic industry overall with his grim and adult Batman: The Dark Knight Returns for DC Comics. And, between installments of Sin City, he once again broke new ground with a penetrating look at the politics and royalty of Ancient Greece in 300. Sin City, however, is neither a superhero tale nor a historical epic. It’s hard-boiled detective noir meets Quentin Tarantino and a Maplethorpe painting. Ultra-violent, hugely erotic, and totally uncensored. Taking place in fictional Basin City, the stories are literally and figuratively black-and-white. The villains are pure bad: corrupt police, power-hungry politicians, drug lords. And the heroes are redemptive good: war veterans, moral mercenaries, vengeful street fighters.
And then there are the women. In Miller’s most recent installment, Hell and Back: A Sin City Love Story, the plot centers around a mystery beauty by the name of Esther. Our hero, a former black op agent-turned-artist named Wallace, meets Esther while saving her from drowning. His first thoughts are telling: “She’s a little heavier than she looks. Strong body Strong body. She’s in good shape.” Once revived, she falls in love with his art, and he with her. It’s a bond so deep enough that, when Esther is abducted, Wallace vows to find her and make her captors pay. It’s not an uncommon plot for a Sin City tale. The original 1991 12-issue arc focused on a redemptive, disfigured thug named Marv looking to avenge the one woman to ever show him physical love: “The perfect woman. The goddess,” named Goldie. Marv is aided by his tough-as-nails probation officer, Lucille, and his gun named Gladys.
Similar to all the women in Sin City, Gladys is portrayed as powerful and sensual. It’s a trend that continues into Hell and Back. Esther never begs for release, never cries. But she is also seldom clothed and often exposed. Likewise, her “roommate” Delia is a lethal nymphomaniac, only challenged as the embodiment of power and sexuality by the equally potent assassin, Mariah. Frank Miller goes to great lengths to always draw his women dripping with seduction. They pose either with skintight clothing, drenched in moisture, bare-nipples, or entirely nude. However, the happily married Miller is no misogynist nor a capitalist of the female form; I believe he’s a progressive. As I said, the women of Sin City are strong and, paradoxically, gain even more strength from each seductive pose Miller draws. They are not victims of the male gaze; they ensorcel their viewers. Like the black widow or Basic Instinct‘s Catherine Tramell, they only allow men to look at them; they enhance their power by enthralling viewers. Miller’s “good guys” certainly respect both women’s beauty and power.
The character Wallace does freelance work for a sleazeball publisher, and does artful, unappreciated nudes for the smut peddler. When he does finally acquiesce to paint something far more pornographic, Wallace ashamedly rips it up and sacrifices his paycheck. Likewise, in the first Sin City Marv refuses to see Goldie as a hooker. Regardless of her profession, he wants to do right by this woman that showed him love and looked beneath his hideous exterior. So, he goes to Lucille for help, a woman that he knows is strong and able. In fact, the only people to ever victimize women in Sin City are the clearly delineated “bad guys:” Esther’s captors, Goldie’s killers.
In his columns, Miller contends to be a simple man. He likes old cars, fast action, and as another of his Sin City trade paperbacks is titled Booze, Broads & Bullets. Perhaps he’s an artist who just admires the female form and draws it well. Perhaps he’s entirely unaware of the Freudian libido-thanatos cross-wiring he injects into his deadly, stimulating characters. Are the women beautifully impossible? Yes. But so are the men. So is the story. So is Sin City. Miller is no misogynist, no more a hater of women than the comic professionals who made Lois Lane cry for Superman or put Wonder Woman in gold-brassiere-and-spandex ensemble. Maybe, like his protagonists, Frank Miller is just a man trying his best to do right by his women. Maybe Frank Miller is just a story-teller. Maybe Frank Miller is just a sinner. Like all of us. Maybe, simply, Frank Miller just is.