Bitch, please: Laura on Cerebus #3

According to Deni Loubert’s introductory publisher’s note, “Dave wanted to do an issue where Cerebus was with a female since the inception of the comic.” Although there’s been some discussion about whether the succubus in the previous issue already dabbled obliquely in gender politics, any potential subtlety gets traded for a sledgehammer with the introduction of the first major female character, Red Sophia.

Basically, it’s Dave Sim taking on the ladies for the first time, so you know it’s going to be good.

A stand-in for Red Sonja, the flame-haired, chainmail-bikinied female counterpart to Conan the Barbarian, Sim’s Red Sophia is essentially a millstone placed around Cerebus’ neck while he does yet another terrible mercenary deed for a bag of gold.  This time, he contracts with Sophia’s father — a powerful wizard — to find the man who besmirched her honor, and torture him to death for his crime.

Pay attention, because the words “besmirch,” “honor,” and “torture” all take on markedly different meanings by the end of the issue, mostly because Red Sophia is not so much as a fierce female warrior as she is a sexually-obsessed, histrionic woman-child secretly longing for a man to dominate her– and ready to give her a good smack when she needs it.

In the original series, the character Red Sonja was brutally raped as a teenager by the mercenaries who killed her family, and her wish for vengeance granted by a goddess who gave her extraordinary fighting skills — on the condition that she never give herself to a man again sexually unless he bested her in combat.  There are some weird implications — especially in the context of a rape victim — of a woman needing men to prove their ability to dominate her to win sexual favors, but it’s still not as unsettling as Dave Sim’s take.

As he said in his 2004 Onion AV Club interview, “When I did my parody, Red Sophia, I extrapolated that this poor, magnificent warrior woman was probably getting unbelievably horny waiting for someone to come along who could beat her. It does seem more resonant today now that the ‘ballsier’ feminists, much to their consternation, seem to be having difficulty finding men who are interested in—or capable of—going mano a mano with them.”

issue-03-01-belovedWhile Sophia still possesses Red Sonja’s equivalent fighting skills, there is far more emphasis on her sexual aggressiveness – at least, once she realizes that Cerebus is capable of going “mano a mano” with her — and how irritating it is to Cerebus. Again, while the concept of a heroine as rape victim seeking men to dominate her is disconcerting to begin with, it’s kind of more disturbing to twist that character into a desperate, oversexed idiot who begs to get beaten, and is spurned by her love object at every turn.

The underlying idea, as Sim says above, is that if women are going to take on traditional male characteristics in a relationship – e.g. being aggressive and initiating sex – they shouldn’t be surprised when men find them unappealing.

When Sophia finally challenges Cerebus in battle he bests her handily, and decides to teach her lesson; when “a tempting and rotund target presents itself… the flat of Cerebus’ broadsword painfully introduces Red Sophia to professional swordplay.”  Yeah, that’s right.  He spanks her with his sword.

issue-03-05-ass-shot

And while the obvious phallic analogies of sword spanking are giggle-worthy, it might be more important to note that Dave Sim has publicly advocated the spanking and physical punishment of adult women by their husbands:

issue-03-08-muzzleTo me, taking it as a given that reason cannot prevail in any argument with emotion, there must come a point – with women and children – where verbal discipline has to be asserted, and if verbal discipline proves insufficient, that physical discipline be introduced. Women and children have soft, cushy buttocks which are, nonetheless, shot through with reasonably sensitive nerve endings.

I believe that those buttocks are there for a very specific purpose intended by their Creator… When the point does arrive when the amusement value has exhausted itself or good manners and chivalry have been stretched to their limit, “That’s enough,” spoken firmly, distinctly and above a conversational tone – with women and children – should be sufficient. If it proves insufficient, measured blows to the buttocks – “measured,” to me, meaning blows which, cumulatively, leave no mark which endures longer than, say, an hour or two but which will make sitting down an uncomfortable proposition for a comparable length of time, blows which are an inescapable consequence of failing to heed the verbal “that’s enough” seem the only sensible way to evenly balance the unfair advantage emotion has over reason.

Now suitably chastised in the method Sim recommends for irrational, emotional women, Sophia instantly does a complete 180, submits to Cerebus completely, and attempts domesticity inside a tent that resembles a giant vagina, prattling endlessly at her new “master.”  And oh shit, she makes him granola, the food of choice for vapid oversexed hippie girls everywhere.  For maybe the hundredth time this issue, Cerebus basically looks at her and says, “Bitch, please.” 

Back to the plot! issue-03-16-cover-face When Cerebus and Sophia finally find the handlebar-mustachioed man who “besmirched” Sophia’s honor (by stealing a glimpse of her bathing, apparently), we discover a simpering lovestruck weakling who only has eyes for Sophia. She reacts violently and absurdly to the situation until Cerebus finally just pushes her out of the way so the menfolk can talk — during which his dialogue bubble seriously covers up her face.  I mean, wow. This issue is like every feminist media studies professor’s worst fucking nightmare. 

Ultimately, Cerebus realizes that the only way to shut up a woman is to clock her, which he does, and when the limp-wristed lady-boy who loves Sophia gets upset about it, Cerebus pretty much laughs in his effeminate face and starts getting ready to torture him, per the terms of his employment.  While considering the most terrible and horrific cruelties to inflict on his victim, Cerebus suddenly realizes what would be the worst punishment of all: marrying Sophia, and being forced to spend the rest of his life with her. 

Wah wah wah.

Next issue: Death’s Dark Trend

27 Responses to “Bitch, please: Laura on Cerebus #3”


  1. 1 David Fiore January 20, 2009 at 9:14 am

    yup, Sophia is a problematic character, to say the least… of course, as a satire of Red Sonja (not that I’ve ever read a Red Sonja comic, mind you), it does seem quite perfect… as you say, it takes the objectionable aspects of the character (basically, everything about her) and amplifies them to the power of 10 mother-in-law jokes… To me, it seems that Sim understood, at one time, how much of a patriarchal chimera this type of character is… which is what makes his future development so insanely frustrating…

    but that’s Cerebus (the series) in a nutshell–everything it starts off critiquing (most notably Cerebus–the character–himself, and his nihilistic misogyny), it later embraces

    Dave

  2. 2 Oliver January 20, 2009 at 9:30 am

    I’ll say this story always made me uncomfertable -but then I don’t know if that says more about me than what is actually on the page. So he plays her for laughs -he plays everyone for laughs, so why should she get any different treatement: that would be sexist. And by the way, there will be surprisingly strong female characters coming up in the course of the series.
    So he spanks her with a sword… he does seem to have a bdsm thing for spanking for sure, I’ll give you that. But hey it is between consenting adults. And no I don’t believe in spanking of children:)
    “There are some weird implications — especially in the context of a rape victim — of a woman needing men to prove their ability to dominate her to win sexual favors, but it’s still not as unsettling as Dave Sim’s take.”
    Now you state Sim’s underlying idea that some men might not find women who take on traditional man roles appealing -this is the unsettling take? How can you you disagree? A reminder: the same goes true for some women not finding some men appealing who take on traditional women roles. The operative word being “some”. Yes, it saddens me , too. I’ve been Mr. Mom.
    You state: “Cerebus basically looks at her and says, “Bitch, please.”” You had to get the “bitch” word in there? Oh, please:)
    You state:
    “Ultimately, Cerebus realizes that the only way to shut up a woman is to clock her..” What are you upset about: that he clocked her or that she won’t shut up?Cerebus is filled with characters who oddly won’t shut up -most women agree men don’t talk enough (though the men in Cerebus are chatty cathy’s:)), and men universlly almost agree women talk too much. Not me nor you, but this isn’t something men and woemn don’t seem to for the most part agree on. As for him hitting -it’s what he does: if it helps any Cerebus is man and woman (yes, he has both gentalia)… and well, actually he’s an aardvark -and heck she is a warrior… and if you are a warrior then it would be sexist not to hit her.
    As for him not eating granola: Hey, I’m a vegetarian -and with that you can imagine my liberal leanings, but what are you saying? I know what Sim is saying as this was during the time of Clint Eastwood Dirt Harry sequels -the tough guy blahblah
    …and in a vagina tent? While I applaud the observation I don’t see why that is bad. What is wrong with a vagina tent? Are you saying there are no women who try to domisticate guys?
    I enjoy the observations and the rhetoric, but is this getting divorced from any sense of reality.

  3. 3 David Fiore January 20, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Oliver–all of your “most men” and “most women” qualifications are precisely the problem at issue… This is a work of art–and Laura (and Leigh, and me, and a million other careful readers) is entirely justified in expecting a work of art to muster critical ENGAGEMENT with these mindless platitudes, no?

  4. 4 Oliver January 20, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Types are played for comedy: I agree you can role your eyes… but that is the point in most of this: all beings are types, buffoons, laugheble… Cerebus shows contempt for us humans. “We are the mindless platitudes” is the point.

  5. 5 DerikB January 20, 2009 at 10:17 am

    I agree that the whole issue/issue is problematic, though perhaps not as egregious as all that, considering it is a parody of sword and sorcery comics/stories. I’m also a little wary to conflagrate past Dave and future/present Dave’s beliefs.

    Curious to see how the analysis of the first Jaka story (in a couple issues) will go.

    I find it interesting that despite her… attributes, Cerebus seems uninterested in her sexually, which almost goes against a character who is otherwise so selfish, greedy, and self-centered.

    Actually, considering the rather negative protagonist, and the host of dolts that characterize the rest of the cast, it’s not surprising Red Sophia is also a problematic character.

  6. 6 David Fiore January 20, 2009 at 10:29 am

    no–human beings are not types… culture makes us see them that way… I think there’s a lot of extremely sharp satire in the issues up ahead, and a great deal of genuinely original cultural observation… but the best you can say about Red Sophia is that she is a parody of a character that is, quite frankly, best ignored… at worse, she simply is the embodiment of every misogynist projection under the sun… all in all, I’d say, there’s not much to like about (and even less to laugh about in) issue #3

  7. 7 Oliver January 20, 2009 at 10:36 am

    I didn’t say human beings are types, I said most the humans in early Cerebus are types.

  8. 8 Oliver January 20, 2009 at 10:39 am

    I mean, I’m every liberal cliche you can think -but I’m not a type:)

  9. 9 Lauren January 20, 2009 at 11:14 am

    No, you are not every liberal cliche I “can think.”

  10. 10 Jeremy January 20, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Man do I wish I still had this phonebook ( got lost along the way).
    I do think it’s possible to read too much into Cerebus at this point as I don’t believe he had decided to make this the 300 issue opus he would soon enough.
    Regardless though while I can’t imagine ever spanking a woman because of a disagreement or argument I do know for a fact that every night in bedrooms across North America there are thousands of men that spank women on, and only on, the request of intelligent strong women that are in positions of power ( or not) in their jobs. My point being that this work as does not exist in a vacuum. I’m no expert in gender issues but I’d like to know what others think about why this is the case.
    - Laura I may just need to reread the article again but why do you find the concept of Red Sophia to be more disturbing than Red Sonja? Not saying I disagree but I wasn’t sure where you said exactly why?

    Jeremy

  11. 11 Oliver January 20, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Jeremy, for the record and for those who don’t know reading this: Cerebus screams: “Horse Feed! You would prepare horsefeed for an earth-pig born?” not “Bitch, please”. Wouldn’t have made as good a title for this blog.

  12. 12 Laura Hudson January 20, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Jeremy: Well, Red Sonja is weird to me because of the basic concept that she’s rape victim who won’t have sex again except with men who physically assault/defeat her. Sophia creeps me out a little more — in the context of the Sonja origin — because it seems to recast her as a rape victim who is pathetically desperate to get knocked around and sexed up. Again, it’s possible Sim wasn’t thinking about that particular aspect of Red Sonja’s origin in his parody, but since examining the details is what this is all about, I have to admit it’s something that unsettled me a little.

    Also, I certainly have no problem with spanking as a consensual act between adults, but Sim’s talking about it as a punishment to be administered to both children and adult women who behave badly (in the opinion of men). That, to put it mildly, is pretty fucked up. It crosses the line into abuse, or at the very least, treating women as though they are some sort of subclass of child-people.

    But back to the (comic book) issue at hand, I find David’s idea that Sim was genuinely parodying the absurd gender caricature of Red Sonja — not feeding into it — to be extremely interesting, and it makes me want to take a second look at the issue with that in mind.

  13. 13 Laura Hudson January 20, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Also, David:

    “but that’s Cerebus (the series) in a nutshell–everything it starts off critiquing (most notably Cerebus–the character–himself, and his nihilistic misogyny), it later embraces”

    Without having read enough to know exactly, I get the feeling this is very, very right, and one of the things that fascinates me the most about watching the evolution of the series.

  14. 14 Oliver January 20, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Oh, I don’t know if you need to go that far -but maybe… who knows? Was it a 180 as David says or could you as Laura says see seeds early on at what was to come -maybe a little bit of both? In any case I think Laura is on to something that you can find bits and pieces here and there early on -or at the very least interesting to speculate about in retrospect. It’s just a tough balancing act to know how much to make of any of it and not get tempted to turn it into a Dave-bashing party.
    As for “spanking” -in the name of balance: because it’s “punishment” doesn’t mean it’s “forced”. A really big important distinction to make. Kooky, shameful, sexy -call it what you want. But there are plenty of bdsm ladies and men who believe in it and relish it, and it’s getting more and more popular. To each their own of course -and obviously I don’t agree with Sim on this (sorry ladies:) well, ok, but not 24/7:))

  15. 15 Jeremy January 20, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    Laura,

    re: spanking, ( there’s something I wouldn’t have imagined typing) I agree as far as Dave’s later comments are concerned but as far as what happens in the issue I believe it may lean more to the consenting adults side than punishment.
    I’d also have to agree that the issue seems to be more of a parody of the character, including sub-text as I’m willing to bet Dave was quite aware of the character, than feeding into said “gender caricature”. That’s how I read it when I first read the issue about 10 years ago or so. Which is why I also find the Red Sonja character to be more disturbing as I always read early Cerebus as parody even knowing what would come later.

    Jeremy

  16. 16 Michael January 20, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    My recollection is that Red Sophia matures quite a bit when she makes her reentry in Church & State. Or at least Sim by then handles the relationship between her & Cerebus in a more mature manner. By that time he had a 300 issue structure and a Point in mind with her character, too. So I lean to agreeing with David’s thinking of this early appearance as a careless parody of the disturbing nature of Red Sonja’s back story. Oh, and also probably a shameless attempt on Sim’s part to pump up sales with a bit of T & A.

  17. 17 CCBC January 21, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    This whole Woman Warrior thing was quite the deal back during the sword-and-sorcery revival of the 70s. Frank Thorne, for instance, who actually drew some Red Sonja comics (IIRC) had his own creation, Ghita of Alizaar. Frank used to promote his comic by dressing up in wizrd robes for conventions and appearing with a actress wannabee who dressed as Sonja. I’m pretty sure there’s a photo of Dave Sim and Frank Thorne together in a later issue of Cerebus. And, yes, I think he’s the model for Sophia’s father.

    Anyhow, this was an entire type that was being satirized here, not just the Howard character. I can see how the type might anger you but I don’t understand how Sim’s parody is worse? Suppose you wanted to lampoon the Red Sonja concept, how would you go about it? Sim, for better or worse, is mocking the entire idea. Mostly a miss rather than a hit? Maybe so, Sim is still getting it together.

    No one has commented on Cerebus being a strict meat-eater in this episode and a lover of raw potatoes later. Cerebus is still the barbarian stereotype made small and ridiculous here. Later, he develops as a character.

  18. 18 CCBC January 21, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    That should be “dressed as Ghita”. Sonja would have attracted copyright lawyers, I’m sure.

  19. 19 Sean R January 21, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Leigh and Laura-

    I’ve been following along with your guy’s reading and posts, and subsequent dissection in comments. Please keep it up!

    And Sophia reads as ill-conceived genre parody to me, something which seems to be guiding many of the early Cerebus plot decisions….

  20. 20 Jeff Tundis January 27, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    I posted this on the other blog page about issue 3, but it’s even more important here. You’re completely mis-representing Dave’s ideas and intentions with the Sophia character *at the time he did this issue*.

    I love that you’re doing this project, but if you don’t want to be perceived as witch hunting, you may want to consider stopping the witch hunt you’re already on.

    No, I won’t defend the “God given mandate to spank women,” (all such religious based thinking is foolishness in my book – the true “emotion based” system of thought) but I do believe that stereotypes exist for a reason, and playing them up has been comedy gold for generations.

    Anyway…

    I wanted to post this quote from Dave on the Sophia character in general as you try to put his perspective on women in context (don’t extrapolate on her womanhood too much – your assumptions don’t apply yet). This is rather old — from Swords Of Cerebus #3.

    “This was Red Sophia’s last appearance in Cerebus to date. There are a number of reasons for this. Kim Thompson’s comment on the “unhealthy origin” of the Marvel character sums up my feelings pretty well. I was initially attracted to the book by Frank Thorne’s work, having like Frank’s stuff from the time he was doing Korak and Son Of Tomahawk for DC. I heard a great deal about the Sonja Show that he did at conventions and was intrigued by the occasional photograph or write-up one would see in fanzines or on the letters pages. When I first read one of the books, I have to admit to an almost total sense of disgust at the concept behind it. The qualities of sado-masochism, rapist as hero and woman as willing rape victim screamed at me from every panel. I didn’t for a moment figure that some fourteen year-old boy was going to go out and defeat his girl-friend in battle for the privileges implied, but it seemed like something less than the ideal structure for an entertainment form.

    “Sophia was also intended as something of a tribute to Wendy Pini’s
    interpretation of the character in the aforementioned Sonja Show, and
    finding out that she didn’t like the character didn’t help matters.

    “If she does return again, I will have to re-think the concept
    completely to try and make her at least a little more sympathetic. A
    gargantuan task that makes me feel I would be better served coming up
    with a new character altogether” – Dave Sim (Swords Of Cerebus Volume 3: introduction to Merchant Of Unshib)

  21. 21 Laura Hudson January 27, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    There’s no need to be so defensive, Jeff. I actually have very little concern that this will be perceived as a witch hunt, and throwing around terms like that, especially so early on, seems like a bit of an overreaction. If you think I’m misconstruing something, it’s better to simply say that than to assume it’s part of some insidious slander campaign.

    Regardless, I am quite willing to accept the possibility that Red Sophia (at least at this point in time) is a failed attempt at parodying the stereotypes of Red Sonia, not necessarily or at least intentionally furthering them. But as Dave admits himself in the quote, the origins of the original character are kind of disturbing and dabble in some unsettling notions of rape victims. One might want to take care in parodying such a character, particularly in such hypersexual ways, lest one’s motivations be misconstrued — and it seems Dave admits as much in that final quote from Volume 3.

  22. 22 Laura Hudson January 27, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Also, I think there’s an important distinction some commenters are failing to make between what Dave may have intended, and how the work is perceived and interpreted by the reader. Not that the former isn’t interesting on some level, just that it’s certainly not always the most relevant point. What an author or creator intends is not always what the work ultimately communicates or the reader absorbs; the work, once finished, is something separate from intention and must stand on its own without biographical footnotes to hold it up.

  23. 23 aintmsbtraven January 27, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    that last is an excellent point Laura–although I’d say that one of the most fascinatingly unique things about Cerebus is the way in which its author’s “official interpretation” moved increasingly to the center of the textual stage, as the years and the baggage piled up (and as the author found himself increasingly at odds–ideologically–with the majority of his readers)

    the wonder of the lettercol (in a way “peripheral” to the text–and yet, for most comic fans, a crucial part of the reading experience, smuggling a kind otherness into the most auteur-driven narratives) is that it brings the debate about intention/reception out of the academy and into the pop cultural trenches, with, in this case, some pretty intense consequences!

    Dave Fiore

  24. 24 Jeremy January 27, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    “What an author or creator intends is not always what the work ultimately communicates or the reader absorbs; the work, once finished, is something separate from intention and must stand on its own without biographical footnotes to hold it up.”

    True enough Laura and I think, again, your point of view and reading of the work is very different than many peoples’. For no other reason than the fact that you are reading the work at this particular point in time as opposed to 10, 20 or even 30 years ago.
    Your own perceptions and interpretations would quite certainly be different had you read this for the first time say 20 years ago.
    You do also admit to having biases/pre-conceived notions of the work (which is fine) i.e your reading of the work being influenced by any and all knowledge you have of the creator, his thoughts and ideas and so does Jeff above. Simply different knowledge is all.

    Enjoying your work here and looking forward to the next post.

    Jeremy

  25. 25 Laura Hudson January 28, 2009 at 11:58 am

    I’m looking forward to the next post too! Leeeeigh?

    I’d say my preconceived notions of the work are simply that it is considered Great and Important, which is still a bias perhaps, but not one that overly concerns me. My knowledge of the creator is the same knowledge that anyone in comics has about Dave Sim and his latter day antics — I’m not sure it constitutes a bias, necessarily, but it did influence my reading of this issue.

  26. 26 Jeff Tundis February 12, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Didn’t mean to sound so defensive. In the end, Dave has to be responsible for his own words and actions – and there’s plenty to find fault with (my own personal dealings with him notwithstanding).

    My tossing out the “witch hunt” label was more of a cautionary note. I think it’s great that you’re putting such thought and effort into exploring Cerebus, it is my favorite comic book after all.

    My fear is that your work will be dismissed because of bias (something very common in “Cerebus-land” no matter which side of the fence you’re on). And it does seem that the focus has been less “exploring the origins of Cerebus” and more “exploring the origins of Dave Sim’s sexism.” At this early stage, I just don’t see much use in that. As you saw, Dave was ignorant of Red Sonja’s origins and peeled away from the parody and re-worked it.

    Sure, he could have taken more care in the creation of the parody, but I doubt that was on the mind of a 21 year old who was just trying to further the Conan parody and happy to have a steady girlfriend for the first time.

    A shift in attitude *is* coming, though. Have no fear;^D

    -Jeff

  27. 27 Eric May 20, 2009 at 11:33 am

    I think the interpretation of Dave’s word balloon covering her face as some kind of veiled misogyny is a bit of a stretch – rather, it might be a simple case of the not yet sophisticated Sim having poorly planned his frame. In other words, he had more words than he had prepared for, and not enough room in which to fit them.


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