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Gunk and Gender: Preliminary Filth Thoughts

Jim Henley wanted to know what women think of The Filth. I finished it last night and I think it’s Grant Morrison all right, and you’re not going to get much more out of me tonight, because my head is rebelling and I need medicine that works or, failing that, sleep. Ok, and what I need most of all is pictures of little kids with superimposed ants’ heads. Lots. I very much need this. I suppose pictures of rotund fellows with eye-bellies would be acceptable, at least the utopian sort, but not as good.

Anyway, the reason Jim Henley wants to know what women think is that he’s worried (or perhaps not worried) that The Filth is a guy thing. I don’t have a good answer to that question. I’m not comfortable with the idea that women deal with filth and bodies more or earlier than men (speaking of course in huge generalizations) do. Yeah, yeah, we’ve got menstruation and the awkwardness of breasts and having to deal with being an object of attraction, and I’ve managed to make my peace with the first of those things at least. But even as a young adolescent when I wanted to be anything but feminine, I wouldn’t have wanted to have to deal with random erections and wet dreams and all that hideously sexual guy-stuff. Also booger jokes. Ugh.

I think maybe a keener difference lies in ownership of sexuality, though this probably relies on even grander generalizations. Especially when it comes to sexuality, men are trained to think they’re in control of themselves. I don’t know to what extent they believe this, but that seems to be the paradigm, and that makes it really difficult to have sexual assault training for men (and here I’m talking about college guys because this is all I’ve had to deal with) who think they could never be assaulted and are sure they and all their friends are nice guys who would never assault anyone else. One way people get around this problem is with a horrible, offensive program that says to men, “Think how much you’d hate yourself if a man raped you! And imagine how you would feel if someone raped your girlfriend!” If the only way to remind men that they’re not in control is by calling on their ick-factor homophobia or urging them to be mindful of people they’re supposed to own, that’s not a good state of affairs. But that’s to some degree what’s going on in The Filth. Male desire (and I think Jim’s right that women aren’t fleshed out in the story, but mostly in that they’re not protagonists even of their subplots much) has gotten out of control. Desire for control is taking over the world, and it’s up to the members of The Hand to be Super-Men, to assert control over the sexually power-mad men. Whether we’re dealing with bad guys releasing hordes of super sperm that seem to destroy rather than impregnate their targets or goodish guys who don’t bother to close the window when masturbating to copious porn and don’t notice the porn in the street, or even possibly unreal has-beens who while away the hours watching their wives engage in hardcore sex with all their old friends and foes, we’re dealing with some ugly stuff and unpleasant guys. So what makes this a Guy Book? Is it because it’s a chance to explore otherwise hidden frailties while still sympathizing with the powerful main character(s)? Is it because it’s a chance to say, “Hee! Erection jokes! Prison rape jokes!” without noticing that their unqualified acceptance isn’t really supported by the text?

I dunno. I’m sure that’s not why Jim liked it, or Dave Intermittent or David Fiore or Steven, but I’m not sure if they have peculiarly gendered responses. I liked The Filth, too, though I think I prefer the pretentiousness of The Invisibles. That I’m not entirely sure may be a sign I’m skewing toward the center of the mind/body scale, our Little Rose growing up! Not hating my body was an important, difficult lesson to learn, but I still don’t love or privilege it either.

And thinking of hating my body brings me back to my impending migraine and thus departure, with assurances that more commentary will come in time. That Animal Man stuff is still in my head, too, while I’m making rash promises, but no more for tonight nor tomorrow, when I watch my brother test his physicality in the all-star game, the end of his high-school football career. He spent four years wallowing in sweat and bruises and bashing, and that’s all Filth to me. I’ll be the bitchy one aching in the bleachers.


  1. David Fiore says:

    I’ll be very interested to hear what you have to say about the book proper, Rose. You’re right when you say that I didn’t have a gendered response to The Filth. I have a real blindspot when it comes to gender–i.e. I don’t believe in it!

    Of course I take notice when I come across a female character who is a true protagonist–but that’s more of a reaction to the historical/sociological fact that, until the past couple of centuries in the West, few artists have bothered looking at things from the perspective of the women that populate their works. I don’t believe that female subjectivity differs, in essence, from the male (as far as I’m concerned, subjectivity is always the same–yes, I’m a dreaded universalist!) Of course, experience is the key modulator of that subjectivity, and Jim’s argument isn’t particularly essentialist, I suppose (the things he talks about which distinguish men from women are experiential)–still, I got the sense that beneath his argument lurks the idea that men and women are “hard-wired” differently, and that women may be configured in such a way that The Filth just won’t speak to them. I have to say, I hope he’s wrong! I still see the work as more of a narratological experiment than anything else–and I would imagine that anyone could appreciate that!


    — 9 June 2004 at 12:56 am (Permalink)

  2. Shane says:

    I just couldn’t get into this in single issue form. Maybe I would like it better at a trade, I don’t know. I wouldn’t count any of Morrison’s stuff among my absolute favorite reads since Animal Man. Other than that I thought it was good, but it seemed like he was just brainstorming and throwing ideas on the page and making them fit. Not saying I don’t enjoy it, it just doesn’t seem worked out as well.

    — 9 June 2004 at 3:59 am (Permalink)

  3. Rose says:

    Shane first: I think it works better collected, because the single issues all seem pretty fragmentary and I don’t remember anymore what the wait between issues would be. Since you liked Animal Man, I’ll point out that The Filth is clearly written in direct opposition to it, or maybe “opposition” isn’t the right word, because they’re not all that different. I hope to talk about this more later because there are panels that really show what the links between the two are and what has changed, but this is sort of like an alternate-universe dark retelling of Animal Man, or possibly “what if Animal Man got mixed with The Invisibles?”

    But if you’re looking for Morrison recommendations from me, you know it’s going to be Seaguy all the way, and I don’t know whether to recommend waiting for the trade there. I don’t know if the ideas there will amount to anything, of course, but somehow I’m hoping the small scale will limit some of Morrison’s huge-impact tendencies and yet not tone down the particular ideas he chooses to play with there.

    — 9 June 2004 at 9:55 am (Permalink)

  4. Rose says:

    David, “gender” as I talk about it is related to what I think you consider experiential issues. Gender describes the way women learn to be women and men to be men and all of us then decide for ourselves what parts of that work or don’t work and which bits from each side of the supposed divide are meaningful and helpful to us. I assume Jim was getting at this too in large part, that women don’t necessarily have some biological affinity for diaper changing (and I certainly don’t!) but that many women end up changing more diapers for a variety of reasons, many of which probably involve the convenient belief many men have that women are somehow better at it. Why women change more diapers is an interesting issue to me, as is the idea that they do. And if more girls are taught to do laundry and dishes than mow the lawn, that’s probably because of the person who’s teaching them more than their innate color-separation or scrubbing skills. So I go with pretty much the same setup most feminists use: “sex” is the biological/genetic side of things and “gender” is the specific cultural/narratological understanding of self. So whether or not you believe in that kind of gender, I often find it useful.

    I do agree that The Filth is an experiment that doesn’t have to be limited by the gender of the reader, but I don’t think you can entirely discount that factor either. As Jim pointed out, there’s pretty much nonstop unsexy sex going on. And major senseless violence. And women getting ripped apart by giant flying sperm and then women raising foul-mouthed, creepy clone babies. I can certainly see why reasonable people might not like this, even if they have an appreciation for narratological experiments. I can even see why people might not like pictures of ant-headed kids, though I in no way agree with them. There are times when I have to ask myself if a work is worth the violence it involves, and the answer is sometimes no. I’m not really sure why this wasn’t the case with The Filth. What I think Jim Henley was asking was whether women are more likely to say, “Ok, that was one forced anal sex joke too many, so I’m putting this away now.” The problem is that more men are reading comics and the women who are reading comics, especially comics like this, probably already know what they’re getting themselves into. So as Jim noted, there’s no good way to answer the question of whether the book works better for guys becuase basically all Western comics work better for men if we’re sticking to the numbers, and the women who comment aren’t statistically significant.

    I think you’re right that the story could work for anyone, but I can also see how and why people might turn away from it. It’s all that messy subjectivity stuff, of course. And I’d say that subjectivity isn’t always the same but that it’s always different, which maybe amounts to the same thing. I can assume that others are subjective in the same ways I am, but I know in some cases they claim not to be and I have no way of knowing if they ever are, which to me is sort of the point of subjectivity.

    — 9 June 2004 at 10:25 am (Permalink)

  5. Mike Norton says:

    My schedule and my general discomfort with the pornographic aspects of the series (my best take on them is as comic relief) has found my progress through the trade version be a slow one. Only about 5 chapters in when I last set it aside sometime early last week, I’ll get back to it sometime soon.

    Thusfar it has the general feel I’ve found in the Morrison works I’ve been most critical of over the years: He’s much more interested in toying with reality and working in whatever new bit he’s picked up from WIRED magazine and/or from the subculture buzz or bits of art/cultural history he’s recalling from school than he is in telling a story.

    — 9 June 2004 at 1:51 pm (Permalink)

  6. Steven says:

    If we’re talking about the stereotypically feminine female and the stereotypically masculine male (who have the traits which are still widely considered ‘default’ in terms of cultural understanding of gender)… I think our female would dislike The Filth because females aren’t ’supposed’ to like pornography, violence, and gross-out stuff, and The Filth has it all. Our male would be very discomfited by all the anal-rape jokes, and would possibly giggle nervously at them. Simplistically, it seems to me that the two basic objections to The Filth would probably “It’s too nasty” and “It’s nasty for the wrong reasons.” Some people just don’t want to read about giant sperm raping women’s wombs, and some people can handle sexual violence only if it’s packaged safely in prison-rape jokes. The former people seem to me more stereotypically feminine, the latter more stereotypically masculine.

    — 9 June 2004 at 2:15 pm (Permalink)

  7. David Fiore says:

    Rose wrote:
    “And I????????d say that subjectivity isn????????t always the same but that it????????s always different, which maybe amounts to the same thing. ”

    I love that Rose!

    On the giant sperm and the forced anal sex and the all that other horrific stuff–well, I can see your point (and you may have noticed that I didn’t talk about any of that stuff in my various pieces on the book), but I also take Morrison at his word when he trumpets the metaphoricity of every element in The Filth. I see the book as a snapshot/compendium of the anti-social scripts that depressed people are relying upon, circa 2003. You don’t have to look very far on the Internet to find people with morbid interests who hate themselves…and Morrison makes use of ‘em all! Still, he’s doing it in order to expose these things for what they are: traps we lay for ourselves.

    I consider myself to be just about as sexually well-adjusted as a person can be (I don’t feel bad about any of my drives–and there’s no confusion in my mind between sexual attraction and aggression), and so that porn stuff really didn’t even horrify me so much (it’s so ridiculous!)–although I imagine that it would (or should!) unsettle men who think of the women that they desire as “the enemy”, or women that have had to deal with this kind of sick individual–of course, this can go the other way too–the rising popularity of the S&M lifestyle, it seems to me, is founded upon mutual hatred between the genders…

    What got to me in The Filth was the discussion of animals and our (my!) tendency to beatify them. The one thing that truly horrifies me about the world is the food chain, and this book certainly exploited that fear to great effect!


    — 9 June 2004 at 2:15 pm (Permalink)

  8. Dave Intermittent says:

    Lots to say on this…

    First, I think that Jim conflates gender and sex (using your definitions, Rose) in his analysis; he seems to me to be very clearly arguing that women as women have a more natural relationship to the filth of daily life than do men. I find these types of biological arguments rather silly, coming either from Jim or from the French “two lips which are as one” school of feminist lit-crit. I’ll give him the gender issue; whatever qualms women may have about encountering filth is generally forced out of them by social pressures. And, for the record, I think these qualms arise out of the “otherness” of the filth at issue. It’s gross when you pick your nose, scratching an itch when I pick mine.

    And this is where I think Morrisson was going with this. I think that the basic point of the Filth (to the extent it has a single basic point) is that morality is largely a function of scaling. That is, we don’t see germs as immoral (too small to impute morals too) but see ourselves as moral because we can percieve ourselves; to someone viewing from a larger scale, we’re no more moral than germs. The flipside of course is that–just the same way germs can effect the body as a whole, humans can effect whatever it is that we make up through our actions: we can program universal cat love, as it were.

    Evidence of the above? The pen certainly…also, note the way that all the problems are related to scale (the little world, the giant sperm, the giant boat, the 2-d world). The little men inside of Greg. And the monsters of the dump are presumably nothing more than dust mites, things which nobody normally finds offensive, largely because we don’t see them up close.

    This is an argument that is likely to big for a comment thread, so I’ll wrap up. Thanks for the as always interesting post; I’m interested in hearing your Animal Man comments, as to me the Filth seems more attuned with the goals of The Invisibles.

    Oh, and lastly: I don’t think that the failure to fully realize a female character in the book is a gender issue, given that the only two real characters in the book are Greg and his cat.

    — 9 June 2004 at 2:19 pm (Permalink)

  9. Rose says:

    Yikes, lots of comments!

    I’ll respond to Mike first, a reward for being a first-time commenter and because I’m happy to finally know your real name, which is not in fact Miraclo.

    Yup, it’s metafiction but not high-level metafiction, and I always hope Morrison is going to take things up a notch. Part of my as-yet-very-incomplete Animal Man argument is that The Filth is one level removed from it, one click up in the hierarchy.

    But it took me a while to read The Filth, which isn’t normal for me. I’m not really sure why, whether it was just part of barely having time to breathe or whether it’s that the story doesn’t seem to have a strong arc or a drive that pushes you from one issue to the next. Or maybe that’s just what I told myself because I knew I couldn’t read it all at once.

    As for the dilettante view of Morrison, you’re probably right at least to a certain extent, and I think that’s what Shane was getting at too. However, I must say for the record that this is 4 million times more true of Warren Ellis, and I’m not just saying that because I like Morrison 4 million times more than Ellis, because the number isn’t quite right. I do think Morrison suffers from cool idea! syndrome, but when he’s on (and I think he’s on in The Filth and I think he’s really, reall on in the whole one available issue of Seaguy) he’s able to incorporate that into the story so that the story is strengthened and enriched.

    I do hope you’ll say more about your reactions and thoughts about The Filth when you finish it or if you choose not to. I’m interested in what you mean about “comic relief” in the porny parts. I assume it’s not that you find them funny ha-ha but that you think they’re there to keep the story from getting too bogged-down and serious or something along those lines. I haven’t yet figured out how and whether I think they really work, but I do think it’s interesting that porn is clearly not a problem as part of Status: Q and returning things to the status quo has no impact on porn. Status: Q itself is really interesting, but I don’t think I should start talking about that yet when I have too many things to say.

    — 9 June 2004 at 2:39 pm (Permalink)

  10. Rose says:

    Steven makes a good point and one we’ve discussed before, so I’ll just say I agree, and I do hope to talk more about the amazingly conflicted male sexuality on display in The Filth.

    Dave F.,
    I’ve got quibbles. A lot of things are ridiculous when they’re not happening to you, and so I guess the question is how to read the porn stuff. OK, sure, they’re inflated and crazy and unrealistic, but are they just about how male desire is in so much crisis that it requires increasingly bizarre scenarios? Or is it about how objectification of women is enforced as part of the status quo? Or what? Why do the women agents wear skintight suits when the mens’ are more padded? I have no idea what the answer to any of this is, but it seems to be worth talking about. And if we’re going to get back to stereotypes and secrets, aren’t all of these masculine antisocial things being addressed here? I think there’s more going on than just showing how people can be creepy or something like that.

    Unrelated to any of that, I’m not sure I agree that BDSM stuff is about hating the other gender, as for one thing it doesn’t have to be between opposite-gendered people, but also that it seems super-traditional relationships would be a lot more oppressive. But again, these are huge generalizations that rely on the individuals involved to be accurate or not.

    As for animals, I’ve been holding off on that for my Animal Man tie-in post, but you’re right it’s a major factor of what’s going on. I’m not sure Morrison really gets over beatifying animals here, but perhaps he evens the playing field a bit.

    — 9 June 2004 at 3:04 pm (Permalink)

  11. Rose says:

    And finally Dave I., whom I really wasn’t ignoring. I just didn’t have time to address your post, but it’s a good one.

    First off, thanks for pointing out the two-rules/otherness thing, which I hadn’t thought about quite as clearly as you were able to do. I was giving Jim the benefit of the doubt in his generalizing, and you’ll note that I totally sidestepped the issue of hormones and instincts and so on, because those are often points of conflict even among people who agree on the general breakdown between sex and gender.

    I definitely agree about the “as below, so above” core to the story and don’t know that I have more to say right now than that. I do think it’s Animal Man from the Grant Morrison Character perspective, sort of, but more on that later when I’ve had time to decide whether it makes any sense at all.

    Lastly, I didn’t think the lack of female characterization was a problem. Is Tony even a character? Is Greg? It gets awfully hard to tell. Again, what does that say about the status quo if people don’t even recognize themselves? And everyone else is just two-dimensional, at best.

    But you’re right this is too big for a comments thread, which of course means you need a new post and comments thread of your own for it, right?

    — 9 June 2004 at 3:23 pm (Permalink)

  12. David Fiore says:

    Rose wrote:

    “Unrelated to any of that, I????????m not sure I agree that BDSM stuff is about hating the other gender, as for one thing it doesn????????t have to be between opposite-gendered people, but also that it seems super-traditional relationships would be a lot more oppressive. But again, these are huge generalizations that rely on the individuals involved to be accurate or not.”

    yes, you’re right, of course–I should have said that S&M is about hating the object of desire (or hating being an object of desire), regardless of whom the relationship involves! Perhaps I’m overgeneralizing, but I haven’t met a person yet who was into this stuff that actually claimed to “feel good” about sex!

    — 9 June 2004 at 3:26 pm (Permalink)

  13. Dave Intermittent says:

    Well, I intend to get around to posting on it…someday. But it might be a while, especially now that I think I need to finish reading Animal Man first.

    — 9 June 2004 at 3:33 pm (Permalink)

  14. David Fiore says:

    Rose wrote:
    “And if we????????re going to get back to stereotypes and secrets, aren????????t all of these masculine antisocial things being addressed here? ”

    One more thing–and I’m quite willing to admit that this is where my “blindspot” comes most prominently into play. I don’t understand how a “feminine antisocial” retreat would differ from a “masculine” one. I’m all ears though Rose–can you give some concrete examples of what you mean here?


    — 9 June 2004 at 6:00 pm (Permalink)

  15. David Fiore says:

    One more–
    I really like Dave I.’s contention that “the basic point of the Filth (to the extent it has a single basic point) is that morality is largely a function of scaling”, with the proviso that I think Morrison is advocating a simultaneous awareness and disregard of this fact! When I mentioned–a couple of comments ago!–that what horrifies me most about the world is the food chain, I meant that to include, of course, the “economic food chain” (i.e. exploitation)… “Where were you when she got raped and torched on a field in Chad–buying cat food?”

    In a very real sense, I–and anyone else that has a pet–am maintaining an animal at the expense of human beings somewhere off-stage… My cats and I can exist on a plane of equality–as indeed my friends and I can–but we still live in a world in which someone is paying the price for this. And sure, that’s “just the way the system works”, and maybe I’m not being a good antibody by thinking about the details–but I can’t help it: it’s horrifying! The old pantheist bromide that everything is the same thing doesn’t work for me at all–there are no acceptable losses…


    — 9 June 2004 at 7:04 pm (Permalink)

  16. Rose says:

    Dave F.,

    Clarifying only quickly, what I meant by “masculine” antisocial retreat is one that’s primarily geared towards/participated in by men. So reading superhero comics is a masculine hobby, but watching soap operas is a feminine one. I meant that there are gendered assumptions in our culture about who does or should do certain things. And I guess I was asking you whether you think men and women tend to rely on the same antisocial scripts. I’m inclined to think not, although as always individuals cross over a lot. Women are more likely to develop anorexia or self-mutilation (though tattoos and body modification have a crossover appeal) than men, whereas men are more likely to go on a shooting spree or have an active suicide than women. I picked more extreme masculine versions, but there you go. I guess the general concept is that women tend to focus pain inward in a certain way while men project it out, and I’m not saying this is universal or instinctual or anything like that, but it’s the way things work in our culture, and I think the way they work to cover up what’s really going on inside.

    As for the cat food line, I think it’s at the core of much of the story as I interpret it, connecting to both the Animal Man parallels and an interesting theme about awareness and importance of rape and non-consensual sex in The Filth. So more on that later, I hope!

    — 9 June 2004 at 7:50 pm (Permalink)

  17. David Fiore says:

    sounds good Rose!

    — 9 June 2004 at 8:35 pm (Permalink)

  18. Shane says:

    So far I’m not really impressed with Seaguy, but I’m re-reading Invisibles now and enjoying it more the second go around. Maybe Morrison’s stuff just reads better when I’m not reading it right after or before whatever new books came out that week. I don’t really know. I find I enjoy his stuff, but only at certain times. Maybe I just have to be in the right mood. The one thing I can say for a fact though is that I wouldn’t recommend Morrison’s stuff to any of my non-comics reading friends, though I would recommend Transmetropolitan by Ellis. I might recommend Morrison’s X-men stuff, but even that isn’t the most reader friendly of material. I just thought of another Morrison book I really enjoyed…Doom Patrol, I forgot about that one.

    And yeah that was exactly what I was getting at before, the cool idea syndrome. Once again someone comes along and takes my thoughts and spits them out much better than I can myself. Thanks.

    — 9 June 2004 at 8:35 pm (Permalink)

  19. Rose says:

    Shane, I do think you it helps to be in the right mood to read Morrison (and most other things) and I just have an inexplicable love of Seaguy for no reason at all. I actually expected to hate it because of the preciousness of “Chubby da Choona,” but instead I got immediately obsessed. So I’m really just teasing when I say everyone else should like it, because all my real recommendations boil down to, “Well, it’s the kind of thing you’d like if you like that sort of thing!”

    I think what kinds of comics you should give to non-comics-reading friends has a lot more to do with what kinds of friends you have than what kind of comics you have. I’m planning to start off a friend of mine (who’s probably reading this) with either Animal Man, which he’ll stick with becuase of his love of cats, or The Invisibles because of the kinky zaniness and metanarrative stuff. But Steven started comics on Transmetropolitan, so that works for some people too. I guess it’s a question of what you consider reader-friendly and who the reader in question is. I’m not saying Morrison is smart or for advanced readers only; my 12-year-old brother really enjoyed Animal Man, but it’s for readers who are open to the sort of wild play that goes on but also willing to deal with intense emotions and superficial summaries and whatever else he chooses to throw in.

    I do think it’s interesting that you and Mike seem to have similar complaints about Morrison’s work, though. As I vaguely recall, Johanna’s response may have followed those lines too. I always like seeing how tastes overlap, and especially how they don’t.


    — 9 June 2004 at 9:02 pm (Permalink)