In the 1994 documentary Crumb we are given an in-depth look into Robert Crumb’s views on women through his own artwork as well as the commentary of the interviewees. The perception that the viewer develops is that Crumb is a womanizer with problems sexually connecting with women in a healthy way. To support this argument the documentary shows that Crumb’s work is full of sadistic sexual themes and instances of the objectification of women. If we choose to only look at the surface of these images then we can draw the same simple conclusion that the documentary came to. However, if we choose to look a little deeper, especially in relation to his work on Genesis, we can see that the lines are not so clearly drawn.
The film Crumb presented quite a few examples to show Crumb as a womanizer. It is possible to defend some of Crumb’s work in which he portrays women in a negative light as being satirical, however I feel that the following comic goes way too far to be written off as merely social commentary. The most extreme example I found was the comic in which Mr. Natural shoves a woman’s head into her own body and then gives her to Flakey to be used as a sexual object. Flakey proceeds to have sex with the headless girl after which he feels guilty and returns her to Mr. Natural. The story is peppered with offensive one-liners stating things to the effect of “I removed her head and now all my problems are gone.” This comic quite honestly offends me, and when I look at it I desire to cast Crumb as a sexist jerk like most of the female commentators had done. However I don’t feel as if this is the whole picture.
Crumb’s general style is to draw women as full figured, curvy, and strong. His female figures have an undeniable sexuality about them, especially in Genesis. This sexuality, unlike in his some of his other work mentioned above, is more of a source of power and strength than oppression. For example in chapter 38 Tamar uses her sexuality to make Jacob see the error of his ways. In chapter 19 the daughters of Lot choose to be impregnated by their father, not the other way around. In chapter 34 Dinah’s choice to have sex with Shechem causes an entire village to be slaughtered. In all of these examples women are not being sexually objectified but rather they are in a position of sexual power. Crumb’s illustrations also reflect this position of power, drawing these women with faces reflecting determination, resolve, and decisiveness. Here we see another side of Crumb’s views on women where he sees their sexuality as not a medium through which men can diminish them, but rather as an aspect though which they should be empowered.
These two different views seem contradictory on the surface, but then I was struck by a quote from one of the interviewees in Crumb. She made the claim that men who are sexually attracted to women’s legs—like Crumb—tend to feel inferior to women due to some psychological issues with their mothers. This inferiority leads to fear which leads to objectification to protect one’s Id. Viewing Crumb’s varied portrayal of women through this lens we can see his earlier work as his first attempts to deal with this fear by bringing women down and his later work as his more mature acceptance of the sexuality of women. Even if one is hesitant to accept this idea that Crumb actually thinks women are superior so he must draw them as inferior, it is clear that his views on sexuality and women are far from clean cut and simple. This complexity makes it difficult to draw the broad characterization—demonization—that is made in the film.