Crumb claims he treated his graphic novel of Genesis as a straight illustration job. However, expressing Genesis in pictures rather than words means that some interpretation is inevitable. The text of the Bible is generally considered a patriarchal document, as it seems to focus mainly on the stories and accomplishments of men. Crumb seems to visually augment the role of women in many instances throughout the book. Crumb’s visual choices in illustrating Genesis were meant to undermine the traditional patriarchal interpretation of the book in favor of a more feminist and historically accurate viewpoint.
Throughout the documentary of Robert Crumb’s career, viewers hear from a number of people who have witnessed the cartoonist’s growth as an artist. These sources provide a number of reasons as to what inspires Crumb to depict people in his controversial style. One contribution that Crumb himself offers is the LSD trip he took a number of years before. This experience began Crumb’s uninhibited drawing of his dark side. In these comics, he depicts the most grotesque of his own fantasies. This was also his segue into drawing the seediest aspects of human nature in general.
Art critic Robert Hughes relays that Crumb’s work reflects a deep sense of human absurdity. Crumb himself expresses his disgust at the portrayal of the typical consumer American family in the 1950s. The depiction of a happy family sitting around a table with no acknowledgement of conflict or neuroses unsettles him. He examines this concept satirically in a comic that shows father-daughter and mother-son sexual relations. Another comic, dubbed “Ed Everyman,” examines normal occurrences of a typical man. This includes the mundane act of reading the newspaper while on the toilet; the most interesting event being that someone walked in on him by accident. This comic satirizes the boring and stable lives that people long for, looking at how mundane the “American Dream” truly is. These are examples of the way in which Crumb seeks to draw attention to how we take for granted the legitimacy of certain ideologies.
In much the same way that he points out the facade of a happy, idyllic family; Crumb draws attention to the contradictions between Genesis’ accounts of women and the way in which society has altered them. The Biblical account reveals stories from a primarily patriarchal viewpoint, signifying that women possibly had more power in that time than the text of Genesis expresses. Sources that examine this book and the time period from which it originates can also be construed as patriarchal. The New Catholic Encyclopedia says of women’s roles in biblical times that due to “the patriarchal nature and androcentric structure of ancient society, the roles the woman played in the family were secondary to corresponding roles played by the man.”
The Biblical accounts of women and their illustrations offer great support for the argument that the current patriarchal consideration of the text is a misinterpretation. The images associated with the Bible consistently promote a false dichotomy in which women are given the option to be either the evil seductress or the virtuous housewife. Examples of this can be seen throughout history. This idea is presented in the medieval artists’ renderings of Eve as coupled with the Devil. She is visualized as a scheming temptress who capitalizes on her sexuality in order to drag her husband down into sin. In the same way, Potiphar’s wife is depicted as sexually predatory in paintings from the early Renaissance. Viewers witness her grabbing at Joseph, her legs spread to reveal her sensual intentions. This concept of woman as scheming seductresses is not the only depiction of woman in the Bible.
More popular is the depiction of certain female characters as “paragons of virtue.” In the German and Netherlandish art of the 16th and 17th centuries, Eve is pictured as the ideal wife and mother. One particular work shows her to be a prototypical housewife, sitting by a burning fire whilst she works at her spindle. Mary (the mother of Jesus) is also depicted as a chaste role model, who perfectly occupies her position as a wife and mother, in much of Western medieval art. Some pieces even go so far as to juxtapose her figure with that of Eve, illustrated as a temptress in this context. These types of works emphasize even more the false dichotomy that the interpreters of the Bible impose on women. This one-dimensional view of women is harmful in practice as it enforces gender roles which do not address women as multidimensional people, but as products of their relationships to men: the diligent wife or the conniving whore.
Interestingly enough, these patterns in Biblical imagery are not representative of the actual Biblical stories. In her analysis on Biblical art, Meyer observes that these images tend to reflect the “ebb and flow in society’s attitudes towards women and their role.” This is even more evident as we witness Biblical imagery change so drastically between time periods. The dynamic depictions of women serve a purpose for their particular time period, but one aspect remains constant. The reinforcement of the patriarchal family order is supported by each one. However, when examining the actual events of Genesis, readers must confront that its connotation of male domination is not entirely endowed in the text.
Even sources fixed on the Bible as completely male-centered allow that women were accepted into prophet and sage roles, indicating they maintained a considerable level of respect and responsibility within communities. The inclusion of women in these revered roles calls into question the idea of an overwhelming patriarchy in the time of Genesis. In “Genesis Matriarchs Engage Feminism,” Davidson addresses what close reading and literary study of the book have revealed about the role of women in this time period. The argument that women were secondary citizens does not hold up when examining many of the stories in Genesis.
First and foremost, there is the inconsistency of Abraham asking Sarai instead of commanding her to act as his sister if they resided in a patriarchal society. Indeed, the behavior of everyone involved in both accounts seems to suggest that Sarai is regarded with respect and admiration. Both the pharaoh and Abimelech are interested in her, in spite of her advanced age. She is returned safely to her husband after their deceit is found out, and the pharaoh and king are eager to appease any of their requests. These actions seem to suggest that Sarai is a priestess or prophet of some sort, rather than her husband’s possession.
This sequence of events in Genesis is also an indicator of the direction Crumb takes with his visual choices. The text makes no mention of Sarai’s reaction to this request, causing readers to initially believe this is another case of only paying attention to the actions of men, as the text of Genesis often does. Crumb, however, fleshes out Sarai’s character by inserting several different reactions. By giving her a confused and questioning thought bubble, he interprets that Abraham’s words are not what she expected to hear. He then draws her shedding tears, expressing that her husband’s plan saddens her. Including these reactions implies that he felt her opinion and emotions were important to understand the situation.
Another example of Sarai’s value is the scene in which she dies. The text states that Abraham truly mourns his wife. The subsequent story details his going to great trouble to find a burial site for her. He pays a large amount of silver in order to obtain the ideal location to bury Sarai. This story does not portray a man attempting to bury someone he considered his property and child-bearer. Rather it is the account of a man saying goodbye to his partner in life. The depression and desperation felt by Abraham in these scenes is enhanced by Crumb’s depiction. Viewers witness Abraham wailing over his wife’s body and then having a deadened and desperate expression as he looks for an appropriate grave. Crumb’s illustrations bring home the extent to which Abraham and those around him valued Sarai. Sarai’s impact on Abraham is an indicator of the influence of women in general that is often misinterpreted in Genesis.
The next compelling evidence for the existence of a matriarchal aspect in Genesis is an examination of Rebekah’s life. She is also asked by the men in her life about whether she wants to pursue a certain course of action. When asked if she will leave her family to marry Isaac, her brother immediately defers the question to her. In fact, Rebekah is very much the protagonist of Chapters 24 through 26 as the narrator of Genesis seems more interested in the life and lineage of Rebekah than in her husband’s. This is a subtle show of favoritism, but is consistent across the account of their lives. She goes “to inquire of the Lord,” an action reserved to prophets of this time period, and is granted an oracle who gives her God’s message regarding her son. She is also said to be upset at her son’s choice to marry Hittite women, indicating her interest in her “covenant line.” These actions together support a societal model in which Rebekah was an important and contributing member.
Crumb models his illustration with this mindset, placing Rebekah at the forefront throughout these chapters. She is portrayed as a beautiful, confident woman who is in charge of her life. In Chapter 26, Crumb portrays Rebekah as happy, often laughing and playing with her husband. These illustration choices seem to suggest that Isaac and Rebekah are partners in their union. The depictions later in the book even seem to suggest that Rebekah is the dominant force in their relationship. One particularly telling panel is at the end of chapter 26, in which Rebekah is pulling the hair of Esau’s wife aggressively while Isaac sits in a defeated posture in the background. Isaac almost appears to be curled up in the fetal position, passively listening to his wife’s display of anger. Depictions such as these align Crumb’s work in Genesis with the idea that there is more to these Biblical stories regarding women.
Another story in which Crumb’s drawing gives insight to this more feminist perspective is that of Leah and Rachel and their attempts to manipulate Jacob. Crumb emphasizes that it is an account of the women exerting their power by making them the centerpiece of the comic panels, while Jacob is off to the side or only half-pictured. They are the focal point of almost all the panels and Jacob takes on an almost minor role. It is in this chapter that viewers witness their control over Jacob’s lineage, an extremely important aspect of ancient life. His frequent association of Leah and Rachel with an aspect as paramount as Jacob’s lineage communicates that Crumb believed women to have great influence in Biblical times.
This subtle illustrative focus on women is the aspect of Genesis that bridges the gap between the “straight illustration job” and his earlier work. Both types of work have the same purpose. In his typical comics, Crumb observes the ridiculousness that is inherent in our routines, beliefs, and assumptions. He then cartoons them in a grotesque fashion so as to bring them to light. In Genesis, he illustrated a sacred text extraordinarily close to the wording it provided. By depicting it realistically, he actually accomplished the same goal as his usual work and confronted an accepted system of gender roles.
Crumb’s reputation for cartooning situations degrading to women may cause some to disagree with this argument. They may argue that Crumb’s depictions of women in Genesis are simply a personification of his sexual preferences for strong women, rather than a statement against traditional ideology. This requires the acknowledgement that Genesis does indeed differ from his usual work. Rather than go for cheap shock value at his manipulating the stories and sensationalizing the characters, he chose an honest approach. Whereas he usually capitalizes on the images of genitalia and overt sexualization of women, he treated the women of Genesis with respect. His illustrations represent a deeper reflection on the characters, as he did not sensationalize them, mostly featuring them clothed and in positions of authority. This approach also better accomplished his goal. He was able to show the disparity between the textual treatment of Biblical women and the illustrative and connotative methods that tend toward the patriarchal false dichotomy previously mentioned.
The understanding of Crumb’s viewpoint could incite major restructuring of religious rules regarding women. It eliminates much of the support for the belief of the Bible instructing women to be subservient to their husbands in order to obey God. It could affect their roles in marriages as well as within churches, rendering women equal with men. The implications of this more feminist interpretation also open the door for further research into the rest of the Bible. The bias with which religious leaders have treated Genesis may very well permeate interpretations of the entire Bible and calls for a re-evaluation.
Genesis represents the largest undertaking that Crumb has yet to attempt; the rebellion against the traditional Judeo-Christian gender roles. The acceptance of this interpretation does not necessarily render the book illegitimate, rather it draws to light the need for more objective interpretations in which no participant has an agenda to enforce or a people group to exert power over. Crumb’s illustration of Genesis reveals insight into what this more objective stance could look like; depicting the accounts of three-dimensional characters of both genders.