Society is run on gender strict gender roles delineating male from female, in every day interactions one looks at another and without thinking places that person into a category of male or female, thus determining how that interaction, or lack thereof, might go. In fact children are gendered by their parents even before birth. When the child demonstrates anything atypical of their assigned sex, they may face scrutiny and are often ostracized. Mainly, in our culture the ideal of hegemonic masculinity needs to be upheld. As shown in a study done by Emily Kane, parents are much more likely to accept when their young daughters exhibit atypical behavior of their sex and will more likely exhibit negative responses to their sons if they exhibit non-gender specific behaviors, such as playing with Barbie’s (150-160). Thus there is a stark divide between the more accepted and perceived norm of the alpha males versus the beta males in American society. Chris Ware speaks to this dynamic in our society in his “semi-autobiography” Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. The story revolves around the very awkward life of a mid-thirty year old who cannot seem to function without constantly escaping into daydreams. Throughout this book there are many counter-culture issues in American society presented to the reader, and one of the themes that stands out most is the alpha male versus beta male dynamic.
At the onset of the book, Ware introduces his reader to some of the main themes through a section titled “General Instructions”. These general instructions were placed here to try and help give a broad understanding of the less tricky issues presented in the book. Such as the blatantly obvious fact that Jimmy does not exhibit the typical hegemonic masculinity that American society prefers. People whose daily role in society might consist of “days, weeks, or even years on end…where there is a palpable sense that all activity is valueless” (Ware) and these feelings of being worthless, to Ware, seem to stem from a childhood. This childhood dominated by the fact the child was considered ugly to others and oneself, thus incapable of attracting the opposite sex, compounded with being fatherless to give no natural direction. This lead to an obsession with comics for the kids Ware references. Furthermore, Ware depicts a clear delineation between the alpha male and beta male by referencing these alpha males as those who bought this novel. These purchasers are those who are sexually confident and are very materialistic. Of course, it is to note that this is a strong binary that Ware creates to exaggerate the issue and in real life most men would feel that they fall between these two extremes. However, Ware is still pushing his perception of alpha males of American society directly throughout the book as evil.
This attack on the alpha male begins again in the instructions in the fourth section “Technical Explanation of the Language, Developing Skills”. It shows two frames, one of a mouse raising a hammer with a cat head buried in the ground, the next an image of that cat being struck by the hammer. There are five questions based off these images and if answered incorrectly, one cannot continue with the activity and must move on to the exam. This exam further reinforces how Chris Ware seems to speak for the lonely and ugly as each multiple choice response further regresses into a self-loathing mindset. These questions accompanying the picture simultaneously takes a stab at the alpha male because in this instance, the predator (cat) is being struck by the prey (mouse) and the reader is not supposed to feel bad for the cat while enforcing the idea being that not feeling bad was the “correct answer” and Ware’s views are the only views that matter. These instructions and views are what resonate in the mind of the reader prior to the opening of the story.
As one reads the novel it is obvious that Jimmy Corrigan lives in a lonely dark world that is dull on its best days. He still lives like a child, as demonstrated in the mirroring scenes of young Jimmy waking up with a bowl of captain crunch and a comic book, to present 30 year old Jimmy following the same routine. This adolescent state seems to give Jimmy solace in his otherwise bleak world. His rich fantasy life was the only place that his personality came out to play. One of his fantasies involved a metal suit man. This suit was mentioned in the “Corrigenda” at the end of the novel, and placed under the definition of a metaphor. This definition described the suit as worn to enclose the wearer, impede movement, and prevent emotional expression and/or social contact. The metaphor being that Jimmy is the emotionless robot at all times, he need not even fantasize about this suit because he lives it. This shown as in the dream the robot needs a crutch and magically upon awakening Jimmy too needed the crutch.
The crutch for Jimmy is to further enforce his feeling of helplessness and need to rely on his fantasy life. However, despite his irregularities and deviation from being a normal/alpha male Jimmy still shares the same thoughts of these males. The constant lusting for sex is ever present throughout. In particular when Jimmy was at the doctor’s office with his father. The nurse approaches Jimmy to do the routine checkup and for a brief second shows cleavage. Then after a minor accident she tells him to not worry and it’ll be their little secret. These two actions which in the real world mean absolutely nothing, but for Jimmy it sets off a sexual fantasy that progresses to a happy marriage with a dog and a barn. A fantasy was all it was and all it will be. Jimmy is incapable of even socializing with the opposite sex, therefore establishing a meaningful connection that would result in sex, marriage and a family is next to impossible.
Jimmy is obviously a very depressed individual who cannot seem to escape his metal suit and become a more active and social individual in society. His fantasies seem to depict that his overall goal is to have love and a family, albeit stemming from his unattainable action of sex, and all of this must build up inside of Jimmy. If built up in Jimmy is must have ultimately built up inside of Ware too and released as a stylized brutality directed toward these alpha male figures. Superman was at one point Jimmy’s hero. He constantly reads comics of him. He owns a sweatshirt with his symbol. Yet, despite all that he has a fantasy of this superman plunging to his death from the building. This has to be Jimmy realizing these superheroes are indeed just characters in his comics and on Hollywood sets. The true alpha male is the coworker that assures all Jimmy needs to do to get women is to treat them poorly, “in fact [its] my personal rule not to tell any chick I like her until I’ve fucked her at least six times” (Ware). This interaction actually is sequentially right before the vision of superman jumping thus correlating with his need to fight against the alphas.
This attack on alpha males in American society is not a groundbreaking idea produced by Ware alone. It has actually heavily addressed more and more across many types of media. Many movies, specifically comedies have transitioned from the 90’s-00’s movement of teen sex trips to that of a middle aged adult that is less than the ideal man finding his way in to a great place of some shape or form. David Greven points this out in his article, in the Quarterly Review of Film and Video, titled “’I Love You, Brom Bones’: Beta Male Comedies and American Culture” by examining the recent emergence of these popular movies showing the beta male as the hero, usually with a larger group of beta males around him and the alpha being the antagonist. Most specifically in a movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) where the beta male loses his girlfriend due to her general disinterest in his odd hobbies, and later finds her with a rock star. However, it is pointed out that while the beta male is taking a far more pervasive role in our society, it is not the ideal. In the end he states they have a “solution”, which is to act like a man, or get out.
This is the main problem with Jimmy Corrigan, he is unable to act like a man. He lives a minimalistic life, eats like a child, calls his mother every day at her nursery home instead of actually caring for her, and he daydreams constantly. All of it builds up throughout his life to amount to nothing and this is accompanied by the brief introduction of his father and stepsister both of whom then leave abruptly. Jimmy has no love interest, no way to release his aggression and has a boring pointless job, thus ending in his contemplation of suicide. Jimmy cannot depend on anybody or anything. He has no friends, his coworkers hardly interact with him due to his being boxed into a cubicle, literally and metaphorically. In contrast to these recent beta buddy films, Jimmy does not find a new best friend, nor score a hot chick. None of these defining moments happen for him. In fact it is quite the opposite. Jimmy finally visits his father, eats dinner, watches a movie, eats breakfast, goes to the hospital, then go back home and just like that, loses him. Jimmy meets his stepsister in the process, and finally comes out of his shell while trying to comfort her after the loss of their father, only to be pushed away in utter disgust. Jimmy had nothing already and somehow still lost even more.
Ware paints this picture of a hopeless man in a hopeless situation which only gets worse. It is indeed a sad story about which is compounded by the fact that four generations of the Corrigan family also had the same problem. It is interesting looking at the men in the family, as they have never really grown into new people from childhood. Each one began as a young child with wispy hair that resembles Stewie Griffin or Charlie Brown, then grew into adults with the same look with the sole difference being a larger body on which the same cartoonish bald head resides. They are all similarly lonely and hapless males at these key points in their lives. The one stark difference, which is actually depicted is when Jimmy’s father is shown raising his adopted daughter. It is clear he finally found a wife, a family and a purpose. This is like that of the beta male movies. He began hopeless and lame, found a family or friend and transformed into the more accepted manly figure. Once Jimmy’s father found a real purpose to become that #1 Dad, he actually had a full set of hair and a happier demeanor. Later, upon meeting Jimmy, his father does not have that same purpose as he is alone again, thus having a bald head.
This general delineation between alpha and beta males is clear throughout the novel. Jimmy is the ultimate beta male in that he is ugly, lonely, anti-social and hopeless. While inside he dreams and he reverts back to being a child he deemed as the “smartest kid on earth”. This fantasy he lives through must leave him wondering how many different possibilities could have been opened if he indeed was the smartest kid on earth instead of the regular Jimmy. The smart Jimmy might actually live out his constant sexual fantasies. Instead he shuts off, encases himself in a metaphorical metal suit to restrict his movement and limit emotional expression. Although, he still idealizes the alpha male. Superman being his main focus. So different from himself, yet oddly similar. Clark Kent is shown as a nerdy looking farm boy that works for a newspaper, yet deep inside he is another worldly super being with every power imaginable, which attracts his one love Lois Lane. Jimmy does not have any power nor any confidence, thus he is just Clark Kent. Ware realizes how sad it is to just be Clark and not have the ability to exhibit any Superman like qualities. He knows he cannot project that anger and disappointment to the outside world, so he hides and manifests that anger through Jimmy’s fantasies. Despite all this hatred and aggression though, it is clear the hate stems from the want and need to break out of the “metaphor” and become that Superman of society.
Greven, David. "“I Love You, Brom Bones”: Beta Male Comedies and American Culture."
Quarterly Review of Film and Video 30.5 (2013): 405-20. Web.
Kane, E. W. ""No Way My Boys Are Going to Be Like That!": Parents' Responses to Children's
Gender Nonconformity." Gender & Society 20.2 (2006): 149-76. Web.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2000.