Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan dildo is as important as it is large

Jean Smart in HBO’s Watchmen | HBO

Why Doctor Manhattan’s big blue penis matters.

For a brief moment in the third episode of Watchmen, a show where anything can happen, a very big something came out of the blue or, rather, a big blue something came out.

After a long day of investigation — which included a funeral disrupted by a suicide bomber — FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) finally retired to her hotel room. Finally alone with time to herself, the rough and gruff agent opened a briefcase she’d been lugging with her throughout the episode. With a squint and scrim of desire in her eyes, Laurie pulled out a colossal cerulean vibrator from the luggage.

There she was, a woman no longer imprisoned by the formalities of her profession, freely handling a giant blue dong. In the morning, she would have to retreat back into the dungeon of being an FBI agent.

When anyone brandishes a sex toy that large, so enormous that it might necessitate a disclaimer about the limits of human accommodation, it immediately becomes a conversation topic. Hence the several pieces following the Sunday night premiere of episode 3 obsessing over Laurie Blake and her “superhero sex toy,” a.k.a. the “big blue dildo,” a.k.a. most notably of all, the “Doctor Manhattan dildo.” The show also winked at the late-episode reveal of the “space junk” in the episode title, “She Was Killed by Space Junk.”

But the scene was more than just a gag. As “Doctor Manhattan dildo” suggests, the giant blue vibrator’s significance to Laurie is tied to her romantic relationship with the ultra-powerful superhuman, Doctor Manhattan, which ended many years ago.

While he hasn’t yet appeared in the HBO series, Doctor Manhattan is one of the most recognizable characters from the Watchmen graphic novel. Not just because he is the most powerful man in the galaxy who runs off to Mars by the comic’s end — but also because he is the rare fictional male character seen entirely in the buff. Doctor Manhattan is never afraid to be seen full-frontal in particular.

Doctor Manhattan has often been defined by or reduced to just his penis and blazing cerulean nudity, like what happened toward the end of this episode. But thinking his nakedness is just a matter of sex is a shallow fallacy. His constant, shameless nudity has prompted deeper conversations among readers about something that seems so superficial. And as we see in this episode, even a gigantic vibrator meant to recall Doctor Manhattan can tell us a lot about another character: Laurie.

Doctor Manhattan’s nudity and dick is actually about masculinity and theology. I promise.

 Gibbons/DC
Doctor Manhattan doesn’t care what he wears

Watchmen has become such a recognizable force of pop culture that people who haven’t read the graphic novel, seen the movie, or watched the show can likely still tell you that Doctor Manhattan is the blue and naked guy.

For those who don’t know the reason why this superhuman is blue and naked, the blue skin is easier to explain. Doctor Manhattan was once known as Doctor Jonathan Osterman, a scientist with expertise in atomic physics, who, in an accident at his lab, inherits powers of matter manipulation, omnipotence, teleportation, invulnerability, and blue skin that glows. (Adrian Veidt, the villain of the graphic novel and considered one of the smartest men on earth, actually reenacts Jon’s transformation in the second episode of HBO’s Watchmen.)

The naked part is where it gets more complicated.

After becoming the only true “super”-hero in the graphic novel, Doctor Manhattan starts to undergo a philosophical change. He transcends humanity by becoming more like a god, which makes him realize that human rules and human limitations no longer apply to him. From that realization comes another: He has no need for human formalities, including clothes.

“[Writer Alan Moore] rationalized the superman’s decision to let [Doctor Manhattan’s] balls hang low with the argument that a being of limitless power and intellect would have neither the desire to wear clothes nor any requirement for warmth,” comic book writer Grant Morrison wrote in his book Supergods, which examined mythology, theology, and morality in superhero stories.

Doctor Manhattan eventually starts to accept that humanity has its own customs, which is why he’s depicted naked only on his own or at his lab:

 Gibbons/DC
Naked giant Doctor Manhattan

In this panel, you can see Doctor Manhattan use his power to change the size of his body — all parts of his body. But the assumption is that if he’s not interacting with civilian humans, he’s not thinking about them, and is not engaging in human conventions like clothes.

But if he’s at an event that means something to humans, like Eddie Blake’s (a.k.a. the hero known as the Comedian who turns out to be Laurie’s father) funeral, he will put on clothes — as is customary — to show his respect for human traditions:

 Gibbons/DC
Clothed Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen

Despite the violence in the comic and Rorschach’s offensive and disturbed views of human life around him, Watchmen was a little more modest with Doctor Manhattan going full frontal.

 Gibbons/DC
Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen

Seeing Doctor Manhattan’s “lower Manhattan,” shouldn’t really a big deal to the reader and it’s not much commented upon within the series itself, since Watchmen is steadfastly about morality and the power behind politics — not the kind of a story with time for crass dick jokes.

But the discussion about Doctor Manhattan’s space junk indeed became a to-do years after the comic wrapped in 1987, in the months leading up to Zack Snyder’s 2009 cinematic adaptation. It was one thing for an artist to illustrate a giant, blue, naked super-god. It’s another to contend with a human actor play the part.

Before Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen film was even in theaters, there was fandom outrage and concern that Doctor Manhattan’s penis could become a huge, sinewy, girthy monster. Apparently, word from early screenings was that his penis was massive, and since it was massive, it would be disrespectful to the character and run counter to what Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons intended.

The argument was that it wouldn’t make sense for an omnipotent being who could easily change his shape and size would to be preoccupied with having the biggest penis on earth if he didn’t care about being human anymore. The politics of penis size is a mortal concern, and irrelevant to anyone with incomparable amounts of power and intelligence.

“Adding inches to its length or circumference undermines everything Alan Moore was trying to say about politics, society, and the human condition,” Vulture wrote in 2009, before the movie was out.

The same argument extended to whether the penis was going to be circumcised or not — would a being who sees himself as a god care about the human (and particularly American) practice of circumcision? In the comic, the human Jonatan Osterman was vaporized and thought to be dead afterward. But slowly, he regains consciousness and then fashions himself back together, one cell at a time. Hence, every decision about his body’s appearance would be a conscious choice he made.

In the comic, Gibbons’s seemingly gives Doctor Manhattan’s twigs and berries little thought or attention. His space junk is like a slightly saggy, lowercase U jumped into the air with an uppercase U ready to catch it.

To render Doctor Manhattan as a more Adonis-like image of a hero is to ignore what Watchmen is, however, and that is what presaged the controversy around Snyder’s depiction. It’s a story about what would happen if a real-life omnipotent superhero, like Superman was living on Earth with the rest of us.

Unlike the story of Clark Kent, who came from space to remain on Earth, Doctor Manhattan looks for somewhere, anywhere but Earth to live and goes into hiding at the end of Watchmen. And part of that is his disconnect from humanity, which includes human appearance. It has no bearing on his existence, a question mark that he continues to solve for as he learns what it means to be a superhero or whether he even wants to save beings as inconsequential as humans.

In that respect, any titillation or humor or juvenile chirping about Doctor Manhattan’s nudity becomes more about us and our own hang-ups than Doctor Manhattan’s.

What Laurie Blake’s big Doctor Manhattan sex toy tells us about Laurie Blake

 HBO
The magazine cover that Laurie keeps

That brings us back to Laurie, whose relationship with Doctor Manhattan was both sexual in nature and psychologically ingrained in her throughout the series. Her debut in HBO’s Watchmen makes that apparent with that big blue vibrator. But it goes deeper than that.

Laurie’s trysts with Doctor Manhattan were more about satisfying her human desires than they were to him, given that we know about how he struggles to see himself in a human capacity — sexual appetite included. We see this in one of the graphic novel’s sex scenes:

 Gibbons/DC
Laurie having not a good time with Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what stimulates you anymore,” he tells her, after figuring out that she may not enjoy it when he splits himself into multiple men to have sex with her. I’m no expert at sexual relations with omnipotent beings, but telling someone you don’t know what stimulates them anymore after attempting to have sex with them while splitting your consciousness into two different bodies most likely guarantees that they will never tell you what stimulates them ever again.

While Laurie and Doctor Manhattan have a fractured relationship in the comic books, the Laurie we see in HBO’s adaptation hasn’t seen her old lover in decades. She’s now an FBI agent who is taking down vigilantes, and essentially turning her resentment toward him for disappearing into space into a passion for crime-fighting. But in her private moments, she’s still fantasizing about her past and Doctor Manhattan.

“She professes not to be interested in that part of her own history,” Lila Byock, a supervising producer on Watchmen and co-writer of the show’s third episode, told Slate. “And yet when she’s in the privacy of her own bedroom or own hotel room, what’s the first thing she does? It’s clear that even though intellectually she has sort of shut down that part of herself, on some deep animal level, that’s what gets her off, is nostalgia for her own past.”

As Byock explains, it’s perhaps not that Blake yearns for Doctor Manhattan himself so much as she desires the fantasy of her past. The sex toy being bigger than her head isn’t so much a statement about Doctor Manhattan’s manhood as it is an accessory to Laurie’s fantasy of her past life, her past adventures, and her fame; there’s also an old Esquire cover of the two of them in her briefcase to really hammer that point in. After all, she eschews the sex toy for her newer, younger colleague, Agent Petey. Petey himself seems to be a bit of a Silk Spectre II fanboy.

The curious thing is that in the comic books, Laurie chastises her mother for doing the exact same thing. No, not pleasuring herself with a giant blue sex toy — rather Laurie gets mad at her mother for reliving her glory days as a vigilante crime-fighter and getting off on the fame and celebrity she received. A pulpy little magazine, much like that Esquire issue, starts that confrontation:

 Gibbons/DC
Laurie and Sally fighting in Watchmen

Watchmen viewers — whether we’ve read the graphic novel or not — know very little about what happened to Laurie after the 1980s. But this scene gives us another piece of the puzzle, and more credence to the idea that everyone in the world of HBO’s Watchmen Laurie included (Angela and Judd withstanding), cannot quite escape the mistakes, the triumphs, and the trauma of their past. A past that includes a bright blue penis.

This article was originally published at Vox.com

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