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Images of masculinity in U.S. popular culture represent many different types of
gender performance. In recent years, there has been a strong impulse in media to reclaim
a masculinity that, at some point, had been lost. For instance, advertising campaigns for
the soft drink Dr. Pepper “Ten” assure men their ten-calorie cola is “not for women,”
while armor-clad pitchmen drive off-road vehicles in the jungle, equipped with machine
guns and dodging explosions. In their most recent ad campaign, Dos Equis beer implies if
you (the male viewer) drink their product, you will have at least one thing in common
with “the most interesting man in the world,” whose many accomplishments prove how
truly manly he is compared to the average, lesser-beer drinking man. Of course, these
commercials appear to be in jest, and though there is a strong correlation in these
advertisements between their product and hypermasculinity, what they suggest is
masculinity — without the help of the beer or the soda — does not occur naturally.
In contemporary U.S. cinema, masculinity can be represented in various ways, the
most prominent of which, within the action genre, is that of the muscle-bound hero. The
Dr. Pepper commercials refer directly to this genre and mode of masculinity with the
explosions and the “Catchphrase!” exclamation with an implied wink to the camera —
perhaps a reference to the numerous catchphrases and one-liners present in the films of
U.S. action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Representations in film and media at large
work to naturalize images of the muscle-bound body. For example, in many action films
(with the exception of such sports films as Rocky and the more recent Warrior), the
muscular male body is presented without any questions of how it came to be. This type
of representation of muscular, male bodies can lend itself to readings that imply the
naturalness of the built body, rather than addressing the amount of work and levels of
dedication necessary to build — or construct — such a body, a topic to be explored in
subsequent chapters of this thesis.
In the world of animation, bodies can be exaggerated to a greater extent than in
live-action texts. To some extent corporeal exaggeration exists in live-action media, but
animation functions on a completely different plane, allowing for animators to create
sequences that are only limited by their imagination. Without the confines of a living
human body, the possibilities are limitless. What’s fascinating about most animation,
however, is the self-awareness of being untethered to the limitations of the real world.
For instance, a character will be shown to fall off of a cliff only to be wearing a bandage
in the next scene. While the muscular — and therefore masculine — body can be
exaggerated in animated texts to a level that prevents the suspension of disbelief, the
images of men are still drawn from an ideology established in popular culture that
promotes the idea of what a masculine body looks like: large, muscular, and, if on the
“right side,” white.
The increasingly popular Adult Swim series, The Venture Bros. (2003-present),
created by Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick, is an animated series that interrogates
established paradigms of masculinity. Combining narrative elements that are easily
attributed to American action films, such as the Rambo, Die Hard, and Terminator
franchises, with those of adventure cartoons (fight sequences, explosions, the brawny
hero, exotic locations, and mystery), such as Jonny Quest (1964-1965), the creators of
The Venture Bros. construct a world where comic book and fantasy adventures coexist.
While the show often straddles the line between science fiction and reality, there exists a
tongue-in-cheek understanding between the creators and the audience that these
characters operate in a world with constraints and realities similar to our real world
(aging, death, etc.).
The male representation in The Venture Bros. follows many tropes of action
cinema, upon which I will elaborate in the first chapter. For example, like many
preceding action films, The Venture Bros. is almost completely absent of women, with
the exception of a few supporting characters and objects of the male leads’ affection.
What sets this series apart from other action films and TV series is how masculinit
The Venture Bros. contains four significant masculinities: the muscle-bound action hero,
the feminized man, the masculinized woman, and, finally, the post-adolescent nerd.
Brock Samson, the bodyguard of the titular Venture family, represents the muscle-bound
action hero. Brock Samson is large, muscular, and has the most masculine agency of the
featured male characters. Dr. Thaddeus Venture is the feminized man, whose masculinity
is subordinated by Brock’s superior physique. The masculinized woman is portrayed
through Dr. Girlfriend, one of the scarcely represented women in the series. Dr.
Girlfriend literally has the voice of a man, performed by co-creator Doc Hammer, but
offsets her masculinity with signs of femininity, such as wardrobe and sexuality. The
post-adolescent nerd exists in the series through three characters: the titular Venture
brothers, Hank and Dean, as well as Henchman 21. Hank and 21 both demonstrate
masculine growth in season four, while Dean is just beginning that phase of his life by
the end of that season.
By focusing on these specific masculinities in The Venture Bros., I will address
how hegemonic masculinity is reproduced and subverted in the series, and in doing so I
hope to demonstrate how the series is a text that interrogates hegemonic representations
of masculinity.
Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block, originally made popular
with such recontextualized classics as Space Ghost: Coast to Coast (1994-2004), Sealab:
2021 (2000-2005), and Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law (2001-2007), is known for its
late-night, adult-oriented series. These programs took a cost-efficient approach to
producing low budget television by recycling old footage from retro cartoons, re-cutting,
and inserting voiceovers to create new narratives. By 2003, when the pilot of The Venture
Bros. first aired, original series (most in the fifteen-minute format)1 became a more
prominent fixture of Adult Swim. With the exception of weekend anime programming
(Toonami) and Home Movies, Adult Swim stuck to short-form animation until the reairing
of Fox’s Family Guy in 2003. In the same year, Adult Swim aired the pilot of The
Venture Bros. Since its 2003 premiere, The Venture Bros. has grown almost
exponentially in popularity. As of January 2011, after season four finale aired, The
Venture Bros. experienced a giant surge of male viewers in the 18 to 49 demographic
(Gorman). The growth in variety of Adult Swim’s programming plays an important role
in the target audience reception of The Venture Bros.
According to New York Times columnist Mark Glassman, the mid-2000s saw an
exodus of television viewers between the ages of 18 and 34 from broadcast television to
late-night cable (Glassman). The increase of late-night cable programming at this time
attracted many viewers who were part of this much coveted demographic due to their
presumed affinity for absurdist and satirical humor that network television was not
offering — at least to the same extent as humor offered by Comedy Central’s The Daily
Show or Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Indeed, the late-night programming of Adult Swim
and Comedy Central appealed to a much younger audience than the late-night talk shows
of David Letterman or Jay Leno on network television.
1 Aqua%Teen%Hunger%Force!(2001),!Robot%Chicken!(2005),!Moral%Orel!(200542008),!and!Metalocalypse%
The success of late-night cable also indicates a cultural shift, or at least an
expansion of interest. Young men, once drawn to David Letterman's stupid pet
tricks and the conventional comedy skits on "Saturday Night Live," are now also
tuning in to more absurdist parodies and satires on cable. (Ibid.)
The shorter format of the Adult Swim late-night programming block caters to the short
attention spans of modern youth, while more lenient decency standards allow for a less
refined comedy that may appeal to young males (Glassman). Since 2005, Adult Swim
has gained momentum, and now regularly dominates basic cable in prime time ratings
The popularity of The Venture Bros. in the hyper-male landscape of Adult Swim
is important to consider after understanding how varying masculinities are illustrated in
the series. Many of the featured animated texts on Adult Swim reflect the postmodern
consciousness of the creators. Yet, although these series’ creators include self-referential
jabs, such as the characters being shown to acknowledge their existence in an animated
world, they miss the opportunity to interrogate themes of gender in such a manner as The
Venture Bros. The widespread reception by male viewers of Adult Swim programming
and The Venture Bros. suggests the significance of this study to interrogate
representations of masculinity in this thesis.
The Venture Bros. follows the adventures of Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture from
the point of view of his two sons, Hank and Dean. Constantly by their side is Brock
Samson, the bodyguard and special agent, who protects the family at all costs, and
frequently displays violent rage and (hetero)sexual proclivity. Dr. Venture’s arch-enemy,
The Monarch, constantly harasses him along with the assistance of Dr. Girlfriend and
Henchman 21.
In the first three seasons of The Venture Bros., Hank and Dean display a very
common trope found in animation: they are shown wearing the same clothes every
episode and show no physical growth. This is explained, however, through a very unusual
plot device that is not revealed until the premiere of the second season. The finale of
season one ended with the death of Hank and Dean during a road trip. Due to poor
timing, a rough patch on the highway, and a sensitive trigger on a high-powered rifle,
Henchman 21 and his best friend, Henchman 24, accidentally killed Hank and Dean. The
brothers are not in their traditional form in the first episode; instead, they are seemingly
reanimated versions of themselves aimlessly wandering the Venture compound. Dr.
Venture reveals at the end of this episode that the moaning bodies aimlessly circling the
house are not zombies; instead, they are Hank and Dean, who have been clones for a
number of years. The reanimated bodies of Hank and Dean are actually clones that have
not finished incubating. The brothers whom the audience had come to know by the end
of the first season were not even the first versions, rather, they had been rebooted over ten
times by that point. This is an important detail because season three culminates with The
Monarch killing the entire stock of backup clones. By season four, Hank and Dean are
allowed to grow and change for the first time. The ability granted to the brothers to
develop into adults is not at all a common trope of animated characters.
The Venture Bros. stands out from most shows on Adult Swim through the ways
in which the creators take the opportunity to confront and subvert dominant
representations of masculinity as demonstrated in its characters. While some characters in
the series reproduce various masculine tropes demonstrated in popular action cinema, The
Venture Bros. also features characters who complicate these tropes: The traditional alphamale
is demonstrated through Brock Samson, the feminized man through Dr. Rusty
Venture, and nerdy, fanboy masculinity combined with the muscular body of the action
hero (previously seen in superhero comic books) through Hank Venture and Henchman
21, the lead henchman who works for Dr. Venture’s arch-nemesis, The Monarch. Female
representation is rather minimal within the series; however, the most notable female
character is Dr. Girlfriend. Dr. Girlfriend is a complicated figure within the text. She is
heavily masculinized, speaks in a deep, raspy voice, and is characterized by her superior
intellect and savvy when it comes to performing her duties as an arch nemesis. Dr.
Girlfriend’s motivations, however, are tied to those of her husband, The Monarch.
Through parodic critique, the characters of The Venture Bros. are able to further
interrogate popular representations of masculinity found in contemporary action film.
The series functions in such a way that the creators are practically paying homage to
cinema history while flaunting their mastery of genre. The creators of the series utilize
homage and mimicry for comedic purposes, emphasizing through these reproductions of
signs the hegemonic masculinity present in the master texts.
First, Brock’s exaggerated strength “[reaffirms] the object” in question, which in
this instance is the muscular body and strength of the action hero (Harries 284). Brock’s
strength overpowers the weak henchman he fights on a regular basis to such a degree that
he is not challenged in the slightest. Additionally, parody in The Venture Bros. also
functions as a “master map,” to borrow Dan Harries’ term, of a particular genre, such as
action or film noir (286). “Parody flaunts its command over the genre’s codes and
therefore becomes a form of authority on the targeted genre” (Ibid.). However, parody
still requires the privilege of knowing the conventions of genres in order to be in on the
With these various characters, The Venture Bros. contributes to contemporary
discourses of masculinity. Drawing from tropes of masculinity in action films, The
Venture Bros. simultaneously reinforces and interrogates themes of hegemonic
masculinity that run rampant in cinematic and televisual texts within the action genre and
adventure cartoons.
Previous scholarship proposes the performed nature of gender as well as its social
construction (Butler, 1990; West and Zimmerman, 1987). Although I will be supporting
much of my analysis with these theories, it is necessary to understand where they fall into
the larger study of gender performance. While many previous theories of gender
naturalize the biological assignment of gender, Butler, West, and Zimmerman’s studies
argue that sex is socially constructed, neither biological nor natural. “Sex is a
determination made through the application of socially agreed upon biological criteria for
classifying persons as males or females” (West & Zimmerman 127). Butler complicates
this argument: “[The] production of sex in a prediscursive domain ought to be understood
as the effect of the apparatus of cultural construction designated by gender” (10). In other
words, the performance of gender works to produce the social categories that create sex
Raewyn Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity (1995) is perhaps one of the
most influential theories in the field of masculinity studies (Connell & Messerschmidt
2005). Hegemonic masculinity is defined as the “configuration of gender practice which
embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy,
which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the
subordination of women” (Connell 77).
Connell describes hegemonic masculinity as occurring through the “bureaucratic
institutionalization of violence,” for instance, the fascist “reassertion of male supremacy
in societies that had been moving towards equality for women” (Connell 1995: 192);
American expansion and tales of the frontiersman, such as “the novels of James Fenimore
Cooper and the Wild West show of Buffalo Bill Cody” (194); and discourses of
feminization, such as the Boy Scouts of America’s development to correct the
feminization that some thought would occur if boys received too much exposure to
women (195). The (re)assertion of male dominance in this regard can be associated with
a masculine panic — institutional and individual — as it is related to increasing equality
for women, female influence on boys and “the potential for homoerotic pleasure,” again
leading to the formation of social organizations, such as The Boy Scouts of America, and
the heterosexual requirement for “manliness” (192-195). The foundational idea behind
hegemonic masculinity is that masculinity (and gender more broadly) is not fixed; in fact,
the historical evolution of hegemonic masculinity demonstrates the ever-changing nature
of this concept. “[M]asculinities come into existence at particular times and places, and
are always subject to change” (185). The fluidity of masculinity, then, is another example
of the social construction of gender as it relates to socio-historical contexts.
In her chapter on the masculine body, Connell argues that contrary bodily
experience is what divides female from male classification and speaks to an institutional
assignment of gender roles and functions of the body (Connell 1995: 52). The
manifestation of male physicality through sports “embeds definite social relations:
competition and hierarchy among men [and] exclusion or domination of women” (54).
Connell suggests, “in our culture at least the physical sense of maleness and femaleness is
central to the culture interpretation of gender” (52). Indeed, sports can function,
according to Connell, as symbolic and social proof of men’s physical superiority, thus
granting the right to rule (Ibid.). What threatens hegemonic masculinity is the inability of
the male body to perform sport, and the disabled male body undermines corporeal
masculinity. If the body cannot perform, male or female, it is marked as vulnerable
within the social relations of sport.
The correlation between the body and masculinity is inescapable, as Connell
asserts, but the properties of a masculine body are not fixed (56). Adhering to the concept
of unfixed masculinity, a key detail in the maintenance of a body is Connell’s argument
that a body is an ever-changing entity. According to Connell, the maintenance of a strong
body, laboring or athletic, requires day-to-day work and concentration. The muscular
body represents the strength of will to achieve a higher degree of physical strength, and in
this way, can be used to assert masculine dominance in different contexts.
The hard body stands as a symbolic portrayal of masculine dominance and
physical evidence of the right to rule. One particular arena that suggests a connection
between muscles and hypermasculinity is the field of professional bodybuilding.
Professional bodybuilding has historically been the venue for the display of built male
bodies. In Spectacular Bodies (1993), Yvonne Tasker contributes to the critique of
muscularity in bodybuilding. Bodybuilding can be attached to notions of narcissism that
are “inappropriate to familiar definitions of manhood” (78). The body in action, however,
negates the narcissism and implicit homoeroticism of the male obsession with the male
body. Stars of 1980s action films, such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold
Schwarzenegger, demonstrate a “[performance] of the masculine, drawing attention to
masculinity and the male body by acting out an excessive caricature of cultural
expectations” (Ibid.).
In action films that privilege male power, the superior masculine body is marked
by its muscularity, and the focus on the hardness of the male body is often associated
with hegemonic masculinity (Tasker, 1993: 77). Early studies of the bodies of 1980s
action heroes rely heavily on the context of the Cold War, including the post-Vietnam
emasculation of the American body politic (Jeffords: 1989, 1994), and demonstrate the
subsequent “remasculinization” of American bodies in action films. The example
Jeffords uses is Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character, John Rambo. The first three films in
the Rambo series, according to Jeffords, parallel the recovery of the American veteran
from the loss of Vietnam through the Reagan administration’s macho handling of the
conflict between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union (1979-1989).
More contemporary scholarship addresses the post-Vietnam “crisis” in
masculinity, as well as subsequent productions in American cinema and popular culture
(Niva, 1998; Faludi, 1999; Malin, 2005; Gallagher, 2006). The social realignment of
gender roles since the Vietnam War following the civil rights, feminist, and gay
liberation movements contributed greatly to this feeling of a masculine crisis. The
correlation of popular representations of muscularity and masculinity with American
foreign policy seems almost inextricable from contemporary analyses of maleness and
masculine performance. Tasker and Jeffords’ scholarship presents a parallel of cinematic
representations of masculine bodies with shifts in national identity as they are related to
political milestones, such as war.
In Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (1999), Susan Faludi investigates
the growing media discourse of a “male crisis” that was rampant in the United States
during the 1990s. Faludi argues that “ornamental culture” (35) has robbed men of classic
masculine virtues. The glorification of the celebrity, especially the action star, had strong
influence on the performance of masculinity in daily life. “[T]he culture reshapes [the
American man’s] most basic sense of manhood by telling him as much as it tells the
celebrity that masculinity is something to drape over the body” rather than something to
be drawn from internal qualities (ibid). Faludi attributes this shift in masculinity to the
change of the “masculine journey” in the wake of the Vietnam War and onwards. The
“enemy” no longer has a face, “the remote-control methods of a military-industrial
economy [and] the feminization of an onrushing celebrity culture…eluded direct
confrontation” (306). Faludi’s observations were reinforced with the release of Fight
Club, “a dark fantasy of male empowerment through bare-knuckle brawling,” just six
weeks after the release of Stiffed (Gallagher 1).
The sociopolitical environment of the 1990s shifted when the first Bush
administration proclaimed the end of “the Vietnam Syndrome,” or emasculation through
US foreign policy due to less intervention in foreign conflicts (Niva 110). Technological
advancements during the Gulf War, according to Steve Niva, aided in the United States’
ability to recover from the Vietnam Syndrome, but not completely unscathed. A “new
paradigm of masculinity” emerged from the Gulf War “that combined toughness and
aggressiveness with some tenderness and compassion” (111). Wartime rhetoric was met
not only with extreme militaristic aggression, but also with an “articulated sense of
manly vulnerability and human compassion… reinforced by the proliferating yellow
ribbons draped over houses and street signs” (118). This paradoxical masculine hybrid
mentioned above was extended through Gulf War discourse of the Bush era.
Scholarship covering masculinity and cartoons is still in its developing stage, and
the closest avenue of study that involves themes of masculine hybridity is scholarship
about comic book masculinity. While not the only medium to explore the dualism of
masculine identity, superhero comics offer a prime opportunity to analyze the opposing
masculinities mentioned above. In his work on comic book masculinity, Jeffrey Brown
states,”[t]he male identity in the twentieth century is perceived in extremes: man or
mouse, He-man or 98-lb weakling” (Brown 25). Indeed, the superhero comic allows
these two identities to work together “defining each other in mutual opposition” (Ibid.).
To navigate between the superhuman and human identities, characters often engage in the
act of masquerade (Weltzien 230). The superhero masquerade allows for a convergence
of opposing masculinities; however, wardrobe can work to convey heightened and
inferior masculinities also. A strong example of which can be found in the Superman
comics: Superman, an otherworldly figure, dresses as Clark Kent to hide his
hypermasculinity in plain sight (Weltzien 232). “The mechanism of masculinity in the
genre rests on this double origin signified in different costumes: the clumsy nerd on one
side, the exceptional hero on the other, and the ability to change between both identities
at will” (Ibid.).
Just as important as the hypermasculine hero in the study of hybrid masculinities is
the role of the nerd. Much like the superhero movies that became popular in the 2000s,2
The Venture Bros. explores dichotomous masculine bodies: the weak body and the hard
(superhuman) body. Coinciding with the growing popularity of superhero films in the
2000s, the emergence of the nerd as the new leading man in (non-comic book)
Hollywood movies, such as Superbad (2007) or Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe (2010),
presents an alternative representation of hegemonic masculinity. The nerd in popular
culture traverses liminal territory with regard to masculinity, possessing hypermasculine
attributes through “intellect, rejection of sartorial display [and] lack of ‘feminine’ social
skills” as well as occupying a feminized space through the “lack of sports ability, small
body size, [and] a lack of [heteronormative] sexual relationships” (Kendall 264). The
nerd figure fits into Connell’s classification of “subordinated masculinity” that includes
homosexuals, wimps, turkeys, sissies, yellowbellies, candy-asses, and many other
2 X=Men!(2000),!Spider=man%(2002),!The%Punisher%(2004),!Batman%Begins%(2005),!etc.
subjectivities whose stereotypical names are invoked as a paralyzing mechanism amongst
boys on the playground (Connell, 1995: 79). What’s interesting, however, is although the
male nerd inhabits a liminal space between hegemonic masculinity and femininity, he
still does not possess the body of the hypermasculine agent. Feats of intellectualism do
not result in the same physical rewards as feats of strength and sport. The distinction
between nerds and jocks (men and boys) has been a prevailing representation of dual
masculinities in film and television.
These studies interrogate the role of hegemonic masculinity in American society
and culture. Building upon this scholarship, I will examine representations of hegemonic
masculinity in The Venture Bros. while focusing on the role of the hypermasculine,
muscular body, as well as subordinated masculinities, in reproducing, and possibly
subverting, traditional patriarchal representations. I will draw from each of these theories
when analyzing The Venture Bros., especially when discussing how each of the primary
characters relates to their body and performs their gender.
To address the role of gender performance as it relates to masculinity in The
Venture Bros., I will examine six significant characters that represent the various forms
of masculinity in the series.
First, in Chapter 1, I will focus on the hypermasculine, hypermuscular Brock
Samson as he relates to traditional representations of hegemonic masculinity. As I will
demonstrate in my first chapter, Brock Samson is positioned within the series as the
dominant masculine figure with the most physical agency. Brock’s body hearkens back to
such 1980s action stars as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger; however,
unlike the heroic bodies in action cinema, his body is not presented as naturallyoccurring,
by which I mean the work put into building and maintaining his muscular
body is shown in the series. . Brock Samson’s strength, while undeniable within The
Venture Bros., is not necessarily a direct result of his muscles when looked at through a
critical lens. In bodybuilding, the key focus is on muscles rather than strength; therefore,
the body possessed by Brock and his muscle-bound predecessors only appears to be
strong. In this regard, Brock’s strength is an illusion constructed to symbolize hegemonic
masculinity in The Venture Bros.
Chapter 2 will focus on Dr. Thaddeus Venture and Dr. Girlfriend, the most
notable female character in the series. Dr. Venture stands in contrast to Brock Samson as
a feminized male character who is lacking in physical and, therefore, masculine agency.
Dr. Girlfriend is closely tethered to Dr. Venture’s rival, The Monarch. Both doctors
employ strategies associated with drag culture to perform their respective genders. Dr.
Venture is heavily feminized and, when shown performing his idea of dominant
masculinity, (which he refers to as a “speedsuit”) he invokes outdated images of
manhood, such as a leisure suit when he decides to go out on the town. Dr. Girlfriend,
perhaps the most competent character in the Venture mythos (with the exception of Brock
Samson), performs her femininity through wardrobe, but her gender is constantly
questioned by other male characters in the series due to prominent masculine
characteristics, most notably, her voice. In this chapter, I will explore how traditional
notions of hegemonic masculinity are reified through the constructed gender identities of
Dr. Venture and Dr. Girlfriend.
My final chapter will focus on three primary characters: the titular brothers Hank
and Dean Venture, and Henchman 21. Not coincidentally, the authors of The Venture
Bros. prominently feature characters that embody the masculine dualism found in the
comic book superhero genre. Hank Venture’s navigation of his masculinity through the
narrative arc in the first four seasons of The Venture Bros. is particularly interesting and
worthy of analysis because of his development from a naïve, weakling to a savvy, gogetter
well on his way to becoming a dominant masculine figure, though he remains
somewhat innocent. In early seasons, Hank idolizes Batman, but more importantly tries
his best to emulate Brock Samson. In season four, Hank experiences substantial growth
and is able to straddle the line between adolescence and manhood. Dean Venture
emulates his father more than Hank does. More timid and arguably less ambitious than
Hank, Dean is forced, by the fourth season, into a life of super-science. Dean is behind
Hank in his masculine development, but begins his search of individualism as well.
Henchman 21, in the first three seasons, is positioned as the nerdy collector who happens
to be a henchman for the Monarch, Dr. Venture’s arch nemesis. But by season four, 21
undergoes a substantial transformation that is more abrupt than Hank’s. Season four
presents 21 as a trained fighter who has a body more similar to Brock Samson’s than it
had been in previous seasons, but he maintains his nerdy/fanboy tendencies as an alphahenchman
under the command of The Monarch. I propose that The Venture Bros.
deconstructs popular representations of masculinity at this point in the run of the show.
But how do these hybrid identities subvert traditional notions of masculinity in The
Venture Bros.?
In the following chapters, I will perform close readings of select episodes of The
Venture Bros. to demonstrate how gender construction is a key element of the series.
Semiotic and narrative analysis will be helpful in exploring how the various masculinities
in The Venture Bros. are positioned in relation to each other. By incorporating gender
theory with narrative and semiotic analysis, I will be able to identify the various tropes of
masculinity present within the series while interrogating the ways in which these
aesthetic representations complicate hegemonic masculinity.
The Venture Bros. both reinforces and subverts dominant representations of
masculinity found in the contemporary media. The authors present the viewer with a text
that is aware of the social reproductions of hegemonic masculinity. It is important to
focus on The Venture Bros. because, unlike many of the other popular Adult Swim
programs, this text seizes the opportunity to subvert and complicate patriarchal
representations, thereby breaking the breaking the cycle of reproduction of oppressive
symbols of manliness. Although The Venture Bros. is not completely subversive (for
example, the female characters are virtually invisible in the series), I hope to illuminate
the importance of the series to the discourses of gender and masculinity.
Chapter 1
Constructing Brock Samson’s Masculinity
Brock Samson is the character that establishes the hegemonically masculine
paradigm within The Venture Bros. As the bodyguard of the Venture family, Brock has
the most physical agency. On the surface, Brock Samson is a typical action hero: musclebound,
brooding, and confident; all traits that comprise his masculinity. In the Venture
world, he is a man to be respected and feared, a hero akin to the muscular heroes of the
1980s, such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like the previous action
stars in American action cinema, Brock Samson’s body is often prominently displayed,
frequently shirtless, and sometimes nude.
Brock is often depicted with familiar symbols of hegemonic masculinity (e.g., a
1969 Dodge Charger and hunting knife) to reinforce his masculine agency in contrast to
Dr. Venture and The Monarch, who are feminized, as well as the brothers, Hank and
Dean, who are still teenagers and have not yet developed a sense of manhood or
independence in the show’s earlier seasons. These material representations of Brock’s
masculinity supplement his physical symbols of masculinity. In this chapter, I will focus
on Brock Samson’s physical performance of masculinity as it is manifested through his
muscles, excessive violence, and sexuality.
The display of the muscular, male body in the United States is deeply rooted in
the Vaudevillian tradition. The most prominent (and perhaps earliest) example of the
sensationalized male figure is Eugene Sandow, a strongman whose stardom persisted
from the end of the nineteenth century through the earlier twentieth century (Kasson
2001). The “father of modern bodybuilding” (7), Sandow’s career positioned him as “the
most brilliant performer of manhood of the 1890s,” a time when the United States was
undergoing an extreme economic depression that “threatened the sense of independence
and control once enjoyed by men” resulting in the “[creation of Sandow] out of the
cultural demands of his time” (23). Sandow’s body became the new symbol of physical
and masculine perfection, and reflects a point in Western history when the white, male
body became the subject of the public’s gaze.
Before Eugene Sandow’s popularity, the unclad male body was not necessarily
regarded as an empowering image. As Kasson writes:
Images of male muscular development and bodily perfection have both a
distinguished lineage and a troubled history in Western culture. Though securely
established in classical Greece and Rome, their position afterward became highly
precarious, particularly in the context of a Christian pursuit of spiritual perfection
that denied the body […] Still, even in the late nineteenth century, to display the
unclad figure […] was to risk falling from the lofty plane of the nude to the
shameful one of the merely naked. (21)
Displaying the nearly nude body of a male as simply human was not acceptable before
the late 19th century, and the unclad body of Eugene Sandow became the object of
scrutiny. In order to justify this display of implied male nudity, Sandow had to be beyond
ordinary; in fact, he could only be perfect. Perfection, in this instance, required
remarkable muscle tone similar to classic sculptures of male bodies. Thus, Sandow was
known as “the perfect man” in the public consciousness (23).
Strongman performance is not so much about strength as it is about the spectacle
of overcoming obstacles. Performances by strongmen like Sandow were “accomplished
[…] far less through strength than through showmanship, deception, and special
equipment that blurred the line between strongman and magician” (35). The illusion of
strength was the result of physical hypermasculinity, as demonstrated in modern action
films or professional wrestling. Sandow’s body, however, still represented “strength,
development, control, and proportion” regardless of actual physical strength he may or
may not have possessed (36). What is important is how strong the strongman’s body
appears to be, and Sandow’s body appeared to be (and was marketed in the United States
as) the strongest on Earth.
Sandow “turned his body into a commercial spectacle and a commodity whose
image was widely reproduced and sold” (29). Similarly, modern male bodybuilders
utilize the spectacle of muscularity to win international contests and
“’sell’ their bodies, first to the contest judges, then to a burgeoning group of bodybuilding
entrepreneurs who promote a vast array of products” (Holmlund 18).
Just as Eugene Sandow stood out in early-American popular culture, bodybuilders
also fall outside of the boundaries of normalcy. As Chris Holmlund writes regarding the
bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron (1977), “it would seem from the very start that
the bodies we see are not natural […] [T]hey are clearly the products of individual
obsession, created with great effort in the gym, through dieting and even drugs” (18).
However, in the realm of competitive bodybuilding, where the built body — male or
female — is on display, “bodies [are] representative of ‘Body’ with a capital B, a natural
and God-given essence” (Ibid.). The display of built bodies, however, provides a more
complicated interrogation of masculinity as related to muscularity.
An inherent contradiction lies in the display of the male bodybuilder. In her
analysis of Richard Dyer’s work on bodybuilding, Yvonne Tasker explains that “Dyer’s
analysis draws attention to the way in which any display of the male body needs to be
compensated for by the suggestion of action” as a way to reject any femininity implied
by the passivity of posing (77). For instance, bodybuilders depicted on the cover of
Muscle & Fitness Magazine were often framed as though in motion in classic Olympic
track poses (javelin or shot put) or flexing as in competition. Tasker’s analysis of
bodybuilders addresses the narcissism of the athletes as “a narcissism that is
inappropriate to familiar definitions of manhood.” However, the continuously reaffirmed
heterosexuality of the bodybuilders in Pumping Iron works “as a more general sign of
‘normality’, denying the supposed perversity of a man’s interest in male flesh” (78).
Taking bodybuilding and the built bodies of American action stars into consideration,
muscles are a physical manifestation of performed masculinity. In the context of The
Venture Bros., Brock Samson’s built body engages in the full display that characterizes
bodybuilding while engaging in exaggerated action and (hetero)sexual encounters, almost
to excess. While some of his actions may be read as homoerotic (e.g., naked killing
sprees and the appearance of sexual pleasure through the penetration of other men), the
consistent reaffirmation of his heterosexual dominance offsets any suggested obsession
Brock may have with his appearance.
Existing within an animated context, Brock Samson’s muscularity is a simulation.
This simulation, then, allows the advantage of a fixed masculinity within the Venture
world, although, he is occasionally depicted engaging in exercise to maintain his
physique. A common characteristic of cartoons is that the characters appear the same
week to week., and where The Venture Bros. stands out by depicting the work involved in
maintaining a fit, or championed, physique. However, animation provides the perfect
setting for representing illusions of strength. The animated world does not adhere to
principles of physics or biology that constrain humans in the real world, and where a
stunt double may have to step in for an action star, the animated character is not burdened
by such matters. However, his image evokes the imagery consistent with not only male
action stars of the 1980s, but also a tradition of displaying the male body familiar in
competitive bodybuilding with, according to Kasson, roots in the Vaudevillian tradition
made popular by Eugene Sandow.
In the following section, I will analyze how Brock Samson’s masculine
performance is manifested through muscularity, violence, and sexuality.
In the opening scene from “Dia de los Dangerous,” the first episode of the first
season of The Venture Bros., Brock Samson is positioned at a poker table opposite a
Spanish-speaking antagonist. The camera tilts down from the smoke-filled ceiling. The
antagonist is shrouded in darkness with only his cigarette visible. Flamboyant, oversized
luchadores, or Mexican wrestlers, overlook the table as the antagonist, presumably the
Mexican ringleader of this gang of luchadores, chides Brock for returning to Mexico
after scarring his face. Brock is revealed shirtless, smoking, and expressionless. The
ringleader is in possession of Brock’s signature weapon — a blatantly large hunting
knife — removing him of his phallus, thereby challenging his masculine agency.
As the scene progresses, Brock shows his cards and reveals a full house — a
winning hand and indication of his intellectual power — but the ringleader, revealing a
bum hand, asserts, “We play by Tijuana rules, no? And, as you know, in Tijuana, I make
the rules!” He forces Brock to remove his final article of clothing, a pair of briefs,
threatening Brock with the vulnerability tied to nudity. The naked body often
symbolically represents vulnerability in a multitude of artistic media (Dyer 146). But
Brock Samson is a direct reflection of the 1980s muscle star, and his nudity represents a
power unfamiliar to the soft bodies of the luchadores. Brock Samson’s agency is attached
to his physicality.
“You’re not so tough without your big knife, are you, Mr. Samson?” Attempting
to threaten him, the ringleader challenges Brock’s masculinity, suggesting castration by
removing the phallus from his grasp. Upon removing his briefs, Brock’s bare buttocks are
centered in the frame — whiter than the rest of his tanned body. The ringleader and his
luchadores gaze in awe at the front of Brock’s naked body. The spaghetti Westerninspired
score pauses, substituted by the sound of a spring, which accompanies the gaze
of the luchadores on Brock’s penis. His nude body and the men’s gazes upon it
demonstrate the tension between homoeroticism and homosociality in this male space.
Following the gasps of awe, a lone luchador claps in admiration. Slouched, childlike, and
fat, with breasts that hang out of his leotard, the envious luchador is positioned against
Brock Samson’s anatomical superiority. In his nudity, Brock is positioned as the
dominant male in the Mexican gang’s space.
Obviously caught in a card game he isn’t going to win, Brock defuses the
situation with his bare hands. Without a traditional weapon, Brock defeats the entire
room of luchadores using his champion body (a weapon in its own right). One fighter
attempts to break a chair on Samson’s back to no avail. Samson’s body is a superior
body, unbreakable, and he is a resourceful warrior. The next shot shows the ill-fated
luchador wrapped up in the chair unable to break Samson’s back. After incapacitating a
garage full of luchadores, Samson shifts his attention to the ringleader of the gang, who
is feeble by comparison, and surrenders. “Okay, enough! I will give you the part. That
was for a ’69 Charger, no?” the ringleader pleads with Brock to end the fight, which
apparently was over a part for Brock’s muscle car. Semi-clothed, wearing only pants,
Samson leaves the garage only to be stopped by the envious luchador. “Take me with
you,” he pleads. Reminiscent of the 1979 “Mean” Joe Green Coca-Cola ad,3 Samson
throws the luchador his t-shirt and exits, further infantilizing him. The luchador smells
the shirt in rapture, another potentially feminizing and homoerotic moment. Although this
is the first time the audience has witnessed Brock Samson in action, it is clear that this is
not the first battle he has won, and it certainly will not be the last.
3 In the 1979 Coca-Cola advertisement, “Mean” Joe Green is shown limping to the locker room,
presumably in the middle of a football game. A boy is waiting in the hallway holding a bottle of Coca-Cola.
He interrupts Green’s walk of defeat by telling him that he “thinks he’s the greatest.” Green shakes his head
and says, “Thanks.” The boy insists Green take his Coca-Cola. Green reluctantly accepts. Upon sipping the
soda, Green smiles. The boy walks off, but Green stops him and throws the child his football jersey, ending
the commercial with a smile captured by a freeze-frame shot.
This scene in The Venture Bros. captures a moment where Brock Samson is
able to assert his masculine dominance through physical confrontation. His body is
placed in direct contrast to the bodies of the luchadores in the garage. Within the diegesis
of The Venture Bros., Brock Samson represents hegemonic masculinity as it is
demonstrated in the popular action films of the 1980s. He functions within the text as the
most competent character, a characteristic that directly results from his physical prowess.
How, then, does Brock revive the notion of the powerful, masculine American man? The
creators of The Venture Bros. use Brock’s body to simultaneously reinforce and parody
the ubiquitous tropes of hegemonic masculinity present in American action films. The
Tijuana garage scene centers the white body as the most powerful: Brock dominates the
soft, feminized bodies of the Mexican luchadores and takes what is seemingly rightfully
his, the carburetor for a 1969 Dodge Charger, a nostalgic nod to the former industrial
ingenuity of the United States, the loss of some American industry to Mexico, as well as
muscle cars driven by older action heroes.4
Brock’s body denotes his manhood through his relationship with violence, his
competence, and sexuality. He functions — at least in the first three seasons — as a man
whose masculinity and body are both fixed. Very little happens in the span of three
seasons to change his body. What this stasis suggests is the natural occurrence of a
masculine, muscular male body for at least one character. What I find interesting about
the occurrence of Brock’s masculinity in The Venture Bros. is not that it is a naturalized
4 The most notable example of an American muscle car in action cinema is Steve McQueen’s 1968 Ford
Mustang in Bullit (1968).
depiction of muscularity, but instead, how it can be considered a performed masculinity
with respect to cultures of displayed male bodies.
Violence is a key component of Brock Samson’s identity. First and foremost, he
is the bodyguard of the titular brothers, Hank and Dean, as well as Dr. Venture. Upon
first glance, his motivations seem tied to their well-being. If a henchman tries to harm or
kidnap the Venture brothers or their father, Brock responds with immediate, excessive
force that often results in the death of a henchman. While he is, in fact, invested in the
lives of the brothers and their father, with each killing, a sense of pleasure is indicated by
Brock’s use of excessive force and, in some cases, his smile.
Brock Samson’s weapon of choice, the hunting knife, alludes to the blade wielded
by Sylvester Stallone in the Rambo series. Indeed, the knife is Brock’s phallus, and when
used in the series it functions as the ultimate assertion of his masculinity, and even
disrupts his position as the most heterosexually masculine man in The Venture Bros.
Most episodes in the first season include Brock Samson exiting a scene to have sex with
various women, random or familiar; however, the pleasure he derives from killing men
lends itself to a homoerotic reading. Each time the blade penetrates a male henchman, he
achieves a level of intimacy and pleasure only implied with each encounter with a
In the opening scene of “Dia de los Dangerous, “ discussed above, Brock Samson
simply incapacitates the luchadores in the auto garage, but much later in the episode, he
strangles the Monarch’s rookie henchman to death. In this scene, the Monarch’s
costumed henchmen are sent into Tijuana to observe Dr. Venture. Speedy, the rookie
henchman, is assigned to lead the team despite not having his “wings” like all of the more
experienced men who are dressed as butterflies with utility belts. During the
observational mission, Speedy becomes too ambitious and orders the others to kidnap
Hank and Dean; he is presumably unaware of the existence of Brock. As the henchmen
quickly shove the Venture brothers into the trunk of their vehicle, Brock does his best to
save them, running towards the henchmen as they are firing poison darts into his arms,
legs, and torso. Multiple poison darts are not enough to take down a man like Brock
Samson, and he is able to grab Speedy by the throat before the other henchmen are able
to knock him out by hitting him with their truck. Unfortunately for Speedy, even while
unconscious, Brock’s grip-strength exceeds that of the other henchmen, who are unable
to pry his hand from Speedy’s throat. A fellow henchman fires a single dart into Speedy’s
neck, silencing his gasps for air. The camera cranes outward as Speedy dies. “Wow. That
sucked!” the henchman exclaims over the guitar and harmonica score, evoking the
atmosphere of classic Spaghetti Westerns.
In this rare instance, Brock Samson is temporarily taken down by the Monarch’s
henchman; however, as Brock’s strength and masculinity are established in the opening
scene, this takedown makes the viewer question the sustainability of Brock Samson the
action hero. Any concerns for Brock’s well-being are resolved in the final act of the
episode when he emerges from a grave (having been buried alive by the Monarch’s
henchman), Speedy’s withered corpse still attached to his grip. To redeem his failure,
Brock returns to the Monarch’s hideout by crashing his ’69 Dodge Charger through the
ceiling of the “cocoon,” landing in the center of the prison where Hank and Dean were
being held. The Monarch promptly sics his henchman on the Charger.
As an assertion of his brutality (as well as an equivalent payback to being hit by
their truck), Brock, eyelids twitching, proceeds to drive fast and furiously inside of the
prison striking each henchman. The montage that ensues features quick cuts between
close-up shots of Brock’s face, gearshift, car, and suffering henchmen as they are dragged
under the car and thrown over the hood. A brief close-up of Brock’s tongue licking his
lips reveals the pleasure he experiences as he commits multiple counts of vehicular
homicide. In this scene, where his muscles do not perform, his muscle car assumes
responsibility for the violence inflicted upon the almost helpless henchmen.
In a world comprised of a blatant male majority, Brock Samson is centered as the
alpha-male in the first three seasons of The Venture Bros. Samson’s physical prowess is
juxtaposed with the feminized male characters in the series, as well as the “dark others.”
This positioning grants Samson the authority to dominate and, in most cases, kill any
perceived threat. However, losing this authority to inflict violence on other “lesser”
bodies in an official, government-sanctioned capacity complicates Samson’s masculine
agency and suggests his power is natural.
In “Mid-Life Chrysalis,” episode Brock Samson is enlisted by Dr. Venture, who
is going through a mid-life crisis, to accompany him for a “guy’s night out.” Samson’s
Office of Secret Intelligence (a fictional government agency akin to the CIA) “license to
kill” has just expired. This episode identifies where Brock Samson derives his agency.
Upon losing his license to kill, and subsequent castration (removal of knife), Samson is
unable to perform sexually, as demonstrated via his lack of engagement with a stripper
clothed in an American flag bikini. Samson’s inability to be satisfied by the stripper (due
to his inability to kill) is not only a let down to the woman and his libido, but to his duty
to the country as a special agent.
Samson, in order to renew his license and thereby restore his position as the
alpha-male in the series, begins studying for an exam. The physical portion is where he
excels. An extensive workout montage, in the style of the Rocky movies, shows Samson
achieving superior build, re-establishing his masculine identity — even refusing a 1980sstyle
aerobics class because of its perceived femininity (illustrated with Hank and Dean
in pastel leotards. During the scene depicting the actual test, Samson scores exceptionally
well in the firing range, despite turning down a firearm, using his expertise with the
hunting knife. Brock Samson reunites with his phallus (knife), creates havoc, and aces the
test. The proctor salutes him as an American hero. “My father is General Treister, you
saved his life, and the man spoke of you as a god […] You did not disappoint.” In
reestablishing his dominant masculinity, Brock Samson is reborn.
While Brock’s Samson’s sexual agency is displayed from episode to episode by
his jaunts with hookers and strippers, his character maintains only one consistent love
interest: Molotov Cocktease, who is introduced in the fourth episode of season one.
Molotov is a hypersexualized Russian mercenary who is modeled after Marvel’s Black
Widow, a similarly cat-suited Russian assassin with exposed cleavage. Her name, while a
play on the Molotov cocktail, is also a nod to provocatively named Bond girls, such as
Pussy Galore, Plenty O’Toole, or Holly Goodhead. It is rarely made clear whose side
Molotov is on; however, she holds Brock Samson in high regard.
Molotov acts as a foil to Brock Samson through their almost sadomasochistic
relationship and her consistent denial of his sexual advances due to a chastity belt she
wears, as it was her father’s dying wish to remain celibate. It remains unclear whether or
not Molotov is a virgin as she is depicted as having sexual agency through her control of
Brock. Since Brock cannot have sex with Molotov, they have an extremely violent
relationship. Molotov Cocktease threatens his masculinity by denying his control over
her body.
In many ways, Molotov is Brock’s equal, as she is also a ruthless killer. Brock’s
inability to incapacitate her physically is just as damaging to his ego as his inability to
break through her chastity belt. In “The Incredible Mr. Brisby,” Brock’s masculinity is
reaffirmed at the end of his fight with Molotov. Without having sex, Brock’s erection,
sheathed under a white towel, is revealed as a punchline to the interaction. The revelation
confirms what is implied through other phallic symbols; however, the muscle cars and
oversized knives may suggest what Brock does not possess, functioning as compensatory
tools. Seeing Brock’s erection only confirms what these symbols represent, and there is
no mystery to his body. Unlike famous bodybuilders, whose genitalia are not given
attention at the risk of “[revealing] too much or too little,” Brock’s body apparently
possesses all of the characteristics of a man (Holmlund 25).
During season two, Brock Samson goes on a nude killing spree inside of his
house. In the episode entitled, “Victor, Echo, November,” the Guild of Calamitous Intent,
a union for the super-villains of the series, has issued an order to wipeout the Venture
family. As the family’s bodyguard, Brock is defending the house. Dr. Venture, who is
sitting alone in the living room notices Brock’s nudity and asks, “Why are you naked?”
“To prey on their fear. Move like an animal. To feel the kill,” Brock answers while
holding a disembodied head with a terrified face, as he is covered in blood.
In the next sequence, Brock, from behind, surprises a Guild agent in the dark,
stabbing him immediately in the lower back. Holding the agent down on the ground,
knife still in his side, Brock whispers in his ear, “Strange. You almost can’t feel it […]
Don’t move. The knife is still in you.” In this sequence, Brock is predatory, and goes
beyond what is necessary to inflict pain and death on the intruding agents in his house. In
this moment, like the vehicular rampage discussed previously, Brock’s pleasure in killing
is palpable. If he derives physical pleasure through sex, it remains off-screen.
The peculiarity of Brock’s nudity is not lost on the other characters in the episode.
His naked body is the first observation made by the Venture family. When Brock appears
naked in front of the Venture brothers, who are framed between Brock’s legs in a shot
similar to the famous shot through Mrs. Robinson’s legs in The Graduate (1967), Dean
blankly stares at Brock and simply states, “Naked,” before he and Hank exit the men’s
room (where they had been for the duration of the kill order). Brock then confronts The
Monarch, who is not the threat in this episode, and interrogates him about who issued the
kill order on the Venture family. As Brock exits, The Monarch quips, “Nice ass,
Samson.” Finally, Brock enters a stall with another villain, Phantom Limb, who was
responsible for the kill order. Phantom Limb questions Brock’s sexuality immediately,
“Do you always hang out, naked, in the men’s bathroom?” Though Brock does not kill
anybody in this sequence, his nudity stands out as unusual, and, if he were not actively
killing members of the Guild, would work to offset his masculine agency. As in the
tradition of the bodybuilders discussed previously, Brock’s displayed body in action
reinforces his masculinity.
Brock Samson functions as the embodiment of hegemonic masculinity in The
Venture Bros., but his exaggerated characteristics do, in turn, parody the role of the
muscle-bound hero in the action genre. The historical ties to a tradition in bodybuilding
and the built body in American action cinema complicate Brock Samson’s role as his
body is on display; however, any implicit feminization is offset by extreme violence, the
illusion of strength, and sexual agency. In Chapter Two, I will focus on bodies that do not
meet the criteria required of the muscle-bound hero.
Chapter 2
Drag & Masquerade: Constructing the Doctors
The construction of gender is a key thematic element of The Venture Bros. As
discussed in the previous chapter, Brock Samson is a figure whose masculinity is
constructed through extreme violence and sexual promiscuity, and the physical
domination over bodies of color, as well as feminized and female bodies. This is just one
example of how masculinity is represented and performed by the characters of The
Venture Bros. What do other bodies look like when they aren’t constructed similarly to
Brock Samson’s body? To whom do these bodies belong? How is masculinity performed
without a champion body? To answer these questions, I shift my focus in this chapter to
one primary character and one secondary character: Dr. Venture and Dr. Girlfriend.
Dr. Rusty Venture is positioned within the text as a failure, unable to escape his
famous father’s shadow and pursuing his career in super-science despite his utter lack of
success within the field. His body is thin and fragile; his head is hairless, symbolizing his
lost hope of a career in super-science, and compromised masculinity. Dr. Girlfriend, on
the other hand, possesses a striking female body that evokes the curves of a 1960’s pinup.
In addition, she (in earlier seasons) wears a pink dress and pill-box hat, reminiscent of
Jackie Kennedy’s pink suit, and has a deep, raspy voice. Both Dr. Venture and Dr.
Girlfriend’s bodies appear in contrast to a body like Brock Samson’s. Dr. Venture
performs his masculinity using technology as a substitute for his weak body, while Dr.
Girlfriend, whose body is given physical and sexual agency, is heavily feminized to
offset her masculinity.
Like Brock, both characters navigate within heteronormative boundaries with
regards to their sexual proclivities; however, their respective gender performances serve
different purposes with different outcomes. Dr. Venture performs his masculinity to
prove his value in the field of super-science. His attachment to technology, especially
instruments of his own creation, makes up for what he lacks in physical strength, but he
still remains trapped within his inferior manliness, unable to progress into the territory
Brock inhabits. In many cases, Dr. Venture’s failed attempts at appearing masculine
result in possible readings of him as feminine or homosexual.
Dr. Girlfriend’s femininity is constructed and complicated within a male majority.
Like Dr. Venture, who appears to perform his masculinity as an attempt to stand out
amongst the other men, Dr. Girlfriend’s performed femininity operates in a similar
manner. Despite her efforts at a femme performance of her gender, in earlier seasons,
characters suggest that, perhaps, she is, or was at one point, a man. In contrast to the
speculation by peripheral characters, Dr. Girlfriend’s constructed femme identity offsets
her very male-sounding voice. By using dress and sex appeal, Dr. Girlfriend’s femininity
distances her from accusations of manliness.
The primary focal point of this chapter is how Dr. Venture and Dr. Girlfriend’s
respective gender identities are navigated with dress and sexuality using established
symbols of masculinity and femininity and how their performances operate within the
parameters of hegemonic masculinity.
Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture’s masculinity is performed in relation to the
memory of his father, Dr. Jonas Venture, who was a prominent and successful superscientist.
Rusty lives in the shadow of his father’s 1960s fame and does not garner nearly
as much respect as the senior Venture commanded at his peak fifty years in the past. In
the series, Rusty tries his best to set his career apart from his father’s, although, he
occupies spaces that belonged to the senior Venture: his home, workspace, and
transportation (a space-age jet invented by the senior Dr. Venture).
Rusty is the patriarch of the Venture family as viewers have come to know them,
though he lacks any masculine agency outside of the boundaries of single fatherhood. Dr.
Venture often chides his sons for teenage back talk, while forcing Dean, the more timid
of the Venture brothers, into the “family business.” Hank, as I mentioned previously, is
far more interested in pursuing a life similar to Brock Samson’s and lists “Batman” as
one of his “dream jobs.” Dean reluctantly obeys his father’s orders due to his shy nature,
though he remains visibly unhappy and inept. The brothers’ rejection of their father runs
parallel to Dr. Venture’s rejection of himself in favor of his father.
The domestic hierarchy in the Venture compound is complicated. Dr. Venture, as
patriarch, is at the top, though Brock Samson is the physical alpha within the compound
and the series. Brock is, however, at the behest of Dr. Venture, and, even more so, the
State (through the Office of Secret Intelligence). With the help of their house robot,
H.E.L.P.E.R., Brock also performs more nurturing duties for the brothers, Hank and
Dean, than their father (a practice traditionally assigned to women).
The male body is typically inscribed with power, and the physically powerless
men, like Dr. Venture, rely on external apparatuses to generate the strength typically
associated with physical agency. Although it can be argued that Brock does the same
through his knife and car, Dr. Venture’s reliance on technology, or his “technophallus,”
as Steve Waksman suggests, “produces the appearance of male potency,” by extending
his power beyond his physical capabilities (Waksman, 1999: 247). The knife and car
simply enhance Brock’s power rather than simulating it. Unfortunately, the biological
limitations of Dr. Venture’s body are still not corrected by his use of technology.
Technology and science play important roles in Dr. Venture’s masculinity as he
facilitates his duties as a father. Each member of the family, including Brock, wears a
video communication watch, a common gadget in texts associated with the science
fiction and spy genres such as the James Bond films, Dick Tracy, and even The Mighty
Morphin’ Power Rangers. Hank and Dean, in lieu of public schooling, sleep in “learning
beds,” a recycled invention of Dr. Jonas that features nightly videos of him teaching the
ins and outs of science and assembly line labor. In addition to Brock’s caretaking of the
brothers, H.E.L.P.E.R. is Dr. Venture’s answer to the absence of their mother (whose
identity will be discussed later in this chapter) in the household. Finally, the very
existence of Hank and Dean, who I mentioned are the product of a cloning experiment, is
rooted in Dr. Venture’s obsession with super-science and, perhaps, carrying on the
Venture name. Arguably, the clones are his most successful creation, yet they are simply
a burden to the doctor.
Compared to Brock Samson, Dr. Venture has very little sexual agency. In the
four-season span of the series, Dr. Venture has been known to have sex only twice. The
circumstances of the two sexual encounters suggest Dr. Venture is not the most careful
love-maker. Both sexual encounters are explained in flashbacks, which returns viewers to
the days when Dr. Venture was not a doctor, but simply “Rusty.”
The first of his sexual escapades with Myra Brandish, Dr. Venture’s bodyguard in
the 1980s, allegedly results in the conception of Hank and Dean, though whether or not
this is true was never confirmed. In “I Know Why the Caged Bird Kills,” the tenth
episode of season two, Myra is introduced as a woman obsessed with the Venture
brothers as she kidnaps them and declares her motherhood repeatedly. Dr. Venture
establishes that she was, in fact, his bodyguard in the wake of his father’s death. Myra
towered over Dr. Venture, the female near-equivalent of Brock Samson. As with Hank
and Dean, she had an obsessive motherly demeanor with “Rusty,” carrying him in her
arms like a child after an attempted assassination. In the heat of the moment, the two of
them had sex in the backseat of a car on the front lawn of the Venture compound. Of
course, her obsession with him became increasingly unhealthy, which resulted in her
firing. Myra periodically shows up to kidnap Hank and Dean; though, “Caged Bird” is
the only episode in which she’s featured.
The second, and final, admission of Dr. Venture’s sexual activity occurs in season
four, “Everybody’s Coming to Hank’s,” also in flashback form. This episode is centered
on the mystery of the father of Hank’s friend, Dermot. Hank believes Dermot’s father is
Brock Samson, and speculation throughout season four had built up to that conclusion.
The twist in the episode reveals that not only is Dr. Venture Dermot’s father, not Brock,
but Dermot’s mother is the woman he previously believed to be his sister, Nikki (a
reference to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown). As revealed in flashback, at the age of
fifteen, Nikki served as president of the Rusty Venture fan club, a remnant of the time
when he was a famous boy adventurer. Dr. Venture, whose look is reminiscent of Woody
Allen in this era, is arguing with Nikki’s mother, who remains nameless in this episode,
over his responsibilities now that he has impregnated her teenage daughter. Nikki’s
mother (Dermot’s grandmother) raised Dermot as her own under the falsehood that Brock
was the biological father. Nikki, like Myra, shared the obsession with “Rusty” that
resulted in the consummation of their relationship and, subsequently, Dermot.
In both of these relationships, Dr. Venture engages in sex with people who are
obsessed with a childlike memory of Rusty Venture. Myra, it appears, took advantage of
the fragility of Rusty after a traumatic moment (the attempted assassination). Nikki, on
the other hand, is still a child in love with her childhood hero Rusty, and was taken
advantage of by Dr. Venture. Dr. Venture is unable to truly engage sexually with a
woman who is of sound mind; and in order to remain in a dominant male position he
resorted to copulating with an impressionable teenager. Dr. Venture does not have the
same allure that someone with the masculine mystique of Brock Samson. In order to feel
like an attractive, libidinous man, Dr. Venture sleeps with characters without mental
Dr. Venture appears to feel more in command of himself and his sexuality when
handling his inventions. For example, in “Fallen Arches,” Dr. Venture feels jealous of his
next-door neighbor who is holding auditions for an archenemy. Seeing the long line of
super-villains through the window, Dr. Venture can think of asserting his dominance (and
therefore masculinity) as a worthy arch-nemesis only by demonstrating that he owns a
weapon known as a “walking eye.” The walking eye is a reference to a machine used in
the Jonny Quest episode “The Robot Spy,” which aired in 1964. Although the walking
eye in Jonny Quest was used for surveillance, Dr. Venture never specifies the exact
capabilities of the walking eye, nor does he seem to know — in fact, he presumably built
it based on what he saw in Jonny Quest. As he trots out with his walking eye, he begins
to wash it with a sponge. The soap and water splash his body as he licks his lips. This
scene, the gender reversal of an iconic scene in Cool Hand Luke (1967), demonstrates Dr.
Venture’s fetishization of technology to the point of deriving sexual pleasure from his
technological creations. In this scene, Dr. Venture’s performance works against his
previous efforts at seeming masculine. The performance he gives the line of supervillains
in his front yard works against the more tradition attributes of masculinity.
Dr. Venture can be read in different way, however. In the following section, I will
analyze how Dr. Venture’s representation is consistent with drag-king performance, and
how a queer reading can inform the viewer of the complex relationship he has with his
Quite possibly Judith Halberstam’s most notable body of work to date, Female
Masculinity examines constructions of masculinity that do not adhere to the
characteristics of, as she states, “heroic masculinities” (1998: 1). Much like Connell’s
hegemonic masculinity, heroic masculinities are forms of masculinity typically attributed
to heterosexual men. These are masculinities that “we know and trust” that “depend on
the subordination of alternative masculinities” (Ibid.). However, Halberstam argues
“heroic masculinities” are in fact produced by both male and female bodies (2). Many
studies of dominant masculinities, Halberstam claims, center their attention on
masculinities of white, middle-class male bodies. By identifying the sites where
masculinities no longer occur through the male body, but instead are performed through
the female body, Halberstam demonstrates how the construction of masculine gender
identity then becomes more apparent, and argues “the shapes and forms of modern
masculinity are best showcased within female masculinity” (2-3). Halberstam’s project is
to detach masculinity from maleness; however, I have found that her analysis of drag
kings can be applied to Dr. Venture’s performance of masculinity, as well.
How does the theory of female masculinity work within the Venture Bros. text?
The series relies on deconstructing and subverting tropes of hegemonic masculinity, as
evidenced through the parody of 1980s action films through the body of Brock Samson.
As gender is constructed through social relationships, Dr. Venture’s body is consistent
with Connell’s subordinated masculinity, under which female masculinity could be
included. Dr. Venture flaunts his gadgets, which range from weaponry to highly
advanced transportation, as a measure of his manhood. As I mentioned previously, his
identity relies heavily on the use of these objects in place of actual physical strength. As I
will discuss below, Dr. Venture also performs his masculinity through dress.
King Comedies and Vulnerable Masculinity
Halberstam’s work on drag king culture and “king comedies” highlights how
common modes of masculinity are deconstructed within drag culture. King comedies, a
term used by Halberstam in reference to such notable features as Austin Powers:
International Man of Mystery and The Full Monty, use the frailty of male bodies as a
comedic device. Whereas the action genre exploits the strength of a dominant male body,
king comedies exploit the vulnerable male body at the expense of the protagonist. In
doing so, “king comedies also capitalize on the humor that comes from revealing the
derivative nature of dominant masculinities, and so they tread heavily in the tropes of
doubling, disguise, and impersonation” (2001: 426). Unlike camp, which Halberstam
describes as “[reading] dominant culture at a slant and [mimicking] dominant forms of
femininity in order to produce and ratify alternative drag femininities that revel in irony,
sarcasm, inversion, and insult” (428), king comedies take this approach in a different
direction. By using strategies found in drag king performances, king comedies
complicates the masculinity of the male characters by addressing the constructed nature
of gender. “[K]inging reads dominant masculinity and explodes its effects through
exaggeration, parody, and earnest mimicry” (ibid). Halberstam also delineates three
strategies employed by drag kings that are also present in king comedies: deauthentication,
masculine supplementarity, and indexical representation (428-433).
The first strategy, de-authentication, constantly challenges the viewers perception
of “authentic” masculinity in the provided text. While an image may include dominant
tropes of masculinity (in the photo Halberstam analyzes, the drag-king performance
includes a sports jersey and flexing), it may also contain opposing images that negate the
elements that assert such a dominant masculinity, such as the presence of breasts under
the sports jersey.
Second, the strategy of masculine supplementarity couples the drag king with a
drag queen or “bio-woman” (428). In the case described by Halberstam, the two bodies
of the drag king and bio-woman stand in contrast to each other. The woman’s breasts
emphasize that she is, in fact, a woman, thereby highlighting the drag king’s masculinity.
However, in this specific case study, the bio-woman’s larger size compared to the drag
king’s “allows for a non-male reading” of the masculinized subject (ibid). Citing Austin
Powers, Halberstam elaborates on the juxtaposed bodies of the lead characters: “[Austin
Powers] anxiously announces and emphasizes his masculinity even as [Vanessa
Kensington] towers over him and makes visible his masculine lack” (429). The
contrasting coupling involved in masculine supplementarity draws attention to the
performative aspects of masculinity.
Finally, indexical representation, the moment of representation when “the naked
body of the male is both on display and under construction, is often employed to obscure
the gender of a drag king while still suggesting a phallic and reading of the body” (433).
Halberstam illustrates this point with the famous scene in Austin Powers where the titular
character is shown walking around a hotel room in the nude. For comedic effect, objects
in the room strategically cover (or enlarge) his genitals. In obscuring the genitals and
replacing with a prosthetic on the naked male (or king) body, indexing can be used to
“[suggest] that masculinity and indeed maleness are no less constructed on the body than
in the clothing” (433). Whereas masculine supplementarity focuses on a relational
performance of masculinity, indexical representation refers to the construction of the
masculine body, another mode of performance.
Using this framework, I will focus on aspects of The Venture Bros. that can be
classified under the king comedy category. How are modes of masculinity performed and
complicated through the characters of Dr. Venture and Dr. Girlfriend?
Halberstam’s analysis of king comedies involves films that present an abject
English masculinity; however, I argue that Dr. Rusty Venture can be classified under the
category of subordinated masculinity as it relates to Halberstam’s study. Dr. Venture’s
masculinity is constructed in a manner consistent with Halberstam’s analysis of drag king
strategies and king comedies. The Venture Bros. is not necessarily a Halberstamian king
comedy, but the series touches on some of her key points. In king comedies, as
Halberstam asserts, the male protagonist, “[c]onfronted by the failure of the masculine
ideal, must accept the economic and emotional disappointment and learn to live with the
consequences of a shift of power that has subtly but completely removed him from the
center of the universe” (436). This is precisely the facet of the king comedy I wish to
explore in my analysis of Dr. Rusty Venture.
“Mid-Life Chrysalis” and Dr. Venture’s Masculine Drag
In episode eight of season one, “Mid-Life Chrysalis,” Dr. Venture is forced to
confront his lost masculinity, ultimately attempting to regain control of his failing body
and libido. Recovering from just being called “grandpa” by a federal agent, Dr. Venture
is evaluating his body in front of a full-length mirror lamenting the loss of any favorable
aesthetic qualities. “Crap, who am I kidding? My looks are going down the toilet faster
than an unwanted pregnancy on prom night.” Dr. Venture, despite the reality of his
professional situation, believes he is the best at what he does, but since everything he
owns is inherited from his father — including his scientific endeavors — none of his
achievements are his own. His life is built upon leftover privilege from the 1960s. Dr.
Venture is not only an economic failure, he is a failure of the masculine ideal. To combat
his admitted deterioration, Dr. Venture plans a night on the town, dons a vintage 1970s
plaid suit, a toupee, and shows up in the garage of the Venture compound mimicking
(poorly) the dominant masculinity of Brock Samson with a newly acquired muscle car. In
this specific episode, Dr. Venture employs the three strategies of drag king performance:
de-authentication, masculine supplementarity, and indexical representation.
In this instance, Dr. Venture dresses in drag to pass as an agent of ideal
masculinity. He constructs his masculinity through his wardrobe and with a prosthesis —
though, in this case, his prosthesis is a full head of hair. With his bodyguard, Brock, the
two head out to the bar, which also happens to be a strip club. “I’m driving,” Brock
declares as he takes the driver’s seat of the newly acquired muscle car. Brock still
maintains control even as Dr. Venture is asserting his youthful masculine agency. Brock
Samson’s actual body and his physical actions (seizing control of the car) undermine the
efforts by Dr. Venture to perform masculinity effectively in the series. Perhaps because
Brock is in control, he and Rusty end up at a rundown strip club — not an ideal setting
for anyone to meet a potential partner.
As the scene progresses, there is a woman sitting at the bar of the club with whom
Dr. Venture successfully flirts. Unbeknownst to him, she is Dr. Girlfriend (in disguise as
“Charlene”) sent by the Monarch presumably to kill Dr. Venture. Dr. Girlfriend, who will
be discussed more thoroughly later in this chapter, is dressed in a kimono-style dress with
chopsticks in her hair (her attempt at “exotic” sensuality, which could indeed be meant to
attract Dr. Venture more easily). His viewing of her body through the eyes of a colonizer
could possibly encourage his confidence further.
In the strip club, Dr. Venture is in deep denial of his inability to woo. While he is
strutting at the bar, he has to constantly adjust his clothing, his rings, oversized necklace,
and even his hair. His projected discomfort in this clothing, as well as the instability of
the toupee on his head, is examples of Halberstam’s strategy of de-authentication. The
suit, the wig, the car, and even Dr. Venture’s attempts at a more defined sexual agency
are signs of masculinity. However, the fact that he’s unable to maintain a consistent, or
even contemporary, construction of his own virile manhood destabilizes his appearance
as a truly masculine entity.
Further destabilization of Dr. Venture’s masculinity can be read through his
interaction with Dr. Girlfriend, or Charlene. During their flirtation at the bar, Dr. Venture
feels very in control of the situation, though the audience is shown the extent to which the
Monarch is actually in control of the situation while he is channeling commands through
Dr. Girlfriend’s earpiece. The illusion of control on Dr. Venture’s part reassures him that
his performance is convincing; however, the relationship between “Charlene” and Dr.
Venture relies on Halberstam’s strategy of masculine supplementarity. Since they are
both dressed in drag, their relationship is complicated, though “Charlene’s” femininity
reinforces Dr. Venture’s masculinity. Her modern geisha outfit contrasts with Dr.
Venture’s attempt at dominant white masculinity. However, “Charlene’s” deep, raspy,
male voice, as well as her sexual power, offsets their dynamic and further undermines Dr.
Venture’s heterosexual masculinity. Because she is following orders from The Monarch,
however, she responds to Dr. Venture’s passes and seems to affirm his masculinity.
In Dr. Venture’s bedroom, as “Charlene” and Dr. Venture are engaging in
foreplay, which amounts to little more than kissing, he is injected by Dr. Girlfriend with a
mystery serum and passes out. In the morning, “Charlene,” now as Dr. Girlfriend,
escapes through the window. Dr. Venture, under the assumption that he had sex, is
glowing and all but bragging to Brock and his sons, Hank and Dean, who are aloof and
indifferent to the concept of Dr. Venture’s existing sex life. Dr. Venture calls “Charlene,”
and, as he is depicted doing so, he is laying on his stomach in his bedroom, kicking his
feet behind him (a scene popular in movies, television shows, and in magazines featuring
teen girls). This depiction therefore allows for a feminine reading of Dr. Venture.
Unbeknownst to Dr. Venture, he had been injected by Dr. Girlfriend (as Charlene)
with a serum capable of transforming humans into caterpillars and, presumably,
butterflies (once the full metamorphosis takes place). Alone in his bedroom, Dr. Venture
screams, noticing that his body has shed its original skin. He is now a giant caterpillar;
though he still has his original face and glasses — a clever sight-gag that makes Dr.
Venture appear as though he’s wearing a large caterpillar suit with his glasses affixed
with tape. In this scene, the shedding of the skin represents Dr. Venture’s loss of identity,
highlighting the performativity of his gender. The revelation of the naked body provides
an example of indexing, or indexical representation. Dr. Venture’s shed body is covered
with a small black bar over the genitals, obscuring what may or may not be a penis. Dr.
Venture, unsure of his masculine agency, relies on the construction of his gender down to
his skin. While Dr. Venture is indeed coded as male with such signifiers as a goatee and
fatherhood, the hiding of his genitalia — as well as the illustration of a small (albeit
covered) penis on the shed body — questions, and even negates, the existence of male
sex organs.
The most prominently featured female character in The Venture Bros. is Dr.
Girlfriend. A key character in the previously discussed episode, “Mid-Life Chrysalis,”
Dr. Girlfriend stands second in command of the Monarch’s gang, The Fluttering Horde.
Appearing in a pink dress in the first two seasons, Dr. Girlfriend is a strong female
secondary character in an otherwise all-male universe. Even though she may be
subservient to The Monarch, Dr. Girlfriend is most definitely a prominent figure in his
operation, and it is demonstrated in the series that his cocoon would not be afloat without
Despite her position as a gendered minority in the Venture Bros. mythos, Dr.
Girlfriend stands out for various reasons. First, she is one of the few featured female
leads in the series. There are other recurring female characters (such as Molotov
Cocktease and Lady Hitler), and certainly plenty of female extras that are often scantily
clad and used as Brock Samson’s sex objects. And much like many of the recurring
female characters Dr. Girlfriend’s motivations are still tied to her male counterpart, The
Monarch. Her competence is shrouded by The Monarch’s inept narcissism, as he is
unable to give credit where credit is due. Dr. Girlfriend’s progression from a secondary
character to a featured lead by the end of the first season contributes to her importance in
the series.
Second, Dr. Girlfriend is hypersexualized. The bedroom scene is often featured in
Monarch/Dr. Girlfriend plotlines that proudly display’s her body in lingerie. This strategy
exaggerates Dr. Girlfriend’s female body in an effort to overcompensate for the lack of
female characters. In a world of mostly male characters, the primary female character is
shown perform her femininity in a manner similar to the men. What Connell calls
“emphasized femininity,” refers to the way in which a woman constructs her gender in
contrast to hegemonic masculinity that is “oriented to accommodating the interests and
desires of men” (1987: 183). Dr. Girlfriend’s hierarchical position beneath The
Monarch’s suggests her “compliance” in subordination to him, and the restriction of her
leadership to the private sphere (inside of the base as “mother” of the henchmen) is a
manifestation of emphasized femininity.
Third, and most apparent, is Dr. Girlfriend’s raspy, male voice. Voiced by cocreator
Doc Hammer, Dr. Girlfriend has a strong Brooklyn accent with hints of a twopack-a-day
smoking habit. This voice is undoubtedly male and works to negate Dr.
Girlfriend’s overwhelmingly feminized body. Throughout the series, Dr. Girlfriend’s
gender is called into question. Is she a man in drag or a transsexual? The season two
finale ended with a cliffhanger suggesting that, after their wedding, Dr. Girlfriend
confessed her bodily secrets to The Monarch. The viewer doesn’t hear the confession,
only the build up, and from outside of their escape ship, The Monarch exclaiming,
“What?!” Dr. Girlfriend’s complicated representation challenges the naturalness of
gender and highlights the performative aspects of her femininity.
Dr. Girlfriend’s Dress
The most popular image of Dr. Girlfriend consists of her costumed in her pink
dress. The pink dress assigns Dr. Girlfriend a certain commanding agency while
simultaneously gendering her feminine within the male ranks of the Fluttering Horde, as
they are known. She is second in command, but it is made very clear that she is certainly
running the show while The Monarch pursues his deluded obsession with the Venture
The pink dress is not Dr. Girlfriend’s only costume throughout the series. Due to a
shift of allegiances (and boyfriends) by the end of the first season, Dr. Girlfriend wears a
very revealing dress that showcases her nearly nude body. In an attempt to begin a career
as a solo villain, Dr. Girlfriend briefly became Lady Au Pair. Dressed in a fashion similar
to Mary Poppins, Lady Au Pair had two henchman known as the Murderous Moppets:
two little men dressed as Victorian children’s sailor outfits. Lady Au Pair was short-lived
due to the Guild of Calamitous Intent’s implicit unwillingness to take her seriously as a
main villain.
Dr. Girlfriend’s fourth, and final, outfit is thematically appropriate for her career
with the Monarch. After their marriage at the end of season two, Dr. Girlfriend became
Dr. Mrs. The Monarch (though, for the sake of clarity, she will remain Dr. Girlfriend
throughout this chapter as that is her most popular incarnation). This new outfit is a
leotard with wings that do not jut out like the Monarch’s or the henchman’s; instead, she
wears a cape and a crown.
Like most of the characters in the Venture universe, Dr. Girlfriend’s gender can
be read in various ways. The pink dress is important to the gendered performance of Dr.
Girlfriend for two potentially contradictory reasons. First, the dress can be seen as a
manifestation of Dr. Girlfriend’s performed femininity. Dr. Girlfriend engages in
masquerade to hide any hint of masculinity, with the exception of her voice. This “mask
of womanliness” guards Dr. Girlfriend from any potential “anxiety [or] retribution feared
from men” (Riviere 35). According to Joan Riviere (1929), after a woman’s “intellectual
performance,” the performance (or masquerade) of womanliness was apparent in
subsequent flirting with male colleagues “as an unconscious attempt to ward off the
anxiety which would ensure on account of the reprisals she anticipated” (37). In Dr.
Girlfriend’s case, the dress works to counteract any male intimidation that may result
from her leadership and competence, as well as to distract from her seemingly male
qualities, however, that does not seem to put questions of her gender to rest.
Dr. Girlfriend’s dress could also represent her true power as a key leadership
figure. Dr. Girlfriend’s dress is similar to “power suits” popularized in the 1980s. In
Working Girls (1998), Yvonne Tasker addresses how the evolution of wardrobe in the
1980s for working women “continue[d] to involve the negotiation of images and
ideologies of gender and class” (35). Increasing female visibility in the workplace led to
the development of a new image of the woman that conflated masculinity with the female
body, most commonly the short haircut and suit with shoulder pads. In this regard, Dr.
Girlfriend’s wardrobe can suggest a female masculinity that is commanded by the “power
suit.” Tasker’s analysis of the “New Woman” aligns the masquerade with a “lesbianism
which displaces the centrality of the male subject” (36). Her strict “put-togetherness”
juxtaposes her with the costumed tomfoolery and feminization of her spandex-clad male
Given this series, whose world is dominated by male representation to the point
that there are only a small handful of female characters, I entertain the idea of calling into
question the performative femininity of Dr. Venture and Dr. Girlfriend. While there is no
explicit example of a man in the series being questioned for his gender, Dr. Girlfriend’s
gender is consistently challenged. Considering this, it is no wonder that her choice in
wardrobe is so recognizably feminine. Like Dr. Venture, Dr. Girlfriend is illustrated with
symbols of femininity, such as her pink dress, to represent her femaleness more
explicitly. Her competence within the series threatens the established structures of
patriarchy, and the construction of her femininity despite accusations of masculinity, and
even maleness, stands in contrast to her voice.
Dr. Venture and Dr. Girlfriend exist in opposition to bodies like Brock Samson’s;
however, the ways in which they are constructed in the series work in direct relation to
hegemonic masculinity. Dr. Venture’s performance is consistent with Halberstam’s
analysis of “king comedies,” comedies that emphasize the corporeal vulnerability of the
adult man. Three strategies similar to drag king performance are employed while Dr.
Venture is shown attempting to give off a reading of being a strong, masculine man. Dr.
Girlfriend’s femininity is also constructed through dress. While in the series, her gender
is constantly the object of debate, and operating in a universe primarily made up of men,
it is no wonder there is doubt of her femaleness. To combat this, Dr. Girlfriend is
illustrated in a way that emphasizes her female body and femininity, even if her voice
isn’t consistent with that image. The construction of the respective gender identities of
Dr. Venture and Dr. Girlfriend are examples of how subordinated masculinity and
emphasized femininity are developed within a hegemonic structure. These constructions,
while working within hegemonic masculinity, are examples of the unfixed nature of
gender within the series. In the final chapter, I will analyze the ways in which the titular
brothers and Henchman 21 transition from subordinated masculinity to a hybridized
masculinity, combining nerdiness with strength and sexual agency.
Chapter 3
The Hybrid Masculinities of the Venture Brothers and Henchman 21
The Venture universe is a predominantly male space, as discussed in previous
chapters, so one’s navigation through the characters’ masculine identities is determined
by the existing symbols of masculinity present in their lives. The titular brothers, Hank
and Dean, appear to perform their masculinity as they are influenced respectively by their
father, Dr. Venture, and guardian, Brock Samson; Hank being more attached to the
strength and power of Brock, and Dean reluctantly follows in his father’s footsteps. The
brothers, as well as Henchman 21, who will also be discussed in this chapter, are shown
to derive influence from popular culture, drawing primarily from comic books, films, and
adventure books to construct their gender identities.
Hank and Henchman 21’s respective narrative arcs focus on their navigation from
post-adolescent masculinity to manhood, while Dean’s agency does not begin to develop
until the final episode of season four. With Hank and Dean, the journey from teen to man
varies between the two brothers. Each brother is paired with a different mentor: Dean is
under the direct guidance of his father, Dr. Venture, and Hank sees Brock Samson as a
surrogate father in some ways. Hank rejects Dr. Venture as a role model as Hank tends to
appropriate characteristics of Brock. Dean is less assertive than Hank and reluctantly
accepts his father’s guidance toward a career in super-science. Henchman 21, on the
other hand, spends the first season as a faceless character with very little agency. His
allegiances are inexplicably tied to the Monarch, and he is paired with a counterpart,
Henchman 24. The death of 24 at the end of the third season, however, liberates
Henchman 21, who then finds his identity, or at least begins working toward becoming
his true self: Gary.
The three characters I will be analyzing in this chapter — Hank and Dean
Venture, and Henchman 21— all possess identities that combine qualities of adolescent
masculinity (a type of subordinated masculinity) and hegemonic masculinity. Henchman
21 and Hank follow a similar path that combines the muscular, heroic masculinity of
Brock Samson with a masculinity rooted in late adolescence and fandom. Dean is given
less agency than Hank and Gary, and therefore can be categorized under adolescent
masculinity, characterized by his youth, passivity, and naïveté. Despite the different
categories the three fall under, they all work within the same male homosocial space.
There is very little female influence in the lives of these Venture Bros. characters, but
distinct lines are drawn between their male identities, and each character uses existing
constructions of masculinity to define his position in this patriarchal system. What role do
these three characters play in the series? How do they express and achieve adult
masculinity, if at all? Do these characters resolve the problematic representation of
hegemonic masculinity? Working within the confines of their gendered space, Hank,
Dean, and Henchman 21 simultaneously reinforce the traditional characteristics of
hegemonic masculinity while creating a hybridized masculinity that incorporates
characteristics of the marginalized nerd.
A key term in my analysis of Hank, Dean, and Henchman 21 is “masquerade”
(Butler 1990; Weltzien 2005). Masquerade (and drag) is a key component in how gender
is constructed in The Venture Bros. Hank Venture and Henchman 21 literally employ the
tactic of masculine masquerade to navigate their masculinity (in early seasons for
Henchman 21, and throughout the entire series for Hank). To streamline my analysis of
the construction of Hank, Dean, and Henchman 21’s respective masculinities, I will draw
from theories of gender that address the social construction of gender.
Judith Butler’s analysis of the “masquerade” provides profound insight to the
concept. Suggesting that masquerade is contradictory by nature, Butler adds, speaking of
female bodies specifically,
On the other hand, masquerade suggests that there is a “being” or ontological
specification of femininity prior to the masquerade, a feminine desire or demand
that is masked and capable of disclosure, that, indeed, might promise an eventual
disruption and displacement of the phallogocentric signifying economy. (63-4)
Gender, in the context of The Venture Bros., does function as a “play of appearances,” as
the male characters perform their masculinity using symbols in their daily lives and in
popular culture established as characteristically masculine. Butler adds:
If the “being,” the ontological specification of the Phallus, is masquerade, then it
would appear to reduce all being to a form of appearing, the appearance of being,
with the consequence that all gender is reducible to the play of appearances. (63)
Taking this point into consideration, I am interrogating how these concepts relate to the
younger male characters in The Venture Bros.. The development of Hank, Dean, and
Henchman 21 is particularly interesting in this regard because their bodies are not fixed
to their established youthful, masculine identities from the beginning of the series. Their
gender is based on appearance rather than biological assignment.
Early in their development, boys construct gendered bodies through their parents
and siblings (Connell, 1995: 147). Relationships and identities are learned through the
patriarchal hierarchies in the domestic sphere, and boys can perform their gender in ways
to resist “adults and established authority” (Ibid.). In The Venture Bros., this resistance is
demonstrated through Hank Venture who, in opposition to his father, acts out a general
idea of hypermasculinity by emulating what he sees in Brock Samson. Dean, however, is
not depicted in this manner, and is obedient to Dr. Venture even if he is unhappy with his
Frederich Weltzien, in his study of changing dress in the superhero genre (2005)
examines the importance of the wardrobe in the performance of masculinity. The most
common trope of the superhero genre is the apparent split personality of the hero between
the mild-mannered geek and the superhuman strongman. Referring to Superman,
Spiderman, and Batman, Weltzien indicates “[t]hese two identities — and there are only
two — are clearly different from each other, and the transformation from one to the other
is always indicated by the change of clothes” (232). This change of clothing is indicative
of a personality change “tied to specific abilities” that do not correspond with a normal,
day-to-day behavior (233); instead, this transformation heightens the abilities of the mildmannered
identity. The superhero genre, however, often provides the reader with a
character, with the exception of Batman, whose change is instigated by either a freak
accident (Spiderman) or otherworldly reaction to the Earth’s sun (Superman); rarely is
any physical work involved in creating a superhuman body.
While, according to Butler, gender performance creates social categories, and
West & Zimmerman argue that gender is performed based on social constructions, in the
superhero genre, the dialectic relationship of these masculine identities offers a different
reading altogether. Instead of constructing a social boundary between “male” and
“female,” the gender boundary exists within the “single male hero” (Weltzien 242). “The
power of definition is not based in the difference between the self and the other but
between two equitable and interchangeable identities” (Ibid.). In the case of Hank
Venture and Henchman 21, the two identities at stake are their true selves and “masked”
Hank and Dean, follow a common cartoon trope in early seasons: their physical
attributes remain the same episode to episode. They wear the same clothes, stay the same
age, show zero signs of personal maturity, and do not seem to be getting much smarter.
Traditionally, this is a common occurrence in animated texts; however, by the beginning
of season two, their fixed identities are explained with a very clever plot device that can
function as a refresh button of sorts. In the first season finale, “Return to Spider Skull
Island,” the Monarch’s henchmen, 21 and 24, accidentally murder Hank and Dean. The
scene, homage to Easy Rider (1969), explicitly shows the slain brothers’ corpses. To
resolve the death of the titular characters, the season two premiere reveals that the
brothers are, in fact, clones due to their proneness to dying. By the end of season three,
the brothers are allowed to grow after the entire flock of their clones die in the battle at
the season’s end.
With the clones dead, Hank and Dean are now able to grow and develop in their
final teenage years. An unprecedented move in the history of The Venture Bros., as well
as being rare within comics and cartoons, the creators are now able to develop the titular
characters further by moving away from the crutch of the clone plot device. It is unclear
how many times in the narrative the brothers were actually respawned, but that remains a
running gag in the series. Season four begins with the brothers’ new look: they are both
taller, Hank’s hair has grown out (it was kept closely cropped for the first three seasons),
and Dean is sporting a thin, teenager’s mustache. The difference of appearance of the two
brothers is significant because it demonstrates forward mobility not only for the show,
but also for the characters.
Dean Venture’s Passive Masculinity
Dean Venture is a figure of stunted growth. Though he displays physical growth
through his fourth-season height increase and the emergence of a thin, teenage mustache,
Dean does not demonstrate confidence in same way as Hank. Dean is timid and passive.
Unlike Hank, however, Dean demonstrates an interest in girls throughout the series. For
example, from the beginning of the series until the final moment of season four, Dean is
shown to have a paralyzing crush on his next-door neighbor, Triana Orpheus. Dean has
very little masculine agency, or he has yet to develop his own sense of agency. In contrast
to Hank, Dean is not rife with references to pop culture, he does not act on his impulses,
and he is often overcome with self-doubt. My analysis of Dean will focus on his position
in the series as the less masculine Venture brother. He does not embody the hybridized
masculinity that I find present in the characters of Hank and Henchman 21.
Often the butt of humiliating jokes of the writers of The Venture Bros., Dean is
regularly emasculated in the series, perhaps as a method of equating him as the heir to Dr.
Venture’s role in super-science. Similar to Rusty’s comparison to teenage girls mention
in the previous chapter, in “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean,” a reference to the Judy
Blume novel Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970) where a pre-teen girl
(Margaret) is in search of a single religion and deals with issues of the body (such as her
first period), Dean Venture develops a spontaneous case of testicular torsion. Testicular
torsion, as the show addresses in a post-credit public service announcement, is no
laughing matter, and it certainly was a point of embarrassment for Dean. To fight the
condition, Dean has to undergo surgery from his father’s college friends, Billy Quizboy
and Peter White. Dean, who must remove his pants and underwear in front of these
family friends, as well as shave the region has to undergo further humiliation and
emasculation by removing his freshly sprouted pubic hair. “Do you have to shave it? I
just grew those,” Dean laments. Any indication of puberty, and thus any signs of
manhood (hair, for instance) are removed or impaired (testicles). Post-surgery, Dean is on
display in his bandages, which are basically a large diaper. To add insult to injury, Triana
sees Dean in his emasculating recovery and asks “So, this is like the most embarrassing
moment of your life, right?”
Dean Venture is not quite as fortunate as Hank by season four. In fact, he does not
reach a point of true growth until the final moment of the season finale, in which he
exclaims, “Fuck you!” to his crush’s stepfather for telling him to move on to another girl.
Like Hank, Dean is extremely naïve when it comes to social interactions; but unlike
Hank, Dean seems unwilling to take the occasional risk. For instance, in the companion
episode to Hank’s romp through film noir, “Bright Lights, Dean City,” Dean takes a trip
to New York City to intern for Impossible Industries, a super-science corporation whose
building took the place of the old Venture Industries skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan.
For the entire episode, Dean is suffering from ennui due to not only his lack of interest in
the field, but also because of the duties that are expected of him. He is not working in a
lab; rather, he is fetching coffees and working reception. At this point, he is afraid to
assert himself and express how much he resents his position. This is where he and Hank
Hank Venture’s Journey into Manhood
Hank Venture always expressed a desire to be almost superhuman in the first
three seasons — much like his role model, Brock Samson — and in the latest season, he
is able to explore an adult masculine identity. Indeed, Hank Venture is poised as the more
masculine of the two Venture brothers. Unlike Dean, Hank performs his masculinity in a
very specific way: through the imitation of his role models Batman and Brock Samson. In
seasons one through three, whether he is going out on a date or on an adventure Hank
takes every opportunity he can get to don the cape and mask of the Dark Knight. To
Hank, Batman is the only figure more masculine than his real-life role model, Brock
Samson. When posing as Batman, Hank feels more confident, and in some instances
indestructible, as depicted in episode one of season two where a dark-knighted Hank
clone accidentally takes his own life by jumping off the roof with an umbrella.
Whether he is dressed as Batman, donning Brock’s bomber jacket, or sporting a
three-piece suit and fedora, Hank Venture expresses his masculinity through dress. How
this differs from his father, however, is that Hank’s masculine construction and
performance draws inspiration from much more achieved (muscular) bodies. In earlier
seasons, Hank wore the garb of the “Caped Crusader” because, to him, the only way to be
a man was by being a superhero, a symbol of seemingly impenetrable power.
What is different in this situation is that by the fourth season of the show, Hank
Venture, though he has not quite reached the point of physicality that Brock has, begins
the process that will lead him to a champion body. The masculinities of Dr. Venture and
Brock Samson, in this world, are quite fixed, as they present a uniform construction of
their masculinity within the series. However, Hank’s masculinity is more malleable and
remains a “work in progress.”
In “Victor. Echo. November,” Hank and Dean are set up on a double date with
their neighbor, Triana Orpheus (daughter of Dr. Orpheus, the necromancer) and her
friend, Kim. In the episode, titled “Victor. Echo. November,” the boys are shown in their
separate spaces — Hank in the bedroom, Dean in the bathroom — getting ready for their
dates. The shots of Hank are tight and the music is suspenseful as he dons a cape, boots,
and utility belt. Hank’s intense preparation is juxtaposed with Dean in his father’s
bathroom covering his entire face with shaving cream and using his father’s “Daisy,” a
pink, ladies’ razor. Upon discovery that Hank is, in fact, wearing a Batman costume,
Dean immediately informs Brock (not Dr. Venture). “What? You said put on your best
outfit!” Hank exclaims. In order to get Hank in a more presentable outfit, Brock
threatens him with letting Dean drive the Charger, his muscle car. Hank responds by
dressing up as quickly as he can.
Hank uses the Batman costume to express his desire to be a superior masculine
agent in numerous episodes, but he also draws influence from other sources to express his
manhood. In “Mid-Life Chrysalis,” Hank helps Brock Samson train for an evaluation
with the Office of Secret Intelligence. At the beginning of the episode, Brock’s “license
to kill” is revealed to have expired. This revelation leads Brock down a path of
depression that only regaining the ability to (legally) kill will remedy. To help him train
for his examination for his license renewal, Hank adopts a trainer persona similar to
Mickey from the Rocky (1976) franchise as well as Sergeant Foley from An Officer and a
Gentleman (1982). Appropriating the training styles of Mickey and Sgt. Foley, Hank
helps Brock to train hard in treacherous conditions using insults as motivators. It is
apparent in this sequence, which employs the famous training montage technique
featured in the Rocky films, that Brock is humoring Hank, whose help has very little
impact on the difficulty of the workouts. While Brock is performing pushups in the mud,
Hank, with his foot on Brock’s back, yells, “You’re nothing! You’re weak! Why do you
even want to be a secret agent, boy?! You think you’re good enough?!” Annoyed, Brock
looks up at Hank and softly threatens, “Hank, seriously, when I get my license back I’m
allowed to kill you.” Hank promptly removes his foot from Brock’s back and apologizes.
The trainer is simply another intertextual persona appropriated by Hank to assert a sense
of masculinity that is beyond his physical capabilities.
Hank takes his most apparent step into manhood during the season four episode, “
Everybody Comes to Hank’s,’’ a direct homage to Casablanca.
5 In this episode, Hank is
pressured by his father to get a job since the brothers have completed their schooling. So
Hank starts his own business: HankCo. HankCo (which was featured in a season one
episode as a sandwich stand) is a makeshift shopping center in his family’s abandoned
garage that includes a general store (though the entire stock is made up of stolen
household items), notary, and detective agency. The detective agency sets up the plot of
the episode, which is a mystery in the style of film noir.
What is interesting about Hank’s masculine pursuit is that, in this episode, he
straddles the line between masculinity similar to Brock’s and his original adolescent
masculinity. By donning the fedora, or “detective’s hat,” Hank masquerades an entirely
new person, speaking like a character out of a Dashiell Hammett story. Throughout the
series, Hank makes references to his knowledge of classic noir through speech,6 so it is
no surprise that he actually embodies a 1930s gumshoe in his pursuit of adult
masculinity. This performance runs parallel to the wardrobe changes seen in superhero
comics. Wardrobe is used to illustrate the change from Teenage-Hank to Detective Hank.
Teenage-Hank is unsure of how to navigate in a world of men, and how to talk to women,
5 Casablanca is a film based on the play titled Everybody Comes to Rick’s. 6 In episode twelve of season one, referring to the professionalism of a group of assassins, Hank remarks,
“And they kill clean. Don’t let dames get in the way.” Of course, his remark is immediately shot down by
Brock Samson, who responds, “Honestly, Hank, where do you pick that stuff up? I never see you read.” It
is never explained where he picked up this speech; although, Hank makes many references to contemporary
cinema throughout the series.
but the act of wearing the hat gives Hank a new persona and tangible sense of masculine
agency, just as the Batman costume did in earlier episodes. In this case, “[t]he mechanism
of masculinity […] rests on this double origin signified in different costumes: the clumsy
nerd on one side, the exceptional hero on the other, and the ability to change between
both identities at will” (Weltzien 232). Although Hank does not possess superpowers, he
appears aware of the spike in masculine agency the hat gives him, and is able to jump in
and out of each role. This method of masquerade is used to construct his masculinity, but
the events of the episode allow Hank to move away from the practice in subsequent
A key moment in “Everybody Comes to Hank’s” occurs when Hank, as the
detective, loses his virginity after a sexual rendezvous with Nikki, Dermot’s alleged sister
(and secret biological mother). His masquerade results in Hank gaining sexual agency,
and therefore is one step closer to Brock Samson, the archetypal alpha-male. And even
though Hank does not possess the champion body like Brock, he is able to negotiate
adolescence and manhood through his masquerade. Hank’s lost virginity becomes a
moment when Hank first discovers his body (Connell 60). Connell suggests that the
practice of (hetero)sexual intercourse is a practice of “social conduct” that further
highlights bodily difference between men and women. With this discovery, then, Hank
can release himself from the practice of masquerade as he now understands himself as
A similar example of the “masculine journey” can be seen in the narrative arc of
the Monarch’s henchman, Henchman 21. Also referred to as Gary, 21 was introduced in
season one as a post-adolescent nerd who presumably still lived in his mother’s basement
and possessed the common traits of a stereotypical comic book fanboy. Gary is rotund
and constantly makes references to popular science fiction franchises, most notably Star
Wars. Throughout his narrative arc, 21 is shown to use his knowledge as a key
component of his masculine identity where “variable relations between knowledge and
mastery help to generate the range of masculine identity formations which circulate
within popular culture” (Straw 7). Indeed, 21 “wears” his knowledge and mastery of
these popular subjects in many episodes, often as non-sequitur humor. For instance, in
“Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean,” 21 and 24 are passionately debating whether or
not the Smurfs are mammals or a “species that lays eggs.” In the following episode,
Henchman 21 becomes a more featured character, as opposed to a background extra.
“Tag Sale, You’re It!” is an important episode for Henchman 21 because it is the
first time he confronts Brock Samson. Set at a tag sale (a New England term for yard sale
or garage sale) at the Venture compound, with many of the Guild’s most nefarious
members (and villains of the Venture family) in attendance, Monarch’s henchmen are
browsing a number of Dr. Venture’s scrap inventions and gadgetry. At one of the
merchandise tables, Henchman 21 finds a working lightsaber, similar to the Jedi’s
weapon of choice in the Star Wars franchise. The novelty of the find immediately causes
Henchman 21 to purchase the weapon on impulse. Instead of accepting a bag, 21 attaches
the lightsaber to his belt and wears it as an accessory. Due to the inclusion of the worst
villains in the Venture universe, the tag sale ultimately goes awry, and a riot ensues. In
the midst of this, Henchman 21 runs into Brock Samson. “Brock Samson, at last we
meet,” Henchman 21 calmly declares in a fashion similar to the showdown between
Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). “Umm, do I know
you?” Brock asks, acknowledging the anonymity of Henchman 21, who at this point is
clumsily dancing around with the lightsaber. Once 21 finally reaches Brock and takes a
swing at him, he realizes the lightsaber is simply a replica. This moment is laughable to
Brock, who leans in and says, “Boo,” lightly causing Henchman 21 and 24 to run for
their lives. The performance of masculinity through his knowledge of popular American
texts, such as Star Wars, clearly marks Henchman 21 as a “nerd,” as his mastery of
subjects in the comic and science fiction realm “are of little use in navigating the terrains
of social intercourse” (8), and the fighting skills he acquired by passively consuming
popular cinematic texts certainly are of no help in the field.
The initial face-off with Brock is a significant moment because of the physical arc
21 will follow by season four. Between the bookend seasons, one and four, Henchman 21
is tied to 24. The two are rarely apart, and their rapport provides ample pop references
with comedic value. At the end of season three, in the same episode the Venture clones
are eviscerated, Henchman 24 is killed in a freak explosion. The creators of the show are
not afraid to shift character dynamics, and the loss of 24 provides the opportunity to
further develop Henchman 21.
Before he lost his best friend, Henchman 21 was faceless, nameless, and a “softbody.”
When he is reintroduced in the fourth season, Henchman 21 has undergone
considerable training. His body is larger, though still chubby, and he is far more muscular
than in previous seasons. The larger body is a more realistic strong body, with more
“functional” muscles rather than vanity muscles, which is to suggest he does not possess
the body of a professional bodybuilder, but rather that of a strongman.
By the fourth season, 21 is able to challenge Brock to a rematch since he has
undergone considerable training since their last physical confrontation in “Tag Sale!
You’re It!” This scene occurs in the second act of the season four episode “Pinstripes and
Poltergeists.” Composed and scripted similarly to their first meeting in “Tag Sale,” a
more muscular and confident 21 approaches Brock on the lawn of the Venture
compound. “This is like Christmas, my first BMX bike, and meeting the cast of Firefly
all in one!” 21 asserts after throwing the first successful punch that draws blood from
Brock’s lip. “Ah, very nice. Somebody’s been training,” Brock responds to the punch
with a paternal satisfaction. Henchman 21’s equating of this fight with two of his favorite
childhood memories, as well as meeting the cast of a Joss Whedon series with a strong
cult following, exemplifies his almost childish disposition while still competently
challenging the alpha-male of the series in hand-to-hand combat.
Hank, Dean, and Henchman 21 are important to this study because they lend
themselves to readings of hybrid masculinity. Although Dean does not begin to develop a
stronger masculine identity until the final moment of the season four finale, he is on a
similar trajectory as Hank and 21 with regards to personal growth. Functioning in a space
where characteristics of masculinity are defined in relation to each other, Hank and 21
rely on masquerade jumpstart their respective paths to adult manliness. Where the two
differ, however, is in their age. Henchman 21 is navigating through adulthood and able to
achieve masculinity comparable to the hegemonic norm (Brock Samson). Hank, on the
other hand, is navigating through his final teen years where he is still mimicking his
closest role model (also Brock) and symbols of masculinity that can be found in popular
comic books (Batman) and film (the noir detective). Both characters also operate in a
liminal space between their true selves and their ideal selves: the teenager and the hero
for Hank, and the nerd and the strongman for Henchman 21. Hank, Dean, and 21 are
significant to the subversion of hegemonic masculinity because elements of subordinated
masculinities are used in constructing their masculine identities.
Adult Swim’s current lineup contains many texts that are worthy of analysis in the
field of gender studies. To me, however, The Venture Bros. contains the largest variety of
elements from which to choose and study. The Venture Bros., as I have addressed
throughout this project, occurs inside of a very male universe with very little female
influence. Although this is not a characteristic exclusive to the series, what piqued my
interest was how the creators, Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick, nuance their characters
and complicate representations of hegemonic masculinity present in texts throughout
American film and television.
During the research process, I noticed very little has been written by scholars
about American televised animation — especially Adult Swim programming — and it is
the intent of this project to contribute to the growing scholarship on masculinity and
television studies. As the popularity of animated programming for adults continues to
increase, the importance for the analysis of these programs also grows. What is important
to highlight about this project is the contribution my scholarship makes to the fields of
Gender Studies, Cartoon Studies, and Television Studies.
First, Gender Studies is the primary field from which I frame my arguments about
the representations and performances of gender in The Venture Bros. This project
contributes to the field by addressing how the series functions within the socially
constructed parameters of gender, then works as a subversive text via the many
complicated representations of gendered bodies present throughout the series. More
important, using theories of gendered performance to study the construction of
masculinities in The Venture Bros. is beneficial to interrogating overwhelming patriarchal
symbols and structures in film and television. I contend that The Venture Bros. is
beneficial to a critical reading of hegemonic masculinity because of the way in which the
creators interrogate the construction of gender through their characters, thereby
contributing significantly to the field of Masculinity Studies.
The field of Cartoon Studies is still very small, but, as I demonstrate in this
project, animated texts are ripe for analysis. What is particularly interesting about
studying animated texts, especially with regards to the human body, is how the
constraints of science and reality do not apply to the representation and fictional lives of
the characters. Although the characters are written with agency in The Venture Bros.,
their animated nature complicates that since there are no actors who physically perform
in cartoons and cannot inform potential readings of the characters beyond their voices.
The physical actions of cartoon characters are at the disposal of the writers and
animators. Perhaps something similar could be said about characters in any fiction text;
however, animation provides an environment with limitless possibilities. The resources
available to producers of television and film limit how much of the human imagination
can be manifested on screen in live action texts. Animation makes it possible to
circumvent these limitations. As I discussed in Chapter One, Brock Samson’s
exaggerated strength can be attributed to the lack of physical boundaries in an animated
context. Unlike live-action, which requires the use of stunt doubles and creative editing to
simulate action and strength, Brock (and other characters) can be depicted in full frame,
as well as in a single shot, performing feats of strength and agility. Additionally, The
Venture Bros. contains many battle set-pieces that would not be financially feasible in a
live-action series with a comparably low budget.
Finally, studying The Venture Bros. is important to the field of Television Studies,
as well as Cartoon Studies. Primetime animation, though popular in the 1960s at the time
of The Flintstones, had mostly been relegated to Saturday mornings, with some afternoon
programming to sate children when they got home from school. Since 1990, with the
popularity of The Simpsons, prime-time animation has become a ubiquitous source of
entertainment for adults. Additionally, television has been in homes for well over half a
century, and, if we are to consider animated texts since The Simpsons worthy of
scholarship, considerably less scholarship exists compared to a field as established as
Film Studies, for instance. It is my hope that this thesis helps to open the doors of
Cartoon Studies, especially when many important animated texts, such as Metalocalypse,
Robot Chicken, and Boondocks, are being aired on the Adult Swim Network.
While this thesis contributes to the fields of Gender Studies, Masculinity Studies,
Cartoon Studies, and Television Studies, The Venture Bros. presents the opportunity to be
analyzed through other various discursive lenses. In the following section, I will outline
some potential areas of study that could not be covered in this thesis due to such reasons
as time and thematic scope.
Over the course of this project, I grappled with narrowing my thematic focus on
The Venture Bros. When I was in the proposal stage, I attempted to pursue too many
avenues that could have easily branched off into three chapters all their own. Due to time
restrictions and the requirements of a thesis, I chose to narrow my focus to a single
theme: masculine performance. Below, I will address themes I was not able to address in
this project, and encourage scholars to draw upon these ideas and participate in the
Venture Bros. scholarship.
An obstacle I faced over the course of this project was including critical race
theory in my analysis of The Venture Bros. Just as the series is very male, it is also very
white. While I presuppose that hegemonic masculinity contains an inherent whiteness, I
do not elaborate on how race is a component of the series. While there is definitely plenty
to consider with regards to race and class, for the purposes of this thesis, masculinity and
gender construction were a more ideal area of focus. Of the characters I analyze, Brock
Samson is the only character that is position in direct opposition to bodies of color. Hank,
Dean, Dr. Venture, and Dr. Girlfriend only encounter racial otherness peripherally.
All of the masculinities explored in this series are, in fact, white masculinities.
The series offers very little in terms of black , Latino, Arab, or Asian masculinity. While
there are a number of ethnically ambiguous characters — such as the Alchemist, who
appears to be a modernized version of a medieval monk — there are only two featured
black, male characters; however, there are a number of voiceless black extras in the
background in many episodes. The most featured black character in The Venture Bros. is
Jefferson Twilight, the Blacula hunter. Jefferson Twilight is a conflation of the lead
character of the famous blaxploitation film, Shaft, with the kitana-wielding vampire
hunter, Blade. Removed from Twilight’s character, however, is the defining characteristic
of blaxploitation cinema of the 1970s: heavy political subtext. Blaxploitation films were
intended to address “Hollywood’s insistence on stunting the development of a black
political voice and emancipated consciousness” (Guerrero qtd. in Henry 115); however,
Jefferson Twilight’s character functions outside of that framework, and political
blackness is not present. One scene in particular explores Twilight’s exhaustion with
more “politically correct” descriptors of blackness. While he is interviewing arch-villain
candidates with the Alchemist and Dr. Orpheus (the tenant in the backyard apartment of
the Venture compound, and necromancer), the candidate questions the nature of
Twilight’s occupation:
JEFFERSON TWILIGHT: Yes, I only hunt blaculas.
GUILD CANDIDATE: Oh, so you only hunt African-American
JT: No, sometimes I hunt British vampires. They don’t have “AfricanAmericans”
in England!
GC: Oh yeah, huh. Good point.
JT: So I hunt blaculas
GF: I was just trying to be —
JT: Man, I specialize in hunting black vampires. I don’t know what the
P.C. name for that is!
Jefferson Twilight possibly represents the failure of the concept of post-racism,
the notion that “America [has] essentially contained the evil of racism to the point at
which [is] no longer a serious barrier to black advancement” (Steele). Would a character
true to the politics of the blaxploitation genre be welcome in the world of The Venture
Bros.? With the exception of his “blood-eye,” which helps him identify blaculas in
hiding, compared to his two counterparts, Jefferson Twilight is powerless and often the
odd man out when fighting otherworldly demons in parallel dimensions. Just as maleness
is naturalized in The Venture Bros., so is whiteness, and in this case the most featured
black character possesses less agency than his white teammates. This is only one example
of how blackness operates in The Venture Bros., but there are plenty of opportunities to
address the racial dynamics of the series.
In future scholarship of The Venture Bros., as well as other programs with similar
themes of action, adventure, and masculinity, a postcolonial approach could be used to
analyze how temporality is used in the series. For instance, anachronistic space, a concept
popularized in the mid-1990s, which refers to geographies without histories inhabited by
the colonized other, can be found in the first episode of The Venture Bros., for example,
in the Tijuana garage scene discussed in Chapter One (McClintock 1995). Often, a white
hero is placed against a timeless backdrop, such as Rambo in the jungle, and his power is
demonstrated through the juxtaposition of his body from the bodies of “natives” (Dyer
1997). This occurs in The Venture Bros. frequently. The use of a colonial backdrop in
The Venture Bros. parodies these action texts. Dyer studies and conflates the colonial
backdrop with the use of anachronistic space, and in the Jonny Quest series foreign
spaces are depicted as uncivilized. Depictions of otherness in The Venture Bros.,
however, often deviate from the postcolonial template presented in texts such as Jonny
Quest. Frequently, when otherness is depicted against Brock or the Venture family, the
family is being held hostage or terrorized by indigenous men, which is typical of previous
representations. What is interesting about the representations of otherness in these
instances is the indigenous men are revealed to either speak fluent English (in American
accents) or have more agency than indigenous characters in older series are given.
In “Escape to the House of the Mummies part 2,” Dr. Venture and Brock are
shown in a seemingly clever ploy to rescue Hank and Dean from an Egyptian-style cult.
In this scene, the shirtless cult members, wearing headdresses akin to popular depictions
of ancient Egyptian soldiers and shot from the waist up, are holding Hank and Dean in
captivity. Dr. Venture and Brock are disguised as a god in a fashion that directly
references The Princess Bride (1987): Dr. Venture atop Brock’s shoulders cloaked in a
large robe so as to appear giant. “I command you to release them! Drop to your knees you
ignorant savages!” Dr. Venture begins to wave a flashlight as he declares to the captors,
“I am your giant, four-armed god. And I make light from one of my two slightly smaller
hands!” As Dr. Venture laughs maniacally, one of the captors replies, “It’s just a
flashlight. Kill them!” This moment suggests that the captors are neither ignorant nor
“savage,” while the American accent implies the captors share nationality with the
Venture family and the location may, in fact, be in the United States.
“Dr. Quymm, Medicine Woman,” begins more typically, but reveals the agency
of the indigenous people of the Amazon in the post-credit stinger. The “headhunters” are
chasing Dr. Venture with their spears held high. The doctor, holding what appears to be a
gold idol, is knocked out by the headhunters’ blow darts. Dr. Venture is saved by the
titular Dr. Quymm and recovers in her camp. Throughout the episode, in what appears to
be a plot that combines elements of Scooby-Doo and Jonny Quest, Hank and Dean are
trying to solve a mystery of a “wereodile,” a portmanteau word combining “werewolf”
and “crocodile.” The wereodile is said by one of the tribesmen to be haunting the Venture
family because Dr. Venture stole the tribe’s idol. Even though Hank and Dean never
actually solve the mystery of the wereodile, its origins are revealed at the end of the
episode. Two tribesmen wearing wereodile costumes are shown in their hut, furnished
with mid-century couches, a lamp, and a large, flatscreen television. “I thought those
fucking people would never leave. Where the hell were you?” one tribesman says to the
other while removing his mask. This scene reveals the tribesmen, while still a
problematic portrayal of otherness through their trickery and gibberish language, have a
well-established Western and consumption-oriented culture.
The postmodern elements of The Venture Bros. can provide plenty of content for
an entirely different thesis. As I mentioned in previous sections, the series is an abundant
source of U.S. pop culture references. In the comments sections of The AV Club’s
episode reviews of The Venture Bros., much time is spent simply identifying each
reference, an interesting fan-developed game that the creators of the series welcome. The
postmodern excess of The Venture Bros. is rooted in the series’ self-aware intertextuality.
The series’ references to figures from science fiction, comic books, and even popular
music create a world where all of these characters co-exist. Creator Jackson Publick asks
in a 2007 interview, “…Batman and James Bond, so why wouldn’t they be friends?”
(Weigel). Dr. Venture was in college in the 1970s; of course, it makes sense that he has a
strong love for progressive rock. Brock Samson is a well-established secret agent, so it
makes sense he would have trained and fought alongside Race Bannon (Jonny Quest’s
Another area of potential study of The Venture Bros. is of the series’ fans. The
series’ positive reception has garnered a cult following, and spurred a culture devoted to
the creators of the series. What is most important in the positive reception of the series is
how much of a personal endeavor it is for Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick. Hammer
and Publick are regular fixtures at popular conventions across the country, such as the
San Diego ComicCon, Atlanta’s DragonCon, and the New York ComicCon, where they
participate in question and answer forums with devoted fans, most of whom are
committed to Venture cosplay, an act of fandom where fans attend conventions
elaborately dressed as their favorite characters (Ohanesian 2010).
Hammer and Publick appear on convention panels to speak solely to fans, a
population they value because the series lacks any kind of traditional promotion or
marketing. The creators take a very DIY approach to updating fans about the progress of
production via their personal blogs, but the fans themselves handle substantial promotion.
Most of the news of the show spreads through fan-curated websites (Ibid.). The most
prominent fansites devoted to the series are The Venture Bros. Blog and The Mantis-Eye
Experiment, which function as typical newsblogs, only centered on all things Venture.
What I find particularly interesting, despite all of Adult Swim’s efforts to capture
the male 18 to 49 demographic, are the female-run Venture Bros. critique sites. For
example, Very Venture Vodcast is formatted like a video blog, recapping each episode.
Each young woman provides insight into the narrative of the episode, and each vodcast is
accompanied by a blog entry. Another female-run fansite is Go VentuRadio! GVR is
similar to the VVV, but this female blogging/vlogging duo focus more time on their video
reviews. The final example of a female-run fansite is Hench 4 Life, a weekly podcast
where two female fans provide insight to each episode.
While their show operates in a predominantly male universe, the creators of The
Venture Bros. have created a text that speaks to a generation of both male and female
viewers. Masculine performance in The Venture Bros. may operate on a level consistent
with dominant elements of hegemonic masculinity; however, the interrogation of
hegemonic and hybrid masculinities in the series can be seen to appeal to a wider
audience, resulting in the creation of a following that surpasses the limitations of
advertisers; in other words, not just men between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine. The
Venture Bros. has inspired a generation of writers and female producers, and despite the
boys’ club nature of the Venture universe, the series is able to positively affect viewers
across socially constructed gender lines, reinforcing the idea that the series is not just for
PM me.
@Rigmarole Mice have many children in this universe, but that is actually because everyone practices an adorable mouse version of Catholicism. Assume human family sizes.
@GodOfWar Accepted! Feel free to begin part two.
@Chicken Doubling characters is up to you. Assignments will vary on characters, but for now, assume everybody will be in the same fort. Also, Skye is accepted.
@Tangletail Responded to you in PMs, let me know when you make the needed changes.
@Rigmarole Accepted! I appreciate the lengths Galan thinks about the deeper ideas at play, and that his views aren't entirely black and white.
@Superboy There is no cap on levels, but I'm just sort of eyeballing the stats as a reference. I never liked deciding on fights with power levels and things like that. Five is acceptable, seven is good, ten is great. Having a fifteen in one stat would imply exceptional skill, twenty would be so good at something I'd probably ask for it to be bumped down.
@Dusty That depends on if you have already been accepted or not.
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