S.L. Huang: On The Subject Of Manpain

S.L. Huang is one of those authors who, if she ever wants to pull up blog space here at terribleminds, she’s welcome to with nary the blinky-wink of an eye. Her posts prior — one about defending big boomy popcorn fiction and another about unlikable women protagonists — are just so damn good. This one is no different. Behold: manpain.

* * *

Watch out, feminism incoming.

There’s a fan term called “manpain” that fascinates me. It refers to the phenomenon of a media property that excessively and self-centeredly focuses on a male character’s angst after tragic events happen to the people around him. As the linked Fanlore definition says,

“I’m a dude, this is my pain, this is the REASON FOR ALL MY DOUCHITUDE, BEHOLD MY EPICNESS AND DESPAIR … sometimes it leads to sitting in the dark, brooding.”

(Or just think of any scene in which a stoic Manly Man gazes into the distance as a single crystalline tear slides gently from his eye.)

When this trope is in effect, The Man’s pain is the one we are focused on, as readers/viewers, and meant to sympathize with. If his family is murdered, if his girlfriend is turned into a vampire — it is still his pain we are shown, his drama that is the important fallout.

There’s an even more disturbing subset of manpain that starts to set itself apart after you see it enough times. It’s the “Man Is ‘Forced’ To Make A Horrible Choice That Hurts Someone He Loves Just To Wring Angst For His Own Emotional Journey” trope.  For instance: Tyrion is “forced” to rape Tysha, and we see how  tragically that affects him. The Doctor is “forced” to ravage Donna’s memories to save her life, and we focus on how sad and despairing that is for him.

I have a love-hate relationship with this trope, because I have to confess that a character being “forced” to do something awful can, when well-executed, be one of my all-time favorite means of deliciously wrenching emotion. But there’s no denying the troubling trend that we so often see men being “forced” to do horrible things to women, and afterward, the woman disappears and we focus on the pain of the man. His pain. The pain he has because he did something horrible to HER.

And she’s gone from the narrative.

There’s something so very fucked-up about that.

To be sure, some of the gender imbalance here probably comes from there being a gender imbalance in protagonists — we’re naturally focused on the protagonist, and the protagonist is disproportionately a man. But even when a woman has to make a horrible choice and do a terrible thing, it tends to be framed differently. See when Buffy had to kill a re-ensouled Angel at the end of Season 2 — we don’t get to sympathize with her single stoic tear over swelling orchestral music as she stands in the rain, tragic and romantic and remade. Instead, she’s severely depressed, her friends turn against her, and instead of striding off into the distance in a swirling long coat to be a lone dark knight, she has to come back and try to fit herself back into her old life — where her friends immediately start yelling at her about having their own problems.

Oh, yeah, and Angel comes back. And gets better. And gets his own TV show where he is the definition of manpain and can brood into next century with all the focus on his angst forever.

I’m still waiting for Tysha and Donna to get their own shows.

In Plastic Smile, the fourth book of my Russell’s Attic series, I set out with one of the subplots to do something very aware and very specific: to take a typical Manpain scenario and tell it from the opposite point of view (and hereafter will be some spoilers for the book). Cas, my main character, meets someone from her past who did something horrible to her — because, as he sees it, he had to; it killed him to hurt her but he had to; the guilt has eaten him up forever but he had to; yadda yadda etcetera MANPAIN.  If this book were told from a different perspective, that same male character would be the Epic SF Hero Filled With Angst, brooding in the dark as we feel his moral anguish, and Cas would be a distant, grievous memory.

Instead, she punches him in the face.

It’s interesting, the responses I’ve gotten on this character and this scene. Male readers have tended to be neutral on the arc and the character or even view him as weak. Whereas female readers have almost universally come back with, “OMG I HATE HIM SO MUCH YEAH CAS PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE PUNCH HIM AGAIN!!!”

Of course, a few first readers on one book aren’t enough to draw empirical conclusions. But what I can say is this: it’s a pervasive trope, and at least some of us are really dang tired of seeing men given sympathy for the awful things done to women.

It ain’t your pain, dude. It’s ours.

SL Huang majored in math at MIT and now uses it to write eccentric superhero novels. The box set of the first three Russell’s Attic books is on sale for 99 cents through July 11, and the fourth book is available now. Online home: http://www.slhuang.com and @sl_huang on Twitter.

54 responses to “S.L. Huang: On The Subject Of Manpain”

  1. Oh yes….. I remember Thomas Covenant who rapes a woman in book one and then spends the whole of the six book series agonising about it…… What a really good point. As a woman, I think I would react just as your other female readers have done: “I don’t care about your angst, f****r; here, have a knuckle sandwich!” Thank you for the blog and making me think. Um – and realise that my current hero is doing the whole manpain thing about his past – oops! Maybe I’ll have my practical and pragmatic heroine tell him to just get over it and move on, because nobody’s interested in his pain but he himself.

      • Thank you! Glad it worked for you! Yeah, the first time I saw this trope explained, it definitely made me think of some stories in new ways.

      • I did the same. I couldnt read past that part. Hero or not.. i couldnt sympathize with Mr. Covenant (the dick). Very interesting point you’ve made. Now I may have to rethink some of my plots. Thanks for the wonderful post.

    • I started reading that in high school and dropped it mid-way through that scene. Even as a clueless 15-year-old it made me sad and angry. Manpain needs to be interrogated, rather than lauded. It produces weak fiction and makes asshats feel better about themselves. (Someone needs to do a piece on the pleasures and work of manpain).

    • Glad to see so many other people had the same reaction. I had been told that is was the most amazing series, and I hit that part and dropped it and never looked back. For me, there was no way he could every be redeemed as a hero in my eyes no matter what gymnastics the writer went through.

    • As someone who enjoyed the stories, I hope you won’t be offended by this question, but how could it have been done differently?

      I can understand why people hate Covenant. From the very beginning, he’s an asshole. And then he’s worse. Lena’s rape leaves a path of brokenness and destruction in its wake, and to his psyche, the fact she and so many others forgive him is far worse than a slap to the face. In other words, his actions have consequences that we see, and pays a steep price for his crimes.

      And in books 3-6, Linden goes through the same journey, dealing with the crime of killing her mother.

      This is the first time I’ve heard the term “mainpain”, and it immediately brought to mind characters like James Bond, who may shed a tear or two every now and then, but go on with their lives as if nothing was changed. And we never see the aftermath.

      I’m sure I’m not seeing it, but I would like to understand why.

      • The ‘chronicle’ of his journey wouldn’t’ve been the same without the rape scene (or the manpain), would it? It’s be someone else’s story.

        As our awareness grows, so do our stories evolve, so do the storytellers evolve, as this post and the comments prove.

        … I enjoyed the whole 6 books (haven’t got to the last bunch yet) too. Loved the giants. 🙂

        • Understood. The OP said she’d read all six books, so I guess a better way to phrase the question is, “Why are Donaldson’s books guilty of the manpain that the author spoke of? Huang implied there are exceptions.

          Again, this is an honest question. Did Donaldson cross some line that I’m not aware of? Did he minimized the evil of Covenant’s act, or not give the wronged woman a voice? I don’t see it, but then again, I’m not the most sensitive to this stuff, obviously.

          • I think it’s that some people are getting sick of an unevenly explored (and far to often, romanticized) trope and, even if well written, the mere existence of it in a story is going to turn a lot of people off.

          • I’m not sure why she thought that. Using existing fiction, (and in particular the Chronicles) in this context wasn’t probably the best idea/example.

            Perhaps it would be because he focused on how shitty his life was, to the exclusion of the Land and its inhabitants who needed the white gold. He was convinced it was just a dream and therefore he had no responsibility toward it and for his actions while he was in it. Which was how he excused the rape, if I remember correctly.

            I think you’ve got the gist of the concept though.

  2. I like that in this era of immediate social-media backlash by rabid and insecure puppies lurking in dark basements a female writer is proud to write great fiction about strong women and refuses to be silent about the truth–that brutal actions have consequences for the victims, who didn’t cause it, and who didn’t deserve it. We need fiction that embraces all sides of the human story, for we are not all predominantly one gender and one color of reader.

    • +1!

      My books are kind of sneakily message-y. They’re mainly action-adventure-lots-of-explosions popcorn fiction, but with lots of different kinds of people in them with lots of different backgrounds and opinions. 🙂 I like it that way!

    • Honestly, who the hell didn’t know that brutal actions have consequences?

      “We need fiction that embraces all sides of the human story”

      *Especially* the main character. We as an audience know that what the victim went through is bad. “Unfortunately”, if the victim is not a main character, it really shouldn’t take the spotlight for more than a few moments. All sides of the human story include the guilt or justification that an evil character feels after committing an evil act. If you’re upset about this, make the victim the protagonist.

  3. Thank you for introducing me to S L Huang. I loved this blog post and bought the boxed set because of it. I can see more $$$ going in Huang’s direction in the future. My TBR list is so long I hope I live to read it, but couldn’t resist this.

  4. S.L. is my hero, for a great many reasons. Add this post to the list. I’m glad to see she’s getting more face time on your blog, Mr. Wendig.

    No punch necessary, I hope. 🙂

  5. Amen, amen and amen. You and I love a lot of the same things. Reversing troupes is something I enjoy doing, for many reasons. The sequel to my book has just such a scene, for the same reason. Guy does shitty thing, angsts about it and has to face her after many years. His shitty thing almost killed her and left her irreparably scarred. So no, she’s not in a forgiving mood and we know she’s been living with her pain for years so hopefully readers will agree when she’s not nice to him immediately. I cant wait to read your book. You are right up my alley!

  6. Thanks for this post. I’ve never thought about it in this way, maybe because the man was always the protagonist so it made sense to focus on his angst. In terms of writing about men feeling crumby because they raped someone, that’s sort of how our legal system works – it tends to focus on how crumby it would be to be a guy convicted of rape, and how terrible the guy will feel, versus the person who was, you know, raped.

    Looking forward to reading your books.

  7. Great post, but I actually just wanted to thank you for having the deal on your books available in Canada as well. That doesn’t always happen.

    Already on to Chapter 3!

  8. Erhmagherd, I write (and read, amongst other things) romance. SO MANY BROS FULL OF ANGST!!
    Yet, the massive sales would suggest that’s what the people want to read… (in the romance genre, at least)
    Personally, I am totally in the camp of “Hit the f***er again. And again. Til his face is pulpy and he falls over. Then kick him. In the nuts.” But that’s just me.

  9. I am totally over manpain and you make me want to read your book.

    Apart from the gender skewing of manpain for being douches, there’s also “no bullet was fired” in a “peaceful” revolution after a woman politician was assassinated a few weeks ago.

    And the next thing I thought was that, on Saturday, my GP asked me how much pain was I in on a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 was childbirth. 10 wasn’t a broken bone or a root canal. It was childbirth. What does that tell you about manpain? >:-]

  10. Thank you for this post, and thank you for the heads-up. I just bought the box-set and expect to enjoy your books very much.

  11. It’s pervasive. All the way back to the Bible in fact. I always hated Job. Poor, poor Job whom we’re supposed to feel so bad for because God and the Devil used him in their sadistic little game. Tormenting him by killing his wife and children among other delights. But then it’s okay: God makes it all better by giving him a NEW wife and children! Yay for Job, right?

    Note that no one notices or cares that the original wife and kiddos are still dead. All that matters is *Job* now feels better.

    • Lol on the Job reference! I didn’t have the terminology for it, but looking back on my class on the Old Testament, the entire thing is one long ode to manpain, if the man in question is God.

      Wonderful article and I plan to look up your books SL…

  12. What this really centres around is the protagonist. We are all well aware that if a writer decides to explore every feeling from every person we meet in a book we end up with a kind of choppy narrative that makes it hard to focus on the plot as we are constantly changing perspective to fit in whose head we are in at that moment. We follow the protagonist POV ‘cos that’s whose side of the story we are following. However, we should look at other peoples angst and pain and feelings as and when it makes sense within the story arc to do so. Buffy is a very good example. She runs away after Angel’s death to deal with her feelings so we follow that pain in the episode “Ann” where she’s working in a restaurant to pay her way. As she gets involved in someone else’s pain she comes to terms with her own and the realisation that running away solves nothing so home she goes. Its a natural story arc to then come full circle and see how her friends have reacted to her leaving so we see that side. But to jump from the protagonist to the victim for no apparent reason makes no sense, it must be done within the confines of the story. The gender is unimportant we just see it more as “man pain” because most protagonists are men, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t have the same issues of not showing the other side of the coin if the protagonist is a woman.

  13. Just wanted to say that “Plastic Smile” is great and the whole “Russell’s Attic” series is one of the best things I’ve read in years.

  14. “For instance: Tyrion is “forced” to rape Tysha, and we see how tragically that affects him.”

    Why is forced in quotes? Are you suggesting that Tyrion was able to consent, at thirteen years old, to a sex act his abusive, powerful father ordered him to participate in in order to “teach him a lesson”?

    “It’s not your pain, dude, it’s ours.”

    No, Tyrion was sexually abused as a child and that is HIS pain as well as Tysha’s.

    I originally read the first sentence as “watch out, feminism, incoming!” Which makes more sense because the implication that a child can consent, and is in fact responsible for, sex that a parent is forcing them into as a punishment reads as an attack on feminism, not feminist critique.

  15. Oh yay! I was just talking to my friend about this (about the Batman v. Superman movie, if I’m honest), and it went something like: “I’m sick of watching men just brood about their issues, agonizing and agonizing for minutes upon hours upon days, and ultimately doing NOTHING about it. It’s like whining without any sound, just lots of internal monologue or, if it’s a movie, long close-up shots of twisted expressions.” While Batman v. Superman doesn’t have the angst about a shitty thing done to a woman, I have noticed the trope you speak of, and those make me even more angry! Because they COULD do something about it, they could confront their shitty behavior and actually TALK to the person they wronged — woman or otherwise. But that would bring some closure (maybe) which would stop the emotional storm wreck that’s being used as a plot device. And, on the flip side, women get this trope in fiction a lot too except usually they’re the ones getting raped and we have to watch them deal with it and very rarely in any satisfactory way (i.e. therapy, accusing their rapist in court, or anything like that). I hate the trope of using rape as a way to further plot in any way, tbh. Mostly because it’s just done shittily and lazily.

    Your book sounds interesting! I’m checking it out! 🙂

  16. I’d never noticed this trope before. All my characters who are evil (or who’ve been horrible) suffer for it…male or female…I’m an equal opportunity pain provider (I write Regency romances) Baddies of either sex might have a moan (before or after they get the crap beat out of them – or they die), but doesn’t everyone have a right to whine and moan if they’re in pain – even someone evil?

    Characters should be like real people and real A-hole-bastards often whine and moan about how hard their lives are. It doesn’t bother me as long as they get their comeuppance! A punch in the face works well.

    I’m glad to see Cass is continuing to kick ass.

    • It isn’t so much about the angst and whining, it’s about the idea that only the pain of one specific person (like the average male protagonist) matters. Male Protagonist A (MPA) does something horrendous to Female Character B (FCB) because circumstances dictated he needed to do so. Rather than focusing on the pain FCB feels by being the victim of this horrendous act—or even allowing her to share the “spotlight” by showing her pain as equal to that of MPA—the story either paints MPA’s pain as more important than FCB’s pain or ignores FCB’s pain altogether so it can focus on MPA’s pain as a way of “building character” or “showing vulnerability”.

      Something like this is done with two of the major protagonists in the original Star Wars trilogy, in fact. We’re allowed to see Luke Skywalker’s grief at the loss of his adoptive parents, to see him struggle with the temptation of the Dark Side, to see his emotional responses to the revelations of the identities of Vader and Leia. By contrast, we see Princess Leia’s entire home planet destroyed in an instant by the Death Star, but the films never show her grieving the loss of her home planet and everyone she ever knew on said planet (including her adoptive parents). We never get any emotional moments with her that are similar to Luke’s, aside from her goodbye to Han Solo in “Empire Strikes Back” (and even that one can be questioned). Even when Luke supposedly turns her life upside down by revealing the familial bonds between him, her, and Darth Vader, Leia doesn’t act as if everything she has ever known about her life has changed. Luke’s struggles with mastering the Force, becoming a Jedi, and defeating Darth Vader—Luke’s physical and emotional pain—matter more to the “Star Wars” narrative than any physical or emotional pain inflicted upon Leia.

      • So the trope is really about secondary female characters’ emotions being overlook or left out? What about secondary male characters? Does this issue only apply to female characters?

        As for Star Wars – to me, Luke is the main protag – Luke’s trials push the story forward so we need to know how he feels, the rest of the characters are secondary no matter how important.

        If an author chooses to write a story from a single protagonist’s point of view (whether they’re male or female – good or evil), then the secondary characters aren’t going to have a voice beyond whatever dialogue the author allows them; regardless of whether the victims are male or female (we aren’t going to know their feelings – it wouldn’t make any sense). If authors want to show victims pain then the story needs to be told from both perspectives to begin with.

      • Don’t you think it would be out of place to have, say, a chapter that focuses only on a secondary character whining about what happened to them? When you read horrible stuff that happens to secondary characters, the author assumes that the audience is smart enough to know that horrible shit causes trauma, but the story for the main protag goes on. Go write some fanfic of every woman that lived in the exploding planet if it upset you so much.

        Also, you’re implying that because we’re seeing it from MPA’s pov it automatically means the author is making him to be the good guy. If MPA rapes a woman, we’re not gonna go “Hmm… He had a point, though!” because the author shows MPA having guilt or whatever. Jesus, we’re not idiots.

        I honestly can’t see the problem. It is the definition of nitpicky.

  17. Hercules. The iconic man. The icon of manpain. Guy is driven mad by Hera, murders his whole family, then the rest of his story is a tale of suffering and trial over the act, however, Hercules never even grows from the whole ordeal. He just proves himself stronger than his enemies. He’s still a rash, carousing, faithless brute who destroys anything he touches.

    You make a good point. Most heroes have traditionally been men, and heroes must have pain. What hurts a man more than a shattered relationship with a woman? Not much. So, either she hurts him or he hurts her and drives her away. In either case, we spend the rest of the story following his pain instead of hers. That’s like to change with the proliferation of heroines, and it’s a good thing.

    Being a male writer, it’s a challenge to tackle womanpain, but it was a challenge I felt I needed to take on in my second novel, Fracture. I appreciated the stretch and the opportunity it gave me to meditate on and try to understand a few bitter moments of pain in my young character’s life and how she learned to put those horrible events in their place and deal with the mean who’d wronged her. Always willing to learn more, though, I’ll be checking out your novels for a better grasp of how to write a badass heroine and the pain that drives her.

  18. Still have my fingers crossed that Tysha will appear in a future ASOIF chapter.

    Actually I find it interesting that you chose that example because it concerns an adult man abusing two children (not a woman and a man. children), one of whom is a differently-bodied 13-year-old who’s forced to watch a string of adult men rape his wife, then forced by his father to rape his wife in terms he describes as his body having betrayed him, and how is that not rape for him as well? If you force someone to have sex against their will, that’s rape, period, the end. Especially considering that Tyrion frames his experience in terms that many men use to talk about their own rape or sexual abuse: someone else forcing their bodies to betray them. But we don’t acknowledge the sexual abuse of boys and men, so I suppose it’s perfectly fine to bash Tyrion for having “manpain” resulting from the horrific childhood abuse by his father. Right?

    Tyrion can go fuck himself for murdering Shae, though.

    The “I had to, boo hoo” trope is subverted, sort of, in a really good fantasy series…in most cases, the woman in the trope has no agency; the bad thing is a thing that happens *to* her that she doesn’t have any choice in and the narrative rarely even gives her a chance to try to escape. ‘The Great Rift’ subverts this by having the whole “had to do a bad thing to my friend” being the female character’s choice (spoiler: she sacrifices herself; he has to make a judgment call; she can’t get out in time and he kills her along w/ everyone else) and having the male protagonist realize this and respect her memory and the fact that she saved all their asses. Her boyfriend wallows in ALLLLL the manpain, though, which probably cancels it out. He blames the other guy and refuses to acknowledge her agency or recognize that she was the real hero of the day, painting her as the victim while he’s the angsty lover left behind to suffer and plot revenge. Blech.

    • Hmmmmmm. I’m not at all a Song of Ice and Fire fan here (I’m not saying it’s bad, necessarily, but all the heavy gore and violence and sexual violence isn’t precisely my cup of tea), and I never read more than the beginning of the first book. But I thought the reason that Tyrion felt so guilty in Storm of Swords is that he wasn’t forced to rape Tysha: his father lied and claimed she was a prostitute, and Tyrion felt betrayed and accepted that as a justification for raping her. I always thought Tyrion saying in the first book that his father made him do it was kind of his internal reframing of what happened. Is that not right?

  19. ^^This, though.

    I have a theory that the images we get from the show can influence people’s interpretation of the books. Imagining Peter Dinklage doing that to Tysha, it’s way harder to sympathize. But the character is a child when the abuse happens. Moreover, a child with dwarfism and all the associated prejudices and insecurities.

    Daenerys: the number of feminist blogs who critique the show’s wedding night rape by upholding the books as consensual disgusts me. Because we see the adult actress in our mind’s eye, people forget that GRRM’s wedding night is a borderline-child-porn, disturbingly explicit scene between a 13yo child and a 30yo man. Because of that, critiques handwave the novel’s problematic wedding night as “consensual” or “might as well be” for the purposes of showing us BOOK GOOD SHOW BAD. Which is sincerely horrifying. Critiques also tend to stop at the wedding night, forgetting (or ignoring) that later in the book Drogo rapes Dany every night until she wants to kill herself. Or that her sexual awakening happens a) on her brother’s orders with a slave girl who also has no agency and b) because Drogo rapes her so much that her body just gets used to it and starts having orgasms against her will. Whereas in the show, Dany shows actual agency by, of her own volition, seeking out someone who can teach her about consensual sex. She takes control of her life, no help from creepy brother or rapey husband needed. The book’s wedding night was a lame attempt to soften the injustices of an arranged marriage; or worse, it was a smokescreen to make you forget all the rapey stuff that happens later, which apparently worked for every feminist “critique” of the show/book I’ve read so far. Despite the rape in the beginning, the show presents a character arc with far more agency for the woman. Who isn’t a CHILD. Fuck.

    As for Cersei’s rape, the number of feminists who ignored the fact that the character says “no” and fights her lover until he’s forced her onto the altar and is *in the process of raping her*…I just. What. But, the actor playing Jamie is sympathetic, and the book chapter is from his perspective, sooooo…no, I still don’t get it. In what insane world where the MRA’s have taken over the planet is what happened in the books not rape? Somehow, in the quest to uphold the narrative of “source material good, adaptation bad” you’ve got feminists saying that Cersei says no but really wants it because she’s sending mixed signals, or something. “No, not here,” or “wait, stop” is still no, ffs. Somehow feminist critiques of the show managed to imply that if a woman is saying no, she really means yes, and you’ll find that out as soon as you start raping her because she’ll cave! She was just playing the modest card, but once you force your sister to take the D she’ll realize she really wants the D! The show was like, no this is clearly a rape scene and we’re treating it as such, and EVERYONE LOST THEIR FUCKING MINDS. Even this blog joined in on the outrage.

    I mean, if it’s an issue of “I don’t think there should be rape portrayed on TV because it’s more traumatic to viewers,” that’s one thing. But that isn’t this. From what I’ve read, people are more willing to accept rape scenes in a source than in an adaptation. Or rape scenes with a thin veneer of consent to make them more palatable.

    That was a rant. All I meant to say was that I agree with you about Tyrion. And that as someone who had some…unpleasant childhood experiences, I found the writer’s treatment of the character callous and her analysis shallow. But I’m afraid I got on a roll here. Sorry. (But not *that* sorry.)

    • I tend to ignore the show vs book debates as I haven’t read the books and the books being rapey is no defense for the show doing the same thing. But I read the two scenes you mentioned when they were posted everywhere and I couldn’t understand how everyone thought those scenes were bastions of consensual sex. I stopped watching the show bc it made me angry, sad, and defensive and enough is enough. At least on other shows with way too much sexual violence rape is called rape and it’s considered a bad thing.

      I write romance which doesn’t always have the best track record with consent. I can’t control other writers but I can control what I put out in the world and I have enthusiastic consent (or previously established and tested safe word ) rule. And it’s never hurt my sales (which are quite good) or my reviews/the perceptions of how hot my sex scenes are.

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