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.