Archive for the ‘Heroism and masochism’ Category

So, I was idly thinking about the unexpected hotness of my friend kneeling in church, and thus about men kneeling in general, and then I suddenly remembered Tenchu.

Tenchu is a game where you play a ninja and sneak around killing people. I looooved it. I’m not a shoot-em-up fan, so creeping round and trying not to get caught was much more up my alley.

Anyway, in the first mission you have to make your way through a town to meet your master, Lord Gohda. Only of course the town is crawling with bad guys, and you have to have to carefully make your way through, picking them off one at a time. If you play the guy ninja, Rikumaru, you get a cut scene at the end of the level where he arrives at the meeting place, falls straight to his knees before his lord, and begs his forgiveness for being late.

He fights his way through crowds of enemies, risking his life every step of the way, then falls to his knees and apologies for being late.

And I was like, ‘Yeah! That’s how it’s done!’

The Japanese feudal paradigm involves total submission – but it’s the least wimpy thing ever. Every samurai owes total loyalty and obedience to his lord, and expects complete perfection of himself. Not only is he prepared to die in battle for his lord at any point, he is also prepared to offer his own sepukku for failing to complete a task satisfactorily, or just to save his lord embarrassment. And we’re not just talking about the big tough killing machines, here – theoretically women and children are also prepared to commit seppuku if their lord requires it.

Total submission. The opposite of wimpy.

The European feudal paradigm isn’t exactly wimpy either, even though it’s not quite as hardcore. Sure, we don’t have seppuku. But the point about knights is that they owe total allegiance to their lord, and every man in the system owes allegiance to someone, right up to the dukes. Like a kind of d/s pyramid scheme. And we really, really don’t think of medieval warriors as wimpy.

So, historical models of submission = practically the definition of brave and admirable.

So why does the world think mansubs are wimpy?

The answer is pretty obvious. Samurai and knights submit to other men. Mansubs submit to women.

Which is levels of sexism that make me want to hand in my humanity membership card.

But it’s true. Any suggestion that a man is governed by a woman is considered emasculating. And yet a man’s submission to another man is the pinnacle of courage and virtue.

You know, there were samurai who wouldn’t even have sex with women because they considered even that contact emasculating – they shagged men instead.

And how about the knights? Well, let’s look at our model for knights serving women – the concept of courtly love. Eleanor of Aquitaine invented the game of courtly love as a means of stopping all those hormone-ridden young knights from harrassing her ladies. She modelled it on the relationship between a knight and his lord, in that the knight was supposed to make himself a servant of the lady, she was supposed to be in total control. But he was supposed to worship her from a distance. There was no sex involved, oh no – in fact that’s practically the point. Instead, he adores her from afar, puts her on a pedestal, sees her not as a human being, but as an icon, a goddess, and his dearest wish is to endeavour to deserve the smallest glance from her.

See, this ‘kiss my boots but don’t fuck me’ bullshit started a really long time ago.

(As I’m sure you’ll have noticed, I’ve used ‘mansub’ throughout to mean ‘straight mansub’ – for which, apologies, but it was snappier. Of course, it would prove my theory quite neatly if we found that gay mansubs suffer less prejudice than straight ones. Anyone know whether this is the case?)


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So I was in the shower thinking about heroism and submission and masochism and the like, as you do, and the thought occurred to me that it’s not just our heroes who suffer, but our heroines, too. We have our Atlases and Prometheuses and Odins and Jack Bauers and Wolverines. But we also have Psyche, forced to complete impossible tasks in her quest to recover the lovely Eros (mm, Eros), and Elise, who wove shirts out of nettles to rescue her brothers who had been turned into swans, and Rhiannon, carrying every visitor to the castle on her back in penance for murdering her child (which she didn’t actually do), and Cinderella sleeping in the ashes and serving her sisters, etc etc etc.

We love suffering heroes. We associate suffering with courage, and nobility, and wisdom (see Odin) and love (see Elise). We love it so much that we get people with martyr complexes; so much that we have a tendency to listen to victims more than experts, even when the victims are talking absolute bobbins (a pet hate of mine); so much that we like House even though he’s a total arse. We even built an entire religion around a guy being tortured to death. (Actually, more than one – let’s not forget Mithras and Osiris and Odin and the rest.)

So I wondered why we love our hero/ines to suffer. And the conclusion I came to was because that’s what story is. Story is conflict and resolution. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story. ‘They lived happily’ is not a story. ‘They had a ton of shit heaped on them, bravely overcame it, and then lived happily’ is a story. Hardship is such a key part of the hero’s journey. No wonder we revere it.

Frankly it’s not at all surprising that suffering becomes fetishised for some of us. Actually, I think it’s a miracle we don’t all feel that way.

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Major Richard SharpeRichard Sharpe is a big, tough, rough-and-tumble, suffering (half anti-) hero. He’s been constantly crapped on since day one. His mother was a whore, he grew up in an orphanage, and joined the army (his body being his only means of making a living, and we know how I feel about that) hoping to die there. He was made an officer after his reckless, self-destructive courage saved Arthur Wellesley’s life, and then had to convince the (equally rough and sordid) men in his unit he was worth following. (There was contempt. There were fist fights. It was glorious.) His fellow officers, all bluebloods, do their best to humilate him and point out the shame of his background at every turn. He’s been flogged for a crime he didn’t commit (the most brutal and shameful punishment available), seen his first wife murdered, and his second wife, a seemingly sweet thing whom he rescued from an abusive uncle, left him for a ‘proper’ officer, taking all his money with her.

Women all round the world used to tune in every week to see what horrible things were going to be done to him next. We revel in his suffering as much as his toughness.

Plus, you know, Sean Bean (who I could quite happily listen to just reading the phone book). He manages to bring some necessary vulnerability to the role – the character isn’t half so attractive in the books.

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You know, h/c is such a popular genre of fanfic (and not just the slashy variety) that perhaps we can conclude that mild sadism is actually very common in women. H/c is the socially acceptable face of sadism: the variety where we’re not the ones doing the hurting. Is that social rule the only thing standing between society’s ideas of ‘normal’ and ‘sadistic’?

Imagine we could for a moment wave away that deeply ingrained instinct that we (us, personally) shouldn’t hurt people. All those teenage girls who suddenly developed mad crushes on Neville Longbottom when he fought on through injury during Deathly Hallows (spawning a million h/c fanfics – and let’s not forget the emotional pain of his tortured parents); all those middle-aged women reading romance novels where the hero fights his way through his enemies to arrive bruised and bleeding at his true love’s door; all those who loathe corporal punishment but still thrill to remember that Sharpe is a flogged man; would they all suddenly discover themselves to be fully-fledged sadists? Is there a difference, and if so, is it one of quality or of degree? Does it matter whether we’re the ones wielding the whip? Does it matter why he’s being hurt? And if so, how much does it matter?

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One of my favourite men-in-pain is Wolverine. ‘Does it hurt?’ ‘Every time.’ Plus, you know, he was a test subject for a mad scientist, locked up, tied down, all manner of horrible things done to his body. He’s practically a mansub poster boy. Then there’s the whole unrequited love thing.

So, I went to edit together that clip, and then realised there’s a whole other thing in there that I love. Cage fighting.

There’s something really great about a man fighting for money. It’s degrading, but it’s a particularly masculine form of degradation. I guess it’s the macho equivalent of prostitution – when all else fails, when you’re desperate enough, when you’ve got nothing else to sell, you sell your body for other people’s pleasure and profit. I don’t know why so much of stereotypical femdom/mansubbery involves trying to degrade a man with forced fem or housework. Apart from the fact that, like Beej, I find it utterly insulting, and profoundly unsexy, there’s also just no need. There’s a perfectly good form of masculine degradation, degradation which is macho and tough and therefore actually hot for women, right here. Cage fighting, pit fighting, even forced thuggery – they all reek of shame and desperation and powerlessness, and other people’s use of your body. He’s down about as far as he can go. And he’s still fighting. Yum.

(Course, male prostitution appeals, too, in the right light. There’s a great piece of OC slash where Ryan’s a ‘hustler’. And yes, I know, it’s profoundly embarrassing that I’ve watched the OC, but I’ll explain why as soon as I can find the time to upload the relevant clip. Anyway, slash, Ryan, hooker, part 1 here and part 2 here.)

Then, maybe they can find a way to claw they way out of that world and struggle to make a better life for themselves, but there are some people who just won’t let them forget it, and keep trying to drag them back down… Mm. I love flawed heroes, repentant sinners, men struggling to escape the shame of their past. Jase Dyer in Eastenders, trying to put his violent past behind him, but hounded by the firm he ran with as a desperate teen. Ryan in the OC, trying to better himself, but constantly being dragged down by those around him. Michael Garibaldi in B5, a decent and competent man, but a recovering alcoholic, and people just won’t let him forget it. Russell Crowe’s ex-gunslinger priest in the Quick and the Dead, forced to face his past by his angry former compadres. Guilt, shame, remorse, and a dark side barely held in check; a heady cocktail.

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