The other day I came across this great article on Man Pain. As something that I have found endlessly frustrating in fiction, I’d like to delve into this a bit and discuss what Man Pain is, why it’s such remarkably bad writing.
So. Man Pain. Here we go.
What It Is:
Bob cares deeply about Alice. She may be a Strong Female Character who holds her own in the Legion of Sweaty Dudes. She may be a drab satellite love interest. She may be the perfect, shy girl with a heart of gold from his tragic backstory. The important thing is that something horrible happens to her.
Some form of tragedy befalls Alice, and Bob blames himself. He may even be partly (or
wholly) responsible for it. After the tragedy strikes, we get to see just how badly Bob is suffering. He’s really beating himself up over what’s happened—losing sleep, snapping at people, pledging to avenge her. The works.
But it’s all about Bob. Even though Alice is the one who actually suffered, his guilt is prioritized over her pain. Her pain is not used to develop her character. It is solely for his benefit. She is hurt to fuel his angst.
Like many sexist tropes, this serves to normalize violence against women. It also promotes the idea of women belonging to men, since they’re used as a way of hurting men by proxy, the same way that someone might vandalize or steal another person’s stuff. And it tends to suggest that a man’s emotions should always take priority above a woman’s. His pain is inherently valuable, while hers is only worth something in that men can appropriate it for themselves.
So, to recap:
- A female character is hurt to cause a male character emotional pain.
- The male character’s suffering is prioritized over the female character’s.
- The male character is developed at the expense of the female character (who, in spite of being the one who is actually suffering, is allowed to fall to the wayside).
(I already talk a bit about Man Pain and women in freezers here, plus some commentary on the needless deaths of other minority characters.)
Why This Is Monumentally Bad Writing:
First, it’s a cliché. I’ve lost track of how many times that I’ve read about a female character who has been raped, tortured, killed, left for dead, kidnapped, injured, or otherwise harmed solely for the sake of causing men pain. This is done so often that it elicits more cringing and eye rolling than genuine sympathy. It won’t make your man interesting, likable, or even well motivated–only strong characterization can do that.
Second, it severely limits the dramatic possibilities. Quick: which is a more interesting, higher stakes situation? A kidnapped woman who is being tortured at an unknown location, trying to outwit and outlast her captors in order to survive, or a guy brooding about how he failed to save her? Often, the woman’s side of the story is where the action is. This is the exciting bit. When you skip over that, you’re leaving some of the most the tense parts of the story aside. Often, this happens because the man is the POV character, even though the most interesting parts of the story are actually happening to someone else.
Third, it means that you’re not using your female characters to their fullest potential. A lot of the women who this happens to are sidelined if not outright eliminated from the story halfway through. This means that they get less development and fewer chances to contribute. It also means that they had a lot of potential for future development when you removed them. Plotwise, it makes the most sense to remove a character from the picture when they are more interesting dead (or absent) than alive.
Fourth, it reduces your female characters to damsels. One of the biggest factors in Man Pain is the guy’s inability to save the woman. This implies that if he couldn’t save her, she couldn’t save herself. If the disposable woman happened to be built up as a tough action girl, this may come across as serious character derailment. So aside from removing her from the picture, this is a pretty good way to kneecap her image, and to see to it that she loses the audience’s respect. If she wasn’t a damsel before, don’t make her one just for the guy’s sake.
And fifth, it introduces plot-holes galore. Namely, if it’s a case of a bad guy intentionally going after the woman in order to get at the man, it would probably be much easier to attack the guy. Hurting his sister/wife/love-interest leaves him alive, angry, and very likely to seek retribution. Catching him off-guard and getting rid of him is usually easier and more straight-forwards. Especially if the guy doesn’t have any special powers, or if he’s already being held captive.
Writing Like a Boss: A Related Problem
While we’re at it, I’m going to take a moment to talk about my other least favorite trope that involves reducing women to devices for the sake of male characterization.
The All-Important Man-Baby
This one is where Alice is treated as if she’s important. There are prophesies about her. It’s very important that she be kept alive, and she often finds herself at the center of the action because all the villains are after her. Why? Because she’s fated to bear the all-important man-baby. That is, her sole significance in the story has nothing to do with who she is—it relies wholly on her status as an incubator for a dude.
This reduces her to her uterus. It’s no longer about her achievements, but about what she can give to a man. She becomes a device for advancing men. The man-baby is usually some sort of fabled hero, destined to lead, raise armies, and do all manner of exciting, manly plot-things. Rather than leading on her own, the mother has to bear a male child who can do that for her. Because women can’t lead, of course. That would be absurd.
(Hypothetically, this could be applied to people of all genders who happen to have a uterus. However, being woefully underrepresented, trans people seem to have the dubious honor of having been spared this one.)