So this is a co-authored piece about the nature of men in pain vs. manpain. I got thinking about this during my Deadwood watch last week, because that’s another really magical thing about that show. The men on that show are in pain. Pretty much all of them. (The ladies, too.) But never once does it feel trite or cloying (at least when it’s not supposed to feel cloying, like when E.B [William Sanderson] is sad about feeling picked on, even though he’s a giant smarmy douche a lot of the time so it’s not out of bounds for him to be “picked on”). And I realized how wonderful that is. Because so often on television and in movies, you have guys whose pain Consumes Them and also justifies everything they have ever done but really doesn’t justify it at all.
There is a gif that has been floating around tumblr lately, a scene from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which I don’t watch but really mean to. And it applies often. Here. The context for this gif is that that officer Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), has spent the episode attempting to solve an “unsolvable” cold case murder that he gave up on years before. Eventually he finds that the murder victim is, in fact, alive and had framed his supposed killer because he was having an affair with the “victim’s” wife. “It was for love!” the “victim” cries. “Cool motive, still murder,” says Jake. This gets thrown around a lot in discussions of manpain, and it really does apply: the manpain-haver will often rely so heavily on tragic backstory that he feels like he can get away with anything, including being a terrible and yes, often murderous, person.
Manpain. It’s one of the central aspects of The Walking Dead (which I am very behind on, as in I haven’t seen any of this season, so I’m speaking from the past) that drove many people I know crazy. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is the king of manpain, not necessarily using it to justify crimes but wallowing heavily in it; the same show’s Governor (David Morrissey) did in fact use manpain to justify murder, and it came out feeling like a more high-stakes angst match between the two.
Manpain is the tiresome flashbacks to Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) in the Civil War or after it, being so angst-ridden about every single thing that the angst still hadn’t left him in the present continuity but continued his need to feel human again and give Sookeh a normal lahf or what have you. Manpain is, to a lesser degree, other things on True Blood too (especially after it stopped being mine), but Bill Compton is the guiltiest party.
Manpain is Doctor Who’s Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) refusing to listen to his alleged best friend Donna Noble’s (Catherine Tate) requests that he not erase her memories of traveling through space and time with him, because the vast knowledge of the universe that’s been dumped into her human brain is about to fry it. But she would rather go out in glory than forget how she felt for the last few months – important and valued and excited about her life in a way she never had been before, and he doesn’t allow her that dignity. Manpain is Ten also making the death of Captain Adelaide Brooke, a tragic but fixed event in time which is a catalyst in her descendants’ (and thus humanity’s) progress in space travel. When he becomes determined to rescue her from the doomed ship on which her entire crew has died, she later commits suicide due to guilt – and still he is unable to look past his own pain and guilt. Various other Doctors have had moments of manpain – one could argue that the entire premise of New Who was built on manpain, since Nine feels constant guilt about having sacrificed the Time Lords in the Time War to ensure the Daleks did not survive – but these two were particularly egregious.
Manpain is also Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) and… well, I was first exposed to the “cool motive, still murder” gif in the context of posts about him. The main problem with Ward’s arc thus far is that, while he is definitely an abuse victim, he does not seem remotely interested in working to either move past his pain or avoiding causing similar pain to others. Instead, particularly since being outed as Hydra, he hauls his pain around like a favorite stuffed toy and, when someone tries to make him admit to his actions (murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, and so forth), he cries, “But I’ve suffered too!” Ward is a victim who wears his victimhood as a badge and seems to think that absolves him of any terrible things he has ever done. And, worse, he perpetuates the cycle of abuse and manipulation that he apparently learned from his family rather than attempting to learn a new way of interacting with people. He is so focused on the wrongs that have been done to him that he can’t accept that he has done equally wrong, awful things.
And then there are things like Deadwood. Where the opposite is true. So many of the characters have previously suffered or currently suffer abuse, and not all of the relationships are healthy, but when Al (Ian McShane) idly monologues in his room about his horrible past at the orphanage it isn’t so he can excuse his own mistreatment of people. He’s not a great person, and he is cruel and/or harsh to most of his associates, to say nothing of his enemies, but he doesn’t try to excuse it. Other characters are suggested to have experienced similar sources of angst in their past, but the narrative presents this to contrast how they no longer are in that same pattern, sometimes how they have made a better life for themselves. They have angst and they rage – Cochrain (Brad Dourif) on his knees praying to God to end the Reverend’s (Ray McKinnon) life and turning it into a hysterical monologue about the battlefield, Seth (Timothy Olyphant) and his overdeveloped quest for justice against wrongdoers – but because of how it is presented in the script and how it furthers the characters but does not define them, it reads differently.
Another good example of a man who is in pain but doesn’t have manpain is Ned (Lee Pace) from Pushing Daisies, who has more than enough pain for any fictional character. As a child, he discovered he had the power to bring dead things back to life when his dog, Digby, was run over by a truck. One touch restored Digby, and, when his mother collapsed from a brain aneurysm, he was able to revive her too – but then he learned that his power had a catch, and that if something came back to life, something else had to die. In that case, the “something else” was his best (and only) friend Chuck’s father, and Chuck was then sent far away to live with her aunts. Then, later that night, he discovered the other half of the catch when his mother kissed him goodnight: if he touched an alive-again person once more, they would be dead permanently. After his mother’s second death, Ned’s father shipped him off to boarding school and then moved house and started a new family without telling him. This caused Ned to have issues with intimacy in his adult life, but he manages to find some form of happiness using his gift to make alive-again fruit pies in his restaurant, the Pie Hole. He also works with his private detective friend Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) to alive-again murder victims and ask who killed them, then put away the perps and collect any reward money. Then, later in the episode, he alives-again Chuck (Anna Friel), who has been murdered, since he had been in love with her since childhood and couldn’t bear to leave her dead – but, of course, they can’t touch except through barriers or she will die a second death. All this to say, he has more than enough pain in his life, but he never infringes his pain upon other people, and if he does, the show is careful to call him out on it.
In one episode, the show introduces Ned’s half-brothers, who were part of the new family his father started after abandoning him. Ned has resented these men for his entire life, having caught a brief, accidental glimpse of them after attempting to track down his father as a boy, but he rejected the idea of connecting with them as an adult. It turns out, however, that not only do they have superficial things in common with Ned, but they, too, were abandoned callously by their father. This episode serves to remind Ned that, while his pain is real, his pain does not diminish the pain of those around him, particularly those that he may blame for his pain. And, in the end, they bond over their father’s inadequacy.
The point of all of this is: television, there is a way to handle angst in such a way that is neither cliched nor harmful toward the characters’ narrative arcs. Study it. Work on it.
–your fangirl heroines.