Writing the Male Body v.1.2

(This is going to be a very rambly post. It will be updated every so unoften as I come to terms with what I am trying to say.)

A significant amount of the fiction – specifically at this moment, speculative* fiction – that I am currently reading has been written by women. Most of it is good stuff, or at least stuff that I like muchly, which for me, obviously, means the same thing.

Anyway. I am beginning to notice, or to think I notice, an intriguing trend. It sums up very crudely as: When a Woman Author Writes A Male Protagonist/Main Character, The Male Body Is Marked As Physically Vulnerable. For short, I label this phenomenon “The Mark” (regardless of grammar). I sort of pick up books written by women where a main character is male, and I wait for him to be, well, beaten up. Or raped. Or tortured. Or hurt in some way. A lot of the text gets devoted to these woundings, and to the recovery process, and to the physical sufferings of the male character as he suffers.

Male authors beat up their male characters too, but I am toying with the idea that the woman author’s male characters’ bodily vulnerability is more often examined and made a plot/character point. It’s important, to the character, to the plot, that his body is attacked, or attackable. The narrative spends time pondering, observing or detailing such vulnerability, or the ways in which such vulnerability is exploited, and oftentimes the aftermath of an attack on the male body.

Not all women authors write books which spend narrative time beating up their boys and then observing the carnage. But odds are, if the main male character is relatively undamaged through the books, he will be of slender/lithe/lean build.

I’m just going to go through a few series/books written by female authors to sort of detail what I’m talking about. There will be spoilers, though I won’t be spending too much time explaining how when where and why. Just the what. I’ve put the series/book titles in bold, so you can skip over a series if you truly wish to have no spoilers.

Robin Hobb’s Assassin, Liveship and Fool series, set in the Realm of the Elderlings

(Do I even need to list the various things that happened to FitzChivalry Farseer?)
1. FitzChivalry Farseer is wounded physically and magically/mentally a minimum of seven times in the six books we see him. He dies once, and almost dies twice. His torture before his death has psychological implications that last over four successive books. He almost falls into the cyclical pattern of abused-to-abuser. 2. The Fool is hurt a minimum of three times – one of those times is an extended torture, ending in his death. Every so often he falls ill. Shivers, fainting. In general his physical build is marked as slender, and the fact that he is stronger than he looks is always introduced as a surprise. His build is a major character point for “his” role in the Liveship Trader books. 3. Nighteyes’ aging, wounding and eventual death gets extended treatment in the Tawny Man series. (he’s “just” a wolf, but he’s also Fitz’s brother, and smarter than Fitz. For the three books that we see him, he is as much a main character as the Beloved, and these two stand second only to Fitz.) 4. Verity vacillates between Skill sickness and good health throughout the books. 5. Shrewd’s terminal disease and attendant pain is a major plot point of the second Assassin novel.

In each case, there is pain in the wounding, and pain in the recovering. The three heroes each die, and one of them doesn’t come back.

And let’s not forget 6. Kennit, abused as a young boy. Let’s not forget 7. Wintrow, who is branded as a slave and must cut off his own finger to get stop a spreading infection. And the madship 8. Paragon, who shares Kennit’s pain, must deal with his own, and is made physically of two dragons, is insane and has suffered the shipversion of rape.

Lynn Flewelling‘s Nightrunner books and Tamir Triad

Flewelling is much less depressing than Hobb, which is why we’ve moved to her.

Alec and Seregil are not human (in Alec’s case, not completely human) and their physical characteristics are shared by most of their race (the Aurenfaeie) – but since they spend their lives in human nations, involved in human politics, they stand out because of their slim builds and delicate bone structure. Each of the pair is viewed through the eyes of the other, to emphasise the attractiveness of this slenderness, this seeming fragility.

1. The first novel opens with Alec’s imprisonment and his suffering because he’s been (rather clumsily) tortured. It closes with him suffering some rather painful burns. In later books he wounds an arm, leading to his eventual capture by the Bad Guys and his mental/magical torture. He is also raped (again, magically), and no one acknowedges his negative feelings at being raped. It’s touched upon, very faintly. I’m not sure how much of this is Flewelling’s emotion-sparse narrative and how much of it is macho men-don’t-get-raped mentality. The mental torture is somewhat akin to physical rape, it is implied (Flewelling never actually gives us a graphic scene). 2. Seregil is older, and slightly better at this fighting biz. He cannot handle cold climates too well (does that count? He’s etched in my mind as a shiverer). He spends much of Luck in the Shadows under the mental and physical influence of a talisman that burns its shape and design onto his skin. It hurt through two whole books. Traitor Moon is all about the humiliation of Seregil. He goes through two separate beating sessions, one of which he actually invites upon himself. And there’s a lovely submissive kneeling-on-cold-floors uncomfortably sequence. 3. Micum Cavish is badly wounded by the end of the second novel, so much so that he cannot actually be a part of the team anymore. His ousting from the team is complete, and his position is filled by Alec, who is young, learning, and wiser than his years.

It is a bit trickier to talk of The Tamir Triad, but here’s what it looks like: 4. Tobin’s brother is murdered at birth, and his body is mutilated – part of his skin is grafted into his twin sister’s to change her anatomically, so that she is, for all purposes, a boy. Later his bones are stitched into Tobin’s skin. It causes them both a great deal of pain. 5. For the time while Tobin is male, he is repeatedly attacked by the ghost of his/her dead brother, and once by his insane mother. (This attack left a permanent scar on his chin.) There is, at one point, the vague hint of potential sexual abuse by a guardian, and said guardian strangePhysically, through his teenage years, he is never as well-developed as his peers/friends/eventual lover. His final transformation to his “true” gender is accomplished by a. Digging his brother’s bones out of his chest and b. Ripping his male genitalia out.

Jacqueline Carey‘s first Kushiel trilogy

This shouldn’t actually be here, since the first trilogy is never narrated from any point of view but Phedre’s, but I think Joscelin is the sufferer of the pair. In the first novel he’s enslaved, imprisoned, on the run, sexually initiated by a more experienced partner, almost commits dual-suicide… in the third novel he’s wounded – mostly in the arm – almost beyond hope of complete healing. He does heal, though. Slowly. Painfully. And there’s Imriel. Victim of sexual/physical/mental abuse. Scion of a traitorous bloodline. Both of them are slim men. (I haven’t read the Kushiel novels that focus on Imriel’s PoV yet, but all indications are that he will be.)

Sarah Monette‘s Melusine

I’ve only recently read Melusine and I haven’t read the sequel, and so this is a very tentative reading. Felix Harrogate and Mildmay the Fox are half-brothers, both of whome are scarred physically – they enter the narrative with these scars and are morbidly (self)conscious of them. Felix’s scars on his body, Mildmay’s on his hands. (Together they have a completely scarred body!). Near the opening of the novel, Felix is raped – magically and physically. The effects on his body and mind last throughout the course of the novel, and in fact drive a significant amount of the plot. Felix’s physical vulnerability is the motivation behind his emotional fragility through this novel, and it places his half brother in the position of keeper (there are several layers of pun/attack in the word, in the novel). Mildmay himself is not physically invulnerable: aside from the aforementioned scar, his is under a delayed curse that manifests as thorns to Felix’s vision, and when the curse affects him he is left almost crippled – the last few chapters are devoted to his extreme pain and bodily immobility. Of the books I’ve mentioned so far, I’d say Melusine is one which actively purposes to examine the male vulnerable body, which is why I want to give it some more time here, but it occurs to me I should simply write a review.

Here is Monette’s take on the issue re: her characters.

And here is the second half of that interview.

Karin Lowachee’s Warchild and Cagebird

Like Melusine, Warchild and Cagebird actively examine the male body under attack, and in recuperation. Jos spends all his young adult life (up to the age of around 19-20, let us say) putting physical and emotional distance between himself and the people around him because of physical/sexual abuse he underwent for a year when he was eight. (Warchild spends a lot of time examining the concept of personal physical space, and the basic printability of the same.) Yuri, protagonist of Cagebird, is a victim of sexual/mentor abuse, who relieves his emotional pain through self-mutilation by cutting. Like Yuri, his own recovery requires a time when he engages in no sexual contact – unlike Jos he does engage in emotional bonding and hopefully eventual recovery, but by the ends of their respective novels neither of them is fully recovered, though perhaps poised to be so at some point.

While Ryan, protagonist of Lowachee’s Burndive, does not undergo the extensive abuse that Jos and Yuri do, he is under threat at all times of losing personal privacy to the media. His latter narrative is consistently littered with metaphors of bodily harm. He is threatened with sexual violation, he suffers a temporary blindness. At very few points in the narrative can the reader point to him and say, This Manchild Owns His Own Body.

J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books

Now, Harry does not angst overly much about the number of times he is injured (a minimum of twice each novel, he ends up near Madame Pomphrey. Except for the last novel, where instead of going to the infirmary he strips naked for the public thrice). But he does get injured a very great deal. He is defined for four to five books as thin, short and underfed (in the fifth book he seems to have had a growth spurt, but the thinness remains). By the sixth and seventh novels it is taken for granted that while he might be tall, he is still a slender figure, albeit a strong one. But Harry’s scar is a very great marker of vulnerability – it causes him repeated pain and is the focal physical point of the repeated mental invasions Voldemort voluntarily and involuntarily performs upon him. He is constantly under attack, and this is in fact the underlying premise of all his narratives. Harry never forgets that someone out there wants to kill him, and when we are in danger of forgetting it, his scar reminds us.


If you take a look at, for example, Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, you will find a main character who is consistently portrayed as slim, not very strong, not very good as a physical warrior. Locke Lamora’s body is punished repeatedly – he swallows poison (voluntarily), he is tortured (involuntarily), he gets into several fights which he almost loses – or wins because a stronger ally showed up. The story practically opens with his mock-strangulation. At one point he is stabbed by an old lady with a knitting needle. He spends the last third of the story in physical anguish – and mental anguish too, for some of his closest friends are dead. But. Locke Lamora makes it clear that he is not a victim. He spends little to no time angsting about the pain his body is in, or the fact that he cannot hold his own in a fair fight with most villains. Regardless of what one might do to Locke Lamora’s body, he is a badass. And he won’t let anyone forget it.

Leaving aside the issue of authorial gender, what happens when the male body is marked as vulnerable? As fragile, breakable?

If I backtrack for a moment: Traditionally, violence is perpetrated and defended against by men. Men are the soldiers, the bandits, the rapists, and the masked swordsmen defending someone’s honour, the saviours, the kings and generals, the farmers, the decision makers. They wear the pants and can move as they please. Traditionally, it is the woman whose body is vulnerable. The woman’s body is a landscape through which men fight their battles – and may the best man win!

This polarity cannot be completely reversed. Under normal circumstances, one cannot have a woman who beats up a man without explaining that the woman is stronger/more skilled because _____ and/or the man is weaker/less skilled because _____. There has to be an explanation.

We are not conditioned to think of men as victims. We may see them as pitted against other men in battle, but it tends to be, in conceptual terms, a battle between sexual/gendered equals. I suggest that we find in the male body rendered as vulnerable an greater degree of fragility than the female body rendered as vulnerable because we are simply unused to the former, and overly familiar with the latter. Women as victims tend to be relatively unexamined as a conceptual device because we are so used to them. Men as victims tend to be relative unexamined as a conceptual device because we are so unused to them. The fragile male seems a brittle, brittle thing, so much more easily breakable: women are so often attacked that it is practically expected that they will be strong enough to recover, while men are supposed to be strong enough to not be attacked at all.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (spoilers!), I have just realised, sums up my point for me. Emilio’s rape is unthinkable in the literal sense that not one of the priests surrounding Emilio can conceive of such a notion. Throughout the latter-time narrative, Emilio displays practically textbook symptoms of someone who has undergone physical and sexual abuse. If he was a woman, nobody would have mistaken it for anything else. But Emilio’s symptoms are greeted with bewilderment. And Emilio himself is written as a very subtly “macho” figure, and his rape/other abuse hits him hard because in addition to the “normal” trauma of such abuse he feels wounded in his masculinity, his invulnerability, which has been proved non-existant.

So. I currently stand by my opinion that it is the female author who is examining the Vulnerable Male Body – certainly I’ve not seen as detailed NotStrong!man scenarios in narratives by male authors. Not so consistently. Is it simply that to write the female body under attack has been done, and in manys case carries the unspoken tag of “is strong enough to get over it/needs to get over it”? I’m not, in general, very keen on looking to the author and the author’s personal details to help me interpret a book – in fact, I usually deplore it, thinking that it should be only the other way around – but a two-way dialogue would be interesting, I believe.

p.s. Alana over at wotmania reminds me that the visual media is replete with images of the male body in pain.


11 responses to “Writing the Male Body v.1.2

  1. http://www.wotmania.com/fantasymessageboardshowmessage.asp?MessageID=191906

    — that links to an interesting reply/discussion from a wotmania.com member, discussing Joscelin and how he doesn’t quite fit into the pattern.

  2. Pingback: Warchild by Karin Lowachee « The Pearls Are Cooling

  3. Pingback: Mélusine by Sarah Monette « The Pearls Are Cooling

  4. This is an interesting post, largely because I’m very fond of most of the books you’ve mentioned (and read all but the Russell) and have a penchant for torturing my own male characters . . . but isn’t part of it the idea that women are more drawn to emotional depth in characters? That’s what they want to read, so that’s what they write. I’m also on a quest to figure out reasons why women are drawn to male/male romance, because it’s something along those same lines.

    Other books I can think of offhand with the same sorts of themes are some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books–in THE HERITAGE OF HASTUR, Lew Alton gets mentally raped, physically tortured, and loses a hand at the end. Or try picking up a Mercedes Lackey book and find a young male protagonist that ISN’T abused or tormented in some way. The girls get off a little easier and seem to get over their troubles faster, but the guys . . . poor guys. Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu series has hermaphrodites from originally male origins, and all kinds of nasty things happen to them. Joan Vinge’s Psion series, Cat gets attacked a lot, especially psychically.

    So, plenty of women writers do it . . . but I think the real question is why, and why are the rest of us drawn to it? (And, I really would be interested in an answer if you have one . . .)

  5. To take those points in order:

    I think women writers and male writers – I won’t cast this in stone, but it might be a useful working hypothesis – do look at emotional depth, and more importantly, emotional complications, in different ways.

    [I’ve just reread Robin Hobb’s Forest Mage and was struck by how extremely easy it would be to simply place Nevare in (some parts of) our world and have him face very nearly the same intolerances. It’s an emotional complication. Robert Jordan’s Vanin, or Scott Lynch’s Jean Tannen, don’t walk around going, Oh, I’m fat, people look down on me. At the same time, you won’t find Nevare worrying about some of the things Jean worries about – in part *because* Jean is a more mature character who’s lived a bit longer with a very unstable man. Nevare’s dynamic with his best friend is extremely unlike Locke’s dynamic with his. They’re al characters with depth. But… it’s a very different sort of depth, each time.]

    I find it interesting that your comment seems to corelate emotional depth so easily with physical suffering/vulnerability. One or two of my female responders on wotmania did the same, and while the answers are insightful, and fascinating, I always feel like we’ve crossed over a chasm without building a bridge. We’re drawn to male vulnerability: why?

    Are we simply reversing the polemic?

    I grew up with my mother warning me against men and how they could hurt me, and have personal experience (no angsting! I’m not angsting!) of some of the same. My earliest writing attempts were very Angsty Sue. By examining the male body, traditionally invulnerable, as fragile, perhaps I shift the attention away from my own vulnerability?

    I don’t completely like that answer. It sort of implies a denial of victimisation – Not me, I wasn’t hurt, HE was! – and given the number of women writers (published, unpublisheed, fanfiction writers) we’re talking about, it also seems implausible.

    I was reading an essay be Hélène Cixous a while ago, where she was talking about the need for a woman’s writing, distinct and un-mimetic of male writing, and it was a very bodily essay. It was about our breasts and milk and vagina and mothers and sisters and babies. It was beautiful, and I remember being slightly discomfited because I felt like I was being pinned down to define my womanhood by my body. Hélène Cixous is still writing, but she has been writing for *years*. Decades. The Laugh of the Medusa came out in 1975. That was 30 years ago. Feminists have been debating the boundaries of gender for *decades*. And then queer theory shows up, crablike, and confuses the issue because it reminds us screamingly that there is a difference between gender and sexuality, and an overlap, and we all have rights…

    … I cannot stop talking. I think when I say “examining” perhaps I should instead say “exploring”. We’ve explored ourselves. We shall continue to explore ourselves. But there are other frontiers beyond space alone. And… in our quests to know ourselves, we need to know the other, or those who might try to make us the Other, so that we don’t repeat that mistake.

    … Rereading that, it sounds like a load of Words Without Meaning. I hope nobody takes offense, I hope people argue or debate or stop by. I have no idea what I’m talking about and want someone to talk with me until I get it.

    Thanks for the comment!

  6. Pingback: Burndive by Karin Lowachee « The Pearls Are Cooling

  7. Pingback: Cagebird by Karin Lowachee « The Pearls Are Cooling

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  10. This discussion has seriously got me thinking about a lot of things. It’s so true that female authors often let really bad stuff happen to their male characters. But isn’t this also true the other way around?
    I just finished a book by James Patterson about two males that rape, torture and kill women. I think in this discussion it is largely overlooked that male writers also torture their female (and male, for that matter) characters. I’m not even sure I would agree that female writers are harsher on their male characters than male writers are. Maybe I don’t read enough traditional fantasy, but it seems to me that violence done by writers of both genders to their male characters is pretty 50/50. I simply don’t see female writers being particularly more gruesome to their male characters than male writers are.
    Another reason I can think of why it seems that more male characters are hurt in books by female writers, may have something to do with the book’s cast of characters consisting predominantly of males. Many books, by either male or female writers, have more male than female characters in them.

  11. This discussion has seriously got me thinking about a lot of things. It’s so true that female authors often let really bad stuff happen to their male characters. But isn’t this also true the other way around?
    I just finished a book by James Patterson about two males that rape, torture and kill women. I think in this discussion it is largely overlooked that male writers also torture their female (and male, for that matter) characters. I’m not even sure I would agree that female writers are harsher on their male characters than male writers are. Maybe I don’t read enough traditional fantasy, but it seems to me that violence done by writers of both genders to their male characters is pretty 50/50. I simply don’t see female writers being particularly more gruesome to their male characters than male writers are.
    Another reason I can think of why it seems that more male characters are hurt in books by female writers, may have something to do with the book’s cast of characters consisting predominantly of males. Many books, by either male or female writers, have more male than female characters in them.

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