cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

Manpain -- why so often a bore?

I saw Wolverine the other day, and it was better than I was expecting (by no means a stellar movie, but I enjoyed it more than ST:ID). The thing that has stuck with me longest is the ending. I liked it. I liked it a lot. I liked it because of the way it used the manpain trope, which I can rarely say about a mainstream action movie.

I've been thinking about manpain a lot over the last few weeks, in part because of Teen Wolf season 3, but also because it's so prominent in storytelling at the moment, and so often used incredibly poorly in terms of telling an interesting story.

I have problems with the mainpain trope anyway, primarily because of the objectification of suffering, and the inherently awful gender binaries, but why does it have to be boring as well? And let's be honest, endless manpain is boring (endless anything is boring), even taking into account the intrinsic appeal of seeing someone in the privileged societal position brought low and their pain turned into a spectacle. It's boring not just because it's often unimaginatively done, but because even though it's usually offered in an escalating cycle, the pattern itself goes nowhere. It's unsatisfying because it's never allowed to resolve, no matter how epic it gets.  A lot of genre shows seem to have fallen into the trap of using manpain primarily as a brute-force emotional lever and constantly using the reset button on the protagonist(s) to keep them in that state. I guess TPTB figure we'll keep buying it, so they just keep torturing the characters to keep us buying (until we're bored and stop and they cancel the show).

But you know what? That's actually incredibly lazy storytelling, and there's just no need for it to be that way -- there are other ways to keep us buying, and more nuanced ways to use manpain if you think that's your moneymaker.  For example:

You start with a character at the lowest point of their life, and it's automatically interesting... as long as there's a genuine chance that their situation could improve.

Or you start with a character who is at the highest point of their life, and bring them low. That's automatically interesting too, but only if we feel they have a genuine chance to avoid their fate.

In serial tv, the chance of changing their fate is rarely genuine -- the reset button undoes the character's progress if they ever get too close to a resolution (ie. another character is fridged, there's a new tragic backstory).

But here's the thing: you can move a character from low to high, or high to low with genuine change, rather than resorting to the reset button. There are different flavours of pain, and different stages of grief, and a character can still suffer without it being a one-note snore-fest. For example, there are only so many ways Captain Jack can be gruesomely killed and tortured; or rather, I'm sure writers could think up hundreds of ways, but it's one-note and boring after the first dozen times no matter how big a bomb you drop on him. There are a lot more ways he can suffer while working towards reconciling his past, or while reaching for a future, and the stakes are automatically higher, because we haven't seen that version of his pain before.

Some movies and franchises have managed to harness manpain to the plot, rather than simply serving it up as emotional spectacle in an escalating and/or resetting pattern, and those stories tend to be enormous hits. The original Lethal Weapon and Die Hard movies did this. To my surprise Supernatural actually seems to have done this with Season 8 (which I haven't finished watching yet, so I may be wrong), after many seasons of trapping their protagonists in endless self-loathing. And guess what? Allowing them growth makes them interesting again. The Wolverine (MILD SPOILER) actually allowed the protagonist to grieve and move on, which was much more interesting to me than the reset button (/SPOILER).

On the other hand, Derek Hale has reached the point of boring repetition -- (SPOILER) Let's make him seem happier in the first few eps so it looks like he's progressed even though we haven't actually shown any of his character development. Oh, look, another character he cares about has been fridged just after he started a relationship. Aren't you surprised and sad? Oh, look, he has another tragic moment in his past. Didn't see that coming after the cunning opening ploy, did you? Isn't he tragically tragic??? See, we're giving you all the stuff you like, but bigger and more painful than before! (/SPOILER).

Tragedy does not have to be boring. If the stories are structured as stories, and there is a point to the suffering that actually tells us something interesting and relevant about the characters, tragedy is one of the most compelling forms of storytelling. It doesn't need manpain with a reset button to make it so.

This entry was originally posted at
Tags: feminism, meta, storytelling

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