Take It Like a Man

(Content warning: I, uh, talk about violence in this. Rather a lot. Not in gory detail, but if the discussion of traumatic and/or sexual violence bothers you, you may not want to read onward.)

My husband and I recently went to see Tomb Raider (short form: it’s ridiculous, but if it weren’t ridiculous it would be doing it wrong, and it has more to enjoy in the first ten minutes than I remember in the entirety of the Angelina Jolie version), and it’s freshened up some thoughts that have been percolating in my mind for a while now about violence and gender in media.

I’ve lost the link now — if somebody out there has it, please do supply in comments — but quite some time ago, I watched a fanvid that was an enormous montage of the attractive male leads in various movies and TV shows being beaten up and/or tortured for the audience’s delectation. It was set to a tune that kept repeating the phrase “and I wanted more,” and the vid complies: it keeps escalating the violence, until (for many people) it hits a point where you don’t want more. What you have is too much; it has stopped being sexy and just hurts. Part of the point of the vid is to ask: where’s your line? At what point does this cease to be fine entertainment and start becoming horrific, the way it would be in real life?

I say “part of the point” because the vid actually got me thinking down an entirely different track, which is the gendered differences in violence. Not in terms of how characters inflict it — though that’s an interesting topic in its own right — but how they take it. And how we, as an audience, receive that story.

There are plenty of violent scenes that I have no problem with if the target is a man, but flinch right out of if it’s a woman. There are a lot of reasons for this. One is the social context: the meaning we associate with a man hitting/torturing another man is very different from a man hitting/torturing a woman, and the circumstances under which those two things happen in real life is often different, too. Another is that, well, I’m a straight woman: there’s frequently (though not always!) a sexualized element to all of this, and I’m attracted to men, so of course I’d rather watch them in such scenes than female characters. The flip side of that is audience identification: torture a woman, and I imagine myself in her place, to a much greater degree than I identify with a male character. I don’t want to experience that. So I don’t much enjoy watching it.

. . . sort of. And this is where I get into the actual realization that fanvid inspired.

***

Let me digress for a moment to lay out a detailed example, from the movie G.I. Jane. This is a 1997 film starring Demi Moore and Viggo Mortensen, about the effort to integrate women with our armed forces; Moore’s character is admitted to Navy SEAL training as a “test case.” Mortensen, as the Command Master Chief in charge of that training, does not want her there, and he does his best to drive her out. But it’s worth noting that he is scrupulously fair about his efforts: his hostility remains within the bounds of the rules.

Until a sequence near the end of the film. The remaining SEAL candidates are put through an exercise where they’re supposed to get recon on a site and get out with their intel; they fail, and the “enemy” (their instructors) take them prisoner. The point of the exercise is to expose them to some of the conditions they might encounter as prisoners, so that they’ll be prepared if it happens to them in the field. This means everything from locking them in cages to actions that (depending on where you draw your line) constitute torture: one of the guys has done something bad to his knee, and the “interrogators” dig their fingers into it, maybe not doing any additional damage but sure as hell inflicting a lot of pain. The job of the candidates is to endure that kind of thing without giving any information, and to try to find a way out.

When it comes time for Mortensen’s character to interrogate Moore’s, he smacks her around a bit, then drags her out to continue the process in front of the caged men — because he knows that he can use her suffering as a lever against them. In fact, that’s the point he wants to make: the problem isn’t (just) with her and her fitness to be a soldier, but with the way her presence makes the men around her more likely to cave, in order to spare her pain. This scene is where he crosses the line; among other things, he threatens Moore’s character with rape (whether he would have actually followed through is ambiguous). She stops him before he can get very far, though, and manages to fight back.

He wins the fight, of course. She’s got her hands literally tied behind her back, and although she gets in some good licks, there’s no way she’s going to win. But here’s the realization I had:

She gets beaten up like a man.

By that, I don’t mean that Mortensen’s character doesn’t pull his punches — although that’s true. I mean the story that fight tells is the kind of story more often given to male characters than to female ones. Moore keeps staggering to her feet, spitting defiance through a mouthful of blood, and the final message is that Mortensen can beat the shit out of her, but he can’t beat her. It is the story of her determination, her grit, her insistence on being a soldier no matter what — and whatever critiques you may want to level at that narrative, the fact that she gets to have it is interesting.

***

When male characters get beaten up or tortured, the focus is on their strength. They endure with clenched teeth and stifled cries, and sooner or later they find a way to fight back. Or they break — and then the story is about the limits of their strength, the fact that this event was so terrible it took this strong, resilient man past the point of even his ability to endure.

When female characters get beaten up or tortured, the focus is on their vulnerability. They scream, they cry, they beg for mercy. They’re the objects upon which pain is inflicted, rather than the subjects who respond to it. The story is about their weakness, the ways in which they can be reduced to a helpless state.

***

The above isn’t universally true, of course. But it’s a common enough pattern that when it gets broken, I notice. I have no problem watching Demi Moore get kicked in the teeth, even though I’m a woman and don’t want to imagine myself being kicked in the teeth, even though she’s not the kind of person I’m attracted to, even though it’s a man doing the kicking. Because the story I’m watching there is about her toughness, and I like imagining myself as tough. By contrast, Mette Ivie Harrison pointed out once that George, the werewolf in the UK version of Being Human, is coded female by the story: when he changes shape, he screams. High-pitched and shrill, the way women scream when they’re tortured on TV. (There are lots of other ways George is coded female, but that’s the one relevant to my point here.) It’s a shocking sound, because we don’t usually hear it from men on the screen: they’re stoic, they muffle the sounds of their pain. Because we’re watching their efforts to resist it, control it, rather than the way it controls them.

This is why you can’t just dismiss concerns about gendered violence in media by pointing at the guys and saying “look at the awful things that happen to them!” Because more often than not, those awful things are telling a completely different story.

Which makes Tomb Raider especially interesting to me, because I think it bridges the gap between those two modes. Alicia Vikander’s Lara Croft screams quite a bit in the film, and most of the time it isn’t rage-filled defiance; it’s a woman in genuine pain, her voice forced high and thin and raw. We’re seeing Lara at the start of her career, not already transformed into a battle-hardened veteran who shrugs off everything with ease. We see her vulnerable and suffering, whether it’s at the hands of her female opponent in an MMA bout or at her own hands when she pulls a splinter of metal from her side or at the hands of the male villain when he kicks her in that same perforated side . . . but we also see her rising above that pain. She doesn’t start out with the resilience of a typical action hero; instead we’re watching the process by which she acquires it.

So in the end, even though we see her vulnerability — which is how the female end of side of the story usually gets told — it isn’t about that vulnerability. It’s about the fact that you can admit you feel pain, you can scream and kick and cry over it . . . and then you can pick yourself up and keep going, because you have things to do and people who depend on you to do them.

We need that story, because most of us are not battle-hardened veterans who can endure everything with attractively gritted teeth, but probably all of us will have points in our lives where we need to scream and kick and cry and keep going. And we need stories about tough people of whatever gender, not just the standard-issue male variety. And we also need stories about not so tough people of whatever gender, men most especially included, because it’s a pernicious idea that if you can’t just dust yourself off and soldier on then you’re not really a man (read: not really worthwhile). We need to see both what resistance to suffering looks like, and what happens when resistance isn’t possible.

I’m always going to prefer the stories where people manage to rise above their trials, regardless of gender; I don’t enjoy watching the abject victimization of anybody. But all too often, that’s the only thing on offer for my own kind. Which makes the exceptions weirdly refreshing — even when it involves imagining myself being kicked in the teeth.

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