Being touched by filth

One of the things I liked about Alias was how, after Sydney found out what a monster Sloane was but decided she’d stay on as a double agent in order to take him down, she had to play nice and pretend she didn’t want to go hose herself off every time he placed a fatherly hand on her shoulder. She had to make him believe nothing had changed, that his displays of affection were as welcome as ever.

It wasn’t until I saw the same dynamic played out far more uncomfortably in another show that I began to question: why the hell did I like seeing a woman forced to endure physical and emotional displays of affection from a monstrous man?

The other show in question was BBC’s Robin Hood. This time, the dynamic was romantic rather than familial. The sheriff’s right hand man (Guy of Gisborne) wants to court Marian, and in order to keep her cover as a noble loyal to the government, she doesn’t dare reject him outright. She uses every excuse to pick quarrels with him, plays on the capricious woman stereotype to keep him confused, but always ultimately lets him keep the illusion she might marry him eventually.

(The Big Huge Spoiler from Series 2 lurks behind the “Read More” link.)

Until the end of Series 2, that is, at which point she uses the truth – that she’s been stringing Gisborne along all the time, and always loved Robin – to distract him from killing King Richard. It works; Gisborne kills Marian instead. (That story deserves its own post and then some, but I’m holding off until I’ve actually seen the entire series instead of just large chunks uploaded to YouTube.)

As much as I hated this turn of events – I was loving Lucy Griffiths’ work – it didn’t dim the weird pleasure I got from this dynamic of a woman forced to make nice to a man who not only is capable of hideous brutality, but is capable of killing her the instant she stops stroking his ego.

Once I started questioning my response, I recognized it for what it was: catharsis. Like (I would guess) the majority of women, I’ve been in the position of feeling I had to “grin and bear” a man taking verbal or physical liberties I found overly familiar, creepy or just plain misogynistic. Like (I would guess) a significant majority of women, I’ve danced on eggshells around an abusive man for a protracted, tense, traumatic period of time. Seeing Sydney and Marian endure the same thing but for the greater good, playing their own noble endgames against the men in question, was cathartic and inspiring. You’d think I’d prefer Sydney’s ending to Marian’s – Sydney lives and Sloane suffers a fate worse than death – but since Sydney isn’t the one to destroy Sloane in the end (her father sacrifices himself to do it for her) – I actually found Marian’s end more satisfying: she plays Gisborne like a harp to the bitter end, using what little power she has to achieve what she believes must be done.

It’s a sign there’s something very, very wrong with your society when you find it refreshing to see a woman character take shit from a man in order to achieve something because you’re so used to seeing women characters take shit from men because the writers don’t even realize their male characters are being shitty.

Apparently, I take women putting up with men’s shit as such a given in life (and TV) that I’m making a distinction based on how and why she puts up with the shit. What I should be asking is: where are all the stories of grown men being forced to endure displays of affection from hideous brutal women to save the world (or just, you know, because it’s their lot in life)? The comparative scarcity of that storyline – the implausible sound of it – is a dead giveaway that we’re far from the equal, post-feminist world most people seem to think we’re living in. We’ve been conditioned to find it hard to imagine women having that sort of power over men and hard to believe men could ever feel sullied by sexual advances, even from their female arch enemies.

Comments

  1. says

    where are all the stories of grown men being forced to endure displays of affection from hideous brutal women to save the world?

    I don’t know how much time this site has spent with Farscape, but that show went to some pretty interesting places with Grayza, among other dastardly females.

  2. Maartje says

    I don’t know how much time this site has spent with Farscape, but that show went to some pretty interesting places with Grayza, among other dastardly females.

    I haven’t seen Alias so I will keep the comparison between Robin Hood and Farscape:
    In both cases the woman uses the sexual effect she has on men to her advantage. Marian uses it as a tool for good- she does have the choice to get out of that situation by living in the forest but she chooses not to because she can do most good at the castle. Crighton never had to do any such thing, he was raped by Grayza but never had to pretend he liked it.
    If any relationship is Farscape is like the one between Marian and Guy I think it’s the one between Scorpius and Crighton. (And who knows what exactly Scorpius is packing underneath the gimp suit).

    It’s been a while since I last watched Farscape ep’s with Grayza in them but from what I recal her main tool was the sex-gland thing, surprisingly she was also made out to be rather smart. But there was no mutual need between Grayza and Crighton, until she kidnaps Aeryn.
    Guy needs Marian to give him salvation, Marian needs Guy to use his influence on her behalf.

    The biggest difference I think between Marian and Crighton on this point is that while Crighton has been raped (mentally and physically) and is trying to live with that, Marian is living with the constant and very present threat of being raped and murdered if she puts a foot wrong.

    Maybe some more thought on the subject will help me put things a little more clearly :P

  3. says

    Anerda, while the Grayza situation is different (as Maggie explains), at least it was clearly a squicky rape situation with limited potential for viewers to conclude it was sexxxy, which is great. (Here’s the link to our Farscape articles.)

    Maartje, Marian is also living with what might happen to her father (until midway through series 2) if she puts a foot wrong. It’s not that Gisborne wants Marian so he’s taken her father hostage and demanded quid pro quo; it’s that for no reason other than Guy taking a liking to Marian, she’s suddenly in the situation of having to keep happy a man who’d as soon kill her father as look at him. And then, stuck in that situation, she realizes there are ways to use it to her advantage, which is the only way to redeem it.

    And, as you point out, which Crichton is clearly a victim, Marian could be considered to be “asking for” whatever happens to her because she’s playing with Guy’s “affections”, such as they are. In fact, those “affections” were imposed upon her with the implications of his power over her, his people’s power over her people, but people often forget to consider that context when judging women. It reminds me of how people have promoted Strom Thurmond’s support of his biracial daughter as responsible when the mother was an extremely poor 15 year old African American maid in his home. Like she was in a position to say no. Hell, she wasn’t even in a position to bruise his ego by offering resistance. She may well have “enthusiastically consented” because she felt it was required for her to have food and shelter.

    Marian had more in the way of options than that poor woman, but I think that’s the sort of dynamic they’re trying to invoke.

  4. says

    I can think of, um, three novels – two by the same author – that have that dynamic going, plus one (old, BBC) TV show, and that’s it off the top of my head:

    The first is City of Bones by Martha Wells, which as well as being a feast for archeology junkies has a brilliant visual/visceral metaphor for economic stratification, a method of understanding basic economics (how many hours of work does something cost? How many hours of work does your _drinking water_ cost?) and (yes, really) a plausible mpreg setup.

    It also has a situation in which our outcaste mutant hero is taken prisoner by the viceroy of the city-state, who can have him killed on a whim, and has him sent to her bedchamber as a fucktoy because he’s cute, foreign, and (this is important) not interfertile with normal humans, making him safe all around. It’s kind of a stunning reversal of the usual “heroine in the clutches of the lecherous bad guy,” partly because it is such a rare exception.

    The other novels in which this happens are both Alliance-Union stories by C.J. Cherryh, who’s been doing gender-role reversals/deconstruction for the past 30 years or so: there’s a badass space captain who’s kinda the good guy (by comparison, in the completely f’d up war/collapse-into-anarchy situation that exists) who keeps an enemy prisoner as her fuckstick/punching bag, in Downbelow Station and in Cyteen the scientific genius/political leader who is the center of the saga treats her subordinates (male or female) like she was your typical male tycoon/premier, “casting couch” and worse, immunized from consequences by her wealth and status, above even the risks of “live boy/dead girl,” until someone finally snaps and [spoiler redacted].

    Then there’s Servalan of Blake’s 7, whose behavior pretty much fit the same typically-male leader role pattern, with her male subordinates and/or adversaries having to tolerate her appetites. Again, that was a British show and it ran in the 1970s…

  5. says

    Also I should add that seeing a heroine being forced to grin and bear being slimed and having this go on and on and on, for the greater good or no, does *nothing* for me except give me hives and make me want to run far, far away – I haven’t seen the Robin Hood show so maybe it’s different, but it all cuts way too close to the bone, and creates a state in me that can’t really be called “flashback” since having to put up with unctuous, slimy, pseudo-niceness and eat shit with a smile in order to survive (sexually-harrassing or mainly just creepy patriarchal-bullying) has been pretty much de riguer for my entire life with brief and temporary refuges, from the time my mother remarried when I was three, through high school and college, out into the workaday world, up to the present moment. At least I can yell “Eat shit and die, assholes!” at the garbage truck men who audially harass me while walking to work, but that’s pretty pale satisfaction, and doesn’t answer for the rest of the day of sexist bullshit I have to put up with from boss and customers.

    So my feminist fantasy catharsis tends (and always has!) to involve wisecracking take-no-guff women with BFGs, BF swords, BF spaceships, or just badass superpowers of the sort that can obliterate planets and stop tidal waves without blinking… “Hahah, I made you kill me in frustration!” is too close to stuff that really happened in my family; “Cower, Puny Mortals!” is more like it when it comes to letting out my inner Overlady.

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    Well, I have been in the position of having to “work” someone who has inordinate power over me – not so much to save the world as to protect myself or someone else. It’s not often you see that subtle area explored on TV, and that’s what is resonating with me.

    I also like women characters who take no shit, but I rarely come away thinking they could deal with some of the crap I’ve had to deal with. And the crap I’ve dealt with most likely pales next to what it would have been had I been of color or even poorer than I was, or less able-bodied.

  7. SunlessNick says

    Seeing Sydney and Marian endure the same thing but for the greater good, playing their own noble endgames against the men in question, was cathartic and inspiring. You’d think I’d prefer Sydney’s ending to Marian’s - BetaCandy

    Apart from the points you made, they’re also not quite the same thing. There isn’t a sexual component between Sydney and Sloane (indeed, he at his worst would find it as repellent as she would) – rather, he believes/hopes that Sydney is his daughter, and at least, considers himself something of an uncle – so while it takes on a gender element because of the characters’ genders, that’s not the engine driving it.

    With Marian and Guy, it’s more simple and raw: he wants to fuck her, and is backed up in this ambition by a society that judges her purely in terms of her fuckability; he imagines all sorts of justifications that make his ambition more romantic and noble than just fucking her, and is backed up by a society that does the same thing.

    Having that romantic element be so poisonous – and obviously poisonous – is much rarer.

  8. says

    Nick, once again, you’ve taken what I was trying to get at and actually gotten at it. :D

    The Marian/Guy dynamic deconstructs a romantic myth or two, and maybe that’s what really gets me about it. Guy is – to society – the sort of man you’re supposed to want, be flattered to have wanting you. He’s in with powerful men, lawfully doing the things that get him ahead in his society. We women are not supposed to pass judgment on the things he does or the society he does them for. We’re supposed to accept him as a good catch because our society (everyone from the government down to our girlfriends) tells us he is.

    Marian sees him for what he is, and without even thinking, substitutes her judgment for society’s. And we know this is conscious on her part because she hides it in order to use him.

    Yep. Beautiful.

  9. MercuryRetro says

    Might I suggest that the real dynamic underlying this is that many writers can’t imagine any female affection as brutal, monstrous or unwelcome?

    In other words, women can’t touch men in a ‘filthy’ way because of the innate purity, desirability and wholesomeness of their touch. Same dynamic underlies the idea that men can’t be raped by women, because, of course, you can’t rape the willing. A woman raping a man is like a woman giving him a million bucks; what kind of idiot would say no?

    Whereas the idea that men can debase, defile and victimize women by their very touch(even just looking at them) is quite prominent in our society. So a situation in which a woman endures a man’s touch till the moment she can turn him into a bloody smear is seen as a cathartic ‘take THAT!’

    The reverse is seen as absurd. A man enduring a woman’s touch until he can arrange her death? Would he even remain a sympathetic character?

  10. MercuryRetro says

    Another thought. I have experienced very much unwanted touch from women, once by a boss who liked to rest her breasts on my head while I worked. I am female, but when she did that my skin would crawl and I wanted to punch her. I’ve heard some guys say they’ve endured similar sorts of unwanted touching from women, but, unfortunately, most guys know if they complain they’ll be laughed at.

    I think that ties into the whole stereotype that men are always gagging for female affection of any sort. And that any man who isn’t appreciative is either gay or stupid.

  11. says

    MercuryRetro, yeah, I would agree with that. It’s like these sensational cases where a hot twenty-something woman has an affair with a 13 year old boy, and a scary-big percentage of the public reaction is “Lucky kid!” instead of “child molester!”

    Sexism definitely hurts men. too.

  12. SunlessNick says

    There’s a Shakesville post that brings up an interesting point. That it might sometimes be triggering for the threat of sexual assault to be disappeared out of a story where it would exist in reality (the example being Lost, wherein a plethora of violent, unstable men never pose a rape threat to any of the female characters).

    With the two shows here, that’s not something that Sydney is entirely exempt from, but she is largely so – whereas Marion lives with that threat near constantly – almost worse, since Guy raping her would not just be excused by most men around her, but barely even recognised as a concept.

  13. MercuryRetro says

    “the example being Lost, wherein a plethora of violent, unstable men never pose a rape threat to any of the female characters”

    Were these male characters raped themselves? Rape is a learned behavior. (I’m not saying that all rape victims go on to become rapists, but that there is a causal relationship.) Also, there are men who can be violent and unstable but only towards other men. It really depends on the character and his history.

    As for rape threat being disappeared out of a story… this happens a lot with situations that male characters end up in. For example, war-stories rarely seem to acknowledge that POW soldiers run a heightened risk of being rape victims. Likewise with non-combatant men in war zones.

    Also, rape-threat tends to be minimized in situations where violent, psychopathic females are in control of more vulnerable men. Or just played for laughs. (But then that can be a manifestation of what I mentioned earlier too. Women’s touch, even the touch of the most unbalanced, mentally disturbed woman, is desired.)

    Plus the threat of rape women can pose to each other is pretty much overlooked as well.

  14. MercuryRetro says

    Actually the whole idea of women as sexual predators is overlooked.

    I have been a victim of sexual assault by a woman and I don’t even bother going to sites for victims of sexual assault anymore. They always go along the same lines, they say ‘women can be sexual predators…’ but then they quote a statistic that implies they’re vanishingly rare. This is about the least helpful thing to say to someone who has been victimized. ‘We acknowledge it is possible, but you’re really a complete freak, possibly the only one who has ever gone through it.’

    I don’t want to feel like the only one, I want to feel like others have gone through what I’ve gone through. Which is why I really want to see media that depicts my reality… and I think women as sexual predators is something we’re only scratching the surface of in terms of statistics. I know a lot of guys who’ve been victims, but have never told anyone. Or can’t understand that they are rape victims. I remember something a guy said once, ‘you know, a woman had sex with me while I was asleep, I woke up with her on top of me and pretended to be into it until it was over. It wasn’t rape, I guess, but I keep having flashbacks, I have trouble being around women alone and I’m scared about how resentful I feel towards her…’

    It wasn’t rape? But he has all the symptoms of it having been rape? Sheesh. This is a subject that needs serious exposure!

    Again, ties into the whole ‘women’s touch is desired’ thing.

  15. SunlessNick says

    Also, there are men who can be violent and unstable but only towards other men. It really depends on the character and his history.

    I think you’re missing the point that Melissa was making. She’s not asking for there to be rapists in Lost, but it’s as if the threat of it doesn’t exist and everyone knows that it doesn’t, when that’s not something they should know. It’s a sanitisation is what she’s getting at.

    As for rape threat being disappeared out of a story…

    So would a better solution be to also disappear the most common “way round,” or at times address all of them?

    Actually the whole idea of women as sexual predators is overlooked.

    This reminds me of the phrase “white trash” – superficially, it looks like a racist term against whites, but what it was coined for was for white people to look down on other white people as no better than black people – the racism in play was still against blacks.

    I think male rape victims are seen in a similar way to victims of incest-rape by a male relative: their victimisation stands in contradiction to a meme our society clings to, respectively women-weak-men-invulnerable and male-relative-as-protector; and when those memes prove false, the victims are treated as betraying them.

  16. SunlessNick says

    Mercury: I’m sorry, I wrote my post as if you were male, because I could have sworn I saw you say so. But then I saw your comment in the Shakesville thread I linked to, and I know better now. Sorry.

  17. MercuryRetro says

    I don’t see how your post would have changed if you knew I was a woman?

    Anyway, I’m not offended, no need to apologize.

  18. MercuryRetro says

    “So would a better solution be to also disappear the most common “way round,” or at times address all of them?”

    I don’t know if I agree that any way is the ‘most common way round’. I know, personally, that certain forms of sexual victimization are so taboo and so stigmatized that no one ever talks about them so other forms may appear more common.

    I also think it’s legitimate to portray someone as blithe to the risks if they have never experienced them.

    And I agree, male rape victims face stigmatization as having betrayed their social role. Men are not allowed to be victims in our society. And our belief in the sexual invulnerability of men is somewhat absurd if you think about it. Drugs, weapons and being victimized while asleep can negate physical advantages(if they exist).

    As for victims of incest being stigmatized, I agree there too. In fact I think victims of female incest can be the most stigmatized, because of our assumptions about women’s care taking role!

    I’m not sure what the answer would be. I guess I would like to see more exposure for the more taboo/stigmatized forms of sexual victimization. A recognition that women can sexually exploit other people, etc.

    As for portraying fear of rape, I’m not sure. My interest would be in portraying it even handedly and not ‘whitewashing’ men’s vulnerability or women’s vulnerability to other women.

  19. says

    FYI, I’ve never watched Lost – just so you know.

    the example being Lost, wherein a plethora of violent, unstable men never pose a rape threat to any of the female characters

    That quote is from SunlessNick, and then MercuryRetro asks:

    Were these male characters raped themselves? Rape is a learned behavior.

    Had he said “because there are all these men around and a shortage of womanflesh”, I’d see your point. Despite the fantasies of alleged scientists who claim sexual assault is a natural behavior rather than learned, there is no evidence to suggest that all men will become rapists under certain conditions. I am convinced it’s a learned behavior, as are you.

    But he said “violent, unstable men.” If that doesn’t suggest rape as a possibility, I don’t know what would. Not all rapists have been physically raped – emotional abuse will do the trick just fine. Violent unstable people are not necessarily rapists, but if the people around these characters never fear rape as a possibility, then the show may well feel strangely sanitized to some of its viewers.

    I fully agree with your other points. Because I had two abusive misogynistic NPD grandmothers who carefully programmed some of their sons to be abusive misogynistic NPD men, I’m well aware that the cycle of abuse involves both genders being both abusers and victims. We’ve talked a few times around here about how the cult of masculinity prevents fiction from exploring how male abusers are created, and how we’re too busy heaping all the emotional displays and sympathetic natures onto our female characters to explore how women abusers function.

    We haven’t talked much about women who physically abuse other women – I guess because we mostly review film and TV, and when’s the last time you saw a plot about a woman raping another woman? Hell, it’s rare enough to see a plot where a mother beats her daughter, and we all (I hope?) know that goes on in reality.

  20. says

    It’s interesting, Jenn: in The Watchmen (the book, I haven’t seen the movie yet), Rorschach, arguably the most sociopathic if the group (next to the raping, murdering Comedian) was abused as a child by his prostitute mother. At every turn in the book, either abuse of, or abuse by females, is a huge impetus for his personality.

  21. says

    You know, I almost mentioned that when Criminal Minds is short on time, they tend to default to “His mother was a whore!” to explain why the unsub is a monster. The idea that a mother’s sex life is terrifically damaging for her kids sure has been explored in criminal theory, but it’s extremely problematic. I could write pages on why, but for our purposes, this will suffice: it’s not analytical at all. It’s like saying “He’s a monster because his dad was a preacher!” It relies on the listener to have certain preconceptions about preachers which are patently absurd. Preachers span the range from really nice people to really awful people, and prostitutes are a pretty varied group as well. More explanation is required, and when “Mom was a whore!” gets handed around like it’s a full answer, I infer some really disturbing assumptions from that.

    It’s also a disservice to kids who grew up with abusive mothers who appeared publicly to be lovely moral people.

  22. MercuryRetro says

    “You know, I almost mentioned that when Criminal Minds is short on time, they tend to default to “His mother was a whore!” to explain why the unsub is a monster.”

    I think in ‘Watchmen’–from what I can see–they didn’t default on ‘his mother was a whore’. They showed that she was a prostitute _and_ she neglected and emotionally abused (possibly physically abused) Rorschach.

    Maybe some of that comes from sexual addiction(not that I’m saying prostitutes are sexual addicts, but the two are often conflated erroneously). Like other addicts, sexual addicts prefer their fix to taking care of their children.

    “It’s also a disservice to kids who grew up with abusive mothers who appeared publicly to be lovely moral people.”

    Here, here.

    “Violent unstable people are not necessarily rapists, but if the people around these characters never fear rape as a possibility, then the show may well feel strangely sanitized to some of its viewers.”

    I agree with the rest of your post, and I see what you’re saying.

    There was an interesting study I read once about rapists. Apparently many of them will victimize ‘against orientation’. In other words if they are a man and heterosexual in their consenting relationships, they will still chose male or female victims. It’s not the sex that is important, but the vulnerability and accessibility. Almost like we’re split along a completely different ‘gender’ line for rapists; rapists and rape victims. The only reason why we don’t see this more often is because male victims self-select themselves out of reporting their victimization and we only capture this dynamic when rapists themselves are interviewed about their activities. (And are willing to admit to it.)

    In fact some rapists are only caught when they make the switch over to female victims. Which suggests that men might be able to prevent some rape of women by acknowledging and reporting their own victimization!

    Further, all this presents some serious questions. Obviously rape is not about sex, it’s about rape. So all those evo psych theories about rape being evolutionarily adaptive make no sense. Not that they ever made much sense to me. Children are vulnerable to their mothers and I don’t see how giving their mother extreme antipathy towards you, as the father, is going to help the cause of procreation. Infanticide is a reality in our species.

  23. says

    A man raped by several women over 4 days in Qatar:
    http://www.qatarliving.com/node/360558

    Texas man found guilty of raping five other men:
    http://www.gmanews.tv/story/76690/Texas-man-guilty-of-raping-another-man

    I remember that case in particular. At the time, I read that the perp would wait until a smaller man (generally younger than him, too) was alone at home.

    These cases ARE reported, but damn, few and far between. It’s about *power*, NOT SEX. I wish idiots who believed otherwise would understand that.

  24. Ikkin says

    I kind of have to wonder where the type of villain who uses false niceness, overly-familiar gestures, and childish treatment (sometimes to the point of baby-talk) to condescend to whomever they’re talking to fits into this. (To give some examples of what I mean by this type, classic Disney villains love doing this) It exists in both male and female forms, and can be done to either gender, so it’s an interesting test case – this person’s touch is always considered a bad thing, regardless of gender, and something to endure (or avoid) rather than enjoy.

    Then again, things that would usually be displays of affection (hand on shoulder, touching face, etc.) aren’t exactly legitimate when used by that type – from what I can tell, it seems more like a way of demonstrating power over others – so it’s not really the same thing. Some interesting implications could be pulled from it regardless, I’d imagine – maybe linking the creepiness with the implied dominance rather than the gender necessarily (which would, of course, be related to the idea that “a woman’s touch can’t be bad”).

  25. Alex says

    The closest example I can think of for a “man suffering unwanted female advance” is the James Bond film A View to a Kill. Grace Jones plays the role of May Day, the henchwoman of a psychotic microchip mogul. Her first appearance has her assassinate Bond’s contact in a crowded restaurant and jump off the Eiffel Tower. Her second appearance has her practicing martial arts with her boss, where she shows a very intense demeanor and adds sexuality to her physical aggression. After setting her up as physically and mentally dangerous, James Bond ends up seducing her after some espionage shenanigans with him looking visibly uncomfortable and making the pithy comment “the things I do for England”.

    The troubling aspect of this is how May Day’s design is drawing heavily from “African savage” and Amazonian misandrist imagery. She’s essentially a man in both form and function and that’s what’s supposed to bother the audience about this coupling. Even then, the film still deflates this as a comic relief moment that has zero effect on the plot itself.

    Also related is how this film suggests the idea of May Day being able to crush people between her gigantic thighs, which wasn’t actually shown in this film but popped up in Goldeneye a decade later.

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