Warning: Contains discussion of sexual assault in comics.
Recently I’ve found myself overcome by nostalgia. Maybe it has something to do with reaching my thirties but, as one gets older, the days of childhood shine brighter and brighter. Over the last week, I’ve been watching a number of old animated series, already classics in my childhood, including such gems as BraveStarr, Thundercats, and He-Man.
Although I’ve sometimes found the gender politics and portrayal of female characters problematic, I was struck by the shows’ positive portrayal of masculine men. Despite being stereotypically masculine, all the protagonists were still shown as being capable of tenderness, empathy, and kindness.
Gender expression is complex. But the reality is that there are men who fall on what is considered the more masculine end of the spectrum; they should no more have to apologize for this than men classified as effeminate by society. Today we live in a world where masculinity is often seen as inherently problematic or irrelevant. Despite this, hyper-masculine protagonists still abound in pop culture. Many of them are supposedly created to fulfill male wish-fulfillment, but they’re seldom heroic.
While modern pop culture still frequently portrays effeminate men as villainous or incompetent, overly masculine men suffer another fate. They are the wife-beaters, the anti-heroes, the damaged vigilantes incapable of emotional connection. Even worse, masculine character designs are used as a creative shorthand for cruelty and moral degeneracy.
Comics such as 100 Bullets, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Punisher Max feature hyper-masculine characters who are also rapists. Even works that lionize masculine characters still frequently show them as damaged men and often link masculinity to the threat of sexual assault. In Punisher MAX, the Punisher beats a madame to death. As he does so, he emphasizes that he wishes her to feel as helpless as the women raped on her orders. Apart from its shock value, the aim of this scene is to show that Punisher himself is no better than a sex slaver or rapist.
Like most examples of the noir genre, 100 Bullets features a largely male cast. It’s interesting to note that the most stereotypically masculine of the characters is also a serial rapist. Lono, a bellowing, cigar-chomping Alpha male, is shown sexually assaulting various characters throughout the series.
A similar character design can be found The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Originally conceived as a Victorian equivalent of the modern superhero team, the original League consisted of not one but two rapists – The Invisible Man and Mr Hyde.
Mr Hyde is a huge, boisterous brute who kills prostitutes and commits cannibalism with equal glee. He is, of course, the alter-ego of the mild-mannered Doctor Jekyll. At one point in the comic, he explains that he represents Jekyll’s appetites. Divorced from the governing superego of Jekyll, he has no restraints, which is how he achieved his abnormal size and strength. Since Hyde represents a repressed aspect of the gentle Jekyll, there’s a subtle implication that many male psyches could harbor a similar beast. The message seems to be that an unrestrained man is both powerful and dangerous.
Neither Hyde nor Lono restrict their violent tendencies to females — both of them are shown assaulting men. In particular, Hyde’s brutal rape of the Invisible Man is meant to be blackly humorous. Since both these series use sexual violence to demonstrate male power and brutality, raping another man is meant to be the ultimate act of dominance.
Sexual assault also occurs with alarming frequency in The Authority during Mark Millar’s run. In his last story arc, Millar has both Swift and The Engineer brainwashed and forced into abusive relationships. But neither fare as badly as Apollo. Before DC’s various reboots, teammates Apollo and Midnighter were gay lovers. Since Apollo sported long hair, and Midnighter a leather Batman-esque outfit, Millar cast Apollo in the feminine role and had him sexually assaulted in one story line after another.
Millar then has more masculine Midnighter avenge Apollo. In one instance, he does so by sodomizing the rapist with a home-made torture implement. Once again, masculinity is associated with sexual violence.
The reoccurring link between sexual assault, male power, and the masculine male is a troubling one. In many ways, it’s as damaging a stereotype as those which reduce female characters to mere eye candy or victims. This pathologization of masculinity benefits no one, least of all the male target audience.