“I’m Gonna Hurt You ’til You Love Me!” (The Tortured Heroine)
Welcome to my second editorial. I’d like to start out by saying this topic has been on my mind since before I ever wrote my first review about a month ago. As I said before, I never intended to do any editorials, so I never really considered this a possibility until after I had written the first. I kept putting it off in favor of doing more reviews, but the other day someone asked me specifically to write it, and I couldn’t be happier to finally get to it.
If there is any one thing that a person notices when stepping into the world of fanfiction, it’s how people seem to love to take beloved characters and treat them like the filth of the earth. One of the most common examples of this is the tortured heroine. She’s our protagonist; she’s beautiful, smart, charming, and the world won’t stop shitting on her. No matter what she does or how she treats others, she’s inevitably beaten, raped, imprisoned, cut, burned, humiliated, or tortured.
I can’t address this topic without bringing up the misogynistic roots of it all. Most fanfiction writers I’ve come across are female, and write about a female lead. When that lead isn’t a Mary Jane, a vacuous void, or both, the trend I’ve noticed is that there’s a high probability that she’ll inexorably be put through hell before she can finally achieve some watered-down happy ending that never quite erases the damage the character sustained since chapter one.
I can think of a lot of reasons as to why people gravitate towards this theme: the most obvious one being that they’re going for shock value, a term that I’ve always found to be, for the most part, an oxymoron. The addition of something shocking for the sake of being shocking rarely adds any value to anything. It’s a cheap and simple way for some people to make waves and get some attention for themselves under the guise of “pushing the envelope.” This may or may not be true, though themes like rape and incest—probably the most common—are far from a refreshing breath of air in a dank, dark space. They’re cliché, boring, and often pitiably meaningless and mishandled.
The only value that can come from a shock is if it has meaning; if it illustrates something larger than itself in a poignant or intriguing way. When the highest importance of a story is the shock element, it’s fairly safe to say that it was dead on arrival. What staying power can a story have when the characters are paralyzed in one place, focused on one event? I’d like to make this point very clear, so I’ll be explicit about each word I use— to those who aim to shock for the sake of being shocking, or “push the envelope”, you aren’t sailing in uncharted waters. It’s been done to death. There is nothing profound about it, nothing spectacular, or even the least bit special. It’s simply an admission that you have nothing of value to say, but want desperately to be heard.
A third grader could write a story where Bella is in an abusive relationship, or Sookie is raped. Whether that fact influences the trend that these tactics are often employed by fanfiction authors who don’t seem to be able to write any better than a third grade dropout is unknown, but the correlation is clear. The part that gives me pause is how the solution to a problem that was often caused by a man always seems to be a man, sometimes even the same man.
I’d call myself a feminist, in that I desire to see both genders treated equally. I treat everyone the same regardless of who they are. I would tease a woman like I’d tease a man, I get annoyed at the grocery store when someone is blocking the entire aisle whether they’re in a wheelchair or jogging in place. I treat everyone like I would treat anyone else. Some women, like Tammy Wolfe in the Youtube comment I’ve featured below, interpret my actions as aggressive towards women, to the point that she posits that men like me are the reason women write fanfiction.
I find it odd that women who feel that they are so bullied and mistreated by the big evil males of our society would take to the internet to have other fictitious women tortured at the hands of—you guessed it—big evil men. I didn’t understand how this could be at all therapeutic, until I looked at it in perspective. These women aren’t glorifying the mistreatment of women—they’re trivializing it. From the perspective they build, all men are abusive, mean, and violent, except that one perfect specimen that will sweep you off your feet and make all the other bad men go away.
This damsel in distress trope isn’t new, and it’s about as poignant a statement on gender relations as your average Labrador retriever could make. I have very little respect for anyone who behaves like a helpless victim whenever they’re challenged, which is why I never read fiction with a weak and ineffectual heroine whose only hope is that a man will come to save her.
The third motivation I considered is jealousy. It’s hard not so see that modern society pits women against each other. They’re conditioned to be catty and backhanded, secretly in unending competition with each other—though it’s no real secret. This is, of course, a generalization, and I know that not all women behave this way, and at the same time, it isn’t exclusive to only one gender.
But there seems to be a sadistic pleasure that comes from torturing the female protagonist in fics where a woman has her physical, financial, and emotional needs covered. A vengeance perhaps, because the author’s life didn’t turn out like the one she’s created for the character. There’s a certain mean-spirited glee that drips from each new update and spills into the dialogue. They love it that they’re hurting her, punishing her for having the gall to turn out how they couldn’t. While I don’t understand the love of writers to follow this particular narrative, to be completely honest, I find it to be a fascinating glimpse into the human psyche. I’ll probably read them if only from a critique point of view, much like one would approach readingMein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler. This book, while a steaming pile of shit, is still read and studied to this day in academia, and it’s approached with a critical eye. This is how I read these particular stories: as though they’re a failed experiment that we must analyze and learn from so as to not make the same mistakes, not because the stories have any intrinsic value. What really leaves me confused are the glowing reviews left on the stories. My only hope is that they’re the idle prattling of friends and enablers, and not the sincere opinions of persons who actually enjoy the pap they’re reviewing.
The final reason I wanted to bring up is one that I have no criticism for. Nor should anyone else. Bad things happen to people, and many of us cope very differently. It’s entirely possible that some of the abuse fics you might read are completely true, and pretending to be fiction. The underlying theme may be a way of coping with a real and painful memory. The idea of the heroine working through her problem may help the author heal from her own trauma. While I think there are better ways to go about this that don’t involve airing your dirty laundry on the internet where someone like myself may come along and make fun of it based on its merits as a piece of work, I respect your efforts to do so. I know there are plenty of situations out there similar to this, some involving odd fetishes or fantasies, and I respect all of that. The first thing I consider when writing a joke is, “Am I making fun of the writing, the theme, or the author?” Number one is a requirement—if the writing isn’t at least part of the reason I’m poking fun, then the joke gets scrapped, or at least it should. Mistakes have been, and will be made.
That’s my take on the tortured heroine. I hope it’s been enlightening to some.
Share it around. I’d like to get as many opinions of this topic as I can. In fact, I’d be quite happy if a real dialogue started because of this. If at least one person gets to thinking about this and decides not to drag her heroine through the mud in her next story, I’ll consider this editorial a success.