In walks the manly, testosterone swelling, mighty male protagonist. Able to take down entire legions of enemies, possibly with only his chest hair (or, as is more often now, the glaring reflection from his waxed pectorals). His firm jaw and clenched teeth (naturally adorned with a light dusting of stubble – and yes, he doesn’t have time to shave but can still keep those pectorals gleaming) show a man with a grim purpose, surely nothing could crack his granite visage?
But he stops, looks down at the savaged remains of his wife/child/side-kick/pet marmot and that stony façade cracks. A single Mantear trickles down his rugged cheek and the music swells dramatically as everyone falls silent as the great hero is brought down by his greatest foe; Manpain.
Manpain is not a new phenomenon, but it seems to be growing more common. The manly-male heroes of yore who would never dream of shedding a tear or reacting with more than an angry eye squint in the face of the worst provocation are rapidly becoming extinct. Now, you cannot possibly be a hero without the ability to force out that Mantear and stare in agonised grief at the camera or possibly raising despairing fists to an uncaring sky. Even the most emotionless, removed and untouchable of heroes has to suggest some deep, painful currents running beneath his stoic façade.
There’s certainly some benefit to this – too often men are taught that the only acceptable emotions to express are lust or rage (or, more horrendously, lust and rage) and anything else is deemed a sign of weakness to be mocked and reviled. Allowing men to have a richer emotional palette, to present even the roughest, toughest, hardiest of manly-men to be able to express grief and sorrow and pain, to need help and support, to hurt and need healing are certainly useful things to add to our societal consciousness and media culture
Alas, as in so many things, the execution comes with its own set of problems.
At its most benign, Manpain replaces any real characterisation - and often results in some truly hilarious melodrama. A really good example of this is Will, from Lee Carroll and Carol Goodman’s Black Swan Rising Series. Will is so overcome with the thought of losing Garret he reacts by falling to his knees on the sandy beach, ripping his shirt open and instantly composing the most horrendously bad poetry I have read in a long time. It’s absolutely epic in its overly dramatic Manpain that it becomes hard to choose between rolling one's eyes and laughing out loud.
But not all are so benign (or hilarious). The most obvious we often see is, of course, Fridging. Fridging is a horrendously overused trope whereby a side-character (usually female and usually a love interest) is killed off for the sake of the main character’s story or character development. That (usually female) character is reduced to nothing more than a plot point in the main character’s story which is inherently dehumanising to her while centring his importance
In our quest for Manpain, we’ve filled a whole lot of fridges. Supernatural, perhaps the supreme master of Manpain, has filled an entire frozen food aisle full of fridges so Dean can hone his so-tortured look (Jensen Ackles must be worried his face is going to freeze like that one of these days).
Rick’s epic Manpain on The Walking Dead all relates back to the death of his wife Lori, a character largely lacking in much in the way of development except to be a millstone around Rick’s neck. The whole point of her existence was Rick’s development and Rick’s angst
Even when the women are allowed to live, a large number of these character’s Manpain can be traced back to a female “cause” (not all, certainly, the whole “I have a destiny I don’t want because being special is soooo hard” raises fairly regularly as well – as we see with Alex on Dominion and the massively melodramatic tortured past is a mainstay in paranormal romance series like Black Dagger Brotherhood and the Dark Hunter Series) – as we see on the Leftovers and Justin with his Guilty Remnant wife or Helix’s Alan Farragut stomping and moping around about Julia. These women are not dead, but one of the main roles they serve is as a source of angst and pain - at least in the first season.
This is especially troubling when considered with one of the other main problems of Manpain – it’s one of the ultimate Get Out of Jail free cards. Nearly anything a character does while under the heady influence of Manpain is considered justified or justifiable – or at least excusable. In the best cases, this can involve a character being utterly irresponsible or ineffective or actively avoiding major responsibilities because Manpain has struck. Even if the other characters dish out criticism for these men going on a Manpain strike, such as Michael trying to heckle Alex to get back in line and not do ridiculous things like trying to run away on Dominion, we, the audience, are clearly meant to sympathise with him. Sometimes we don’t even get that character call out – Rick decided to check out and play farmer on The Walking Dead and not only did no-one decide to call Rick to task for him taking an extended holiday (he was certainly encouraged to reassume leadership, but it was hardly criticism), but they positively lined up to tell Rick what a good leader he was and how much they all wanted him back. No matter how clearly useless he would be as a leader of the group, that is put aside because Manpain – never mind that being this incapacitated by grief in a setting where grief is constant would render him unsuitable to lead.
We can see something similar in The Strain trilogy where Ephraim not only proved himself inept because of the Manpain over his dead wife, but he was actively hindering their effort to save the world. Yet how many passes did they give him, how many second chances, how long did they continue to trust him? And we must remember, again, that he isn’t the only character in this setting who has suffered loss; but he is the only one who has the luxury of being so destructive about it.
And these are the best cases. In the worst cases there's the most pernicious and damaging element of Manpain: rage, violence and attacks. For all that Manpain is supposed to be a sign that men are now allowed a broader emotional palette than they once were, still their pain most often manifests itself as anger; one of the two acceptable male emotions. The epic Manpain and artful single Mantear means their rage is not just justified, but seen as sympathetic or even something to pity; as they rant, rage and even abuse and attack people around them, our sympathy is meant to be with them. Their pain not only excuses even extreme abuse of people around them and grossly unacceptable behaviour, but the more excessive their actions, the more we are supposed to see this as evidence of their suffering and the more we’re supposed to feel bad for them. Truly, all a serial killer needs to do is master the art of looking soulfully into the camera while a single tear rolls gently down their chiseled cheek and they’ll be acquitted every time
Klaus in The Originals is such a master of honed Manpain that he could fit in on Supernatural. He quite literally is that chiselled-cheeked serial killer. His epic, overwhelming daddy and mummy issues are always front and centre, eclipsing the slaughter he leaves in his wake. Are innocent bodies piling up? But daddy hates him! Has he mind controlled and abused everyone around him? But mummy wants to kill him! And if it weren’t for the fact Klaus has reached astronomical levels of Manpain (and the Vampire Diaries/Originals having such broken moralities and Redemption Trains) then Elijah and even Kol would be also be perfect examples – yes, even Kol is throwing out angst and Manpain and rapidly moving to the side of the “good” ones so his death can be seen as a tragedy rather than a celebration. Being sad, being sexy and being male will always assure your path to redemption is a short one, even if the blood on your hands hasn’t even dried yet.
This Manpain redemption is even used to try and pull villains back from the brink, making them sympathetic and redeemable. Look at Sleepy Hollow with Parrish, Horseman of War and walking stew of mummy and daddy issues. His intense pouting Manpain is so extreme that he is quite willing to cause the apocalypse because of it - and then change his mind in another fit of Manpain-motivated pique. But this nonsensical mess is supposed to work because MANPAIN.
This can be especially toxic in Paranormal Romances where we see so many male characters with terribad, awful tortured pasts lashing out over and over again at their female love interests who just melt and love them more with every abusive action. Zarek’s past history of torture leads him to lash out savagely in Dances with the Devil, Sin produces a full laundry list of tragedy for him to be all stompy on Katra in Devil May Cry, the appropriately named Zsadist in Lover Awakened is utterly irredeemable - but the Manpain means his abusiveness is just more evidence of his tragic, tortured soul. Even Aidan who really needs to get over himself in Upon the Midnight Clear lashes out because… actually I can’t even remember why beyond all of the utterly epic whining from a guy who really needs to get some perspective. In Circle of Desire Ethan having had a bad relationship causing all of the Manpain leads to a whole lot of misogyny to all women; but he’s sexy because MANPAIN
A milder version of this has our tragic, Manpain-haunted hero deciding he has to be a terrible terrible person to “protect” people (especially their love interests) from his terrible tragedy. This appears in both of Cassandra Clare’s series with Jace in The Mortal Instruments driving away Clary for the sake of Manpain and his clone Will in Infernal Devices doing the same to Tessa - because MANPAIN means it’s totally fine to try and drive a woman away with your behaviour (it’s not like there aren’t so many many good reasons to want to drive Tessa and Clary away anyway)
It is quite astonishing what utterly extreme abuse we see as justified by Manpain. Konrad in Marie Treanor’s Blood Hunter’s series is a very angry man. Just like every other love interest in this series, he has a tortured past but Konrad takes it one step further. In the name of his pain, he decides to plot to kill a child, yes a child. If that were not enough, along the way he kidnaps and starves Maggie, and is extremely verbally abusive while threatening her with a knife. Not to worry because not only does Konrad somehow win Maggie’s love, everyone in the novel forgives him because Manpain. Apparently Manpain justifies all kinds of horror.
As the men throw venom and loathing at these women, we’re expected to see them as more sympathetic, every vicious act just further proof of their sexy tragedy which their punching bag partners are expected to want to rescue and redeem. The horrific message of this cannot be understated - the Manpain not only means women should forgive the abuse of their lovers, but even casts the men as the victims and their abusive behaviour as proof of that.
In some ways, like the fridged women, these love interests also exist to be tools through which the man’s pain and healing can be explored; the women’s victimhood in the meantime is either irrelevant or a necessary step in the man’s healing
This trope is even worse when we consider how much anger in general is an emotion only straight white men are safe to express. We would not sympathise with a woman who collapsed dramatically because she was sad; we would consider her weak, self-absorbed, selfish and feeble. We would not sympathise with a POC who raged and attacked those around them - they would be seen as animalistic, savage and uncontrolled. Manpain is sympathetic because of the privilege of the man in question
This is blatant on The Walking Dead where we see Rick’s Manpain be a frequent story arc as Rick becomes more and more suspicious, more and more violent and even more lethal towards people around them. His pain has pushed him towards a raging lethality and terrifying level of suspicion that can lead to violence at the slightest – or no – provocation. And we’re meant to understand this, even when he’s wrong, because of his Manpain; in the recent episode where Rick’s suspicion over Aaron left any semblance of reason and Michonne and Glen led the way; Michonne still felt the need to reassure Rick that he was right even when he was wrong.
But contrast this with the treatment and condemnation of Carol and her cold practicality (not even rage driven deaths). Or when Sasha expressed her grief over Tyrese’s death as anger she was sharply criticised by Michonne. Even the fact that all of the characters have suffered terrible losses on this show and Rick is the only one who has the luxury of expressing his pain through violent rage (or even having a Manpain holiday) is part of this trope. The only character who comes close to expressing his pain and loss with a similar violent reaction is, notably, Abraham; before his violent attack on Eugene we had a whole episode building up his loss and his pain. His justification was presented before his attack – and that justification was Manpain.
This is definitely one of those emotions that only a cis, straight, white man can get away with expressing - because only those characters receive so much benefit of the doubt and so much fan sympathy that they can act in such appalling ways and still be regarded positively. In turn, this underpins all that is wrong with this trope; this is not a way to expand the emotional expressions of male protagonists, but yet another way in which these characters are raised above their fellows, another way to centre these characters and make the other’s revolve around them and their stories.
Manpain is another way to raise up the cis, straight, white man - and all too often by them standing on the other characters.