Academic journal article Thymos

"I Want My Boy Back!": Substitute Sons and Damsels in Distress

Academic journal article Thymos

"I Want My Boy Back!": Substitute Sons and Damsels in Distress

Article excerpt

Three recent mass media texts are analyzed in which the object of rescue for a male hero is a teenage boy rather than the traditional damsel in distress. These rescues and their aftermaths display considerable slippage between custodial and romantic conventions, blurring the image of the hero as father and the hero as lover. It is argued that their function is to evoke the possibility of same-sex desire while safely pretending that same-sex desire does not exist.

Keywords: boyhood, cinema, masculinities, media

Since the days when Doc Savage, the Shadow, and the Lone Eagle were swashbuckling through the dime store pulps (Hutchison, 2002), or perhaps earlier, when patrons hissed at the villains of opera-house melodramas, or earlier still, when peasant granddames sat by the fire and spun tales of Jack and the princess, the climactic scene of nearly every adventure tale has featured a male hero rushing to the rescue of a woman. She is usually being held prisoner in a literal dungeon, threatened with torture or murder by a leering ruby-ringed satrap or a sinister magician or a mob boss with a grudge against the hero, but she can also be rescued from an uncomfortable living situation: low economic prospects in Educating Rita (1983), high-profile prostitution in Pretty Woman (1990). The scene of literal or symbolic rescue of female by male appears so often, in so many venues, that it has become a literary cuché (Margolin, 2007, p. 70), or even an archetype, envisioned by Jungians as the final task in the hero's journey toward mythic wholeness.

The convention shows no signs of losing its popularity. In 2007, Hollywood released more than thirty movies with penultimate scenes of tied-and-threatened damsels in distress, even when the damsel in question has previously been a valued member of the team, displaying strength, courage, and superb fighting ability. On the animated children's series The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, the character of Mandy is strong, aggressive, even domineering, easily able to take care of herself, but in the feature-length film (2007), she is captured by the villain, tied to the bow of a ship sailing through the underworld, and rescued by a boy whom she usually reviles as a nerd. Written media is no different; the bestselling novel Vanish (2006) has a female police detective as a protagonist, but true to form, she is captured by the villain, and all of her police academy self-defense training vanishes as she meekly waits for a man to mount a daring rescue.

In contrast, one can sit through a hundred movies and television programs, or a thousand, read a hundred popular novels, or a thousand, and never once see or read about a male hero storming into the dungeon and rescuing a man.

The near-total absence of same-sex rescues in mass media texts derives to a great extent from cultural sexism and homophobia. Cultural sexism frames women as soft, weak, passive, in need of knights in shining armor, and men as strong, aggressive, independent (Wiegman, 2002). It would be a sign of weakness for a man to depend upon anyone, male or female, so when Tarzan, Conan the Barbarian, or one of the proliferating ranks of Rambo imitators is strung up in a dungeon, he always manages to break his bonds, evade or assassinate a few dozen guards, and rescue himself. Homophobia requires that the rescuer and rescued be male and female because the peril is an eroticized peril, the villain a literal or symbolic suitor who leers and slavers or admires and complements; perhaps, before he calls for the dragons, he murmurs "What a waste!" and reaches out to gently touch his hostage's cheek. The threat become not so much death as violation, and the hero not only rescues but "wins" the rescued. When the crisis is resolved, she melts into his arms, even though she has spent the entire story arguing with him and calling him "insufferable." The final scene promises permanent association through a kiss, a sexual encounter, or a wedding. …

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