Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Brief, Horrific Lives of Mantis Men

So I recently read Kij Johnson's Mantis Wives. It has a lot in common with her previous nebula winning story Ponies, and to a lesser but still real extent with her OTHER nebula winning story Spar, in that it takes a human relationship we take for granted, makes it alien, and spins out the pathological elements until they're fabulous and grotesque and really gut-punchy.

So, I recommend you read Mantis Wives for yourself, but the gist of it is that even though mantis women realize they don't NEED to kill their husbands, they're locked into their roles and they can't figure out a different way to live.

I quite like it, but it is, by necessity of what it is, largely composed of needlessly cruel torture of boy mantises. That's really kind of the point.

Now there's a fellow down in the comments who seems to be kind of a reactionary jerkface, but I've always maintained that being an jerkface doesn't mean your point is not worth entertaining intellectually.

To what extent are we- am I as a reader- more comfortable with this story because the violence is happening exclusively to men? It's something I've talked about before, and something that continues to worry me.

For all that dudes are disproportionately the people doing violence, they're also disproportionately the victims, and I defy someone to argue that we're not socially conditioned to feel it is less of a tragedy when violence is done to a man (the theory being, of course, that this is not only his natural sphere, but he's big enough and strong enough to stop other people from hurting him; and if he wasn't, he should have been.) I think there's a certain extent to which we sort of view all men as soldiers, and all women and children as civilians- it's part of a totally paternalisitic system that gets used to justify why men ought to have authority over said interchangeable category of women and children who in this line of thinking depend on them for protection and provision; but at the same time it's a system that doesn't have a lot of sympathy to spare for the man who does not end up being the alpha. We're given to believe that fighting and death are ennobling to men in the same way beauty and passive mystique are the ideals for womanhood.

I don't think it does anybody any favors, and it spins off into this idea that it's more wrong to hit a woman. (When a man beats his wife, he's a monster; when a woman beats her husband, it's comedy).


There's certainly fiction I've read that demonizes the ladies, to the extent that violence (often sexual or specifically humiliating) befalling them (though usually not at the hands of the actual protagonist) is the cathartic release at the end of the story. Bitch got what was coming to her. Or the not explicitly stated but still pervasive implication that men are predators and women are always prey. Sometimes it's slowly, lovingly rendered. Sometimes it's a joke. But it's a powerless woman having terrible things happen to her, and the gist you get from the story is that you're supposed to enjoy it, even if it's just in the way you enjoy horrific stuff, with a little extra garnish of lady misery. Frank Miller's my go-to top of my head example for this, but there are some horror stories I can point to as well, and we've all seen the splashes and teasers at the front where that attractive girl with the bright red lipstick gets killed so we'll be entranced in the mystery. She might just be one of a dozen victims, but her- the one with the lipstick- she's the one we watch it happen to, over and over again.

I guess we can argue that maybe that's supposed to arouse people's protective instincts, but her skirt is so short, and her lipstick is so red, and the camera focuses so hard on her lips, her hips, and her tits, that I really don't think protection is the instinct they're going for.

And I'm not going to lie, there's fiction that demonizes men. Books, stories, movies, where the whole lot of them are lazy, rude, beer swilling abusers and rapists who think they own the world because they have the upper body strength to throw a punch at a lady's face; whereas the women will be, at least in contrast, developed people with real motivations (though these often arise out of their victimhood at the hands of dudes). And in this vein of fiction (often touted as female empowering) these straw men get what's coming to them, and usually the women get validation and sympathy from a group of right-thinking people who help them hide bodies or reduce their sentences after a teary confession of all the facts. Or they drive off a cliff because death is better than going back to their husbands.

I think in a similar way to the way you imagine creepy dudes picturing that blonde getting stabbed in the alleyway as all the girls who turned them down for sexytimes, there's a group of people who actually will always be satisfied by straight up revenge stories where a blameless lady victim cuts off reproductively important bits of the cartoon man who wronged her.

I think there are people who will say the violence against women as entertainment is not an issue (google sexism and video games if you don't believe me), but I think they're an atavistic minority. I think we're much quieter than we should be about the ease with which we accept violence against men as normal, natural, and even righteous.

Think for a minute- how many female characters have you seen charge into a hail of gunfire, or hold the pass while her friends get away, so that she can die a "good and noble" death? Why do we accept so easily that this is a good thing for men to do? How many times has a gun or sword fight come to a screeching halt because a woman died, after they had just killed nine or ten men without blinking?

I don't think we necessarily think of men's lives as worth less, but we're very willing to accept them being beaten, shot, and killed, without it being something we get upset over.

How weird is that?

(Very little of this actually applies to Mantis Wives specifically, since the story kind of plays around with a power-norm flip, and the violence reads as unnecessary and pathological, at least to me. I don't get a feeling of glee at their suffering out of it, though she does seem to enjoy writing description (I think that's more just language play). I do think, though, that this story would not have worked AS well for me if it were male stand-ins doing violence to females, and that's something that worries me a little, but I think the subversion of the norm in this case helps examine it. That's a technique that can go very wrong in unskilled hands, though). 


  1. Well, color me surprised at seeing these comments from you. I honestly expected the nuances of your POV to be shaded more towards jerkface's sparring partner in the comments section.

    >>I think we're much quieter than we should be about the ease with which we accept violence against men as normal, natural, and even righteous.

    You may as well ask why we're quiet about why the tide comes in. Men are the disposable gender in our culture - for all the reasons you cited, and more. Not on the small-scale of individuals and their circle of loved ones, but on a large scale, I don't even know why the fact (if not the ethics) is considered controversial.

    As for the story, style-wise, it's not my cup of tea. Good for stimulating shouting matches and like all of KJ's works, poetic and beautifully imaged ... but short on the elan that captures my attention. I guess my world view is hardened (jaded, if you like) enough that a 1K-word "Yeah-but-what-if" isn't enough to crack through.

    But as always, it's cool to read your thoughts.

  2. Well, insofar as jerkface seems to believe feminism is nothing but a bunch of girls in glasses reading Dworkin and touching themselves every time a dude is unhappy, he doesn't really have a leg to stand on. Nor do I think he has a point with characterizing the goals of the women's equality movement as the total subjugation of men. On those points I think he's being whiny and histrionic at best, and ultimately so far off base he's not really worth arguing with.

    But seriously, any time you've got people saying "Thing X is terrible and wrong, unless it's happening to people Y," I think that's a thing worth looking into. And you totally have that with men and violence. I think in a not entirely different way than you have with women and sexual objectification.

    I mean, seriously, why is it like that? Who does it serve? It would certainly be harder to get dudes to go to war en masse if they weren't convinced violence was their natural sphere and added value to their lives.

    I know you and I have talked about gender roles before, and I know our views are different (I suspect our views of violence in general are also largely different).

    I get the sense you're on the side of violence against men being more natural and more acceptable, and I'd like to hear why you think so, if you don't mind.

  3. Partially right.

    Do I think it is more natural? Yes, on an atavistic level. In most of the advanced mammal world, the males are bigger, stronger, meaner, more laden with testosterone, etc., for the simple principle that they are expected to shoulder the burden of the fighting for protection, territory, and resources. Humans have those same instincts/impulses so in an animal kingdom sense, yes I think I believe violence committed by and against men (as the agents of the struggles above) is more *natural.*

    Do I think it is more acceptable? Depends on who you ask. I think western culture is replete with empirical and statistical evidence that it is. Men commit more violent crime but are the victims of more as well. Anyone care? Very few. (Yes, I do believe the fact that minorities are disproportionate offenders/victims figures into it.) Women perpetrate just under half of spousal abuse offenses but constitute about 15% of the arrests (I'll see if I can find the link). Male casualties in combat since 9-11 have been greater in proportion to their percentage of the forces. Pop culture - perhaps not a modifier but a barometer of our society - is even worse. Per your post about mooks some time ago, do you ever see women mooks in action movies? Rarely, it's almost always faceless men getting gunned down. Nobody bats an eyelash. Violent female sports (football, boxing, UFC) are a novelty, because they are rare. Slapstick violence on men? Everywhere. Prison rape? Stand-up fodder.

    Do I think society views violence towards men as acceptable. Yes. Do I think it's RIGHT? F' no. I think it's sad.

    You know how I feel about gender differences. I don't think men and women are exactly the same with a few interchangeable parts. I think we're different. But it would be nice if our cultural, while embracing the difference between their sons and daughters, went ahead and valued them the same.

    And I just don't see it.

  4. I care. I've got two fantastic nephews, one of whom is very likely to get bullied for being easily upset when people get hurt. I have a brother who in some ways is kind of lucky to have gotten as far as he has with no worse than a cracked orbit and a broken jaw (though the broken jaw was a piece of exceptionally shitty luck). I used to ride out with an ex-military guy who'd had to have the bulk of his face reconstructed. I've never understood people who have mothers, sisters, friends, and daughters, but don't feel like they have any horse at all in the race as far as women's equality.

    While I'm willing to concede some natural differences between genders broadly, and a wide range of individual predispositions, I think it's undeniable that we also train kids up to some frankly unhealthy ideals. We valorize violence in men. When little boys fight we shrug it off because that's what little boys are supposed to do, while the same behavior in little girls horrifies us and we come down hard on it- while at the same time we're dressing them up in junior heels and giving them make up sets (nevermind the freak out a lot of parents have if they catch a boy child in the heels and make up).

    As to the points above, I feel like I ought to argue that male casualties relative to the percentage they make up in the troops seems to me like it has more to do with the reluctance to put female soldiers on and near the front lines (though with that again we're back to this thing where it's more okay for guys to die). I also feel like it's worth pointing to the suicide rate we've got in veterans- I know doing and receiving violence are not the only factors there. There's a lot of health and economic reasons, but I think it does speak to naturalness and fitness of violence being conceivably overstated.

    With regards to the domestic violence thing- in addition to, or more I think in conjunction with this idea of men being the stronger party- men habitually underreport violence done to them by domestic partners, and are significantly less likely to press charges- because, then you're, you know the guy who got beat up by a girl.

    Ultimately I end up in kind of the same place both for boys and girls- the norms we expect from and enforce on gender are unhealthy, and we need to let go of, if not the whole of the things, then at least the parts that are damaging to both individuals and society as a whole.