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THE ULTIMATE MALE HEROINE

THE ULTIMATE MALE HEROINE

“Your pain is my entertainment”
Apollo to Starbuck, Battlestar Galactica

This isn’t going to sound very academic, so bear with me: Some years ago, I read a book, I think it was called The Adventures. I simply can’t remember who wrote it, and that’s driving me nuts. The unidentified author coined the term “Male Heroine” and was referring specifically to the protagonist in The Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner. The Male Heroine (MH) is a masculine damsel in distress who exists in a constant state of physical peril and/or psychologically torment.

Sound like anyone we know?


Back in 1999, I published an article called “In Praise of the Male Heroine” in the now defunct An Idiosyncratic Review, a newsletter devoted to fan fiction review and criticism. (This was back when volumes of fic was published in book form). Being a Trekkie, my focus was (of course) Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

During his tenure as captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc was assimilated by the Borg (the rape imagery was impossible to ignore), tortured by Cardassians, and had his bald head invaded by half the sentiment beings in the galaxy. The resulting suffering and angst fueled the imaginations of fanfic writers for years. Jean-Luc (lucky for him) occupied a fairly simplistic moral universe: Jean-Luc was good. The Borg were bad. Riker, Data, Worf, and company could always be counted on to perform a daring rescue. And then the lovely Dr. Crusher would be there to tend to Jean-Luc’s injuries with her amazing 24th Century medical technology. Good times.

Ah, Jean-Luc. You had it easy. As a Male Heroine, you have nothing on Jack Bauer.

It was the spring of 2006. My mother-a women a very sophisticated tastes-would not shut up about the TV show she was watching. She would joyfully shout out “Drop the weapon!” and quote other Bauerisms at odd moments. I knew better then to call her when her show was on. I was vaguely aware of 24, and remembered Kiefer Sutherland from Dark City (one of my favorite movies) and a few other films. I found him to be very good-looking, but didn’t give him much thought beyond that.

At Mom’s insistence, I watched the Day 5 finale. You know the rest.

I was intrigued. I thought to myself: Who is this violent yet eminently likable person and why is he on a slow boat to China? I needed to know more. I have since watched Day 6 and caught up on the other Days with the DVDs. But the damage was done. My introduction to Jack was that of someone who needed to be rescued. As a Male Heroine.

Sadly, Jack would have discovered his own location and rescued himself within hours.

I wanted to mastermind an elaborate black-ops extraction, (complete with black helicopters. I love black helicopters) rescue Jack’s tortured butt, and tenderly nurse him back to health. Many fanfic writers have done exactly that, and I can hardly blame them. Rescuing Jack is our natural instinct. We may-admit it!-enjoy seeing him suffer, but only up to a certain point. Rescuing Jack would have been the right thing to do, and the rescuing would make us feel all warm and squishy.

After all, if you are going to beat the stuffing out of your Man, then it’s only fair to glue him back together-in body if not in spirit-before the start of the next season.

As we all know, Show Canon is not so kind. Many of us (myself included) choose to believe that Bill, Chloe, and Curtis did make some at least attempt to save their imperiled colleague. If they didn’t, then they aren’t the people we want them to be. But the only person who definitively went after Jack was Audrey. I am fascinated but the gender role reversal: Audrey was the White Knight intent on rescuing her damsel in distress, Jack was the one, quite literally, trapped in a dungeon. Things did not go quite as planned for poor Audrey, but I still admire her fortitude and courage. Another example of this role-reversal occurs between Day 4 and Day 5, when Chloe protects Jack from his pursuers. Sounds like a full-time job.

What makes Jack so interesting as a MH is that he must ultimately rescue himself. Wayne Palmer negotiates Jack’s release and returns him to American soil. The rest is up to him. I give the writers (bless their black, black hearts) a lot a credit here: By allowing Jack to engineer his own escape, Jack avoids crossing the line between ‘Tragic Hero’ and ‘Hapless Victim.’

There is indeed a delicate line between ‘Tragic’ and ‘Pathetic.’ It takes a fine actor to portray a MH without emasculating himself. Kiefer is expert at crying just enough to break our hearts but not so much so that he’s is danger of having his alter-ego dismissed as a wussy crybaby. I would never claim to have access to his thought processes, but he obviously understands that there’s a difference between being vulnerable and being weak. Kiefer’s inexhaustible emoting is part of what makes Jack so entertaining, but the emotion is balanced by an equal capacity for violence and action.

I wanted to strangle Wayne Palmer in episode 6.4, when he asks Jack to track down the suitcase nukes. Jack replies “I’ll do my best, sir.” with a wrenching sense of exhaustion. Jack just wants to curl up in a ball and indulge in a little post-traumatic stress, but circumstances and his own nature simply won’t allow it.

Jack is an MH, but he’s an exceptionally feisty and violent one.

Other Male Heroines who spring to mind are Fox Muldner and Frodo Baggins.

Gentle Readers: Who are your most beloved Male Heroines? Does that lable that even make sense, or does it insult the Heroes who are befallen by peril and tragedy? What do you think? I await your comments, oh erudite ones...

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( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
xbedhead
Dec. 20th, 2007 10:44 pm (UTC)
Sadly, Jack would have discovered his own location and rescued himself within hours.

You had me giggling hard at that. Thanks.

Jack just wants to curl up in a ball and indulge in a little post-traumatic stress, but circumstances and his own nature simply won’t allow it.

I think, even if Palmer had let him off the hook, so to speak, he still would've found himself back in the thick of it, because you're right - his own nature won't allow it. He doesn't want to do it, but he knows the consequences firsthand of inaction (or the wrong action in a lot of cases). I kind of identify with that a little (and I think many others would say that they do as well) in that, when given the choice to sit back and do nothing and claim no responsibility in a mess, I would rather jump right in the middle of it, give it all I have and hope that somehow, someway, it'll turn out a little better than the shitstorm it might've initially been.

I remember my roommate last year yelling at the screen when Jack made the decision to go back after the nuke exploded. She was all "No! No, you need to go home - wherever that is - and you need to eat something and you need soup! You need to get the hell out of LA and you need to go to bed, Jack Bauer!" She literally went on a tirade (we had just watched Day 5 and she got caught up in the show, too, but also observed, rightly, that Jack gets called upon to do a lot more than he rightly should) and I just had to sit back and shrug when she tried to get me to agree with her. I just told her that he couldn't do that - that character would never be able to sit back and watch the tradgedy unfold. Kind of like 'the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing' - I think that's something that has to keep Jack pushing, no matter how high the odds are stacked against him.

And I also think that that level of turmoil is what draws me to the character. Not so much the suffering itself, but the way he responds to it - the way he picks himself back up after each and every blow and just. keeps. going.

As far as other favorite MHs...hmm...the one that first comes to mind is Wolverine/Logan from X-Men. He's more of an anti-hero to the max rather than a strict MH, but I think both he and Jack Bauer have a lot of the same traits (amnesia and adamantium skeleton aside) that make their characters equally appealing to me.
marinw
Dec. 21st, 2007 01:23 am (UTC)
I had a feeling that you would mention Wolverine. Hugh Jackman is perfect in that role.

I remember my roommate last year yelling at the screen when Jack made the decision to go back after the nuke exploded…

It’s interesting that we female viewers feel all protective towards Jack, despite all his morally questionable acts. Even when I was reading that “Whatever it Takes” article in The New Yorker, I was shouting at the page “He’s just a TV character! Leave him alone!”

“…that level of turmoil is what draws me to the character.”

I’m drawn to Jack because he’s so emotional. I just finished watching one of Roger Moore’s James Bond movies. Jack is the anti-Bond. He must have skipped the lesson on “Detachment and ironic humor” during his super-agent training.
xbedhead
Dec. 21st, 2007 02:58 am (UTC)
He is the best for Wolverine! I had no idea who he was when the movie came out (which I think was perfect as most of the actors were relatively unknowns, sans your beloved Picard *G*), but as an X-Men fan, I honestly can't fathom another person playing him. He brought such a perfect mix of masculinity and vulnerability to the role - it was...well, it was perfect. *G*

I think it's funny how the women react to Jack, yet I'm not surprised. You know we all love to love the hero and the fact that he has that tragic past makes him all the more appealing. A lot of people love him because they love Kiefer, but I think I love Kiefer because I love what he's done with Jack Bauer. Like you said, he brings just the right amount of emotion to the character, he reacts to problems - to an extent - like a normal human being would (he just ends up going above and beyond to solve them), giving him a bit of an 'every man' aura. I think Kiefer's said that a lot about him in interviews - he's just a normal guy who is constantly tested by extraordinary situations. He's just got a way better batting average than the average Joe. ;)

He must have skipped the lesson on “Detachment and ironic humor” during his super-agent training.

Hah! Totally missed that one - I love it when Jack acts, but I think I like it even more when he reacts. The performance that Kiefer gives is always so visceral that it's hard not to.
cybertoothtiger
Dec. 21st, 2007 05:07 am (UTC)
A lot of people love him because they love Kiefer, but I think I love Kiefer because I love what he's done with Jack Bauer.

Totally! I never really liked Kiefer before he was Jack. I liked his family, but was a little "meh" on the man himself. I've gone back and watched many of his other movies, but -- what was he thinking? Did he not have an agent? In an interview once he said some of the films he made, he looked at his co-star and thought "What did you do that was so bad you landed here with me in this?" And I have to say I agree with him on some of them. But he is so perfect for Jack.
xbedhead
Dec. 21st, 2007 05:15 am (UTC)
So sadly true. I just...man. The movies, for the most part, suck, I admit that freely, but I will also say that, in everything I've seen him in, I've never thought that he gave a half-assed performance. In every movie (and this is before he had me wrapped around his finger as an actor), I thought he just outshined everyone he appeared next to. I never once believed that he wasn't the character he was playing - and that's not to say that he's a character actor. I think he still brings a bit of himself to each and every role, but he's just...he good. He's very talented at what he does (and this is me going on a ramble - not to say that I thought you were implying that he wasn't a good actor :D).

My favorite movie with him (and my top three movie of all time behind Gladiator and X-Men) is a film called To End All Wars. If you haven't seen it, you should run to the movie store and buy it. It's just...amazing. I have a special reason for loving it, but the acting all around is absolutely phenomenal, the story is heart-breaking, yet uplifting and the way the movie was shot...I fell in love with it the first time through.

So yeah - RUN!
marinw
Dec. 21st, 2007 02:51 pm (UTC)
A few weeks ago in Maclean’s Magazine, there was an article on Rossif Sutherland, Kiefer's younger half-brother, who starred in a movie called Poor Boy's Game, which was shot in my home city of Halifax. The article describes Donald and Kiefer more as character actors rather then leading men.

I recently saw To End All Wars. To be honest, I thought it was more than a little bloated, preachy and full of clichés. I do agree that Kiefer was wonderful in it. Nobody does “traumatized” like our Man! However, seeing him play a prisoner given his current situation felt creepy. I’m going to save Last Light (if I can find it) until later on in January.

The only film I didn’t like him in was The Sentinel, which he did with Michael Douglas. He was basically playing a watered-down version of his 24 character. He was Jack Bauer after a few electro-shock therapy sessions. He even had the much of the same dialogue. What was the point of that?

My favorite Kiefer movie is still Dark City, where he plays an ubergeek psychiatrist (adorable!) who is working for alien invaders with a mysterious agenda. Anyone who doubts Kiefer’s versatility needs to see this film.
cybertoothtiger
Dec. 23rd, 2007 04:24 am (UTC)
TWOP's recap of The Sentinel was bang on:
Before we get started, if you're reading this, you probably remember the ads during 24, when this film was marketed as a Kiefer Sutherland film in which he tried to learn the truth about his mentor, Michael Douglas, who may or may not have been a traitor. I'm going to tell you right now that this is not that film.

That film was Not.Good. Last Light was actually okay. He made me believe he was the character. A little disturbing right now, though, I agree. The trouble is, he gets all these films that are watered-down re-hashings of the same old stories. Desert Saints was lame, even though he himself was ever so hot in it. The pilot of L.A. Confidential has been posted on Youtube, and he's good in it, but I'm glad it didn't get picked up. The Red Door has lots of fans, but I thought his character was totally unsympathetic, and somehow not gay enough. I will have to check out Dark City! I loved The Bay Boy, not least because he was in it with Leah Pinsent, and how perfect is that? It was like Canadian Actors' Send Your Child to Work Day.
marinw
Dec. 23rd, 2007 06:23 pm (UTC)
Canadian Actors' Send Your Child to Work Day. LOL!

Please let me know what you think of Dark City.
xbedhead
Dec. 29th, 2007 06:13 am (UTC)
Not gay enough?! ACK! He was so gay to me! So gay that I was like "man...you're not hot at all when you're acting this homosexual - I need some testosterone oozing out of your pores, please."
(Deleted comment)
xbedhead
Dec. 29th, 2007 07:04 am (UTC)
Is he guilty of them, too? Why, I never would have guessed - he's one of those actors that just...I supposed 'exudes' is the right word, great taste in picking roles, to me.

That makes me kinda giggly inside.

And can you imagine another Professor X? I certainly can't.
marinw
Dec. 29th, 2007 06:22 am (UTC)
Haven't seen Desert Saints or Red Door, so I am therefore unworthy to comment. Suffice to say that even the most talented actors do thier fair share of stinkers. I'm looking at YOU, Patrick Stewart! (Excluding the eXcellent X-Men, of cource!)
cybertoothtiger
Dec. 29th, 2007 06:30 am (UTC)
I dunno, it just didn't ring true for me. I've seen him gayer in interviews, frankly. (I'm not saying KS is gay, just very comfortable with his feminine side. As I think you need to be to be a good actor.) Maybe it was the photo shoot scene. He wasn't concerned about the right things, I felt. What really got me about that movie was when he was trying to get his sister to stay, not because he wanted to spend time with her, but because it was her last chance to spend time with him. She should be so lucky.
xbedhead
Dec. 29th, 2007 07:07 am (UTC)
Oh, no - definitely didn't ring true to me either (referring to the movie itself), but...like I said, he was definitely gay enough for me. I suppose straying too far to either side - way too gay or way too straight/masculine or femine - gives me the shudders.

Roy...oh, Roy. Even to the end, you were a selfish bastard. He still kinda made me laugh, though (when I wasn't busy cringing at how rude he was).
xbedhead
Dec. 29th, 2007 06:10 am (UTC)
(I lost this comment in the deluge that has taken over my inbox! :P)

I guess, to me, when I think of 'character actor' I think of people like Jack Black or, to an extent, Johnny Depp, but mostly, and this is my own doing here, I tend to think of comedic performances with that term. Although I'm not familiar with a lot of Donald Sutherland's work, I've seen his more recent films (like Backdraft - which he supremely scared me in and I had no doubt that he was an arsonist - and A Time To Kill and Land of the Blind), and I just...yeah, I wouldn't put him in that category at all.

As for To End All Wars, I think if it wasn't based on someone's account of what happened, I might agree with you a little more. I tended to see the film more through Ernest's eyes and, in all that preachiness, I think it was more of me having the same realizations that he did. I've read a lot about the movie (my grandfather served with the Air Force as well as the Army in the Pacific Theatre and was a part of the infantry that helped to liberate the camps, so I have a bit of a special connection with it) and it seems that the director (who I also think was the screenwriter...? I may be wrong, though, so don't hold me to it) was fairly spot on with the way a lot of the men experienced the camps. But aside from the accuracies, I think I enjoyed it the most from the Japanese perspective. I love things that explore the other sides of issues and there aren't a lot of films out there that would take that leap with something so controversial as Allied POW camps. My discipline in school is anthropology, so it was a bit of a refreshment to see a movie explore those aspects.

I've yet to see Dark City (and I don't think I will - he creeps me out in it). I've read synopses and all that and it just holds no interest for me whatsoever. Now, see, I could handle movies like Desert Saints because he was pretty hot in that, no matter how lame the movie was (and it really was just the lead actress who was lame - I didn't think the movie itself was half bad). DC...not hot - no can do. *G*

Wow. I really rambled there.
cybertoothtiger
Jan. 10th, 2008 06:11 am (UTC)
Not sure where to post this, but it seems to fit here. I just watched Deat Heat, and I liked it! I really liked it! I was pleasantly surprised. It has that slightly off-beat quality of many Canadian films (I'm thinking Rare Birds or The Lotus Eaters) which gives Kiefer some really nice moments. He gets to be intense and gentle and vulnerable and funny. A really well-rounded performance, and the script doesn't totally suck.

Chapters has it for $5.95, so obviously it wasn't a huge commercial success, but it's worth checking out.

Radha Mitchell (who was also in Phone Booth) was excellent as Kiefer's ex, and it had Lothaire Bluteau (Marcus Alvers, Day 3 + Jesus of Montreal) as well. Plus, it was shot in Victoria. Had I only known.
cybertoothtiger
Dec. 20th, 2007 11:35 pm (UTC)
Very interesting. I'd never thought about Male Heroines as a category, so none spring immediately to mind. I'll have to think about it. My previous favourite Tragic Hero was Highlander. Nowhere near as good a show, but it grabbed me somehow. Every woman he ever loved died before him, he had no real home, *sniff*.

Carlo Rota, in his commentary for Season 6, said that in his study of villains, the most memorable are the ones that are charismatic or somehow likeable. It's an old acting trope, but I think it's true. The corollary would be that the best heroes are those that exhibit some weakness.
marinw
Dec. 21st, 2007 01:28 am (UTC)
The cliché of the Charismatic Villain is a cliché because it’s true! My favorite villains are Darth Vader (Before he was ruined by the Annakin Skywalker prequels) and * Squirms * Hannibal Lector.

Jack certainly has many weaknesses. I wonder how he passed all the psyche exams during his Delta Force/CTU recruitment. He probably just told the examiners whatever it was they wanted to hear.
catch22girl
Dec. 21st, 2007 10:12 am (UTC)
I always kind of thought, at least since season two, that Jack was someone who needed to be rescued from himself and his own self-destructive behavior. The speech Mason gave in the plane is probably true to this day. He may have different reasons, but Jack's death wish ebbed in the season 3-4 interim and then came back with a vengeance in season six.

I started watching early season two and even then I knew he was a man on the edge. I caught up with season one that winter. I can see the male heroine, although, I think he's someone who puts himself into those situations. Jack isn't kidnapped or tortured to get to anyone else, even in the case of China, he wasn't an innocent victim. So I'm not sure if saying he's a male damsel in distress is correct since that usually implies a lack of agency.

However, once he gets into awful situations he either rescues himself, tries and almost succeeds, or meets the rescuers more than halfway. I think what frustrates us as fans who want him to be rescued is that the writers have left few people to fill that role. So many of the people that would have never rested until he was safe are dead. It makes Hurt/Comfort fic really hard to write since so few people can fill that comfort role. The only person I was disappointed in for not trying to rescue him was Chloe. I never thought that Jack and Curtis were all that close And Bill's on his side, but he's not Tony, Michelle or David Palmer. I loved that Audrey went to rescue him and got caught - not because she got caught, but because she was proactive, she walked willingly into danger to save someone she loved - she might have failed, but she chose to put herself in that situation.

Jack's peril is mostly his own doing, his psychological torment however is what makes him different from most action heroes, in that he doesn't hide it from the audience all that successfully and his universe is made up of ever shifting shades of grey. Going back to season two, it's interesting that Sherry tried to convince him that the world wasn't black and white and he argued that she was wrong - I kind of wonder if the character would see things differently now, or if the writers would still want us to believe that it's clear cut.

I personally wanted strangle Wayne way back in season three when he told Jack "thanks" for killing Ryan Chappelle. I thought- you say thank you for that kind of thing, not thanks all off-handedly like he just handed you a soda.

And this is probably a little disjointed since it's five am.

marinw
Dec. 21st, 2007 03:48 pm (UTC)
Your point about agency in a good one. We can debate whether or not Jack ‘deserves’ to suffer. But even if he is the author of his own misfortune, we still want to rescue him. The China example is interesting since it was one of the few situations that Jack couldn’t escape from. Cheng took care of that with all the beatings and drugs.

I think you mean DAVID Palmer.
catch22girl
Dec. 21st, 2007 04:54 pm (UTC)
Well, long term situations at least -- Jack couldn't get away from Drazen and he couldn't escape from Marwan on his own. He did defeat Kingsley's men, rescued himself from Logan's compound, Fayed, etc. But he at least tries.

Nope, Wayne. A little after the shooting, Wayne called him and was like blah blah thanks Jack blah.

marinw
Dec. 21st, 2007 09:11 pm (UTC)
Wayne called him and was like blah blah thanks Jack blah.

*facepalm* Can't keep the Palmer Brothers straight....
cybertoothtiger
Dec. 29th, 2007 06:38 am (UTC)
Okay, saw Dark City, and it was okay. Barton Fink meets Brazil with a large dollop of The Matrix. Kiefer was pretty good in it, in that there was no trace of Jack Bauer, but so not hot, so it didn't really work for me. He was really good in Last Light, also not Jack Bauer, but threatening in a different way. Watch it once he's out of jail. I think my favourite so far has got to be Stand by Me

I agree with the Biography interview person (can't remember who it was) who said Kiefer's best roles are probably still to come. He was so made for Jack, though, so it will be hard to see him as anyone else for a while.
marinw
Dec. 29th, 2007 04:02 pm (UTC)
I loved Dark City precisely because it was so trippy, but I can appreciate that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I do give Kiefer credit for not using his sex appeal as a crutch, he can suppress his natural hotness when the role demands it.
sardonicynic
Jan. 4th, 2008 03:23 am (UTC)
Ooh, I'm so glad you pimped this! Your insights are always fantastic to read.

I can definitely see the masculine damsel in distress angle, but will also have to echo Rachel and say that Jack is, ultimately, responsible for the situations he gets himself into. Circumstances may be out of his control, but he voluntarily puts himself in the middle of the action during these 24-hour days.

And I'm definitely with Beth on this -- I'm infinitely more intrigued by the way Jack responds to suffering. The way he manages to compartmentalize and even detach so he can function from hour to hour. It's his resiliency -- whether he's being forced to work with Nina in Day Two or enduring an interrogation with Cheng in a Chinese prison -- that draws me to his character. His "seemingly" limitless tolerance for psychological and physical anguish, his ability to simultaneously get caught up in the details and see the larger picture, and how he deals with everything thrown at him in general. Um. *headtilt* If that makes sense.

Ooh, and the man's responsibility and guilt complexes leave me absolutely at a loss for words, because of how deep they run. Jack takes on so much responsibility for what happens around him that I can't help but wonder where it stops; honestly, I'm not sure it does. And in that respect, he reminds me of the aspect I find most compelling about Clark Kent/Superman: For all that he can (and does) do, it's what he can't do that breaks him. (Superman can't be everywhere at once -- he's the strongest man in the world, yet he can't save everyone; Jack, for all his badassery and protective instincts, couldn't save Teri, couldn't keep a 15-year-old Kim in line.)

Oh, and the shades of gray in the 24-verse make me flail. Combine that with Jack's psyche (guilt, responsibility, PTSD, daddy issues, the need to take care of everyone around him, fear of failure and the effects of his failures, being both a torturer and a victim of torture, family man versus man with a gun ... dude, this parenthetical statement could almost never end), and I get giddy. Giddy. With character bleed. *g*
marinw
Jan. 4th, 2008 12:56 pm (UTC)
"seemingly" limitless tolerance for psychological and physical anguish...

Very well put. I am amazed that Jack can compartmentalize and still be so emo. We usually assume that detachment and clear-headedness go hand in hand, yet Jack is both passionate and logical. Yikes. Hope that last sentence makes sense.

What makes me flail (in Day 6 most of all) is that Jack is so alone. Even the people who are his friends (Bill and Chloe) and family (Josh and Marilyn) can’t really get that close to him. And he receives almost no thanks for his world-saving actions.

Thanks for visiting my journal. As long as I’m pimping, there may be a fic or two you missed…
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