BIID: Body Integrity Identity Disorder. Also known as Xenomelia and Foreign Limb Syndrome.
I was talking with some nonbinary folks on a trans* forum about how what we know about things like phantom limbs and neuroplasticity might apply to us and explain our ability to desire intersexed (or even physically impossible) bodies in the same sort of fundamental way as an FtM or MtF might desire a binary-assigned body, which supposedly can be completely explained by having brain structures unique to the sex they feel they should have been assigned at birth.
Stumbling on resources that informed me that research on phantom limb syndrome has shown that it is possible for sufferers to manipulate their phantom appendages in physically impossible ways, or have fully-functioning appendages that they never had (called congenital phantom limb syndrome). Some trans* men report having phantom penises, and so on. The discussion wound up having me do a search for “the opposite of phantom limb syndrome” perhaps as a means to help explain what goes on neurologically with, say, a neutrois individual who might want no secondary sex characteristics or sexed genitalia despite never not having them. I got a lot of search results about a disorder called BIID, and started reading.
I began to realize that many of the symptoms, coping behaviors, and tendencies match many of my own down to a tee, even though I don’t see any mention of anything even remotely like the sort that I experience. A number of articles and posts about the disorder reference a feeling of “over-completeness”. When I read those words I knew this was what was behind a huge portion of who I am.
Body integrity identity disorder (BIID, also referred to as amputee identity disorder) is a psychological disorder wherein sufferers feel they would be happier living as an amputee. It is related to xenomelia, “the oppressive feeling that one or more limbs of one’s body do not belong to one’s self”.
BIID is typically accompanied by the desire to amputate one or more healthy limbs to achieve that end. BIID can be associated with apotemnophilia, sexual arousal based on the image of one’s self as an amputee. The cause of BIID is unknown. One theory states that the origin of BIID is that it is a neurological failing of the brain’s inner body mapping function (located in the right parietal lobe). According to this theory, the brain mapping does not incorporate the affected limb in its understanding of the body’s physical form.
The basic misconception is that only arms and legs are affected, though once you start doing a little digging, it quickly becomes apparent that that’s far from true. It seems that the disorder can affect your relationship with just about any part of your body; or rather, any part of your body that you are conscious and aware of. It can also extend to affect the relationship that you have not with any particular piece of anatomy, but ability, like being able to see or hear.
The sort that I have seems to affect the entirety of my body, making me feel like I should be smaller than I currently am. I’ve written about this feeling before. I also wrote about it at the Experience Project. Discovering this is a huge, huge deal for me. It informs my gender, my orientation, my sexuality.
One of the things I’ve discovered since having sexual relationship is the strange way that I seem to process touch. Namely, it seems to be diminished and I’m pretty incapable of feeling anything in the way of marked pleasure from intimate contact, even in so-called erogenous zones. I thought there was something wrong with me for a long time, and just as I was coming to terms with the idea of not getting pleasure out of being touched, I discover BIID.
But that’s just one thing that is beginning to make sense now, within the context of the right parietal lobe theory.
The right parietal lobe is the part of the brain that seems to be responsible for the somatosensory system, and feelings of bodily ownership, proprioception, and sensory processing.
The point-to-point mapping of the body surfaces in the brain is called a homunculus and is essential in the creation of a body image. This brain-surface (“cortical”) map is not immutable, however. Dramatic shifts can occur in response to stroke or injury.
A disruption in body image may be linked to something gone haywire in this part of the brain. And at it’s core, BIID is what happens when the brain has improperly mapped an otherwise complete and functioning body. For most sufferers, that incomplete image may mean that a leg has been left out, or a finger, or the ability to walk. Many folks with BIID report diminished sensation in the offending body part.
Over on the sidebar over there, I call myself a sensation whore. I am. I like pain, I like being made physically uncomfortable. I like feeling weighed down and restrained. And in a way, I consider myself lucky that I do get pleasure from these kinds of sensations, since I can’t otherwise. Like I told my husband, I enjoy being hit because it’s my way of feeling something on my skin.
So then, this opens up another question: how might this inform my orientation? Am I saying that this made me asexual? Maybe, maybe not. But if I’m lacking the ability to really feel erotic pleasure in any way that is meaningful to me, then how can I possibly frame any relationship or fantasy of a relationship that I might have within the context of eros? How can I fantasize about something that I’ve never felt, feel attraction by a means that my body is unfamiliar with? Sure, sexual attraction is more than its constituent parts, but like a human being, you still have nothing if those parts don’t come together in the first place. If you don’t fantasize about sexual encounters in a sexual way, if you don’t masturbate, if you don’t feel motivated to pursue sexual intimacy with someone or something else, if you don’t get a sexual thrill from the sexual contact that you do receive, then I would say that these things together result in asexuality. I think it would definitely explain the way that I do tend to fantasize, though. In one of my previous posts trying to suss things out before I knew about this disorder, I talked about fantasizing about being eaten or crushed or dominated physically and emotionally but not sexually. I guess that these are the things that my subconscious mind knew to be more relevant to my reality than sex and it’s taken me over a decade for my conscious mind to catch up.
Maybe BIID is the cause of my asexuality. Or maybe I’m not actually asexual at all. But that’s the hairy intersection of asexuality and disability, isn’t it? Is one responsible for the other? Can it be? I don’t know.
Though I know for a fact that it’s responsible for my macrophilia. They’re two sides of the same coin, really.
Trans* people, as I found out pretty early on in my research on the disorder, hate BIID with a burning passion. Hey, it’s to be expected– if a bear is chasing you and your friend, you only have to outrun your friend to survive. If society is going to call you a sick freak to justify treating you like shit, the first step in justifying your right to exist is to find someone else to call a sick freak and treat like shit. Sure, it may not actually help you in the long run, but it sure feels good to know that you’re not at the bottom of the social food chain at least.
Part of the “sick freak” knee-jerk has a lot to do with the medical establishment’s obsession with pathologizing sexuality, and especially the sexuality of folks it deems abnormal. This is where we got autogynephelia from: the supposed fetish that trans* women have for themselves. Of course the only reason anyone would want to be a woman is for sexual funsies, right? Nevermind that the vast majority of cis women, when subject to the same criteria used to detect autogynephilia in trans* women, apparently suffer from the disorder also.
The fact of the matter is that people sexualize shit that they find pleasurable and things they find not so pleasurable. They sexualize who they are and who they want to be. It’s basically human nature. Some people use sexuality to heal, and others to cope.
I use mine to cope.
If I can’t change my body to reflect who I feel like I should be on the inside, then I damn will find an outlet to let off that building pressure. If I cannot have the relationship with physical intimacy that I truly want, then I’m going to vicariously experience that through art and stories. I’m going to sexualize the very thing that’s causing me distress and discomfort so that I can at least attempt to have a semblance of control over it before it eats me alive. I am going to find a reason to take pride in that unrelenting desire. I’m going to find a reason to like it.
I suspect a lot of folks with BIID might feel the same. We are sexualizing ourselves, our identities, our experiences to make them easier to live with day in and day out. Do we not have the right to find ourselves sexy and attractive just because we have a disorder?
Me, if I was never meant to be small, then I could still imagine other people who would make me feel small. And also safe. Somehow, in my convoluted daydreams, I knew that they were also keeping me safe from the very thing that was causing me to imagine myself with them to begin with.
Trans* people think that we don’t deserve the same rights, respect, and considerations as they feel they’re entitled to because we “fetishize disability”. Sorry, but this is horseshit, and it’s exactly the same thing as saying that trans* women don’t deserve respect because they’re just fetishizing femininity. We are not doing this for attention or for a sexual thrill any more than a trans* person is, nor should we be robbed of our sexual agency simply because we suffer from mental illness. The debate about the medical ethics of voluntary amputation is a completely different consideration and I’m not going to go into that here. Suffice to say, I’m a firm believer in bodily autonomy, and if someone’s overall quality of life would improve by becoming disabled, then I would support that choice if reasonable alternatives have been exhausted.
And what about the gender thing? How could this possibly inform my gender too?
Well, I’ve written about it before. Somewhat. Using fragmented and incomplete language.
My gender is “small”, “cute thing”. I sort of vibrate between pretty fairy boi, manic pixie girl, BMO, and housecat. But those are all just aspects; the real me is nothingness. A ghost haunting a house that belongs to a different family– I might chose to obey the floorplan? But really, I just end up walking through the walls all the time anyway. I barely even care that there’s a house there to begin with.
But really. What is gender but a collection of feelings and affirmations about who we are in relation to our bodies and cultures? Of course “and then some”, but gender is also these things. My gender is both nothing and small. And for some reason I have it in my head that for small, genderless things, puberty is meaningless, secondary sex characteristics are mostly an annoyance, and genitalia are birth defects. Having diminished sensation all over does carry over to my genitalia. I don’t seem to be able to feel much down there other than “I’m being touched” and “ow ow ow”. I didn’t even really consciously or symbolically understand that I had genitals until I was well into my teen years. Why should I? When I touched myself in the shower or whatever, it didn’t feel different or special in any way. It was literally just like scratching my ass. You might say that my brain, for all intents and purposes, has incompletely mapped my innie-junk, and has incompletely incorporated that part of my anatomy into my understanding of what constitutes “me”. To speak a bit more poetically, it honestly feels faint to me. Distant, in a way. I would much rather trade friction and penetration for the simple feeling of something large and heavy simply resting against it. For some reason, that actually allows me a glimpse of what it might be like to have that area of my body fully integrated in the way that I imagine it should be.
I think the research going into BIID (what little there is) might be of interest to the agender and neutrois communities. I for one feel like my gender identity, which consists of both, is for sure informed by the disorder. Who knows, maybe wiring in the right parietal lobe might have something to do with the feeling of alienation from secondary sex characteristics and anatomical sex, in the same way that other structures might be responsible for FtMs’ alienation from their chests and MtFs’ from their genitals.
I don’t have much more to say about the subject, really, other than that this has been an intense discovery for me and has provided me with something of my own personal “unified theory”. I hope that this post might help someone else who struggles with similar feelings or experiences dysphoria of a sort that’s hard to pin down. I’ve spoken to others about this, and there is apparently some evidence to support a link between having BIID and being transgender. I’ve only spoken to one trans* person so far about this, a trans* woman who desires to be paraplegic, but the disorder itself is pretty rare and finding people who have it is proving to be really difficult so I don’t even have anecdata to refute that or back it up.
I’m hoping that I can get back to finishing the next part of the macrophilia series after this. Still, it might take some time. I’m still trying to figure out what this means for my identities, especially if it’s causing them. Do I give a shit if it is? Right now, I don’t think so.
I’ve seen someone on tumblr say that the use of the asterisk in trans* is offensive, citing some trans women that they know. I guess the argument is that the need to differentiate oneself from an “ordinary” trans person, sans asterisk, is insulting. I don’t know why this would only be insulting to trans women then, and not trans men, as it seems to me that the claim comes mostly from the “…and everything else” addition that nonbinary identities might necessitate that the asterisk seems to stand for. But I’m not sure– they gave no explanation.
I’m going to continue using it in reference to myself and in talking about trans* people in general, though. Why? Because to me, it signifies a certain level of intersectionality and openness that “trans” on its own seems to lack. To me, it means that there is a wide array of trans* expression and realities, and to reconcile them all under a single, finite, term would be doing some a disservice. It’s because I’ve seen far too many trans men and women both spout horrifically offensive racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic opinions, believing that their trans identity makes them inculpable. Because truscum exist. Because white trans* people think that culturally-specific genders are up for grabs. Because most trans* folk can’t imagine why anyone would want to transition if they weren’t already miserable. Because some trans* folk never seek a diagnosis or hormones or surgery. Because transgender identity doesn’t always exist in a vacuum, nor is it so easily distinguished from our other identities.
It’s not like saying “the alphabet soup” instead of the whole LGBTQIA+ acronym, as the person who I saw originally heard the opinion from said. It’s like saying “LGBT” instead of the whole acronym.
My next post is going to be related to this, and it’s the thing that’s been distracting me from finishing that Macrophilia series for a couple months now. It’s kind of an enormous deal to me, and it’s another reason why I personally need the asterisk at the end of trans. So stay tuned.
I’m hanging my comment here because I feel like posting this in the comments section there would have been a little derail-y. But I’m specifically replying to this:
As I’m not personally equipped to talk about the issues that arise following that revelation (and there are a lot of issues)…
SO. This is just going to be me listing off a couple issues I have, and could potentially, run into.
Situation A: Explaining how my marriage works without mentioning asexuality.
Okay this is something that actually happens to me on a somewhat regular basis, and it’s interesting to me that my hubs gets treated very differently than I do when we talk about our relationship to others in any sort of detail. For him, I’ve described it as our relationship being a spectator sport for the people around him. For me, people seem to be much more uncomfortable with my perspective than that (obviously informed by my asexuality).
Being read female, of course, questions hinting at sex life and sex drive don’t generally come my way, and he seems to get that a lot more. But I do get a lot of questions from people who are confused about how our intimacy works in a very general way, so I give a general answer: “It is what it is” is along the lines of what I usually say. At this point, they’ll usually go on to talk about how hard it must be for me, how admirable and exceptional I am, and then proceed to shower me with all this creepy adulation. And then I have to stop them and rain on their parade with honesty by saying “it’s really not that hard, I’m fine when he’s not around; I’m not a huggy person anyways”. And this bit of truth can do one of three things: it can either make them backpedal and treat me like a human being instead of some kind of romance novel character that represents chaste and noble suffering for the sake of True Love, backpedal and get a little nasty and call me a robot (which I don’t appreciate in this context), or backpedal and insist that I must be cheating.
After the last two, I am usually 100% done and change the subject or stop talking to them.
It’s interesting to me how something like a long-distance relationship can go from being this tragically honorable thing one minute, to something pitiful, suspicious, or even abhorrent, the next. As soon as it’s known that you’re OK with not having access to your SO’s physical person 24/7, you become Other. The entire validity of your relationship, your quality as a person, suddenly become suspect. If I don’t mind not just having sex 90% of the time, but having that possibility completely removed for me (which I think is a pretty meaningful distinction to be made in how this sort of thing is interpreted by your average allosexual), then it would follow that I’m in the relationship for “”"other”"” reasons. And because sex = love and emotional intimacy, if I don’t care about sex, then I clearly don’t love him like a normal person, or at all. And that’s not even getting into the whole “depriving him of something he deserves” that the cheating theory implies also.
And all of this happens without me even uttering the word “asexual”.
Situation B: Explaining how my marriage works with mentioning asexuality.
This one’s hypothetical because I haven’t done it, but I imply it when I do actual explaining a la the above, and I imagine that the ensuing discussion would unfold similarly. Of course, it would be complicated by the fact that I have now just told them that I’m asexual. The “[emotionless, subhuman] robot” comment would probably gain more traction during the conversation. I would have to explain what asexuality is. The assumption that we don’t have sex would be outwardly made, and then I would have come to a crossroads.
Do I, or do I not, lay out the gritty personal details of our sex life to explain how and why we still do have sex while maintaining the integrity of my asexual identity (to them)?
The ‘no sexual attraction’ thing could be taken very seriously: it could be extrapolated to mean that I’m shallow and am using him for his material wealth/possessions. Or it could be disbelieved altogether, leading to the conclusion that I just find him ugly. (Which is far from true; he’s way attractive, thankyouverymuch.)
I dunno. I’m sure there’d also be the assumption that we must be having sex like everyone else and that my ace identity is a useless one. This kind of framing kind of bleeds over into how mistreatment of aces by other queer people is justified, too. The sex I have is pretty damn queer, even though I’m female-bodied and he’s male-bodied. Besides– if gay sex and lesbian sex is defined by the people doing the acts and not the acts themselves, then any sex that I have will be ace sex anyways.
I suppose in the end, should this come up, “you’re just going to have to trust me because it’s none of your business anyways” will have to suffice.
Macrophilia 201 series
- Giants in Popular Media
- Female Socialization, Male Gaze, and Paraphilia
- Asexuality and Paraphilia
- On “Reverse Pedophilia”, GT vs SW, and Other Writings
Part 3: Female Socialization, Male Gaze, and Paraphlia
The previous part basically exists to provide a foundation for this part, because understanding the symbolism associated with macrophilia and giants helps us understand why such a thing has the potential to piss off a mainline feminist as much as women who practice BDSM. Analyzing the symbolism behind the things that you like is also tip #4 in my Meditation on Ethical Fetishism as well; self-analysis is basically the first step in being a not shitty person, no matter what you’re analyzing. Not wanting to do this is not wanting to take responsibility for it. Own your shit, people.
What is gendered socialization anyways? One of the cornerstone beliefs held by transphobic feminists to justify their exclusion of trans women is that trans women aren’t “safe” to be around, or aren’t ever going to be “woman enough” because they were socialized as men pre-transition. But if you actually talk to trans women about their experience being transgender, a lot of them say that the common idea of gendered socialization, the idea that you are built to absorb all and any messages regarding your birth assignment whether you want to or not, is complete baloney. A lot of trans women will tell you that they paid far more attention to the narratives and stereotypes meant for girls as children and adolescents than the ones meant for boys. It’s almost as if some part of them knew they weren’t male. Huh. What a thought. It’s often that later on they start forcing themselves to pay attention to what boys and men are supposed to be like to try and fit in (to put it nicely).
I don’t really know what it’s like to be female-socialized and identify as female. I’m “none of the above”, but I internalized a few disparate thoughts about the way people with my haircut and body type were supposed to be and act like. It wasn’t until much later that I found myself paying closer, deliberate attention to try and… fit in. In other words, I internalized the gendered narratives that benefited me most. As a child, that meant one thing, and as an adult, that meant another.
Okay, now what does all of that have to do with macrophilia? I have two ideas I’m going to try and explain: general and personal.
So, general. If you’re reading this, then you’re probably a feminist or something similar, and you’re probably familiar with all the ways that “feminine” behavior is enforced and policed by the images we see and narratives we’re told. This includes things like letting the men ask you out, not the other way around. Be nice, smile. If you get mad, you won’t be taken seriously. You have to buy and wear or apply X, Y, and Z before going out in order to be considered presentable. People will always be judging the way you look. Men will disrespect you because your primary purpose is sex. Men are pigs. Your life is incomplete without a man. Lesbians are dirty and not to be trusted. You’re a second-class citizen as soon as you put on a pair of Uggs. Ad nauseum.
And if you’re a feminist or something similar, you’ll probably already know that all of these disparate and sometimes contradictory messages boil down to a few core axioms: 1. your worth is determined by your looks, 2. men will treat you badly and you should just learn to love it, and 3. being aggressive is unbecoming.
I’m gonna take “being aggressive is unbecoming” for $1000.
Part of the nature of having a fetish is that you want to pursue it; your entire brain is wired to follow the rabbit down the hole. It’s an opt-out thing, not opt-in; it’s always on and the only way to make it stop is by active suppression. The problem with this and having been socialized as female is that you’re told that, no, you’re not supposed to pursue things. You are not the hunter, you are the hunted. So what is one to do when one wants something but isn’t supposed to want to go and get it?
Stress out about it a lot, and then hope we eventually get the memo that we can be pursuers too.
“All fetishists are men” is a very pervasive stereotype, and the medical/psychiatric community is still mired in outdated language that supports this. But browsing fetish spaces, you’d think this were right, though. And it just might be; I have no idea. There’s not a lot of empirical data on the subject. One thing that still sticks with me from having read part of John Money’s Lovemaps, though, might explain this apparent discrepancy. He posits that, when otherwise healthy and normal sexual development in children is disrupted by something, either by a traumatic event, or the internalizing of a piece of media that “sticks” with the child, among other things, boys and girls will react differently. He claims that girls tend toward sexual aversion, and boys will tend toward sexual fetishism as their development continues. This seems to match my anecdata, as it would with most people’s, but I highly doubt this is due to anything but early childhood socialization rather than something innate. (All of this is also assuming that children experience gender in rudimentary ways, which, if I’m allowed to use myself as evidence, they do not.)
But is that not the image we’re used to seeing? The female sexual introversion vs. the male sexually aggressive extroversion? Male fetishists are permitted to be characters on TV; women are still barely permitted any heteronormative sexual agency at all. It is natural for men to have sexual proclivities, interests, preferences, and demands. Women are still largely conceived of needing to use sex as a bargaining chip in their hetero, men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus relationships, which completely removes her ability to have sexual proclivities, interests, preferences, and demands as well. This narrative does not even permit the non-male fetishist to exist.
So that’s the general idea.
The personal goes something like this:
I absorbed narratives pertaining to girls and boys in pretty equal number, having roughly the same level of investment in both. As I grew older, I learned more and more about what it meant to be labelled “female” as a defense mechanism. I was afraid that not being feminine meant I wasn’t a responsible adult that couldn’t be taken seriously. I tried buying my way to confidence by shopping at Forever 21 and H&M. The shimmery skirts and heavy makeup were just covering up a sinkhole, really. I perceived myself as being in contrast with “men” because of the things I learned from media, and the things I learned first-hand from men trying very hard to perform masculinity at the cost of the women in their life. I was more comfortable with hyperfemininity than I was with that; must mean I’m a woman.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that macrophilia was the thing that set off the gender/sexuality domino game for me. Once I realized what the hell I was doing, it was quite natural for the other things to fall into place too. Of course I felt different; my world wasn’t divvied up by gender. I clearly conceived of “self” and “other” along different lines. Just so happens to have been one of “smallness” vs “bigness”, “pursuer” vs “pursued”. My lens saw things in terms of power differential and space displacement rather than body parts and clothing departments.
I had always aligned myself with the “small” that I contrasted with the “big”.
And someplace deep inside I knew that there was no such thing as “woman” in me; I was free to be the pursuer so long as I was strong enough to suffer the social fallout. Only very recently have I been strong enough to do it. “I want to be treated like something small, not feminine,” I now have the courage to say to myself.
Pursuer vs pursued is an interesting dichotomy to navigate, especially if you look at it in terms of the BDSM world. Self-identified submissives oftentimes have to grapple with the realization that they can’t just lie back and expect the perfect dom to land in their lap. The idea of having to actively seek out potential partners, vet them, and do the work of communicating their desires comes as quite a game-changing realization. The fantasy image of the sub, the narrative of their fulfillment, is never one of agency and taking responsibility for their submissive desires. Affirming in plain English that “yes, I want you to pursue me”, goes against everything that the sub is told. Especially the female sub. There’s a reason that male subs are portrayed as being bossy, picky, and selfish about the way in which they submit– that’s likely a combination of the stereotype of there being no such thing as a “real” male sub, either because they’re not real men, or not real subs, and that of men being permitted to have sexual proclivities, interests, preferences, and demands. The latter is oftentimes cited as being contrary to the disposition of a “true sub” where female submissives are concerned, once again reinforcing the idea that the female-assigned are expected to be pliant and impotent.
There’s a lot of angst and fear where the female gaze is concerned in Western society. Works made from a female or queer perspective have a much harder time achieving the sort of legitimacy that male-made media is afforded, and fetish media and porn are probably the two areas where this discrepancy is the most obvious. What is the gender ratio of amateur to professional work where these subjects are concerned? Who controls these images, how, and with what kind of profile?
For being so surreal and bizarre, fetishes are awfully heteronormative– in fact, most of the time they’re heteronormative narratives and values distilled into something that isn’t just flammable, but highly explosive. It’s heteronormativity Hulking out. So of course fetishes are often going to find themselves propped up by cissexist, heterosexist, white colonial notions of how people work. The violence inherent in many people’s sexuailities have a tendency to turn off queer thinkers, and that’s a shame, because the world needs more safe and consensual outlets for violent tendencies, and queer theory is rife with solutions.
Queering up fetishes would also make paraphilic spaces far less creepy. To me, there’s nothing more toxic and unsettling than gendered assumptions being made about my person from simply existing in a space. (Trans* communities are absolutely guilty of this, and I find it pretty disgusting.) Granted, my old fetish community for aficionados of giants and shrunken women, was more or less OK in this regard, though that community seemed to me to be unique in a number of ways, their minimal discrimination against women and queer folk being one of them, and their appreciation of works by female posters being another.
I don’t have much to add here, other than perhaps a warning to those who would set up a dichotomy in which male and female gaze are axiomatically opposed perspectives, cannot be reconciled, and that there exists no gaze outside of them. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in reactionary works by female creators making erotic media, where the enemy is perceived to be the male gaze. There needs to be room for other gazes– nonbinary gazes, queer gazes, and so on. Erotic media is not a zero-sum game where the only two teams are M and F. If the resistance is to be genuine and meaningful, that is. Without that awareness, female gaze can quickly become just as oppressive and blind as the male gaze often is.
Macrophilia 201 series
- Giants in Popular Media
- Female Socialization, Male Gaze, and Paraphilia
- Asexuality and Paraphilia
- On “Reverse Pedophilia”, GT vs SW, and Other Writings
Part 2: Giants in Popular Media
YER BASIC TROPES
I’m starting with this because tropes surrounding the way giants are treated by stories and the kinds of roles they have in them, as I’ve perceived, have generally stayed the same through the course of human storytelling history. Giants are typically bad news for humans as a race and either represent exaggerated qualities in ourselves that we hate and fear, or represent forces in the natural world which we have a tendency to both marvel at and regard with animalistic mistrust.
They’re not all bad news, though. They’re not all Surtrs and Galactuses, Goliaths and Banes. Sometimes the giant is a good guy, or at least a neutral party (I see this alignment generally paired with above-average intelligence). The good-guy giant is rarely ever the star of his* own show, and that’s because his size is a tool, first and foremost, either to be used by him, or by his allies. Being proud and content with his size is not often something that’s encouraged (possibly because of the fear that it draws too strong a link to the first variety of giant and therefore establishes such a character as fundamentally untrustworthy). And if it’s not, then the size is just never mentioned.
There are things you can’t fight – acts of God. You see a hurricane coming, you get out of the way. But when you’re in a Jaeger, you can finally fight the hurricane. You can win.
–Raleigh Becket, Pacific Rim
The third type, which isn’t really a type so much as its a variation on the above, is pretty much only found in a small subset of the mecha genre. (Or, interestingly, in the case of Shingeki no Kyojin, or Attack on Titan, which features a protagonist that has the ability to grow into a giant and fight other giants.) This type is characterized by its pure existence as a tool. The size and strength of “giantness” is a temporary status that normal-sized characters can put on like a pair of shoes–hence “piloting” rather than “becoming”–and use grudgingly, or more typically, with great, burdensome, hesitation. More on this in a minute.
*“His” because most giants are male, and the female ones are usually sexist “female empowerment” in a really concentrated form and pretty much deserve their own analysis
The Above Translated into TVTropes Links
- The Big Guy
- Gentle Giant
- Dumb Muscle
- Genius Bruiser
- Bigger is Better (not all are relevant, but it’s a good portal page)
GIANTS OF THE OLD WORLD
Or, “Giants and World Religions”. I don’t really want to get into the nitty-gritty of the function of giants in non-JCI religions, but I have to talk about them a little because religio-culture plays a pretty crucial role in how we perceive ourselves as humans to exist in contrast with the Other. The Other here can mean a lot of things: spirits, ancestors, demons, lesser gods, wights, and all manner of supernatural entities. Giants are present, though, in nearly all world religions. I’m not a scholar, just a hobbyist, but folks that like to study this stuff in greater detail and for stupider reasons (read: ancient astronaut theory) pretty much agree with the assessment.
Giants are present in just about every mythology out there, but the one that I’ve benefited from learning about most is Norse– mostly for accessibility reasons, but the themes found in those myth cycles are pretty relevant to many other myths about giants, even in places as disparate as Central America. The general theme here is that the world was/is populated with giants, and the gods must come down and slay them, or punish them, or round them up and put them somewhere else because the humans are coming home and they’re in our house. The giants here represent the forces of a world that is inhospitable to humankind, and the gods have to make sure their newest creation doesn’t get killed off (immediately). We see primordial giant-spirits of earthquakes being imprisoned inside of mountains, giant-spirits of chaos being battled nightly by the sun god/culture hero, giant-spirits of storms in a constant warring dance with a protector-god of humanity, and so on. Interestingly enough, many of the human-friendly gods are conceived of being human-sized when in their human forms. Many gods have explicit links to the old order, the old world populated by giants, titans, jotuns, what have you, and most of the time this is by blood relation, though sometimes, as in the case of Thor, by way of sexual relations: he fathers a child with the jotun/giantess Járnsaxa. Others, like ocean gods and spirits, can sometimes take the form of the ocean itself as well as appear in a smaller, human form. Generally, if a god has a large, scary aspect, their relationship with humankind is fraught with danger because that which they represent/rule over is inherently dangerous, but something we depend on to survive. There is trust there, but it is ever-cautious.
Anyways, the jist is this: inhuman size of the large kind carries with it an unconscious symbolism that entails a threat to the domestic and civil order of humankind. Whether that is natural destructive forces (storms, earthquakes), or animalistic behavior (stupidity, gluttony, violence), these older-than-dirt symbols pretty much form the foundation of every modern trope you’ll find regarding giants.
POP CULTURE GIANTS
Compared to small or shrunken characters whose existence is to subvert tropes about childishness and cuteness, to reinforce them, to provide an incomplete “human” to support another fully realized character, to highlight the power of ingenuity (if they’re tiny humans) or to illustrate pettiness on a mostly harmless scale, giants get the short end of the stick. They are subhuman in a way that small characters aren’t. At the very least, they aren’t permitted to embody a wide range of archetypes and personality types like other characters can, because that undermines their very reason to exist.
There are a few categories of giant that tend to show up a lot:
- The Evil Beefcake – This type seems mostly relegated to video game villainy, like Poseidon from the God of War series. A trite, but solid, symbol of physical violence.
- The Servitor – Typically this one is from myth and reimaginings of traditional stories. Frankenstein’s monster, the Colossus of Rhodes, etc. Existence is generally used to illustrate either the folly of humankind (in thinking they could create and control such a creature), or the power/benevolence of gods.
- The Brontosaurus - Big, strong, and wouldn’t hurt a fly, but not so smart. It’s purpose is to elicit sympathy in a way that the previous two cannot.
- The Jolly Giant Mascot - Okay, so there aren’t actually all that many here, but they’re all well-known: Jolly Green Giant, Paul Bunyon, and even the Michelin Man is on the rather tall side. There aren’t that many because corportate mascots are supposed to be fun and lovable, and giants usually aren’t.
- The Monster - Basically the most common type. Everything from the Minotaur to Kaiju to all those giant bug movies that were super popular in the 50′s and 60′s. They represent… monsters. The Natural World Gone Wild.
- The Racist Stereotype - Self-explanitory, hopefully.
- The Babe - Generally, a hot, white, skinny woman that’s sort of enjoying being so “”"powerful”"” but has to be coy about it so she doesn’t make the menfolk feel too inferior. Generally portrayed as just super-sized T&A. See Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, and, really, anything else in that vein. Everything to come after that pretty much copies it.
Out of all of these, the only male ones that are somewhat permitted to be conventionally attractive is The Evil Beefcake, and on the very rare occasion, The Servitor. The Babe, though? It is absolutely necessary that she’s conventionally attractive, and show-stoppingly so. Otherwise, just throw in a male giant instead.
I think it’s important to note which kinds of characters are “permitted” to be conventionally attractive and which ones aren’t. If we can divvy up the idea of “giantness” into the two categories of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, then a pattern emerges. Natural giants are, as you can expect, never permitted to be hot unless they are also evil, making them threatening to the viewer in a much more easily digestible way; a hot, smart, good giant guy, as I’ve found in my travels and my research, is a dangerous thing. And the way to handle that is to either bring them down several pegs (see below for how superhero giants are treated), or reassure the viewer that they’re going to be good and dead by the end of the story. A smart, hot, giant girl, as you can imagine, is usually sexually tamed to ease the primordial anxieties of the viewer. Female giants aren’t seen as so threatening (because either “”"empowerment”"” or there’s just always the understanding that she’s going to get saved or brought down at the hands of a man).
GIANTNESS AS TOOL
As I mentioned in the beginning of this section, the status of “giant” can be used by a character as a tool to Uncomfortably Do The Right Thing. To build on what I said above, this type is pretty exclusive to the ‘unnatural’ category; characters pilot anthropomorphic vehicles that are extensions of their body, characters who experience a lab experiment gone awry or an unusual natural disaster that gives them superpowers, etc. In other words, their ability to harness the power of immense size is not something they were born with, is not something that they are made to feel comfortable about, and is definitely something that they must keep carefully compartmentalized and away from the rest of their life (X-Men, obviously, handles these issues by its very nature). In order for us to be able to sympathize with them, their ability to change size must be a source of anxiety or a kind of disability, it must be an ability that they forever have reservations about using; in the case of a pilotable mecha, then the mech, no matter how attached the pilot is, must stay in its hangar when not being used to do the violence. It cannot be thought of anything but a death-dealing machine, even though the pilot may suffer an incredible loss should their mecha be taken away from them.
There’s a lot of Protestant-style guilt present in these themes and narratives, not at all dissimilar to the evangelical view of sex. You can have it, but don’t like it too much, and only do it when you have to.
CASE STUDY: HANK PYM
I have a pretty intense fascination with Hank Pym, and in no small part due to how he has been historically handled as both a character and a property, and what his relationship with partner Janet Van Dyne has been.
Now, understand that I haven’t read much of actual comics with Hank in them aside from The Ultimates, though I have watched and consider myself a big fan of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon that got 2 seasons and was cancelled to make room for something more congruent with the Avengers’ films and tie-ins. Most of my reading about Hank has been in secondary material like wikis and other write-ups, because the way he is perceived is actually more important than the details of how he’s written. To preface, though: everything that I’ve read and watched concerning the character of Hank, as a superhero who has the ability to shrink down into his Ant Man persona, or grow to the size of a house or a skyscraper in his Giant Man persona, has led me to believe that his very existence perplexes the creators who’ve been put to the task of writing him, and that there is something about his character that draws disproportionate ire from comic book fans.
First off, Hank is somewhat of an ass: abusive behavior has been written into his storylines on a few occasions, with Janet being the sole recipient of his anger. If you’re at all familiar with the character, odds are that the first thing that comes to mind is “wife-beater”, and little, if anything else. As you might expect, this is a reason that is cited by many who hate him. What interests me about this, though, is that many other male superheroes have been abusive toward their female partners throughout the history of comics, and done things far worse to them than backhand. Peter Parker, for instance, once decked Mary Jane while she was pregnant, sending her flying, and if you’ll skim the comments in the link, you’ll find that fans are happy to bend over backwards to explain why Peter’s violence is justified (or at least pitiable) and Hank’s is not. Also, let’s not forget how awful Bruce Banner’s alter-ego is–which, for the purposes of this section, is more useful than a character like Spiderman’s–and yet everybody still loves The Hulk. The Hulk has gotten two movies and played a huge role in Avengers. Hank,on the other hand… well, keep reading if you’re not familiar at all with what’s going on.
If you contrast Bruce Banner and Hank Pym, what do get? They’re both brilliant scientists. They both suffer from mental illness and are emotionally unstable. They can both become giants with superhuman strength. There is tremendous fallout in their personal lives due to their crime-fighting careers. And so on. What do they have that’s different, then? Really, symbolically different? Well, there’s two that I feel are thematically important here: 1. the crux of Banner’s story is that he changes when he gets mad, not when he wants to, which makes him very conflicted about his powers, and 2. he doesn’t get that tall. Like, in comic book land, normal people can conceivably be as big as him without having super-powers.
Why are these two things important? Take a look at this here list of the “top” 10 size-changing supes, which sums things up pretty nicely at the end, when it introduces Pym: “If you’ve noticed a running theme of “Size-Changing = Bad Luck” in this top ten…”
Interestingly, the Hulk isn’t on this list, likely because his size-changing abilities take a back-seat to the others. From reading that, you might think that it’s a deliberate distinction on the part of the writers’ zeitgeist, and I would too. Notice, though, how everyone on that list is able to change size at will. If we go back to the Old World section above, then it would’t be unreasonable to extrapolate that there is an inherent level of distrust of these characters for that very reason. Hulk, in spite of his murderous and destructive rampages (he did more damage with his own two hands than Hank ever deliberately did), is OK to like because Banner doesn’t like that side of himself; you can feel sympathy for him. He is reluctant to embrace the part of his identity that puts him on par with the old spirits of natural disasters.
All the characters on that list, though– all of them are sad, pathetic, run-down B-listers. (Yes, even though Janet was well-liked, she was essentially killed so that Hank could move on and try to reclaim his charm.) There’s really nothing else to it: something in the psyche of the writers and readers are preventing them from turning any of these superheroes into characters that are widely liked. Hank Pym is so reviled, and Marvel seemingly so ashamed to have him as a property, that he’s been basically written out of not just the Avengers movie’s origin story, but the upcoming Ultron storyline as well. For those of you don’t know how big of a deal this is, Ultron has had several incarnations in the Marvel universe, and in all of them Hank was Ultron’s inventor. And these weren’t just throwaway plotlines, either; Ultron was always a big deal when he showed up, he was always created by reasons that are very congruent with Hank’s character and hubris. And this is ignoring that Hank and Janet were founding members of the Avengers as well. But not anymore– Hank Pym has no presence in the new cartoon, he is no longer the creator of Ultron, he’s no longer even the alter-ego of the movie-verse Ant Man (whose mantle is being taken up by the far less contentious Scott Lang, who, according to recent news, conveniently gets the suit from an older Hank who may or may not play a major role in the universe beyond that): he’s been deliberately removed from the forefront of the Marvel film universe. Check this link for updates on the film as it progresses.
In conclusion, Hank Pym’s character is irreconcilable to most audiences, despite the fact that he shares many traits and similar histories to other, much more popular and beloved heroes. My theory is that most people, including Hank Pym’s writers, as well as those who’ve read the stories he was part of, cannot fully trust or sympathize with his character for nothing else than being able to grow to incredible proportions at will. That there is something inherently more inhuman to the state of “giantness” than, say, the ability to fly or turn invisible– this has been a cornerstone of human storytelling through the ages, and Hank Pym was never destined to be an exception.
WHY IS THIS EVEN THE PART 2
Because all this shit is important baggage that needs to be unpacked. I’m a paraphile, I like these things. If you’re a straight dude, you’re going to know why you like girls in pretty grueling detail. This is also important groundwork to build if I want to have any sort of deeper conversation about what it means to be into giants as a feminist and as a queer person, just like how I need to know what it means to be a feminist and be into BDSM, or be an ace and be into the sex thing. Except, unlike those, there is nobody to cover this ground for me, there is nobody else I can look to to start the dialogue except me. This is my attempt to do that. I am attempting to reconcile, with words, what it’s like to be into giant dudes and exist in the world that I do.
Next section gets into the nitty-gritty of this stuff, so stay tuned.
So this is a researcher that’s been around for a little while, I guess, who is being challenged on some of the conclusions he’s drawn about the asexual narrative, what our relationship to sex is, and so on. He said he put out feelers for his research about 5 years ago. I wasn’t around then (And in fact was just beginning to come to terms with the more obvious aspects of my sexual and paraphilic inclinations; you know, stuff like “wait a minute, why have 20+ foot tall men been a central theme in many of my imaginings since as early as I could remember?” Yep, I’m sharp as a tack.), and have only known about the existence of asexuality for 3-4 years, so I’m going to take a break from my macrophilia series and see if I can answer some of the questions that he asks at the end of his post.
The obvious disclaimer being that I can only answer these for myself.
Firstly, how should ’sex-favourable asexuals’ be conceptually distinguished from Gray-A’s* on the one hand and the variable centrality of sexual attraction to the sexual experience of non-asexuals on the other?
A: I’ve written a lot about how the various attractions and their “distance” to the experiencer function much like a constellation of stars that appear to be one thing from one perspective, and another thing entirely from another perspective. The typical models of sexuality and orientation have always been complicated for me to reconcile because much of my sexuality (and gender, but I’m not going to go into that) revolves around the paraphilic lens through which I see and interact with the world. All of the traits and behaviors I have taken to be markers are all stars in this constellation that, from where I’m standing on my planet, spell out “asexuality”.
Once I was able to tease out the ingredients of what makes up my proprietary blend of attractions, things fell into place much more. I realized that, on the surface, my paraphilic and aesthetic interests could be misinterpreted as “heterosexual normativity with a twist”. Kink, fetish, and paraphilic attraction aren’t recognized by basically anybody in the wider asexual discourse, which is disappointing, because I think that there is much more to the attractions than is currently accepted. Anyways, long story short, I realized that what I was experiencing was an amalgamation of attractions that appeared similar to sexual attraction, but didn’t seem to actually function like it.
For instance, I don’t have sex for sexual fulfillment. The relationship I have with my husband, I feel, is complete without sex (he, as a non-ace person, will probably disagree) on its own, so there is nothing to “fulfill” there; there is nothing I can get during what most people would call sex that I couldn’t get from some other aspect of our relationship. I could, however, in theory, get my paraphilic desires met outside our relationship in non-sexual settings (and I do somewhat regularly– I consume popular media that scratches the itch), but that wouldn’t work either if it was a person I was going to. Why? Here’s a couple of flowcharts that give a simplistic idea of how my attractions have seemed to work in the past:
Paraphllic attraction >> aesthetic attraction >> tactile* attraction
Intellectual attraction >> emotional/aesthetic attraction >> paraphilic/aesthetic attraction >> tactile attraction >> romantic/sensual attraction?
*I prefer “tactile” instead of “sensual” because I feel the latter is limited in scope and doesn’t include things like pain, uncomfortableness, sensory deprivation, etc. and because it’s very late in the game before I even think of cuddling and hugging; I am NOT a huggy person
To summarize: I wouldn’t want to go outside of the relationship to get those needs met because, well, I’m monogamous first of all, and two, because no matter the route, I’ve never experienced the desire to act on my attractions outside of an established relationship. Yes, it’s a catch 22, don’t ask me how my marriage happened. I think my husband might be some kind of wizard.
Another description I’ve used in the past that seems to describe the difference I perceive between desire for sex born of sexual attraction and desire for sex with someone (I think the “with someone in particular” part is its own minefield that is different than “desiring sex for JUST the sensation”) sans sexual attraction, is that for me, it’s “by, with, and for someone, not because of someone”. Ok, I understand that this is messy attempts at logic, but bear with me because I’ve never seen anyone else talk about this stuff (the paraphilia makes it 10x as complicated), and I’ve got a long ways to go to understand it myself.
Secondly, how do ‘sex-favourable asexuals’ come to identify as asexual and what ‘work’ does this identification do biographically?
A: Like I said, it took me a long time to realize I was weird enough to look into it. Questions like “why haven’t ever pictured myself getting old with anyone?” or “how come I can’t picture myself as a parent or with a family?” or “why do I want boys’ attention but don’t actually want to date or touch any of them?” or “why are my fantasies such a complete departure from what everyone else says is their ideal relationship?” or “why do I feel like I’m just not made to be with anyone?” ran through my head over the course of a few years before I looked into macrophilia as the source of the disconnect. It didn’t take me long to realize that, even there, there was a disconnect between me and the other fetishists. None of their art or stories depicted what my favorite scenarios or “atmospheres”. Why did I still feel like a bit of an outsider? I found AVEN at some point, I don’t remember how now, and it blew the whole case open for me.
I was, and still am, in a long-distance relationship, so I only had sex maybe a dozen times a year. Why was I OK with the lack of physical intimacy while I was away from my partner for 49 weeks a year? Did it make him feel bad even though I feel like our relationship is damn-near perfect already? What would he say if I told him that I didn’t masturbate much (or at all) while I wasn’t with him, or that if I liked being on birth control because it slowed my libido down to a grinding halt? Am I allowed to trade going down on him for half an hour of being tied up and hit? What does it mean when I like the sensation of him being in me, but not for more than a minute or so?
I just don’t think that allosexual people, folks who have sex because it fills a vital role in the relationship, would be asking themselves questions like these. I don’t know, maybe gray-asexuals don’t often find this many things to question either; this many things that appear to be red flags at first.
The questions I posed in the first paragraph of the answer look very similar to the sentiments aired by Jonathan Rauch in Denial: My 25 Years Without A Soul, his short memoir about how long it took him to realize that he was gay and all the ways he unconsciously tricked himself into coming to other conclusions. (I highly, highly recommend anyone who falls under the GSRM umbrella, aces definitely included, to read this. I couldn’t put it down, read it all in one sitting, and was in tears at various points throughout.) His experience is not uncommon among people who find themselves in coming-out narratives, people with alternative gender, romantic, and sexual identities. Maybe even Mr. Carrigan could read it with the understanding that heterosexual, normative folks don’t seem to have these experiences regarding their identity and relationships.
Is it just a convenient label for them?
A: I think this is a disingenuous question. Isn’t every self-identified label “convenient”? Then again, I take the descriptive approach to labels rather than the prescriptive one, so they are inherently more lackadaisical things than they might be to someone else. It’s convenient in that it helps describe my life and my experiences so far. I’m not using this as a strictly predictive model, and so far it’s done a lot to explain things that have already happened and that I can examine with hindsight-o-vision. So yes, it’s “just convenient”. It’s a helluva lot more convenient than having to write an essay every time I want to describe what I’ve felt and put it up to peer review. Might there be a chance I experience sexual attraction (whatever that actually is) someday in the future? Sure, and that’s theoretically true for every ace. But we’re not all gray for a reason.
Does the label help ‘solve’ any problems they face in everyday life as a result of not experiencing sexual attraction?
A: Yes, though I wouldn’t call them “problems” per se, just like how not every trans* person will experience dysphoria, or experience dysphoria in the same way. The label is a useful tool for examining my tendencies, the whys and wherefores of my interests and disinterests, and it does a better job than gray-asexuality; if it didn’t, I wouldn’t have stopped identifying as gray-ace.
Are there particular difficulties they face (over and above the politics of ‘asexual elitism’ which sparked the AVENues article) specifically in virtue of not experiencing sexual attraction yet still having sex?
A: Yes. Engaging with sex and sexuality as someone that does not experience sexual attraction, and doing so without the hope or expectation of it is a fundamentally different experience than engaging with the knowledge that you could potentially develop sexual attraction for someone, whether your partner or someone else, or with the knowledge that this is the only person you’ve ever felt this way about, and so on. We are talked to and talked about as though we are allosexual by the aces that are willing to acknowledge that we exist. Allosexual society, to me, is still alien and threatening even though I partake in one of it’s most loved pass-times. The disconnect is still there. It may not be as obvious to aces who are less than positive, but it’s still palpable.
How frequently do people in this category have sex?
A: Like I said, I currently have sex about a dozen times a year due to distance. When I move in with him, I don’t know how often we’ll have sex.I don’t know if I’ll get bored with it. As a kinky couple, though, we have fail-safes to help prevent us from becoming dissatisfied, but I don’t know how much of that is applicable to other ‘sex-positive aces’. When I am with him, though, currently it’s 2-3 times a week if everything we do in bed is going to get called “sex”.
Does the absence of sexual attraction actually play a positive role in shaping sexual behaviour?
A: Lack of sexual attraction is, to me, a neutral trait. It’s up to the person who experiences this to turn it into something positive or negative. It depends on their personal history. I used to have a very negative view of sex despite being interested in trying it out (with whom theoretically didn’t matter, but I was more interested in fantasy than reality anyways). That’s because I had bad experiences. I learned some things and unlearned others as the years went by and by the time I met my husband we were much more on the same page than we could have been. I am jealous in some ways and not in others. I’m interested in trying out practically anything in our sex/kink life, so long as it abides by our idea of monogamy and so long as the power differential is either always neutral or tipped in his favor. If I could list one important thing that the ace community has done, though, that would be separating the attractions in the face of a heteronormative society that would have them all be a single unit, and I think that is something everyone could benefit from examining.
ETA: I totally forgot to answer a couple more that he asks (possibly somewhat rhetorically) so I’ve added them.