Macrophilia 201: Part 2

Macrophilia 201 series

  1. Basics/Refresher
  2. Giants in Popular Media
  3. Female Socialization, Male Gaze, and Paraphilia
  4. Asexuality and Paraphilia
  5. On “Reverse Pedophilia”, GT vs SW, and Other Writings

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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

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.

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Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Macrophilia 201: Part 1 | FISTFELT - September 10, 2013
  2. Macrophilia 201: Part 3 | FISTFELT - September 26, 2013

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