It is painful and hard to endure. The pain is distracting, and prevents the sufferer from being at their best performance-level. The blood is inconvenient, and a bit gross, and a lot of people are squeamish about it. Superhero fight scene, or a day at the office whilst menstruating? In this post, I am going to address readings of the wound as culturally aligned with femininity. Not to overcome the perceived negativity of this reading, but to revel in its possibilities.
We’ve all heard that phrase ‘don’t trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn’t die’, a sexist little homily designed to be read as about menstruation. I am not here to argue that periods are in any way a fun process, should be reclaimed as a gift of life-giving, or any tampon-commercial ’empowerment’ nonsense with a power-ballad jingle. That periods are culturally viewed as a female experience (despite transmen and non-binary people experiencing them also), has led to a complicated alignment of femininity and blood, and femininity and the wound by association; to the extent that phrases like ‘gash’ and ‘axe-wound’ are used as synonyms for vulva, usually to be insulting. Simplistically, the negative associations of the wound as dangerous and painful are linked to the negative associations of periods as similar, however the insults imply that the body that has a vulva is permanently wounded, and thus permanently negatively associated. Words like ‘pussy’ are also insulting, without violent association, as a result. So we end up with a complicated nest of associations between femininity, pain, wounding, blood, and negativity.
This complicates almost all of our heroic myths; surviving long periods of pain and bleeding to triumph, even if it kills them eventually, is what heroes do. I can list from memory several male heroes/anti-heroes who have bled for at least 4-7 days: in the comics we have Wolverine wandering the wilds of Canada post Weapon-X, Deadpool practically permanently walking wounded, and the Vision literally got ripped in half by Ultron and was forced to endure. In the images his pelvic bones are raw and innards exposed, and a lot of people who have experienced menstruation are thinking ‘I can relate’. On TV we have Daredevil repeatedly re-opening his wounds because he can’t take a day off, Spike the vampire enduring long trials of torture to protect Buffy, and Theon Greyjoy (otherwise known as Reek) enduring tortures even I don’t want to enumerate. On film, Leonardo DiCaprio just won an Oscar for nearly bleeding to death in the woods.
The qualities that come to the fore in order to overcome the wound and its associated problems are often coded as masculine – strength, physical endurance, control over one’s emotions. (About endurance being a ‘masculine’ trait – yeah, right, sure. Go ask any grandmother, especially one in a farming community, about physical endurance. I’ll wait.) Yet, what about the qualities used and developed by those who do ‘bleed for a week and don’t die’ on a regular basis in the ‘real’ world? Such as team-building through empathy, the creative use of household and medical items as makeshift cures, creative tool use to get around physical limitation? I want to see Deadpool get creative with the DeepHeat, cooling gel, and steroid cream cocktails so many of us are familiar with. I want to see Max Rockatansky win a fight from floor level, because crouching is the only way he can endure the pain, and he’s going to bring the bad guys down to his level and beat them there. Currently, the vulnerability of the wounded is depicted, almost always, as negative. Yet this is a profoundly human experience that forges bonds. The relationship between Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) and the heroes of Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil and Jessica Jones on Netflix is based on empathy forged through vulnerability and response to the wound. Claire Temple is a hero because of her empathy, not her anger.
But what about the wound itself? The wound reveals the interior of the body, it is a gateway between the surface and the interior. Though this initially suggests a vulnerability, it is more often played for revulsion in our visual fictions. The Cenobites of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser stories, otherwise known as the Order of the Gash; the disintegrating zombie; the undead with a shot gun wound through the chest; the demon with its face ripped off, like Urkonn in Joss Whedon’s comic Fray. What do these characters have in common? They look terrifying, they look unstoppable, they look – frankly – badass. The wound is a powerful signifier because, not only in spite of, its negative associations. The walking wounded might be vulnerable, they might band together through empathy and positivity. Or, they might be immune to the blood and the gore, powering through any pain to achieve their goal and enjoying their power to shock and revolt. Either way, they have bled, and they have survived.
The truth of it is that, in general, we cannot control our own bodies. A few very dedicated specialists manage to control their breathing, heart-rate, and develop incredibly precise muscle control, but the majority of us can’t even prevent the common cold virus infecting our sinuses. We are all vulnerable meat sacks with rather inadequate interior bone casings for our most precious organs. The wound, as a gateway into the body, is a visual depiction of this lack of control. Someone who has experienced a serious illness may well have a personal insight into this, and those who menstruate have a regular reminder of just how little control we have as humans over our mortal forms. Depictions of the wound from a wholly negative perspective are representations of this fear. And those depictions that associate vulnerability with femininity are a symptom of a widespread cultural denial; if vulnerability can be contained within a single category of people, those who are not affiliated will somehow be immune. They are not. The leading causes of death in the world are heart disease and stroke, to paraphrase Louis CK, that’s your own body saying ‘I just can’t’.
Super-strength, advanced healing powers, and biological immunity from toxins, are not heroic qualities but expressions of fear. How many monsters, heroes and anti-heroes started out as part of a super-soldier experiment program? Even Buffy. How many of them have been taught some form of control methods to exert their will over their bodies, either through meditation and focus, or through martial arts? Our heroes are the products of fear, of desperation, of panic. And it seems that what we fear most, is what’s inside our own skin.
Last year, I wrote one of the first posts on this blog, which focused on scar tissue, and the process of the healing wound, which works well as a companion piece to this post.