Universal Stories: THE PUNISHER

Spoilers for Neflix’s THE PUNISHER. I mean it. Proceed at your own risk.

Also, I never read the comics, so everything I know of the character is what I’ve seen on TV. I’ll undoubtedly say some things that discount decades of rich graphic novel backstory. Don’t at me.

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Some years ago, I attended a panel at Readercon on toxic masculinity in fiction. The panelists were thoughtful and energetic, talking about books they thought handled it well and books that needed some work. They discussed the issue in their own lives, and the changes they saw in how people were dealing with it, particularly younger people. (This, btw, was where I first heard Daniel José Older speak, and you should go buy all his books because they’re awesome.)

Later I was speaking to someone who was bothered that all the panelists were men. I said “Well, it’s their problem isn’t it?” and she gave me a look. And yeah, I could have been more clear about what I meant, but it’s true: we all pay for toxic masculinity, but this isn’t something women can fix. These days there’s more recognition of what I intended to say–that sexual harassment, for example, isn’t something victims can prevent, but that perpetrators must stop doing–but that person’s reaction still annoys me.

The panelists on this topic were the proverbial rats in the maze, and I was riveted listening to the ways they both recognized and were tackling the problem. Yes, it’s important to recognize the extensive damage toxic masculinity does to everyone, in particular those who don’t reap its hierarchical rewards. But to suggest that these men couldn’t have a genuinely useful hour’s discussion on the topic without having women there to guide them plays right into the “women must do the emotional labor” thing. These men were present and honest and working the issue, complete with Q&A at the end.

Most of the men I’ve known throughout my life have not been emotionally stunted (or at least no more so than any of us). They’ve been, like me, flawed and human with a variety of lived experiences, some like mine and some not. To suggest that there’s some unbreachable chasm between the way I handle stressors and the way Generic Man handles stressors is part of toxic masculinity itself: the idea that men and women are so drastically different that understanding one another’s experiences is not only futile, but literally impossible. (It’s also worth noting that humanity can’t be split into a male/female binary in the first place.)

In discussions of literature, I often hear people complain that non-male writers have been neglected in schools. This is true. Historically, the accepted idea in literary circles has been that men are writing about human stuff, and women are writing about woman stuff. Of course women should read stuff written by men, because human, but men couldn’t possibly get anything substantive out of a book not written by a man.

The problem, though, isn’t defining books written by men as human. It’s defining books written by others as niche. It’s suggesting that only the male perspective is universally applicable. This is an attitude that has a surprising amount of staying power, even in feminist circles, and it’s that chasm theory again, none of which does anybody any good.

Good characters, regardless of gender, are universal. And good stories reveal those characters in ways to which we can all relate.

Which brings me to Frank Castle, the “hero” of THE PUNISHER. Frank is an ex-Marine (of course) whose family was murdered. He’s broken, bitter, and really, really angry, and he spends his time playing vigilante in extremely bloody, squishy ways. (It’s not TV-MA for no reason, people.) Ultimately he’s looking for revenge on the guy in charge of an ugly assassination ring, who apparently had Frank’s family murdered. There’s also Billy Russo, Frank’s former best friend, who knew it was going to happen beforehand and did nothing (and is now continuing to do, ahem, unfortunate things in the name of national security).

In a lot of ways, THE PUNISHER is wildly old-fashioned and sexist. Both Frank and David, his eventual partner, were/are married to beautiful women and have a pair of healthy children (a boy and a girl, of course). While the women are reasonably well-written, they exist to motivate the men: in David’s case, to remain underground and presumed dead so the bad guys leave his family alone, and in Frank’s case, to kill everything that moves because his heart has been destroyed. Even Dinah Madani, our ethical Homeland Security agent, ends up duped by and in bed with one of the bad guys. As “modern” as these women are, they’re not exactly empowered, or even especially important to the plot.

But to be fair, most of the men aren’t, either. This is Frank’s story. And Frank’s story is absolutely universally relatable. THE PUNISHER is drawn as a Manly Man Story, but apart from the cultural narrative we have that venerates The Good Soldier, there’s nothing masculine about the themes of loss, betrayal, and revenge–or even about choosing to die for the right cause.

There’s also nothing culturally masculine about killing to safeguard your family, even at the potential cost of your own life. In men, we call it protectiveness; in women, it’s called the mothering instinct, even when it’s not applied to children.

But it’s the same damn thing. Humans will kill to protect what we cherish.

Here’s the thing: most of us have lost someone, either to death or distance. Most of us have misjudged someone in our lives, someone we trusted with far more than we should have. Most of us have fantasized about justice for these things. And if the system somehow doesn’t provide that justice–how nice would it be to have the ability to exact that justice ourselves?

THE PUNISHER is, at its base, a fantasy: here’s a guy who’s had everything taken from him, who actually has the wherewithal to get back at people. Does he overdo it? Oh, absolutely–you know at least some of the multitudes he kills on the show were just people doing a job in the wrong place at the wrong time.

(And that bothers me, a little–every death has ripples, and an awful lot of these kinds of stories do a wholesale wiping out of bad guys without addressing that at all. They’re all cookie-cutter redshirts, existing–and then expiring–only to show us how invincible our hero is. Sort of like his perfect lovely family. I sense a theme.)

But despite the “darkness” of the character, Frank always pulls for the good guys: the ones who are innocent, the ones who are redeemable. He’s able to rescue the innocents–like Curtis, or the two teens hauled into his confrontation with Billy at the end–even though they’re being used to manipulate him. The show is careful about who it kills. (I figured we’d lose either David or Dinah. Or both. Although since we knew Dinah’s parents, I figured she had a better chance of surviving to the end.) And it’s careful about who Frank tortures. It keeps our sympathies in the right place, even as we recoil from the over-the-top violence.

So Frank, despite being basically a serial killer, is our fantasy proxy: the guy who can take a bullet, lose pints of blood, endure multiple concussions and still get back up and beat up the bad guys. His cause is so extreme, his pain so justified, his rage so powerful that ordinary physical limitations fly out the window. His anger allows him to survive because he’s right and righteous.

And isn’t that a lovely thought? That if we’re wronged–truly, egregiously wronged–our rage alone will allow us to exact payback?

Isn’t it lovely to think that revenge could somehow make up for what we’ve lost?

Frank is given a happy ending, of a sort: we see him sitting in a support group, beginning to talk about what’s happened to him. That, right there, is the opposite of toxic masculinity: the powerful, vengeful Manly Man, finally recognizing that what he really needs to do is share his feelings. It’s a nice moment, because we’ve grown fond of Frank in spite of himself, and it’s nice to fantasize that he might obtain something resembling peace without having to die to find it.

Of course, he still manages to get his revenge, which is the point. And it’s also the part of the story that’s most relatable. Sure, fine, I’ll wander off and heal emotionally, right after I beat the crap out of every motherfucker who hurt me. That’s not a Manly Man fantasy. That’s a human being fantasy. With apologies to all of the great religious figures in history: turn the other cheek, my ass.

This isn’t a show I expected to like. Certainly it mines a lot of tropes that often irritate the snot out of me. It’s also extremely violent, and not in the poetic way so many martial arts films can be: this is gunfire and street fighting, and it’s very uncomfortable to watch. (It’s supposed to be. There are no polite rules of engagement here. These are people trying to kill–and sometimes torture–each other. This is not something the show expects us to cheer on–except maybe when it happens to the Big Bads.) But in aggregate, it’s a fairly nuanced portrait of a severely damaged person who’s still driven by the need to do the right thing.

In contrast, there’s Billy Russo, a man who’s excused doing the wrong thing for his own gain–and, in the end, to save his own skin. He’s more mentally stable than Frank, but he’s far more lost, because he’s given away everything that matters. He no longer has that protectiveness, that “mothering instinct,” whatever you choose to call it: he’s sold it out. He’s who we all hope we’ll never become. At the end, when we find he’s still alive, we recognize that survival is, in a way, the most humiliating thing that could happen to him: he’s lost his battle, and everyone knows what he is.

I’m one of those long-game revenge people. I believe in karma, even if I never see it myself. I believe for some people having to spend the rest of their lives in their own heads is punishment enough, and I wish them long, long years of it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a little gladiator ass-kicking in my fiction now and then. Some stories really are universal.

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