Misery Loves Company, or, the sadomasochism of readers?

Attendees at talks like the Comix Creatrix event have a tendency to marvel at the prevalence of stories about misery, cruelty, and slavery in girls comics. It’s particularly the case that, if the attendee is someone who isn’t steeped in reading stories in this genre, they may well bring out loaded words or phrases referring to the ‘sadomasochism’ in the stories, or they may indicate that something is a bit ‘dodgy’ or ‘ooh-er’ (at the end of the talk this came in with discussions of “War Orphan Farm” and “Slave of Form 3B“). I’m not immune to this effect either – in earlier days I have certainly referred to slave stories with wink-wink innuendo, for instance. But it’s not true to the material being referred to, and what’s more I think that it plays into the wrong hands, as I will explain below.

Girls comics feature a lot of cruelty, misery, and slavery, it’s true. Mistyfan’s post on the Slave Story theme gives a relevant run-down of how a large subsection of girls’ stories worked, including a range of examples. We haven’t even given misery and cruelty any specific categories of their own in our list of themes, but they are clearly part of the more discrete story themes of Affliction, Bullying, Cinderella, Guilt Complex, and Troublemaker, to name only a few. Stories frequently feature mental domination, abuse, and physical brutality; may include handcuffs and ropes; and occasionally allow the death of the main character. And these are not incidental aspects of the stories – they are the main reason for them, the thing that makes them popular and memorable. A story may continue for half a year or more with the protagonist growing more and more hard-done-by, and the resolution typically only comes in the last episode or even the last few panels. It’s hardly surprising that this is so much a feature of discussions of girls comics when it comes up outside the confines of a blog like this.

But does this mean either that the stories are full of sadomasochism, or that the readers were secret sadists or masochists to enjoy them in such numbers? I’d say no, to both.

If you look at the stories themselves, and the experiences of the protagonists within then, they are just not stories of sadomasochism. For a start, they’re not overtly sexual (no publisher of the time in the UK would have countenanced that, of course, though as has been pointed out by Paul Gravett, the Shojo manga publishing phenomenon in Japan at around the same time was able to go down this route). They’re not covertly sexual either (not that I think girls of that age and in that era particularly went for hidden innuendo – we passed around Lace and The Thorn Birds, and of course we all devoured the Flowers In The Attic series). Fundamentally the stories of cruelty/slavery , even though they can spark associations of BDSM to the adult reader, weren’t about submission. The protagonists didn’t learn to enjoy being humiliated or dominated by their rivals: it was just that they were not strong enough to win against the villain or the society they were in. It’s a trope about powerlessness and fighting back even when it’s hopeless: eventually, even though it seems terribly unlikely, you may win. That’s a message of strength to young girls, collectively one of the least powerful groups in all society.

Slave stories end with the slave being freed and reinstated, and the villain reformed or defeated. (See the Tammy blog’s post about Slaves of “War Orphan Farm” where all eventually ends happily.) There are some stories where the slave accepts the brainwashing of the antagonist at points, and believes she deserves her punishment (Jinty‘s “Slave of the Swan” includes this plot element), but clearer eyes than the deluded protagonist see through this deception and it is not seriously proposed as something that the protagonist should believe. These are not stories with hidden subtexts of the delights of submission to loving authority in the way that Marston’s Wonder Woman stories were.

There are also a large number of tear-jerker stories which get mentioned as part of this idea of the sadomasochism of girls comics. I think here the feeling is that because such stories are so focused on misery, it is sadistic, or possibly masochistic, of the girl reader to enjoy them so much. Some of the obvious key contenders from the massively popular misery / tear-jerker trope are:

  • “No Time for Pat” in Jinty Annual 1980. Originally printed in June (1972)
  • Stefa’s Heart of StoneJinty (1976), reprinted in Princess / Tammy & Princess (1984)
  • DC Thomson’s “AngelMandy (1977) reprinted three times, with two subsequent sequels One of the few misery stories that takes the story through to the death of the protagonist, but as she was suffering from a terminal disease this feels like a naturalistic and almost uplifting ending – you could say she ‘wins’
  • Nothing Ever Goes RightJudy (1981) Reprinted (1989-90) Another exception of a misery story in which the protagonist dies in the end. (Edited to add: written by Maureen Hartley – see comments on Girls Comics of Yesterday)

These stories don’t really have a specific villain, though some other similar ones may do. The cause of the misery is often simply cruel fate. Possibly because cruel fate is much less personal, it is sometimes carried through to the logical conclusion whereby the protagonist dies in end: something that you can’t really do with a slave story because then the villain would win. (Unless anyone knows of a counter-example?)

Clearly girl readers loved a good cry! But why label the readers so strongly, bandying around terms like masochist? Didn’t the Victorians also love sentimental sob stories? What about classical tragedy, which far more often ends in unswerving death? Or indeed devotees of East Enders or the Archers? Consumers of these stories don’t get the same labels. I can only see it coming down to the policing of girls’ reading – it falls outside our expectations of what girls should read, and so we boggle at it more than at Victorian sob stories. If we fall in with this policing of ‘appropriate’ reading we play into the hands of authority’s disapproval of comics. Sometimes that manifests itself relatively mildly, as when Mary Cadogan complained about lurid death scenes in girls comics, citing “No Time For Pat” as an example (incorrectly, in fact) and using that as a lever to indicate that all girls comics were of low worth. At the other end of the spectrum, Frederick Wertham used his assertions of inappropriate themes and images to press for wide-ranging ‘reform’ of comic book publishing and the implementation of the US Comic Book Code.

24 thoughts on “Misery Loves Company, or, the sadomasochism of readers?

  1. In the Battle slave story “Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain”, there was the death of the co-protagonist, Blake’s friend Jensen, to one of the villain’s death traps. They meant that to be butt-kicking, a statement that heroes don’t always make it in time. It might be a sort of counter-example for you.

    1. I think that the death of a sidekick / friend is not as full-on as the death of the protagonist, though I agree it is going down that line.

      1. Hard-Hearted Harriet from Mandy is another story where the protagonist dies in the end.

        Nobody died in Waves of Fear, but death came close three times, or four if you count the insinuated suicide attempt.

        In Worlds Apart, death (even if imaginary) features six times with the protagonists.

        In Girl 2’s Slaves of the Nightmare Factory, there was one slave who died while trying to escape and raise help. The news broadcast puts it down to accidental death, but the girls aren’t so sure because their slaver knew about the upcoming broadcast.

  2. I found that the more I thought about the discussion at the end of the talk (and in the chat afterwards) the more it irked me. I can find innuendo in taking part in an exercise class if I want to – that doesn’t mean the innuendo is present in any way other than in my own mind.

      1. 🙂 I need to type up the full talk now that we have the audio of it, and then it can be posted with associated images. Have you listened to the recording yet?

  3. Your points are very well made Comixminx. My feeling is that these stories about suffering heroines are better seen as a spin-off (and in some ways a reaction against) all those strips in girls’ comics where self-denial was presented as the supreme feminine virtue (just think of those selfless nurses who turned up as role models everywhere, not to mention the procession of Saints who appeared on the back cover of Girl). In fact I’d argue that the progression from self-denial in the 1950s to suffering in the 1960s and 1970s to strong, self-reliant heroines in the 1980s could be seen as a fictional mirror held up to the growth of feminism in society as a whole. What’s more, the fact that these themes were largely driven by reader demand rather than any over-riding editorial agenda suggests that they might even precede changes in the actual role of women by reflecting the aspirations and frustrations that were uppermost in their minds while growing up.

  4. As Kurt Vonnegut said of writing fiction “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them… in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” Vonnegut does not mention gender.

    Comics aimed at boys – even those featuring macho soldiers – were similarly full of protagonists who were robbed of agency, but you’d have to be a fruitloop to suggest there was a sexual subtext to Billy’s Boots. Removing the agency of the protagonist is a trope as old as the hills, and it isn’t gender-specific unless the commentator makes it so – though this arguably says a great deal more about their own presumptions about gender than it does the comics’.

    1. Agree entirely. Comparing girls comics to boys comics is a useful tack to take too; I don’t know anything like as much about those stories so I appreciate the detail.

  5. The term “sadomasochism” is arguably not one to bandy about in public, I agree in retrospect.
    I’m pretty certain that, at the House of Illustration talk, we were using it as shorthand for a lot of the stuff you have listed far more thoughtfully above — i.e. some of the ways protagonists are made to suffer for the readers’ enjoyment. And we should find a better shorthand.
    I personally certainly did not mean to imply any actual sexual connotation.
    But I think it is a real issue and may well be a strongly gendered one.
    I strongly agree that a close comparison of contemporary boys’ and girls’ comics would be very useful, in this respect as well as others. (All sorts of things could be tested, including by use of the “Scott test”.)
    I don’t have the collection to be able to do this myself!
    I vaguely recall at least one story about a boy who walked with crutches.
    On the whole though I have a feeling – possibly in fact merely a prejudice – that girl protagonists tended to be more damaged and suffered more than the boys.
    And I don’t think this has ended.
    In recent Marvel film and TV product we have seen the Black Widow getting sterilised as part of her spy training in Russia, which has traumatised her, and Jessica Jones as rape survivor suffering PTSD and an alcohol problem.
    Often when I bring this up people say that the male Marvel heroes suffer too, but Tony Stark is not the slave to the booze that JJ is, and has not as far as we know been raped by any supervillain. And I haven’t noticed any castrated superhero yet.
    I say this as someone who has enjoyed most of the Marvel films (I’m not counting the Fox and Sony material) and found the Netflix series at least good in parts, like the curate’s egg.
    ~~Guy Lawley

    1. One major difference between boys’ and girls’ comics (at least in the past) is that boys seemed to identify with adult heroes like Captain Hurricane and Judge Dredd far more readily than girls did with mature women. I’m not sure why that should be so, but it certainly raises some interesting questions about the availability of adult female role models in those years.

      1. There were some girls comics with protagonists who were young women rather than girls, but I think they may not have been as popular? You may well know better than I do. With all of these things you have to unravel the publishers’ motivations too, I suspect. If publishers don’t give girl readers the option of a range of protagonists then the readers don’t get a chance to show if they prefer more mature role models or not.

        Certainly the few boys comics I have feature many more grown male protagonists than the girls ones do grown women. But in a war comic your default male is I suppose a solder, who almost by definition has to be a grown up? Of course the story could be told through the eyes of a younger brother or what have you, there’s always ways round things…

    2. On whether any real sexual connotation was implied in our discussion: my point was really that this suggestion crops up again and again, linked to sexuality. Will Morgan did it relatively recently on Facebook in his mention of the Legion of Super-Slaves. He clearly loves the story dearly but portrays it as written by pervy middle-aged men. Now, it might indeed have been written and drawn by men who liked seeing girls in tight-fitting unitards but, per the above, I reckon there’s no real need to impute this motivation.

      I think it would be worth investigating any real numerical link with gender. Clearly, stories with male protagonists also remove agency from them and give them afflictions. Does this happen more often with girl protagonists? Could well be, worth investigating. Is the kind of damage suffered also gendered in some way? In the examples you give of films & tv, the backstory assigned to Black Widow and Jessica Jones seems pretty gendered. I suspect that for girls comics the type of suffering is not necessarily that gendered, but the amount of it perhaps may be unevenly applied.

  6. The Sentinels from Misty is one where a protagonist may die (I hesitate to call him a sidekick or supporting character). Mr Richards switches places in a Gestapo cell with his parallel world double, who was mistaken for him and arrested for resistance activity against the Nazis. His fate was left uncertain; there was hope he would be rescued, but his daughter was certain he would be tortured and killed.

    1. I would call him a supporting character personally. But yes, having a parent die (or be assumed to die) at the height of the action is pretty hard-hitting. Of course Misty as a horror comic did a lot more killing people off than other comics!

      1. Suffering protagonist is something that appeals to audiences, and I would say not in a sadomasochism way. Certainly in other media there was a market for Melodrama/weepies, like you’ve pointed out Virginia Andrews books, the film “Camille” (1937) has protagonist dying of consumption. Which is a trend even in more modern films like “Joy” where the main character has to suffer from constant setbacks and a difficult family.There is many examples of this, so not surprising that it would be in comics too.

        1. I think it’s an interesting question as to whether there was *significantly more* suffering in girls comics than in boys comics or other sorts of media. Not that easy to do a good comparison though, I suspect. But just to boggle at the fact there is quite a lot in girls comics – well, yeah, so what.

      2. And there was “Winner Loses All”, where the protagonist is not only prepared to die but also have her soul end up in Hell, as is the deal she made with the Devil to save her alcoholic father. In the end, Dad takes her place to save her. He is the one who dies and his soul end up in Hell.

        Misty had loads of complete stories where girls/women died (strangled by super-growing hair, torn apart by beasts, falling downstairs, eaten for dinner etc) as a punishment for transgressions. They were the main characters of the stories, so could they be called protagonists?

        1. Perhaps I should do a post to cover terminology used? I figured ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’ were reasonably straightforward as terms, but it must be said that even so it’s not that easy to be sure who counts as what! I did just look at the Wikipedia pages for protagonist and antagonist and they say that the protagonist is the one who moves the story forward – the one ‘making the difficult choices and key decisions, and … experiencing the consequences of those decisions’. The antagonist is whatever puts challenges and blocks in the main characters way (which in principle could be a force of nature like a storm). So it’s not as simple as hero and villain, for instance – the villain can be the main character because they’re the one we follow, and the heroic figure could be trying to stop them.

          I would say in your Misty examples that the main characters who are killed because of their transgressions are almost certainly protagonists. Sounds like Greek tragedy – they make the wrong choice, for whatever reason, and are punished!

          1. In some Misty stories, the protagonist actually kills someone. Sometimes it’s manslaughter, sometimes it’s murder. Either way, they pay the price of course, most often with their own lives.

  7. Bunty had “The Guilt of Glendora” where the protagonist actually kills someone! In Victorian times, Glendora accidentally kills a girl because of her bad temper. Her family helps her into hiding at a boarding school, but it’s one of those Squeersian type schools where the headmistress abuses her pupils and uses them as slave labour. Then her family want her to sign away everything, saying it will protect her more. I don’t know how it ended.

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