I want to discuss a strange one-sided trope I’ve noticed, and why I have a problem with it: immortal male characters who have a series of mortal girlfriends. For some reason, this trope appears in geek media fairly often,
yet I can’t think of a single example of the reverse (i.e., immortal women with several mortal boyfriends) or of a queer version. In fact, immortal women tend to only be allowed to have a single male lover, and must spend the rest of their long lives alone after their lovers die—or else give up their immortality. This perpetuates the double standard that it’s okay for otherwise good men—heroic men, even—to have multiple lovers, while if women want to remain “pure” and upstanding, they can only ever love a single man. This whole issue is worse than a double standard; it’s a matter of differential power in relationships. Slight spoilers for Doctor Who, Watchmen, Sandman, Lord of the Rings, Stardust, and The Last Unicorn below!
The notion of immortals taking on mortal lovers is much older than modern geek media, of course. The most well-known ancient example in our culture is probably the Greek pantheon. That’s not quite an example of what I’m talking about, though, because even though the male gods (especially Zeus) were notorious for their trysts with multiple mortals, some of the goddesses did the same. Basically, everybody was sleeping with everybody in Greek mythology, except for the virgin goddesses. But this “spreading the love” that includes immortals and lovers of all genders does not seem to have been retained in our modern culture’s stories. Instead, only immortal men get that chance.
Let’s start with the Doctor. I’ve never seen Classic Who, but I know the Doctor presumably had a wife back on Gallifrey, because in the first classic season, he travels with his granddaughter. In New Who, the Doctor ends up with a series of human girlfriends: Rose Tyler, River Song, and some shorter trysts “just for laughs” with Marilyn Monroe and Queen Elizabeth I—not to mention the memorable snogging of Madame de Pompadour. It’s an unpopular opinion, but I don’t ship the Doctor with any of these women—not even Rose. I feel that the Doctor, whose intellect is so far superior to humans’ and who is nearly immortal in comparison to them, is thus inherently in an unequal partnership with any human he may be with. It’s not that they have nothing to offer him, nor do I believe in eternal monogamy; of course people whose partners have died as the Doctor’s first wife did are entitled to find someone else. So it’s not like I feel the Doctor is “cheating”. But he loves these human women in full knowledge that he will vastly outlive them and that they will never be his intellectual equal. Knowing that, how can he possibly treat them equally?
Indeed, he tends to treat all his human companions regardless of gender (at least the ones I’ve seen in New Who), very paternalistically, ordering them around, making decisions for them, and lying to them “for their own protection”. The Doctor feels he is at least intellectually superior to humans, so how could he possibly ever treat a human woman as an equal, even if he loves her? This is fiction, so the Doctor can be objectively superior to all humans in lifespan, intellect, manipulation of time and space, etc. But in real life, there is no such man, and it’s dangerous to convey the message that a man—who, though not human, certainly looks human—is superior, because that message subconsciously perpetuates the idea that men are superior to women. In the most recent season, we meet a similarly powerful Time Lady—the Master regenerated into Missy. But she is set up as an antagonist rather than the Doctor’s lover (despite Missy’s advances) or companion. The entire plot of the finale involves the Doctor trying to prove that he is in fact superior to his enemy, even though he is wracked by doubts. So this isn’t really a subversion of the trope.
Another immortal man who is objectively superior to all humans is Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen. Thanks to a nuclear accident, Dr. Jon Osterman gained almost every superpower under the sun, including immortality and the nonlinear perception of time (he sees past, present, and future simultaneously). He is barely human anymore—in fact, this alienation is one of his main conflicts in the series, which is unusual for overly superpowered characters—and yet he still falls in love with ordinary human women, even though it leads to trouble. After his accident, he remains with Janey Slater, his girlfriend from before. But as soon as he meets Laurie Juspeczyk, aka Silk Spectre, he leaves Janey for Laurie, ostensibly because Janey was growing older while Laurie was still young, and Jon didn’t age anymore. Now, Dr. Manhattan can see the future. He knew this was going to happen. And yet he was a complete jerk to Janey anyway. This comes back to bite him; Janey later is part of the conspiracy to bring him down, and claims on national television that contact with him can cause cancer. Laurie also ultimately breaks up with him. If he knew the outcomes of these relationships, and if he understandably viewed himself as superior to these women, I can’t understand why he entered or remained in these relationships at all. He was probably lonely, but that’s no excuse. He could have surrounded himself with friends instead. Bringing romance into the equation was irresponsible and exploitative.
Meanwhile, Dream a.k.a. Morpheus from the Sandman comics is one of the Endless, the seven entities that rule universal constructs, such as Death, Desire, Despair, etc. The Endless are more than just immortal and more than just gods, because in the Sandman universe, gods emerge through people’s belief in them, while the Endless would exist no matter what. They are immortal in that ordinary means will not kill them, and if they do die, a different aspect of the same construct will take over. They will exist until the end of the universe. Dream, as his name implies, is lord of dreams, and he tends to have problems with his many mortal lovers. In fact, it’s because of Dream’s first lover, a mortal woman called Killalla, that it was decided that the Endless cannot be allowed to love mortals. This doesn’t stop Dream, however. When he falls in love with a woman, he pays no mind to her mortality. Of course, none of these relationships last forever. He gets bored, or the women do, or they have fights. In one case, Dream in fact banishes a mortal woman to hell because she refuses to be with him. He never treats his lovers as equals, because how can they be? Even when they are goddesses, such as the muse Calliope who was his wife for a time, they still do not have the power he has, nor will they exist as long as he will.
In my opinion, men in this situation should just not take lovers. No matter their feelings, as uniquely powerful immortals, they have a responsibility to treat the mortals they interact with respectfully. It is not respectful and is in fact exploitative to trick a mortal woman into an unequal relationship. Our society understands the problem when sexual partners hold differing amounts of power. That’s why there are laws against, for instance, statutory rape. If the creators of these stories want their lonely immortal men to not be lonely anymore, then they should also create female characters of equal status (well… three of the Endless are female, but they’re Dream’s sisters, and we deserve better than Moffat’s Missy). Our media could benefit from more immortal women comparable to these prominent immortal men.
That’s not to say that immortal women do not exist in geek media. There are even a few who, like the Doctor, Jon, and Dream, are the only ones of their kind/otherwise unique. Arwen from Lord of the Rings is unusual because she is one of only three elves in the entire history of Middle-earth who married a human. But unlike the three men described above, she did not find herself other men after Aragorn died. Instead, like all elves who end up with humans, she had to give up her immortality, and she went off to tragically die alone after Aragorn died. I’d also argue that Aragorn was the closest to Arwen’s equal that a mortal man could possibly be, which is also very different from the above situations. Yvaine, the human-shaped fallen star in the book and movie Stardust, is the first star to have fallen into Faerie in a long time. She has a very long lifespan (presumably billions of years, as she’s a star), but after she outlives her human husband Tristan, the book makes no mention of her finding other lovers. Similarly, the unicorn in the book The Last Unicorn is turned into a human at one point, and thus becomes the first unicorn to ever fall in love. When she turns back into a unicorn in order to save the land from evil and free the other captive unicorns, she leaves her beloved prince, but never forgets him—and never finds another lover, either. So unlike the immortal men discussed above, these immortal women must remain faithful to their mortal lovers even after the lovers’ death. Even though in real life it’s perfectly acceptable for bereaved widows to find new significant others, our media still seems to be stuck in the double standard in which women must have only one lover in order to truly be “pure”.
What’s the other side of this sexist double standard? Men who have a series of lovers are praised for being “studs” who can “get more girls”. So, for the “superior” immortal men I described above, their string of lovers just reinforces their supposed superiority. Meanwhile, only having a single lover is the way the authors of these immortal female characters reinforce their virtuousness and superiority—because if they had more, then they’d be seen as “whores”.
I would have less of a problem with the immortal-men-with-multiple-mortal-lovers trope if there were female equivalents who also got to have a series of mortal lovers (especially if there were some queer relationships represented as well!). But that still wouldn’t solve the inequality problem. Ultimately, I will always be uncomfortable with relationships in fiction in which one partner is objectively superior to the other, because such a situation is inherently exploitative and is impossible in real life, and we shouldn’t spread the message that it is possible. And since male immortals in fiction are more likely to exert their “immortal privilege” by having multiple lovers, while the female immortals seem ultimately (and in my three examples, literally) more human and less threatening by having only a single lover, it’s ultimately still the males who seem more superior. Telling men how powerful they are, especially as compared to women, is the last message we need to be spreading in our media.
I’d be thrilled to see some counterexamples to the tropes I’ve outlined here, as well as any other comments you may have. I expect there to be some disagreement with some of my unpopular opinions; I’ll be happy to discuss with you!