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!
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I think it’s a great article, and a good point, but I do have a counterexample! Anya in Buffy. She was immortal, superior (in her mind anyway), and it’s implied that she spent most of her life breezing through “lesser” human lovers at will.
Yeah, I was thinking about Anya! My Buffy’s getting a little rusty, but two things:
When Demon Anya was breezing through lovers, she was distinctly evil. Immortal women can exist when they’re villains playing to human male lusts rather than more involved relationships. And usually murdering their lovers. Thinking of Bilqis from American Gods here, in particular.
Anya does settle down for a reasonably-happy teenage relationship with Xander, though it eventually falls apart for him. But at that point she doesn’t have any powers, so I’m not sure where to categorize it. And though she has lived longer, she’s very much a stranger to the human world, which balances any power there. And, anyway, it doesn’t work out and she dies.
So yeah, my TVD example below with the only woman who feels like she truly breaks the trope being the evil female character, Katherine Pierce, ties into what you’re saying here – plus she becomes mortal and then dies, lol.
Bubblegum and Marceline (Adventure Time) instantly come to mind as possible queer counterexample, though they might both be immortal and though it’s canon that they dated, mostly everything else is subtext. I would personally interpret that they’d stay devoted to each other if one were to die, so they wouldn’t follow the pattern of multiple lovers.
Come to think of it, Ice King/Simon (also Adventure Time) might count as a reversal of the trope. He’s immortal, but he only ever loved one woman and despite his attempts to date every princess, he’s really set up to be alone.
For all the hate Twilight gets, I should point there is no plurality of lovers there. It’s a pretty big plot point that a Vampire can only fall in love once.
I recommend the Last Vampire series (aka Thirst) written by Christopher Pike, Sita has many lovers over her 5000 years of existence.
You’re right about Twilight. In spite of everything, vampires do tend to have a single destined lover, who is always also a vampire, so equality is preserved. Even Bella eventually ended up as Edward’s equal when she became a vampire, though she still had to depend on him to make her equal, so I don’t know how I feel about that? The one Amazonian vampire who kept impregating mortal women to have half-vampire babies was an example of the trope, but unlike my examples, he was viewed as evil.
In some ways, that might be worse. If you reject Dream or the Doctor, they will eventually move on (interim consequences are iffy). If you reject the vampire that’s destined to have only one love, you’re ruining his immortal existence.
Though if it’s all fated anyway, there’s no choice and it’s moot.
Aegnor of Tolkien’s legendarium makes the choice your saying Immortal men should make, he chooses not enter a relationship with the mortal woman he loves out of fear of the consequences of that. All it does is cause pain both, and in fact leads Andreth to be convinced Elves see Humans as lesser life forms.
I’m a Feminist, I oppose the notion that it should be Men who lead relationships. But I also disagree with the notion that all relationships must be “equal” there are people, both male and female who are naturally most happy being in a passive relationship. As long their partner does abuse them because of that (emotionally or physically) I feel that is perfectly acceptable.
Dr. Manhattan is criticized in story for his behavior, yet at the same time without his love with Laurie he may have never made peace with himself.
On the subject of the “Virgin” goddesses of Greek mythology, they are heavily implied to have been loving other women.
What I meant by “equal” is that all humans are inherently equal to each other. We’re all created equal, etc. etc. A person may choose to act passively or let someone else lead them, but that doesn’t mean they are inherently inferior to their leader the way a human would be inherently inferior to, say, a Time Lord.
My mind jumped to The Vampire Diaries universe.
Human teenage girl Caroline is dating a human teenage boy, Matt, when she is turned into a vampire in the season 2 premiere and continues to date him even as an immortal for a few more episodes until she almost kills him by mistake and ends up sacrificing her relationship with him and breaking up with him for his own protection. She does sort of date Matt briefly again, later in season 2, and he’s a man who remains mortal throughout the series (to date, at least). But ultimately he can’t handle her vampire side and lets her go. She moves on to date a werewolf, Tyler, who doesn’t remain mortal for long because he gets turned into a Hybrid. Caroline has a crush on a human boy in season 5, and kisses him while he’s human: http://vampirediaries.wikia.com/wiki/Caroline_and_Jesse but ultimately he is turned into a vampire in a non-consensual science experiment and then killed. Caroline also sleeps with Klaus who is more immortal than even she is because he’s an original vampire and the traditional methods of killing him won’t work. Now, in season 6, she’s in love with Stefan, who’s another vampire like her, immortal, and it seems likely that Caroline will never fall for a mortal man again, that perhaps Stefan/Caroline and Damon/Elena will be the main endgame ships of the show, although the show may have too many seasons left in it for us to know for sure.
I’d say yes, Caroline had multiple mortal lovers, kind of, but only one of them was allowed to “Stay” mortal (Matt) and she had more immortal lovers – Tyler the Hybrid, Klaus the Original Vampire, Stefan who’s a regular vampire but who’s quite a bit older than her…
I don’t think Caroline breaks the trope well, that’s all.
Then we have Rebekah on TVD, who wants desperately to become mortal herself. Rebekah hates being an immortal Original Vampire, unable to have a simple human life. She’s dated Matt (the mortal man on the show), has been shown to have fallen in love with a (mortal) vampire hunter in the 1100’s who was murdered… and she has also slept with Damon, Stefan, and Marcel – all vampires. She’s even kissed a vampire woman, Nadia, in a threesome once (a threesome with her, Nadia, and the human Matt). Her most recent romance (on The Originals) was a serious on-again, off-again romance with the vampire Marcel, who is quite a bit younger than her, many centuries younger, but her immortality is now being called into question – Rebekah may be achieving the mortal status that she’s been wanting, and none of her equally immortal original vampire siblings seem to crave a loss of that “power” of immortality. Technically she has had serious relationships with two mortal lovers, but… but she doesn’t really have “a string of mortal lovers” and seems more drawn to vampires as romantic or sexual partners.
The only woman who probably breaks that trope is Katherine Pierce herself. Already a vampire in the 1800s, she has sexual relationships with both Stefan and Damon, human at the time, and persuades Damon to turn into a vampire, while turning Stefan into one against his will. She later is shown having sex with Mason, who is a werewolf, and not immortal although yes supernatural, although in fact she is the one who manipulated him into triggering his werewolf gene – he would have remained living a non-supernatural lie if not for her and she started her sexual relationship with him while he was completely human, it seems. She also became indirectly responsible for Mason’s death, pretty much putting him in the crossfire of other vampires without a second thought. But she’s also had immortal lovers like Elijah, and was turned back into mortal form against her will as she continued to have a romantic and sexual relationship with the vampire Stefan, and stuff. She’s never, as her vampire self, had a human lover who she didn’t force to become no-longer-human. She’s also more “Selfish” and in some ways “Evil” than the typical immortal woman on these shows. Rose, Elena, Lexi, Anna, etc – they all don’t have a string of mortal lovers once they are immortal. No.
But the men on these shows do get to have a string of mortal lovers, even if some of the mortal girls end up becoming immortal. Pretty much all of the men have a clear string of mortal lovers. Many of these mortal lovers end up dying (permanently) too, but oh well. They move on.
Rabekah was not aware Nadia was a Vampire at the time I”m pretty sure.
True. She thought she was human as well, and Nadia was actually being the manipulative one in that scenario? 😛 It’s been a while since I’ve seen those eps.
Oh and I meant: “[Mason] would have remained living a non-supernatural *life if…” – “life”, not “lie”.
Thanks for all the examples and counter-examples, folks! I knew there had to be some vampire examples out there, but I’m not super familiar with vampire lit/TV. Someone on tumblr pointed out that the witches in His Dark Materials reverse the trope too, which is totally true, but I had forgotten about them. Pullman should totally write a whole series about the witches!
Those witches are cool as hell. I’m forgetting now, is the jealousy that leads to the murder of John Parry a general witch trait, or just an individual characteristic?
Thoughts on Jack Harkness? At the very least he’s a queer example.
True! I’m sorry to say I don’t know as much about Captain Jack as I could know. I’ve only seen the first 2 eps of Torchwood. I know he’s up for anyone and anything, but doesn’t he get more mature about the way he approaches relationships as he gets older? Also… doesn’t he have a lot of intentionally short-lived flings? I feel like those are slightly less problematic, because there are no long-term promises, you don’t need to deal with one aging while the other doesn’t, etc.
Hi, I wanted to say that no. Jack Harkness does have long-term relationship but most of the time he subverts to the “leave them before they notice” troope. Though we do seem have to face the aging and/or death of his ex and actual lovers.
I’m going to get super spoilery herr. But Torchwood starts with hints of the possible romance between Jack and Gwen to then subverts the story and make Jack go out with tea-boy Ianto. And they do emgage in a longterm relationship, though there’s conflict as to is it just a fling, is it more? And eventually Jack does has to face the death of Ianto in a very tear-inducing scene where Jack promises Ianto to never forget him. Torchwood is the reverse of queerbaiting being more of a straightbaiting show. Jack does have a lot of one night stands but he also had a lot of serious relationships.
Jack Harkness is a cool queer approach at the immortal troope.
I think Jack expands the trope more than he subverts it. While he’s queer, and his most important relationships seem to be with men, his own hyper-masculinity kind of dominates over the gender identities of his partners, before and after his immortality arrived.
On the other hand, Jack’s only supernatural ability is his non-aging immortality, which mutes things compared to the truly powerful beings here.
I wonder if this is in part a variant of the ‘jerkass boyfriend fixed by the love of the female main character’ trope. The immortal male character becomes one with multiple lifetimes of pain, which is attractive to certain types of mainly female readers/viewers who would like to imagine themselves as healing them in some way. The female character is thus an average everywoman who the viewer can insert themselves as.
For example, the newer Dr Who’s Doctor had it seemed like a much more romantic relationship with his companions, and also a new troubled backstory to go with it. There’s a slight difference between this modern depiction, and stories of e.g. Zeus, because Zeus is unchanged by his dalliances. Whereas to at least some extent, Dr Manhattan, the Doctor, and the rest are supposed to be developed and improved by their romance. That the male character *had* multiple lovers in the past serves to make the current lover more special, if the current lover alone manages to fix whatever personality issue he had where the previous ones had failed.
The gender-swapped ‘ordinary man fixes a broken woman’ romance does exist (it’s the tsundere trope, isn’t it?), but it seems to be different – it tends to place the male in a position of power in the relationship, or at least imply that the male has to gain power to make the relationship work. The implications are troubling.
I think that’s a good point – and goes heavily to the cultural expectations on young women in particular. The “healers” in this trope tend to be distinguished by their youth, innocence, and optimism, rather than their particular emotional intelligence, which makes it difficult to allow their empathy to be learned rather than innate.
They are virginal rather than maternal (not always literally), which requires beauty but the absence of experience or sophistication – though still sexually available.
So I think it’s at least equally true that these tropes are a masculine fantasy – women who are attracted to men specifically because of their flaws. And often not everywomen, but impossibly perfect women. Manic pixie dream girls in space and time, while men get humanized versions of superheroes or gods that are easier to identify with.
I’m surprised no one has mentioned Highlander here — when the showrunners decided to make a spinoff they wanted to center the show around a female Immortal — and settled on Amanda, who canonically has sexual relationships with both mortal and immortal men, IIRC. Female immortal guest stars were usually in relationships with mortal men.
The stuff with River in “Doctor Who” is even worse, because River, of the Doctor’s new-series love interests, is one of the two who are biologically equal to him, and in “Let’s Kill Hitler” she ends up giving up 10/13 of her lifespan in order to save his life.
You should watch the anime “spice and wolf”. For a powerful counter example of a female monogamous immortal. I think men and women are socially constructed to have a different relationahip to risk and caution. Male active bold vs female passive cautious. The steaks are higher if you genuinly care, and caring/nurture is socially constructed as a females demain. Being considerate and careful and taking the long view doesn’t resonate with our conditioned expectations for a male protagonist. Unless of course its vampire wish-fullfillment targeted at a female audience hungry for these characteristics that an ideal men, which real men are seldem taught not to value highly.