Sexualized Saturdays: Male Fighters, Loss of Agency, and Masculinity

A few weeks ago I wrote about raised female warriors and their fight for autonomy. Since then I’ve been thinking on whether male characters are ever given a similar kind of tragic backstory where they‘re kidnapped, as children or even as adults, and their agency is taken away and they are forced to learn to fight and kill on the orders of their captors. I managed to find a few that could fit this trope—Matt Murdock (Netflix‘s Daredevil), Oliver Queen (Arrow), Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier (MCU), and D‘Avin Jaqobi (Killjoys). All these characters have their freedom and autonomy taken away (to differing extents) and, as such, they present a lot of opportunities for nontraditional portrayals of masculinity.


Spoilers for Arrow, Killjoys, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier below.

What is apparent first is that, with the exception of Matt Murdock, the male soldiers have all been made into fighters/weapons when they were already adults. This way preserves some of their agency, in contrast to the female warriors, who were all kidnapped as babies and children. Even Bucky Barnes, who, as the Winter Soldier, had all of his agency, identity, and personality stripped away, was a soldier, so he went to war knowing that he might be captured, injured, or die. That in no way lessens the horrible things that were done to him by his captors, but at least he knew there were risks going into the army.

stick-matt-murdockMatt Murdock was only a child when Stick started tutoring him and teaching him to harness his powers. However, as opposed to the people who taught little Helena and Dutch, Stick did not make Matt kill for him. Stick’s concern was teaching Matt to learn to live as a blind person and make full use of his new-found sensory abilities. He didn’t go about it in a way suitable for a child, but at least Matt was free to choose how he wanted to live his life and what he wanted to do with his abilities. Thus, again, a certain amount of personal autonomy was preserved.

Oliver Queen retains most of his personal agency, and perhaps, as such, hardly fits with the rest of the characters mentioned in this post. However, I included him because, even though his life choices were regrettable, he was an adult, and he had to learn to fight to protect himself and survive, he did so under duress. Arguably, Oliver had no other choice but to become a fighter, and afterwards was forced to carry out black ops missions. But his story just goes to highlight how male characters in this type of stories get to retain more personal freedom and power than female characters in similar stories. For Oliver, mastery of martial arts and archery is a way for him to free himself from his captors. Even though they try to use Oliver, once it becomes apparent that he‘s a good soldier, the initial choice to fight and not give up is his. Contrast this story with Dutch‘s or Helena‘s background: they were children in need of love and family and were taken in by people who were supposed to protect them, and were made into weapons to be controlled by those people.


Bucky was also sort of fridged, for a while (gif by jaredsleto)

However, despite keeping arguably more agency than female characters, these male characters still have a lot of personal freedom forcibly stripped away, which is something that rarely happens to male characters at all and therefore has an effect on the way their masculinity is portrayed. They are all soldiers or fighters, so obviously they have the tough exterior and the muscles. But, while Oliver is a more traditionally masculine character, Matt and Bucky are quite subversive in this regard and get character arcs more typically given to female characters. Bucky especially, having no voice and personal freedom, being made to wear a muzzle and his hair quite long, is, in a way, following a character arc very like that of Dutch or Helena. Similarly, he’s an abused character as well, hurt and forced to follow his abuser‘s orders. Also, he and D‘Avin essentially become damsels in distress, the quintessential female character trope, when Steve Rogers and Dutch depart to save them at the end of their respective stories so far. On the other hand, Matt, as an adult, has all the freedom he wishes, but, despite his inner devil, he doesn’t put up a brooding, offending exterior (most of the time), as so many jerks-with-a-heart-of-gold do.matt-murdock He is sensitive, kind, affectionate with his friends, and doesn’t hold back his tears, which is quite extraordinary for a male character in general, and superhero in particular.

Oliver and D‘Avin follow the brooding male hero narrative a little more closely. For Oliver, especially, it takes quite a long time to get over the whole “I must fight this fight alone and protect everyone” thing, while D‘Avin is happy to join his brother and Dutch and have a family again right away. But even Oliver lets up eventually and finds that asking for help and having a team makes him stronger. D‘Avin‘s story is made more interesting by the fact that his PTSD is actually acknowledged in the show and by Dutch being in the show as well, enabling a direct comparison between the two characters. They‘re both running away from their pasts, but D’Avin is also looking for people who turned him into a weapon by implanting some sort of controlling device. Eventually, they find the army doctor who did it, and force her to disable the device and afterwards wipe her memory so she can’t do anything to D’Avin again. This confrontation is particularly chilling and made even more so by the fact that it plays out between the doctor and Dutch—two female characters, while D’Avin is incapacitated by the device, reversing the typical gender roles of such narrative.

killjoys-amanda-tappingTaking into account D’Avin’s subsequent to-be-concluded damsel-in-distress arc, it appears that he actually has very little agency in his own story line, most of it overtaken by Dutch. However, her autonomy is removed from a different perspective when it becomes apparent that she never actually ran away from Khlyen. Instead, she was let go and was never really free from him because he always knew where to find her and still managed to get her to kill people on his behalf. All of this creates a rather fascinating dynamic of gender roles and personal agency. On one side, there is Dutch, whose freedom is an illusion but who takes as much control as she can by saving herself and others. And on the other side, there is D’Avin, who at first seems like your average manly soldier determined to suffer alone, but his arc shows us that it’s OK for a strong male character to ask for help and give up some control over his life.

Comparing raised female weapons against their male counterparts, I find that the latter get to retain a bit more agency and freedom. Male characters are rarely converted into soldiers as children, and even though Matt Murdock was trained as a child, he was free to use his skills as he wished. Nevertheless, characters like Matt and Bucky present an unusual portrayal of masculinity and have a lot of qualities typically associated with female characters, such as showing affection and feelings to friends or having no voice to speak up and no way to escape their abusers. Even Oliver Queen and D‘Avin Jaqobi serve as alternative male warrior narratives which don‘t rely so heavily on fridged women to create a tragic backstory. And all of these characters‘ stories are more or less about abuse and having their agency taken away and learning to fight, live with it and find themselves again, which is a powerful message which resonates with a lot of women, but also shows a different type of masculinity.

Do you know any other male characters who were raised/forced to become soldiers/weapons? What do their stories mean to you? Share in the comments!

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8 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: Male Fighters, Loss of Agency, and Masculinity

  1. On Kyle XY, both Kyle and his female counterpart, Jessi XX, were “created” to be weapons/tools/”used by” what is essentially their captor. Kyle manages, however, to escape, with the help of Tom Foss, and gets more agency than Jessi (interestingly, Jaimie Alexander seems to be playing an extraordinarily similar role in the new NBC show “Blindspot”, a role that will have a ton in common with when she was playing Jessi a few years back on Kyle XY: ). So this show, despite how feminist it was and despite how non-traditionally masculine Kyle got to be in some ways, still gave Kyle less tragedy than it game the female version of him, and still made Jessi’s life harder. Kyle got a family to love him, Jessi didn’t, etc.

  2. Oh and I only know the 2012, The CW version of the TV show Beauty and the Beast but “the Beast”, Vincent Keller, is another example of the “forced to become a fighter” trope. I haven’t seen the Captain America films or know anything really about him except what I read on this blog or stumble across on tumblr so I don’t know how similar it is, but as you said…

    “Even Bucky Barnes, who, as the Winter Soldier, had all of his agency, identity, and personality stripped away, was a soldier, so he went to war knowing that he might be captured, injured, or die. That in no way lessens the horrible things that were done to him by his captors, but at least he knew there were risks going into the army.”

    Similarly, Vincent wasn’t drafted. He chose to join, to fight for his country, knowing he might not come back, or if he did he might be disabled. To quote from the wiki: “When he arrives in Afghanistan, he gets tapped to join a project called Operation Muirfield. He was told that he was being injected with antibiotics, vitamins, and steroids that would protect him, when in fact, he was being injected with a serum designed to trigger rapid genetic mutation. This made him “stronger, faster, better.” Moreover, they heightened his reflexes and all his senses. However, there were some unforeseen consequences – when his adrenaline started running high, he turns into a terrifying beast, unable to control his aggression.”

    In reality, he and a group of people were purposely being turned into “Super soldiers” and the plot throughout the seasons is often one of how little agency these characters were ever allowed. But as early as the pilot Vincent has enough of his own agency to be able to choose to use the horrible thing that happened to him for good — if he has the urge to kill, somewhat like Dexter, at least he can “direct” that urge to kill guys who already “deserve” death.

    He isn’t a traditional victim and still is very traditionally masculine in many ways. At the same time, this season has explored how his cop girlfriend is less “Romantic” and cares less about things like weddings than he does. In a few subtle ways gender roles can be subverted on the show, most notably that Catherine is a woman but despite initially him saving her life, years later, now that she’s a cop, she often is the one with the ability to save him. He can be the one needing saving and her the saver. He’s still more physically strong and when threats are supernaturally enhanced, he’s the protector again, though.

    • I don’t know who the Punisher is, so I can’t say. From what little I know about Wolverine, though, I suppose he kind of fits, because he was made into a mutant, wasn’t he? Although I guess it would largely also depend on the reason why they made him like that and what he had to do afterwards, which I don’t know.

  3. I think you’re more likely to find examples in YA, where technical expert characters, by necessity of their age, must have begun their training as children. Plus, the trope of “School to teach This One Unconventional Skill” is a popular one, as well as training our Chosen One for their future battle.
    One book that takes this to its dark logical conclusion is How to Lead a Life of Crime. In the Goodreads comments for that book, I Hunt Killers was also recommended.
    There’s the Spy Kids franchise. In comics, there was the Hellions under the Hellfire Club, and some incarnations of the Brotherhood of Mutants also involve recruiting teenagers. On the DC side, the most obvious example is Damien Wayne.

    There are much more examples in anime and manga, though, starting with the very premise of Naruto, where it’s a matter of fact that ninja villages train their children to be killing machines. The child soldier trope is the protagonist in Full Metal Panic and Jormungand.
    As always, there are a few different places on TvTropes with which to find oodles of examples. Start with “Child Soldier” and proceed along the usual TvT wiki walk. The Child Soldier page even differentiates between “precocious talented type” vs. “just plain tragic type.” “Cursed with Awesome” is another a good starting page.
    There’s also Ender’s Game, and the Shadow books, which explore the ramifications of raising a generation of highly intelligent child soldiers to be weapons against the Formics. (Regardless of how you feel about the author, or the quality of the books)

    One thing that could be interesting to consider is that in fanfiction, “raised to be a weapon” is a category of “Harry/Naruto/Shinji character gets a spine” fic that treats the new backstory as a power fantasy, something that makes the changed character more desirable to the author’s tastes, as well as allowing them to easily curbstomp any characters the author wants to bash. The character is seen to be empowered, their new skills giving them the agency/power to do what they wanted, which their original incarnation could not have. This is especially prominent in Harry Potter variations, where he can now easily deal with the aspects of the Wizarding World (mostly the social and political machinations) that limited him before. (and obviously frustrated the author) In Naruto variations, he often finds and makes new (original character, obviously superior to canon characters) friends and family in his fellow weapon-trainees.
    Ender’s Game has shades of this, Ender and Bean as power fantasy for young put-upon nerdlings.

    But in contrast, I can’t think of female variations of “raised to be a weapon as empowering” off the top of my head. They’re almost always given some angst about their upbringing, punished for finding it empowering, (Faith from BtVS) or chose the training of their own free will. (though that can be debated, given their age)

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