Dr. Horrible Really was the Bad Guy.
Last Thursday I showed my class Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. We’ve reached a point where it is truly part of the superhero geek subculture. In my four years of teaching, only a scant three students have ever seen it before. I stick to it, because it serves as an excellent teaching tool to get students to look for elements of Realist, and Formalist film styles.
But this time around, something had changed. While I still enjoyed the singing of Tony-award winner Neil Patrick Harris, the nerdy awkwardness that I identify with in Felicia Day, and the over the top bluster of Nathan Fillion, I noticed something different this time around: the character of Dr. Horrible is an exemplar of Toxic Masculinity.
For those who don’t know, Toxic Masculinity is one of the ways that Patriarchy harms men. It is the notion that men have to be unemotional, aggressive, and violent in order to be “real men.”
Fundamentally, Toxic Masculinity is the idea that some men have that they are entitled to sexual or romantic gratification simply because they are “nice guys.” It’s a theme that has been very heavily reinforced in our culture’s narrative, through novels, films, and video games: that men are owed romance as a reward for their struggles, stripping agency from women, who are relegated to the position of trophies in these stories. For excellent contemporary examples of this, watch Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs. Women series.
As much as I love his novels, J.R.R. Tolkien is an exemplar of these storytelling strategies. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Arwen is almost entirely bereft of characterization; she is mentioned only a few times in the story, and finally comes to Minas Tirith at the end to wed Aragorn. The manner of this marriage is particularly significant, as Elrond had previously refused to acquiesce to their wedding until Aragorn had completed his tasks. In the story, she is literally Aragorn’s reward.
I use Tolkien as an example here because he was self-consciously trying to channel centuries of European literary tradition, and this was an unfortunate piece of flotsam that he picked up. The fact that he did so without any attempt to at least subvert this trope is perhaps the primary failing of his work.
After centuries of narrative that relegated women primarily to either the background, or placed them as romantic rewards for the protagonist’s existence has taken its toll. The prevalence of toxic masculinity in our society may perhaps be it’s predictable result.
After Eliot Roger’s massacre in Santa Barbara, I read portions of his manifesto. Something that really struck me were the incidents that tended to amplify his self-loathing and bitterness. He would get drunk, and go to a public place for several hours on end. And he would sit there, simply waiting for women to flock to him. That somehow his physical attractiveness, his somehow evident wealth, and his “nice guy” status were enough to elicit any attention on their own.
While Roger’s severe mental health problems were of course the primary factor which drove him to violence, he was nonetheless not helped by a culture which told him that he was owed things, simply by being male. Take a look at /r/niceguys for a thorough documentation of this phenomenon.
And here’s where we come back to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
Billy had apparently spent months secretly pining for Penny without doing a thing about it. And even when he made a friendly, if awkward, connection with her, he still did not make his feelings known at any point in the story. Instead, he languished in bitterness, blaming the “jock” Captain Hammer for his inability to build a “real” connection.
In this way, his character development parallels RedPillers, MRAs, GamerGate, and really any neo-reactionary movement that has gained traction on the Internet in recent years. The membership of these groups tends to follow roughly the same demographic: men who were bullied or excluded in their teenage years. But instead of actually internalizing their experiences and learning from them, Billy and Pillers/MRAs/Gators have instead simply rejected the signifiers of their oppressors, but still operate under the same harmful patriarchal framework that harmed them.
Those who have grown up awkward, in some kind of marginalized subculture, have rejected the symbols of “jock” culture, but all too often have not rejected the actual social structure that was so damaging to begin with. And in Dr. Horrible, Billy rejects the trappings of a society that embraces super heroes, only to become as myopic and self-interested as the society that he swore off.
At the end of Dr. Horrible, neither Billy nor Captain Hammer are vindicated. At all. Their mutual inability to see Penny as an actual person instead of some sort of metaphorical battleground between them ultimately results in her death. And to even further compound the tragedy, the film closes with the “depressing shot,” where Billy sings that he “won’t feel… a thing.”
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a cautionary tale. It imparts that men are not entitled to fulfillment simply because they see themselves as the protagonists in their own story. And that the inability to see other people as actual human beings can lead to dire consequences, even if the protagonist did not directly intend for them to happen.