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Manpain is a term used by fans, particularly slash fans, encompassing a set of narrative devices that span literature, film and television. When a main character in a story (always male, generally white) is written with a particular kind of psychologically painful history that causes him to behave in specific ways, he is often said to have manpain.

mimesere is anecdotally credited with either being the originator or a very early adopter of the term, which she memorably describes from the character's point of view as being, "I'm a dude, this is my pain, this is the REASON FOR ALL MY DOUCHITUDE, BEHOLD MY EPICNESS AND DESPAIR," adding, "sometimes it leads to sitting in the dark, brooding."[1] This adoption and popularization may have come through frequent conversations between mimesere and Jennifer_Oksana. Before its widespread adoption by slash fans, it was used by members of the OBSSE Mailing List to refer to Mulder for typical manpain behavior and because of a script note by Chris Carter that refers directly to "the pain of being a man".

From Man Pain: Fact of Fiction by short X-Files essay by AdrianneFF in September 1999:
essay title icon, artist is not credited
"Man Pain." You've heard the term bandied about, you may even presume to know a bit about it. Maybe you have seen it, maybe you have experienced it. [...] Man Pain is, in its most simple terms, the awesome pain of being a man. [...] You may also be suffering from the ill-effects of Man Pain if you have ever done the following: Given your daughter to a bunch of aliens. Given your wife to a bunch of aliens. Written to letters to your estranged son while sequestered in a remote cabin somewhere in Canada. [...].


walkingshadow's authoritative flowchart encapsulating some of these concepts[2] (click to enlarge)

Some of the characteristics of manpain are generally held by fans to be:

  • It's marked by excess. The tragedies of the character's history are extreme: his reaction to them is melodramatic: his pain is tacitly or explicitly acknowledged by the story and/or other characters to be worse than anyone else's.
"It's not enough for your sister to be abducted; she has to have been taken in your place while you were paralyzed, unable to stop it. You can't just have a soul that allows you to feel remorse for the evil you did; you have to be cursed to lose that soul again if you feel a moment's happiness." -ladyvyola[3]
  • It is self-centered and inner-directed; events, especially traumatic events, in the narrative are typically viewed through the lens of how they emotionally impact the bearer of the manpain, who is often a figure of isolation.
" Lee Adama. I'm sorry, Lee, the world ACTUALLY ended in a nuclear holocaust, so your pain isn't any more important than anyone else's. You don't need a whole lake to represent it." -musesfool[4]
"[Manpain is] Donna Noble losing all of Time and Space and yet we all get to focus on the Doctor standing tragically in the rain..." -teenygozer[5]
  • The character's painful history is frequently (although not universally) created by exploiting the death/suffering/loss of a woman, or children, or both. These women and children are often not characterized as having any importance in the narrative other than as plot devices to create manpain.
"I loved the guy, I loved the show for about half its run, but it became clear to me that they did bad things (abduction, cancer, more abduction) to Scully to show Mulder's manpain..." -thisficklemob[6]
(describing Mel Gibson's films) "...all the women he's touched (ew) and occasionally his children too (for effect) need to be tortured/maimed/killed so he can become a hero/have manpain." -lovehotel[7]
"MANPAIN comes out of the idea that white men have intrinsic value above and beyond all other people." -mswyrr[8]
  • The manpain serves a dual function. It is an easy way for a creator to shorthand a male character as vulnerable, and therefore sympathetic. It is also used to excuse a range of behaviors that often include actions that would otherwise be read as unsympathetically selfish, anti-social or violent.
"One of the things that has been teased out in this whole discussion is the assumption that there is a substantive difference [between] 1) real pain in real life, 2) pain in fiction that is treated seriously and deserves (and generally gets) the same from its audience, and 3) pain in fiction that is used exploitively as a quick and easy tool to further characterization and earn sympathy from the audience—and correct me if I'm wrong, but in these cases I would say it is often assumed to be a largely female audience, who are generally understood to be suckers for that sort of thing." -walkingshadow[9]
"Jack Harkness[...]is always doing horrible things to other people (torture, mind-wipes), then moping about how tragic it is that he "has" to do these terrible things, instead of feeling sorry for the other people whose suffering he's just caused." -rusty_halo[10]

Fan Response

Fans' response to, and tolerance for, these kinds of characters varies widely from character to character and fan to fan. The quality of the writing in the source material makes a difference to fan response. If the source is a tv show or film, the skill of the actor can have a big impact on the fannish perception of his pain. Characters with manpain often inspire the full ranges of fannish devotion and derision. Slash fans, who are a majority female audience, can have fairly sensitive antennae to what they perceive as cynical exploitation by canon creators, and their assumptions about female audience response to male characters' suffering.

All that said, it is undeniable that many of the characters who are most widely regarded as having manpain are also widely adopted by fan creators, particularly in writing slash fanfiction. blacksquirrel notes about this phenomenon: "It's hard to truly encapsulate the ironic edge of manpain which is both the emo angst that makes our hearts go pitter pat, and the vaguely absurd fixation of characters who really need to get over themselves and realize that they are still alive, still the heroes of their own stories, and still better off that most other people in the world."[11]

Thingswithwings' vid, The Price [12], summarized by her as "Mr. Billowy Coat King of Pain" is an expose on the manpain phenomenon, and culminates in a sequence of shots of characters crying a single perfect tear, with post-process tear-sparkle added on. The vid links to a meta post on the subject which attracted a great deal of conversation in the comments and in other posts.[13][14]

Additional Reading

  • lilliputian meta on manpain, by lotesse dated June 16, 2011 ("My problem with mainpain - and it is a problem, don't get me wrong - is that it actually minimizes the amount of pain available. )[15]
  • Man Pain: It's What's For Breakfast - Kroki Refur's satirical essay on manpain featuring smiling images San and Dean Winchester. "Motor vehicles also causes them deep Psychic Pain, due to the similarities between the word “car” and the word “doom”..." and "Dean tends to get angsty around law-enforcement officials, who remind him of his father (who is dead from car-crash related Man Pain).." dated August 2007[16]


  1. untitled comment by mimesere, posted November 16, 2009 (accessed 23 November 2009)
  2. with my rumdiddlyumdiddlyumdiddly, i'm so deep Accessed 18 November 2009.
  3. comment by ladyvyola. The fandoms referenced are The X-files and Buffy The Vampire Slayer/Angel the Series).
  4. comment by musesfool. The fandom referenced is Battlestar Galactica (2003).
  5. comment by teenygozer. The fandom referenced is Doctor Who (Tenth Doctor).
  6. comment by thisficklemob. The fandom referenced is The X-Files. Scully is exceptional in that she was a signifcant part of The X-Files' narrative, but she was also clearly supposed to mirror Mulder's (mostly unknown and uncharacterized) sister in the present-day evocation of Mulder's past trauma and loss.
  7. comment by lovehotel. See as examples: Lethal Weapon, Braveheart, Ransom, The Patriot.
  8. comment by mswyrr.
  9. comment by walkingshadow.
  10. comment by rusty_halo. The fandom referenced is Torchwood.
  11. comment by blacksquirrel.
  12. New Vid: The Price (Multifandom); WebCite, posted June 16, 2011 and her follow-up meta post some thoughts on manpain. um. many thoughts on manpain, actually... dated June 16, 2011; WebCite
  13. I want music videos for the shows that are only in my head., posted by recessional on June 16, 2011 (....I write too many men in various states of trauma, pain, loss, grief and responsibility to be anything but ambivalent about thingswithwings new manpain vid....I'm nowhere near as sure that by writing about men in pain, I won't wind up being dismissed as brainwashed by popular culture and [various negatives associated with writers of manpain here], and part of that is the slipperiness of the definition evidenced in the very vid itself and the deliberate inclusion of things that, while not actually being manpain, happen to look like it from one perspective or another. So I'm ambivalent. Not violently opposed or going "NO! IT'S WRONG AND EVIL AND THINGS ARE NEVER LIKE THAT!" Just . . . ambivalent. Mixed feelings.")
  14. The Missing Link, posted by cesperanza on June 17. 2011; WebCite ("The Price is the missing link between Lum and Sisabet's Women's Work and Sisabet and Sweetestdrain's On the Prowl")
  15. WebCite for " lilliputian meta on manpain".
  16. WebCite for Man Pain: It's What's For Breakfast.