Thursday, January 26, 2006

Gender and Revenge

It seems to me that this report, written about by William Saletan here, has clear implications for readers and producers of comics. (Not to mention the creative team behind Fox's 24.)

The researchers report evidence that men and women express divergent preferences for the punishment of "wrong-doers." Here's one money quote from Saletan's long and interesting article:
Scientists planted actors among volunteers playing a game. Some actors played fairly; others played unfairly. Then the researchers delivered electric shocks to the actors while monitoring the brains of volunteers who looked on. Men, like women, showed "empathy-related activation in pain-related brain areas" when shocks were administered to actors who had played fairly. But when shocks were delivered instead to actors who had played unfairly, empathetic responses in men, unlike women, "were significantly reduced." In fact, men showed "increased activation in reward-related areas, correlated with an expressed desire for revenge." Apparently, judgment controls men's feelings more than women's. It determines who gets our empathy and who gets our schadenfreude—the joy of watching the suffering of someone you dislike.
While I'll need more time to think about this before I venture a definitive comment, it seems apparent that Wonder Woman's killing of Max Lord (and how Batman and Superman have reacted to it) offers strong contrary evidence. However, the question may be a moot one, because I'm sure that, as usual, superheroes were under-represented in the study's sample.

Update (1.27.06; 8:15 AM): The danger of a mis-placed parenthesis! What I actually wanted to say in my penultimate sentence is this: it seems apparent that reactions to Wonder Woman's killing of Max Lord (specifically Batman's and Superman's) offer strong contrary evidence. (kalinara and Ragnell, thanks for helping me clarify this point.)

It's interesting. I think in the case of Max Lord, the reactions are different because she didn't kill him out of revenge or retribution. She killed him because under her truth lasso he admits that there was no other way to stop him.

However, it is also true that most of the fans I read who agree with what she did are female. Though not all.

In this case, I think Diana proved herself to be stronger than the other two. I mean, killing's a terrible thing, but she saved countless others in the process. It was in defense of self and others and she didn't sacrifice any of her nobility and humanity in the process. Batman might not kill, but he's lost much more of his humanity along the way. If that makes sense.
Actually, Diana's actions support the study.

She gave Max every option of stopping this, even though he had killed one friend and was putting another through the most terrible nightmares he could imagine. She tried several times to reason or intimidate him into stopping. She then killed Max with the most expediant, least painful method available. She did not feel any satisfaction from the this. She didn't regret it, but she didn't feel any gratification.

She also held back considerably during the fight with Superman. even thoguh he washurting her badly, she never got angry at him and only moved to control him. Not to excessively hurt him. Most male characters need to remind themselves constantly they are fighting a victim, not an enemy, and even then get pretty angry and want a little revenge.

Diana was displaying empathy through the entire issue, as opposed to a need for revenge.

And after the battle, when she tells Bruce and he reacts badly, she understands. She was hoping he wouldn't say that, but she understood and empathized with Bruce's anger. Same with Superman, she understood his horror and empathized with him.
Hey, kalinara and Ragnell!

You both raise excellent points. Rather than revenge (or vengeance), the study's really getting at people's attitudes to punishment and judgement, and that's what I was thinking about, too, when I wrote the post. I've been interested in the various interpretations of Diana's killing of ML.

Man, I (of all people) agree with you both. Diana acted with a noble purpose: she put an end to a grave and immediate threat. And what's more, she wasn't passing any kind of judgement on ML when she killed him. But what's interesting is that interpretations of her actions (both within the DCU and by readers) are actually being shaped and guided by the whole judgement/punishment dynamic. People have been asking: did ML deserve the punishment that WW meted out to him? And: did WW have the right to mete out that punishment?

Thanks for helping me clarify my thoughts about the study and the ML question.
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