In a land of illusion far, far away--when all we really want to do is live long and prosper--the quest for supremacy, security, purpose, and pain-avoidance continues undefiled. Yet there stands a shadowy figure. Ready to defeat the evil forces of boredom, compliance, and indifference, the Villain doth rise. That's right, bitches. This is how COSPLAY gives us power to defeat the DARK SIDE.
Dear Mistress of the Darkside,
I’m a huge fan of comic books. First generation Pan-Asian, my parents traveled here from Vietnam. They worked all the time when I was a kid, trying to give me the best upbringing, and believed that if I earned the best grades, went to a good university, and landed a high-paying job, all their sacrifice would be worth what they left behind. I’m grateful to them, don’t get me wrong, but the more they talked about the world they left behind and how lucky I was to live in a place with clean water, convenience stores, and cul-de-sacs, the more I wanted to retreat into my fantasies. Most of these were made up of a hero, namely myself as Batman or Superman, fighting against a woman of deadly beauty and seductive powers.
We lived in a suburb of San Jose. I wasn’t the only Asian kid in my school by a long shot, but I kept to myself and didn’t have friends. I had to be home as soon as school ended, locked into the apartment until one of them came home. We had no family to help us, so from the time I was eight, I had to imagine playing outside, running through the neighborhood with other kids, and living a life that meant I didn’t need to be terrified of evil trying to ensnare me around every corner.
I’ve finished school, found a good job, and have friends, but I still feel alone. The girlfriends I’ve had are sweet, smart, and respectable. I never thought to ask them to roleplay with me, thinking it’s just too weird. And if they rejected me, I’d feel like a fool. My mother wants to know when I will settle down, marry a girl that will be true, and give her grandchildren. I want this in the future, eventually, I think. But for right now, I can barely manage to think about next week. I find myself in a slump. It’s hard to feel motivated about anything normal. A part of the problem is that I enjoy my fantasies too much. I’m attracted to girls that are bad, way out of my league, and nothing like what my parents would pick for me. I want a nice girl, am not into pain or abuse, but the woman of my dreams is a villain. She’s confident, cruel, taller, stronger than I am, and she enjoys beating me up. Not for real. In my fantasies, I love thinking about her throwing me around the room, pushing me against a wall, telling me how weak and helpless I am. As a superhero, I’m supposed to be indestructible, but I can’t fight her. This kind of humiliation is very erotic, and I’m terrified of sharing that with a “nice” girl.
What's an inadequate superhero to do?
Superhero Without a Home
Dude, that’s a heartbreaking image. It would be easy to stop here. I could let pity take over, work up a sense of outrage, and assign blame over your circumstances. It's a story, after all. I didn't witness it, it's long in the past, and there's nothing I can do about it now, so it's at a safe distance to feel sorry for you without having to take action. But feeling sorry for you, however justified, doesn't allow you to be anything but a person who deserves pity. Truth be told, I'm not sure anyone deserves pity, as it's often confused for compassion. You were strong enough to create a life in your head where pain and neglect became erotically charged forces of excitement, power, surrender, and adaptation. You may have been trapped in a cell of loneliness, but your beautiful, incredible mind created a world where you get to be the hero... and the villain. What didn't kill you made you stronger and appreciative of ideas that are seemingly bigger than you. Understanding how our pasts sculpt us for our ultimate benefit is the name of the hero/villain game.
We grow up with the idea that assigning titles, names, boxes, and limits is necessary to make order out of chaos. We need a Saint and a Sinner. Almost always, the good are surprisingly, convincingly good without question, and the bad are horrifically, intentionally bad without a shred of conscience. A hero isn't supposed to question his duty. He never feels more alive than when running around saving people. A villain isn't supposed to feel bad about her life decisions. Ever. About anything. She never feels more alive than when torturing some poor sap that got in her way. There’s little to no gray area. When these two butt heads, it’s easy to imagine fighting what we perceive as evil because evil is so obvious. In other words, it’s acceptable to be bad when acting on the side of good.
IMHO, the current era of Marvel vs. DC has been doing a good job evolving with an audience that likes to see a person be put through the wringer and come out squeaky clean on the other side, as long as it comes with a clear mission statement and an American flag. Who can blame them? I still hold the belief that, underneath the drama and fear-mongering, we are a league of extraordinary humans--except we need to get clear on what we're fighting for.
A real hero says, "If you fuck with the 'good' people--those that are weak, helpless, noble, imbued with virtue, innocent, and honest--I'm going to stop you, and I'm going to do whatever it takes to win." Those are solid qualities to fight for. We're programmed to love and protect them. Who has these qualities in spades? Children.
I don't know much about Superman's or Batman's comic book life other than how they've been portrayed in the movies. Batman is a human. He has no special powers outside of money and brains. By making himself appear wealthy, flashy, and removed from the everyday man, he can let his alter-ego get down and dirty. Superman is not human, but his alter-ego is human. By making himself appear weak, insecure, and passive, he's more acceptable. We can look up to Batman as being the moneyed Father-figure, and Superman as the Alien in disguise. Would they be so interesting without complex and fucked-up origin stories? No way.
I'm curious to know which one you like the most, and equally curious to imagine how these archetypes choose their women. How would the match.com profile read for these guys?
"Hi! I'm Clark Kent, mild-mannered pussy. I'm an adopted orphan with no clue how my advanced race with all their technology and scientific logic managed to eradicate their home planet. My human side disappears when things get tough, and I don't trust women with my secrets unless she's my mother. No one will ever be as good as my mother."
"Hey, how you doin'? I'm Bruce Wayne, playboy and multi-millionaire. I run a corporation that specializes in spying on people and making weapons. I invented the 'man cave.' I have terrible insomnia, like guns and motorcycles, and hold the world record for hog-tying purse snatchers. Wanna play with my toys while I hang upside down and echolocate a missing box of Cheez-It's?"
I'm kidding! Kind of.
I can't picture Clark getting it on, and Bruce was supposed to be the ladies man, right? Batman Returns gets my nostalgic vote, but Michelle Pfeiffer made 90% of that movie sexy. She plays crazy cat woman better than ANYONE. A woman who loves latex, licks herself, and plays with a bullwhip? Yes, PLEASE.
All that was appealing until she electrocuted herself with the biggest TENS unit I've ever seen. Then there's Lois Lane, a career woman with the need for adventure, autonomy, and truth. The word TEAM does not seem to be in her vocabulary. Like any story of tease and denial, she and Superman only get close to real intimacy when she's about to be blown up or is falling off a crumbling building.
Both heroes have a love-'em-from-a-distance thing going on. Who would want normal after that?
If the Law of Attraction is all it's cracked up to be, the females represent hidden aspects of our heroes, embodying characteristics of who the men want to be. Neither woman has to hide in plain sight. Catwoman embraces her psychotic split. Bruce gets close, but Alfred and Robin keep him confined to the role of Caretaker. Lois doesn't need a special costume to ask tough questions, uncover evil plots, and speak her truth to the masses. Clark can't reveal he's Superman; he'd lose his grasp on humanity. In essence, they have a level of freedom our heroes crave.
On this premise, I'd say your fantasy villain is your equal on the scales of passion, ingenuity, and kink. Kudos. But if you were to have this in reality? I say this, Superhero without a Home, with all the love in my heart: You don't want that kind of crazy. The sex might be great, but you'd both go home to empty beds and 100 cats/bats. The putrescence of guano would be enough to kill any spark of romance, let alone scooping that much kitty litter. There would be no inside jokes, no pillow talk, no revelations of pain, fear, joy, or contentment. Without these infinitesimally necessary cracks in the armor, there is no room for growth.
When it comes to your villain, get into her head as much as she has infiltrated yours. Write out that whole delicious scenario with a woman who is BAD to the bone. What does she look like, smell like, dress like? How does she think of you?
If you say to me,“Dear Sweet & Low, I don’t know what she’s really like. That’s the problem.”
I say, "Holy Head-in-the-Sand, Batman, that's baloney. You do know what she’s like, how she thinks of you, and everything in between. You grew up with her. She’s been your constant companion."
Write out your life with her and take it to the very end--happy ending, sad ending, whatever it will be. Write the truth and take no prisoners. If you want to be trampled on, make those stilettos jagged ice picks. If you want her to use your head to put a hole in the wall, make her strong as fuck. If you make excuses for her, make them good ones. 'Cause she’s sexy, and she relishes in your suffering.
Not many people are willing to do this kind of work. They will renege and go about their lives. They will continue to ignore a potential love interest and give up more and more control to the dictator in their head who is living rent free and calling the shots. Now that’s a fucking villain.
Once you put her on paper, she lives somewhere other than in your head. In storybook land, ten years can happen in ten pages. You can go for a bike ride, visit a museum, strike up a conversation with a fascinating stranger at a coffee shop, and it will happen like magic because you’ve made room for it. Your special villain will still be there when you get home, but now y'all have lived the same song and dance for years, and what used to work falls flat. She doesn’t do it for you quite like she used to. You think about couples counseling. You’re willing to do the work, but she is not. What is it like to cheat on a villain? She's not going to like it, but isn't it the hero's job to follow through, no matter how hard it gets?
This is the scary place. You are alone, and a superhero isn’t a superhero without an opponent to validate their existence. You can dick around the imagined universe, or you can meet people from your own tribe: ComicCon and Meetup. Chat rooms abound.
1, 2, 3...? Oh, I get it.
Let’s say you meet a gal at one of these events, and she’s dressed like a villain. She’s down with spending her off-hours being a badass without rules and restrictions, but at the end of the day, she’s hanging that cape up, because not giving two shits is HARD WORK. It’s nice once in awhile, but really, she likes muffins with her coffee, smiling at the postman, laughing at Trevor Noah, and is grateful, deeply grateful, she’s just herself at the end of the day. Maybe she has baggage, and she is sick and tired of attracting the wrong kind of guy. She's ready for a hero but doesn't need saving. She wants a real flesh-and-blood man who doesn't need a fancy suit to convince her he means business.
You decide to get to know her as a person and realize she is a good girl with a bad streak. Best of both worlds. You take the time to be her friend. Real life is confusing. You don't know what she's talking about all the time, and it's terrifying to talk about the things that hurt. Just the same, she's down to play. She’s excited about creating a new fantasy world, one that involves the genius synergy of two minds. Truly, one creative mind is great, but working with a team of them? (Ahem, The Avengers.) There’s nothing like that. The adventures are limitless.
You hear your resident villain complaining in the background. She’s trying to convince you this will never work. You're deluding yourself. You don't deserve to be happy. If this girl is as cool as you think she is, she could never love you.
While this might be the appropriate time to have the climatic brawl with your villain, repressing her existence and input is a bad idea. Remember she's a reflection of you. If she's in the Phantom Zone, what's a villain to do but grow in power, recruit more villains, and come back with a vengeance. And she will. Especially when you have a fight or argument with your real girl. The Villain will lord it over you, taking no small satisfaction for saying she is RIGHT. Instead, tell that fantasy bitch to be cool. Go ahead, tell her. Say, “Be cool, Bitch!”
You do this over and over because it’s your fantasy, and you’re the master of that world. It's your creation. She works for you. If this seems silly, go the extra mile. Don a costume and prance around your home. Do as Batman or Superman would do. Play the role and let the role play you.
In real life, the ending keeps changing. Maybe the girlfriend doesn't work out. Maybe you meet another girl and another. You break up, get back together, go into the friend zone. That's what it's like to live in a Series. The point is, you keep the future open by living in the present. It’s uncomfortable and fraught with problems that must be challenged. You don’t know if you can do this, but it’s worth doing for that sexy nice girl with villainous tendencies. You’ve grown out of the need to isolate yourself because you know that’s an old pattern, and by doing so, you keep that little boy locked behind bars. Batman wasn't Batman as a child. He had to grow up to be a hero.
If you are determined and just a little bit crazy, there is hope for you yet. In other words, if you let the child part of you have as much say as the villain you, they can save each other. Now that’s a fucking hero.
For my two cents, I want heroes that are villains, and villains that are heroes. Old Boy and Watchmen hit my buzzer every time. It's nothing but gray area. We want to cuddle, nurture, and protect the weakling, as if we were, in fact, gods capable of erasing the wounds of the past. We want to destroy, pulverize, and terraform the parts of ourselves that are bad, ugly, and human, as if we were, in fact, villains unburdened by the great responsibility of being wrong. We want to be all-powerful, always on the side of righteousness, and somehow come out as victorious, appreciated, and heroic for our sacrifices.
It would be so much easier to watch someone else struggle for our victories. As long as they succeed, maybe we don't have to change. But it’s not real. The heroes of our time don’t come with rippling abs, a great monologue, or special powers. The heroes of our time have come to the crossroads of knowing they have to show up every day and make hard decisions, knowing they will oftentimes be cast in the light of the villain.
Knowing this, when do we say, I must be my own hero.
Healing the wounds of the past doesn't change the past. Doing what you can to make the world better doesn't fix the world. It is what it is, and you're not going to find peace until you recognize the hero and the villain can't exist without each other. Find the peace, and you will attract the perfect good/bad girl who is also trying to find a home to hang her cape and just be human.
Speaking of being one's own hero, check out American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Without risking a spoiler alert, I'll say Gaiman does a nifty job of portraying the crux of every felon: how to secure gainful employment without getting #ThugLife tattooed across your knuckles. The 10th Anniversary Edition includes commentary from the author. It does my heart good to hear yet another immigrant speak of his road trips across the States with a healthy dose of fantasy and dismay. Wherever you are, that's where you're at. And Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces required too much thought, while walking the pup and contemplating the displacement of children and their parents on the southern borders. Like any good hero vs. villain story, there must be an outlet for rage. Happy reading!