The Hard Goodbye & Subverting Male Power-Fantasy

This past week I decided to reread an old favourite of mine; Sin City: The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller. I first fell in love with this story watching the film adaptation in 2005’s Sin City, where Mickey Rourke played the protagonist Marv, a drunken, thuggish, trench coat-wearing bruiser, who goes on a bloody spree of revenge in the name of his short-lived lover Goldie. I was captivated from the first viewing, and it is easily a movie I’ve re-watched more than any other. I’ve read the comic book volume through a number of times as well.

This time through, however, I started asking myself the same question over and over, despite my continued enjoyment: is The Hard Goodbye a sexist story? On the surface it’s quite easy to draw the conclusion that the story is sexist. It opens with Marv having the best sex of his life with Goldie, who Marv himself describes as a goddess. Shortly thereafter, she is killed while they sleep, and Marv is propelled quickly into his story.

Those familiar with the “Stuffed into the Fridge” trope — and probably those not familiar — can see how it is problematic when a story uses the death of a woman as a plot device for a man’s story. She is idealized, given no characterization, and promptly killed. To add more fuel to this fire, Marv fulfills many aspects of a male power fantasy, being a juggernaut of a man who can take a ridiculous amount of punishment — such as a sledgehammer to the face — and kicks the ass of almost anyone who gets in his way — the highest point of that being when he uses a hatchet to slaughter a group of men armed with machine guns.

He is also hyper-protective of women, having recounted many times where he’s been violent toward other people in order to protect women in his life — not to mention the plot which is done for the sake of a woman who apparently could not protect herself. Admittedly, I buy into this idea of being a protective force to be reckoned with. Though I know that the women in my life are not simply “dames” that need saving, I have a protective nature, so the story appeals to me on that level because it satisfies a fantasy that reality would never replicate.

I could go on about other aspects of the story that could be perceived as sexist and reinforce the previously stated points, but that’s not actually the point I’m coming to here. Though The Hard Goodbye could easily be an outright sexist story, I would argue that it shouldn’t be written off as one due to aspects of Marv’s character that could be easily overlooked next to his badass monologues and ass-kicking: Marv is repulsive, murderous, and borderline insane.

Firstly, for all his physical prowess Marv is ugly. While the reader can plainly see from his scarred-up mug that this is true, he spends much of his time pointing out how ugly he thinks he is in a rather matter-of-fact way. He points out on a number of occasions that his appearance repulses women as well, and that he has never even been able to buy one because of the way he looks. It is heavily implied to me that Goldie is the first woman he’s ever actually slept with. This is contrary to a typical male power-fantasy, where women would be falling over each other trying to sleep with him. None are really all that interested in him sexually, and are even scared of him.

That is why he forms such a sudden attachment to Goldie. He acknowledges at one point that she is someone he barely knows, and that she just needed him for protection, but that she was kind and showed him something he never knew existed: intimacy. His world is violent, confusing, and painful, and with Goldie he shared something special that he would likely never feel again, and it is his appreciation for this that propels him to enact vengeance upon those that conspired to kill her and frame him for it.

Secondly, Marv is a cold-blooded murderer. Although in the dark and gritty world of Sin City is it easy to get behind Marv’s crusade when he is dealing with crooked cops, criminals, cannibals, and heavily corrupt religious figures, his means of enacting revenge are often bone-chilling. He is not above torture, often killing people very elaborately, and takes a gleeful pleasure in making it as painful as possible for his victims. Although the people he’s killing are arguably worse than he is, it’s hard to defend just how much fun he seems to be having brutally slaughtering his enemies. I don’t condemn him personally, because I feel it fits the context of the world, but there is no denying his savagery and that it is not the type of person I would strive to be or idealize, nor do I feel the story presents him in this light.

Lastly, Marv is mentally ill. He himself talks a lot about his “condition”, and how it makes him confused by sensing things that are not there or suffering from brief episodes of displacement, where he wakes up in an unfamiliar place, uncertain of how he got there. His only reprieve is his medication, and the new-found focus that his objective to avenge Goldie gives him. It is evident, however, that he has spent much of his life lost, confused, and without purpose, shuffling day to day from one violent incident to the next. His life doesn’t appear to have been a glorification of booze, broads, and bullets, but one of great suffering and existential conflict.

For some, my defense of The Hard Goodbye through Marv’s character may not excuse how Goldie is treated in the story, and I cannot argue against that. Whether I find it offensive or not does not change the fact that it is problematic. Her death is used to make Marv more interesting as a character — which is not okay — but I appreciate that it does not try to use it to demonstrate how great he is supposed to be. Instead of embarking on a typical male power fantasy, the idea is subverted into something twisted, violent, and dismal at its core, ultimately concluding with an ending that is bittersweet at best. For all its gleeful carnage, sexy women, and badass bruisers, the world in Sin City: The Hard Goodbye is a very bleak one where hope is fleeting, justice is won through blood by the gallons, and everyone suffers regardless of gender.


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