A Betrayer in Red Skin: The Carefully Nurtured Self-Hate of Hellboy
This is not a movie review. This is a response to the character of Hellboy.
If you asked me years ago why I decided to cosplay Hellboy, I’m not sure how I would have answered. I knew that I related to Hellboy in a visceral way. I understood someone who found themselves living a life they didn’t quite understand and with which they did not agree. I know what it’s like to live in a society that doesn’t want you unless you are useful to them. I know how it feels to choose to love something that will never choose to love you back.
Hellboy is another iteration of what it is to be Black and living in white supremacy, except his skin is red and white supremacy is coded as all humanity. Because in Hellboy’s world, humans come first, last, and always and the moment any human doubts him, he becomes expendable. This is something that is not unknown to Hellboy. He understands that his safety is tied to his usefulness, and he resents the fuck out of it. Because what kind of life is it to be in perpetual service to people who barely tolerate and often openly despise you? What kind of life is it that you continuously alter yourself to appear more human to those who hold your life in their hands? What kind of life is it for your existence to be contingent on how many of those like you that you are willing to slaughter? And that any questioning of your orders immediately puts your life at risk?
Hellboy is a servant of paranormal Cointelpro, a traitor to himself and those like him, all under the guise of being for the greater good. Because the “greater good” is always maintaining the status quo. The “greater good” is the maintenance of power and the will of those with power and Hellboy is an enemy of the state unless he is willing to prove time and again that he aligns with humanity… first, last, and always.
In each and every iteration of the Hellboy movies, he wrestles with his reality. He’s half human but doesn’t look human enough for humanity to let him live the life he would choose. He never gets the opportunity to choose. Like a Black child, he is warned from infancy that the world will not accept him and will punish him for who he is. He is literally demonized and trained to kill the half of himself that humanity will not accept. His arrival is a portent of doom, the end of days, and even though he’s proven himself over and over again, humanity still doubt his allegiance and cannot accept him being anything but a violent weapon against half his heritage. Like agents of whiteness, Hellboy is the physically violent, demonic iteration of Clarence Thomas, Ben Carson, Candace Owens, and Kanye West. He is the betrayer.
And while he may not want to be, his very existence depends on it. And his life on earth has been a series of lies telling him that he should care for and protect the very people who have little problem with using and discarding him. The most toxic of these relationships is the one with the man he calls Father. A man who says all the right things to keep Hellboy in line, when he’s not fixated on saving humanity from demons or witches or whatever.
Hellboy’s “father.” The man who protects him from the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) and tells him “I just want you to be the best you that you can be.”
I’ve heard this phrase throughout my life in one form or another. I’ve heard it from bosses. I’ve heard it from my father, my mother, ex-friends and ex-lovers. And every time I’ve heard this phrase, it was from someone trying to convince me to do something they wanted, and it was usually uttered as I was trying to decide what I wanted for myself. Because these words, when uttered by someone you love, sound like caring when they are actually manipulation.
When I was younger, each time I heard these words, I’d pause and put my needs/wants/plans second as I considered what I thought my best could be. I’d try to put myself in that other person’s shoes and look at myself, trying to determine how I could be my best for them. I would change the course of my thoughts and my actions, centering them in my decision because I wanted to be the person they thought was best. And every time I did that shit, I fell for the okeydoke because it was bullshit.
Captain Marvel demonstrated how it was bullshit when Yon Rogg (Jude Law) said them to Carol Danvers while “training” her. Framing his advice as authoritative knowledge as he used her regard for his approval as a mechanism for control. In Hellboy, we see this every time Hellboy is required to protect humanity. His loyalty is the literal slaughter of his demon half. And he does it again and again because humans first, last, and always.
And Hellboy hates it. He does his “duty” and protects humanity, but the resentment eats at him. He is dissatisfied. Lonely. Exhausted. Weary of being released to do his job and then willingly return to his cage. In every movie, any choice he makes that isn’t mandated by the powers that be is challenged and often denied. Hellboy is not free. He is not allowed to be free. He is an enemy of the state, a dog on a leash, and his father continues to remind him of that…but with “love.”
I’ve experienced this kind of love, and it’s not real. It’s manipulative and painful. It tells me that I need to meet another person’s standards and that until I do, I am not enough. This “love” is the kind that breeds a self-hatred so pure that you cannot stand to see your reflection in the mirror. It makes you reshape and re-form yourself into the image of what you think they want you to be, instead of being who you are. It is a source of self-harm, self-mutilation, and so much pain. It is a web that traps you and makes you fodder for the dreams and desires of someone else. This is not a love that nourishes. It is a love that consumes you from the inside. And fifteen years ago, I did not have the understanding of self or the manipulations of others to identify why Hellboy spoke to me, but now I do.
Hellboy embodies my pain of a lifetime of lies and punishments for daring to exist outside the norm. Because the norm is capitalist, patriarchal, ableist, heterosexual, cisgender, white supremacy - first, last, and always.
And that is something I will never be.
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