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Symbolic Mutilation

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A character is mutilated in an explicitly symbolic way. They might not see the truth until they are blinded. A grasping or avaricious character might lose a hand, a vain character may be disfigured, a character who refuses to act may be paralyzed, a character who committed a sexual offense might have their genitals cut off, and one who fails to speak out against injustice might lose their tongue.

Compare and contrast An Arm and a Leg, which also uses severe injury to advance the plot but the injury itself won't necessarily represent anything specific about the character. Beauty to Beast and Punished with Ugly can often be this, if a Proud Beauty is mutilated to destroy their good looks and Break the Haughty.

Example subpages:

Other examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Fullmetal Alchemist:
    • This is extremely prevalent, as God's law of Equivalent Exchange dictates that the price of victory is enduring Symbolic Mutilation as a form of Ironic Hell. The Handicapped Badass main character Edward lost the arm that allowed him to perform alchemy and the leg on which he stood, damaging his pride by forcing him to depend on others. Similarly, his brother, who attempted to resurrect their mother in order to feel the warmth of her presence again, lost his entire physical being, now unable to feel anything at all. Their teacher, longing for her dead child, loses her reproductive organs; the Wide-Eyed Idealist Mustang is blinded.
    • Amusingly, in the manga, the Big Bad has a rant about how everyone listed above brought it on themselves for their hubris in attempting human transmutation, and Ed yells at him because Mustang utterly refused to even try it and only ended up in that situation because the bad guys basically threw him bodily through the Gate of Truth. Mustang did get it rather light from Truth, as shown in the Blind Alchemist OVA, as he outright lost his eyes when he performed human transmutation, rather than just get Prophet Eyes.
    • Not directly invoked by said Jerkass God, but still relevant: action guy Havoc gets paralyzed; the Incorruptible Pure Pureness Nina gets gruesomely fused with her dog and then murdered; the silver-tongued Kimblee has his throat torn out; the desperate-to-help Lan Fan loses her arm; the list goes on from there.
  • In My Hero Academia: Vigilantes, Stendhal gets confronted by Koichi, who claimed to be the kind of guy who sticks his nose where it doesn't belong. After Stendhal gets beaten by Knuckleduster, Stendhal ends up taking those words to heart and lops off his own nose so he won't have anything to stick where it doesn't belong, cementing his transformation into Stain.
  • Naruto: Kaiza had a catch phrase of "protecting the things you love with both arms". Gato's henchmen captured him and mocked his catch phrase by chopping off his arms (manga)/crushing his arms with mallets (anime) before executing him.
  • One Piece: Two examples are very symbolic, one showing bravery, the other cowardice.
    • Whitebeard, who was willing to fight for his sons even while old and sick, got several injuries from the front, but none in the back. His determination is even shown when he dies standing up, despite having several holes on his chest and a melted face.
    • On the flipside, Spandam, who beat down Robin while she was helpless and relied on assassins to do the work for him, got his spine broken. Metaphorically, he was spineless even beforehand.
  • In A Silent Voice, Shoko Nishimiya's right arm is in a sling after the events of chapter 43. Since she is deaf and normally uses sign language or notebooks to communicate and that is her writing hand, it makes her attempts to communicate more difficult and represents how she is being isolated from others.

    Comic Books 
  • The Castaka Family in The Metabarons would ritually sever parts of their own body and have them replaced with bionics to honor the rituals of their ancestral father.

    Fan Works 
  • Alone, Together: Kim and Shego are each injured in a way that impacts a major character trait — ultra-athletic Kim gets a broken ankle that doesn't properly heal; sharp-tongued Shego is left mute in the aftermath of her suicide attempt. Like everything else that physically happens to them in the Other World, these are undone when they return home.
  • The Boys: Real Justice: Homelander has never been injured in his life...until Felix Faust bursts into Earth 7, with his magic leaving a (non-fatal) chest wound that knocks him out while the Justice League prevent any casualties and defeat Faust. This shows how the Justice League start chipping away at the public's view of the Seven (Homelander in particular) and how it starts to hurt Homelander's self-esteem — something that none of the fic's readers have a problem with.
  • Dirty Sympathy: Klavier lost his small toe because of Daryan to represent that he lost a small part of himself.
  • I Am NOT Going Through Puberty Again!: this is Sasuke's reason for having refused a prosthetic for his left arm, as well as why he incinerates the very real left arm that he'd ripped off post time travel when Sakura offers to reattach it.
    Sasuke: It's symbolic. The hand I used when I tried to kill you is gone. Discarding it signifies my resolve to turn aside from the dark path I walked in my younger years. It's a sign of my penitence, and of my ultimate acceptance of your philosophy.
    Naruto: You know... I'm pretty sure you've tried to kill me plenty of times with your right hand, too.
  • Throughout Infinity Train: Blossoming Trail, Goh has a really hard time understand or, facing, that he played a big part in why Chloe has left onto the Infinity Train, refusing to admit that he's at fault or face a lot of issues. One nightmare epiphany later, with one scene having a construct of Ash stabbed to death by Parker and the blood splattered over his face, he develops a very nasty habit of clawing at his face to symbolize not only how he realized this but now he's just lost his sanity from this revelation.
  • Son of the Desert: To demonstrate his desire to no longer destroy things and have a new life, Scar/Kirah had his alchemy arm cut off by Edward.
  • The Vow:
    • The Wolf Boss Zhan follows Lord Shen out of loyalty, even helping without question in the panda massacre during which his left eye is scarred. He afterwards helps Shen to prepare for the peacock's conquest of China. While firmly loyal to Shen, Zhan's really only half-blind because Lady Lianne manages to instill in him doubts whatever or not Shen's conquest can change the prejudices most people have about wolves, making him consider the risks his pack will face against the imperial army. Following Shen's act of sending Zhan and most of the pack away before his ultimate defeat, Zhan takes his pack to make a new life in the West, and while he learns of Shen's survival, he resigns his subordination.
    • For most of the story, Lord Shen is a swift warrior who cannot be dissuaded from finding a way against the odds and is falsely labelled as a sickly albino by his enemies. By the time of the epilogue, his survival has left him with bone injuries that can never fully heal and limit his fighting prowess. Having to live with this without being able to change that wounds his pride, along with the fact that he's forced to live the rest of his life as the secret prisoner of his own wife.
  • White Sheep (RWBY): Ren tells the Albain brothers, leaders of a radical faction of the terrorist organization the White Fang, that the reason he doesn't have any Faunus parts is that they were cut off. Even the most bloodthirsty of the White Fang look a little ill at that and don't ask any more questions. The truth is that Ren isn't a Faunus at all, but he still manages to get leadership positions in both factions of the White Fang with no one the wiser.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Here's a fun game: watch The Dark Knight and count how many times people say the word "face" in reference to Harvey Dent, before his accident.
  • The villains in The Final do this to their victims. The beautiful Alpha Bitches Heather and Bridget have acid smeared on their faces to destroy their good looks, with the ending revealing that Bridget was the disfigured girl from the opening scene who everybody else in the restaurant treated like a freak. The womanizing Jerk Jock Bradley, meanwhile, is stabbed in the spine to paralyze him so that he'll never play football or have sex again.
  • In Hugo, the main antagonist, Station Inspector Gustav, wears a leg brace due to an injury in World War I, which tends to freeze up on him at inconvenient moments. The specific injury isn't very symbolic, but it ties into the theme of people and things being "broken" in various ways, and Hugo's desire to "fix" them. At the end, Hugo making him a better brace symbolizes Gustav Taking a Level in Kindness.
  • In Se7en, Rachel Shade, the Pride victim, was a vain, bitchy model who John Doe mutilated by cutting off her nose, then gluing a bottle of pills to one hand and a phone to the other in order to leave her a Sadistic Choice: call the police and live with her disfigured face and the end of her career, or kill herself. She chose the pills.
  • Star Wars:
    • The constant loss of hands and limbs represents the loss of control in a situation. From Anakin's hand being cut off by Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones to Luke losing his hand to Vader in The Empire Strikes Back (and vice versa in Return of the Jedi), it shows the moment when the person who thought they were strong enough to face anything sees that they are really quite powerless.
    • Anakin's incineration in Revenge of the Sith corresponds with his final commitment to the Dark Side, so that his body appears as mangled and ugly as his soul.
  • During the climax of Thor: Ragnarok, Hela slashes out Thor's right eye, leaving him half-blind just like their late father Odin. This not only symbolizes that Thor will have to rule the survivors of Asgard, like Odin before him but also nods to the mythological Odin who plucked out his eye to gain Mimir's insight. Upon losing his eye Thor sees a vision of Odin, who gives him the insight necessary to reawaken his divine powers and fight back against Hela.

  • In his curious attempts to see Saint John's body, Dante from The Divine Comedy is blinded by the light of John's immaterial soul. It is only when Dante restates his sole devotion to God and confesses that all other good fruits come from that Everlasting Gardener, prompting Beatrice to restore Dante's sight in order to allow him to see the true humanity in Adam.
  • The Irregular at Magic High School:
    • Maya did not deserve (spoilered for Nightmare Fuel) to have her womb cut out, but symbolically it foreshadowed the nature of her "son". Because she had nothing there, she was able to bring Nothing into the world. It can also be interpreted as a forced sort of Equivalent Exchange; because she lost her own ability to create life, she became someone with almost limitless power over death.
    • Once, Koichi was a hero who fought fiercely to protect his fiancee from kidnappers — so fiercely that he lost an eye in the battle. But he was defeated, and he let that defeat sour him. Today, Koichi is a jaded man who's criminally negligent — blind — to most people.
      Nakura: Then it doesn’t matter as long as your relatives don't come to harm?
      Koichi: Why should I have to bend over backward for the children of other families?
  • At the climax of Rhythm of War, Vire is blinded in a way that can't be healed by Stormlight. This symbolizes both how he can't see the horror of what he's doing and that Odium is keeping him 'blind' by actively suppressing his ability to feel guilt and regret.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Invoked in one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Dawn becomes depressed upon learning that she's not a Potential, so Xander gives her a pep talk, saying that he feels like being The Team Normal has allowed him to "see" things that the others don't. Apparently, Caleb learned about this conversation from his nigh-omniscient boss, because later in the season:
    Caleb: So, you're the one who sees everything? Let's see what we can do about that.
  • In the Doctor Who serial "The Pirate Planet", the Pirate Captain's body is largely robotic, and he is gaining material wealth ruthlessly, replacing his humanity with materials.
  • Helena from Orphan Black has extensive scarring on her back from years of Self-Harm that resemble a pair of wings. Although they initially represent her religious fanaticism, her scars later represent how she has become a "guardian angel" to her sister Sarah.
  • The Umbrella Academy (2019): While unintentional on the part of Viktor, it's very symbolic that Allison's throat is cut during their confrontation, as Allison had spent most of her life selfishly using her Compelling Voice to get whatever she wants with no thought to how it affects others.

  • Gloucester in King Lear. There are numerous references to eyes and him in the text. He can't see the truth about his sons Edgar and Edmund, due to Edmund though he is quite gullible. Eventually, he gets his eyes torn out.
  • Perhaps the Ur-Example is Oedipus Rex, who dug out his own eyes to punish himself for his refusal to see the truth until it was too late.

    Religion & Mythology 
  • Samson being blinded in The Bible could be thought of as this. He gave away his secret of strength to Delilah, despite the fact she had already tried the fake methods of taking his strength he told her. His hair being cut off could also be symbolic as it was a mark of his connection to God and therefore his strength. He is captured and blinded but at least Death Equals Redemption.
    • There's also tzaraath, which is often translated as "leprosy," but which others believe to be a supernatural ailment only given as divine punishment. According to Mosaic Law, one with tzaraath has to be quarantined away from people until cured. Since Miriam got it from speaking against Moses, it's often seen as a punishment for gossip and slander — in other words, you try to hurt someone's reputation, and you're the one who will wind up isolated from other people instead of them.
    • Mentioned in The Four Gospels as a form of hyperbole. Jesus was challenged by religious leaders, and he responds to them, stating that if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he may as well have jumped into bed with her...and that if his eyes caused him to sin, the response was not to tell the woman to change herself (e.g. cover up, stop wearing makeup, take off jewelry, Stay in the Kitchen, etc.), but to "pluck one's eye out" (e.g., take responsibility and change one's own behavior).
  • In Norse Mythology, Odin sacrificed one of his own eyes (giving up sensory knowledge) to drink from the well of wisdom (gaining mystical knowledge).
    The fact that Odin specifically sacrificed an eye is surely significant. In all ages, the eye has been "seen" as a poetic symbol for perception in general — consider the astonishing number of expressions, both in everyday usage and in the works of the great canonical poets, that use vision as a metaphor for perceiving and understanding something. Given that Odin's eye was sacrificed in order to obtain an enhanced perception, it seems highly likely that his pledge of an eye symbolizes trading one mode of perception for another.

  • Doubt Academy:
    • When Emiko Shiromura is found dead, the self-inflicted wounds she clawed into herself after the first trial, trying to get incriminating evidence off of her have been sliced open once again. The murderer was possibly after her for this reason — to get revenge on her for escaping death.
    • Nanoka Era is blinded and made half-deaf as the scapegoat for the third trial. She is also the talent most dependent on her senses...

    Video Games 
  • In Baldur's Gate II, the cult of the Unseeing Eye seeks to get rid of all 'false' gods except for the one true god which happens to be a power-hungry beholder which needs followers to find an ancient relic. His supporters are required to get rid of their eyes which apparently blind them and lie to them -– but they do receive new senses in compensation.
  • Blasphemous: Invoked by the Grevious Miracle afflicting the country of Cvstodia, which has transformed the overwhelming majority of the populace into a horde of undead martyrs and bestowed double-sided blessings on the remaining sane population, usually inflicting some kind of horrific transformation that might come with a benefit if they're lucky. Since Cvstodia is a Martyrdom Culture, most characters accept their grusome fates without question, even relishing in their suffering. It's that kind of game.
  • Corpse Party: A cross between this and Does This Remind You of Anything?. The first ritual has the students rip a proxy doll apart, which is supposed to correspond to Sachiko, as the ritual carries her name. The correct ritual has the survivors unite said paper doll, begging her (for her forgiveness) so as to appease her wrath in order for her to pass on at last.
  • The very nature of the monsters' deformities and injuries in The Evil Within; it's why their faces tend to be torn apart, or their bodies wrapped in barbed wire or impaled on glass/metal.
  • Fallen London has Unfinished Mengolems that are missing something, like a finger or a conscience.
  • Five Nights at Freddy's: Security Breach: The three hostile animatronics are damaged by Gregory in this way.
    • Chica, a Villainous Glutton, has her beak removed, rendering her unable to "eat" anymore;
    • Roxanne, a selfish narcissist, is blinded, disfigured, and badly traumatized;
    • Monty, a violent Lightning Bruiser, loses his claws and is mangled badly enough that he's reduced to crawling for the rest of the game.
  • Metal Gear:
    • Big Boss's trademark is an Eyepatch of Power, which we see him receive in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (when he attacks Ocelot to keep him from assassinating Tatyana and ends up getting his right eye blinded by muzzle flare in a freak accident). His loss of the eye doesn't happen at exactly the same time as the large traumatic event that sculpts his character (the death of The Boss), but does serve to distinguish the difference from a rather innocent and ordinary soldier to a single-minded, ambitious and traumatised one. This injury is then repeated with over the course of the series symbolising the difference in each character's outlook compared to Big Boss:
      • In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Raiden accidentally injures Solidus's left eye, which he appears almost ecstatic about, in accordance with his general fixation on Big Boss. He immediately starts wearing an eyepatch on it and even suggests being grateful to Raiden for doing it to him. Of course, his injuries are actually a mirror-image of Big Boss's, signifying that he himself is just a reflection of Big Boss rather than an individual in his own right. What's more, it also makes him weaker (he now has a large blind spot on his left), further symbolizing how he is a pale imitation of his father.
      • In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Solid Snake begins wearing an electronic sensor over his eye that resembles Big Boss's eyepatch. Between that, his visible ageing and the fact that his muscle-suit resembles Big Boss's bulky build rather than his own more sinewy one, he resembles Big Boss a lot — more to screw with the audience than anything (going from a Big Boss who looked like Solid Snake in 3 to a Solid Snake who looked like Big Boss in 4). While saving Big Mama (the same person as Tatyana, just many years on) from a fire, the sensor explodes and damages Snake's face, with the result of inverting Big Boss's injury — a burned face but a functioning eye. This serves to indicate Solid Snake's defiance of his own fate — his face, the thing that ties him to Big Boss, has been mutilated; and his ties to Big Boss — he got the injuries rescuing the same person, but most importantly his ability to still "see" things Big Boss has become "blinded" to.
      • Raiden also has a missing eye in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. This is because his eye and his arm were mangled by Sam at the beginning of the game — throughout the game, Raiden gets bonuses for chopping off enemies' right arms, repeating the injury done on him. The eye injury is covered, instead of with an eyepatch, with a bandanna resembling the one worn by Solid Snake, signifying to whom his allegiance is.
    • Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
      • Among Venom Snake's mutilations following the explosive conclusion to Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a large piece of black shrapnel embeded in his head above his right eye, which resembles a demon's horn. When Venom Snake vows to aid Miller exact revenge against Cipher, he goes on to describe himself as "already a demon". Accumulating enough Demon Points by performing morally objectionable actions will cause the shrapnel to grow more elongated, making it appear even more horn-like.
      • At the end of Chapter 1, Venom Snake and Miller inflict this on Skull Face in lieu of simply killing him quickly, opting to use his own lever-action rifle to blow off Skull Face's arm and leg — the same arm and leg Miller lost after the fall of Militaires Sans Frontières, which Skull Face orchestrated.
    • Metal Gear Ac!d 2 significantly uses a copy of The Boss's caesarian scar on the back of the female character Lucy — particularly unusual as the Ac!d games happen in an entirely separate universe to the main games. However, it supports Lucy's character as being a horrible monstrosity of a matriarch, child and wife figure simultaneously (referencing the description of The Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3 — "she was like a mother to me, and my master." "And your lover?"). As well as, more directly, suggesting some of the horrible surgical mutilations she would have received from the Mad Scientist responsible for creating her.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Spirit Hunter: NG, Tubasa was slated to play the princess-turned-avian in a ballet performance of "Duck Lake". However, she was kidnapped beforehand by a crazed fairytale author, who removed her limbs and mutilated her body to resemble a crane.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY:
    • Adam once believed in equality between Faunus and Humans until he received a mutilating injury that changed his mind; now he seeks to enslave humanity under Faunus rule. The SDC branded him across his face like he was their property. He hid a monstrous act by humans with a Grimm-like mask to embrace how humanity sees Faunus as monsters and seeks the enslavement of humanity to spite them for the enslavement of him.
    • When Ironwood and Watts fight in Volume 7, Watts traps his biological arm in a Hard Light barrier and warns Ironwood that he'll end up with a second metal arm if he tries to pull it free. When Ironwood willingly flays his own arm to escape, declaring that he's willing to sacrifice anything to protect Atlas from Salem, a delighted Watts intimates that's exactly what Salem wants. Volume 8's opening episode confirms that Ironwood has indeed sacrificed the arm for a cybernetic replacement, becoming the first in a series of increasingly extreme sacrifices of aspects of his humanity as the volume progresses.

  • The Kyorl'solenurn clan of Drowtales invoke this trope when doling out specific types of punishments, and since the clan in general is heavy on the eye symbolism it often involves eyes, both literal and figurative, to represent how the guilty has become blind to the Goddess. Itansha was nearly blinded in both eyes after she came into conflict with the clan leaders and went into exile, while Ky'ovarde was one of the clan's Seers and had one eye put out after the Holy Mother she served was killed as a symbolic stripping of her powers. Heretics are also branded with a forehead marking showing a stitched-shut eye that may be combined with one of these.
  • Homestuck:
    • Tavros Nitram has zero backbone to stand up to the bullies that abuse him. In short, he has no backbone, largely because a bully threw him off a cliff and paralyzed him.
    • During the Cycle of Revenge where she maims several heroes, Vriska loses her left arm and eye. The injuries are significant both because they emphasize her left side (i.e., her evil side) and identify her with Jack Noir, an Omnicidal Maniac from another storyline who had the same injuries.
  • In The Order of the Stick, Redcloak losing his eye could be seen as an ironic mutilation, because now he looks like his dead brother Right-Eye, who opposed the very actions that brought this mutilation about. Or, played straighter: he lost an eye for being blinded to said character's advice. That said, he also mentions it as an inspiration to be more pragmatic in his villainy.
    "What I have lost in depth perception, I have gained in perspective."

    Western Animation 
  • Adventure Time: Distant Lands: The special "Obsidian" has Marceline helping the Glass Kingdom against a dragon, with an arc about how she hides her vulnerabilities. One of the main glass characters is mocked by his peers for having a large crack on his face. As it turns out, all the glass people have hidden cracks, the same way that everyone has "damage" that they want to hide. Even the monster hides a scar on its face, which comes with the reveal that it's a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds.
  • Gravity Falls: A variation that becomes more meaningful minutes later. In "Dreamscaperers", Bill Cipher uses a laser to make a hole in Dipper's dream body. Later, when Dipper finds a memory about Grunkle Stan apparently calling him a loser, Dipper loses motivation of stopping Bill Cipher from invading Stan's mind (he has a metaphorical hole in his heart). It turns out that the whole memory, one revisited by Dipper, is Stan explaining the reason for his treatment of Dipper: be stronger so he can fight against the world. Alongside it, Stan personally heals Dipper's hole (as in, refills his heart).
  • Tangled: The Series: Cassandra attempts to snap Rapunzel out of the Reverse Incantation, but gets her hand burnt for her trouble. She then has to learn how to fight with her nondominant hand. The wound represents the way Cassandra feels she's always having to sacrifice herself, including parts of her identity, for Rapunzel who never appreciates it. This leads into her doing a Face–Heel Turn, after which said hand is covered with blue rock armor, as though it's a reminder of the last time she fruitlessly tried to help someone only to get hurt.
  • Winx Club: In "The Crystal Labyrinth", three of the Winx are required to prove if they'd sacrifice what's most valuable to them in exchange for obtaining the Water Stars. In Stella's case, she loses her beauty, with her face getting disfigured. This symbolizes how Stella thinks people only love her for her looks and not for who she really is. Combined with her fear of being alone, for her, giving up her beauty means that everyone will abandon her. Also, she does enjoy pampering herself and being a Dude Magnet. With this, she finishes her Character Arc of self-love.