Sep 20, 2010

Warrior Women: A Guest Post by Jodie

Today’s guest post is by one of my very favourite bloggers, Jodie from Book Gazing. I love Jodie for her willingness to both speak up and listen, as well as for her insightful and thoughtful posts on everything from books to social issues to popular culture. A new post from Jodie never fails to make me happy, both because a) I know it’ll both entertain me and make me think and b) she always makes me feel better about my own tendency to write lots and lots of words. I particularly love this post of Jodie’s on female characters, which deals with some of the same questions I’ve wondered about aloud before, and I’m proud to share it with you today.

Warrior Women: A Guest Post by Jodie

My love for fictional female warriors is everlasting. I chase after any television series that promises to be the next Buffy, or any book that claims hints of Alana. When I was a teenager I got hooked on Xena. Right now I’m mainlining Firefly, marvelling at Zoe Washburne. As long as people keep writing women who fight I’ll be following them around with a bloodthirsty, glazed expression, shouting ‘Finish it!’.

However, expressing my love for female characters who stab and slash can be complicated. By becoming warriors, fictional female fighters discard traditional notions of what a woman should and should not be, for example conventionally women are not expected to be aggressive, physically strong, or interested in warfare. They then show that they are capable of excelling in areas that women are conventionally assumed to be less adept at, like strangling people with their bare hands. With this in mind the fictional female warrior, becomes a prominent symbol for female power and feminism. Hurray, strong women who frame themselves outside traditional ideas of what women should be = feminism.

It’s never that simple is it? Our ideas about feminist behaviour are forever changing and as our ideas about feminism alter, our ideas about a potent fictional feminist icon, like female warrior characters, will inevitably shift. Ideas about feminism don’t change in a linear, universal, or permanent way. Instead interpretations spring up side by side, ideas change, then change back. We all try really hard to respect the contributions of the past without compromising our own ideas. Working out how a new generation of female warrior characters fit in with both old and new ideas about female strength becomes as complex and as rewarding as hashing out ideas on feminism itself.

Let me briefly describe an alternate theory to the women + swords = emancipation sum. When female characters are described as strong, there’s a good chance they’ve been written with a weapon in their hand and a gleaming set of muscles. Warrior women are primarily seen as strong female characters because of their physical strength. This association between the strength of a women and increased physical strength can be problematic, because it stems from what men perceive as strong and physical strength is traditionally thought of as male. While I’m busy watching Buffy, saying ‘Hurray for women being physically strong, it seems very useful to be able to heft a sword’, I can’t help but hear a rumbling that reflects that statement back as ‘Hurray for women finally realising that the only way to have strength is to adopt the a male form of strength, physical strength’. So female warrior characters set up the default for women’s strength, but it’s a default that conforms to male ideas of strength. Women + swords = conformity. The maths comes out wrong.

The idea that a physically strong female character is just acting like a man is a theory that I personally reject. I believe physical strength isn’t a male characteristic, it’s a non-gendered characteristic that many women have been socially encouraged to repress. Just because a female character kicks arse, doesn’t mean she’s acting like a man. In fact, that assertion sounds like basic anti-feminism to me. While I disagree with that idea, I find myself troubled by the idea that a female character taking on the kind of strength traditionally associated with a man keeps people from recognising alternative kinds of strength, for example emotional strength. It’s not the female characters fault, it’s not the authors fault, it’s just that society general associates strength with traditionally male actions like fighting. Generally a female character is going to be praised as strong if she fights, rather than if she exhibits emotional strength. Oh, unless she’s stoic, society really loves to characterise stoicism as strength. I can’t control the way other people view strength (secretly works on mind control helmets). There’s nothing I can do about this except alternate between going arrrgggghhh and hoping for the best.

Personally, I like to see people who write female warriors make effective use of what might traditionally be thought of as female emotion. Again I believe that having a capacity for emotion and listening are non-gendered personality traits, just like physical strength, in fact I think they’re some of the greatest emotional strengths a human being can possess. However, traditionally emotional feeling has been linked with the female sex. I like to see authors give importance to things like listening (even if it leads to trickery) being emotionally open (even if it leads to trickery) and most importantly not just killing people because you have a very sharp sword. If someone is going to write a female warrior I want her to be physically strong and emotionally strong and by emotionally strong I don’t mean hard, or unbending. I do want female warriors to be able to make tough decisions, but how tough can a decision be if a warrior character never connects emotionally with other people?

Now, because expressing emotion is generally thought of by society as a female trait, not a male trait and ‘maleness’ is often viewed as the default for awesome, these character traits that I want could be construed by others as gendered weakness. They could, in some peoples minds, illustrate why a woman doesn’t make as cool of a warrior character as a man. People who want to defend the female warrior character from scrutiny might say female characters emotions should be suppressed to prevent female warrior characters from appearing less exciting, or weaker than male warriors who would never let emotions obscure their vital need to slash, smash, kill, buuuuurn.

In my opinion, when a female warrior is created with emotions it doesn’t make her less warrior like, or weak, even if these emotions sometimes complicate the effectiveness of her killing. It makes her a conflicted human being. Giving a male warrior character the ability to express confusing emotions would make a male warrior a conflicted human being too. The problem is, not that many years ago anyone calling for female warriors to be kept emotionless to increase their appeal and validate them as warriors might have been on to something. If an author had written a female warrior who sat down and talking to her enemies instead of breaking their bones, that might have been construed as female warriors not being as awesome and capable as male warrior heroes. As far as we’ve come, female warriors who feel might still be responded to in this way.

Remember that sci-fi brouhaha last year which basically said that sci-fi is suffering from increased feminisation and (among other reasons) this is bad because girls aren’t as cool as boys. The guy who voiced that opinion would not like female warrior characters like Buffy, who feel and have relationships and he would find people who support his views. You can see why people would search for ways to head off this criticism. I can’t bring myself to reject the more simplistic female warrior character, who discards all feeling, because it’s tough to be a warrior woman in book world.

Following female warrior characters can be complex. Creating them must be a joyous nightmare. Everything about them is kind of bloodily wonderful. What’s my final solution for how to create the perfect female warrior? Well, looking back at what I’ve written it seems to be:
  1. Make her a physically strong human being
  2. Stick your fingers in your ears when people give gendered meaning to parts of her personality
Did I really just spend over 1,000 words to end up saying I want female characters who fight to be human beings. Yes, yes I believe I did. Let me leave you (what took me so long) with a list of book full of female warriors, some I’ve read and loved so hard, some I’m desperate to get hold on. Happy reading:
  • Silver Phoenix – Cindy Pon
  • Bleeding Violet – Dia Reeves
  • Devil’s Kiss – Sarwat Chadda
  • Alanna The First Adventure – Tamora Pierce
  • Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle – Manda Scott
  • Warrior Queens – Antonia Fraser
  • Graceling – Kristen Kashore
  • The Pirate Queen – Diana Norman
  • The Carhullan Army – Sarah Hall
  • Amazon Ink – Lori Devoti
  • The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  • Leviathan – Scott Westerfield




  2. Can you believe I haven't read any of the books you listed? Your post really makes me want to go out and read them though. There is something about female warriors in popular culture that is a turn off for me, I'm not sure why, maybe it is because the one book I have read that featured them was self-published and equated woman with sword far too easily with an author who clearly only thought of such woman as sex objects..

  3. Great post! I remember fretting about this quite a lot when I was fifteen or sixteen and just getting over writing really nauseating Mary-Sue fantasy heroines. What I've eventually decided is that a perception of strength comes from a character's competence, in one area or another. If a character is dependably able to get things done in her area of expertise, I'll mostly think of her as a strong character, whether her area of expertise is traditionally male or female. But of course there are still all these gender-stereotype landmines to dance around. Society makes things so difficult sometimes.

  4. Reading your post brought to mind Cashore's 'Graceling' which is see on your list at the end:) I love reading fantasy but one of my main gripes is the role of women in fantasy fiction which tends to be a variation on one of the three: virgin, mother or prostitute (something that doesn't seem to have changed throughout the ages.) They seem to be be less complex than most of the male characters. But I live in hope;)

  5. Fantastic post! I'm a bit in love with Zoe too...and other female warriors.

  6. I've not thought a lot about this (though strong female character has started to annoy me since we never say strong male character) and I wonder if it's because I'm not much of a fantasy reader? I love Buffy and I loved The Hunger Games but I haven't read any of those other books.
    But I do agree that I prefer characters that are human...that a strong character of either gender to me is one who feels real and who battles their natural weaknesses to try to do the right thing as they perceive it.

  7. I've read only two of the listed books so I really must get my hands on more. I love this post and you make some great points. It's not just the female characters who suffer, but also the men who suffer because the male characters don't show emotions thus leading the men to think showing emotions is bad. Let's just have all of them portrayed as humans :D

  8. Great post! There are so many of those books that I want to read. I've only read The Hunger Games. I really want to check out Graceling. Thanks!

  9. I've only read two of these (Collins and Pierce) but have two others waiting (Fraser and Scott). If you haven't already got Mary Gentle's Ash in mind, you might want to have a look at it as it seems you might appreciate her epic tale.

  10. I'm definitely going to have to read more of the books on your list b/c I have enjoyed several and also come from the Buffy and Firefly school of female characters.

    I think the first step in making stronger female characters was having girls in stories who took action to solve their own problems instead of sitting around waiting to be rescued(I'm looking at you, Snow White), whether as a warrior or in other ways.

    I also find it interesting that one of the ways writers seem to be working to keep the "femininity" of many female warrior characters is to cast them in the mama bear / protector role. In the Hunger Games, it's fine for District 2 characters to battle for battle's sake, but Katniss fights for her sister, Rue, Peeta, etc.

  11. I agree that a perception of strength comes from competence. It can come almost purely from size, too. As a fit-looking almost-six-foot woman for most of my life, I've fought a lot of subtle little battles--especially with guys in physical-strength-dominated professions like furniture mover. I wonder if we could extend the woman warrior label to include characters like Cody in Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams, who has to fight some perceptions of her self which are based entirely too much on the physical. That might incorporate the too-beautiful main character from Cashore's second book, too.

  12. What an amazing post! I'm a Buffy, Alias, Bionic Woman and Firefly fan, but have read hardly any books with female warrior characters. I have The Carhullan Army waiting for it's turn, though. Maybe I should take a look at some of the other books you mentioned, too.


  13. This post, in addition to being informative and interesting, made me laugh. Female characters are a lot like real females - complicated.

  14. Great post! As a writer, I think about this an awful lot. I haven't much to add, really; your two closing points pretty well sum it up, so far as I'm concerned. :)

  15. Wow, what a post Jodie. I'm going over to your blog right now to check out what other treasures are on there. :-) I totally agree with you about physical strength in women... And I love Buffy and characters like her too. At the moment I'm hooked on Veronica Mars, not a warrior but boy is she cool! :-)

  16. I didn't know whether to reply to comments but then I saw Jenny had the same dilemma and decided to jump in:

    Renay ok so I read that comment at work and I actually beamed. Yay I'm so glad you liked it. I was so nervy going after your excellent post!

    irisonbooks I know those kind of books - they're like Xena without the feminism, not interested.

    Jenny I really like that idea of looking for competence, it makes so much sense to adopt it personally but then we run up against the world and we have to start the discussion form scratch. Frustrating.

    chasingbawa so many prostitute characters in fantasy I agree, but I have a soft spot for the prostitute character in all form of entertainment as problematic as they can be. 'Silver Phoenix' is fantasy and the heroine fits none of those roles (I mean she's a virgin, but she's not all 'oh noes sechxual attraction must be resisted') so maybe you might find what you're looking for there.

    Trisha isn't Zoe kick ass?! No idea why I put off watching Firefly for so long.

    Amy ugh I know like weak is the default setting for women. I'm trying to break myself of that habit. It's hard to find female warriors outside of fantasy or sci-fi, but there are some great example in historical fiction (Boudicca). You have just described Ai Ling from Silver Phoenix. She is so scared when she starts her journey and she hasn't been brought up as a warrior, but she picks up and goes to find her father despite and the monsters that seems to be stalking her.

  17. Amy I agree let's have everyone portrayed as complex human beings. Unfortunately (or fortunately, sometimes this is a great thing) writers are always reacting to society, so general society really needs to give up gendering personality traits to help change what a strong female character looks like or authors are going to find it really hard to move forward with female warrior characters.

    Amanda I hope you find something you enjoy :)

    Buried in Print just been to check out Ash and it looks pretty cool. Thanks for the recommendation.

    TexasRed that's a really interesting thought. I'll be looking out for warrior mama bears in books from now on. Not sure how I feel about that actually. I'd love to see more warrior mothers like Briar from 'Boneshaker', but casting none mother characters into the role of alternative female nurturer - eh, I think that familial protectiveness is a fine personality trait to give to female warriors as long as it doesn't become a dominant characterisation that sweeps away female warrior characters who fight to save the whole wide world because it's right to do so. Like I said it's complicated and we need multiple versions of the female warrior to be around to remind us that there's no easy, or right answer.

    Jeanne I think I had Antonia Fraser's definition of warrior queen in the back of my mind when I was writing this post - queens who physically fought and led troops in battle (excluding that formidable queen Victoria among others). But yes we could absolutely have female warriors AND female fighters who are maybe not called on to use their physical strength, but must fight subtle battles because their capability and physical apperance cause people to take against them. Great point, I love when definitions expand.

    Tiina I miss Buffy so much, it was a great program. And maybe you were a Dark Angel fan once too? The Carhullan Army is fabtastic and the dystpoian world is so convincingly chilling. Can't recommend it enough.

    Jessica I think that's what makes female warriors so intriguing, there are so many dimensions and possibilities to each new female warrior character. Fascinating!

    Memory when there are muliple valid ways to go with a character type, but each way has its individual pit falls I bet it is murder trying to choose a path for your character when you're a writer. Good luck!

    joanne I love Veronic Mars! I will follow Kristen Bell through pretty much anything she does - oh if only she and Silar could have worked it out in Heroes!

  18. I read this post with great interest and recognise the dilemmas you so feelingly discuss. I wholeheartedly agree with the call for complex characters, whether male or female. We know that acting violently comes at a price - we know that soldiers, for instance, suffer from PTSD. I'm very dubious about fictionalised violence (as in many films) where the hero OR heroine kills or maims without any apparent emotional penalty. Or qualms. If I may mention one of my own books, "Troll Blood" is a serious exploration of violence - what do you do when you meet the charismatic hero with the sword and he turns out to be someone you really, really wouldn't want to have live nearby? What do you do if you don't have a sword of your own and don't know how to fight? How can you stand up to these people? And no, the answer isn't 'employ the Magnificent Seven'...


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.