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Saturday, 29 March 2014

B!tch Please: An Argument Against Token Female Warriors

Hello hello!

I seem to be on a character development kick, and we're bringing it back to feminism once again this week. People seem to like these, so I hope it gives you guys something to chew over in the next book you read, movie you watch, or creative work you produce. This week, I want to talk about a new trend that seems to be the counter-answer to princess culture: warrior girlz. Note the zed. There are also...


...for a whole bunch of movies, but none of them are less than several months old. Mulan, Tangled, Frozen, Brave, How to Train Your Dragon, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Alice in Wonderland are all getting mentioned, so beyond this point, deal with it.

Context: What got the ball rolling

I was watching Mulan earlier this week, and man, does it ever stand up well. Sure, it activated Nostalgia Mode and I pretty much ended up belting out "Be a Man", interrupting my editing flow, but it was still great. There's a lot of great stuff on gender performance and normativity that the movie examines really well.

 I've gone on the record as being a fan of Frozen, but I agree--that, Tangled, and Brave all have this intense discomfort with their female characters. I love that Kristoff never once mentions that Anna might not be able to do something because she's a girl--it's that she's untrained with the mountains that earns his ire. (And the bloggers who object to him calling her 'fiestypants'....really? Not exactly an offensive nickname there, guys.) People complained that she didn't do as much as Rapunzel, but not everyone has to be an intellectual---Anna's clearly physically active and strong, and would probably be a jock if she grew up in our time, and that's fine. However, the cutesy character designs are, well, a bit over the top. Brave was fun, but the painful and strained GIRLS CAN TOTALLY DO STUFF OKAY tone and the awkward SHE'LL TOTALLY MARRY EVENTUALLY thing at the end of the movie wrecked it for me. And Tangled...I'm sorry, I just can't forgive the movie for having its female protag invent astronomy, teach herself about art, and wield a frying pan while she does acrobatics...and kinda shove all that aside, because oh my goodness, boyfriend! I get that she's lonely, but that was The Little Mermaid-level bad.

Now measure that against Mulan. A girl who can pass for a guy, has more game than her intended romantic partner but who *doesn't* marry him at the end of the movie, develops confidence in herself, and above all, trains hard before she kicks ass? Great personal journey, and one that really holds up, along with the gorgeous animation. I'm not a 2-D-will-always-be-better-than-3-D person, but there's something to say for the lovely details in this movie. It's got the montage, sure, but Mulan still does a lot of work outside of that, and it's impressive.

Comparison: Aye, there's the rub

Now we get into less comfortable territory. I was watching a review of Alice in Wonderland--the Burton version--and I noticed a strong similarity to Snow White and the Huntsman. Combined with something I was editing, I noticed an ugly parallel. Many critics complained about Alice's takedown of the Jabberwocky. I actually liked AiW, for all its flaws, but the review brought a bunch of them to light. And honestly? I agree with the critics now. Not unlike in SWatH, our insipid and dull heroine gets a sword and armour and defeats the baddy with minimal effort...after no training or work whatsoever.

I love warrior women. Brienne of Tarth, Arya Stark, and Asha Greyjoy were my favorite characters in Game of Thrones. Joan of Arc? Personal inspiration. Athena? My favorite goddess when I studied Greek mythology as a kid. Boudicea? My go-to reference when I'm angry, if I don't think of The Morrigan first. And yes, Xena is awesome, but you don't need me to mention that.

The thing is, all of these women did things the hard way. So did Mulan. The challenge is part of the story. So slapping on the boob plate and just defeating the antagonist cheaply is...well...almost as bad as princess culture, really. Andrey, aka Disarcade, aka the boyfriend, pointed out that boys have been getting the easy-win treatment for years, so I guess it's progress from that perspective. But I have to admit, I don't like it. Playing dress-up in armour and weaponry is an improvement, I guess, over pink frilly stuff, but is it really? Snow White and Alice are boring as hell and only token-assertive, and these roles are still pretty heteronormative and cis-normative (meaning that they confirm gender roles and identity as they currently exist). I haven't seen non-white girls get the roles, either, but the trope is young. Standing up for yourself or for others involves fighting, and people don't just part like the Red Sea the minute you stop accepting what you're told. (Please, ask me how I know.) Hell, even in Lord of the Rings, Eowyn just puts on armour and rides forth like it ain't no thang. Arguably she at least had context for maybe having some skills, but the other two?


How do we fix it? 

This is really, really easy. Show some pushback. Create more diversity in the girls elevated to warrior stance. A little age diversity wouldn't hurt either, because life doesn't end when you turn thirty. Above all else, show some effort and give the girls (and people) some personality. A character needs to have a personality when you decontextualize them. What can you say about a character apart from describing their actions? Mulan, for example, is brave, obedient, Lawful Good, and struggles to handle people's expectations. She's compassionate and very patient, but isn't a vanilla cake of sweetness or neurotic. I'll give Disney this--I can at least describe the personalities of all the girls in the cartoons I just described. (Rapunzel, for the record, deserved a better movie; I've omitted Tiana from the lineup because I wouldn't say gender performance or norms are as much of a thing in her movie, though Naveen certainly learns to respect women more as a result of exposure to her.) Snow White? Alice? I guess they...exist? That's about as far as their characterization goes. Guy characters tend to be 'cool' or 'nerdy' (because the 90s never died, I guess), and problems are similar, but the ladies generally get the shaft in characterization and tend to be weaker to boot.

So, there you have it. Make sure your character is a person, and if they become a fierce warrior or something like that, make sure they have to work for it. Now, let's get down to business...!

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 


  1. "The thing is, all of these women did things the hard way. So did Mulan. The challenge is part of the story." <- Love this line! Great article.

    By the way, frying pans are the best weapon invented, ever. (Check out other movies and you will find they are frequently used as weapons. Whenever we see one used as a weapon in a movie, new or old, my husband and I look at one another and one of us will always say, "Frying pans! Who knew?") ;)

  2. Thanks! Feel free to share it. :D And I completely agree; the humble frying pan is super underrated.


As always, be excellent unto others, and don't be a dick.