GLADIATRIX: "Gladia-what?!" - Female Gladiator
Updated: Aug 25
When I wrote my Persephone novel, I had originally planned it to be a one-off.
Hahahahahahahahaha…this is me we’re talking about. You know, the gal who wrote the first draft of “My Gladiator Book” from the age of seventeen until the night of my thirtieth birthday. I just wrote it….eh, ‘cause I wanted to. More like because I couldn’t NOT. In 2010, after almost two decades in the Writer’s Closet, I finally started toying with the idea of publishing it. Upon researching how such a thing was done, I discovered that I had not written a book.
I had written a monstrous series about this warrioress who has been with me since I was in second grade.
In my child’s memory, I see myself with my parents watching the 1982 TV miniseries Marco Polo. A dramatic scene plays out on that grainy screen, and I can still feel my reaction to it. The two stars of that scene would forever change my life: a pair of gladiators.
"Gladiators?!" you splutter. "What in blazes were gladiators and a Roman amphitheater doing in a miniseries about a 13th Century Venetian merchant in the Mongol court?!"
That had always made me raise my eyebrow in confusion, too.
The answer is: they weren't. A few years ago, I got my hands on that miniseries and pored through all eight hours, hunting for the pivotal scene. It’s not there. Of course it’s not there. I can’t imagine that even the 80s writers would have gotten it that wrong. My child’s mind has doubtlessly mashed up that miniseries with one of the gazillion sword-n-sandal numbers we used to watch all the time during that same era. No matter. The important thing is what that scene did to me.
Because one of these gladiators was a gladiatrix.
The protagonist of my monstrous series is currently raising one of her own eyebrows and giving me The Look. “The suffix ‘tor’ is masculine,” Ishavanni states. “I am a gladiatrix.”
No, Isha. You are THE Gladiatrix. 😘
If you’re not a fiction writer, you might not be aware that some of us have literal conversations in our heads with our characters. They also talk back. Ohhhhhh, do some of them talk back. If you’re gonna stick around here, you just need to go with it.
And yes, Ishavanni is the character who has inherited my expressive eyebrows. Okay, fine. Technically, she inherited them from her father who inherited them from me. During character creation, we sprinkle all these traits around between our protagonists, villains, and beloved sidekicks.
Thank all the Gods for Hero Machine. Since I can't draw my way out of the Bog of Eternal Stench, I eventually got to do some groovy character, armor, and costume design by using this handy program. For those of you who don't know the shenanigans to which I subject my she-ro, Isha has just a little difficulty convincing certain key individuals that A) yes, she really is a female, B) she really is capable of fighting, C) string-bikini type costumes don't do so well in combat, and D) she is far more than just a fighter.
Isha's Costume Design: scan right for the full array
So back to my second-grade self gawking at this sword-n-sandal scene. Because this woman on the screen wasn’t cat-fighting another female for titillation and diversion between the “real” fights. There was no pulling hair. There was no screeching or furious T-Rex slapping. There were simply two armored combatants, one male and one female, duking it out in the arena.
She kicked his ass, and that changed everything for me.
Up until that point, my she-roes had consisted of Laura Ingalls, Jana of the Jungle, Princess Leia, and Wonder Woman.
As we’ve discussed, I loved Laura’s spunk and ingenuity, but I really wanted to be running around in the woods, defeating villains like Jana did. I also wanted a tiger or panther or jaguar. Or else I wanted to be the tiger. I really-really wanted a necklace I could throw as a circular weapon. (Xena Warrior Princess wouldn’t come along until my final months of college, well after I’d written several books worth of my gladiatrix, or guaranteed I would have wanted her charkram, too. And her armor. And her badassery. And…)
As a little girl, I used Johnny’s yellow ring-frisbee as my makeshift throwy-necklace. He was always my jaguar, although he did do a quick cameo as Father whenever we reenacted the opening boat scene.
Johnny would reach for my hand and fail to pull me back in as I “drowned” my way off the ten-foot long propane tank in the Anderson’s backyard to glub-glub my way across the lawn.
I played Jana all the time, no matter if Johnny was around or not. Like as not, if it was summer I could often be found skulking through the jungle (the woods at the end of our road), hunting food and lost father, building shelter, and avoiding the Enemy (the teenagers who tormented us when they came out to drink stashed beer, smoke, and do other ne’er-do-well, teenagerly activities). Many a time, I watched them from the safety of the brush, undiscovered as I sat in breathless stillness. The only movement came from my catly eyes tracking them as they caroused past.
Alas, Jana's jaguar and 1970s chakram were not terribly replicate-able in the practical sense. Ring-frisbees, after all, were not good protection against very real enemies who liked to put their hands on other people and make them do things against their will.
Laura Ingalls' primary weapons were the ones I already possessed: her mind and her pen. Alas, against real-life villains, those had proven less potent than beaning somebody in the head with that frisbee would have been. I guess I could swear by her pretty-floral bonnet that I could and would strangle dastardly-doers with those bonnet strings. (I had a replica.) But I simply did not want to carry a broom or a cast iron skillet as my weapons, except for emergency. The kitchen carving knife, although flashy, wasn’t nearly glamorous enough. (If my career as a belly dancer hasn’t clued you in about my propensity for glamour, I cannot help you.)
Leia was certainly glamorous enough, but she was out of my reach. She traveled by spaceship, fired a laser gun, and she was a princess, which I absolutely, unequivocally was not. Princesses, if you remember, were pretty and rich and had long, flowy hair. I had been cursed with the 70s boy-bowl-cut and handmade clothes that matched my doll clothes--a fact which, as an adult, warms my ever-lovin’ heart. But as a kid in small-town Minnesota?
Kiss of death.
Plus, I have to admit, I was more attached to lightsabers than blasters--so uncivilized--but I'd only ever seen the guys wield those. I also really wanted a cloak like villains wore, and Leia definitely didn't have one of those.
All my Pretty was limited to the sparkly, purple-and-gold rickrack trim on my double-knit shirt. The cutest parts about me were the patches my mom appliquéd onto the knees of my worn out pants from all that skulking, gardening, and sandboxing. As a kid, that kind of boxing was as close to being a fighter as I was ever going to get, but a girl has dreams. Especially the geekiest, shyest, most sensitive girl--read: crybaby--in the neighborhood.
That left Wonder Woman, and Diana is…well, she’s another pretty princess. I also was quite bereft of invisible jets, glowing lassos, or Amazon training. So when I watched a dark-haired, dark-eyed, average-Jane pick up a sword in the Roman arena and face down her bigger, badder male opponent--and win--my universe was forever altered.
Protecting myself, my loved ones, and the things I stood for against foes suddenly became an obtainable reality. All I had to do was become a gladiatrix!
Just one problem. I lived in a teensy town in northern Minnesota in the 70s and early 80s. And oh, yeah. I was still a girl, and girls were supposed to be nice. Especially Minnesota girls. Little Minnesota-Nice girls weren’t supposed to walk into dojos and train. Not like that had ever stopped me. Being the only girl who played floor hockey on Free-Day Fridays could attest to that. But out in the sticks, there weren’t any dojos to be found. We didn’t even have access to formal dance training like my cousin did in the “big city.” Even if there had been karate schools, and even if they'd taught children, my parents didn’t have the money to send me. If they'd had the money, guaranteed it would have gone toward dance, so learning to be a gladiatrix?
You're funny, kid.
As such, weapons training was not destined to enter my world until I was twenty-two, lived in the “big city” myself, and traveled to places like Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago, and the boon-sticks of North Dakota.
Go with it. You’ll understand soon.
Until then, I dreamed of this warrior woman of the sands, and I bided my time in that same K-12 school with those same people, weathering storms until they moved away or moved on. Eventually, I was able to as well.
By the time I left home for college, I had written the initial fight scene between my disguised gladiatrix and her bigger, badder male opponent. It had been published in an anthology for high school students in my eleventh grade year, and then I forgot about it. Between my sophomore and junior year of college, I rediscovered that short story, transformed it into fantasy, and I added to it.
And added and added.
Ishavanni became my secret she-ro who did and said all the things I wished I could do (in addition to a bunch of stuff I didn't actually want to do, but hey...Isha is the Giant Slayer, and gladiators gotta gladiate...and occasionally decapitate). Sometimes Isha hates me for the consequences I bring down on her head. To this day, her problems are mine and mine are hers. She is a distinctive individual from me, but I still have to laugh when I write something and then I later find myself living it.
She is still teaching me how to protect myself and how to navigate my world with more bravery than I would have ever believed I could learn. She teaches me how to fight for the life I want to create and how to fight for what I believe in.
And…well, she’s darn fun to write.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: TWISTED HISTORY & MYTH - Adventures in World-Building
--OR: if you missed the other protagonists and a whole bunch of villains who inspired my impressionable self, I have an entire series about that.
--OR: if you're interested in my first experience stepping onto a karate mat, you can learn HOW BODY PAINTING GONE WRONG LED ME TO THE DOJO