VIOLENT FEMMES - The Warrior/Princess Binary
Updated: Sep 20
--A YIN-YANG RABBIT HOLE - If you haven't read this sex, language & violence content warning with its (non)binary discussion of the Feminine & Masculine polarity, I suggest you do before reading any more of this series. If you skip it...well...you've been warned.
--THE INCONCEIVABLE - ASSumptions About the Gladiatrix
--"WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO READ" THEY SAID - So I Do
--FANTASY, ROMANCE, ACTION & SEX - Not Mortal Combatants
--ROMANCE *IS* FANTASY - Childish Dreams vs. Heroic Aspirations
Photo by Dennis Nejtek
...Treating someone you love in a tender, respectful, intimate way while retaining the capacity to stand up and whupp some ass about the important things is only nonexistent or unrealistic--just pure fantasy--as long as we write it off as such. And as long as we keep writing stories that divvy up these things as Girl Stuff and Boy Stuff.
The same is true of disparaging any characters or people who have emotional reactions as "pussies"...
Personally, I'm very, very, verrrrry tired of the (white) American Monomyth (1) no matter who is center-front on the cover. I do not care if we have started plugging people with clitorises or People of Color or Trans people into this Hollywood variant on Joseph Campbell's classic Hero's Journey. (2) I do not care that every other tale stars a Representation Matters protagonist of whichever trendy flavor is this month's pet project. That's fine. It's actually great, and I care quite rabidly about the representation itself. It's a step in the right direction.
But too often it's still the same ole rhythm, and it's what people keep expecting to see when they hear that I've written about a gladiatrix.
As described by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence in their book, The American Monomyth:
"A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity."
"A gladiatrix? Ohhh...so you're writing Maxima Does In the Emperor. No? Oh, then it's gotta be Spartaca Revolts. Oh, wait. She doesn't die at the end? In other words, you're writing toga-punk Hunger Games?"
Yessish? And at the same time...a very big, resounding NO.
Star Wars, Firefly, Avatar: Last Airbender, Xena, Spartacus, and The 100 spoilers ahoy!
After so many decades of the American Monomyth, after so many disappointing character arcs for badass female protagonists I adore, and after so many years of battling sexism in workplaces, social scenarios, romance, martial arts, and writing in the Fantasy genre, I'll tell you what I'm tired of seeing for female fighter protagonists.
I don't want mine to have to:
Die a martyr's Boudicca/Spartacus death because the penis-heavy Imperialist odds are too stacked against her. (3) That's history. I write fantasy.
Possess superpowers to make her martial competence less threatening to the status quo.
Endlessly tromp, swear, stuff her tears, and shwing the biggest schwartz out there to maintain her honorary Dick Card.
Admit she really was a lesbian after all because it's one of the only "safe" ways that too many readers can accept her martial prowess.
Cater to the "safe" heterosexual variation by choosing men with an abundance of Anima (you know, those "soft, weak, effeminate pussies" who will serve and obey and lick her boots, because she shrivels "real" men's dicks--I mean, because she's too much of a bitch for any "twue" man to wanna put up with).
Wear the domineering pants of her romantic relationships because the idea of someone like her finding love in a balanced dynamic is as Inconceivable as the notion that she could defeat a martially competent male in combat.
Harden herself into that meaningless hookup/conquest shell that goes with her big dick--I mean, the sword she wields because "quality men" can't see her as a "quality woman" worthy of longterm intimate connection and love.
Hang up her armor and sword forever, so that she can finally have love, romance, sex and babies. (Because babies never need protecting. Pfffft. That's what Da Menz iz for, even after the third-trimester-waddling is done.)
Be relegated to that classic bullshit of plot armor on account of her boobies--"Ohhhh, we could never show her be injured, scarred, punched in the face, etc."--in other words, we can't truly fear for her unless she faces Pure Sadistic Evil, because she's a girl and any character who "beats up a little girl" is irredeemable, unconscionable and a big, bad meanie who must die!
Settle for a love interest who doesn’t truly and fully blow her skirts up because he’s not her energetic equal but...well, there's nobody else who would ever put up with her, so it's milksop meh or else...
Wind up alone, un-partnered, sexless and childless when that's not what she wants for herself.
Watch her beloved die a sacrificial or tragic death because Romance novels and the Heroic American Monomyth are mortal enemies. There can be only one: a female can be EITHER romantic OR heroic. (Even that "safe" lesbian or pants-wearin' thing can't topple this trope. Zoe & Wash, Gabrielle & Xena, Clarke & Lexa all get the romantic shaft. Do we have to kill off Asami and Caitlin next?) (4)
Become a hardened, embittered, emotionless, sexless Ice Queen to prove that she's become "strong" and therefore worthy of her place of power. (5)
Randomly go genocidally psychotic on innocents because women are "too fragile" for power (or dragons) and eventually we'll all snap under the pressure. (5)
Die in childbirth after "losing the will to live" because she's disintegrated into an indecisive, dick-whipped, simpering baby-mama. After all, the notion of giving birth to her unborn children and raising them wouldn't provoke a hint of Mama Bear. Oh, no, instead she forgets that she once wielded weapons, was a political powerhouse, scaled fortresses, ruled a Royal House, and cleverly survived the arena but Baby Daddy was a jerk, she's had sex now and gotten pregnant so...*cue hysterical female syndrome* (6)
Nope. No embittered she-ro heartbreak over here at all.
Definitely no embittered heartbreak over personally being pigeonholed into what these tropes teach us about female fighters, women in power, strong females, and romantic connection with them either.
Let it be known:
Women who are attracted to non-males
People born with vaginas who don't identify as female or only female
Assertive badass women who wear the pants and swoon for softer or even effeminate men
Women who are naturally cool, succinct, cerebral, and asexual or celibate
Women who are so in love with someone that losing them breaks them utterly
Women who love to party and sample as many different sexy flavors as humanly possible
Women who never lose the urge to tromp, swear, and be One of the Boys until the day they die
I have no problem with a single one of these types of people in their naturally occurring presentations. Nature loves variety.
My problem is when those types become stereotypes used as a shielding or sidestepping mechanism for sexist pigeonholing, exclusion, and squirm-avoidance.
I have as much issue with stereotyping the "Strong Female Character" as I do with stereotyping the "Damsel in Distress." Do I believe that every female who doesn't take it upon herself to learn physical combat, or who doesn't stand up with her fist raised and roar about what matters to her is weak? Certainly not. There are a gazillion versions of how to be strong, just like there are a gazillion ways to be feminine.
I also have no issue with characters or people who are soft-spoken, gentle, peace-loving, unassuming, delicate, nurturing, and timid. I don't even despise the Damsel in Distress trope.
Do you find that shocking?
Let me show you why.
As usual, we'll allow one of my favorite YouTubers (10) who is passionately obsessed with dissecting story elements--in this case, tropes--to say it much more descriptively yet succinctly than I ever could:
So...yeah. Hells yeah!
The raging warrior woman, the sweet non-combative princess, and everyone in between: all can be damseled and distressed. All can be strong and badass. All can be the one who saves the day, as can any character of any gender, skill set, or personality type.
Yes. Even the most manly of manly men (in tights or otherwise) can be damseled or even distressed, and it does not automatically require a revocation of his Dick Card.
Yet there is still so much discomfort surrounding females who reach out to enjoy the same freedoms, rights, powers, privileges and pleasures that have been classically reserved for males, or men who reach out to enjoy emotional freedoms, being comforted, and expressing their gentle sides.
I swear, the Trans and Non-Binary communities have it right. PEOPLE. Just let us BE as we are, wherever we fall on these spectrums. Because these outdated gender roles are unhealthy.
Today we're specifically addressing an arena that has long been considered the exclusive domain of the Masculine: protecting and defending, especially when it's taken to a physical fight. I find this ridiculous. Who would you rather stumble upon in the woods? Daddy Bear? Or Mama Bear?
The natural Fight Response in so many human female populations has been stifled, attacked, dismantled, and made out to be myth for millennia. The idea is to keep us brainwashed that, just because the male of our species is, on average, taller with longer reach, weighs more, has more testosterone, and greater upper-body strength, the "logical" conclusion is therefore: females shouldn't fight. Some go far as to say that female suck at fighting.
Well, gee, when your females are not taught the same degree of effective self- and home-defense skills straight out of the cradle, and when they do not have generational inheritance through grandmother after grandmother flowing through their energetic and genetic systems, that tends to happen. It also means that combat techniques for the smaller, lighter, and pregnant are not nearly as well developed as those for the big, brawny, and testosteroney.
With the advent of firearms, you'd think that would have changed. But, well...firearms in my cultural inheritance got filed alongside all that other "Boy Stuff." Can't go arming females' bodies any more than we can go arming their minds with education or arming their agency with a voice and a vote, because...
Because who would darn my socks and suck my dick even when I'm acting like a prick?
Until quite recently, if you had a powerful woman in a story, she was more often than not an evil queen, a wicked step-mother, or a scary witch. (7) If you had a violent woman, she was usually a villain or a femme fatale who must either be revealed as "misunderstood and actually good" or "rotten to the core" and must be punished with jail, violence, or death. (8) Even though the times have demanded the rise of the powerful and/or violent female protagonist, so often they're hyper-sexualized or hyper-masculinized. Sometimes both.
Again, I have no problem with those women who naturally prefer either extreme, or when the regulations of their fighting culture dictate things like shaving heads or donning certain types of clothing or protective gear in all their members.
But strong, powerful females who are mentally and physically capable of protection and self-defense shouldn't have to be pigeonholed in order to be considered competent at combat skills--or leadership skills for that matter. The emotionless Ice Queen. The shit-talking swaggerer whose stride is wider than all the swinging dicks around her to make room for her big fat one. The super-sexy Crazy Bitch that everybody wants to screw but nobody would ever marry. Or she's just insane. Or evil. Or automatically lesbian. Because...you know...that explains it. 🙄
When the lesbian, bi, or pansexual warrior woman is written as an underrepresented demographic or simply because that's the writer's passionate preference for a specific character, I'm all for it. I was thrilled when Korra wound up with, not only the absolute best person for her, but with the bonus cherry on top of getting to be with the hottest person on the show. I also roared, "Hells yes!" when Xena's writers pushed against those boundaries as early as they did. Now I have Lexa/Clarke and Vi/Caitlin to swoon over. (4)
But too often, female fighters and strong women who don't take men's shit are simply written off as "dick-envying, carpet-eating dykes" either to slam them or to assuage the ego fragility of the old standard--no matter which gender is making the condemnation.
Can I tell you how many times I've had, "You're just a closet lesbian," hurled at me? Whenever a woman has said it, it's always been playful or encouraging, most often because she'd like to sleep with me or entice me into Camp Lesbian alongside her. But when a man says it, it has always been snarled at me because I've rejected his sexual advance, or I've stood up to him and said NO in some other way. (I've never had a trans or non-binary person say this to me. Which I appreciate.)
When I became obsessed with the gladiatrix in the 70s and started writing one of my own in 1990, my rural Minnesotan culture was dominated by a rabid hatred of lesbianism. We didn't so much as hear about pansexuality, we barely heard the term bisexuality, and sexual preference was not really separated from gender aesthetics/identity.
If a girl dug girls in a sexual fashion, if she was "too ugly" to receive male attention, or if she exhibited "too many" traditionally masculine traits, she was either slammed as a feminine "lesbo" or a "butch dyke." There was only one worse thing that she could be called: my favorite reclaimed "cunt." (11) To some people, calling someone a lesbian was even worse than that.
Later, some populations shifted into the trope of, "Two girls kissing? Whooooahhhh...that's hawt! Can I watch and wank?" But even in such seeming "approval" there is still too often this...nastiness about it. This fear and disrespect. It's another version of live-action porn or a blow-up doll, now times two. For too many people it's still derogatory. It's not appreciative and welcoming, or the simple acknowledgement of one in a myriad beautiful human expressions of attraction and connection.
That's a topic unto itself, which we'll get back to later. Because after so many decades of having my propensities for "boy stuff," especially self-defense, boundaries, sweatpants, leadership, and direct communication chocked up to the fact that I can only be a closet lesbian or transsexual, I began to question if people were seeing something I was missing.
So I did some experiments.
Nope. I've just always been a female who likes...STUFF. The stuff I like. Some of that stuff includes glitter, pink, black, romance, penises, blue, sex, sweat, perfume, and learning how to fight, and I do not care who thinks it's "right" or not.
"...women who take up violence in a story are often given an arc that acts as a cautionary tale against violence, which then doubles down on the way things are: 'Men are violent; women shouldn't be.' Women characters must be role models (or they die)."
~Wit and Folly (9)
All of this stuff is getting better, slowly, even in spite of reactionary backlash attempts to snuff it. But this dilemma is one of the primary things my frustrated heart and mind, as well as my subconscious keep trying to figure out through writing fiction. It's also one of the primary things that bothers me when I read and watch fictional stories.
A story that has broken my fangirl heart over and over is one of the oldest series I fell in love with. I watched the first movie in the theater at five years old before anybody called it A New Hope. We just called it Star Wars, and I became an instant devotee. Alas, I have been rewriting these tales in my head for decades because I just--
NO. Dang it.
When we get into the Hero's vs. the Heroine's Journey in the next post, we'll come back to all the reasons why I had my nail-biting hopes pinned on the promises made throughout The Last Jedi--promises that were broken with the final installment. It has everything to do with the Violent Femme, her reception, her character arc, and giving her a happy ending with an equally warlike love interest. It also has everything to do with gender stereotyping and the denigration of the Feminine/Yin/Darkness.
Wit and Folly says it brilliantly in The Violence Binary (Violence/Innocence) (9):
If the gender roles had been flipped, Ben (Solo/Kylo Ren) might have been the male hero that would have saved the female from her violence. But the heroine saving the male villain from his violence, AND maintaining her stance as a warrior... AND maintaining the romance between these two goes against the norm. By the current status quo you can’t have two warriors fall in love and remain warriors.
Unless they're both female. Or the female has superpowers to make it okay.
So Ben dies as though he were a woman in a Bond film. Making women violent actors in a story decreases their chances to have romantic partners... It’s not impossible to overcome this. It’s just that it drastically changes their product.
Which is exactly the type of product I've been devotedly writing since I was seventeen: a story where both of the love interests carry violence AND innocence within themselves. That way, when they come together, they create a power dynamic that is vastly different from the Knight and the Damsel because it is made from a pairing of internally balanced individuals, instead of the more traditional balancing via polarized opposites.
For my storytelling, THAT is always the primary quest: Balance.
This internal dance between masculine and feminine, innocence and violence, dark and light, strength and weakness WITHIN both characters is one of the biggest issues people have taken with my gladiator tales (and with me as a person, which is where a lot of the inspiration for this story comes from).
Because my Gladiatrix does a lot of stuff that would traditionally get her Dick Card revoked. Society has trained us well. Just like with the Macho Man, if you are in possession of this card, you could maintain it for a hundred years. But cry once and that's all negated. You have now earned your citizenship on Planet Pussy. And if you're in possession of a literal pussy when you unceremoniously get sent back home with your shriveled strap-on in tatters, you're also likely to get slapped with "hysterical female syndrome." Or at best "weak."
Simultaneously, if a female character is too hard, too emotionless, too cold, too impenetrable to mistakes, too badass, she gets labeled--at best, a hyper-masculinized Mary Sue. Mostly, she just gets hated.
We Pussy Planeteers should just hang up our armor and weapons so we can darn some socks, don'tcha think?
Let me assure you how many people have tried to convince me of that.
Personally, some of the most fun and inspiring things about writing this gladiatrix are the very dichotomies that get her booted onto Planet Pussy with her Dick Card revoked. G'head. Revoke it. She'll be healthier for it.
What if a female protagonist was allowed to whupp ass and retain the capacity to cry? What if she could bust down barriers even though there are things that break her down? (Because..you know...human?) What if she had self-doubt and strode into pulling audacious feats of wonder out her ass? What if she blushed, swooned, did embroidery, was tender, nurturing, and she tackled motherfuckers? What if she wanted love and babies and she battled to break oppressive societal restraints? What if she also fucked up sometimes so that she had things to learn and places to grow throughout the story?
I think that's called a character arc... 🤔
But what do I know? Maybe I've done it all wrong. I am an unpublished nobody, after all.
Eh, this is the way I write. My male gladiators have their own dichotomies and learning curves. So does my support cast and my antagonists, and I have zero interest in writing black-and-white Good vs. Evil tales. I know some people love that stuff. Cool. I just don't. That's another spectrum we all have inside us, and for me that's what makes interesting characters and riveting stories. I love when the lines between heroes and villains are blurry. I love reading it or watching it; go figure I love to write it.
How can I not? I write Gladiators and Greek Gods. Really, I write a lot of antiheroes and villainous individuals I super-badly want to save. I also write a lot of characters you'd think are villains but really aren't once you get to hear their side of things.
Maybe that's because the she-ro inside of me is always trying to save the innocence from bad stuff, and the sweet princess inside me is always trying to save my Violent Femme from going too far to the Dark Side.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: THE SHE-RO'S JOURNEY - Not Your Customary Character Arc
--OR: I've written a boatload about S/Heros, Villains, Femme Fatales, & Sidechicks
--OR: There's more about this balancing act between the Princess and the 'Beast in DANCE WITH THE RED DRAGON - A Love Story That Almost Was
SOME MORE LINKS
4) Badass Females: No Love For You! - All the Spoilers!
Female Power Couples - nobody buried! (yet.)
Tropes, Tropes, Tropes
--It was so bad we need to talk specifically about Bad Dragon Lady - and we cheered her. Yes, we did!
7) Women, Villains, Power
8) The Femme Fatale Then and Now: fear of the sexually liberated, ambitious, working, financially independent, powerful, violent, aging, or childless woman.