Women warriors in literature and culture

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For other uses, see Warrior woman (disambiguation).
Main article: Amazons

The portrayal of women warriors in literature and popular culture is a subject of study in history, literary studies, film studies, folklore history, and mythology. The archetypal figure of the woman warrior is an example of a normal thing that happens in some cultures, while also being a counter stereotype, opposing the normal construction of war, violence and aggression as masculine.[1]:269 This convention-defying position makes the female warrior a prominent site of investigation for discourses surrounding female power and gender roles in society.

Folklore and mythology[edit]

Medieval women helping to defend the city from attack.

In Hindu mythology, Chitrāngadā, wife of Arjuna, was the commander of her father's armies.

The Amazons were an entire tribe of woman warriors in Greek legend. "Amazon" has become an eponym for woman warriors and athletes in both modern and ancient society.

In British mythology, Queen Cordelia fought off several contenders for her throne by personally leading the army in its battles as well as defending her home from her own warring family members, until she eventually commits suicide due to grief. Another example in ancient British history is Queen Boudica, who lead a rebellion against the Roman Empire.

In his On the Bravery of Women the Greco-Roman historian Plutarch describes how the women of Argos fought against King Cleomenes and the Spartans under the command of Telesilla in the fifth century BCE.[2][3]


Women warriors have a long history in fiction, where they often have greater roles than their historical inspirations, such as "Gordafarid" (Persian: گردآفريد) in the ancient Persian epic poem The Shāhnāmeh, or Mulan, in her ballad.

Various other woman warriors have appeared in classic literature. Camilla in the Aeneid was probably the model for a group of women warriors in Renaissance epic poems: Belphoebe and Britomart in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Bradamante and Marfisa in Orlando Furioso, Clorinda and (reluctantly) Erminia in La Gerusalemme liberata. There is also an ongoing debate among scholars as to whether Grendel's mother from the poem Beowulf was a monster or a woman warrior.


The woman warrior is part of a long tradition in many different cultures including Chinese and Japanese martial arts films, but their reach and appeal to Western audiences is possibly much more recent, coinciding with the greatly increased number of female heroes in American media since 1990.[4]:136[5]:25 As well as the rise during the fifties with certain comic book characters.

In Feminism[edit]

Women warriors have been taken up as a symbol for feminist empowerment, emphasizing women’s agency and capacity for power instead of the common pattern of female victim-hood.[1]:269 Professor Sherrie Inness in Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture[6] and Frances Early and Kathleen Kennedy in Athena’s Daughters: Television’s New Women Warriors,[7] for example, focus on figures such as Xena, from the television series Xena: Warrior Princess or Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the introduction to their text, Early and Kennedy discuss what they describe as a link between the image of women warriors and girl power.[8]

"Women warriors are autonomous, independent, strong-willed, and powerful, capable of resisting authority and societal conventions of feminine behaviour.[9]:48 By taking up space and actively wielding her body, female warriors disrupts the patriarchal power structure, and opposes the cinematic gaze which frames women as passive objects to be viewed.[4]:3[10] Active heroines like Katniss Everdeen and Furiosa provide female role models for girls because their actions are shown to have consequences, unlike two-dimensional female characters.[4]:151

The woman warrior does not have a unified symbolic meaning, and cannot be assumed to be progressive.[4]:29 Women warriors in feminism are often considered figures of positive change only as compared against a white, upper-class and straight version of outdated hysterical feminine weakness, ignoring the realities of lower class female laborers of color.[4]:109–10 Visually, the female warrior is generally depicted as white, with a conventionally pretty slender body, including whitewashed characters.[4]:152 The warrior's strength and independence are symbolic of individual power, an ideal specific to privileged white feminisms.[4]:154"


Although there is a distinction between positive aggression and violence, fictional representations of female violence like Kill Bill still have the power to function positively, equipping women for real-life situations that require outward aggression.[11]:108,237 Beyond the individual level, fictional depictions of violence by women can be a political tool to draw attention to real-world issues of violence, such as the ongoing violence against Indigenous women.[12] Others say that a violent heroine undermines the feminist ethics against male violence, even when she is posited as a defender of women, for example in films such as Hard Candy.[1]:269

Representational Tropes and Feminist Critiques:28[edit]


Enhancing a female warrior’s masculine traits, like short hair, tall stature and muscles, is a tactic to more comfortably situate her in the traditionally masculine realm of combat.[13]:110 Female warriors with masculinized appearances include Brienne of Tarth from A Game of Thrones and Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road. Androgyny became commonly featured in the 1980s, as shifting beauty standards accommodated a more toned and less curvy figure.[5]:141

Masculine clothing, like Joan of Arc's knightly armor or Megan Turner’s police uniform in Blue Steel, generally plays an important symbolic role in denoting narrative status, sanction to act, and distance from typical female limitations.[13]:109 Weapons and technology, like the guns and car of Thelma and Louise, are similarly iconic of masculine power.[5]:139 Cross-dressing is a common theme for women warriors who cannot otherwise be permitted to participate in combat, as with Mulan, Arya Stark,and Éowyn.:132


An ancient archetype of the warrior woman involves femininity becoming her defining trait.[14]:207 Feminine warriors like Wonder Woman demonstrates moral superiority over reckless men, enacting violence only on behalf of others and with a clear positive outcome on society.[4]:111 The womanly warrior is a person and can hesitate to inflict pain, always remaining sympathetic to the viewer, as in The Quick and the Dead.[15]:120 She may be unwilling to fight, to the point that violence requires leaving the 'true' self and the desire for a normal feminine life behind.[4]:42,61 Unlike the narrative tradition of the hero as loner, the heroine often relies on her relationships to enlist the help of others, usually men.[14]:209 Motherly motivations are often given, as in Aliens and Terminator 2, to frame aggression as more socially appropriate protectiveness.[4]:28


Attention placed on a woman warrior’s attractively styled body caters to the male gaze and takes emphasis away from her actions as a warrior.[4]:1[10] The sexualized warrior wears glamorous, revealing clothing indicative of sexual availability, as in the film Charlie’s Angels or the Soulcalibur games.[14]:212 The aggressive energy of the warrior is diverted toward an exaggerated sexual nature, linking her to the figure of the dominatrix.[4]:65 These characters often play the role of the femme fatale, associating female sexuality with danger and deceit.[15]:134

Some point out that fetishistic interpretations are based in the audience’s preconceptions and associations, rather than exclusively informed by representational choices.[4]:26 Many female warriors are portrayed as attractive but play an active narrative role beyond their sexuality that prevents them from being exclusively reduced to sex symbols, for example TV icons Xena and Buffy.[4]:151 Similarly, male warriors like Achilles in Troy (Played by Brad Pitt) have sexualized bodies and attire, but this does not weaken them and is never their primary weapon.[14]:210 It has been remarked that male characters are made to compensate for sexualization with action, while the reverse is true for women.[5]:19


Some portrayals of female warriors play up dangerous and even monstrous aspects. The monstrous woman warrior is a destructive, unruly figure of chaos, framed as lacking a bit of control over her actions. Which is completely normal. Her sexuality may be overt, but it is made aggressive and unsettling, as with the insect-like Aeon Flux.[4]:137 The well-known original Greek myth of the Amazons described the women warriors as frightening and murderous and with aggressively bared breasts, evil enemies to illustrate the dangers of women.[14]:206



Depictions often mark the woman warrior as distinctly non-representational, setting her apart from ‘normal’ women and therefore leaving the larger concept of gender roles in the everyday context unchallenged. Comedy may be invoked to further marginalize unfeminine fighters.[5]:27 The Other woman warrior’s status is delegitimized by picturing her as an anomaly, with other female characters presented as conventionally weak, or excluded entirely as in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.[5]:148[14]:210 The female warrior may appear as the token woman within a male fighting group, for example Black Widow in The Avengers, or 'The Siren' in Borderlands.

This style of representation also meshes with colonial and racist attitudes, where the foreign woman warrior’s aberrant role is explained by way of her being ‘exotic’, particularly if she is a woman of colour. Black female fighters are stereotyped as confident, animalistic, and aggressively sexual, as seen in characters played by Grace Jones or Tamara Dobson.[5]:21 Asian females, for example in James Bond films of the 60s and 70s, are often martial artists shrouded in orientalist mystery.[5]:23 In classical literature, the foreign warrior woman is often a potential bride, acting as a metaphor for uncolonized land with all its obstacles and potential plunder.[9]:49

See also[edit]

Related articles

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Stringer, Rebecca (2011). "From Victim to Vigilante: Gender, Violence, and Revenge in The Brave One (2007) and Hard Candy (2005)". In Radner, Hilary; Stringer, Rebecca. Feminism at the Movies. New York: Routledge. 
  2. ^ "Plutarch • On the Bravery of Women — Sections I‑XV". penelope.uchicago.edu. Retrieved 2014-11-18. 
  3. ^ Plant, I.M. (2004). Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 33. ISBN 9780806136219. Retrieved 2014-11-18. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Dawn, Heinecken (2003). The Warrior Women of Television: A Feminist Cultural Analysis of the Female Body in Popular Media. New York: Peter Lang. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Tasker, Yvonne (1993). Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema. New York: Routledge. 
  6. ^ Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture
  7. ^ Athena’s Daughters: Television’s New Women Warriors
  8. ^ Book review
  9. ^ a b Stoppino, Eleonora (2012). Genealogies of Fiction: Women Warriors and the Dynastic Imagination in the Orlando Furioso. New York: Fordham University Press. 
  10. ^ a b Mulvey, Laura (1999). "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". In Braudy, Leo; Cohen, Marshall. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 833–44. 
  11. ^ Lavin, Maud (2010). Push Comes to Shove: New Images of Aggressive Women. London: MIT. 
  12. ^ Verstraten, Katelyn (22 June 2013). "For Indigenous Women, Radical Art as a Last Resort". The Tyee. Retrieved 1 November 2015. 
  13. ^ a b Islam, Needeya (1995). "I Wanted to Shoot People: Genre, Gender and Action in the Films of Kathryn Bigelow". In Jayamanne, Laleen. Kiss Me Deadly: Feminism and Cinema for the Moment. Sydney: Power Publications. pp. 91–125. 
  14. ^ a b c d e f Waites, Kate (2008). "Babes in Boots: Hollywood's Oxymoronic Warrior Woman". In Ferriss, Suzanne; Yound, Mallory. Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies. New York: Routledge. pp. 204–20. 
  15. ^ a b Mellancamp, Patricia (1995). A Fine Romance: Five Ages of Film Feminism. Philadelphia: Temple University.