Women warriors in literature and culture
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The portrayal of women warriors in literature and popular culture is a subject of study in history, literary studies, film studies, folklore and mythology, gender studies, and cultural studies. The archetypal figure of the woman warrior is an example of a counter stereotype, opposing the normal construction of war, violence and aggression as masculine.:269 This convention-defying position makes the female warrior a prominent site of investigation for discourses surrounding female power and gender roles in society, particularly in feminist film theory.:21 The powerful female hero is a figure central to a particular branch known as Amazon Feminism, as well as Buffy Studies.
Folklore and mythology
In British mythology, Queen Cordelia fought off several contenders for her throne by personally leading the army in its battles.
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.
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.
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 Chinese and Japanese martial arts films, but their reach and appeal to Western audiences is more recent, coinciding with the greatly increased number of female heroes in American media since 1990.:136:25
The woman warrior has been taken up as a symbol of feminist empowerment, emphasizing women’s agency and capacity for power instead of the common pattern of female victim-hood.:269 Professor Sherrie Inness in Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture and Frances Early and Kathleen Kennedy in Athena’s Daughters: Television’s New Women Warriors, 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.
Women warriors are autonomous, independent, strong-willed, and powerful, capable of resisting authority and societal conventions of feminine behaviour.: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.:3 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.:151
The woman warrior does not have a unified symbolic meaning, and cannot be assumed to be progressive.: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.:109–10 Visually, the female warrior is generally depicted as white, with a conventionally pretty slender body, including whitewashed characters.:152 The warrior's strength and independence are symbolic of individual power, an ideal specific to privileged white feminisms.: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.: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. 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.:269
Representational Tropes and Feminist Critiques
The feminist implications of the unconventional role are complicated by individual representations of female warriors, often crafted by men and sometimes designed to serve regressive and anti-feminist ideologies.:5:205 The woman warrior in these cases is seen as a problem, which is solved by narrative structures that diminish and explain away her contradictory role while reinforcing the normative gender binary.:28
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.: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.: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.:109 Weapons and technology, like the guns and car of Thelma and Louise, are similarly iconic of masculine power.: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.
The practice of inserting a female figure into a typically masculine role has been criticized as ineffectively treading old ground, changing the physical body while maintaining a symbolic male.:121 The specific character of the tomboy fighter depicts the warrior as inhabiting a pre-female stage, not yet accepting the responsibilities of ‘normal’ womanhood.:15 Conversely, masculine female warriors have been applauded for defying gender conventions, challenging the binary understanding of gender.:27:204 In this view, the notion of the female warrior as symbolically male depends on the assumption that ‘real’ women should be presented exclusively in terms of femininity.:132
An ancient archetype of the warrior woman involves femininity becoming her defining trait.: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.:111 The womanly warrior is more emotional than her male counterparts and hesitates to inflict pain, always remaining sympathetic to the viewer, as in The Quick and the Dead.: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.: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.:209 Motherly motivations are often given, as in Aliens and Terminator 2, to frame aggression as more socially appropriate protectiveness.:28
Within male-dominated genres, the inclusion and promotion of feminine characteristics is a major shift, which dismantles the idea that femininity and power are mutually exclusive.:66 Feminine warrior characters have been pointed to as positive deviations from stereotypical or flat depictions of tough women.:111 Others criticize this tailoring of the warrior role as reaffirming constructions of essentialist difference between genders.:274
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.:1 The sexualized warrior wears glamorous, revealing clothing indicative of sexual availability, as in the film Charlie’s Angels or the Soulcalibur games.:212 The aggressive energy of the warrior is diverted toward an exaggerated sexual nature, linking her to the figure of the dominatrix.:65 These characters often play the role of the femme fatale, associating female sexuality with danger and deceit.:134
Some point out that fetishistic interpretations are based in the audience’s preconceptions and associations, rather than exclusively informed by representational choices.: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.: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.:210 It has been remarked that male characters are made to compensate for sexualization with action, while the reverse is true for women.:19
Some portrayals of female warriors play up dangerous and even monstrous aspects, highlighting the figure’s unusual role as aberration from the normal and natural. This ties into subconscious fears and desires identified by psychoanalytic theory in relation to the castrating threat of the phallic woman.:205 The monstrous woman warrior is a destructive, unruly figure of chaos, framed as lacking rational male control.:88 Her sexuality may be overt, but it is made aggressive and unsettling, as with the insect-like Aeon Flux.: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 not knowing their place in patriarchy.:206
Monstrous women warriors portray a powerful yet demonizing image of women, like early tales of Valkyries. The grotesque fascination with which the female body is treated reflects historically long-held misogynistic views, while also undermining sexual objectification and emphasizing the woman warrior’s power to influence her world and the viewer.:88
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.: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.:148:210 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.:21 Asian females, for example in James Bond films of the 60s and 70s, are often martial artists shrouded in orientalist mystery.: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.:49
Fighting ability and purpose is often explained by close association of the warrior woman with a male authority figure, for example the dead father in China O’Brien.:24:208 The female warrior may directly replace her father’s position after his death, justifying her unfeminine actions with daughterly duty.:20,26 Male authority figures, like Charlie in Charlie’s Angels or God in the Old Testament story of Judith slaying Holofernes, often direct seemingly independent women warriors.:206,214–6
Unlike classic heroes who acquire mastery over their environment, the woman warrior is often situated in a threatening world in which she must fight to maintain survival and repel bodily violation, for example in La Femme Nikita.:134 Female warrior characters are commonly motivated by past violence against them, as in The Brave One, or are victimized in order to provide motivation for a male hero.:277:24–6
Warrior women are often repeatedly hurt and incapacitated, and as a result appear less threatening than male warriors who shrug off temporary flesh wounds.:25,135 For women, violence is more likely to be sexual than the physical.:151 Some critics point out that gendered violence reinforces male strength and female passivity, while others attribute these implications to biased analysis rather than observable difference.:139 Another issue raised by rape-revenge stories is the portrayal of sexual violence as fixable through violent means.:116
Placing warrior heroines in a constant state of sexual endangerment condemns the violence faced by women, but also presents female victimization as an inevitable, normal world state.:139 The theme of women standing up for themselves has been criticized for its emphasis on the victim’s, rather than the abuser’s, need for self-control.:154
The fate of the woman warrior, especially as cautionary figures, tends to be punishing defeat or assimilation into a traditional domestic female role, for example Beatrix Kiddo’s motherly transformation in the Kill Bill trilogy.:218 Romantic story arcs may take great prominence for women warriors in all genres, weakening the female warrior’s status and reassuring the audience of her normal womanly desires.:213 The female warrior’s skills do not surpass those of her romantic interest, reaffirming notions of male superiority.:24
Marriage by duel is a common narrative in classical literature, in which the female warrior submits to marry the man who can best her in combat. In stories following this form, like the myth of Atalanta in Metamorphoses and Aristo’s Bradamante, sexual subtext symbolizes male domination.:31 The woman warrior in the marriage by duel narrative is a device to measure the manliness of other characters, remaining nonthreatening to ‘real’ men.:41
- List of women warriors in folklore
- Women in warfare and the military in the 19th century
- Women in warfare and the military in the ancient era
- Women in warfare and the military in the early modern era
- Women in warfare and the military in the medieval era
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- Girls with guns
- Magical girl
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