A recent comment on the post about Graceling by Kristin Cashore got me thinking about female protagonist. While I strongly agree with this post from the Disney blog about being a strong girl/woman, especially the part where you don’t have to be a warrior to be a strong woman, I was thinking lately about the role of the female warrior in society, particularly literature and art. Female warriors are trendy. It’s cool to be a kickass woman who can best a man in a fist fight/gun fight/sword fight. I’m not saying that these women aren’t cool—Zoe Washburne is the coolest woman ever—but simply being a woman warrior doesn’t make you a good character.
I find several main issues that compromise female warrior characters in literature, film, and television. One is believability. Films are the big culprits of this problem, pitting 90-pound petite beauty stars against 300-pound ex-football pros and having the girl win. I’m not saying it can’t happen through intelligence, training, or quick thinking, but when it comes down to a lot of the hand-to-hand combat scenes in action films, I don’t believe that a super thin actress only cast for her sex appeal can drop kick a heavy stuntman. Unless you’re Summer Glau.
On the whole, it’s unbelievable that the daintiest of women are the action stars of contemporary cinema, but another issue I have with female warrior stereotypes is that they’re completely masculinized. Women don’t have to be men to be heroes. They don’t have to be men to be warriors. They can be feminine, kind, gentle, and still kick ass when provoked. There has to be a balance between perpetuating unrealistic images of the size 2 female warrior and the counter image of the steroid-abusing muscular female warrior. In order to find this balance, I’ve examined two of my favorite female warriors from literature that I think successfully present the female warrior archetype.
Eowyn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Eowyn is lady from the royal house Rohan in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien based the Rohirrim culture on Viking culture, referring to them as “Vikings of the plains”. As a shield maiden, Eowyn is skilled in combat, proving her skill by killing the Lord of the Nazgul. (If you don’t know what a Nazgul is, go read The Lord of the Rings right now.)
I’ve heard many arguments against claiming Eowyn as an incredible female warrior, most harping on the fact that she gives up her warrior ways to settle down with a man after falling in love. But this is exactly the problem with people’s ideas about female warriors. People think that in order to be a female warrior, all you can care about is fighting. You can’t fall in love. You can’t stop fighting. Female warriors have to constantly remain independent, badass fighters who are above love and peace. But that’s ridiculous. No one imposes that idea on male warriors. They’re applauded when they accomplish their task and settle down into their hard-won peace. But when a female warrior does this, she’s suddenly compromising her values.
People often make female warriors two-dimensional. Their only interests and skills are in fighting. They aren’t allowed to have emotional complexities. They can’t have insecurities or weaknesses or crushes. But in the title ‘woman warrior’, the warrior part is not the defining word. Woman is. Women warriors are women, and rather than their femininity being a part of their warrior character, their warrior traits are a part of their character as a woman. Women can be warriors and also be shy, gentle, cooks, bookworms, tomboys, mothers, insecure, brave, and anything else that makes a person a person. They can also love peace.
Tolkien’s message about Eowyn hanging up her shield and turning to a life of love and nurturing wasn’t that women don’t belong on the battlefield. It was that fighting is only valuable and necessary to preserve peace. After the fighting is over, men AND women must give it up to now heal the people and the land. Eowyn choosing Faramir, choosing love over fighting, isn’t a defeat of feminist principles. It’s the overcoming of her insecurities and despair to find hope and a full heart in another, which is what Tolkien wanted for every male and female character.
Hunter from Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
For those of you who can’t understand a female warrior who gives up her shield and sword, there’s Hunter from Neil Gaiman’s book about “London Below”, a magical realm beneath London that sucks in normal guy Richard Mayhew. Richard finds himself caught up in a quest to help Door, a girl from a family gifted in creating openings wherever they want. To help them on their quest, Door enlists the help of Hunter, a woman famed throughout the land for hunting and killing the most dangerous beasts in the world. Hunter is not a 5’4”, 90-pound actress cast for her smoldering eyes. Neither is she a deep-voiced, overly muscular woman from the 1936 German Olympic team. She is an athletic, strong, determined, smart woman who has built her skill and reputation through experience and hard work. She is good at what she does, better than any man at what she does, but she is both completely believable and uncompromising.
Gaiman doesn’t use her to beat the reader over the head with the idea that woman can or must be warriors. He doesn’t use her as a politic or social statement. Hunter just is. She does what she does as a character not because Gaiman is making a point, but because she is serving the story. Hunter is not perfect. She’s has severe flaws, which make her interesting, realistic, and complete as a character. She is just another character in the book, equal in status to Richard, Door, and the other characters. The book isn’t all about her just because she’s a female warrior. She isn’t better than the other character’s because she’s a female warrior. Being a woman warrior doesn’t make her special at all, which is why it is so special. Gaiman treats Hunter like a normal character, like being a female warrior is no different than being any other character, which is why I like Hunter so much.
I love strong female characters. I love women who kick ass. Female warriors are some of my favorite characters in all of literature—film, television, and comics included. But I hate the stereotypes that often go along with these characters. Yes, they can be independent, but that doesn’t mean they have to shut themselves off from love. Yes, they can be strong, but they don’t have to be men. Women warriors are women first and warriors second. Their warrior nature is a part of them, but it is not just them. Women are not just warriors. They are so much more, and writers should not limit them to such.
But I’ll get off my soapbox now. I have a hankering to watch Eowyn slay the Lord of the Nazgul in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation now.