Are Warrior Women Characters Good for Real-Life Women?

Midway through my replay of all six seasons of Xena Warrior Princess last year, I heard word of possible reboot of the show.

Details on the project have since remained scarce.  No one has been cast – not even the eponymous character – nor have there even been rumours about who’s under consideration for any of the roles.

Initially, the showrunner for the Xena reboot was set to be Javier Grillo-Marxuach, one of the writers from my new favourite TV show, The 100 (Xena having been my old favourite show).  However, just last week, it was announced that Grillo-Marxuach had left the project due to “unsurmountable creative differences”.

At this rate, I’d be surprised if the reboot goes forward at all.  For a variety of reasons not entirely related to the topic of this post, I wouldn’t be too disappointed if it didn’t

Another show currently in development that I learned about last year is Queen of Shadows, based on the bestselling Throne of Glass book series by YA/NA fantasy writer Sarah J. Maas.

For this show, the title refers to the main character, 18-year-old Celaena Sardothien – a fierce assassin, who, previously enslaved for her crimes, takes part in a competition to become the royal assassin for an imperialistic and tyrannical king for the chance to win her freedom following a four-year term of service.

The above is just from the first book in the series, of which there are currently five (the first book also contains a love triangle, in true YA form).

At the time of the show’s announcement, although I’d read two books from a different series by Maas, I’d never read any of the Throne of Glass series.  I immediately set about remedying this omission by purchasing the first two books plus the omnibus of prequel novellas, so I can watch the show with knowledge of the source material.

Because of course I’d watch a show about a female warrior, wouldn’t I?  Especially a pre-industrial warrior woman with a sword. (Who doesn’t love the visceral crash and crush of melee weapons?)

I’ve always had a fondness for warrior women in fiction, even before I contemplated their deeper significance in modern society.

As a child, faced with countless representations of male warriors in the various cartoons, books, and toys I consumed, a female warrior was an unexpected surprise and joy.

It was an indication that girls (and women) could have adventures too and be the ones who saved the day for once, rather than themselves being the ones needing saving.

A female warrior provided a role for me to play in my co-ed childhood games of make-believe – a role that placed me (mostly) at the same level (indeed, at the same table) as the male fighters and heroes idolized by my male friends.

She provided a role I could keep playing even when playtime had ended – a secret source of strength and encouragement to help me stand up the increasing responsibilities and challenges of growing up.

An argument against

This was a surprisingly perceptive critique of mainstream gender representation from my youthful self.

But recently, I’ve started re-examining this fondness for fictional women with swords to see what their inclusion in mainstream entertainment truly signifies.

My feelings for such characters, I’ve come to discover, have become more complicated, presently occupying two contradictory perceptions within the context of misogyny, inequality, and objectification of women society.

On the one hand, brute strength and physical violence are stereotypically masculine traits, owing to whatever combination of nature and nurture one wishes to endorse.

In mainstream society, masculine traits are prized and sought after while those deemed more feminine are the object of ridicule and disdain.

Because of this, presenting a female character who excels at masculinity is seen as improving her – of making her a more worthwhile and palatable member of (male) society and more deserving of (a degree) of men’s respect.

This, of course, does nothing to raise the profile of real-life feminine strength and resilience, and does everything to further deify masculine power.

I have written about this before – about how all too often, a “strong female character” is exemplified by one who is kickass, moody, doesn’t get along well with other women, and, of course, never hesitates to resort to physical violence where, in real life, for any number of reasons, women generally refrain from this.

At the same time, while essentially portrayed like men with breasts, most warrior women characters are still fully captured within the male gaze, subjected to ludicrously sexualized armour, battle poses and loose, long hair that hangs in her face (while those who aren’t sexualized are instead presented as sexless and physically undesirable).

The case in favour

On the other hand, warrior women characters speak loudly and passionately to the anger of real women in this world.

Anger that society largely denies us (while simultaneously denying men almost every emotion other than anger), insisting we sacrifice it on the altar of being nice, of keeping the peace, and most of all, of self-preservation against reprisal.

This latter concern is something women experience in every corner of the world.  The level of risk may differ by degree or otherwise take an unfamiliar form, but the overriding intent behind it remains unchanged.

It is because of this, I believe, that warrior woman characters are indeed essential in mainstream entertainment.

The benefits they offer to woman are indispensable: a vicarious experience with a character that more closely resembles us within a setting of at least partial equality among the sexes.  A temporary escape from gendered obligation.  A sublimated expression of rage and aggression to counteract the real-life necessity to keep pushing it deep down inside.

Warrior woman characters are necessary because, done right, their fierce physicality can inspire real women to call forth their feminine strengths.

They can embolden us to do things like turn out en masse for the Women’s March and other peaceful protests, petition government officials to keep their election promises, risk harassment both in person and online by taking a stand against hatred and injustice, claw our way to acceptance and reclamation of ourselves after facing personal harm, and more.

Because these characters perpetrate violence and physical force we’re so often neither able nor wanting to do, they conversely show us that we don’t even have to.

They show us that the sword needn’t be our weapon but our motivation and recognition that we are already strong enough.

What are your thoughts on warrior women characters?  Do you like them?  Dislike them?  Something in between?  Tell me about it in the comments.

A/N: There will be no post next Monday.  Wishing everyone a Happy Easter!

(Image source #1 and #2)

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