Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Strong Female Character Problems

You have probably already seen this Rogue One: A Star Wars Story trailer, but in case you missed it, here it is.

This inspired the question among some friends of mine: what the hell is it with these really freaking tiny women adopting the "strong female character" trope?

Now, if you've read my novels, you know that I have no problem with strong, kick ass women. I've defended against that stupidity from feminazis often enough. Look at my defense of women in military science fiction. Or my article on SFCs. Or when I beat up on the idiocy of Tor writer Liz Bourke.

On the other hand, there is a major problem with the Strong Female Character that's being used lately. Because, sorry, when I create a woman character who is ALSO a bad ass, I also make certain that these women are either a) not a size zero, or b) fighting in creative, indirect ways.

Why? A few reasons. To start with, even among well-skilled (and equally skilled) male fighters, the bigger fighter is probably going to win -- the odds are nearly certain. There's a good reason that Loki rarely, if ever, directly engages with Thor -- Thor has got at least fifty pounds of muscle on him. Depending on the comic, the Joker is not squaring off against Batman and exchanging punches most of the time, because Batman is twice Joker's weight.

Hell, if you have two pro-wrestlers, how many of them fight exactly the same? When you get out of different weight classes, the changes are extreme. But you're not going to have a 5'6" wrestler like Rey Mysterio take on the 6'11" Undertaker in a direct fight -- the smaller wrestler will be bouncing around the ring like a ping pong ball, and trying to catch him is a pain in the ass. Small people fight different than bigger people. Simple as that. If you're small, you go in, strike something critical, then get away from them as soon as possible. If you're big, you close with the opponent, and crush them.

So, why are women being treated so much differently than men in this area? Seriously, there are weight differences between men, but somehow, all women are allowed to fight exactly the same way as men in media, even though women are naturally 50-100 pounds lighter.

Granted, in some cases, this works -- when these well-trained kick ass females are going up against untrained hoodlums, there is no contest. That's superior skill versus brute strength. I'd take a dozen marines with handguns versus three dozen MS-13 members armed with SMGs any day of the week.

But, somehow, as I go through my collection of media, which grows larger with each passing day, the kick ass woman are getting smaller, and their opponents (many of whom are supposed to be of equal talent and ability) are getting bigger.

For example, look at Jaimie Alexander, who is basically playing Jason Bourne on Blindspot -- who can kick the ass of almost everyone she comes across. She is possibly better known as the Lady Sif in the Thor films.

Jaimie Alexander

Okay, yes, she's very pretty. But I didn't pick this photo for the underwear value. Look at her arms. Now look at her legs. Where's the muscle? She's 5'9", but she's also a toothpick. I am never happier than when she's using weaponry, because her shooting someone feels more believable than her bringing down a 6'3" thug with her bare hands.

Enter the other 5'9" female bad ass who has spent her days swinging a sword.

Yeah, I know Xena is a stereotype, but please look at these two actresses, and riddle me this, Batman, which one looks more believable in terms of being able to hold her own in general?

She's not a toothpick, she's not "a guy with breasts," and she had this bright light in her eyes right before she wiped the floor with everyone in a berserker rage, and she looked like she was having fun. (Yes, I'm ignoring some of the later seasons. I think I ditched the show somewhere around the time she met Lucifer ... or when she was crucified by Julius Cesar, after having only met King David ... yeah, that show hurt my brain after a while).

And even after all you do the compare and contrast in build, why are the "strong women fighters" straight-up brawlers? When you consider that not even all men fight like this, why are all women fighting like this? Are the stunt coordinators that stupid? (Unlikely). Or are the directors and writers? (That's where my money is).

Hell, the closest we have to a Lucy Lawless type these days is Adrianne Palicki. She, sadly, was wasted on a Wonder Woman pilot from David E. Kelly (seriously, who allowed the lawyer show guy to make Wonder Woman?), and is currently being wasted on Agents of SHIELD.  People who have better things to do with their lives might recognize her as Perkins from John Wick.

Adrianne Palicki

Note, from this photo, three things.

1) Her body type is not "Toothpick."

2) She is 5'11" in body armor.

3) She is holding an improvised weapon, because people who fight have weaponry.

Thank you. Was that so hard?

Frankly, I think I would have preferred her to being Wonder Woman in the films than Gal Gadot. Why? Because Wonder Woman was many things, but never a toothpick. Heck, I would have even taken Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter), who is 5'7", and not a size zero.

Does anyone remember Antje Traue from Man of Steel? I mean, look at this woman.

Oh wow, look! Muscles!

Height? 5'6"

Can we have her in some of these films? I know everyone in Star Wars is British, but still, can we make an effort here, people?

Seriously, Hollywood, what are you doing to get these toothpicks as actresses? It's very offputting. There's "thin" and then there's "good God, please eat a hamburger, I'm expecting you to break."

This is why, at the end of the day, the most believable kick ass woman in current  media is, well, Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow. Why? Because despite her being 5'3" (yes, she's that tiny), she's 1) not a toothpick and 2) she fights in so many varied and sundry methods and styles, she never takes someone on directly and / or bare handed. She's jumping on people and breaking necks, or dropping them with a gadget, or just shooting them.

Hell, remember Black Widow in Avengers, where she just stood square against Hawkeye and exchanged blows with him? Of course you don't, because it never happened. She jumped all over the place like a freaking rubber ball, and catch her if you can.

Don't get me wrong, there are places and points where not only should these smaller women be used, the can, and have, been used WELL.  Black Widow is brilliantly and intelligently executed. Remember Rey in The Force Awakens? She was tiny, short, and the managed to be victorious in her light saber duel because she fought smart -- she spent most of the fight strategically maneuvering to better positions, using her environment, and was fighting a partially trained Sith who had already been shot with the SciFi equivalent of a howitzer.

Frankly, the best points where getting these tiny, tiny women to perform great feats of strength is, really, science fiction or fantasy. Whether it's the Bionic Woman or Summer Glau as a Terminator, or Buffy the Vampire slayer, it's impressive because they're so small. Supergirl is fine, because, well, she's a freaking alien. But this isn't how normal people operate.  Hell, Buffy was supposed to be stronger than your average bear, and she still jumped around all over the place.

Why is Buffy the Vampire Slayer better executed than some of these more "serious" thrillers, like Blindspot?

(Hell, I'm actually surprised that Jaime Alexander isn't better built, considering she has to carry what looks like at least twenty pounds of plastic armor in the Thor films. I didn't expect her to be that tiny.)

For a moment, let's look at my books ... with normal characters, because I'm not counting the vampire as "normal." That's covered under my "science fiction and fantasy" exception.

(Though I should note, Amanda Colt is not the toothpick Jaimie Alexander. I think I would rather have Scarlet Johansson, if she were a little taller. Anyway...)

If you haven't read / don't recall The Pius Trilogy, I have three women who have gotten into fights.

Exhibit A) Wilhelmina Goldberg: Five-feet tall (really 4'11") Goldberg is a computer nerd. She used to work for the NSA, but went over to the Secret Service to audit security, since she's not tall enough to jump in front of Presidents. Her fights included: punching someone in the balls, and dropping low and cutting their Achilles tendons.

Exhibit B) Maureen McGrail: somewhere around 5'9 (because I don't recall), imagine Jaimie Alexander with about thirty pounds of muscle on her, and a broader frame. She's ridiculously over skilled. Even though she has more black belt levels than Chuck Norris, her fighting style boiled down to: attack joints, attack eyes, and deflecting, rather than blocking attacks.

Exhibit C) Manana Shushurin: 5'7" or so. Also insanely well-trained. Her primary form of fighting?Shooting people in the head. Yes, really. She may have gotten into three actual physical altercations in the entire trilogy, but most of the time, she just shot her enemies. Because bullets are your friend.

Seriously, at the end of the day, can we have a collection of characters and actresses who look, well, healthy? I'm tired of the cliche. It's getting problematic, and the execution is getting more and more lazy as things go on. At least in the Thor films, Alexander's Lady Sif is covered in body armor to bulk her up. But in general, the actresses seem to be getting smaller and shorter, and becoming more like empty-handed, bare-knuckle brawlers. And it really needs to stop.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "Simple as that. If you're small, you go in, strike something critical, then get away from them as soon as possible. If you're big, you close with the opponent, and crush them."

    From the POV of someone who spent years trying to raise from a malnutrition-level BMI and is some single-digit pounds above it (still "underweight", but at least no longer "malnutrition")...

    Sorry, not quite. That's a dueling mindset, a fight. A defensive situation and/or a combat does not allow you to step back: that gives the other guy (the BIGGER) guy time to react. Try Rory's golden move standard. Now, Rory's moves are a very, VERY rare combination of classical movement and modern rubber-meets-road experience. Still... If your move has only damanged his a little, and he's bigger, you have a problem. Your move should damage him, get you in better position and give you some time-space for your next one... which will increase those benefits.

    I really do NOT want to start exchanging opportunities: now I hit him, now he tries back. He only has to manage that once. I have to go for the same standard. That does mean going WAY past "allowed" strikes, which is still the default even in many "SD" systems.

    "the kick ass woman are getting smaller, and their opponents (many of whom are supposed to be of equal talent and ability) are getting bigger."

    Bad writing.

    WRT Mrs. Alenxander: 2+ inches shorter than I am, 3-4 pounds lighter (is it monday?). That's 18.9 BMI, 4 decimals over underweight. Plus female muscle-to-fat ratio, but I can't properly judge that one. Solution: angles, shields, alternative uses of hands as weapons and, sure, impro weapons. And being nasty: locks don't *control*, they *SHATTER*, fast and nasty. You don't punch the gut, you rupture the bladder. And so on.

    All of which is still going to be a pain in the ass; at the very least, legally. And likely morally (that's fuzzier).

    The ONE thing that weight has is that a lot of strikes, even throws, move you much harder than intended. You can use that (specially in judo-like throws). But it hurts.

    Height, however, is kind of a handicap in close quarters. Your center of weight is higher, which makes you easier to topple, the other guy can deploy several weapons towards your viscera under you sight, move under your arms...

    Palicki, for example, may not _look_ wiry, but she's got a lower BMI (more similar to mine), which _would_ be a problem. Distrust BMI as a health indicator, but it works as a general guide to calculate useful muscle mass beyond simple weight and taking height into account.

    "[...] why are the "strong women fighters" straight-up brawlers? [...] Are the stunt coordinators that stupid? (Unlikely). Or are the directors and writers?"

    I'm interested enough I translated the work, but check Rory's 'Violence, a Writer's Guide'. The work comes from a conference series that tried to show writers how violence worked once you went beyond high school recess fights. Many, many entertainers use that level as a base.


    1. "This is why, at the end of the day, the most believable kick ass woman in current media is, well, Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow. Why? Because [...] she fights in so many varied and sundry methods and styles, she never takes someone on directly and / or bare handed. She's jumping on people and breaking necks, or dropping them with a gadget, or just shooting them."

      Most believable non-buff character, period. Even if she's a tad nuts (that Hawkeye scene, for instance, and several others; she risks her skin like no one else in the team).

      Summer is, basically, a berserk. I didn't follow the series enough, but she was pictured, as I recall her, as a nasty fighter who _didn't_ square off, she just maneuvered around your attack and put you off. And _would_ use weapons.

      "Why is Buffy the Vampire Slayer better executed than some of these more "serious" thrillers, like Blindspot?"

      Because nerds are better at seeing past "cool" and checking things than mainstream?

      "[...]because I'm not counting the vampire as "normal." "

      Way more than her partner.

      "Even though she has more black belt levels than Chuck Norris, her fighting style boiled down to: attack joints, attack eyes, and deflecting, rather than blocking attacks."

      Norris doesn't HAVE black belts. He IS one.

      Also... I'm reaching the conclusion that straight _blocks_ are a fiction, that most styles blocks are sort of a reception + deflection. I've found that in enough styles from different continents, mindsets and weapons (or weapons-less) to be coincidence.

      "Because bullets are your friend."

      Only when they leave you for someone else.

      Take care.


    2. True. but I was also thinking of one on one fights, mostly because that's a problem with fights in tv shows I've seen lately. And, frankly, the most realistic fight is the one that's over in a few seconds anyway -- I prefer throat punches or stomped knees. :)

      I don't know who Rory is. Sorry.

      As for morals ... well, God is fuzzy about kneecaps. Heh.

      Oh yes, Black Widow is a bit insane. But that's part of her charm. :)

      Straight blocks are real, though the best blocks I've seen are actually attacks -- the blocking forearm isn't so much intercepting the incoming attack, so much as it's attacking the incoming limb.

      "Bullets, your friend only when they leave you for someone else." I might steal that one. Thanks.

    3. Rory Miller: Blog, site and Amazon page. Fomer casino security, fomer cop & CERT [Correctional Emergencies Response Team], and some others. Degree (or Masters, I'm not sure) in Psychology which he considers rather secondary to experience. And so on and so forth. Personally, I find his explanation on the chaos of close quarters the best available. He's sort of specialized trying to match the dojo mindset with what actually happens when shit hits the fan, and how to see it coming on time and defuse it, if possible.

      "Oh yes, Black Widow is a bit insane. But that's part of her charm."

      Ah... One of those who consider "Nuts!" a compliment...

      "Straight blocks are real, though the best blocks I've seen are actually..."

      Precisely. Then, again, stopping an attack and not using the move for something else is a waste. I was mostly thinking on those classic "blocks" in, for example, karate, made with the ulna bone, statically, receiving the full blow, unarmed or not, full on. Those kinds of blocks are seen in too many places, and I'm almost certain that they're done wrong. Seen the same principle in Chinese-rooted systems, in Western and Japanese fencing, in Silat-derived systems...

      "I might steal that" Go ahead. Although, to be fair, not every time a bullet leaves you is for good, even your own.

      Take care.

  3. I'll add another one for you: Linda Hamilton apparently went through army basic training in preparation for Terminator 2. http://msmagazine.com/blog/2013/06/11/where-have-you-gone-sarah-connor/

    Half the time, the problem for Hollywood is they want the women to be skinny, but on 1200 calories a day, you can't build up muscle, so you're stuck with female actresses who can't actually do the kinds of routines they need to do in order to pull off a convincing fight.

    1. True. Also, brought to my attention after the post was published. I feel kind of stupid for not thinking of that one on my own. In my defense, it's been a long while since I've seen a Terminator film. The last one I saw was T3.

  4. They had also better have a good backstory. The warrior is a male archetype for a reason.

  5. As someone who has watched women in HK action cinema kick ass for decades, it still puzzles me why Hollywood can't even figure out the basics for good female action heroines / fight scenes etc.
    It made no sense to me why Cavill and Batfleck were allowed to bulk up for their roles, but Gadot looked really underweight. She did a great job as wonder woman, it would have been even better is she could have put some bulk on to fill out for the role though.

  6. Well done. I'm going to post part of a comment I left elsewhere to show you that great minds think alike. ;)

    I’ve complained about that before with some shows that while men are allowed to actually FIGHT, women don’t seem to be allowed anything but a straight beat ’em up. For contrast, one of my favorite shows is Burn Notice. In it, Michael Weston is a former spy, and in more than one episode he comments on how spies have to fight differently than soldiers (especially one episode where he was noticeably smaller than his opponent). So Mike has to fight smarter, concentrate more on escaping than ‘winning’ etc etc. This would be PERFECT for Rogue One (hang on – I just had a nerdgasm from the thought of a Star Wars: Burn Notice – complete with Bruce Campbell – and need a moment…) with Jan having to fight like a spy, not like a soldier (and make it even MORE distinct from the normal SW arc films which is usually focused on soldiers) but *sigh*.


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