Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode.
For Episode 11, She Has To Fight Smart: Representations Of Women Warriors In Media And History we discussed the following texts:
1) Essay – We Have Always Fought
The article talks about the history of women fighters focusing on how women have always participated in resistance movements either as women or disguised as men. Much like the writer, I don’t have much knowledge of this history – it wasn’t taught to us in schools nor is the narrative prevalent in mainstream media and culture. According to the article, apart from combatants, women played a role in pretty much any profession you can think of. Where are these stories? Much like religion, marginalised voices are to the fore now where these stories are shared.
Women fought in every revolutionary army, I found, and those armies were often composed of fighting forces that were 20-30% women. But when we say “revolutionary army” what do we think of? What image does it conjure? Does the force in your mind include three women and seven men? Six women and fourteen men?
Women not only made bombs and guns in WWII – they picked up guns and drove tanks and flew airplanes. The civil war, the revolutionary war – point me to a war and I can point to an instance where a women picked up a hat and a gun and went off to join it. And yes, Shaka Zulu employed female fighters as well. But when we say “Shaka Zulu’s fighters” what image do we conjure in our minds? Do we think of these women? Or are they the ones we don’t see? The ones who, if we included them in our stories, people would say weren’t “realistic”?
Of course, we do talk about women who ran with Shaka Zulu. When I Google “women who fought for Shaka Zulu” I learn all about his “harem of 1200 women.” And his mother, of course. And this line was very popular: “Women, cattle and slaves.” One breath.
It’s easy to think women never fought, never led, when we are never seen.
This is why representation of this is important in the stories we tell, the culture we inhabit, the media we watch and read and listen to. If we don’t see the diverse stories and histories which exist, it perpetuates the same stereotypes about women which has a very real impact on them. Representing diverse stories allows people to imagine differently. Populating a world with men, with male heroes and their “women cattle and slaves” is a political act. You are making a conscious choice to erase half the world. Questioning the stories you’ve always been told can make the stories and world more inclusive for all kinds of people.
2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines
(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 5, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)
There’s only room for one strong female lead in a story in science fiction and fantasy movies and even then, her character is full of tropes and stereotypes which lead to the character not being fully developed. In terms of merchandising, there’s a lack of dolls and action figures of female superheroes as well. The episode mentions that all the Avengers get dolls apart from Black Widow. Relatedly, where are the She-Ra and the Princesses of Power dolls?! They’re amazing superheroes with a fan-base of both young people and adults.
The contradictory idea that women can’t be too caring or sensitive because they’re too weak to be a strong female character; but if they’re too in-your-face or brusque, they’re termed unlikable. There’s a very narrow scope of acceptable badassery for women whereas men can get away with a lot more.
The Bechdel test currently seems quite limited. If you pass it, it doesn’t mean the movie is super feminist since it’s such a low bar. And there might be media that doesn’t pass the test which offers better portrayals of women. It’s important how movies treat their female characters – how the men treat the women and whether or not they respect women. For young men who watch media, it can be a way of promoting empathy for female characters and real-world women. This doesn’t always work though – the all-women reboot of Ghostbusters is a glaring example as is reactions to The Last Jedi.
3) Fan podcast – Breaking the Glass Slipper The Bechdel-Wallace Test
It’s called the Bechdel-Wallace test in this episode rather than the more popularly known Bechdel test because Alison Bechdel wanted to credit her friend Liz Wallace. The test is pretty basic and has three requirements:
i) Does it have at least two women in it?
ii) Do they talk to each other?
iii) Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?
Even with such a low bar, I’m not sure how many of my favourite stories pass this test. I remember a Witch, Please episode saying that the Harry Potter movies definitely don’t pass this text. What about the books? The only girl who gets a lot of page-time is Hermione and she’s surrounded by boys all the time. Even when she’s talking to Ginny or Luna, the conversations seem to revolve around the male characters. Even Frozen which is heralded as a progressive film has Anna obsessing over boys all throughout the movie and even falls out with Elsa over a boy, as the episode notes. According to the hosts, Lord of the Rings definitely fails the test. As they point out, most movies would pass a reverse Bechdel test.
The episode explores the limitations of the Bechdel test. Legally Blonde passes the Bechdel test even though it’s full of questionable role models (something I am hesitant to agree with – there are different kinds of role models surely?) but Gravity doesn’t because while it has Sandra Bullock as the protagonist, she’s the only woman character. Thor ostensibly passes the Bechdel test because Natalie Portman’s character talks to her assistant about science when Thor isn’t around – even though they are the only two female characters. Mulan doesn’t pass the Bechdel test because she is disguising herself to participate in an unfair structure rather than trying to overturn the patriarchy.
Women haven’t historically been well-represented in movies and so we’ve been conditioned to look for basic representations even though we should demand more equality in terms of representation. Coming up with movies with more than two women talking to each other about something that doesn’t involve men shouldn’t be so difficult.
The Bechdel test is quite contextual. However, it doesn’t include an intersectional analysis. When it comes to other identities, the picture is even more grim. There is a lack of older women characters in media in central roles whereas older men are often centered. Eurocentric standards of beauty are most often represented in Western media. Even in Bollywood, a certain kind of woman is glorified with regional, class, and caste implications. There’s a lack of women of colour, women with disabilities, older women, women of different religions and nationalities. Of course, it’s difficult if not impossible for a single story to include ALL the intersectional identities which is why there needs to be a shift in media practices at large.
They wonder why F.R.I.E.N.D.S. – which is set in 1990s New York – is so white. In the Ghostbusters reboot, Leslie Jones, the black woman, was the only woman who wasn’t the scientist. While the movie was more inclusive of women, it didn’t center diverse ages and races. They discuss Rogue One which, according to the hosts, fails even the Sexy Lamp test – the female character can easily be replaced by a sexy lamp to reflect the lack of her agency. If you critically analyse any of your favourite stories, you will find things to critique – especially in terms of intersectional identities – since these stories reflect the society they’re created in.
The hosts suggest a solution that you should just create fully-fleshed out female characters to overturn stereotypes rather than just inserting them as an afterthought. However, I think that good characters should be balanced with actively thinking about diversity too, or as one of the hosts said, there would just be cis white men or cis white women who are over-represented. A minority character’s whole arc shouldn’t be centered around their marginalisation making that the source of the tension rather than that just being one part of their much more complex identity – disability or trans characters, for example. Even background characters should have this level of thoughtfulness. For example, why are all the cops men? This is what stood out to me in Last Christmas, which had so many different intersectional identities included in the movie – including a pair of women cops – without that being the focus of the story.
At the beginning of the episode, one of the hosts says that women have always fought but we don’t hear about them or see this represented in SFF. This is certainly true in my case. I didn’t know women have always fought because that’s not the sort of stories I was exposed to. There were some stories about Rani Lakshmibai in India who led one of the first revolts against the British Empire but she seemed to be the exception rather than the norm. Now, thanks to Rejected Princesses and the internet, I’ve discovered the different ways in which women fought – physical and/or strategical – in history.
The guest Juliet McKenna has experience with martial arts as well as LARPing – both of which inform her writing of women warriors.
Vikings and female pirates are an example of women warriors in history. But SFF doesn’t draw on these historical examples nor imagines its own examples in futuristic or fantastical worlds. As someone points out, it’s important to question which history is being promoted, who wrote this history, and where this history is located. Most history – especially European history – is “written by men, for men, about men”. The perception of women warriors as an anomaly rather than the norm is prevalent in Eurocentric versions history. However, there’s also the perception that if a culture has women warriors, it’s a barbaric culture. But in Indian history, as the guest points out, there are women leaders in the resistance. With Amazons as fighters, historical sources have found that they didn’t fight as men, they fought as women.
Joan of Arc was also a fighter as well as a religious leader. The idea that a woman can only be a warrior if she is exceptional because she has been blessed by god or was an exceptional fighter. Some stories are highlighted more than others. Joan of Arc is remembered while many others are forgotten. Is this because, as Juliet says, there’s no risk of ordinary women becoming Joan of Arc whereas with other examples of badass mothers etc. might inspire people to upset the status quo.
“Victims write the history but the vanquished write the folklore.” – Juliet
When Juliet mentioned how the availability of materials influence fighting styles – such as steel for armour – I began wondering how these materials can be used to allow women of different abilities to fight by incorporating their accessibility needs while they’re fighting. Maybe to make up for poor eyesight, a limp, having a child, menstruating? You can’t control when you’re in battle or what happens when you’re in battle so planning beforehand can help. It can also make it more accessible for mothers and grandmothers to fight – in terms of fighting skills, weapons, clothes – whatever one would need.
Juliet says that the male-centred view of battle as a test of stamina isn’t true; it’s more about skill. Therefore, women have certain advantages when pitted against men too. Being a great warrior isn’t dependent on gender – though, of course, sometimes physical strength helps and can be an advantage. I wonder how much different cultural fighting styles also impact the battle – could be either a strength or a weakness.
Some popular media portrayals of women fighters include Xena with her sword and sorcery, Wonder Woman, Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, Buffy the vampire slayer. Hermione is both bookish and a good warrior – battling through wands rather than physical combat. Princess Leia was a strategist who chose peace over war but wasn’t afraid to go guns ablaze if her peaceful tactics didn’t work. She was a feminist icon at a time when media was devoid of such examples.
5) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Women’s Jobs in Fantasy
The idea that you can believe in dragons in fantasy but not women characters with different and excellent skills is ludicrous. What sort of jobs do women have in fantasy stories? Barmaids, servants, prostitutes, sometimes assassins – very limited range. Is being a witch a job? In Spinning Silver, the protagonist is a successful moneylender. In Harry Potter, women have quite a limited range of jobs too, very few in leadership positions. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie is a hat-maker but she hates that and then becomes a witch. In the Rat Queens, the women are adventurers/mercenaries for hire – a profession that is rare in fantasy.
In fantasy, do women already have existing jobs? Does the society support and reflect that women play a role in the economy? Or is it only the plot which leads to new jobs? We also don’t see women having periods in books and how/if that will impact their jobs – especially in the case of adventurers and the like.
One of the hosts says that she doesn’t feel as educated as others when it comes to women’s jobs in the past because they have been written out of history and that’s largely been her exposure to these stories. She’s slowly learning about these historically female professions – female Vikings, pirates, for example. This is similar to my experience with history in school where women warriors were largely absent apart from Jhansi Ki Rani. Is it more centered in terms of resistance for independence? There’s also Boudicca and Joan of Arc. There has been recent proof found of female Samurai fighters in Japan and women Viking’s skulls.
They talk about how in many male-authored fantasies, men are willing to give themselves up to goddesses and female supernatural creatures but not to the women in their lives. This is similar to Indian society where goddesses are worshipped but women are treated very poorly.
There’s a trope that women can’t seem to be both strong and beautiful. The episode points out that historically, in the Civil War in the US, prostitutes were used as spies and had to use their skills in the war effort. In fantasy, prostitutes seem to be there just as a side-plot for men or a background for the world. Inara in Firefly is a rare example of a legal, powerful prostitute.
Working mothers in fantasy are also missing. They mention Cersei but she’s been born into wealth. Being a ruler is not a profession. Monarchy can be used to explore power dynamics but it is still essentially a woman in power rather than overturning traditional notions of power. Is having a job a class issue? You’d need to take up a job to make a living. Or maybe because you enjoy what you do but that is also a privilege. Most people don’t get the choice. Mothers are only used as plot devices in fantasy where their role relies on motherhood – i.e. if they aren’t killed off – Lily Potter, Molly Weasley, though Daenyrys overturns this a little bit. In The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, while the female protagonists want to be more than their society allows, they’re constrained by their position in society. However, they do overturn it a little bit by the end and take up roles as a doctor, explorer, pirate, and natural historian. Terry Pratchett’s women can be dragon-rearers, witches, prostitutes – though I need to read more to note down other roles.
Jeanette talks about Christian missionaries and their view of meeting people in Asia and Africa and considering them as not really human but fantastical and exotic people who need to be saved. In a lot of popular fantasy, Christianity is used as allegory and metaphor – the underlying framework of the world is one where Christianity is the default and everything else is measured against this. English borrows many words from the Bible and Christianity – which have now unconsciously become a part of the language – godspeed, anointing, crusades, bloody. It’s interesting how language evolves and the role religion plays in this. Hindi phrases also draw from Hindu mythology.
The relationship between religion and patriarchy: in Christianity, women who became nuns and Bedouins sought to escape marriage and traditional womanly lives by turning to religion and using it to talk back to the men in power. Women also wrote and created art and preached throughout history. They found inspiration in religion as well as comfort and escape. They used religion as a way to negotiate patriarchal systems. In traditional mainstream scholarship, women in Christianty have been passive and submissive. However, recent scholarship is unearthing new historical sources which problematises these ideas of women. Scholars are discovering that women were much more active in everyday life. This emergence of new stories reflects academia’s inherent sexism too where knowledge was researched, created and shared by a privileged group of men. Now more marginalised voices get the opportunities to place their perspectives at the forefront. Both academia and religion are more sexist and more empowering than one assumes. The hidden stories and alternate perspectives of Christian stories; which stories you choose to highlight can make it more inclusive now to women. People need to question socially conditioned ideas about women and religion and what they take for granted
Jeanette likes to use the term “alternate patriarchies” to attack the idea of the patriarchy being ever-present. The patriarchy that exists now isn’t eternal because there have been other settings of power – this idea can be empowering that the current system of power will change too. Western thinking and systems of power aren’t universal and everlasting.
Suspension of disbelief can be limited to your worldview – when you’re reading fantasy, why wouldn’t you be open to alternate roles that women played in religion – even if they didn’t know this was based on history?
What is considered pagan and how does it fit into a Christian context – faerie folk? Celtic cultures? Not all religions have the same relationship with the text. In Hinduism, people do have mythology which plays an important role in our rituals and celebrations but it is also beyond that. “Pagan” religions have different relationships with gods – instead of worship, you bargain with them or you’re friends with them or like in Buddhism, you don’t have a god in your faith tradition. There are different relationships with god and the Bible in Christianity than perhaps in Hinduism or African faiths or Greek mythology. Polytheism and monotheism have different ideas of god – flawed gods versus a perfect god.
Religion in science fiction and fantasy makes an appearance in Star Trek, Doctor Who with the Doctor as a religious figure, Dumbledore and Harry’s faith in him, The Last Jedi and Buddhist parallels. You can interpret these SFF faith traditions based on your own background.
The episode also looks at institutions like libraries and museums which were founded to provide a secular place of learning and art outside of religious orders. These spaces are under attack now with funding being cut. It’s a democratic issue with the cuts acting as an attack on poorer people. In Christianity and in Hinduism, priests traditionally controlled literacy and access to knowledge. Now that it’s more democratic, we surely have a responsibility to protect these spaces?