About Kick-ass Women
Have you seen the teaser for Rogue One yet? No?! Well, sit back my friend and watch this:
Is that cool, or what? I just looove this line:
This is a rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel.
This teaser is firing on all channels for me – the Dirty Dozen meets Star Wars. I mean, sure, it means that we have another movie with a Death Star in it (3 out of 8, if you’re counting) and, sure, is it really plausible that the crime “aggravated assault” (which, as a friend has pointed out, has a bit of a fiddly legal definition) would show up in a Galaxy Far Far Away? Maybe not, but I don’t really care. It looks raucously awesome and I just can’t wait.
And yet, there are a contingent of creeps and jackholes out there who are whining and moaning things along the lines of “what, another female lead?” and then follow it with a load of idiotic MRA chauvinist garbage. Now, these nimrods are being appropriately shouted down by…well…just about everybody and I suppose I could spend this post ranting and raving about why they’re miserable slugs. Instead of talking about how bad they are, though, I’d like to spend some time talking about why I, a man, really love kick-ass female lead characters.
Let’s see, where to begin…oh yeah…
My Mother Kicks Ass
I could tell stories about how incredibly badass my mother is for a while (hell, I could tell stories about how badass all the women in my family are), but that would make this post a bit long and (checking watch) I’ve got about 700 more words before most of you lose interest. I will, however, give you this small taste:
Before I was born, my parents were driving in a van late at night with a friend. My father was asleep in the back seat and the friend was driving. The highway had the whole right lane closed, marked off with those big orange-and-white cans every thirty or forty feet. There wasn’t much room on the road – no shoulder to speak of, just a big ditch right off the side.
Suddenly, barrelling up the road and laying on its horn, is a runaway semitruck. He’s flashing his lights, he’s honking – basically screaming “Can’t stop! Look Out!”
The guy driving the van freezes – the truck is going to overtake them, and either run them off the road into a ditch or smash them flat. Leaping into action, my mother leans across the center console, grabs the wheel with one hand, and proceeds to pilot the car from the passenger seat into the lane marked off by traffic cans. Not only does she do this, but she slaloms in and out of the cans, allowing the semi to move over just enough to they aren’t crushed and yet not so far over into the work zone that they hit the abandoned road-repair equipment, piles of gravel, etc..
All from the passenger seat while the driver screams.
So, yeah, my mom is badass. Hell, mothers in general are badasses and all of us men should be at least tangentially aware of this fact. Having been raised by the terrestrial equivalent of Ellen Ripley, I kinda dig characters that channel that primal emotive force that is the “protective mother.” Can’t understand why anybody wouldn’t. It’s awesome!
And even beyond this relatively narrow role of “mother,” kick-ass female leads represent a fresh perspective on the tired old trope of the muscle-bound, grim male protagonist. We have, as a culture, been limiting ourselves for a very, very long time with this “boys only” nonsense. I mean, come on – don’t you get just a little bored of only seeing men defeat the bad guys, over and over again? And sure, the misogynists of the world are apt to yelp “but it isn’t realistic, a girl beating up men!”
First off, fuck you – my mom could kick your ass. So could probably hundreds of women. To quote Germaine Greer
here for a second:
Only a minute proportion of males will ever come within reach of an Olympic record, but the achievements of male record-holders empower all men. The implication that the weakest man must be stronger and faster than any woman whatsoever is obviously absurd.
In the context of fiction, there is simply no excuse for using the idea that “most” men are physically stronger than “most” women to deny women the spotlight. I mean, sure, that’s technically true, but most women are not Imperator Furiosa just like most men are not Mad Max.
Women can and do and have competed with men on all manner of fields and won. That is unequivocal truth. Women such as that deserve to have their stories told not because they are women, but because they represent and entire new set of experiences and ideas and stories that just haven’t been sufficiently explored.
Strength Isn’t All About Punching!
And furthermore, the idea that we should deny women the lead in adventure films because they aren’t able to bench press the same amount as the guys is really, really stupid. “Strength” does not always translate directly into being kick-ass and such is a very narrow and, again, boring view to ascribe to. Take Leia, for instance – sure, she knows her way around a blaster, fine – but I would argue her most heroic moments aren’t physical ones at all. The way she stares death in the face while captive on the Death Star and doesn’t bat an eyelash. The way she takes charge in Hoth and, with her guidance, saves the lives of hundreds of rebels. She’s there while the base is falling around her ears and has to literally be dragged away from her post by Han. That is courage and heroism equal to any character, male or female. It’s inspiring, its interesting, and it is unequivocally badass.
In short, I love kickass female leads! They inspire me, they remind me of the women I love, and they are every bit as exciting (if not more so) than the male leads we’re all used to. There aren’t enough of them out there, frankly, and I am very pleased that the Star Wars franchise is stepping up and introducing us to more of them.
I can’t wait.
By The Way…
The Oldest Trick is still on sale, but not for long! If you like kickass female characters, this book won’t disappoint – just wait until you meet Hool! And Tyvian’s mom! And Myreon Alafarr! Go get it now!
In Memoriam: Tasha Yar
Today, I saw Lt. Tasha Yar of the USS Enterprise get killed by an evil alien oil slick. The event was every bit as lame as I remembered it. It wasn’t so much that it was sudden – I have always been somewhat pleased that the evil alien oil slick just killed somebody to start off, since that makes sense (if only the Daleks were so direct) – no, my problem was that it was pointless and arbitrary.
Though, now that I’m thinking about it, her death was not significantly more pointless or arbitrary than Tasha Yar’s character as a whole, so in this sense, the death was fitting. Tasha’s character was sketchy at best; she came from a dark past, but we never really believed it. There was nothing about her that indicated a childhood of fear and anger and aggression. Yes, there was a lot of talk about ‘rape gangs’ (she was always itching to tell the bridge crew about the rape gangs), but her smiles were a bit too sunny and her personality just a bit too balanced to fill out the character. She was a woman who was good at martial arts and…well…something about rape gangs.
Denise Crosby, who portrayed Tasha, wanted off the show before a season was out since her character was not being developed, and I don’t blame her. I mean, what was she given to do, exactly? It almost seemed as if the writers got this novel idea for a (hold on to your hats, folks) woman who (get this) knows aikido and runs security! Then, after creating this character, they thought to themselves “well, jeez, any woman who knows aikido probably didn’t have parents and had to dodge rape gangs!” Shortly after this conversation, they ran out of ideas and then just had Denise Crosby talk about…well…nothing for twenty-some-odd episodes. Occasionally she lamely shot something with a phaser.
Tasha Yar, to my mind, was a victim not of an oil slick monster, but of two things:
- Screenwriters in 1987 had no idea what to do with a woman who could beat up men, so they didn’t bother trying.
- Gene Roddenberry couldn’t write believable ‘gritty’ characters if they wore skull necklaces and ate babies.
Apparently, according to the internet, Tasha Yar was supposed to based on Vasquez from Aliens – the tough chick with the giant machine gun. The thing is, though, while Vasquez was able to out-macho the guys in an environment full of machismo, Yar is stuck in a world of gender neutral clothing and a complete lack of the crass, devil-may-care attitude our culture assigns to ‘manly-men’. So, if your point is to introduce a female character who can keep up with the guys in the combat arena, but you stick her in a society where they don’t believe in fighting and do not indulge in the typical male posturing around warrior-hood, you quickly find that your character isn’t edgy or groundbreaking or even interesting. She’s just part of the furniture.
But, you know, that should be good, right? Tasha was so believable as security chief that it was never a big deal that she was security chief. Well, if they had played it straight like that, maybe it would have worked. Instead, though, they always had her obsessing over her femininity and went out of their way to show her as feminine (1987 keeps nudging you and saying “guys, she’s a girl! Get it! A GIRL!”). This starts to get weird and confusing. You, the viewer, start saying things like “look television, I understand that Tasha is competent and tough and am totally okay with that…but why are you having her complain about not having pretty clothes like Troi?”
In the end, the character was a hot mess, and not in the good way. She just didn’t seem to make sense; she was an incomplete sketch, more so than any other character on that show in the first season. The only real character hook she seemed to have was the possession of breasts, even though the whole point of the character was that it didn’t matter that she had breasts. What’s an audience supposed to do with that? What is an actress supposed to do?
Well, apparently, what is done is see to it that you are killed by an evil alien oil slick.
Fare thee well, Tasha. You set the stage for Ensign Ro Laren and, later, Major Kira in DS9, so you can be said to have not lived in vain. You also have the distinction of being more interesting than almost every character on Voyager. That, though, isn’t saying very much.
Punching Doesn’t Make You ‘Strong’
Somewhere in the past, while action movie and scifi and fantasy writers were trying to figure out how to attract female fans without having to insert emotion into their work, some guy came up with the Kick-Ass Girl trope. I guess perhaps we could say it started with Eowyn from Return of the King, but I’m not sure that’s accurate – Eowyn was strong not because she kicked ass, but because she was brave, and that’s a different thing. I think, instead, it started with Molly from Gibson’s Neuromancer (though perhaps I ought to have started with various comic book heroines, but whatever).
Molly is a kick-ass mercenary who murders bad guys and looks really hot while doing it. Her whole thing is a kind of mixture of sex and violence, and she inspires a whole legion of female characters who work off the same idea. The idea is this, as represented by what I imagine to be a brainstorming session between a writer and a producer/agent/other writer:
Person 1: We need a woman in this adventure story, but let’s make it a strong woman.
Person 2: What makes a strong woman?
Person 1: Well, she needs to be able to hold her own with the guys.
Person 2: What, so she, like, knows kung fu?
Person 1: Hmmm…yeah, let’s go with that. Super strength and kung fu. Yeah – that’s hot.
From this model we basically get not only Molly, but also Lara Croft, Wonder Woman, Xena: Warrior Princess, Summer Glau in both Firefly *and* Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, and the list goes on and on and on and on…
First of all, I should note that there is nothing wrong with a woman being able to physically dominate in a fight. The thing I find troublesome about it is the fact that many, if not most or all, of the writers for these stories are basically using the character’s capacity for physical violence as a stand-in for their actual status as a strong, independent, equal person in the story. The thing is, though, that being able to beat up thugs doesn’t make someone into a strong person. This isn’t and never has been true, either for men or women. It’s smoke-and-mirrors, a disguise for lazy characterization.
This trope is, of course, understandable given that, for much of literature (and particularly the genres of adventure, action, fantasy, and scifi), women were the exact opposite of that – weak, unable to physically compete, and used as window dressing as often as not. It’s a kind of pendulum swing that was inevitable – now, if you want a strong woman, she has to kick ass.
I watched the series pilot of Prime Suspect last night, starring Maria Bello as a female homicide detective in NYC. Watching her play the role (and play it wonderfully), I started thinking about what a real strong person is. It isn’t somebody who goes to the gym or has super powers or can beat up people twice his or her size – it’s about courage. It’s about doing what’s right and standing up for yourself and others. It’s about being intelligent enough to find ways to solve problems, wise enough to know how to do it, and brave enough to follow through. Maria Bello’s character is exactly that – she perserveres against enormous pressure, she controls herself, she doesn’t flinch. At the end, she gets her ass kicked by a giant thug of a man, but it doesn’t matter – we don’t think less of her for it. You know why? Punching him into submission didn’t make her a strong person. That isn’t what strength is about.
For me, the strongest woman I know in real life is my mother. There is nobody on this Earth that messes with her family and gets away with it, and it isn’t because she’s going to punch your lights out. It’s because she’s something most of us aren’t – committed to doing what’s right, no matter how scary. I could tell you stories about the brave things my mother has done, but let’s leave it at this: My brother died slowly and horribly of a disease worse than any I can think of. It took it fifteen years or so to kill him, all the while robbing little pieces of himself – his sight, his ability to walk, his ability to chew, his ability to talk, etc.. He wound up living the last eight years of his life or so in a pediatric nursing home, since he needed constant care. It was an hour’s drive away, and my mother visited almost every day. This, though, isn’t why I call her courageous.
This nursing home was the last stop for a crew of children who could best be described as abandoned by society. Their families couldn’t handle seeing them the way they were – all with permanent neurological or physical damage to the point where they would never recover, never walk out of there, never get better. It had all the atmosphere of a soul-killing purgatoy, where drab gray hospital walls echoed with the sounds of automatic feeding machines and gutteral moans. My mother marched in there every day to see her little boy, but she didn’t do just that. She looked out for every kid on that floor. She brought them christmas presents when nobody else did. She made sure they were comfortable. She made sure the nurses hadn’t left them with the same movie on loop for hours and hours on end. She made damned sure they got their baths and that their linens were clean and that they were remembered. The staff tried passively ignoring her at first, but they soon learned what the wrath of my mother could be like – guilt trips and blunt assessments of their worth as human beings that came blistering out her mouth at such a temperature that their hair curled. She slapped the place into shape. She spent more of her own money helping those kids than anybody had before or since. She didn’t have to do this.
She did it because it needed to be done, and you know what? She never once threw a punch.