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.