These feel like turbulent times, don’t they? Wait–haven’t I asked that question here before? (I have.) Maybe I should say, these feel like transformative times. And some days it feels more like upheaval than transformation. But I suspect transformation requires an aspect of upheaval. Just as action evokes reaction, reform invites traditionalism, and repression incites rebellion. The more vigorous the stir, the greater the current.
Case in point: the #MeToo Movement and the evolution of gender relations. The sheer breadth of the movement helps to create its impact. And it’s an impact that invites self-reflection, from all of us. I don’t think I’m the only male who’s given pause to reflect, not just on my current attitudes and behavior when it comes to gender, but on my past as well.
For we writers, the impetus to self-examination wrought by social conflict and change is all the greater. It’s sort of what we do. As much as we’d all like to consider ourselves enlightened and progressive on such issues, we can rest assured that the nature of our undertaking—sharing stories rooted in human interaction—will reveal our blind spots and lapses.
After all, if we don’t climb outside our own boxes and take a good look, others will. Even if we diligently strive to be unboxed, we are bound to have our assumptions challenged. And often because of it, our sensibilities must evolve. Or else we’re left clinging to self-delusion. Though that may sound slightly ominous, I’ve come to appreciate it as a benefit of the gig.
Patting My Own Back
I have to admit, writing about gender in this forum is a bit daunting. But I also have to admit, when it comes to the aforementioned self-evaluation and reflection on gender, I tend to give myself pretty good marks. And yet I also realize that the comfort of self-absolution is a trap, and that presumption is the enemy of enlightenment. I also recognize that any enlightenment I can claim is in no small way due to the example and inspiration of the awesome women in my life—particularly my wife and our mothers.
As a writer, I feel that my self-examination on the issue of gender is more crucial than typical because of one of the primary elements of my storytelling—one that appears in every manuscript I’ve undertaken. My stories feature warrior women.
The inclusion is one that I’ve never taken lightly. As evidence of my ongoing reflection on it, I offer a post I wrote over six years ago, titled Regarding Kickass Warrior Chicks. The title helps to illustrate my point about ongoing reflection and evolving sensibilities. At the time, the use of the terms kickass and chicks was meant to be light-hearted. And though I still don’t consider the title offensive, it now strikes me as unnecessary and makes me cringe a little.
I don’t disagree with anything specific in that essay. Indeed, the essay captures a few of my ardent personal truths, and the essence of why I continue to incorporate warrior women in my storytelling. But rereading it, I also better recognize some of my previous lapses and omissions. And hence, the need for an ongoing self-evaluation.
Whether you’re a fan of warrior women in stories or not, their continuing rise in popularity can’t be denied. Though popularity wasn’t a conscious motivation for inventing my female warrior sect, the Skolani, well-meaning friends and family often point out the increasing instances of warrior women in pop culture as good harbingers for the sale of my work.
The instances are too numerous to list, but we’ve gone from Wonder Woman to Xena, from Buffy to Katniss, and from Arya to Rey, and back to Wonder Woman again (in all of her Themyscirian glory). And I, for one, am thankful that there’s no end in sight.
And yet, I don’t see the growing popularity as validation. In fact, in many ways the popularity of warrior women, particularly the screen versions, tends to inspire more self-examination. As it’s often become clear to me, from a feminism standpoint, every instance of the warrior women trend can’t be assumed to be positive or progressive.
Warriors Are People Too
“Buffy may be ‘Barbie with a kung-fu grip,’ but she is still Barbie.”—Lorna Jowett (author of, Sex and The Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan)
I’m sure even the biggest fans of warrior women characters have sensed some level of dissonance with the trope at large. I suppose the most meta argument against warrior women in story would be that their portrayal is so often a mere counter-stereotype. If warrior women are exceptional, let alone astonishing, their very exceptionalism reinforces a traditionalist notion of femininity as passive and complacent in weakness. And thereby reinforces patriarchy.
And I have to admit, in my earliest versions of the Skolani, I included an embarrassing amount of male astonishment. It’s still something I contend with, particularly in the realm of their interaction with my fictional Roman antagonists. I use them as a foil to antagonistic misogyny, but I’m aware of the potential for backsliding to sensationalism.
Beyond the meta, I’ve come to recognize there are several counterproductive sub-tropes, including but not limited to:
Sexualization—This, to me, is the most prevalent. All one has to do to gain an appreciation for the problem is search Pinterest for warrior women. Half of the images you’ll find are hyper-sexualized women, often wearing ridiculous bikini-like armor. This is an issue that I’ve been mindful of throughout my writing journey. And yet, I know I’ve been guilty of placing too much emphasis on the attractiveness of the Skolani. Over time, I’ve consciously sought to remove that emphasis.
I once wrote down a quote that I failed to attribute, but I like the reminder. “Male sex symbols are often forced to compensate for their sexuality with action. For females, it’s often the opposite.”
Enhanced Masculinity—I suppose the physical aspects of this are the most overt—enhanced muscularity and size or height. And there’s an equal danger in attributing the non-physical to masculinity (i.e. aggression, ruthlessness, etc.). But the problem with emphasis on the former and insistence on the latter is that they maintain the symbolic male of patriarchy.
Of this, too, I have been guilty. I used to justify it through the suggestion of the Skolani’s selection process—that they picked the fittest physical specimens as warriors. But I’ve come to see this as a fraught path, too. I’ve since come to focusing on the mental aspects of becoming a warrior—disciplined study of technique and strategy paired with diligent training.
Subservience—More easily explained as Charlie’s Angels Syndrome. If the agency of a warrior woman is directly tied to a male, this could be an issue. It’s certainly not a good model for female empowerment. Though the subject would require more space than I have to devote to it, and since I’m no expert on the character, I think this is part of the problem some fans have with Black Widow (aka Natasha Romanoff).
Though I have featured males with female guardians, I really don’t feel this has been an obstacle for me. In fact, I can think of a few instances where I played with the flip side of this one.
Longing for Domestication—Wherein the warrior woman struggles mightily if reluctantly, all in the hopes of one day settling into a comfy traditional role, often as the wife of a guy who can never really understand her, but that’s okay because she’s leaving her old self behind.
For me, the only tricky part of this one involves avoidance of the patriarchy as a part of her motivation to fight and/or of the domesticity she longs for. I mean, we would never question a male warrior who longed to settle down in a quiet life.
As I say, there are more counterproductive sub-tropes, but my awareness of these and others have all had some effect on my outlook.
Ongoing Evolution and Staying True to Myself
I would guess there are a few storytellers who would see the evolution of my thinking and my adjustments in response to it as a form of selling out. For me it’s been far from it. I suppose a part of my motivation for self-examination of my use of this particular trope is… well, in the hopes of having female readers that identify with my female characters. But it’s more about being true to intent. And, though I necessarily have an incomplete understanding of humans who are different (in this case, female), my intention for the Skolani has never changed. I want them to be empowering and uplifting. Why would I ever stop striving to do a better job of delivering on my intention?
And you know what? I actually continue to like them better. Through every adjustment, every nuanced change, at their core my characters remain who they’ve always been. And I believe the evolution in Skolani culture has only made them better characters.
For me, the #MeToo Movement has not just invited reflection, it’s fueled my desire to do better—to honor the strength and courage of those who’ve stepped into the light seeking to change society for the better. They are the true women warriors. (#Inspiration)
Hopefully, because of my evolving sensibilities—my growth as a human being—my warrior women characters only become more worldly, and fallible, and funny, and occasionally maddening. And thereby more relatable. In other words, more human.
#YouToo? Do the events of the day invite reflection on your work? Can you see the changes in your work due to your evolving sensibilities?[Image is: Amazone, by Max Guitare on Flickr]