The Action Girl Mandate, or Why All the Princesses Know Kung Fu

Saturday , 11, March 2017 25 Comments

Tauriel was not in the original Hobbit novel.

As I’ve viewed a lot of TV shows and movies and, read a lot of books, and played a lot of video games, I’ve come to notice a curious pattern, whether the work is a non-political adventurous romp, a right-wing love letter to guns and ammo, an ultra-progressive screed against men and whites, or a hyper-kinetic anime: One must show females fighting just like men. It is amazing how consistent this is — it seems to be the one thing that everyone agrees is essential.

They seem to be a kind of pre-emptive crouch, a token used to avoid accusations of sexism. Of course, it doesn’t work — feminists will happily brand you and your work as “sexist” even if your females wield weapons just as effectively as men, simply because you didn’t acquiesce to one piece of propaganda or another. After all nothing other than total submission will satisfy a feminist.

Note how creators try to describe their lady characters as “strong” almost reflexively. Every woman, especially love interests, must do karate and spit snark — virtually anything else is dismissed as insulting to women. “Toughness” is taken to be the measure of how a female should be protrayed, as if women are supposed to be in some unconscious war with the male sex. While feminine women in modern fiction do exist, there’s always a compulsion to put in a butt-kicking babe to balance it out, or to give said feminine woman fighting skills.

The classic Disney Princess movies are a favorite punching bag for feminists. Many of the heroines aren’t knocking someone out or cutting down their men with witty one-liners, so those movies are seen as morally compromised. By contrast, children’s entertainment always includes females dropping somebody with their ultra-elite martial arts skills. Showing a children’s cartoon with traditional sex roles would likely prove more controversial among the media than showing bestiality. Indeed, the creator would likely be branded a Taliban Nazi woman-beater and forced out of whatever studio he works out of.

All this is not to say that writing action girls makes you a bad person, or that these types of works should be purged with cleansing fire. It’s just that it is so commonplace that we write it without thinking more deeply about why. I freely admit that I sometimes like action girls very much, especially when there isn’t an undercurrent of anti-male hostility. However, we do not need to act as if some commissar will jail us for crimes against feminism if we don’t like to see every princess go Wonder Woman on somebody.

  • H.P. says:

    “I can look after myself,” said my 17-year-old.

    “But men are stronger than women,” I said. “When it comes to violence, they are at an advantage.”

    “That’s a sexist thing to say,” she replied.

    A girl who had absorbed nothing at school had nevertheless absorbed the shibboleths of political correctness in general and of feminism in particular.

    “But it’s a plain, straightforward, and inescapable fact,” I said.

    “It’s sexist,” she reiterated firmly.

  • H.P. says:

    Note that The Wheel of Time, which features enormous numbers of female characters, female characters wielding enormous amounts of power, and even female characters fighting, is never lauded for it. Why? Because the women act realistically as women.

    • Alex says:

      Exactly! In fact, women sort of run the world in WoT for story-related reasons that make perfect sense. And they are portrayed as real women (if a bit overdone in the other direction).

      Man, that series started out so good…

  • Alex says:

    You hit this point out of the park Rawle. When you notice something appearing in every singe piece of pop culture, you have to scratch your head and ask “Why?”

    As you said, “action girls” can work in stories. But they’ve become the default to a puzzling degree to the point of, as you pointed out in the caption to the picture you included in this post, shoehorning them into stories where they previously didn’t exist.

    Where were all of Tolkien’s female fans in previous generations clamoring for more kick-ass action girls? They seemed to have enjoyed the stories just fine. And Eowyn does take out the leader of the Naz-gul after all.

    A final point about Disney princesses: Many of those characters used other attributes and skills, such as their intelligence, to achieve their goals. Also, many of them succeeded *because* of what we consider traditionally feminine virtues. Belle in Beauty and the Beast comes to mind: Patient, empathetic, curious, slightly vulnerable, and a whole lot of smart. So she wasn’t spin-kicking Gaston in the face, so what?

    Dorothy didn’t slice-and-dice the Wicked Witch. Who cares?

    Anyway, I’m thinking too much about this. Great article.

    PS are: Tolkien, it’s not as if the hobbits were action heroes either.

  • B&N says:

    The idea is that women can defend themselves just fine and don’t need guns–that’s why gun-free zones, like colleges and dorms, never have reports of sexual assault.
    Before the invention of the gun in 1300–during the Dark Ages–sexual assault was unknown. It’s only when a man points a gun at an action-girl that she can be taken advantage of.

  • Andy says:

    I always think about the recent John Carter movie, which I do enjoy but it’s a very flawed adaptation because it gets hung up on this sort of thing.

    Book version of Dejah Thoris: No apparent fighting ability, but she goes to the green men on a diplomatic mission to beg for their aid despite knowing they could very well kill her at their leisure.

    Movie version: Totally kicks ass with a sword, but she runs away from an arranged marriage that as far as anyone knows could save her kingdom because she’s frightened and doesn’t feel in control of her life. Ends up among the green men mostly by accident.

    Which one sounds braver, more selfless, and “stronger” to you?

    • Jesse Lucas says:

      That’s one of the worst contradictions converged or partially converged fiction gets tangled up in, how the action girls actually become weaker and less in charge of their lives. The very worst (blessedly avoided in the John Carter movie) is when they try to make things morally grey to be realistic, except they’re not actually morally grey they just like to think they are, and they wind up making the heroes villains and villains heroes, all the while treating the audience as if they don’t notice what just happened.

      Sympathetic villains that build up their own fanbase are a sign of good storytelling, as are impressive female characters, but apparently if you lean on that lever too hard it breaks.

    • Jeffro says:

      Wait a minute. The fact that she was willing to do right by her people and marry the bad guy is what established the fact that she was a woman of true character, and worthy to lay eggs for John Carter!!!!

      Can these movie people get anything right? It’s like the moral dimension of these characters is completely baffling to them!

  • Chris says:

    And, when fighting a much larger man they inevitably employ what we call in my home, “The Girl Move.” Leaping effortlessly onto the man’s shoulders, the Warrior-girl wraps her thighs around his head and bears him to the ground where he remains, incapacitated.

    I’m sure it would work just like that…

  • deuce says:

    Despite enjoying tales from REH, Moore and Brackett featuring women who were proficient in combat, I’m gut-sick of this trope nowadays. It’s unrealistic and even dyscivic, to a certain extent.

    An excellent recent novel showing a woman using her traditional feminine strengths is Willocks’ THE TWELVE CHILDREN OF PARIS. It’s borderline sword & sorcery and a great read. A review here:

    • Andy says:

      I don’t mind women being capable fighters – even our male heroes are rarely the biggest and strongest people in the story, which helps create suspense as they have to rely on wits and sometimes downright cheating at least as much as brute force.

      My problem is when the laws of physics get blatantly violated and a woman who’s maybe 100 pounds soaking wet is punching out a huge slab of a guy. Come on, now.

    • deuce says:

      That’s basically what I meant. I don’t deny that women can be effective combatants, just that I’m tired of reading about such constantly. Their ubiquity now has numerous downsides.

      It really is time to make all sports competitions unisex. Much more efficient economically and it would force millions of people to face reality.

  • One of my favorite characters is Betty Sorenson from Heinlein’s “The Star Beast”. Heinlein in general wrote excellent female characters.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    This brazen appeal to go grrl women is also wildly counterproductive. It’s eating your seed corn. I have a longer essay about this dropping later in the week, but essentially it’s Madison Avenue chasing female dollars thinking that it doubles the market. What they don’t realize is that where women enter, men leave, and when the men leave, the women follow until the overall market for their product shrinks.

    The converse is not true. Women have been well trained to respond to ‘this is for men’ with a Pavlovian, ‘I’ll show you!’ The moral is, appeal to men and the women will follow.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    It’s also why the lone hero-ette in my works (Corbie, of Wyrm’s Bane) wins by running away, cunning, and countering the men who threaten her with violence by seeking out the protection of bigger men.

    • A. Nonymous says:

      This is pretty much exactly how Mira Sorvino’s character acts in The Hades Factor, which makes her probably the most (only?) convincing “action girl” I’ve seen onscreen.

  • Just throwing out my two cents’ worth:

    Crafting action scenes is easy. They just need to look and feel visceral. Most people are satisfied with that. Pop culture had had decades of experience to perfect the art.

    When they first appeared, Action Girls were a novelty. They occupied roles usually performed by men (i.e. slugging it out with the Bad Guys) in high-intensity action scenes. The combination of visceral thrills and novelty cemented their place in the popular consciousness.

    By contrast, skills and qualities like statescraft, leadership, diplomacy, cunning and deception require greater thought to pull off. The creator needs to have an innate understanding of human psychology to do it right, and that is far harder than to simply choreographing Just Another Action Scene. It requires a different skillset than making action look and feel good, one that isn’t valued or demonstrated much in today’s market.

    Further, these scenes have different emotional registers. Action scenes are thrilling and pleasing and conjure huge overriding emotions. They lead immediately to the following scene, allowing easy tracking of events.

    Scenes of diplomacy, assertiveness or manipulation do not leave such a massive emotional impact. Instead, they trigger softer, more subtle feelings of satisfaction, relief, even awe. The emotional payoff of such scenes may arise further down the story, requiring the reader to think about the long(er)-term and to track the story more carefully.

    SJWs and their ilk are hooked on Big Action Scenes with Big Powerful Emotions. It resonates with the high they experience when they belt out their usual nonsense. Scenes with lesser, more subtle emotional beats don’t register with them. They have little to no sense of long-term consequences, just of immediate impact and the rush that comes with every high-action event.

    For people like that, emotions are indistinguishable from truth. To them, there is no truth but the truth of Strong Independent Female. And woe betide the creator who refuses to acknowledge that.

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