The Swordfighting Women Conundrum: A Study

The issue of the swordfighting woman and whether or not we should be rolling our eyes at her is something that we’ve only touched on briefly on this blog. In order to get a more interesting conversation going, let’s refresh our memories on what we’ve said so far, notably in the post For the love of God, would you stop fucking up fairytale movies?

‘So. You think up a bunch of characters that are glaring stereotypes. There’ll be the persecuted royal who wants to have an adventure; the yawn-inducing bad guy who wants…something; two pretty boys with chests bared in a sub-zero climate who are after the same girl and most complex of all, the chick with the sword, complex because nobody seems to know what they want out of putting that sword in her hand. Either she makes a fuck-up of it so she can be rescued by some punchable alpha-male, or she proves a pro at it despite there being no evidence of such a thing being the norm in her family life, culture, or social milieu. So is this stereotype a commendable reversal of gender roles, or isn’t it?’

Let’s forget about the stereotypes that particular piece ranted about and simply use the criteria it lays down to go for a spin around a couple of fantasy kingdoms, this being the genre where the swordfighting woman features the most. Hopefully our journey will allow us to straighten out who becomes a three-dimensional, conflicted human being/feminist through her relationship with her sword and who stays boring and conventional despite being in possession of this exciting accessory.

Snow White – Snow White and the Huntsman

Film Title: Snow White and the Huntsman

 

Is swordfighting acceptable in culture/family life/social milieu?


There is no indication whatever of this. Fantasy world seems to be built on medieval model, no evidence of other female warriors, so probably not.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to character’s psychology/development?


Not really. Her sword and armour in the final battle are reduced to the same status as cute toys or dresses; her use of a sword to kill Ravenna not creating the slightest impression of the primal kinship between herself and her weapon that characterises the better-written warrior women. On the other hand, Snow’s rather idealistic shocked response to Eric’s improvised lesson on how to stab someone with a dagger (which is sort of a sword) could be interpreted as the character’s first shock into the brutal world of real life. This doesn’t precipitate much character development, however: but that’s more or less the permanent state of Snow’s existence.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to plot?


No. Despite Snow’s eventually killing Ravenna thanks to sticking a sword in the right place, you still get the feeling that a brick to the head would have had precisely the same effect. In this movie, it’s not how Ravenna dies that important, only the fact that she does.

 

Does character require rescuing by punchable alpha-male in a battle situation? If yes, is said-saving linked to lack of proficiency, incapacitation of character during battle, or simply to character’s gender?


Mercifully, no. There is evidence of male characters being inspired by this intention throughout, but this scheme thankfully never comes to fruition.

 

So does she need a sword?


No. Feminist enough to triumph and not to require saving, but utterly unconvincing both in terms of character development linked to her sword and of plot.

Brienne of Tarth – Game of Thrones.

Game-of-Thrones-Brienne-of-Tarth

Is swordfighting acceptable in culture/family life/social milieu?

No. Fantasy world built on medieval model. Brienne is often cruelly mocked, both because of her desire to be a knight and her masculine looks. She very seldom meets with compassion or understanding.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to character’s psychology/development?


Yes. In ordinary situations she merely seems to plod clumsily along like a great lump. With a sword in her hand, she soars. It’s only through swordfighting that she feels she is worth something or that her life has a purpose. It’s what saves her from the cruel japes she endures night and day, both in giving her that sense of purpose and in knocking the senses out of her tormentors. On a softer note, swordfighting is also the only way for a woman of her appearance to be close to Renly Baratheon, whom she is unaccountably in love with (you could do so much better, Brienne!) and whose death devastates her.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to plot?


Yes. Her duel/brawl with future best friend/resident pain-in-the-ass-she-happens-to-be-chained-to Jaime Lannister, which ends with her sitting astride him trying to drown him in a stream, is a show stopper that leads straight into a whirlwind of calamitous consequences: their capture by the Brave Companions, Jaime’s loss of his hand and ensuing psychological collapse, their deep, but odd friendship, and the bear pit scene. In terms of later events, it’s also through Brienne’s quest for Sansa Stark that we get our first glimpse of Lady Stoneheart.

 

Does character require rescuing by punchable alpha-male? If yes, is said-saving linked to incapacitation of character during battle, or simply to character’s gender?


No. Requires saving by Gendry due to incapacitation in battle, Gendry certainly qualifying as male but is neither an alpha male nor particularly punchable. Incapacitation is here defined as unconsciousness while Biter was ripping chunks out of her face.

 

So does she need a sword?


Yes. Swordfighting is her strength and her worth; it’s her entire life; it’s how she fights injustice by defending the weak and slaughtering the evil; as much a part of her as breathing.

Morgana Pendragon – Merlin

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Is swordfighting acceptable in culture/family life/social milieu?


Yes and no. Took lessons with Arthur as a child and possesses ready-made sword and armour. It is implied that these are simply provided for self-defense. As a woman, cannot issue challenges without causing an uproar; women do not fight in jousts/battles alongside men. Ultimately ends up doing just as she pleases; is consequently experienced in battle.

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to character’s psychology/development?

No. Morgana’s psychological development is considerable, but primarily through self-doubt and fear of her magic being exposed gradually transforming into raging, revenge-driven evil that allows most mischief to be perpetrated without recourse to swords.

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to plot?

Yes. Her swordsmanship makes substantial contribution to winning of many days and several stand-offs with Merlin, her use of it to escape kidnappers obligingly creating the need for Gwen to be rescued rather than her (sigh).

 

Does character require rescuing by punchable alpha-male? If yes, is said-saving linked to lack of proficiency, incapacitation of character during battle, or simply to character’s gender?


No. More often requires consoling and reassuring than rescuing. When she does, it is habitually by her sister Morgause, another proficient swordfighter.

 

So does she need a sword?


No. Her character would have developed in precisely the same way and she would still be the heroine of all Arthurian feminists without having to possess a sword.

Éowyn Dernhelm – The Lord of the Rings

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Is swordfighting acceptable in culture/family life/social milieu?

Yes; culture of ‘shieldmaidens’ brought up to believe that ‘the women of this country learned long ago that those without swords could still die upon them.’ It only seems acceptable for shieldmaidens to fight, however, when men are away at war and cannot protect them: they don’t fight in battles or wars.

 

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to character’s psychology/development?


Yes. Éowyn’s love for her sword is deep, both from a cultural perspective and because she sees it as the only means available to her to fight for the ones she loves against the armies of Sauron. It is her way out of the future she predicts for herself i.e. spending the rest of her life shut up indoors until her spirit breaks and her chance of valour is lost. Half-wild, stubborn and angry at being forbidden from fighting, she disguises herself as a man and makes it to the battle at Pelennor Fields, where her spirit undergoes a grueling and brutal test.

Does swordfighting contribute substantially to plot?

Yes. Her killing of the Witch King of Angmar is legendary.

 

Does character require rescuing by punchable alpha-male? If yes, is said-saving linked to lack of proficiency, incapacitation of character during battle, or simply to character’s gender?


Yes and no. Is only able to kill the Witch King thanks to Merry’s first stabbing him in the back, which gives her the opportunity to loosen his grip on her throat and deal the final blow, an action that has frequently been construed as proof of sexism on Tolkien’s part. More dead than alive, she is afterwards in need of prodigious healing by Aragorn, and a good long spell in the Houses of Healing, where she meets future husband Faramir and affectionately describes him as having ‘tamed’ her. Now, neither Merry, Aragorn or Faramir are punchable alpha males (okay, maybe Aragorn’s a bit of an alpha male), but all of them help, in a certain way, to get Éowyn from one cage straight into another. Worst of all, she’s only too happy to go! Everything’s okay now, Sauron’s been defeated, so she can hang her sword up, marry Faramir and have babies. Please don’t misunderstand me. Faramir and Éowyn are my favourite LOTR couple; I deeply lament the lack of scenes between them and I’m convinced in my heart that Éowyn would challenge Faramir to a duel if he tried to do the domineering ‘my lord husband’ thing. But despite the fact that Éowyn finds the glory she’s looking for, sees that she misinterpreted her feelings for Aragorn and meets her soul mate, at the end of the day, she’s still seen as a spirited woman who has to be tamed and married off. It’s a very 1950’s attitude and is a bit of a cock-up on Tolkien’s part that he’s allowed this kind of bullshit to creep into such a good thing.

So does she need a sword?

Yes. She wouldn’t be herself without one. A sword is her chance for another life, and the chance to add it to thousands of others to fight for good is a major driving force in her character.

Conclusion

A woman with a sword is not as common a thing in our history, mythology and culture as a man with a sword. Where a swordfighting woman appears, she is outnumbered ten thousand to one. A sword can represent an ideal, a person, a past, a future, a people, an entire life. It can also represent nothing at all, and be empty, meaningless, or trick us into seeing something that isn’t actually there. Giving a female character a sword should serve a purpose. It should create something in her character, or at least in the plot. Randomly slapping a sword to her hip does not prove that the character is meant to be a feminist. That sword has to mean something, both to her and to us. If it does mean something, you’ve succeeded in creating that feminism. If it means nothing, all you’ve done is pretend to.

Featured image courtesy of thewaymarks.files.wordpress.com

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