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Fight, Woman, Fight

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In a week, I’m testing for my orange belt in kajukenbo at a local women’s martial arts school. In addition to the ass-kicking elements you might expect, a portion of the test is devoted to the history of women in combat. I’ve been studying about shield-maidens, Amazons, revolutionaries and resistance fighters, and, not surprisingly, thinking a lot about female costumed heroes.

Strange as it may sound, fighting is a pretty intimate exercise. There’s a lot of close body contact. As Brad Pitt and Ed Norton eloquently demonstrated in Fight Club, your relationship to someone who’s kicked you in the gut (and who you’ve kicked right back) can take on a weird, semi-transcendent gloss.

Is it the adrenaline? The resurgence of your most basic fight-or-flight instincts? Who knows. Given the intimacy of the sport, it’s not surprising that some women (and some men…again a la Fight Club) choose to train in a single-sex environment. For some, it’s more logical; for others, more comfortable.

I’ve seen a barrier-shattering range of women come together to fight: from radical feminists and queer folk to orthodox Jews and Muslims. In the middle of a sparring combination, the rawest and most vital elements of a woman’s personality come through, suspending differences in belief and intellect. A martial art, like any art, is a form of self-expression.

Yet the typical superheroine doesn’t combine femininity and fighter spirit in a way that feels authentic. A superheroine can be both a woman and a fighter, but she is rarely both at once. We’ve seen countless splash panels in which a resident team tough-girl shows up in a cute dress, in lingerie, with jewelry glistening; it’s the contrast between her mop-the-floor-with-him martial skills and her girlishness that’s meant to make us look twice.

Neither role allows for the expression of a definite personality. By contrast, you often discover richer character details about Daredevil or Batman during silent fight scenes than you do when they go off on philosophical tangents.

There’s no reason a woman’s personality can’t be expressed through combat in much the same way. Think of the first fight scene between Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which we discover who these women really are and what secrets they’ve been hiding. I bring this movie up because it was wildly successful despite the off-formula inclusion of two female leads.

Whenever the subject of women-in-comics comes up, someone inevitably suggests that female characters don’t enjoy the same popularity as their male counterparts because the comic-reading audience is primarily male.

In other words, because men don’t want to read about women. I think the success of Crouching Tiger and the warrior-woman-heavy subgenre it spawned is proof that guys like watching female fighters, even if they never take off their clothes or don a single miniskirt. There’s no reason they shouldn’t like reading about them also.

And I think they would, if superheroines were utilized with the same martial eloquence as superheroes. In fact, I think we’re already headed in that direction: the new Batwoman has rightly been praised for her forceful, precise characterization, thanks in part to gorgeously expressive fight sequences. She’s truly a Batwoman…not a bat chick, not a bat riot grrl, not a bat ingénue.

On a similar mission, Gail Simone valiantly battles Wonder Woman’s rap as an ice bucket in star-spangled grandma panties, rolling out stories in which Diana’s character consistently shines through each punch and elegantly conflicted frown.

In other words, this isn’t a complaint—merely a series of observations. I’m not worried about the future of superheroines, or of women in comics generally. With a few course-corrections, I think female characters could fill up 22 pages with the same shin-kicking gravitas as any dark knight. It’s already started. Our only challenge is to continue recognizing stories done right, and build on them.

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Comments

  • Anthony_Z

    Anthony_Z Sep 29, 2009 at 12:15am

    Heya! Awesome column and something I totally agree with.

    I think that the issue of femininity and violence is still an issue in a lot of creative industries though and something I know I?ve butted heads with people over professionally before with regards to design. The one that really gets to me though is when someone wants to create a ?strong female character? and does this by making the sarcastic, streetwise tomboy. It?s become as much a sexist cliché as the damsel in distress. What offends me the most about these types of characters is that they make a supposedly strong female character by making them more male, by stripping away all their feminine qualities. I don?t know if it?s because writing a female character is a daunting prospect, if they?ve never really known a woman before, think it will connect better with a male audience or what the reasoning is but it seems the only way a lot of male creators are comfortable with having a female character interact with a violent world is by making them, ?one of the boys.?

    And then of course there is the issue of this hidden sexuality. Sure they dress like a boy but it?s made sure that they?re still pretty and you know at some point there is going to come the time they get all dolled up and all the boys lose it over this girl they never thought about in that way before. In other words, the only time these female characters are allowed to be feminine is when they?re displaying ?traditional? female values, the rest of the time they have to be a boy.

    But my rant aside, I think there is a real sense of momentum within comics at the moment that is challenging a lot of these issues. The fact that I can give an issue of Supergirl to a female friend of mine and not be worried about cleavage, butt and panty shots and her thinking I am a perv, I think, is a good and clear indication of that.

  • Anthony_Z

    Anthony_Z Sep 29, 2009 at 12:19am

    I apologise for the formatting issues. Something seems to have gone wrong when I cut and pasted this from Word...yes the rant took me a while to get out during spare minutes at work...

  • Eric Lindberg

    Eric Lindberg Sep 29, 2009 at 12:48am

    Nice column. I'm glad you mentioned Wonder Woman. Even before Simone's run, that's a character whose personality was evident even in fight sequences. You could tell that though she can kick anyone's ass, she's hesitant to do so, as violence is a last resort in her belief system. Another one I'd point to is the Cassandra Cain version of Batgirl. Since her speaking ability was limited when she was first introduced, much of her personality came through in battle or in subtle body language. The insane martial arts ability was balance by genuine emotion and alienation. As for male readers not wanting to read about female characters, I've never understood that. Many comics characters are quite far from our own life experiences, yet we have no trouble relating to them. Why should a difference of gender be an obstacle when an origin on a distant planet or having a bazillion dollars and a butler is not? Do women seem more foreign to male comics fans than aliens, mutants, and gods? (Wow, that's a telling statement if so.)

  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Sep 29, 2009 at 3:26am

    Anyone remember DC Comics' Chase by Dan Curtis Johnson and JH Williams? Now there was a complex and intelligent female protagonist ... there's also Manhunter at DC. And though there isn't nearly enough ofcourse, I think the tide is slowly turning in superhero comics regarding female characters. Though the ingrained male dominance is hard to beat, I guess. Superheroes are mostly synonamous with Supermen.

  • Anthony_Z

    Anthony_Z Sep 29, 2009 at 10:18pm

    The only shame with Manhunter is that she is relegated to co-feature status at the moment. And infinitely better than the main feature.

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