- and horse
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by Douglas Eby
Expressing how much she appreciated "Kill Bill" and its subversive female characters, writer Molly Haskell noted: ".. if feminism is about anything it's about the right - the obligation, even - to explore, critically and creatively, a whole range of emotional and physical possibilities that have been throttled by restrictive taboos.
"I happen to think Tarantino's kung-fu divas are a great deal more original, even 'womanly' than they have been given credit for, and certainly a lot more exciting than the usual babes-in-spandex action heroines."
In another article, Haskell considers that a number of films in 2003 have "brought us a more interesting and disconcerting breed of female warrior... Uma Thurman slices and dices her way through a whole passel of chauvinist pigs and female villains..."
She notes these characters have been considered problematical because of their often exuberant use of violence, thought it may be clearly justified in some way.
"Precisely because women have traditionally been more peace-loving than men," Haskell wrote, "it's more ambiguous and more of a story when they do take up arms or pursue an enemy into dangerous territory.
"Revenge or devotion to family might be the one motive by which we can accept violence in a woman... Cate Blanchett appears in Sony's 'The Missing,' a Western set in 19th-century New Mexico, in which she and her estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones) set out together to find her kidnapped daughter, and Blanchett's peace-loving 'healer' learns to use a gun."
One of the pleasures of "Kill Bill Vol. 1" was the Uma Thurman character's intense training. From an earlier era, Emma Peel in "The Avengers" (most notably played by Diana Rigg) was described by one writer as "an intellectual versed in martial arts.. tough without ever appearing unfeminine."
A British TV series, "The Avengers" aired in the U.S. 1966 to 1969. Prof. Sherrie Inness, author of the book: "Tough Girls..." [source of the above quote] notes that even though Peel was "untraditional in her toughness and her choice of profession.. she could not break free of certain gender stereotypes. Namely, she still adhered to the notion that women must be sexually attractive to men, and she maintained a socially acceptable feminine appearance."
In an interview for Whoosh, Innes commented, "I think sexuality works very differently for men and women in the media. Men can be sexy without having it diminish their toughness. Women, however, are much more likely to battle with the fact that sexiness is often seen as diminishing their toughness."
In the contemporary series "Alias" Jennifer Garner plays Sydney Bristow, a young woman "recruited out of college and trained for espionage and self-defense" with skills including Krav Maga, Pilates, track & field, linguistics, theatre arts, and languages including French, Taiwanese, Mandarin, and Hebrew.
The series has become very popular, thanks to Garner's complexity and dynamic work in the role, and an emotional depth and richness not often found in action characters.
"Alias" writer and producer J.J. Abrams says the role was created for Garner: "There was something about her that I just thought was really special. I always thought she had something in her personality that was funnier and sexier and smarter and more mischievous than anything I'd seen her do. And when I wrote Sydney, I wanted to show that."
Garner commented in an interview in 2001 on her own response to action films: "'Charlie's Angels' and 'Crouching Tiger' are my two favorite movies this year," she said. "I left both of them feeling empowered and strong... It's seeing a woman's natural vulnerability, and overcoming that."
She has also said about"Alias": "I've never felt more powerful as a woman. I'm stronger and more confident, and I know it's from the character. When I play the role, I feel that I stand up straighter, and if somebody confronted me, I would be ready for them in a way that I never have been."
In a 2002 interview, Garner said she hoped that women "continue to play action roles. It's incredibly empowering to do and I hope it's incredibly empowering to watch as long as there's a character behind them the way I've been lucky in that both of my action things are rooted in story and in character [about her series: "Alias" and feature film: "Daredevil"].
Michelle Yeoh has performed in a series of martial arts films including "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." In her indieWIRE interview, she commented about the popularity of the film: "It's good that now the Western audience would have a different image of the Chinese women. Where for a while, it was very stereotypical -- the demure, very quiet, strong in a very silent way."
"If you read a lot of Chinese literature, there have always been very
In her review of the film, Ella Taylor summarizes the story: "Chow Yun-Fat plays a most pacific-minded martial artist named Li Mu Bai, who, weary of the corrupt Hobbesian gangsterism of the Giang Hu underworld, means to hang up his sword and seek inner enlightenment. So he asks his old friend Shu Lien (doe-eyed Michelle Yeoh)... to deliver the sword, known as the Green Destiny, to a trusted old friend of her dead father.
"It's here that Shu Lien runs smack into a pile of subplot, in the form of Jen (Zhang Ziyi), a smoldering, headstrong aristocratic maiden who's chafing under a sinister governess.. and the prospect of marriage to a suitably moneyed noble.. [Jen] has much to learn from Shu Lien, who's seen enough of warrior life to know that freedom, especially for a woman in a culture that demands female passivity, exacts a heavy price — and embraces it anyway."
A Time magazine review quotes James Schamus, one of the film's writers and producers, about why this goes beyond the standard martial arts movies: "It's a mythic epic narrative which has as its center a female consciousness. In all the great epics, from the Iliad on, the protagonists have been masculine, their destinies a masculine destiny. Now a real shift is taking place, in which some collective identities -- those created for the whole culture regardless of gender -- are female."
Film reviewer Roger Ebert once commented, "The best martial arts movies have nothing to do with fighting and everything to do with personal excellence. Their heroes transcend space, gravity, the limitations of the body and the fears of the mind. In a fight scene in a Western movie, it is assumed the fighters hate each other. In a martial arts movie, it's more as if the fighters are joining in a celebration of their powers."
That kind of celebration and mutual respect between Jen and Shu Lien is one of the more gratifying elements of the film.
Richard Corliss in his Time magazine review comments about the young action heroine of the TV series "Dark Angel" - Max, played by Jessica Alba: "... she sizes up a man by scanning him from head to crotch. Other Max attributes were once the prerogative of heroic males: a gravity, a radiating inner ache; a past and a quest."
A publicity poster for "Dark Angel" says "Beauty is only skin deep. Attitude runs to the bone." Actor Jessica Alba has commented on her role: "I just love her cockiness. Girls can't usually get away with that. They're considered bitchy, while guys are called charming if they're cocky. Max doesn't care. She has no fear of death. She is so hyper-aware, and she doesn't have to apologize for who she is."
Other TV series that feature warrior women include "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "La Femme Nikita" and "Xena: Warrior Princess." In a Psychology Today article writer Michael Ventura characterized these shows as taking the stance that "the heart of society is demonic. Society is Hell. ... And to be human is to constantly fight demons. ... [these shows] don't believe there's an end to the struggle. ... men aren't much good at demon-fighting. It's up to the women."
Ventura continues, "What Buffy and Nikita have most in common is that they are warriors. Western storytelling hasn't seen their ilk since the legendary female fighters of the Celts. So it's fitting that the most brazen of TV's new warrior women is the Celtic battler Xena (played by the grand Lucy Lawless). Buffy and Nikita inhabit the Devil's kingdom, but Xena frolics in a sorcerer's realm where Playboy-foldout witches come and go in puffs of smoke.
"Xena is never threatening like Nikita or focused like Buffy. She cavorts safely in the legendary past. It's all comic book--except for the look in Xena's eyes. ... her eyes blaze with rages and fears, bright with paradoxes that belie the silly scripts. ... A very human face stares from that comic book, and you can't get more Nineties than that surreal mix."
A number of these heroines are mythological [Wonder Woman], or have superhuman powers [The Bionic Woman, and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer], but there have also been historical or dramatically "real" women confronted with situations that demand warrior actions: Lt. Ripley in "Aliens" and Mulan, a girl who disguises herself as a man in order to save her aging father from army duty. Her courage has reportedly made Mulan a Chinese heroine much like Joan of Arc.
In portraying Joan for a TV production, Leelee Sobieski noted in an interview why the French peasant girl turned military leader must have had boundless faith, courage and determination: "Everyone else was against her, kind of like the ugly duckling. She was fighting for everyone, not herself, so that there wouldn't be any more fighting. She was up against such odds at a time when women were really considered nothing."
Milla Jovovich commented that being chosen to portray Joan in "The Messenger" was partly a matter of director Luc Besson's response to her own physical qualities: "Luc told me he was convinced I could play Joan when he saw a photo of me taken by (fashion photographer) Pailo Roversi. He said it made me look so androgynous. You can't tell if I'm a girl or a boy and that's what happened with Joan."
Research studies have indicated a strong connection between giftedness and androgyny.
In an interview in the mid-seventies, Lynda Carter noted that her character "Wonder Woman" was not simply a superheroine dealing with evil: "People want to get back to old-fashioned feelings. There's a strong romantic element in the show along with the fantasy-type characters, a war hero and Amazon Princess. Doesn't every girl still want to be a princess and every boy a hero?"
In a 2003 interview, Carter commented on what has made this such an enduring and potent character: "I think that Wonder Woman lives in us all. When you see her you either want to be her or you want her to be your best friend.
"People identify with that secret person inside that you might not let out all of the time. I made a conscious decision from the beginning of what her attitude about herself was. She wasn't self absorbed. She didn't think she was anything special. Wonder Woman was just who she was. It was really everyone reacting around her. So even though she is larger than life you understand that Wonder Woman has a heart and she really cares."
Bearing the name of a warrior goddess, Athena Massey has portrayed a number of related characters, and is currently developing a comic book: "Athena: Warrior Eternal" - described on her website as "the story of a warrior goddess who comes to present-day Earth and takes over the body of a mortal woman."
Like a number of actresses, she has embraced the physicality of those roles. "I'm definitely the warrior part," she said in our interview. "I grew up a little tomboy. I even got suspended my senior year of high school for beating up a wrestler; not all girls can say that! Along with all my sports: being interested in street hockey, boxing, kickboxing - those aren't your typical girl sports. So I've always been quite the little fighter."
But film and TV characters may be uncertain role models. Kathleen Noble, PhD, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, noted in ourinterview that her students - "very bright and aware young men and women, fifteen and sixteen" she noted - could not come up with any strong, heroic models for women on TV.
"We had a debate about whether 'Xena, the Warrior Princess' could be considered a role model, considering the fact she's bursting out of her costume, and what is it we're supposed to notice? Her martial arts skills or the fact that no warrior could dress like this and keep her dignity intact? Basically the consensus was we couldn't think of any role models."
Dr. Noble said that one of the reasons she wrote her book "Sound of a Silver Horn..." was from thinking about role models for women in popular culture, and wanting to "build a model of psychological development that really focuses on the need to confront issues, rather than to retreat passively, or wait for them to go away; to see them as a normal and necessary part of life, rather than a momentary aberration. And to see the claiming and living the heroic life, which to me is a profound spiritual quest to live an authentic life -- to see that as the point of a life, and to make it explicit for women. It has been made explicit for men. ...
"A woman to live heroically must belong to herself alone," she adds. "She must be the center of her own life to pursue a wholeness or integrity that is fluid, inclusive and interconnected... a female hero must insist upon herself, something that most women are neither taught nor encouraged to do."
Prof. Sherrie Inness (author of "Tough Girls..") commented for a CNN article ("New breed of female icons...") that "Xena" may be tough and independent, but is also scantily clad, and pointed out that real-life women who take strong stands -- such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Attorney General Janet Reno, are not generally revered. "Even their looks are disparaged," Inness said.
Some people think strong women characters can be positive role models. Cassie Ederer, vice president of youth strategy for Convergence Mediagroup (a youth marketing strategy firm) noted in the same CNN article, "Ten years ago, it was more the waif -- the skinny, soft, gentle girl with little makeup, almost unisex -- that young girls were aspiring to be. Now you look at it and it's almost the antithesis -- it's healthy, strong, athletic."
And many people do find "the Warrior Princess" and related characters inspirational. Actor Lucy Lawless - who plays "Xena" - said she "finally realized that being a role model doesn't mean people are encouraged to be like me -- they're encouraged to go out and be more of themselves."
Role-playing games like EverQuest allow players to explore themselves by creating alter ego characters, including male or female warriors - human or otherwise.
In her article "Women in Armor: Boadicea to Xena" [for Whoosh!, the Journal of the International Association of Xena Studies], Diane C. Bonacci writes, "Lucy Lawless superbly fulfills the spectrum of the heroic, fictional television character of Xena. Wearing leather armor and breastplate, she fights the forces of evil. To defeat her foes, she relies on clever strategy, mental and physical agility, acrobatics, martial arts, and a variety of weapons...
"Many other women have also borne the armor of their causes. Each one leaving her mark, her deeds written in the annals that we may read them yet today. Women with zeal and fortitude armored against their foes. Audacious heroes serving as role models for all.
"Queen Boadicea, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Arc, Queen Isabella, Queen Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, were all REAL women. Xena, Warrior Princess, is a modern heroic fictional character. Today's women of the world need both."
In "G.I. Jane," Demi Moore plays a woman undergoing intense military training to become a Navy Seal. In a magazine interview several years ago, Moore noted one of the challenges for both her fictional character, and many women in real life: "Last week," Moore was quoted, "Nicole Kidman and Sally [Field] and I were talking about how to deal with certain men who have a problem with strong women. [How you deal with it is] you're just smarter. [Laughter] You are. And you just size up a situation and take an alternate route. It's not just with men, but it so happens that some men are uncomfortable with women who are very forthright."
The story "Witchblade" features another warrior who, like Xena, has a unique personal weapon - described in press material for the TNT movie and series as "an intelligent, symbiotic weapon of incredible power. A living gauntlet that becomes one with its wearer. The Witchblade: Only women of unmatched strength of mind, body and will have ever successfully worn it."
The weapon has "come to life again" and "chosen" as its bearer NYPD Detective Sara Pezzini. Yancy Butler, who portrays Sara, has commented that there are "many blessings" to having such a weapon: "It gives Sara a certain power. It gives her insight. It's giving her certain relations with people and a new perspective on herself, both in what's going on around her as well as knowledge of her lineage." But having such power is not without consequences, she added: "I think that Sara is controlling the blade and that the blade is controlling her. It's a give-and-take relationship."
Another version of a warrior heroine is Lara Croft of the "Tomb Raider" video-game series. An Associated Press story described Croft as "an archaeologist, photojournalist and British aristocrat, who travels the globe (wearing tight clothes, of course) seeking adventure."
Starring as Croft in the film version, Angelina Jolie described her in an Associated Press story as being human and not perfect. "She's a woman and she's curvy and cheeky and playful and wicked and we didn't try to make her macho," Jolie said.
"I love being this character. There is something about her, she doesn't hate, she's not this strong woman that hates men. She just likes to have fun, she's open to everything. She's not a reluctant hero, she's not trapped in the danger. She's having fun and she is a little crazy."
In a Premiere magazine article, Jolie described more of what has made her character so appealing and strong: "She is just so alive with purpose... She inspires adventure in people and a certain kind of pride in yourself. I suppose what people see in her is that she's a fighter."
In the sequel - "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" - Jolie thinks her character is even more of a role model: "I think she's very complete as a woman because she's a lady and she's intelligent but she's also able to get dirty and wild. I think she's got a nice combination of most of the women I know."
A publicity photo of one of Croft's scenes in the first film is reminiscent of the book by Clarissa Pinkola Estes: "Women Who Run With the Wolves."
Estes wrote, "A healthy woman is much like a wolf: robust, chock-full, strong life force, life-giving, territorially aware, inventive, loyal, roving. Yet separation from the wildish nature causes a woman's personality to become meager, thin, ghosty, spectral. We are not meant to be puny with frail hair and inability to leap up, inability to give chase, to birth, to create a life.
"When women's lives are in stasis, ennui, it is always time for the wildish woman to emerge; it is time for the creating function of the psyche to flood the delta...It means to establish territory, to find one's pack, to be in one's body with certainty and pride regardless of the body's gifts and limitations, to speak and act in one's behalf, to be aware, alert, to draw on the innate feminine powers of intuition and sensing, to come into one's cycles, to find what one belongs to, to rise with dignity, to retain as much consciousness as we can."
Femininity can be part of a character's impact as a warrior, as writer Irene Karras has commented, "Her ability to be both beautiful and strong, a perfectly accessorized and feminine killing machine, makes Buffy the embodiment of what Baumgardner & Richards [in the book: 'Manifesta...' ] call 'girlie' feminism... Girlie feminists claim their femininity as a source of power, rather than trying to make it masculine...
"Buffy has an agenda: she is the prototypical girly feminist activist, intentionally slaying stereotypes about what women can and cannot do, combining sexuality with real efforts to make the world a better and safer place for both men and women."
In another article, Rachel Fudge writes, "As cute and perky and scantily clad as [Buffy] is, she's not overtly sexualized within the show, which is a pretty dramatic shift from the jiggle-core of most other kung fu?fighting women on TV (Xena, Wonder Woman, you may sit down). In spite of the obvious sexual-predator symbolism, the vampires are not (for the most part) leering, drooling lechers who ogle Buffy before they get kickboxed and staked. Instead, they generally respect her position as the slayer, her power and strength."
Rhonda V. Wilcox, a professor of English at Gordon College, Georgia, notes in her essay on "Buffy": "It might come as a surprise to some that when the magazine George published its September 1998 list of '20 Most Fascinating Women in Politics,' Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy was the second in the list (right after Elizabeth Dole, but with a much bigger picture).
"George contrasts Buffy's healthy strength with the teenage girls discussed in Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia, and notes 'what she's really taking on is the regular assortment of challenges that threaten to suck the lifeblood out of teenage girls, like a suffocating high school hierarchy and a sexual double standard.'"
Wilcox concludes that "Buffy confronts the vampires of adulthood not only with weapons, but with words of her own. It is part of the grace and wit of the series that the courage of these adolescents in fighting social problems is translated into symbolism -- a mediation of meaning which parallels the mediation of the teen language. Through both symbolism and language, in Buffy, the mediation is the message."
Other heroic women characters include Arwen Evenstar in "Lord of the Rings" (played by Liv Tyler), described as a young elf warrior and princess, and the computer-generated Dr. Aki Ross in "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" (voiced by Ming-Na), according to studio press releases, a woman of "unwavering determination" who must "use her scientific intellect to find means to combat aliens to save mankind."
Certainly a daunting task for any heroine.
Warrior women throughout history - in literature and on screen - can inspire us all to be more heroic, alive and authentic.
Psychology Today. "Warrior women" by Michael Ventura, Nov-Dec, 1998.
Time. "Go Ahead, Make Her Day" by Richard Corliss, March 26, 2001.
Whoosh! - a website of many things, including a monthly journal of popular culture and fan culture studies. Here be essays, articles, commentaries, episode guides, conventions reports, and various analyses of genre television shows, where fans and students of popular culture abuse and flatter time and time again.
J.J. Abrams: USA Today, Jan. 31, 2002
Diane C. Bonacci. Women in Armor: Boadicea to Xena
Yancy Butler: Comics Continuum, May 8th, 2001
1. World Online International article; 2. from Lynda Carter- A Wonder
a Woman - interview
Rachel Fudge: The Buffy effect: Or a tale of cleavage and marketing
1 "Actresses kick butt in action roles" by John Kiesewetter, The
Enquirer, Aug. 31, 2001;
Sherrie A. Inness: interview by Darise Error, Whoosh, Feb 2000
"Tomb With a View" - Premiere, July, 2001; quotes about "Tomb Raider":
Associated Press Dec 7, 2000;
Milla Jovovich: Calgary Sun, April 26, 1998
Irene Karras. The Third Wave's Final Girl: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Demi Moore on male reaction to strong women: Premiere mag., 1993
Leelee Sobieski: Sunday Telegraph TV Guide: September 12-18, 1999
essay: "There Will Never Be a 'Very Special’ Buffy": Buffy
and the Monsters
of Teen Life,
indieWIRE "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" Star, Michelle Yeoh -
by Anthony Kaufman
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Athena Massey actor
Maureen Murdock therapist; teacher; author of "The Heroine's Journey"
Kathleen Noble Professor; editor of "Remarkable Women.."
Barbara Stanwyck: Warrior Woman in Hollywood's Gender Wars by Torey L. King [A Whoosh! Special Project]
The Avengers - Complete Emma Peel Mega Set
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / Wo hu zang long
Joan of Arc [with Leelee Sobieski]
Xena Warrior Princess - Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
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Peter Aleshire. Warrior Woman : The Story of Lozen, Apache Warrior and Shaman
Baumgardner, Jennifer & Richards, Amy. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future
Chip Kidd. Wonder
Woman: The Complete History
Lessons : An Asian American Woman's Journey into Power
Who Run With the Wolves : Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman
Antonia Fraser. The Warrior Queens
Spear, Crystal Mirror : Martial Arts in Women's Lives
Alan Jones Tomb Raider
Girls : Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular
Maxine Hong Kingston. The Woman Warrior : Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts
Julek Heller. Women
Warriors : Myths and Legends of Heroic Women
Leisa Meyer. Creating GI Jane: The Women's Army Corps During World War II.
Maureen Murdock The Heroine's Journey Workbook
, PhD. Remarkable
Women - Perspectives on Female Talent Development
Kathleen Noble , PhD The Sound of a Silver Horn: Reclaiming the Heroism in Contemporary Women's Lives
Robert D. San Souci Fa Mulan : The Story of a Woman Warrior
Marc Shapiro Lucy Lawless, Warrior Princess
Bites Beast: Awakening the Warrior Within Women and Girls
Kathleen Tracy. Angelina Jolie
& David Lavery, eds. Fighting
The Forces: What's At Stake In Buffy The Vampire Slayer?
Wilcox site: Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies~ ~ ~