Ageha is the bokuto on top. Although retired, she gets the position of honor.
I’d developed carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands by late 2012, and had become totally disabled. I had my first hand surgery in late 2013 on the left hand, which was the worst of the two. My surgeon had subsequently requested the right hand surgery, but it was immediately denied, which meant we weren’t allowed to ask again for another year.
Meanwhile, the surgery had dramatically improved my left hand. By early 2014, I was jonsing to return to Shinkendo. My surgeon, who was a black belt in Hapkido, understood my frustration, but he wouldn’t approve it.
My sensei came up with a plan. He made me an extra light bokuto that I named “Ageha,” which means “butterfly” in Japanese. It was strong enough that I could use it in tachi uchi (partner drill) practice, yet it was light enough not to tax my hands.
I told my surgeon about Ageha, explaining my sensei would testify that, while he’s taught students who have had past hand injuries, never in his many years of practice has he ever seen anyone hurt their hands practicing Shinkendo. In fact, the proper way to hold a either a bokuto or katana is very ergonomic.
As I described the special bokuto my sensei had made for me, the expression of my badass, black-belt, Beverly Hills hand surgeon melted. “Well,” he said, adjusting his glasses, “it’s certainly not going to make your hand any worse. You can go back, but with restrictions, okay?”
And so Ageha helped me return to the martial art I love.
The insurance company finally approved my second hand surgery in early 2015, which I scheduled as soon as I could. I kept using Ageha long after I’d been approved to return to work and train normally. Sensei even coated her with epoxy when her surface got rough so that she’d last longer.
But finally last night the epoxy itself splintered and cut my hand. It was a small wound and only bled a little, but I knew it was time. She’d served her purpose and I now had to let her go.
Domo arigatou gozaimashita to both my beloved bokuto and my sensei. You’ve been the best friends a girl could ever have.
Just when I thought things had died down, a Russian blogger recently discovered my well-disseminated post about why I hate most photos and drawings of women with swords. In that article, I give many examples of how photos and drawings tend to depict women (unlike men) as grossly incompetent with bladed weapons, far more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else. Anyway, as website activity has been crazier than usual around the article, it made me realize that it’s been two years since I posted that rant. I love that it still resonates with people.
Examples have only proliferated since then. Like this:
“Men go to battle. Women wage war – ON THEMSELVES.”
Seriously?!? This isn’t waging war, people. This is cutting the shit out of your own hand so that you can’t even wield a sword. Starz marketing really fucked this up.
I guess at least she isn’t poised to slit her own throat like in this one:
(Oh, honey, let me help you with that.)
Or trying to use the sword as a… chin-up bar? Oh, fuck. I have no idea what is going on here. Do you?
Look at my bloody sword that has the blood on it!
The crap I posted two years ago was good compared to this. Although, I should note that, in German and Scottish longsword fighting techniques, it was legit to hold the grip with one hand while simultaneously holding the blade somewhere up toward the tip as you fought. If I understand my sources correctly (and perhaps I don’t), the part of the blade where you held it was a bit duller. Regardless, you usually held the blade with a heavily gloved hand.
And then there is this.
::returns, picks up microphone::
HOW THE HELL DO YOU DO THIS AND NOT REALIZE IT’S EVERY SHADE OF STUPID? LIKE, EVEN ULTRAVIOLET, INFRARED AND X-RAY STUPID? Did they not notice she is slicing open her scalp? She’s parting her hair. Permanently.
This unbelievably bad photo originally appeared on the “What Do Nerds Like?” website. I guess what they’re saying is that nerds like to humiliate women? I doubt that’s what they meant to say, but that’s what came across to me. To be honest, I was also like JJ:
Just so you know, it’s not just swords. Take this photo for example, which is supposed to be marketing a corset:
Arrow drawn and pointed at foot? Check!
Right hand upside down? Check!
Left arm on wrong side of bow string? Check!
Can you even see the damned corset? Nope!
There is no reason to pose this model with a weapon, especially if neither she nor the photographer know how to use it. Undoubtedly, somebody thought this would look “sexy.”
They were wrong.
Mind you, people send me loads of this stuff now. They almost never realize how bad it is. In fact, they often think it’s good. For example, when this interview with a “deadly” martial artist went viral, many people sent it my way. It was clear from her website that, while she claims to be a martial artist, she is certainly a model who poses in all kinds of appalling, dangerous (to herself) ways with her weapons.
In her interview, she talks about how women have to be tough, and this is how she poses — like a pre-1970 Disney princess who has never held a weapon in her life. (A sensei of mine especially condemned her website photos.) Some of her interview poses are so poorly formed, she would tear the tendons of her arms if she actually tried to attack. Even the way she holds a bo stick — more like a pool cue than a staff — she would break her fingers. Why not pose correctly? With strength? Was she afraid of looking too “angry”?
(If your martial art is what tells you to hold a bo stick that way, you need to find a new discipline. Stat.)
We have to be honest when we’re buying into the game of appealing to the male gaze at the expense of our power. We who know better — that is, female martial artists — have to do better than this.
(And, boy, am I going to get hate mail for that last critique. Hoo!)
I now leave you with this wonderful longsword duel between Bénédicte Robitaille and Amy Graham at the Montreal Winter Tournament 2015.
But that’s only the beginning of everything that’s wrong with depictions of women warriors.
The biggest problem? Swords.
I love swords. Some more than others, admittedly. I have studied stage combat with some of Hollywood’s most talented sword masters, including Roberta Brown,TJ Rotolo, Anthony DeLongis, Robert Chapin, Tim Weske, and Richard Ryan. I am currently in love with Shinkendo, and I’ve been a member of the International Shinkendo Federation* for almost 3 years. I have handled a live katana as part of tameshigiri (target cutting) practice, and have had the chance to study directly with Kaiso Obata himself. I’ve learned a great deal over the years about how to properly wield and care for all kinds of different blades. Only the katana, however, was ever sharpened. And it is that sharpness — or rather, the illusion of danger — that people find sexy.
To augment that “sexiness,” a vast number of artists and photographers depict women holding swords. This should be awesome, right? Strong, beautiful women warriors wielding deadly weapons? But no. While the all-too-familiar bikini chainmail or “boob armor” is a joke in and of itself, almost none of the women hold the sword safely, much less correctly. What the artists don’t seem to realize (and might not care about) is that portraying women as clumsy, brainless blade slingers is even more degrading to women than simply making them sex objects. Instead of looking dangerous, the women look endangered as they grossly mishandle weapons. It says (to men), “Oh, I can’t really do this. I’m such a dingbat. Will you please take this thing and do it for me?”
Here are some of my favorite “dumb babes with blades” categories:
Cutting My Own Throat
Or Cutting My Shoulder
Or Cutting My Own Throat While Shooting Myself in the Head
Hot Celebrity Guy, Will You Please Double-Decapitate Me?
Trying to Decapitate Myself from Behind
It’s Like Doing Pilates!
Oopsie. I’m About to Drop Them!
Is This Sharp?
Check It! My DIY Stigmata!
“This scabbard doesn’t really go with my purse. So instead of wearing it at my waist or on my back, Imma just gonna hold it waaaaay up here like this…”
Or Just…Sex (Ahem)
(I can’t even…)
The “fate” of the blade in this book cover is that its tip is going to get fucked up because she’s dragging it along the street like a drugged chimpanzee.
Pressing Magical Sword Against Crotch Has Magical Powers! (Bonus Sparklemail Bikini!)
And so on. There are other major categories where women use swords as crutches or canes (endangered and disabled!), but I’ll stop here.
Let’s talk a moment about images of men wielding swords. While some of the same witless stock photographers are posing men in similar positions to women, a lot more photos and artwork depict the man pointing the sword outward at an enemy rather than, say, rubbing it against his crotch. They are posed more like, “I’m going to fuck up something other than myself with this thing.” You know, instead of this pose:
Because, when Sensei teaches Nito Ken (two-sword fighting), he says I should stick out my breasts and keep the swords back…OH WAIT HE NEVER SAYS THAT EVER.
In fact, what he says is to “keep the swords alive.” That is, hold them out in front, ready to thrash the enemy. Don’t let down your guard.
I think some of these creators want to honor the female form. In their minds, women look appealing when holding a bladed weapon. They are probably fascinated with the contrast of a woman’s curves to the blade’s unflinching edge. I agree that these ideas are artistically interesting and worthwhile. I don’t want people to stop creating warrior art by any means simply because it’s not “perfect.” I just wish someone would learn something about what they’re depicting. Maybe take a class. Or maybe just watch some classes. A simple fencing class would go a long way. The same way that writers must research a topic before writing about it, artists and photographers might do the same thing before creating art on a topic. They might be inspired to create something that is truly complimentary and dignified for women.
I mean, look at this amazing still with Alex Kingston as Boudica:
This is Hollywood, make-believe, dress up and pretend. Stage combat in particular is not about necessarily creating accurate-looking fights, but rather creating fights that tell a story using period-appropriate weapons and techniques. Still, look at how utterly amazing this is! The sword stays out in front of her. It crosses her body slightly in a defensive pose that is still ready to strike. (Check out who the sword master and fight director was.)
But it’s not really about being more “realistic” or taking a class. They could simply pose women doing the sorts of things men would do. Yet they don’t.
People say, “It’s just fantasy! Why criticize?” Well, why is so much fantasy about women with swords the kind that makes them look stupid or inept? Why do they look anything BUT dangerous? Are you afraid of that? Is it too fucking scary to see a woman who is a competent fighter? Or is it safer to infantilize them? To imagine they’re holding your semi-hard dick rather than a real weapon? Or is this just a great big case of The Lazy?
This “brainless blade babe” thing is a goiter of sexism on the neck of fandom. Let’s excise it and start fresh.
P.S. Don’t even start about The Walking Dead. For example, this is a shitty pose and she’s holding the katana incorrectly. The blade should be at least protecting her head instead of sticking out into no-fucking-where (I mean, what is she protecting? The fern?) and her left hand should be anchored at the end of the hilt. It’s totally ineffective to wield a real katana that way.
Last night we spent some time with one of the editors of make/shift magazine and her husband, which was really nice. We had apero on the terrace, then whilst The Frenchman worked I went to dinner with the two of them in town, taking a taxi back around midnight. She gave me a copy of Issue #1 — a rarity as it’s already sold out. I was ever so grateful, as it will infinitely improve my understanding of what they’re looking for.
Today, just…madness. I’m underslept, having woken up several times last night. The Frenchman believes — and we’re checking on this — that the same Express Mail service in the U.S. that allowed me to mail my sword here for around $30 bucks doesn’t exist here and that I’m going to pay something hideous to get the sword back if I want to track the package. I’m freaking out because it’s not just the sword, but also my utterly gorgeous repaired umbrella from Simone. The umbrella fits in my suitcase sort of, but that’s how it got broken in the first place and I don’t want to repeat that. Hopefully he’s wrong and I can get some kind of tracking service on the package, even if the package doesn’t get back to the U.S. in less than a week.
In better news, we went to Moustiers yesterday with friends. It’s by far the prettiest village in Provence, complete with a lovely medieval church at the top of a steep hill. People believed that their unbaptized infants who died went automatically to Hell, but that if they brought the dead infant to this particular church, it would come back to life for two minutes, allowing the priest to baptize it. I am not making this up. I can’t believe the forehead-slapping stuff that religion drives people to do. I deeply regret forgetting my camera, as the sights were so beautiful. We drove past the famous lavender fields of Provence, spotting the L’Occitane factory nearby. One of our friends grew up there and worked the lavender fields when he was young, so he took us into a field and picked some lavender for us. I just hope I can get it past customs…