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 don’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.
UPDATE #1: Now check out the follow-up article to this one, “Depictions of Sword Women that are (Mostly) Awesome.” Thanks!
UPDATE #2: Now check out another follow-up article, “Why I Should Never Have Mentioned Michonne.”
UPDATE #3: And another follow-up. “Some Hilarious Additions to the Women with Swords Wall of Shame.”
*I do not speak (or snark) for the Federation.