This has been a splendid month. All artwork is used with permission. I’ve tried whenever possible not only to credit the artists whose work I’ve used, but also to donate to them for their work as requested. I thought I’d end by posting an old favorite of mine that I wrote on an international flight many years ago. It was first published in Dreams and Nightmares #67, January 2004, and republished a few times since.
Sighs from the Edda Over Iceland
God drags his knuckles Over the vast drifts Pressing his thumbs through The pallid sheets Until long splits run for miles. Without warning, The white hump of A great snow whale Breaks the clouds from below, Shadowy ridges crisscrossing its back Encrusted with below-zero barnacles. And then I wonder… What if these frost beasts truly Swam beneath us in sluggish schools Through milk and mist? And what if the entire earth was A puckered moonscape Of powdered hills and craters? Iceland conjures the palest sorcery, A bleak, blissful nothingness That threatens to turn everything It touches ivory and alabaster. So I place my chalky cheek Against the window, close my eyes And breathlessly envy the wing.
In my previous post — that was both lauded and lynched* — I complained about how most depictions of women in photos and artwork make them look more endangered than dangerous. As a follow-up to that post, here are some photos and artwork that don’t make women look like feeble idiots when they pick up a sword. Truly, quite the opposite.
We’ll start with Brienne. There are multiple stunt coordinators on the Game of Thrones TV series, but only one swordmaster listed — C.C. Smiff. Whether it’s Smiff or someone else, whoever handles Brienne’s fight scenes keeps her in good form. She actually looks dangerous and competent both onscreen and in these promotional stills. And she’s highly watchable when she’s fighting. Great stuff. Notice that, unlike the women in my previous post, she keeps the sword tip forward and away from her face.
They do a terrific job with Arya and her Needle, too (although some of Maisie’s out-of-character publicity stills are a bit unfortunate).
While Xena’s armor is sometimes ridiculous and her grip in this photo isn’t perfect, I like this picture because, unlike that still of Michonne in my previous post, she’s actually protecting her head with this katana.
It’s no surprise that some of the better photos and artwork are Asian. My friend Keith in the link I gave above posts some stunning stills from Asian action films and artwork that take women with weapons seriously. On my own without Keith’s expertise, I couldn’t find much, but I do like this one:
And although her saya should be secured in her hakama belts rather than detached, this is still beautiful:
I pick on the saya issue because it’s a critical piece of equipment that protects your sword. If it’s not hitched to your hakama or whatever, you’ll drop it and lose it in battle. Therefore, if you keep it handy, you’ll be able to protect your sword after the fight. Ergo, you’ll continue to protect yourself and probably shorten the life of your next enemy.
Turning to comics, the preliminary artwork for Ann Nocenti’s “Katana” by Alex Sanchez looks really promising:
For the record, while I appreciate the strength they are trying to imbue this character and others by having them hold a katana one-handed, the sword just doesn’t work that way. It’s a two-handed weapon. Now, if you’re practicing nito-ken, that’s different because the two swords are working together in a scissoring technique. But a one-handed katana doesn’t really work as well. The power behind your cuts comes from your core. Really muscular folk can kind of blast their way through anything and make it work to a degree, but proper handling is what gives the katana its best edge, so to speak, for the deepest and most deadly cuts.
Some people complained that I was just being an authenticity Nazi in my last post. They entirely missed the point. Compare the women in these images to those in the other post and you’ll see what I mean. A change in grip and stance can mean the difference between wet dream that couldn’t hurt a fly if she tried to a gorgeous bad ass who’s going to thread her “needle” with your intestines. You could argue that it’s “just eye candy” and “art.” But why does art have to debilitate women? Why can’t it make them look strong, dangerous and sexy at the same time? If you want to draw naked chicks, fine. I’ve got nothing against naked chicks, porn and erotica. In fact, I love it all. But this disingenuous “arming” of the arm candy is just infantilizing bullshit.
I’ll end with two more brilliant shots of Alex Kingston as Boudica.
*MODERATION POLICY: I’ll approve only courteous comments that contribute. I didn’t publish all of the comments I received for the last post because almost no one was interested in a constructive conversation. Most people were either bitterly offended that I had hard words for Michonne’s sword stance or didn’t get the issue at all (they didn’t sound as if they’d read the whole article). So, please be polite, even if you disagree.
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.