For several years, I studied Japanese swordsmanship. My practice of bushido and identification with the onna-musha (a female samurai warrior) was soul deep. But I wasn’t able to continue that journey. I have over the last two years been writing a modest collection of haiku inspired by some of the most beautiful katana made by modern Japanese sword makers. Along the way, I realized I was also writing about my feelings of being “ronin.” Here are just a few haiku from that potential collection.
Deep grief stains the sky After a long lonely night Sun kisses cold cheeks
The tsuba blossoms Its heart pierced through by the blade Flower and stamen
The wakizashi Is shorter but delivers The ultimate cut
When clay kisses steel It leaves bite marks on the neck The beloved blade
This illustration by Anna Podedworna made my heart sing! A warrior woman shedding blood, rather than doing something “sexy” or otherwise dangerous to herself. Anna is also the artist for The Witcher Card Game. Click the link on her name to feast your eyes on her extraordinary work.
Kai Carpenter, Artist
I found this stunning painting in the latest Llewellyn’s 2020 Astrological Calendar: 87th Edition of the World’s Best Known, Most Trusted Astrology Calendar. Artist Kai Carpenter of Seattle created all of the stunning paintings for this calendar. In addition to Llewellyn, his other clients include DC Comics, Vertigo, Riot Games, and many, many others. Notice how his female warrior safely holds the bastard sword with it partially drawn — just enough to show us there’s a dangerous blade within? That, and he’s avoided the entire issue of boob armor with this fantastic armor design. You’re amazing, Kai. Thanks for this!
My sleuthing hasn’t turned up the artist of this oft-stolen painting. I hope that will change because this painting of Julie D’aubigny aka La Maupin — even though they’re both using the wrong sword for the time period — is brilliant because it shows her as she was: a deadly duelist.
(ETA: My husband found it! His name is Mike, and he’s been on DeviantArt forever. Well done, Mike! Thank you!)
As everyone knows, I’m completely obsessed with La Maupin, and I’ve written a YA novel about her. I’ve had agents and editors requesting the manuscript. Fingers crossed!
Beforeigners and Alfhildr
I love this fucking show from HBO Nordic. Unfortunately, this isn’t the photo I wanted to show you. The photo I really, really wanted to show you is a snippet that we get in the first episode of the character Alfhildr Enginsdottir played by Krista Kosonen. In that snippet, we’re flashing back to a Viking battle where Alfhildr is soaked in blood as she fights with shield and one-handed sword. She’s screaming. More like this, although this cropped photo sadly leaves out the carnage at her feet:
And she’s terrifying. (Not to say anything of Urd, who is delightfully lionhearted in this show.)
That’s how you do it. Big thanks to Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin, the show’s creators, for these absolutely believably badass women.
Lagertha on Vikings
And who could forget Lagertha? Virtually any scene where she’s holding a sword and shield is brilliant.
Played by the award-winning actress Katheryn Winnick and based on the historical character, Lagertha always manages to look beautiful and dangerous at the same time without the show having her resort to chainmail bikini shenanigans.
I have to wonder if people specifically visualize Viking shieldmaidens differently than any other kind of woman with a sword because I see fewer faux pas for this kind of artwork and photography than for any other female sword fighter imagery.
More to Come
It’s hard to come by great depictions of female sword fighters where they look more like they’ll hurt someone besides themselves, but I’ll keep at it. Meanwhile, if you’re just seeing this for the first time, here’s the full list of blog posts in this series:
Mostly I’m loving Teen Wolf‘s Season 5 with the Dread Doctors. (MANY SPOILERS AHEAD.) They are legit creepy-ass mofos and the “operations” they perform are frightening. I also adore the idea of a book that changes your reality after you read it. It’s a wonderful metaphor for what writers try to achieve, and bonus that it’s super spooky.
This is what steampunk should look like.
But while the main storyline is tearing up viewer veins with adrenaline, my favorite character, Kira, is suffering some incredibly poor storytelling and treatment. Not totally surprising because she’s a female wielding a sword.
Jesus, this thing is stupid. I get it. She needed a way to carry the sword that wouldn’t bring attention to it. But think about it: how many inches around the belt line is Arden Cho? 26 inches? 30? Do you know how long the sword would therefore be? Your arm. Not much longer than your dad’s favorite bread knife. Compare that to my iaito, an actual albeit unsharpened katana, which is 40 inches. I mean, there’s dope, and then there’s dopey. This is the latter.
But whatever. Let’s just pretend this isn’t ludicrous. I mean, idiotic weapons seem to be the norm in film and TV these days. If they want to turn Teen Wolf into Batman Lite, fine. There are more serious problems with the character this season that reflect the typical biases against women with swords.
The Sword Girl Ghetto
Speaking as an experienced swordswoman, I’ve written before about how Kira is portrayed as a fancypants sword juggler that can’t hit the broadside of a barn when she should be the most powerful character on the show. (If you haven’t read my previous Kira article, you should before commenting on this one.) With so many fantastic, competent female fighters in the series, this seems strange. Why does she have this problem? I’ll answer that question in a minute.
In Season 5, before Kira arrives, Stiles and Scott discuss how Scott has hardly heard from her all summer. Despite the glut of life-threatening horrors they face on an ongoing basis, he isn’t worried? At all? Not even that she might have met someone else? The extreme implausibility of this boggles the mind. Sure, they haven’t been attacked in six months. But it doesn’t logically follow that Kira, too, experienced nothing on the East Coast.
She later reunites with Scott under the bridge before they head to the Senior Scribe event in the library. A creature battle ensues. She whips out this crazy sword belt thing and no one bats an eyelash. Who made it? How? And why does this thing not slice the living shit out of her belt loops? There is zero discussion of where the sword came from or who she was with in New York that could have made it. Maybe it will come out later, but so far her story’s gotten short shrift.
The worst part is that it’s clear during their fight with the creature under the bridge that she hasn’t learned a thing about how to use her sword over the summer. Unlike Scott and Theo, she doesn’t get in a single real blow. She makes two dinks as the bad guy brushes away her blade. No cuts. She then lies on the ground for the rest of the fight. While every other character on the show has grown, she still sucks.
Hold On There Little Miss
Thankfully, when they’re battling Tracy the Kanima, Kira’s sword finally makes effective contact with something. She cuts off the kanima’s tail.
FFS THEY FINALLY LET KIRA HIT SOMETHING WITH HER DAMNED SWORD YAY JESUS #TeenWolf
This is the second time in three seasons that they let her actually hit something, and finally she did it on her own merit. Compare that, however, to Malia. Or Kate. Or, hell, ANYONE AT ALL. They’ve reigned in Kira so tightly, either it doesn’t matter that she’s there or it’s a disaster (e.g., their visit to Eichen House).
Then, just after she shows a glimmer of competence, she’s turns evil. She suddenly becomes this Kitsune Flambé that almost delivers a killing strike to Tracy. Scott stops her because it’s not okay in his book to kill the kids who’ve been operated on by the Dread Doctors. We don’t kill the victims. Fair enough.
But the message is clear: a woman with a blade must either be incompetent or straight up evil. There is no in-between. That’s consistent with the messages we get in most photos, drawings, TV and film dealing with women wielding swords. It’s getting a wee bit better in TV, but Kira is one of the weaker portrayals.
More to Come
Granted, it’s only a third of the way through the season. And believe me when I say how much I love the Dread Doctors storyline so far. They are fantastic villains, beautifully conceived and created by the writers and designers. I’m also enjoying Liam’s growth and the inclusion of his friend Mason. The actors are all very talented and fun to watch.
The show’s been accused of whitewashing its characters, and there is definitely some truth to that. However, I could totally relate to Kira complaining that she’s both Japanese and Korean yet she can’t speak either language. I experienced something similar growing up. My father was fluent in both Greek and English, yet never taught my sister and I a single word of Greek. The only connection I had to my heritage — besides its relentless misogyny — was the food. We see the food thing in Kira’s family, too.
Still, I’d like to see her develop in a way that’s not framed by her relationship to Scott without demonizing her. They’ve been able to do this with Allison, Malia, Lydia — pretty much every other female teen on the show. Why not the girl with a sword?
I probably won’t get my wish, given the plot telegraphing, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed until the end.
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.
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.
As some of you might know, I’m recovering from hand injuries I sustained at work. This has impacted my life like a moon-sized meteorite slamming into San Francisco. Not only do I have to use a voice recognition program to write — both at work and home — but for the time being I can’t wield a bokuto, much less an iaito or katana, until my hands are in better shape. While shinkendo is highly ergonomic — way more so than any sport — it’s best that I rest my hands altogether.
Bushido on the Bench
Until I recover, I can only observe in shinkendo class, which is exactly what I did today. And just as I have been pondering bushido and what it means to be a samurai when not practicing the martial arts, Sensei brought to class today some notes compiled by Nicholas, one of the top students at Honbu dojo. He had compiled several ideas and philosophies that Obata-kaiso discussed at a recent class. (Thanks, Nicholas!)
Bun Bu Ryo Do
One of the philosophies was of Bun Bu Ryo Do — the twofold path of pen and sword. The samurai were successful for so long because they studied both cultural and martial arts. They mastered both the pen and the sword, making them formidable intellectual and military opponents.
People sometimes ask me “Which is mightier, the pen or the sword?” This question bugs the shit out of me. It’s not only cliché but completely fuckwitted. So if you can possibly restrain yourself, please refrain from asking it. But what I can say is that being a writer makes me a better warrior. I’m a complete person. And apparently the samurai agreed.
Isshin Nigan Sanzoku Shite
Another concept that Obata-kaiso spoke of that startled me was Isshin Nigan Sanzoku Shite, which is a sort of hierarchy of the body. Obata-kaiso says that we must take care of our bodies in the following order: heart and mind; eyes; feet and legs; and hands.
This kind of rocked my world because, as a samurai in training who is currently “handless,” I would have thought that the order would be reversed, that we would start with our hands, feet and legs. But as part of my recovery, I’ve been studying biofeedback and this hierarchy perfectly matches what the biofeedback specialist Dr. Stephen Sideroff talks about on his CDs. When healing from injuries, first address your thoughts and feelings, as well as the way you “look” at events, because if you’re stressed, you lose vital blood circulation to your limbs — which is how I got into this hand mess to begin with.
“Sword = Soul” Bitches
At some point, I will ease back into things. I’m perfectly productive with the tools that I have with which to write, but I long for my sword. Your sword is an extension of your soul. That’s why, whenever a friend shows you an edged weapon that he or she bought, you must be respectful of it, even if it’s a rusty piece of junk from the bowels of Beijing. Because insulting their sword is like insulting their soul – something I generally try to avoid. It’s just the right thing to do when you are on this path.
The Blade Goes Both Ways
Life is full of setbacks. You have to keep moving forward however you can, keeping your eye on the goal. Yet in many ways, this doesn’t feel like a setback. I’m learning more about swordsmanship and bushido than I ever could on the mat or in front of the target. My spiritual life is richer and I understand certain concepts far more accurately from watching than from doing. And more than ever, I appreciate my Sensei and dojo mates for the good friends (and in some ways family) that they are.
Wishing you all health and happiness these holidays!