Divorce yourself from this idea right now, author. While I’m sure it is the narrative you’ve been presented with your entire life, I’m here to tell you that it isn’t true. Women do find building up muscles in the upper body more difficult than men, but since power does not come from the arms, it’s actually a superfluous distinction. Women build up muscles in the lower body and in the core muscles (abdominal) very rapidly.
Skill in combat is not a matter of biology, but in training and dedication. Remember, if your female character fights, she’s neither unique nor special. In my experience as a martial artist and a martial arts instructor, there are on average per class 2 girls to every 10 boys, with the female number either remaining constant or doubling as the class goes up in age. While there are fewer female combatants around than male, it’s not hard to find 20 women to every 100 men. Extrapolate that out and think about it, women who fight are not as rare as you might have previously imagined.
Here are a few things to consider:
1) Power comes from the hips.
I will harp on this until the end of time until everyone shakes the myth of punch strength being decided by arm muscle strength out of their heads. The strength of the strike comes from the pivot of the hips and guess what? Women have wider hips than men, thus a greater opportunity to generate more power and hit their opponents harder. Combine this advantage with a low-center of gravity and the ability to push that center even lower and you have a fighter capable, not just in power, but able to topple much larger opponents.
2) Women have a lower center of gravity.
This is the advantage of the short fighter, it’s the same for short men and short women, a tall woman fighting a shorter woman will encounter the same resistance as a tall man fighting a short one. I list this as a female advantage because most women will always find themselves facing larger opponents. So, it’s important for an author to keep in mind.
So, how does this work? A center of gravity is the height difference from the ground to your core, around the belly button. The shorter the fighter, the lower their center of gravity, the lower the center of gravity the closer they are to the earth, the closer they are to the earth the better their ability to generate a stable base and the harder they are to knock over. A fighter who knows where to put their feet and weight to make use of their center is a hard one to take to the ground. This is one way for women to overcome the height and weight disadvantage.
3) Women are naturally more resistant to pain and fatigue than men, have a greater potential for stamina, and can fight harder for longer.
It’s important to note: it’s not just that men cannot biologically carry a child to term and survive the birth, but if they did with their current make-up, they would die. So, you may call it the miracle of childbirth, but a woman’s body is gifted with a much greater level of resilience than their male counterparts. While these abilities must be honed and improved through training, the natural talent is already present in every woman’s body.
4) The only combatants who ever actively terrified me were women.
I’ve met a great many master martial artists from a great many different styles, all of whom I deeply respect, and can trust in their ability to utterly annihilate me. But the female black belt sparring division, my first thought on encountering those women as a teenager was: “I want to spar with the boys.”
Women live in a very different world than men do, they live in a world that is comprised of dangers even in places that are supposed to be safe. A woman cannot walk down a street alone, never mind if it’s at night, without wondering if an attack will happen. Rape and other acts of violence are very real, every day threats, and women live with the knowledge that the places they have been told to go to for protection will disregard them, laugh at them, and judge them on their worth for “allowing” these acts to happen to them. Every woman, even the ones like me who began at a young age, will eventually be faced with the realization that they may have to use what they know against another person one day. This is not fantasy assessment full of wishful thinking, but a cold reality. What if one day I have to hurt someone else? What if one day I have to kill them? The women who practice and prepare through forms of combat do so with that in mind, with the knowledge that they are the underdogs and that one day, they may have to use that training to fight for their lives.
The ferocity with which they beat on each other in sparring matches is a reflection of that. Remember, these are women who have shaken off the socially ingrained idea of ‘I can’t hurt anyone' and moved on to 'I will break you if you hurt me’. They follow that up with: you will never walk right again.
Unless your character comes from a very different society, this attitude will be part of who they are. Women who are trained and dedicated have the capacity to be terrifying, especially in a patriarchal society. Why? It’s not the behavior that most men expect.
One of the (many) things I love about AtLA is the multiplicity of relationships, and how all the characters bond over shared experiences and histories. For that reason, I’m going to disagree with the comments here. This is not a Kataang OR Zutara episode specifically. It’s both of those and more. Here’s why.
Firstly, this episode is about Katara; her history, her loss, her trauma. Her mother’s death changed Katara’s life forever and cemented her determination to learn Waterbending. So neither Zuko or Aang are the prominent figures here: it’s Katara who’s making tough decisions about closure, revenge, agency and forgiveness. So by pigeon-holing the relationship into a Kataang vs. Zutara analysis, we’re kind of diminishing Katara’s importance here.
Secondly, if in fact TPTB did characterize Aang as a guardian angel and Zuko as a devil in respect to Katara here, I’m going to side-eye them a bit because this is a very reductive way of positioning their own complex characters as well as antithetical to the Buddhist ideas of balance and multiplicity that permeate this whole show.
Aang’s perspective on revenge and forgiveness stem from his beliefs, his experiences and his sense of spiritual duty as the Avatar. I’m irritated when people dismiss Aang as “self righteous” and talked about how he’s only doing his duty as the Avatar and as Katara’s friend.
Similarly, Zuko’s perspectives come from his own experiences (which are radically different from Aang’s but also parallels them) his personal experience with losing his mother and his determination to redeem himself to each member of the Gaang.
Both of these are important, because both of these characters are important.
If Zuko and Aang’s friendship signals the beginning of peace and the restoration of balance, Katara is the connection between them. Katara takes Aang out of the iceberg, Katara protects Aang from Zuko at the Siege of the North, Katara is the first member of the Gaang with whom Zuko has conversation of mutuality (Ba Sing Se and the loss of their mothers), Katara helps Zuko become Firelord by deposing his sister just like she helps Aang realize his full potential by continuing to believe in him, and Katara is the one who heals both Zuko and Aang after Azula shoots them with lightning.
Katara, who’s motherly and fussy and compassionate and cries easily, is also a fiercely protective bender who threatens to kill Zuko if he harms Aang. Katara loves Aang with all her heart but she wasn’t about to let him stop her from taking Appa and facing the man who killed her mother. Katara bloodbends the ship’s captain with pleasure, but ultimately spares the man who killed Kya. She needed to face the parts of herself that are like Zuko - angry, vengeful, hurt - and the parts of herself that are like Aang - compassionate, spiritual, giving - and find out where she, Katara of the Southern Tribe, emerges. WHICH SHE DID. She faced Yon Rah and scared the living daylights out of him, she stripped him of all dignity and made him crawl and beg for his life. AND SHE DIDN’T FORGIVE HIM.
But she forgave Zuko, because she recognized his sincerity and his effort. She thanked Aang, for understanding why she needed to make this journey.
In the end, she did what SHE felt was right, and she made a choice that was neither Zuko’s or Aang’s but hers alone.
This episode IS a zutara episode because it’s about Zuko making amends for his past actions, and that’s pretty dang important. It’s also a Kataang episode because Aang, though he disagrees, understands what Katara needs to do. Both of these relationships have their own functionality and power, both of them draw out different qualities and different emotions in Katara, but ultimately neither of them define or influence her to the degree of being an “angel” or “devil” (ugh i HATE that), because Katara forges her own choice out of the multiple influences in her life.
I love that she said she’ll never forgive him, because it’s important that we understand how yes, some actions are beyond the pale of forgiveness.
I love that she thanked Aang for understanding.
I love that she forgave Zuko, and that their shared history of losing their mothers to the Fire Nation was given a nod.
I wasn’t present at the height of this fandom’s ship wars, so I won’t police people over how they interpret these things and why. I understand how ugly ship wars can get. But I do want to urge us to look at this episode from a perspective of multiplicity, and acknowledge that there are many different ways to love, to grieve, to heal, to redeem.
I recommend reading the whole article in the link. It’s long but good, and also points out the annoying trope of Hollywood thinking that as long as the female character gets a token “can beat people up” scene, then it’s totally fine that otherwise they still are filling very typical fictional roles women are pigeon-holed into, and usually are still just a love interest or plot device.
Also, to the above quote, this is about having that diversity in a single story, or even having many of those traits in 1 character, and not just plucking a few examples out of all of fiction and go “see, in this story, the woman was shy and quiet, and in this story, the woman beat somebody up, and this story the woman was mean. There! Diversity!” It’s about overall trends, it’s about not just having one or two women in a cast, it’s about how women are situated in the story, it’s about whether the women are protagonists or plot devices, it’s about all sorts of ways that women are marginalized, pigeon-holed, etc in fiction, and not simply just about one thing. There’s no easy fix where you go “see in my story, the woman warrior wears a shirt and she doesn’t get raped!” The problem is there are so many issues with the way women, and every other marginalized group, are portrayed in fiction (and even more so with the intersectional problems with characters who are part of several of those groups), and only so much that people can talk about in one go, so usually people are only able to address one or two issues at any time, and it leads to the idea that as long as you fix (or superficially) fix that element, then it’s all good, and it’s more than that.
From the standpoint of this blog, sometimes there comes the misconception that as long as a story has fully armored women, or has battle-ready posed women, then that’s something that’s necessarily a good story about women, or necessarily a good depiction. It’s a step forward, definitely, and I absolutely think it’s good for people to keep the visual portrayal of women in their minds when creating fiction and not just doing one thing over and over because it’s just how we’re so used to seeing women depicted visually. But it can’t stop at that. How many women there are in the story matters. Whether or not she’s portrayed as being “exceptional” for her gender, and therefore all other women in the fictional world are still flat stereotypes matters. What happens to her in the story, how she’s situated, presented, talked about matters. Whether she’s the protagonist, or if despite her armor, she gets kidnapped by the villain to anger the male hero matters. It’s about more than simply avoiding one single way women are portrayed, and then dusting off our hands and patting ourselves on the back for fixing how women are portrayed in fiction. It’s about examining the way we see women in our society, and being aware of how that affects the way we depict and situate them in our writing, often without realizing it.
Escher Girls, The Bechdel Test, Bikini Armor, etc, are all catchy terms, and great things to keep in mind when writing fiction with women in it, but it’s not as simple as just “not doing this one thing”. These phrases and ideas are meant to highlight specific issues about the way women are written and drawn in fiction and to open up a discussion about the larger picture of how women are portrayed. The Bechdel Test is meant to point out how few women have roles and how even fewer of them have stories of their own that don’t revolve around men. Escher Girls is about showing the prevalence of female characters being contorted or dressed in ways that maximize titillation over function. They are symptoms, not the cause, and addressing just one of them once doesn’t fix the underlying issue. Change comes by challenging ourselves to not just settle at “my princess punches people before being captured” or “the male hero’s love interest talks to her female friend about dogs at one point”, but to be willing to examine the overall way we’re depicting women in our fiction, how many there are, and how they’re situated. Centaur women, battle bikinis, and the boobs and butt pose are the beginning of the discussion, not the end.
While rereading The Last Command recently, it finally struck me why Mara is a much-beloved character. I’ve never thought hard on it before because I started reading Star Wars books when I was 13 and just kind of accepted that Mara was a fucking badass and what more do you need to know? There’s all kinds of explanations, from the idea that she’s a “strong female character” to Zahn’s explanation that “she’s also flawed and searching and—dare we say it?—human. At the same time, she’s highly competent at her job. One simplistic answer might be that women can identify with her, while men would like to have her at their side in trouble” (1) (which is kind of a problematic answer on a number of levels but that’s another issue). What made Mara likeable and relatable for me in this arc is her struggle for her own agency against the men in her life and the fact that she fought as hard as she could to maintain her autonomy and won.
The (not) in the title of this post indicates an order of operations, as in mathematics. Pretty much, it’s to call attention to the way in which Mako Mori is not your “strong feminist heroine,” according to some, and why this is a problem with the way we think and speak about “strong feminist heroines.”
Several of the feminist critiques of Mako Mori have expressed the opinion that Mako is somehow less of a character due to the fat that she has fewer lines compared to her male co-stars. The argument appears to run that, despite being front and center for the entirety of the movie, in order for Mako to be considered a “strong feminist heroine,” she needed to be talking as much as Stacker, Raleigh, Chuck, and Herc in addition to the way in which she is established as a character in her own right.
This strikes me as odd: Mako Mori, who ostensibly embodies a kind of warrior archetype that is less common in western media; who demonstrates martial and technical skill exceeding, or on par with, her male counterparts; who helps provide the emotional ground for the whole narrative; and who demonstrates a strength that, in my opinion, is exceeded only by Stacker Pentecost, is not a “strong feminist heroine” because she doesn’t have many lines? I am not sure that this is a critique that we can carry to it’s logical conclusion.
One of the primary problems that I see with this critique is that it assumes a certain kind of strength is necessary for the presentation of a “strong feminist heroine,” and the expression of that strength is not only through the actions that the character takes within the narrative, but how vocal the character is within the narrative. To this end, these critiques seem to make the argument that the actions Mako takes during the narrative of Pacific Rim (piloting a Jaeger, accepting the loss of her family, accepting the loss of stacker) are somehow diminished because she didn’t contribute to the dialogue.
Against this, I offer that Mako’s very silence is what defines her strength. Too often we assume that strength is assertive, it is something that pushes out into the world. In the case of the “strong feminist heroine” articulated by critiques of Mako, she lacked the strength (some might even say agency) to project her voice out into a narrative dominated by men. However, this ignores the possibility of an internal, non-assertive strength, the kind possessed by Mako and made manifest in several scenes throughout Pacific Rim.
As I, and others, have pointed out, her statement to Raleigh, “It’s not obedience, it’s respect,” indicates a kind of inner strength to set aside ones desires for the sake of the group. Students of Japanese culture will note, generally, that this is the kind of internal fortitude that makes up some of the best Japanese characters, and I would count Mako Mori among them. As an example from Japanese literature, I would point to Tomoe Goezen (one of the more notable onna-bugeisha) in the Heikei Monogatari. At the defeat of her commander’s army, she was willing to lay down her life so that she could die honorably with her commander. In turn, her commander orders her to depart the field against her wishes. Granted, in the context of the Heike Monogatari, the order was given because the commander did not wish to be responsible for her death, however, the implication was that her life (as a warrior) was too valuable to waste in seppuku at that battle.
Out of respect, and against her wishes, Goezen flees the battle. This is the kind of strength that Mako Mori possesses, and it is a characteristic of all good Samurai and all good deshi to their Sensei. We can see this kind of strength emerge again when Stacker is preparing for his final ride, just before declaring that they are “cancelling the apocalypse.” When Stacker asserts that he will be piloting the mission, despite it leading to his death, Mako accepts his decision without question, and further assents to defend him (to the death is implied) while he completes the mission. To knowingly allow your commander, your Sensei, and your father to walk to his own death and simply accept his decision requires a kind of strength that cannot be articulated in mere dialogue, it must be demonstrated through action.
This strength through respect is further demonstrated by the way in which she accepts, rather than protests, Stacker’s decision to ground her following the near disaster in the synchronization test with G*psy Danger. We, as American viewers, are used to our “hero” characters fighting for their chance to prove their value, to prove that they are right. Raleigh embodies this kind of mentality when he argues for Mako (actually, we might read Raleigh’s staunch defense of Mako as recognizing that she possesses the kind of strength needed to do what is necessary) to be his co-pilot, throwing everything he has against Stacker. We’re used to seeing this assertive strength as “true strength” as opposed to Mako’s more internal, composed strength.
To belabor the point, Mako further possesses enough mental strength to suck Raleigh into her own memory. There are some who might deride an “in universe” plot exposition point as a example of a female character’s strength, with something like, “oh, we needed that scene to explain Stacker’s relationship with Mako.” However, the dialogue in the sequence clearly indicates that Mako’s connection to G*psy was too strong for them to disconnect. Let me put it another way, Raleigh is the more experienced pilot, and has “flown” G*psy before so it would be logical to assume that his connection would be stronger than Mako’s. In fact, it appears the reverse is the case: Mako, on her first connection with G*psy, manages to overpower Raleigh’s own connection and draw him into the memory.
Now, again, since Raleigh fell out of synch with G*psy and Mako first, it would be logical to assume that Mako (as the inexperienced pilot) would be pulled into Raleigh’s memories. Instead, Mako’s falling out of synch pulls Raleigh into her own memories, despite the fact that he had regained his connection with G*psy Danger and was aware of what was going on. I may be overly charitable to the film, but all in universe evidence points to Mako being a stronger and more capable pilot than Raleigh himself: “51 drops, 51 kills” in the simulator. I’m willing to hazard that Mako’s lack of dialogue as a factor which denies her the status of “strong feminist heorine,” is on shaky legs.
The deathblow to this critique of Mako Mori does not come from within the narrative, but is aimed at our presuppositions about strength. Again, in our Western framework, we assume strength must always equate to assertion, a kind of aggressive devil may care attitude that is embodied by characters like Raleigh and Chuck Hanson. In contrast, Mako Mori provides us with a kind of inner cultivated strength that stands out in stark relief to our cowboy hero archetype. For me, this points to the insufficiency of the characterization of strength always pushing outwards against the world, seeking to enforce its will upon the world. Strength, of character, of will, can be internal: a control over oneself and one’s emotions despite the turmoil that one finds themselves embroiled in.
This is the kind of strength that we see in Mako. Even at her most “emotional” during the compatibility dialogue, a point that Stacker notes, she is still in control over her body, her feelings, and the fight itself. We might further see this internal strength resulting in the focusing of her desire for revenge, her emotional trauma, into the deathblow that takes down otachi: when Raleigh seems all but willing to give up as G*psy is dragged into the air, it is Mako who finds the way, and Mako who delivers the deathblow as the articulation of her emotions into a single focused strike: “watashi no kazoku no tame ni,” indeed.
I make a point of the single strike for a good reason: typically, when one exacts revenge for the death of one’s family, we see it as “the beatdown.” The character in question vents their trauma in a rain of blows that often continues after the object of their vengeance is dead. We see this in movies all the time: the hero empties an entire magazine into a fallen foe or continues to pummel the enemy long after they are unconscious. For Mako, it is a single, focused strike that ends the battle: she has the strength of character not to waste energy venting her rage on Otachi, she gets the job done, and has her satisfaction.
For all of the above reasons Mako Mori is (not) your “strong feminist heroine,” and it is not out of any deficiency in her characterization, but an inability of the concept of “strength” to recognize the kind of strength that Mako embodies. In short, Mako Mori demonstrates the degree to which our notion of a “strong feminist heroine” is insufficient and needs to be adjusted.
Fantasy writer and historian Django Wexler kicks off World Weaver Press’ series of articles on writing epic fantasy warfare with his discussion of the societal conditions which likely would (and wouldn’t) produce a female warrior class
I can’t bear to put this under a read more. This was my good friend Tamy’s facebook status last night and I can only strongly recommend you read it. She’s a marvelous seamstress (she makes her own renaissance style costumes and her own fencing armor when she can, and has a business making the like for others). But she’s not just a seamstress, she’s also a woman who loves swordplay. And that’s what this is about.
As a child, I was frustrated and dissatisfied with the female characters in TV shows and movies. They were weak, untrustworthy, and rare or even entirely absent. All the coolest characters were male, and their female counterparts (if they existed at all) were lesser characters; they were cheap knock-offs in skimpy outfits or unscrupulous and incompetent villains. For this reason, my idolized heroes were male (Robin Hood, Zorro, Peter Pan) or anti-heroes (Cat-woman, and several of the more volatile X-men). I rejected the Disney princess ideal; I didn’t want to be rescued.
Later, I tried to find what I sought in a variety of fantasy novels. This was less satisfying, as it was not something I could share as easily with my not-so-well-read peers. They didn’t understand where I was, and couldn’t be content with the world they lived in. I didn’t want to be a supporting role; I wanted to be the hero, the main character in my own story.
I spent many summers having imaginary adventures with my brother and cousins (usually I was the only girl) when we were kids, but at school I always felt a little out of place while the girly-girls wanted to play house or something equally mundane. For a time I fit in pretty well with the boys, but their obsession with ungraceful firearms and violent explosions soon moved past me and my sword-wielding ambitions. I spent a lot of time alone with my nose in a book from then on.
It probably surprises no one that I took pretty readily to D&D when introduced to it my senior year of high school. I finally got a chance to be the hero, and I could still be a girl. I could choose a practical and comfortable outfit, I could have weapons, and I could make decisions. My years of nerdy isolation had deteriorated my already pitiful athletic capacity, so I thoroughly enjoyed that there, in our fantasy setting, I was not inherently weaker than the males; I was equal to them. This was an exciting first for me, the girl who always got picked last for every sport because I genuinely sucked at all of them.
When I joined the SCA, I found something even closer to the adventure I had always wanted than just gaming. With an active historical reenactment group I could really, truly learn to use a sword with my own hands. One of the things I had always wanted was to be able to fight with a sword. I am not strong, nor coordinated, nor aggressive. Indeed I am not naturally athletic or cut out in any way to be a fighter, but I wanted it. I made up my mind to go for it, and no one told me no. Honestly, if they did, I would ignore them and do it anyway.
More and more I have come to realize that I lead a pretty charmed life. I am an anomaly, though it has taken years to fully discover this.
You see, when I first started gaming, over half our D&D group was female. I thought nothing of my participation. In college, it was much the same. Our numbers varied from game to game, but women were never a noticeable minority. Sometimes I would hear or read something about the rarity of female gamers (I even have a D20 system book that describes them as mythical beasts with stats and everything) and I would laugh at the clearly outdated information, in spite of my friends’ insistence that having so many girls in a gaming group was ‘really weird’.
And now, despite being the only authorized female fighter in the shire who fights regularly, I am far from the only girl wielding swords at our weekly practices. About a third of the people showing up wanting to learn are female. Quite a few of them show an enviable natural talent with a sword, and I have no doubt that many of them will quickly get better than me if they keep at it. I see new people coming in, and I don’t find it surprising that many of them are women. After all, I am a woman, and I fight, so why shouldn’t they? I am, yet again, told that this high percentage of women is highly unusual.
Is it me? I make up my mind to do something, and I look around and see others on the same path and think nothing of it. Am I brave? Am I a role-model? Do I face gender discrimination? I don’t feel like it, but I always thought I wasn’t a minority either. Everywhere I have gone, I have found pretty easy entrance into alleged ‘boys’ clubs’ and found the guys welcoming, helpful, and worthy companions (or opponents!). Talking to others, I am starting to see how fortunate I have been. Not everyone has it so easy. Not everyone is so comfortable with being the first girl to join in the game with the boys.
I have inadvertently found myself being a role model. I have been called brave, I have been congratulated by strangers on my fighting prowess (despite coming in LAST in the tournament), and I have won the admiration of folks I have never even met. I did all these things simply by being a female playing a game that is largely populated by men. As someone who is terrible at remembering names, it’s intimidating how many folks remember my name the first time we meet, or know it before they talk to me for the first time.
On one hand, it’s a lot of pressure to know that even on my worst days, I am in the spotlight. If I am the only woman fighting, do I make us all look bad when I fail? Do all women seem weak because I am not strong? I try not to think about it.
On the other hand, it’s invigorating to know that I can make a difference. If I, despite blundering unwittingly into this with all my failings in strength, depth-perception, and experience, have already become an example for others, think of what I could do if I try.
It has been easy for me so far. I have the love and support of many, and I don’t really see my accomplishments thus far as a big deal. I am not yet a great fighter, but I accept all shots that land, I call back any bad shots that I land, and if I come in last, at least I know I fought honorably. The same could be said of any of the people I fight with, though they do not have the same responsibility I feel I now have. If I am a role model for others, I want to take a more active role. I am making it my mission to blaze the way and to help remove the obstacles standing in the way of other women who would like to take up arms.
I think, honestly, that a lot of what holds women back is internal. It’s what we learned from the Disney princesses of our childhood (sure Mulan and Merida can kick ass, but I grew up with the prissy ones who had to be rescued by men). We are taught to be frail and domestic, and that only truly extraordinary women ever fought alongside the men. Even female superheroes are a minority, encouraging women not to even try.
I know firsthand that showing up to fighter practice is intimidating. Each mistake feels painfully awkward when you look around and see all these men doing the same motions with ease. Logically, you know that they, too, were once beginners, but you can’t help but feel that maybe you just can’t ever measure up. With such a large percentage of the really good fighters being men, it’s hard to believe that a woman (not just an extraordinary woman, but you) can ever be that good. It is a struggle in the beginning to fight past these feelings of inadequacy and believe that you do belong. It is easy to accept and even lean on society’s excuses for why women don’t fight. It is easy to give up.
I don’t like to give up and I never really have been one for choosing something because it’s easy. I love fighting. It is the realization of a dream for me and I want to make sure that anyone who shares that dream can make it happen. I have been trying to encourage and facilitate any new fighters that show up at our practices or sit anonymously watching the tournament, even though this sometimes means fighting on days when I feel utterly miserable. (By some cruel twist of fate, nearly half of the tournaments in which I have fought have fallen during the time of the month I want nothing more than to lay in bed with a heap of chocolate and a book.) I fought anyway because I feel obligated to represent my gender and prove by example women are allowed to fight. Sometimes that also means I don’t get to fight that day because I have leant out my tiny girl-sized armor pieces so someone else could have an opportunity to fight, or because I was busy answering questions.
I often get asked (sometimes by the incredulous, sometimes by the intrigued and hopeful women who are considering picking up a sword for the first time) if there is much historical precedent for warrior women, or if it is just one of the things we get to do in the SCA because it’s supposed to be fair. Few who have not researched it have heard of any medieval women (except Joan of Arc) stepping outside of the stereotypical gender roles of cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. (BTW, you don’t hear about the domestic types either… as a whole women are largely overlooked in the history we’re taught in school.)
The truth is that we are not alone. There are, and always have been, female warriors. I am may not be a shining example, but I am here. I am working on improving my skills so one day I can feel worthy of the praise I have been given. In the mean time, I am attempting to collect historical (documented) accounts of fighting women. We’ve been lied to all or lives, and I want to set the record straight so women can be free to do whatever it is that they want.
[Contains some spoilers for Pacific Rim.]
So, it’s come to my attention that there are a bunch of people who think Mako Mori is a “weak” female character, because of course.
In fact a good friend of mine (who is a woman and professional film reviewer) thought Mako was too “emotional” , which a) made me go “!!????!!” in blank incomprehension, and b) brought it to my attention that people who aren’t random internet misogynists do indeed have this opinion. Still, it’s a wrong opinion, and here’s why:
First of all, let’s talk about cliche.
Pacific Rim is positively roiling in cliches. On purpose. This isn’t a blockbuster movie where some faceless production company focus-grouped a selection of generic Hollywood movie cliches and combined them to create the new Avatar or Transformers. No. This is a movie where Guillermo del Toro, an acclaimed filmmaker and all-round nerd, sat down and thought, “what cliches are awesome?”
Which is how we ended up with a movie about people in giant mecha suits fighting giant Kaiju monsters in an epic battle to save Planet Earth from a Lovecraftian apocalypse.
Guillermo del Toro took a bunch of classic action/adventure movie tropes and gleefully combined them in a cheesy yet incredibly effective way. Also, he conveniently ignored all the shitty action/adventure tropes that regularly make Hollywood blockbusters into a pile of offensive trash. For example, shitty tropes like America Saving The World. Or female characters being relegated to the role of love-interest, helpless damsel, or ass-kicking sex fantasy.
Mako Mori is neither a damsel, nor a sex fantasy. In fact, much like Stacker Pentecost and Raleigh Becket, she gets her own (beautifully cliched) action/adventure hero character arc.
Raleigh Becket and Stacker Pentecost both follow character arcs that we see time and time again in the action/adventure genre: the damaged yet cocky maverick hero, and the gruff mentor/authority figure. Raleigh is actually a combination of two tropes: a hero who suffers loss thanks to his own cockiness (the death of his brother), and a maverick who must overcome his troubled past to save the day. Stacker Pentecost, like most mentor/father figures, dies an inevitable but heroic death so the younger hero (Mako) can find her own path.
And Mako? She gets the primary Hero’s Journey.
While the movie is mostly told from Raleigh’s POV, Mako arguably gets more backstory, and has more to overcome during her Hero’s Journey. She’s a rookie pilot (hello, action movie trope!) who needs to prove herself to her mentor figure (yes!) and work together with another hero (yes!!) in order to save the world.
The only reason why some viewers can’t seem to grasp this is because 99% of the time, “young rookie hero” characters look like Luke Skywalker. Aside from the fact that Mako is a woman, her storyline is so simple and cliched (in a good way!) that anyone with a basic familiarity with Hollywood blockbusters or Saturday morning cartoons should be able to follow it with the sound off.
When she breaks down during her first Drift and almost trashes the Hong Kong Shatterdome, this isn’t an example of female emotional weakness. In fact, it’s exactly what a male hero would’ve done in the same circumstances. Now, I don’t mean that in the sense that “this female character is just the same as a male character, so she’s awesome!” because a) that’s a bullshit concept, and b) Mako Mori isn’t like a male character: she’s a woman, and is also a hero, and she has character flaws and a tragic past, just like Raleigh.
Raleigh spent five years self-flagellating in an Alaskan construction site to deal with the death of his brother; Mako briefly succumbed to a flashback of her home being destroyed by a Kaiju. They both have their “weaknesses”, because they are both human beings who have experienced pain and loss.
Before a hero can “win” or get their happy ending, they have to overcome two things: their own internal problems, and The Enemy. This is true of everything from 3000-year-old myths to Disney movies. Basically, Mako Mori (or any character in her position) had to fuck up before she succeeded, otherwise there would be no conflict, and the movie would be crap. Not to mention the fact that the reason why she fucked up in the first place was completely valid — and foreshadowed from the beginning. Mako’s whole life revolves around becoming a Jaeger pilot and avenging her parents, which is one of the biggest classic hero tropes in the entire movie. Avenging your dead parents against an evil monster is the ULTIMATE motivation.
If you think Mako Mori is weak and emotional, then you must REALLY hate Batman, because Batman is about a zillion times more “emotionally weak”, and he never learns. Batman’s “my parents are dead” quest is nowhere near as goal-oriented as Mako’s desire to defeat the Kaiju, and he’s constantly screwing up because of his own emotions: anger, self-loathing, and survivor’s guilt. That’s what makes Batman a compelling character.
But after Mako was brought low by her traumatic flashback during her neural link with Raleigh, she immediately picked herself up and kept going. Rather than being sucked into her anger and grief, she channeled it into strength, formed a team with Raleigh, and they saved the world together.
I agree with this for the most part, although I think there’s still room to criticize how Mako’s character is handled in the end. It’s frustrating that at the climax of the movie she gets knocked out and then ejected from the jaeger, literally pulling her out of the storyline, and thus sort of robbing her of the completion of her own story arc. She does, of course, get her moment of heroic badassery earlier in the movie but I think it would have been much more satisfying for her to be there right up until the end.
All that said, most of what Mako gets criticized for as a character is way off base, so I’m really glad there is now a post I can reblog about how Mako is TOTALLY A HERO, so I don’t have to write it myself.
JEAN WELLS AND KIM MOHAN. “WOMEN WANT EQUALITY.” FROM DRAGON MAGAZINE #39. 1980.
Inequality at the gaming table is a problem that outdates the current gamer-bro culture and its quaint technocratic sexism. Hell, this article even outdates me. But you know what? While I’ve never had the pleasure of playing under a female DM, I’ve always had female players in my games, and it’s great! My wife has played D&D with me since we met almost 12 years ago.
I won’t deny that I’ve had asshole male players at my table, but these were few and far between (only two that I can recall). I wouldn’t put up with some dickweed establishing himself as the superior gender just because he has a ballbag with a cock sprouting above it, or whatever reason guys like that believe makes them superior to women. I understand—on an intellectual level—why a man would be a sexist pig: it’s all about power, dominance, control, exclusivity, etc. But I’ve never understood it emotionally. How could someone live his life this way, seeing half of humanity as inferior? It makes no sense to me.
Anyway, this DM wholeheartedly embraces female gamers and everything they bring to the table. My daughter may well be one of those gamers some day, and I expect her never to tolerate misogyny, now matter how tiny the manifestation.
Let’s talk about the scope of Sailor Moon. Let’s talk about how, by the end of the final arc, it has universe-sized implications. We learn that every planet with intelligent life has its own guardian senshi—which, given the preponderance of intelligent life in this series, implies the existence of thousands, if not millions of pretty soldiers. We learn that Usagi is one of many, many princesses with their own sworn sisters and legendary romances. We learn that every villain up to this point was just another facet of Chaos, the final villain—the only one that ever mattered. We watch Usagi battle Galaxia, she who has conquered a thousand planets, on the lip of the Galaxy Cauldron. We watch Usagi defeat the primal, cosmic force of chaos itself by destroying the origin point of all existence.
This is a story of sweeping mythology and galaxy-shaping forces and that in and of itself is fantastic. But the thing that sets it apart, and the thing, I suspect, that has held our fascination so fiercely is that it is utterly female-centric.
Think about it. There are lots of amazing, star-spanning stories out there, and tons of mahou shoujo tales as well. I’m a fan of a whole lot of work in both categories. But can you think of another story that combines the two so wholeheartedly? One that spans thousands of planets and thousands of years? One in which the principal players, from the foot soldiers to the goddesses to the ancestors are nearly all female? We laud Sailor Moon for its diverse portrayal of femininity, for its treatment of sexuality and for its subversion of gender norms. And that’s great. But how often do we sit down and talk about how goddamn epic it is? This is a universe, you guys. This is huge and rich and complicated and unlike stories in a similar vein, it doesn’t just have one or two token girls—it is dominated by women.
We have our huge, primeval forces: Life, love, death, chaos, and creation. We have characters who act as channels for these forces (and achieve nigh-goddesshood): Usagi, for example, as the font of creation, love and life, Hotaru as the grim reaper, the “Messiah of Silence.” As I described in this piece, we have the establishment of death as a necessary presence, as a comrade-in-arms in her own right. We have soldiers who wield the elements of nature as weapons in a war against nothingness and disorder. We have a story of lost splendor, of the death of a holy kingdom thousands of years before, of a princess who impaled herself on her lover’s sword rather than live without him in the midst of a planetary war. We have bonds of duty and honor that tie a few chosen women to their princess until death. We have a system that spans a million galaxies, a system organized by mysterious cosmic forces wherein an intergalactic sisterhood battles a thousand iterations of Chaos, the eternal enemy. And even after Sailor Moon defeats that cosmic foe, she is informed that he will be reborn—there must always be chaos. There must always be balance. There must always be senshi.
And upon setting up these laws, Sailor Moon complicates them and deconstructs them and takes them to their logical ends. We watch Haruka and Michiru seek the murder of a fellow soldier because they misunderstand her power over death. In small, emotional glimpses, we learn of the loneliness of a senshi like Pluto, with her solitary power—an important one for sure but one that strips her of her sisters. In Nehelenia, we meet a neglected minority of the Silver Millenium, a people denied its glory a thousand years prior. In the StarS arc, we not only learn that there are senshi far beyond the Solar System with their own strange powers and clothing—we learn that some don’t want to be senshi. Galaxia was so taken aback by her duty towards a “hellish” planet that she became a ruthless despot allied with the force she was sworn to fight. Through the animamates, we experience the yearning of all those unchosen girls who long to be senshi too, who give up their lives to a tyrant in the hope of one day being so anointed. In Sailor Cosmos, we meet a Sailor Moon who failed, one who, in her indecision, plunged the world into misery and has returned to set things right. Through the asteroid senshi, we peer into the future of this universe and comprehend the eternity of these soldiers, their permanence and power.
And it’s all women. Jesus Christ, you guys, no wonder we still love it. No wonder there’s a manga, an anime, a series of musicals, a live-action series and a reboot coming on the way. No wonder I stepped into the Anime Boston Sailor Moon panel two weeks ago and found it packed, even half an hour early. This story deserves a goddamn Silmarillion. We could (and will!) spend years discussing the implications of this story, the things it hints at but isn’t able to explore. It’s huge. It’s rich. It’s complex. And it’s defined by women. The weapons are encrusted with rhinestones, the antagonists are wicked queens with sleek gowns and ombre hair. The pillars of this story are legendary female warriors who protect all sentient life against darkness. Some of these women are shy, some are bold, some love other women. Some of them rebel against their fate, some of them—it must be repeated—sacrifice themselves to destroy the force of chaos itself. This is awesome in both the classic and modern sense of the word. It’s epic. And it stands alone, even today. That makes me a little sad, to be honest, but ultimately I just sit here in wonder. This is a saga.
And then I cried yet again over my beautiful beautiful soldiers.
I sometimes find myself wondering why so few fandoms I’ve been in have inspired me with quite the INTENSITY that Sailor Moon did. During my freshman year of high school, I filled MULTIPLE legal pads with handwritten fanfiction. I taught myself to freehand redraw Takeuchi-san’s beautiful art. I created SO MUCH that year - stories and original characters and even art the likes of which i haven’t ever been able to match since.
But this is it. This is why. I might not identify as a woman, but in so many ways I am emotionally connected to womanhood, because of my body, because I was raised a girl, many many reasons. I was 15, I was just starting to question the idea that my parents and my church were always right, and then I found this. I found these graphic novels and cartoons that told stories about girls. Girls not that different from me. Girls and women whose power could swallow the earth, or save it. Girls who banded together, who formed close friendships, who weren’t constantly trying to one-up each other in the way that media so often portrays women and girls. And these were girls who were not condemned for being imperfect, either. It was a dream come true. Looking back at the things I created, they were always more senshi, more girls to add to the vast universe. Stories about girls and women. Art of girls. These powerful amazing wonderful women, and a universe that not only allowed them but THRIVED BECAUSE OF THEM. They could be mothers and soldiers all at once, in a lot of ways. They could be complex and imperfect and afraid, but they always had power and agency and control over their destinies.
And coming out of that into the worlds of most media - of my subsequent big fandoms of Tolkien and RENT and Marvel and everything else that has inspired me in some way… is it any wonder that none have inspired me quite so much? Even Buffy, with its amazing ladies saving the world again and again… it was something forced on her specifically by men. It was not “the way things are meant to be” so to speak, the way it is in Sailor Moon. It was the way men wanted it - the council that was so male-dominated for years, and then the first watchers, when we found the origins of the Slayers.
Sailor Moon gave me a universe where the real power, the real strength, was in women. Where women and girls were the driving force behind the continued EXISTENCE of the universe itself. Is it any wonder it inspired me so much more than anything else? Is it any wonder nothing else has quite matched up?
Is it any wonder it’s the one fandom that I have left but never quite left behind?
BLESS THIS POST
And bless Sailor Moon for BEING the sweeping female-centric epic that it is.