Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Fierce Women

In Battle Babes and Warrior Women, I was writing about a pop culture phenomenon: women who could hold their own in a fight, said fight being a feature of adventure fiction of all sorts. Previously, the role for females in adventure fiction had been almost solely limited to "the damsel in distress," or occasionally, the Ruler of the Hidden Realm (e.g. Haggard's She).

Life imitates fiction, of course, and vice versa. History finds plenty of, for example, intrepid women of the Victorian era who spent their lives in rough country, in large measure because they could not bear, for whatever reason, the limited nature of the conventional roles available to them.

Time passes and some other things get added to the mix, most notably the growing awareness in the West of the nature of various Eastern martial arts. These seemed almost like magic when they were first being introduced (and there is indeed some magic involved), especially in that often a smaller combatant can defeat a larger one in bare-handed combat. The "smaller combatant" can be female.

I've seen it suggested that, while the average difference in upper body strength between men and women is on the order of 40%-50%, the difference in lower body strength (torso, hips, and legs) is more like 20%. For forms like Aikido and Jujitsu, which derive most of their power from lower body movements, women are not at a great disadvantage. Some women take to the striking forms such as kung fu and karate, of course, and there comes another part of the insight: a trained fighter can defeat an untrained one. Also, underestimating an opponent ("she's just a girl") can have serious consequences. "He didn't see that one coming" has been said over many a prostrate form.

Sometimes people are drawn to Aikido (the art with which I am obviously more familiar) by its "non-competitive" nature. Some even believe that Aikido is fundamentally "non-violent." So some beginning Aikido students, and even some that become fairly advanced, develop a romanticized notion of being able to subdue an attacker without injuring them. I admit that such a thing is possible, but I warn those students not to count on it.

Of course some people begin martial arts training out of belligerence, and I've heard some students noting that Aikido does leach that out of its students as well. But it does not eliminate ferocity; sometimes it enables it, although it does provide some measure of control, if control is desired.

I have encountered those who I would classify as "fierce" in Aikido, and many of them have been women. In some cases, over time, I have watched as the layers of inhibition are slowly peeled away: the fear of hurting someone, the fear of retaliation, the caution in movement, the fear of making a mistake. All these are slowly worn thin during long hours of practice on the mat. What remains is more direct, an encounter with a deeper self, and less of a social construct.

Not all of this is good, naturally. Some people find a bully within themselves, and they must learn to deal with that. Each of those aforementioned fears takes its toll, and fears often do not so much depart as temporarily step out of the way. Later, the sensible mind looks back on some particular example of ukemi and says, "What were you thinking!?"

And you hurt people. Actually, some of the techniques are designed to cause pain, abeit without lasting damage. But sometimes something goes wrong, and someone does take some damage. It's often not even your fault, and you didn't intend it, but they do get hurt, and you were a part of it, and then what? You may adjust your practice, or you may not. But having hurt someone that you like and respect makes it a lot easier to contemplate hurting someone who has attacked you, or otherwise created a conflict. It amplifies the ferocity. It creates a warrant.

The social norm is to expect physical ferocity to be confined to men. Even emotional ferocity in women brings on slurs like "bitch." I'll concede there are women who physically abuse their spouses, but that is more of the bullying that I wrote of earlier, and emotional abuse is more common—in both directions—and has little to do with what I'm driving at here.

Fierce women have broken yet another set of chains that bind "civilized" behavior. Once broken, the chains are often picked up and draped upon the self as decorations, as jewelry that can be shed in an instant if the situation calls from something different from the social norms. We live in a world of secret identities. That soft talking lady may be able to throw you across the room.


black dog barking said...

TV's La Femme Nikita was a pretty decent spare-budget series in the late 90s. The assassin title character put physical power in a female package and her boss, Madeline, was pitiless, coldly objective, capital B business. Good stuff.

Until the writers ran out of plausible setups, there was a scene each episode where "she's just a girl" would have to apply her professional skills to an immediate personal confrontation. Great stuff.

James Killus said...

Ah, La Femme Nikita. I forgot about her completely in the "Battle Babes" essay. Definitely one of the tribe. But lately the pop culture tribe of battle babes is pretty large.

The real life examples don't have the writers working for them, of course. Which in many ways makes them more interesting.

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