Sunday, September 06, 2009
DISCUSSION: Reclaiming roles in fantasy for women who don't kick butt
Women who don't kick butt - discussion on Reality Skimming
"Kick butt" for the purposes of this discussion refers to the "fight someone and hurt them" (1) sense of the idiom, and my contention is that it is time to re-invent non-butt-kicking heroines in particular. Fellow writer Tina Hunter has agreed to debate the pros and cons of this idea with me, here, over the next week. Company is welcome! So is sharing the feed if desired.

I arrived at the idea of developing a non-violent heroine because my focal character, Amel, needed a new romantic lead and I wanted it to be someone, for once, who couldn't beat him in a bar fight. I also wanted to work with someone whose sense of self was rooted in a parochial upbringing - the proverbial "girl next door". Her name is Princess Samanda, or Sam for short, and she joins the Okal Rel space operatic saga in Part 6: Avim's Oath as a refugee fleeing the wreck of her engagement to the local "catch" back on her Silver Demish homeworld.

Writing a naive character with a greater capacity to be shocked than the jaded modern reader was surprisingly refreshing and lively. The challenge is: will people want to identify with someone who isn't slinging her enemies about her head when angered? Could I make Sam strong, and fun, without turning her into a damsel in distress?

I loved the way Joss Whedon turned the traditional victim in horror movies into something scarier than the vampires she dispatches (2). Nor does the Okal Rel Saga lack for examples of women you don't want to mess with (3). And I do "get" the idea of it all being metaphor and wish-fulfillment at some level. But what about heroines who act like women of their place and time, more or less, but are still awesome in ways that don't involve beating the bad guys into submission? Can we identify without feeling belittled? And is there anything worth learning from them?

  1. "Kick Butt". The Free Dictionary by Farlex. Retrieved September 6, 2009 from
  2. "Joss Whedon". Wikiquotes. Retrieved September 6, 2009 from
  3. For example see preview excerpt from Part 6: Avim's Oath forthcoming in April 2010 of "Sam Meets Alivda".

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This looks like it'll be fun.

Is it possible for a female character to not "kick butt" at this point in time? Or is there still a hang over from the recent "equality wars" that make women want to read about other women who can kick butt just like a man can?

Great questions. I look forward to answering them with you over the coming week.

Tina Hunter
Is it a question of equality, though? or a revisiting of the views of the 'feminine condition' of the fifties and sixties?
I'm a little disturbed by the idea that equality can only exist if women punch as hard as men. Maybe it is true (figuratively as well as literally) although I sort of hate that idea. With Sam, I think I am revisiting the condition of being 'feminine' in other eras, yes. Because my reading of history and my own experience leads me to believe two things: first, that real women can't just decide to become men (in the kick ass way) and succeed at it as easily as fantasy heroines who take up the sword; and because we might have thrown away too much in shedding the restrictions of the 'feminine' in the modern world. Lost the good with the bad, so to speak.
I look at this concept more as a right of passage, a maturation if you will, of both the writer and the writing. As a writer gains experience in both their craft and life, and hopefully a modicum of wisdom, the writing that will come out of that experience will evolve beyond the adolescent need to conquer and destroy, and examine more and more the complexities of life and relationships, which are more about grey than the black and white, or red as the case may be, of younger writers and writing.
For myself, I've been writing about these complexities for as long as I can remember. In my recent novel, 'From Mountains of Ice' the main protagonists are middle-aged, fallible, committed to avoiding physical conflict. Just as my earlier novel, 'Shadow Song', although it involves violence, deals more in negotiation and balance of power than of conquer and destroy.
I'd have to go on to point out that some of the best literature of our age, whether SF&F or not, deals in these complexities rather than the pulp version of entertainment.
Not a popular view, I'm sure.
'Kick butt" eh?
Well,there have always been non-kicking butt female heroines. Some times what they are best at isn't always recognized as being a strength, but there have been caregivers, healers, organizers, artists, discoverers, inventers, and peacemakers; all very valid as being heroines. There have been many heroines who have suffered in silence to protect the ones they love.
The screaming female is more a device of holywood thrillers.
I think the weak in body female can be far braver than the strong female or man.
Very interesting topic, Lynda, one I can never learn too much about.

In answer to Tina, I created my own strong female protagonist partly in reaction to some really annoying TV fare (Queen of Swords, and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, for a start) that even made my male sensibilities squirm. I was raised by a strong woman – widowed in WWII – (and trained by a strong willed wife (grin)) so found the chance to write from the female perspective, may I say, liberating.

I accept Lorina’s comment about this being more of a maturation of writer and writing. Having created my own kick butt heroine in my Iskander series – and enjoying the chance to ‘change’ genders – the latest release will explore her character in the last trimester of her first pregnancy while she holds the position of military governor of a turbulent and rebellious city. Perhaps I’m maturing beyond merely writing a tough female who’d frighten most of the men I know (and me).

One device I did find necessary in the novel was to introduce a new naive and non-violent young woman to act as counterpoint to her. Partly it was to shift the possibility of damsel-in-distress suggestions onto fresh shoulders. My readers enjoy the tough Gisel Matah, but want to see her feminine side as well. The novels covering her earlier years, while she acquired the tough guy persona and didn’t already know all the moves, seems to please my writing group ladies more.

Chris H.
I haven't read up to book six yet, but I believe that readers don't always expected a female to be a battle axe. Some people actually want a female who is sassy and clever.

It's a hard call and a fine line on damsel in distress. I have some views on it, but I've always been told that I'm pretty feisty. I'd bite and scratch and seriously try to wound someone who tried to complicate my life by purposely trying to physically hurt me. However, I'd seriously have to try not to faint first, in the process. I don't do so good with surprises. *le sigh*

Clever works though.

Can't wait to see what you do with your story.
To Five Rivers: The “wise woman” point of view! For me, the character Bley in Far Arena (Part 5 of the Okal Rel saga) is the real hero. She proves Reetion honor just be quietly refusing to be distracted from her values by the glare of fame and excitement surrounding the Gelacks, and thereby prevents a war. Always enjoy your perspective, “Five Rivers” (Lorina). Thanks for making the connection to your own work, as well. I must lay hands on some of it soon.

Stephanie: Totally! I liked the Buffy episode called “The Zebo” (at least I think that was it) in which Xander struggles with his relatively low profile on the butt-kicking front. He’s the “codedly feminine” character. Someone asked me, once, why didn’t write more female main characters since Amel personifies some traditional female traits and situational challenges. I didn’t really know. Sometime, though, I wonder if even for me the idea of male protagonists just made the issues feel bigger, more important or apt to get attention. And lovely to hear from you! Hope all is well at neo-opsis.

Trailowner (Chris): Welcome! Interesting challenge to write your kick-ass female pregnant. I tell yah, having done pregnant I cringed through the whole finale in Farscape where Erin Sun delivers in the midst of a battle. Seems to be a trend. There was a “delivery amidst mayhem” scene in Stargate Atlantis, too. Being the one who does pregnant is a handy cap! Hope you make her contend with the “warm fuzzy” hormones. And the “touch my kid and you are dead” ones, too. :-) I remember having blunt and murderous thoughts about child abusers when my first born was a baby – reversing years of sociology and personal convictions about humane management of deviants. Never felt keen on killing anything, let alone another human being, before that rather intense experience. Guess it’s true what my dad told me – never get between a momma bear and her cubs. Thanks for talking about the connection to your writing!

Christina: Good to know you’re eager to meet Sam. Don’t know how clever she is, but she is feisty. Well, she’s clever in her own Demish way and can think fast in a crisis whether that’s letting out a wedding dress or bashing an assassin with a bed pan. And I just bet you wouldn’t be an easy victim. I’ve got plenty of “stuff” in my own way, but I don’t think physical toughness is apt to be one of them. But studying violence, for my research, it did dawn on me that a lot of it succeeds because ordinary people are NOT kick-butt types and can’t even get their heads around what’s happening in time to think.. I can understand that, too. But one always hopes one will be the thinking kind in a crisis.
Lynda: the last point of your comment to Christina is on point. I served in the British army while they still accepted recruits who were refugees from a prison term. Almost half of the guys in the troop I was in had taken the option their judge offered -- it was a rough unit.

I can affirm that they never had to get their heads around what was happening before acting -- taking their opponent down was the first thing in their minds. However, among themselves there was a distinct hierarchy of tough, and the lower rank toughs clearly had to consider what they were doing if they crossed an angry superior in the hierarchy.

On my maternal kick-butt character, I didn't try to have her give birth on the battlefield (wow -- I could never tackle that), but she was in labour in the Governor's Mansion while ethnic violence raged outside. She was the target of a murder plot that used ergot to try to kill her in childbirth. I switched from her first person actions to the actions of the subordinates she had trained to carry the action.

Two of my writing group are mothers -- they both approved of my treatment. One admitted to a strong emotional (maternal) reaction to the threat to my character.
I'm all for the thought experiment of writing from other perspectives - one doesn't have to have given birth to write a pregnant woman convincingly!
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