The Problem With The Warrior Woman

I’ve been thinking about this the last couple of days, and it’s because of one of the last main characters I was working with, and the new one that I’ll be working with for NaNoWriMo in November. They’re female characters with dreams, and their stories are about them chasing those dreams and the obstacles they run into, and what they’re willing to do to achieve their dreams.

A lot lately, I’ve seen agents and readers alike saying they want to see “fully fleshed out characters with dreams and goals.” Whether they say it or not, they usually mean that those dreams and goals should be more than getting married and having children.

I’m gonna grab some examples: Hiccup from “How To Train Your Dragon”: at the opening of the story, he wants more than anything to be a dragonslayer like all the rest of his tribe. Taran, from the Prydain Chronicals, in the opening scene of the series is complaining about making horseshoes because he wants so badly to make a sword and learn to fight like his hero Prince Gwydion. It’s fairly common for a young main character to dream of heroism. Sure, they almost always regret it later when they realize how much they’ve bitten off, but that’s beside the point.

If they’re male.

But female characters? Look at a couple: Katniss – she’s a warrior – did she choose it? Hells no. How about Xena, Princess Warrior? She was driven to it after being shattered by the destruction of her village.

And someone’s going to point out “But male characters are often forced or driven to become warriors too!” But that’s not actually the problem. See, there seems to be some equality in the cases where characters are forced into the warrior role – at least it’s commonly done with both male and female characters. Where the inequality appears is in the former case – when it comes to hopes and dreams. Can anyone even think of a story where a female character dreamed of being a hero and went off to chase that dream?

If fact, can anyone think of any story where a female character dreams of taking on a role that is typically filled by a man, and goes on to chase her dreams? And again, I’m not talking about cases where she’s either forced to, or driven to by a negative experience – for example, a woman’s police officer father is killed in action, and she feels driven to take his place or finish his unfinished business in some way. I’m talking about a young woman who idolizes her police officer father and wants to be like him.

I’m not saying there’s a problem with the stories being told. I’m saying there’s a problem with the stories that are not being told. We’re flooded with stories of women making desperate choices to protect those they love, fighting for the tiny shreds of happiness the world offers and then rips away. Women’s dreams in fiction are the simple humble dreams – they just want to live a simple, peaceful life and the events of the story tear that away from them. And yes, there are male characters with those simple, humble dreams too, but that’s not the problem. The problem is we so seldom see stories with female characters who walk onto the set and say I want something, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get it.

Well, not unless what she wants has something to do with a man, of course. Belle from Beauty and the Beast wants so much more than this provincial life, but it turns out what she was looking for was just a different man than the one she was first presented. Ariel? Part of that world means specifically part of Prince Eric’s world.

I think in the near future, there might be some shift in the popularity of this sort of thing. Dystopias are hot right now, and I think that reflects the hopelessness that my generation feels. But I think, or at least I hope, that things will shift towards something more positive, and we’ll see more characters who dream about a life that’s better than what they have. Characters who dare to dream of making the world a better place, or just dream of something more for themselves than get married and pop out kids.

In any case, I’m crossing my fingers that it’s going to spark something in the hearts of my readers, because that’s what I write, and I can’t help it.


18 responses to “The Problem With The Warrior Woman

  1. Interesting point, Lindsay, which my trilogy WIP seems to partly confirm.

    My sixteen year old boy protagonist craves adventure and strives to join a great expedition to a Lost City, to stay on the expedition when all the other kids are sent home, and to survive and tell the tale. Indeed he is not driven by forces other than his own desire and dream, at least at first. Though he eventually discovers he is being manipulated in a way he never guessed earlier.

    It sounds like you are redressing the gender imbalance with your own WIP.

    Mind you, marriage and children can be quite an adventure, positive and negative, for both men and women, a kind of ‘ordinary heroism’ all around us and largely unsung.

    Thanks, Lindsay. J. T. S.

    • I’m certainly not trying to say that love and marriage and children shouldn’t be parts of a story or that there’s too much of it. What I’m trying to point out is that for male characters, it’s often part of their backgrounds, whereas for female characters, it’s supposed to be their goal. They’re portrayed far more often than men to be satisfied at the end of the story with having got their man, rather than got their dream, because the man *is* their dream.

      If I want to see women chasing dreams outside of marriage and children, that’s not to say I don’t want to see women in relationships, or with children. It just want to see those relationships handled more like they are with male protagonists, where they’re not central to the story, but part of the character’s background, as obstacles, bolstering support for them to follow their dreams – peripheral. Supporting her story, not being it.

      • I just made my first additions to the Dieselpunk Reads bookshelf, Scott Westerfeld’s ‘LEVIATHAN’ trilogy. Only afterwards did it occur to me that it might be an example of what you sought in your original post above. In ‘LEVIATHAN’ it is the boy Prince Alex who is driven from his home and hunted by the murderers of his parents, and the girl Deryn who chooses to join the Royal Air Service for her own positive reasons, disguising herself as a boy to circumvent sexism. And all written by a man! It may be an exception to a rule, but interesting all the same.

  2. So this is a bit of a ramble, bear with me…

    For a start, let me say that stories that just perpetuate outdated gender stereotypes in the sense that they say “this is what boys do and this is what girls do” – those stories are looking more and more tired and irrelevant these days. So really we should be getting beyond that, and the best artforms can do that.

    But when it comes to analysing the ambitions of characters, both male and female, I think there is somethimg more nuanced going on, than just a male female thing. So Belle in Beauty and the Beast does want “something more than this provincial life”, and whilst that includes the Beast, if you looked in on Belle some years later, if she wasn’t still reading and thinking and enjoying the library then that would be a travesty for the character. Ariel does want to the be part of a whole new world, and that’s not just the charming prince, there is something at the core of the characters beyond gender that is enabled and empowered. I’d argue that there is a very valuable lesson from Ariel about a “dominant” father figure learning to release a daughter to do what SHE wants to do, in her way – and for us as the audience seeing that that’s the best result, and frankly how could anything else be right? That for me is an expression of real love.

    But male characters, especially in popular film and animation, have been treated the same way: from Mogli in the Jungle Book to Hiccup, to Mr Darcy in P and P. They are driven by a motivation that directly impacts them and more often than not they get the girl at the end.

    I think the truth is that so many writers and artists see the pursuit and consumatiom of romantic love as something that enhances a story, and the truth is that, mostly (not always) they are right.

    You say in this piece:

    “The problem is we so seldom see stories with female characters who walk onto the set and say I want something, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get it.”

    I’m not sure we see so very much of that for male characters either, and I’d agree it’s not that these stories are bad, it’s that we need more of the one’s where the central character wants something and goes after it. But it takes a special kind of story to make the central character (male or female) avoid looking like a selfish egotist if you do that.

    But if the story is good enough it can be done, and sometimes the storyteller needs to be brave and kick out the love interest plotline altogether if it’s not needed.

    The best example of that i can think of is from the superb film “Aliens” – James Cameron’s go at the franchise. In the film the central protagonist, Ripley, is a female, who is, yes, gung ho, but she uses the tools of war as a means to an end in the environment she is in, not because she wants to be more of a “man” than the guys aroudn her,and she refuses to relinquish her personality and identity in the process.

    In “Aliens” the genius of the final act is not really the love interest with Corporal Hicks (the film would work perfectly well, or even better without that) but the fact that Ripley choses to engage in a mission (to save colonists) not because she is after a man but as a response to her own internal moral framework,, and in the end she choses to risk her life for female (the sole child survivor) and, ironically, defeats another female (the Alien queen) to finish the story.

    Anyway… so this is a roundabout way of saying I think we should have more of the type of story I think you are calling for, but with both male and female protagonists.


    • Good ramble, Andrew! I too noted the gender ironies of the brilliant ‘ALIENS’. Cameron always has strong female characters. Romantic love does not play a huge role in my trilogy either, simply because not much of it is needed or useful in my story.

      I don’t see my characters, or anyone else’s, necessarily as role models. I do have good and bad guys and gals, but I sure hope nobody copies even my good guys, who blow up almost everything they encounter across thousands of miles of ocean and river and jungle, including planes, sea monsters, U-boats, ships, a whole fleet of airships, skyscrapers, and TWO different lost cities! Nobody has any time for canoodling…

    • You know, you’re right, it’s probably true of both genders, I just find it’s even more true of the portrayal of women.

      Incidentally, regarding Alien – were you aware that Ripley’s role in the first movie was originally written for a man? She was cast last minute, and producers still claim the success of the movie is an unrepeatable fluke.

      • I didn’t know Ripley was originally going to be a man. I wonder would there have been three sequels if that had not changed.

      • I don’t think the success of the franchise is an unrepeatable fluke, and I’m pretty sure you don’t either and the film(s) would have lost much of their artistic excellence and integrity if Ripley had been a man.

        Film-makers and other artists need to be brave enough to push through to the really inspiring and entertaining stories that show men and women at their best, and encourage men and women to be their best.

        Imagine if someone wanted to make a film about a person who overcame obstacles and challenges earleir in life, and went on to be a writer that people took notice of, and a pilot as well, and then the producer said “whoa! we’d better make this central character a man!” Seriously, what kind of story would that be? 😉

  3. Pingback: Character Motivation As A Social Barometer | petropunk

  4. You should read Tamora Pierce’s “Song of the Lioness” Quartet.
    From the beginning, Day 1 – Alanna wants to be a knight of the realm. So she binds her chest, goes to the castle, and becomes one!
    The love, family, fighting, etc is all in there – and despite being a teenager book, its very well written.

    • I second Alanna Tortall. I loved the first two books as a kid – had a love/hate relationship with the following two, but to the best of my knowledge, this book was rather barrier-breaking for its time. I read them when I was in grade 4, so it’s probably obviously dated.

      I’ve only read the first book in the series – Sabriel from Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series seems to be that way – and you can try Susan Sto Helit from Discworld – I wouldn’t say she’s a warrior, but she’s the adopted granddaughter of Death, so technically a special one who goes out of her way to not fill that role, even though she keeps getting sucked into things. I am however reading the Pyrdain series, and I think Elionwy is a hoot – she’s a kid though, and I find that quite often the girls in these sorts of books are allowed a sort of ‘tomboy but I’ll behave later’ phase – I’m only on book 1, so it remains to be seen if she remains this strong throughout the series.

      I could plug my own work here, but I dun wanna.

      • Tamora Pierce and Garth Nix are some I always meant to read, but they didn’t have her books at my town’s library when I was at an age I would have most appreciated them, and I didn’t have book money back then. I have all the Prydain books though, and have read them twice.

  5. To be honest, I can’t think of any stories I like where the MC (male or female) sets out to simply achieve a goal, for no other reason than that they really, really want it. Except maybe in comedy. The stakes just aren’t high enough to interest me unless it’s funny. Also, I think there is a lot to be said for an inner journey that contrasts to the outer journey – when the character is just satisfied by reaching their goal it feels a little predictable, and it doesn’t feel like the character grows or develops insight. I think there are quite a few mystery/crime novels where the female MC has deliberately set out to become a professional and is fulfilled by being a professional, and then the plot is more to do with solving the mystery. I quite like this as background info rather than the plot of a whole novel.

  6. Perhaps the concerns you’re raising are part of the zeitgeist and reflect an emerging realization that a kind of change needs to happen. Communications expert, Colin Stokes, gave an interesting TEDx talk related to this subject, wherein he raises some critical issues when contrasting the heroic journey of “The Wizard of Oz” with that of “Star Wars,” essentially focusing on their feminine/masculine differences. It’s worth a watch:

    The problem is that consciousness-raising cultural change exists in tension with “biological” programming that has been entrenched across cultures with millenia of reinforcement. I’m sure this quote by Anne Valley-Fox, from her preface to Your Mythic Journey (1973, 1989), doesn’t offer much hope: “So I asked [Joseph] Campbell how it was that the hero was so often cast in the masculine form. Surely women are heroic, too? He didn’t respond by narrating, as I had hoped, any of the hundreds of myths at this fingertips featuring intrepid females. What he did say caused everything else we spoke of that day to fall out of memory. He said that he and his wife, Jean, had chosen not to have children because their life’s work was already cut out for them. But most women are set inexorably on the heroic path through childbirth and the challenge of maternity.”

    It seems boys and men need to create a purpose for the gender as a whole, because Nature has already given one to women–a purpose that, in the current zeitgeist within some cultures, no longer offers a sense of satisfaction or fulfillment. Instead, something “other” is craved.

    In that context, what you’re calling for is nothing less than a reboot of the “heroic journey,” which won’t happen successfully until the broader culture almost desperately needs it. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be working to make it happen anyway. We absolutely must and should do everything in our power to prove that need. As a dad, I have a lot at stake: Two young daughters, who I want to see grow up into a world that affords them less discrimination, better options and more choices.

    Which includes, of course, your novels.

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