In Defense of Literal Ass-Kicking Heroines

The first action movies I ever saw as a little girl were old James Bond movies. I would enjoy them, imagining what it would be like to have that kind of sang-froid, tools and skills, until the sexy lady showed up to be seduced.

Then, all of the sudden, I would feel this sense of displacement. I couldn’t imagine myself in her role, but her presence made it clear that I wasn’t supposed to identify with the hero, either. It would ruin everything (see also: Kingsman.)

Seeing Sigourney Weaver in Aliens thrilled me. Finally, I didn’t have to make the mental stretch of identifying with a character of a different gender in order to fantasize about being competent and heroic and tough. I adore female characters who literally kick ass, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sydney Bristow in Alias, Katniss Everdeen, Lagertha in Vikings, and Black Widow (WHERE IS MY BLACK WIDOW MOVIE?)

Some people have criticized the ass-kicking heroine, claiming that these characters never seem to be well-rounded. Sophia McDougall wrote about it in her piece “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” and more recently Juliana Gray’s piece in McSweeney’s satirized this type of character (“As the Token Female Member of This Action Adventure Team, My Job Is to Kick.”)

Really, I agree with a lot of what they’re saying. Most of us prefer multi-dimensional characters to flat ones. But the criticism still bothers me, because I don’t think we hold male action heroes up to the same kind of scrutiny.

If Jason Bourne were female, would we complain that her lack of memory meant she had no real depth of character and no real agency? McDougall criticizes Agent Carter for shooting at Captain America, but Thor hurls Mjolnir at Captain America, which is just as dangerous, and she doesn’t mention that.

Thor himself would face a lot of scrutiny if he were a lady. He’s a warrior with much more of a sense of honor than of irony, he’s basically good and strong all the time (except for his bad manners with Steve), and he does provide a lot of shirtless eye candy.

Columnists tripped all over themselves to tell me all the reasons why Katniss Everdeen wasn’t good enough. I’m not linking to any of them because they are wrong.

“She has to be the strong character who takes shit from no one,” Sarah Dunn writes in her piece in Mic about strong female characters. But haven’t we had dozens of male action heroes like that? Why can’t I fantasize about taking shit from no one, too?

I suspect some of the criticism of ass-kicking heroines comes from a simple, deep-seated discomfort at seeing women fight. Now plenty of people just don’t like depictions of violence of any kind, and I respect that. But I like fighting in my stories, and I want to feel included in the action.

Both McDougall and Gray point out that we need more women characters, period, and I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think the woman warrior should be the only woman of consequence in any movie or TV show, even if she’s Mako Mori. On Vikings, for instance, Lagertha is a badass shieldmaiden (and also a mom, a leader, a farmer, and sometimes a lover), but Siggy is a quiet, scheming survivor.

Women can be strong and tough in a lot of different ways, and admirable or fascinating in even more ways. But I still don’t see female characters kick ass often enough, so pardon me if I don’t feel like criticizing and analyzing it six ways till Sunday every time I do.

14 thoughts on “In Defense of Literal Ass-Kicking Heroines”

  1. Well-written…and holy wow do I concur. It’s the whole double-standards thing. Yeah, one-dimensional characters get boring–but this applies to dudes as well as the ladies. And any other gender identification out there. But if we’re going to talk about lady warriors and assassins being kind of flat characters, the same goes for the legion one-dimensional male leads in the universe of narrative, too. So yeah. Good post!

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  5. Yes! I grew up watching Bond and I enjoyed recent on-screen performances by Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow) and Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch). Thanks to the above comments, I hopped online to request some Tamora Pierce books from the public library; I haven’t read her yet. I love Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn; I’ve read all five books in her Twelve Houses series (if you count Fortune and Fate as book 5).

  6. Lagertha is a fantastic character and Vikings one of my all time favourites. I’m definitely going to make my female protagonist step up in the next novel I’m writing. Thanks for this post, Bryn 🙂

  7. That is sort of the very definition of a Mary Sue character. Its not really an interesting character with a reason to exist. Its just there to be super perfect so that an immature person can squee and picture him/herself as that character. Which is why the typical ass kicking female character is so dull. Of course who wouldn’t want to be gorgeous, often fighting in a tight shirt, or cleavage baring outfit, or leather pants. They are always smarter then everyone else, even though they are often younger, less experienced, and don’t seem to be disciplined or observant. Also, despite often being snarky, unkind, and having really bad manners, all guys want them. No matter how snyde they act, men chase after them….its the perfect set up. The perfect Mary Sue. What is so funny, is that girls have been fed this garbage for so long, that now they can’t accept an imperfect heroine. Someone that isn’t always the one to rescue people, but actually needs to be rescued. or someone that gets it wrong, and wow! Sometimes the male characters are actually smarter or stronger then she is….how unthinkable! The really sad thing is that in the real world, women do not outfight men, so what does this tell us? That in real life, us imperfect women, who are not stronger then our boyfriend, who are not smarter then an older, wiser person are not someone whose skin you feel comfortable living in?

  8. Late–LATE–to this party. This is good stuff. The first grown-up novels with grown-up women characters was Herbert’s Dune and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer books. The difference in how women were depicted was…jarring, to say the least. Later I would read women written by women and encounter the same pendulum. In my own work, I’m striving for balance but I lean hard for buttkickers and name takers.

    1. Hi, Elias (<--is that right? sorry if it isn't!) I never read any of the Mike Hammer books, but I can imagine that being quite a contrast... I recall really liking the main guy's mom in Dune, though I was just a kid when I read it. It sounds like I would love your approach to women characters 🙂 Thanks so much for the kind words!

      1. Thank you, for your kind words of encouragement. You got my name right, (still an iffy prospect for me and I’ve had the name all my life).

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