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Verisimilitude and the Woman Warrior, With Some Relevance to Fantasy Tropes

Monday, February 9th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

I had thought to dive today into Joseph Campbell on the hero and the so-called monomyth–another irritant that, one could wish, might aid in the production of a pearl of wisdom. I have been distracted, however, by a self-labeled polemic on the topic of fictional women as kick-ass fighters that referenced my post of two weeks ago. Which put me in mind of a long-running, intermittent sort-of argument I’ve had with the most excellent sf writer Ann Zeddies, a long-time student of tae kwon do, as to whether women really could go up against men in combat and win before the invention of that great equalizer, the gun. My position is yes, provisionally.

Tomoe Gozen
Tomoe Gozen, 12th-century female samurai.

First of all, let me say that I mostly agree with the aforementioned polemic (which is not on the subject of women fighters generally). I certainly agree that Laila Ali’s physique is much more believable for a woman fighter than the lollipop figure favored in Hollywood actresses (huge head, stick neck and body). Secondly, let me say that I have no street cred as a fighter. In my 25+ years in the martial arts, I’ve never used it outside the dojo, unless you count last summer when I tripped hard on the sidewalk and actually rolled instead of landing in a bone-breaking crash. However, one of my seniors had come to our aikido school as a street fighter–in a South Philly gang, family members in the mob, etc.–and also after many years in other martial arts, so I feel free to rely on his insights and conclusions. Moreover, though this was in dojo conditions–meaning at the minimum that you know you are about to be attacked–I have many times successfully thrown and/or pinned men who are significantly taller, heavier, and stronger. So my thoughts on women fighters are not totally pulled out of a dark and hidden orifice.

All people, male or female, have physical limitations. Some people are short and light; others are big and slow, or have bad knees, or no flexibility in their shoulders, or have trouble thinking in 3-D. In the martial arts, and I have to assume in real combat, you have to go with the body you’ve got. Techniques that will be very effective performed by physique A against physique X won’t work nearly as well for physique B against physique Y. Sure, you train to be able to do them all, but you won’t be able to do them all equally well against every type of opponent.

Some of the great masters of aikido and aiki-jujutsu, its parent art, have been very small men. The founder of modern aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, was too small to meet the height requirements of the Japanese army. His aiki-jujutsu teacher, Takeda-sensei, was under 5′, if I am remembering correctly, but spent the chaotic years after the Meiji Restoration wandering through Japan testing his sword-fighting skills (his portrait shows he lost his front teeth along the way). The founder of the Yoshinkan, Gozo Shioda, couldn’t have been much more than 5′2″ and was skinny and a chain smoker to boot. I saw him demonstrate and took a clinic with him a year or two before his death. He literally hobbled onto the stage, and then trashed his 26-year old uke, who was about 8 inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier. Shioda-sensei was not using strength or agility, but focus, timing, and precision.

One of the concepts in aikido which applies to all martial arts is ma-ai, or ai-ma–I’ve never been clear if the word order makes a difference in emphasis–which means, roughly, harmonious or appropriate distance, or harmony in time and space. One aspect of ma-ai in aikido is, it’s the distance at which the technique is effortless. But every martial art has its characteristic ma-ai. For aikido, it’s basically at arm’s length; for judo it’s much closer. For karate or tae kwon do, ma-ai might be further away. I’ve watched female judo practitioners throw male judoka, but I know for myself I wouldn’t want to let anybody stronger than me get that close, grab shoulders, torso, etc. Keeping at arm’s length means you don’t have to rely on upper body strength, and that’s one limitation most women share. The mechanics of aikido use hand or arm not as a weapon in and of itself, but to transfer and/or re-direct energy generated elsewhere. The saying in aikido is that you need only be able to generate 15 pounds of pressure with your arms and hands for effective technique, and it’s true if you’re doing the technique correctly.

So how to create fictional women fighters of some verisimilitude? For one thing, she would know her limitations, or at least be learning them. Karate-like techniques, especially kicks that depend more on lower body strength, would be effective and appropriate in some but not all situations. Anything that involves grappling will also be an opportunity for our hero to confront, and hopefully transcend her limitations. My aforementioned street-fighting senior’s advice would be to, as my son’s classmates are currently phrasing it, kick him in the weenie. On the other hand, I once saw a karate brown belt accidentally knock out her sandan opponent with a single punch, and I bet Laila Ali could do it to you. (My sister and I were once unloading 100-lb bags of cement from a boat. The 60+-year old wife of the fisherman who had brought it over, after watching us for a while, came over and hefted one of the bags. “Oh, not too heavy, then,” she said. Women who’ve spent their lives in physical activity, as opposed to those of us who’ve done it only avocationally, can be quite strong.)

What about women and bladed weapons? In samurai families, the weapon women usually trained in was the naginata, a kind of glaive, which I imagine does require a certain amount of upper-body strength. Long swords are quite heavy, which is not to say that some women couldn’t be effective with them, but they would also know their limitations. The thing about ma-ai, though, applies to weapons, too. A sword can only cut or stab the opponent who is neither too far away nor too close. Aiki-jujutsu developed originally as a resource for samurai who had been disarmed in battle. Many of the techniques are basically the same against an armed as against an unarmed opponent, and involve moving inside the sword’s range, to the (unarmed) arm’s-length distance. Knife-against-sword techniques have the same requirement; you have to create the ma-ai within which you are more effective than your opponent. And timing, as we say, is everything… not strength. A woman fighter will either know or have to learn these things.

One final thing about swordsmen, swordswomen and muscle. Muscle development in excess can be detrimental. Men who do a lot of weight training tend to get too stiff and top-heavy. A lower center of gravity allows a more balanced stance for both sword and unarmed techniques. Also, too strong a grip on your opponent, or on your sword, “freezes” you. There’s a story about a bandit who had defeated many samurai. Someone asked him his secret, given that he’d had no training. He said that he tapped the samurai’s sword with his own and if the other person was gripping hard, knew his technique was no good and went ahead and killed him. If the other person had the correct sticky-but-not-hard grip, the bandit could tell the samurai knew what he was doing and ran away.

20 Comments »

  1. To be a hundred percent clear–in case no one follows the link back to my own site–I am not advocating against women warriors. I am, in fact, 100% in favor of more women warriors. I’m just opposed to the implausibility of tiny, skinny women being put into the role of a woman warrior without consideration for the practical demands of such a role.

    And I called it a polemic apparently completely erroneously, as virtually everyone that read it seemed to agree. So, there’s that.

    Comment by braak - February 9, 2009 11:57 am

  2. One thing i’ve noticed about Hollywood, they will many times use a dancer in a martial art type role.

    Comment by NightHawk777 - February 9, 2009 12:30 pm

  3. My principal martial art is sneaking off before anybody notices, but this all makes sense to me.

    It does seem like fighting with pointed blades like rapiers (where speed, control and stamina matter more than brute strength), might be another range of combat where some women might excel against all comers, without stretching the bounds of credibility.

    Comment by James Enge - February 9, 2009 4:09 pm

  4. @James: That’s certainly true, and is a subject on which I can speak with a little authority. Generally speaking, the lighter a weapon is and the less often it’s used for cutting, the less strength is required to use it. This is because puncturing someone with something pointy requires very little strength. So, in a smallsword duel–provided certain prerequisites of stamina and wrist strength are met, a small person is just as effective as a larger person.

    Of course, that gets into all kinds of interesting situational problems. What if one person has a small sword, and another person has a rapier? What if one has a rapier, and one has a broadsword? It’s true that a smaller person with a lighter weapon, if they behave very aggressively and take full advantage of their increased mobility, can take on a larger opponent with a heavier weapon–but not always (remember Rob Roy?).

    It’s also true that the smaller and lighter weapons while often just as or even more fatal than the heavier ones (17th & 18th century medical technology didn’t handle puncture wounds very well), they also don’t always have the stopping power of a larger weapon–duelling accounts of 18th century French aristocrats, who were using smallswords, are littered with “double kills,” and instances where an ultimately fatal wound failed to prevent one duelist from still managing a kill on another.

    I think this is probably one of the reasons why the naginata was popular among Japanese women warriors–it provided both leverage and excellent distance; many even had small, round stop-guards at the base of the spearhead, to prevent enthusiastic enemies from charging down the length of the spear.

    Although, I guess it’s important to also note that the spear is traditionally the primary weapon for most ancient military traditions, and the sword a secondary weapon, so there could be social and, I guess, bureaucratic pressures there, too.

    Comment by braak - February 9, 2009 5:34 pm

  5. Dancers, yes. But I don’t want to be too critical of the practice because that would be criticizing Michelle Yeo(!). (Not to mention Jackie Chan, who started out as an opera acrobat.) Yeo is better known to many in the US as a Bond Girl in I forget which film, and also in Crouching Tiger… (where they managed the unlikely feat of making Michelle Yeo look dowdy!) But also check out her starring role in such immortal Hong Kong epics as The Heroic Trio (a sword and sorcery fest involving three women fighters and, if I’m remembering correctly, the king of the underworld) and Wing Chun (about the legendary female founder of that martial art). Wing Chun hands down wins the Best Tofu Fighting Sequence of All Time award.

    Comment by Judith Berman - February 10, 2009 1:39 am

  6. Sorry, braak, if I didn’t make it completely clear that your polemic wasn’t addressed against women fighters generally.

    What I wouldn’t like about rapiers is the distance limitation. Having an edge on your sword means you can cut your opponent from very close in, with the right technique. Not to make yet another martial-arts-film reference, but there’s a great fight scene in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo where Mifune (now he actually did know how to use a sword) takes out one of his opponents with donuki, a kind of cut along the side and under the arm which you do as you step off the line of your opponent’s move. Lots of possibilities after donuki.

    The naginata, so I understand, began as a foot-soldier’s weapon to be used against mounted opponents. Not to make even more martial-arts-film references, but one of the great combat scenes in martial-arts-film history is in Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress where Mifune and his enemy fight sword against spear–maybe a naginata but I’ve never been quite sure.

    Comment by Judith Berman - February 10, 2009 1:54 am

  7. Yes to dancers, as one was half of the finest duel to ever come out of Hollywood, in Scaramouche. Stewart Granger was classically trained, but Mel Ferrer had never held a sword before. He was, however, a dancer, and able to learn the choreography by number.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - February 10, 2009 2:22 am

  8. With all due respect, Ms Berman’s basic thesis is entirely absurd and reflects her apparent lack of full-contact fighting. Due to my experience as a former full-contact fighter in a dojo that trained both men and women, I can confidently state that even expert female fighters have absolutely no chance against half-trained male fighters. Everyone in every serious fighting dojo knows this. The reason has less to do with size and strength than speed, although strength, reach, and the ability to absorb punishment also play a role. The women at our dojo, most of whom sparred only against men, used to comment that the women they would fight in tournaments – and uniformly beat – seemed to move as if they were in slow motion. I should also note that the grappling arts are a poor basis from which to draw conclusions about combat with bladed weapons.

    I’ll explain this in more detail in my next blog entry, but there’s no need to take my word for it. Ms Berman can certainly go to any full-contact dojo and put her theory to the test. If she managed to last just two minutes fighting full-contact with the smallest male red or purple belt, I’d be surprised and impressed. However, I do commend her recommendation to writers, as there are certainly situations where a woman warrior is more likely to be able to defeat a male opponent than others. For versimilitude’s sake, the solution I usually recommend to those who want to feature a kick-ass woman warrior is to either make her a demigoddess or provide her with some form of magical weapon.

    Comment by Theo - February 10, 2009 8:41 am

  9. @Judith: Well, I think you probably did make it clear, I’m just paranoid and wanted to double-check.

    But, to clarify, is the problem with rapiers suggesting one that you perceive as follows: that the rapier is only effective at middle-to-long distance (for a sword), and ineffective as a close-in weapon? Because this is a concern that I would agree with–though the rapier generally does have a cutting edge, it’s usually only the top six or so inches of the weapon.

    @Theo: This is an interesting thesis. I’ve certainly not trained at a full contact eastern martial art dojo–but I have trained in boxing and fencing in coed classes, and I have to say that I’ve seen some very fast women. Are you positing that women have a fundamental, biological deficiency in terms of speed? Or is it possible that you’re witnessing the effects of a social inculcation that discourages women from behaving aggressively?

    Comment by braak - February 10, 2009 11:22 am

  10. @Theo: Also, isn’t it a little weird to say “with all due respect…the argument is absurd”? Since “your argument is absurd” is basically the least respectful way to respond to an argument? Especially considering that your argument does not rest on the idea of a female fighter being natively inferior to a male fighter as absurd on the face of it, but rather rests on certain experiences of your own which could rightly be considered fairly esoteric.

    Comment by braak - February 10, 2009 12:35 pm

  11. The speed deficiency is fundamental and biological. For example, I was at the very bottom of the NCAA Division 1 as a sprinter. I was terrible for that level. However, my 100 and 200 times were quite close to those of FloJo, the world champion whose world record times required significant assistance from chemicals and haven’t been approached by any other woman for 20 years.

    That nine percent speed difference between the sexes doesn’t seem like much, but in the ring it is noticeable. It’s not a question of aggression or social inculcation, you feel like you have all day to react when you’re fighting any woman, even a woman of superlative skill who dominates other women at tournaments.

    But as I said, don’t take my word for it. You’ve got some training, so visit a dojo and spar a female black belt. Or fight one of those female boxers full-contact. You’ll see what I mean soon enough.

    The size thing isn’t irrelevant either. I once tried to go toe-to-toe at 180 with a 235-pound heavyweight with whom I lifted weights and could outbench. I figured I could hit him as hard as he could hit me… forgetting that whole “mass absorbs force” thing.

    I ended up on my butt three times in a row before I realized why there are weight classes. Smaller and lighter fighters just can’t afford the same mistakes a larger one can get away with. Now, with smaller men, their relative quickness tends to be a compensation. But with women, they’re usually smaller and slower, a combination that is very hard to overcome even with great skill.

    isn’t it a little weird to say “with all due respect…the argument is absurd”?

    No, I don’t think so. I quite liked Ms Berman’s reasoning, actually, and anyone can make an absurd argument due to lack of relevant information. While the logic is reasonable enough, the contradicting empirical evidence has been available for centuries and can be readily obtained by anyone today. It’s not a question of my unique and esoteric experience, as the obvious and predictable results are available to anyone who bothers to test the matter. If you’re curious, test it and see for yourself.

    Comment by Theo - February 10, 2009 12:38 pm

  12. So, why is the argument absurd, as opposed to simply being incorrect or inaccurate?

    Comment by braak - February 10, 2009 1:15 pm

  13. Theo wrote:

    “With all due respect, Ms Berman’s basic thesis is entirely absurd and reflects her apparent lack of full-contact fighting.”

    And also:

    “However, I do commend her recommendation to writers, as there are certainly situations where a woman warrior is more likely to be able to defeat a male opponent than others.”

    One of these things is not like the other.

    Comment by James Enge - February 10, 2009 6:57 pm

  14. Hmm, arriving at this slightly late… as someone who writes a lot of feamle MCs, I’ve always tried to deal with the physical limitations of women as warriors. There’s no doubt that the bell curve of female physiques and male physiques are shifted slightly and so the very strongest/fatest men will always be stronger than the very strongest/fastest women; but it’s also true that extreme women CAN be stronger and faster than a large number – indeed, a large mjority – of men. But it’s very rare. The only woman warrior I’ve written who actually uses strength is deliberately written as a physical freak – 6’3″ tall and (over time) built more and more solidly to the point that she uses a renaissance two-handed sword. And everyone points at her and laughs at her and comments about her, because she is such an exception. Her aside, I’ve always gone for the precision route, whether rapier or martial artist.

    I’m intriued by Theo’s observations on speed, because at one point he’s talking about sprinting speed but elsewhere he seems to be talking about reaction speed. I’ve not seen any figures on female reaction times but I’d guess that the same applies as other physical characteristics – i.e. the very fastest men are faster than the very fastest women, but the very fastest women are faster than most men. So an exceptional woman will be able to beat many opponents, but can also come up against someone where she is genuinely outclassed, and may have to rely on some alternative technique…

    …and there’s where it can work. Because women have learnt coping and compensation strategies for a long, long time and so it’s perfectly plausible for women to defeat “better” opponents through innovation. My rapier-wielding woman defeats a fencing master largely because she gets him outside his comfort zone; she taunts him, makes unconventional moves outside his catalogue of classic attacks, and eventually needles him enough that he makes a mistake and she capitalises on it. She finds where his weakness is, and exploits it. And if you can do that plausibly (and maybe add a soupcon of luck… luck always helps and is legitimate to a degree), then your woman warrior can beat a “better” opponent.

    Comment by tchernabyelo - February 11, 2009 12:39 pm

  15. The argument about speed as biologically conditioned is true. My understanding is that has to do with proportion of fast-twitch (speed & power) vs. slow-twitch (endurance) muscles, which differs according to gender and is mediated by sex hormones. Any physical activity dependent on fast-twitch muscles (as I imagine punching and kicking are) will generally favor the Y-chromosome bearer. It is also true, however, that as with facial hair, the gender bell curves regarding size and strength have a bigger overlap than our culture is comfortable with. Also, I think it’s disingenuous to single out FloJo as a lone user of steroids amidst a sea of male and female chemical virgins. Most professional athletes are doping, as far as I can tell. I read a recent piece on pro cycling where Greg LeMond said something like, he could tell when everyone started using because there was a sudden qualitative shift in times.

    I’m not certain of the relevance of the speed issue to my post, however. Theo raising it had me thinking about my own experience training largely or, for many years, exclusively with men (for various reasons, despite most aikido schools having a relatively large proportion of women students, ours did not). In the last five or six years, most of the regularly training black belts overlapping with my schedule have been 6’2″ or over. I never felt a gender-linked speed differential in the execution of technique, although I absolutely felt the weight and strength issue whenever I didn’t do a technique correctly.

    For obvious reasons aikido and my experience in it is my primary reference point for thinking about women warriors, and I think there is a fundamental difference between the kind of fighting Theo is talking about and what we do. Theoretically speaking (the reality is not quite that simple) aikido has no offensive moves. This is not purely philosophical. Aikido and aiki-jujutsu come from open-hand-against-sword techniques where you don’t have the luxury of taking repeated hits. Having been knocked on my butt when I, as my sensei said, blocked with my face, I know I couldn’t receive many full-strength blows and be useful for very much.

    In principle you can accomplish not getting hit (and mostly I do) with very little movement. I may have 10% less fast-twitch muscle (probably a lot less given my current state of conditioning), but shifting off the line of attack to hitoi-mi (one line) stance might require only 10% as much movement as my punch-throwing attacker has to make, especially if I maintain the ma-ai and keep the distance I like. I don’t have to move quickly, I only need move to the right place at the right time, which is a very different thing.

    Aiki throwing and pinning techniques are also based on timing, along with momentum, and a few anatomical facts, for example, the natural circular motion of joints, the uneven distribution of muscle around any joint, and the transfer of momentum through the human body that becomes possible when joints, e.g., wrist, elbow, shoulder, are aligned in a certain way. Also the fact that we are bipedal, and once one hip is higher than the other, everyone of us, no matter how strong or quick, is vulnerable to not being able to regain balance.

    One last martial-arts point Theo’s post made me think of, and that is “Big Steps.” We are trained to take extra-long strides, so as to be able to close distance or open it quickly. I don’t know that the fast-twitch/slow-twitch thing would affect this, but it comes out of sword technique as well. One teaching story I heard about this was about a daimyo’s guard searching for enemy samurai in disguise who had infiltrated the town. They looked at footprints in the market and could tell which had been made by samurai, because of the length of the stride.

    Comment by Judith Berman - February 12, 2009 1:27 am

  16. Sprinting speed and reaction speed are closely related. I once ran against the current world record holder in the indoor 55m and his reaction time was even more impressive than his top end speed. I’d never seen anyone that far ahead of the line after four steps.

    I suggest that it’s a misconception to think that an elite woman warrior could beat “most” opponents, unless you’re talking unarmed peasants on foot or something. In my experience, she would most likely fight at the level of a below-mediocre male fighter. It’s not just speed, it’s not just strength, it’s not just mass, it’s the multiple of all these things that makes the prospect so challenging.

    The problem is that most people simply can’t grasp how great the cumulative delta is without experiencing it in some manner. I highly recommend testing the matter, as there’s no more effective test of one’s basic character than discovering if you’ll get up or not after you get knocked on your posterior. You just never know; I’ve seen big, strong linebackers quit and I’ve seen pretty little daddy’s girls grit their teeth and get up for more.

    By the way, no insult to Flo-Jo. I loved Flo-Jo, she was always my favorite. I just think it’s amazing that after 20 years, not even a doped-up Marion Jones can get within two-tenths of her times.

    Comment by Theo - February 12, 2009 2:01 pm

  17. Speed off the blocks has two parts, and the first part occurs in the brain. There is a high degree of individual variability in brain reaction time (stimulus to physical response) and it’s an active area of neuroscience research. I looked for but could not find anything that links it to or sorts it by gender. Degree of myelination (nerve coating) is gender-linked (men have more), and has been proposed as a reason for male physical speed. But brain imaging of reaction processes shows a negative correlation with myelination, which suggests that reaction time is conditioned by some other aspect of the brain.

    Given how small a time difference separates winners from also-rans (in swimming it’s hundredths of seconds) having a fast (brain) reaction time could well be what makes your world-record holder.

    I’ve addressed the other points in my previous posts.

    Comment by Judith Berman - February 12, 2009 10:32 pm

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