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, 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.