Let me begin by stating that I enjoyed Judith Berman’s reflections on the increasingly common trope of the woman warrior posted earlier this week. She’s clearly a woman with extensive experience in the martial arts, and her logic led her to a reasonable and balanced conclusion. The fact that the conclusion happens to be a false one, in my opinion, does not render her blog entry any less interesting or entertaining. There are, after all, few discussions that interest martial artists more than hypothetical debates over “could X beat Y?” unless it is the subject of what martial art is the most effective.
I should note that I also agree with Ms Berman’s statement that Laila Ali’s physique is far more believable as a fighter than the average Hollywood actress, especially when one takes into account that Hollywood actors and actresses tend to be unusually short and therefore unusually light as well. She’s also correct in stating that everyone, male and female, has physical limitations that can be exploited by those with the wherewithal to do so.
However, none of this changes the observable fact that there is no such thing as a non-supernatural kick-ass female fighter. The woman warrior trope is not merely fiction, it is fantasy fiction. It is not, however, credible fantasy fiction.
I must confess that my street cred on the topic is also limited, since I have admittedly spent absolutely no time wielding a sword and hewing limb from limb on a battlefield. I did, however, spend six years training at a heavy-to-full contact dojo, was involved in three violent nightclub altercations, ran the 100m and 200m at the NCAA D1 level, and have lifted weights regularly for more than 20 years. I have been knocked out, I have had bones broken, I have broken other people’s bones, and I have had to explain to the police why both my arms were covered from fingertip to elbow in someone else’s blood. I have also sparred with at least 30 women of varying degrees of skill ranging from white belt to black.
After thinking about the subject for a few days, I think the essential problem with the theory of the non-supernatural kick-ass female fighter is that it requires the reduction of physical combat to two factors, training and the combination of size/strength. The reality is that at least seven factors are at work in the equation; I would place them in the following order of importance: experience, speed, strength, size, toughness, technique, and aggression. These factors are also best understood as interacting as multiples, not sums; for example, if one has a deficit of experience, speed, and strength, then an observer can conclude one is going to lose with a great deal of certainty, barring luck or exogenous factors.
Few women who have not been beaten up fully comprehend the delta of their speed, strength, and size disadvantages, as this cannot be experienced through the light-contact martial arts training which is commonplace today. I particularly blame the “control” school, which teaches that if you can touch your opponent it’s just as good as actually hitting them because you demonstrated the ability to strike them with force if you wanted, for this lack of comprehension. Of course, the control concept completely leaves out the consequences of the strike, which in the real world would cause the target to stumble backward, double-over, or react in some other involuntary way… the very consequences which form the basis of the more effective fighting techniques. I once saw a point-fighter who was ranked #10 in the USA at the time take a terrible beating from one of my dojo’s blackbelts as a result of this ignorance; the point-fighter was highly skilled in terms of technique, but he simply didn’t grasp that tapping someone’s cheek with a backfist doesn’t prevent them from throwing a rear uppercut to your jaw, followed in rapid succession by a snap kick to the stomach and a right hook to the head.
Regarding the size factor, I would point out that the superlative performance of Gozo Shioda would have been much more impressive if he had taken on a young Muay Thai kickboxer or a ranking MMA fighter rather than his own uke. I’ve noticed that those with martial arts experience who subscribe to the myth of the female fighter are invariably from disciplines where the sparring is of a largely ritual and limited form.
Beyond the delta, what’s missing from the analysis that leads Ms Berman to an incorrect conclusion is the distinction between experience and technique. The latter comes from training, the former comes from actually fighting and is far more important. I once came within millimeters of breaking my sensei’s jaw with a hard sidekick; he shook his head and said he wasn’t sure if he’d ever seen anyone strike with such speed. When I demanded – more than a little irritated – if that was true, how it was possible that he’d been kicking my ass for five straight years, he just laughed and said: “You may be fast, but I know what you’re going to do before you do it.” Another time, he was hit in the face by a friend of mine the very first time he sparred. The sensei frowned, narrowed his eyes, and asked my friend, who is 6’1″ but has the freakishly long arms of a man four inches taller, to extend his arms. Then he nodded, and over the next three years of sparring, my friend never managed to lay a fist on him again. That sort of intuitive body-reading ability only comes with years of actual fighting experience, the sort of experience a fictional woman warrior is never likely to acquire because she’s too likely to get killed or injured before she can aquire it, especially in a fantasy world where people are armed with metal weapons and are trying to kill each other.
The thing is, there are no shortage of ways a writer who wants to make use of a kick-ass female fighter can justify her kickassery. Divine parents, magic swords, demonic curses are just a few of the possible rationales. Alternatively, sticking her on a horse, giving her armor, and sending her off with the cavalry to slaughter routed peasants armed with sticks is also a perfectly reasonable option. But on the purely material level, it’s no more credible to posit a kick-ass woman warior slaughtering professional soldiers or armed guards than it would be to write about an astoundingly accurate blind archer who locates the bullseye by his sense of smell. And my conclusions aren’t based only my experience, but also upon the experience of every single male and female fighter with whom I have ever discussed the martial arts as well as the historical record of human combat.
Still, no amount of reason or anecdotal evidence can substitute for hands-on personal experience. I would encourage any writer who disagrees with my conclusions on the matter to step into the local boxing ring or martial arts dojo and test them. I can guarantee that it will be a worthwhile and educational experience.