On kick-ass female fighters

On kick-ass female fighters

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.

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John R. Fultz

So you’re saying that under non-supernatural circumstances there is NO WAY a female warrior can defeat a male warrior (under “fair” circumstances)? That’s a pretty bold statement.

I was going to bring up the Muay Thai kickboxers, but then I realized those are females fighting females.

I guess this is where the legend of the Amazon comes in then, eh? A race of women who, despite being stunningly beautiful, are as large and powerful as men–or larger, depending on the version of the legend. With that whole “size and power” thing equalized, that puts the Amazonia warrioress on equal footing as any “regular” male warrior.

This is a fascinating topic, and controversial. I’m sure many women readers and writers will have a lot to say about this…

John R. Fultz

What about Bruce Lee? Here was a smallish-height man who became one of the greatest fighters of our times. And his whole fighting style was based on the fact that you don’t have to be big and powerful…you just have to be quick, evasive, and adaptable. Can’t women do the same thing?


While I agree with the bulk of Theo’s arguments, I have one problem with the order of the seven factors (Unless we are saying the same thing but using different words) You list experience first and agression last. I did not notice what I will call ‘the Will’ which I would think is a combination of both.

I would put the will to win and even fight, above strength or speed and even experience alone. I say this as a short man who has always had to fight bigger people.

Experience comes but there has to be a driving force behind it to keep going. I have found I always had to learn and adapt but also believe and know I could beat the other person(s). I heartly agree with the statement that it takes getting a beating to gain experience.

I want to throw in a kick ass female fighter into a series Im working on but have yet come upon a reasonable (to me) way to allow it. I don’t know that I ever will.



Still, no amount of reason or anecdotal evidence can substitute for hands-on personal experience.

Seems like a peculiar statement. Are you suggesting that hands-on personal experience, in this context, is anything other than anecdotal? It certainly seems shy of rigorously experimental.

Likewise, if combat can be resolved into seven factors, then doesn’t that make it more likely that the natural biological speed deficiency (which you attest to) can be more easily overcome? After all, it’s possible for women to weigh as much as men, and possible as well for them to be as strong as men–if those variables are equal, couldn’t training and aggression overcome this essential speed discrepancy?

John R. Fultz

“Be like the nature of water.”
— Bruce Lee

John R. Fultz

This is fascinating, Theo. So women are inherently slower than men? So even if they have the height and weight they won’t have the speed to compete with the male warrior? Is that because of the female bosom, the wider hips, the lower center of gravity?

On the subject of females getting injured more often than men: Most doctors will tell you that women have a far greater pain threshhold than men. Childbirth is something males could arguably never survive. So doesn’t THAT count for something? Could the female warrior (who is big, powerful, but slower) make up for the lack of speed by being able to take more punishment?

Actually, getting back to heroic fantasy, an old adage says that the more the hero suffers, the greater hero he (or she) is.

I’m suddenly reminded of Starbuck on BSG. She’s arguably the ultimate woman warrior–and she takes punishment that woudl leave most guys crying for their mommas. As a result, she becomes an amazingly effective–and complex–heroine.



Now this is a topic that keeps on giving, isn’t it?

Theo, i’m going to have to disagree with you. Your hands on experience is different than mine.

I know a few women who are very good at martial arts. Maybe its the type of schools I attend, I don’t know.

I would even boil down the 7 concepts you mention into 3. Speed, Power and Position. And would argue that position wins over speed and power.

I also draw a huge line between training for a sport and conditioning, and training for self defense. They really are two different things.

Long story short, I believe it is *possible* IRL for a female to take out a male. I don’t think you can say this would never happen. If you would say most of the time the guy would win, i could roll with that.

On the subject of fantasy, well, you can use plenty of other reasons to make a great fighting female character.

John R. Fultz

I think what Theo is saying is that if ALL OTHER FACTORS ARE EQUAL (training, motivation, skill), a male always has the advantage over a female–even when her training and experience are EQUAL to his own…this being because females have inherently less speed and power.

Is that accurate, Theo?

I mean, you can ALWAYS have an experienced female beating the crap out of inexperienced or badly-trained males. But when it’s an even match, the power and speed are firmly in the male court, and that’s what Theo seems to be saying makes all the difference. Correct me if I’m misunderstanding…

Of course, Theo’s argument totally invalidates heroines like Red Sonja, The Bride, Elektra, and a host of others.

Also: What about the argument that fights are won MENTALLY far more than physically? It seems that is being left out of the equation here…

John R. Fultz

So what can we take from this discussion, as fantasy writers? Well, it DOES NOT mean that we can’t have women warriors in our tales. It simply means that we need to make sure they DEAL with these issues when they have to face evenly matched mail combatants…we need to make sure our female heroines are more clever and durable than their male enemies…and that they understand the disadvantage they are under when they face a male opponent.
Afterall, a facing an opponent with so many advantages makes for some powerful drama…and overpowering an opponent is only one of MANY ways to beat him.
Keeping in mind all the things Theo has brought up about male vs. female combatants can only make our stories that much more effective when they involve such a dynamic.
The whole “David vs. Goliath” archetype comes into play. Although, in this case we should probably call it “Donna vs. Goliath.”


A lot of this discussion has centered around martial arts and unarmed combat, but that is not how most fantasy heroes fight.

As a former member of the SCA, a form of armed martial art, and I’ve seen heavy armored women fighting men and hold their own.

However, the best of the women were no match for even the top 25% of the men. Strength plays a big role in armed combat. It’s one thing to flip somebody over your shoulder, using their momentum, but it’s another to get try and stand toe to toe with a sword and shield. Even blocking a few sword swings with a shield can be very draining on the arms. Of course, swinging back takes a certain amount of strength, and I believe the rattan is lighter than steel.

Rapier fighting is different. Strength can become a hindrance without proper control of the blade. I’ve seen women kick the crap out of men in non-lethal rapier fighting because balance, agility, and

I’m not saying women can’t fight with weapons, but the best of them would be hard pressed against most decent male warriors. The successful women would have to be exceptional in some way.

Wasn’t Red Sonja was blessed by a goddess?


Oops. I hit submit without finishing, but you’ll get the idea.

John R. Fultz

So…heavy weapons and mail would be a distinct disadvantage to the female warrior. Light weapons (rapiers, katanas) would be far more believable. (See Tarantino’s “Bride”, or Miller’s “Elektra”)
In a flat-out contest of power, the cards will always be stacked against a female character.
(Again, all of this is assuming no magical powers or the like.)


That’s fine. But I have two questions to ask you. Are the schools at which you train point-fighting schools that teach “control” when they spar? Also, how many of those very good women have ever knocked you down, knocked you out, or broken any of your bones? Technical skill and fighting ability are two very different things.

Hi Theo,
The schools I attend aren’t point schools, they are self-defense (jkd, kali, silat, wing chun, kfm) The point about having bones broken etc doesn’t make sense for me …who would attend a school for long if people were constantly getting broken bones etc? But yes, I get knocked down, choked out etc…and we reserve the right to “tap out” lol

As for sparring, it depends. If it’s a test and a specific technique is being tested, then you might feed them in a way to draw it out.

I agree if two people are going to stand there facing each other and just pound the crap out of one another, then the guy will more than likely win!

You’ve got to have awareness of multiple opponents, the ability to dispatch them quickly and keep moving thru until either you’ve won or are dead.

Maybe a difference between our experiences is that my training most of the time includes weapons. They do equalize a lot of these things we are discussing. Especially a plain old knife.


“What about Bruce Lee? Here was a smallish-height man who became one of the greatest fighters of our times. And his whole fighting style was based on the fact that you don’t have to be big and powerful…you just have to be quick, evasive, and adaptable. Can’t women do the same thing?”

I realize I’m coming to this late, but I remember Lee once saying that as good as he was, if he had to go up against a 300 lb. man that had any clue about fighting, it was the big man that was going to win.

Judith Berman

Nighthawk777 said, I agree if two people are going to stand there facing each other and just pound the crap out of one another, then the guy will more than likely win!

Yes. As I said in a comment to my original post, there is a fundamental difference in the kind of fighting Theo is talking about and what a great deal of other martial arts do.

I have been an aikidoka in a “hard” school for over 25 years and have taken countless hard falls, have been hit hard when I didn’t get out of the way in time, have collided head on doing breakfalls (two whole bodies-worth of momentum) and been slammed in the face with a jo (with a far higher pound-per-square-inch energy than a mere fist; it not only knocked me on my butt but halfway across the room first). I’ve trained in the techniques our school (the Yoshinkan) teaches the Tokyo Metropolitan Police riot squads, though not happily–I couldn’t do it for long and my joints survive.

I well understand delta because it is what we deal with first and foremost.
But we don’t fight with, or against, delta. The whole point is that there is always someone out there who is stronger or faster or meaner than you. We use the attacker’s momentum to throw him (or her), and it’s dependent not on speed OR strength but on timing, distance, and technique. I have to wonder if Theo has ever tried, or even seen, a jujutsu school or comparable Chinese style. My former street-fighting senior chose our dojo because he couldn’t land a punch or kick on the then senior students. (He said in the other aikido dojos he went to, he could hit the students but not the instructor.)

Re Gozo Shioda, the 5’1″ founder of the Yoshinkan, his investors funded the school after they invited him to a meeting where they had a group of senior martial artists from other styles jump him when he entered the door. Re experience, speed, strength, size, toughness, technique, and aggression: I’d say what he undoubtedly used, and what I would need most if attacked by a 220-lb 20 year old (age does slow those fast-twitch muscles), is what in Japanese is called mu shin, empty mind, which is actually much harder to achieve and much more effective than aggression–the reason the samurai who genuinely did live or die in combat worked so hard to cultivate it.


I happen to be in the military, which in no way makes me an expert on combat of any kind, and they each us a form of grappling. I have dismissed a large portion of what they have taught me, seeing as it appears to me to be of little use IRL. All those we train with and the instructors agree. Our grappling, which closely resembles judo, isn’t effective IRL. In fact it wasn’t chosen to be effective, it was chosen because of grapplings popularity in MMA and that sport’s popularity among youths. Those grapplers, trained and conditioned, could surely beat the snot out of my rookie friends and me, however as I once heard a MMA fighter say before a fight (I paraphrase here), it’s hard to do judo while being punched in the face. He won that fight, mostly by punching the other guy in the face during an attempted BJJ move.

On a completly seperate note, using Bruce Lee as an example is not by any means fair. Lee was exceptionally fast and strong, and was by all accounts far outside of the human norm. If you are unfamiliar with some of his feats of strength and speed, I suggest you look them up. Bruce Lee himself also admitted that he believed that Muhammad Ali could beat him. He was also pinned at least once by an Olympic level wrestler. Lee was a physical wonder with a sharp mind and amazing reaction time to boot, but could be defeated because of a size and power difference.

On another seperate note, fighting dirty is an excellent way to equalizes a battlefield. Eye gouging, and biting off chunks of flesh certainly help with a shock and stun effect.


wow – i found this to be both ridiculous and insulting. I think a bevy of female wrestlers and 50% of the Israeli army would like to have a word with you.

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