The Tough Sword-Fighting Space Dame

I’ve given Disney a lot of shit for their “Hurr durr, we’re finally getting a woman with a light-saber” marketing, because ass-kicking women with swords and light-sabers are kind of Otis Adelbert Kline’s thing:

maza

From the cover of the 1929 issue of Argosy serializing Maza of the Moon.

A few weeks back, Anthony did a post on how to make good Strong Women characters. He hit in a few good points, even if he didn’t pick a great example. Even “good” Strong Women characters like the one he references are actually figures of fun within their stories; note that he even points out that there are constant references to how unwomanly she is and won’t find a man. I disagree with his take that “They need to suffer some sort of loss related to their femininity” to be a good strong female character, but his point that “They need to be paired up with a male character equally strong or stronger” has merit.

I’ve noted that women in the pulps may suffer from The Worf Effect–if the male hero can’t hold his own against the toughest dame on the planet, he’s not gonna be much help to said dame when they’re really in a pinch. On the other hand, you know a dame is tough when she can give the guy who’s gonna topple a space dictatorship with his sword a run for his money.

It’s a shame that the new kids feel they have to reach for anime for their examples of tough women in sci-fi, when they’ve been hanging out in the pulps all along.

Take for example this great scene from Swordsman of Mars–Thorne has just met Thaine, the childhood friend of the Martian who he’s traded places with. At her camp, the pair are attacked by a band of hostile Martians, and a couple of them pull Thaine into her hut and briefly out of sight of the hero.

He was about to spring through the opening when he saw the girl framed in the doorway, dagger in one hand and sword in the other, both dripping blood. Behind her, barely visible in the dim light of the interior, lay one dead and one dying foeman.

“Why – why, I thought…” stammered Thorne, lowering his point.

The girl smiled amusedly and stepped out of the hut. “So you believed these clumsy Ma Gongi had cut me down. Really, Sheb, I gave you credit for a better memory. Have you forgotten the many times Thaine’s blade has bested yours?”

So her name is Thaine, mused Thorne. Aloud he said: “Your demonstration has been most convincing. Yet I have not lost my ambition to improve my swordsmanship, and I should be grateful for further instruction.”

“No better time than now. Still, I have you at a disadvantage, since you hold an inferior weapon.”

“It is a handicap which a man should accord a girl,” Thorne replied.

“Not one this girl requires.”

She sheathed her dagger and extended her blade. Thorne engaged it with his captured weapon which, though more heavy and clumsy, was somewhat similar to a saber.

He instantly found that he had to deal with the swiftest and most dexterous fencer he had ever encountered, and time after time he barely saved himself from being touched.

“It seems your stay at the military school has improved your swordsmanship,” said the girl, cutting, thrusting, and parrying easily – almost effortlessly. “In the old days I would have touched you long ere this. Yet, you but prolong the inevitable.”

“The inevitable,” replied Thorne, “is sometimes perceptible only by deity. For instance, this” – beating sharply on her blade, then catching it on his with a rotary motion – “has often been known to end a conflict.”

Wrenched from her grasp by his impetuous attack, her sword went spinning into the undergrowth.

Instead of taking her defeat badly, Thaine actually beamed.

“You have developed into a real swordsman, old comrade! I am so glad I could almost kiss you.”

“That,” Thorne answered, recovering her weapon for her, “is a reward which should fire any man to supreme endeavor.”

“It is evident that you have mastered courtly speech as well as fencing. And now I will prepare your favorite dish for you.” She called the brute. “Here, Tezzu,” indicating the bodies. “Take these away.”

There are a number of things in effect here:

Thaine’s able to remain boastful to rib her childhood friend, but the hero wasn’t deprived of his moment in “saving her”; alone, either of them might have been overtaken, but Thaine can hold her own. It’s important to note that this wasn’t a case of the hero showing up and the woman has done all of the work and didn’t need any help at all.

Thorne gets a chance to both size up Thaine’s fighting skills and judge how good he’s supposed to be, since at this point, he’s new to Mars and new to filling in the shoes of the young Martian viscount he’s stepped into. Ultimately, it’s his lack of proper Martian table manners that gives him away to Thaine.

Now that Sheb/Borgen Takkor (actually Harry Thorne) has been shown to have taken a level in badass, the girl can be impressed by his growth. She no longer sees him as an inferior, regards him as someone who she could genuinely rely on when pressed and is prepared to reward him with her affections as a strong woman who’s found a stronger man.

Food. A lot of women like to cook for a man. And being promised that you’ll be cooked your favorite meal is a hell of a thing. An unbelievable amount of human behavior is predicated on doing things that will get you your favorite meal cooked for you by a lady and the endeavors undertaken to earn such a privilege. So, you want a beautiful Martian lady to cook you tasty bug-steaks? You’d better be able to kill AT LEAST as many evil Martian swordsmen as she can when you guys get attacked by them.

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7 responses to “The Tough Sword-Fighting Space Dame

  1. Remember, I said EITHER one or two. In fact Wonder Woman actually DOES hit point two with Steve Trevor – every version of Wonder Woman that works treats him with respect. Strong isn’t meant to be physical. What is widely considered her best incarnation pairs her up with Batman (JL TV show).

    Mattie Ross from True Grit is another great example. She ends the story one-armed and alone. Well, exactly. Point one.

    Now let’s look at those figures of fun. We’ll use Olivier Armstrong again. You know what Olivier is without point one?

    ANNOYING.

    Why are these women able to act like men with no consequences? It’s not how women act and makes them unlikable. We need to feel that lack in order to accept the character and relate to them. Leia without Han is a bitch and a half.

    Sorry for the kvetching, this is a fine article. I hope I don’t sound too ornery.

    • It’s fine! And sorry that I missed the “either/or” in the original article.

      The point I was trying to make there was that you can have women be strong without other characters constantly having to lampshade how unwomanly it is, which is, admittedly, something you see A LOT in animes, even ones that have great female characters.

      • You definitely can. Olivier was a particular example, because that was her particular “lack” specifically. It doesn’t need to be repeated every other sentence. It just needs to be there, and felt by the reader.

        In Olivier’s case mentioning it is necessary because she’s not ugly and it wouldn’t really be assumed otherwise.

      • Now, there WAS a pulp story I read where the hero was all “Wait, why is this lady going to fight with us?” and one of the other guys is all “Get with the times, bro, we live in the post-apocalypse, earth is occupied by mech-piloting aliens, and she’s pretty good with a spear.”

      • Incidentally, if you’re wondering why I brought up so much anime…

        You see how you feel about pulps? That’s how I feel about “Brotherhood”. It was honest to God the best epic fantasy I’ve seen or read since “The Lord of the Rings”. It actually made me rethink how I was writing some of my projects. That’s how much I liked it.

        And this is true of multiple anime! It was telling stories I hadn’t seen in ways I hadn’t seen. This is true of the pulps, of course, but also true of anime.

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