The stories we shouldn’t be telling

I don’t really know how much of a “trend” this is, but in my casual, work-avoiding browsing of current events I sure have seen a lot of stories about “trans” women, i.e. men who have decided to call themselves women, running away with the prizes in women’s sporting events. Apparently the Doctrine of Infinite Sexual Mutability trumps minor considerations of reality, such as the fact that individuals who were “men” up to and throughout adolescence before “transitioning” are going to be bigger, faster, stronger than actual women in later life, regardless of how they manipulate their testosterone levels.

So? What did we expect?

The First Reader likes to watch cop shows and spy shows, and he likes me to watch with him. I’m not sure whether that’s just because he enjoys seeing me scream at the TV or whether that’s a minor fringe benefit. In any case, over the last few years I have seen way too many episodes depending on “90 lb. young woman wipes the floor with 250 lb. man because…” uh, because she is an expert in some obscure martial art that we never ever see her practicing? Because he wasn’t expecting her to be able to fight? Because she’s the good guy and the plot demands it? I’m pretty sure ALL the episodes boil down to that last reason, and I’m not totally unsympathetic to it. It certainly increases the range of stories we can tell if we get to assume that an attractive, slender young woman can work on an absolutely equal basis with her colleagues in some violent profession. If we never have to think, “Well, the bad guy wants to get away, so obviously he’s going to charge at the girl and knock her down… oops, why was she there in the first place?”

And the (Unrealistically) Strong Woman trope isn’t limited to TV shows, or I wouldn’t be griping about it here. I have read –  well, I’ve started to read – too damned many military sf novels that portray women in combat as the absolute equals of men. I don’t mind if the writer wants to posit a high-tech future world in which battles are fought only via computer, and she with the fastest fingers wins… though you’d better make it convincing, and don’t get Captain Mary Sue involved in ground combat halfway through! I can sort of put up with a story that has Sergeant Mary Sue benefiting from mysterious physical augmentation – though the amounts of handwavium and unobtanium necessary to make Sergeant Mary Sue a combat infantry leader leave me dizzy.

But way too often I pick up a book that promises a strong female lead… and offers me a fairy tale world in which the only thing “different” is that we’re all going to pretend that women, not significantly physiologically different from today’s women, can fight on an equal basis beside men, also not significantly physiologically different from the men of today. Private Mary Sue can carry as much ammo and supplies as Private Marty Stu and can endure the same debilitating combat conditions. None of the men in her unit are the least bit dismayed by the prospect of seeing a woman wounded or mutilated. And, one assumes, they’re perfectly willing to visit death and mutilation on a woman who happens to be fighting on the opposing side.

Two questions.

Is this a world we really want to live in?

And if we pretend so very very hard that women are absolutely physically equal to men in armed combat, can we be surprised that the society we live in expects us to extend that pretense to athletic contests?



  1. Having recently read The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and re-read the Riddlemaster Triology, I think Patricia McKillip does a great job with strong female major/main characters. But note that both those books were written well before the current “wokeness”.

  2. “90 lb. young woman wipes the floor with 250 lb. man because…” …she has a gun, and he doesn’t.

    1. noooo, that would just perpetuate more gun violence, gun violence is never the solution!

    2. Because she’s a paladin! Or at least in the fighter class.

      The paladin in my Gamelit story is going to be told that if it weren’t for magic, she would never be able to fight like she does. She will retort that if the sky wasn’t that high up, dragons would never be able to fly.

  3. There was only one TV ‘cop show’ with a female character in it that I thought was physically convincing as a real cop – Molly Price in “Third Watch.” She was no 90-lb stick insect with tits: she was a good solid size 14, who carried herself … it’s a hard thing to describe, except that I knew and recognized it in many of the military women I knew. She had solid presence, and a bearing that said “Don’t even think of f**king with me, sport!”
    But she was the only one who readily came to mind, convincingly playing a street cop.

  4. At least Weber’s Honor Harrington has the excuse of being genetically engineered and grew up on a heavy gravity planet as an excuse for her physical abilities in excess of us baselines.

    1. See also, from the same series, Thandi Palane, and other secondary characters.

      Weber is *very* careful to keep his heroines within plausibility, if not probability.

  5. The best strong woman author on my current reading list would have to be our own Amanda Green. Her heroines are in the main augmented either by battle tech or by shape shifting, but she still makes them feel human and vulnerable.
    And two of my long time favorite authors of action stories, Heinlein and L’Amour, wrote women who managed to win out through sheer determination partnered with knowledge and common sense.

    1. Heinlein’s Friday *was* Genetically Enhanced & still won because she was, usually, better _trained_ & more skilled.

      When she didn’t have those advantages (towards the end of the story IIRC) her victory came because her opposition weren’t actually her enemies (&, again IIRC, not totally sold on working for those enemies).

  6. I have a couple of unicorns in my character menagerie.

    One is Alice Haddison, the undisputed Queen of the Mobile Infantry jump suit. (Yes, I stole it from Heinlein, lock stock and two smoking Y-rack barrels.) Alice has a couple of magic powers. First is that she can see the auras of the people around her, giving her the ability to spot a bad guy at quite a distance.

    The second is that if there’s anything weird, perverted or just plain bad within a 1000 square mile stretch of desert, it’ll be right where she is. All she has to do is drive somewhere, get out of the truck and wait a few minutes, and somebody will come along to hit on her, molest her or try to kill her.

    She was drafted to Canadian Special Forces in Afghanistan to hunt zombies. Wherever she went, that’s where the zombies would be.

    Accordingly, Alice has developed a near-miraculous situational awareness, a unique and effective style of dirty fighting, and an impressive case of PTSD. She never goes anywhere without two guns and three knives, and plenty of situations will trigger a flashback that usually makes her puke.

    Alice is who they send when it absolutely needs to be killed right fucking now. She does not fight things or people, she kills them from hiding as efficiently and quickly as possible, wearing invincible powered armor. Her hobbies are eating, running, and playing Barbies with her robot girlfriend. Yes, she’s got issues.

  7. When the topic of “strong women in fiction” comes up, I like to say Mattie Ross from True Grit and Rose Sawyer from The African Queen are my favorites.
    Then I smile.

    Most of the time it kills the vapid stupidity, but if the fool persists, they deserve all the salty acid I’m about to pour.

      1. Well, yeah.

        Although the movie adaptation featuring Bogart and Hepburn is worth seeing in its own right. .

  8. I tried very hard to avoid the “Curse of Waif Fu” [which would be a great parody short-story, I must say. Ahem, where was I?] with the Rada Ni Drako character. 1) Projectile weapons were her friends, 2) long, pointed things as a back-up, 3) lots and lots and lots of intense training and practice, 4) when in doubt (or not in doubt), use more firepower.

    It wasn’t deliberate at first, but I just could not abide having a small female character with a lot of weapons-skills and no good reason for them. Then I hit my first case of “waif-fu” (police procedural) and bounced hard.

    1. “It wasn’t deliberate at first, but I just could not abide having a small female character with a lot of weapons-skills and no good reason for them.”

      She’ll have reason if she’s a shit magnet. People learn fighting skills because they keep needing to use them. Ask me how I know. 😡

    2. the “Curse of Waif Fu”

      D’you think we’d be hanged, drawn, and quartered by all the ‘right people’ if a bunch of us got together and did an anthology of nothing but little waifs getting their butts kicked because they were stupid? Or the first story could feature a waif (this is my new word of the week) who won her fight, just to lull readers into a false sense of security.

      Don’t mind me- I’m dying of a cold and have no brain function to speak of.

      1. I’m not an author, but such an anthology should, IMAO, include at least one story in which the “waif fu” involves *being* a “waifu” (which was how I initially read the term).

        Specifically I’m thinking of “The Navy’s First Rule of Gun Fights” (“Bring Marines”, or in this case “Husbando”, or maybe stick to “Marines”).

        1. Or a story where the waif knows to bring a knife to a fist fight and a gun to a knife fight.

        2. I couldn’t make out the service insignia, (probably USAF) but I saw a bumper sticker yesterday:

          [Insignia] “When it absolutely, positively, has to be destroyed overnight”.

      2. Yes, and we’d deserve it because while that could be an incident in a good story, it does not make a good story. The waif could in her ignorance cause a real problem that someone else has to fix; could learn to exploit other advantages; etc.

      3. Such an anthology would be tricky to pull off, since waifs are naturally very sympathetic unless the writer really needs to push it by making all the other characters stupid and incompetent in her presence just to make her look good in a contrived way.

        River from Firefly was done very. Rey from Star Wars, not so much.

        One of my favorite examples is Faye from Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles. Particularly in her first meeting with Sullivan where she screws up – badly – but in an understandable way.

        The thing about when waifs screw up, they’re so naïve and earnest that you want to see them wise up and help fix the problem.

  9. James H. Schmitz. Hands down the best women in action oriented SF, and Nile Etland topped the bunch.

    Hang on, I think there’s a terrific essay on how he pulled it off by Janet Kagan (who wrote some pretty cool heroines herself). Yep. “Mischief in the Spaceways” in the Best of James H. Schmitz. It’s also in her collection here:

    1. We also get the short conversation between Telzey Amberdon and Trigger Argee, in which they are preparing to shoot some bad guys, and Telzey more or less confesses that she has never quite understood the ‘aim’ concept.

  10. Would be nice if more Strong Female Protagonists were built like, say, Rhonda Rousey or Alex Morgan. Instead we get willowy waifs. SIGH.

    1. Like the gal at the gym this morning? She’s probably about 5′ 8″, with serious biceps and quads. She’s trim, not “cut” like some of the body-builders try for, and looks very healthy. She was curling 45 pound dumb-bells as a warm-up.

    2. The cynical part of me wonders if the reason for that is because the Hollywood bigwigs figure that Rhonda Rousey/Alex Morgan types are more capable of effective resistance to predation than willowy girls.

      1. Joss Whedon.

        Seriously, when you look at his hissy fits about the Buffy movie, try to reverse engineer his definition of ‘strong female character’ by comparing Buffy the movie with the TV series, add in the fact pattern that makes him look like a sexual predator personally…

        Feminism looks a lot like something inflicted on the rest of us for Hollywood’s benefit. Hollywood women get abortion, which they need for when they are raped as a condition of employment. Hollywood men have access to young women who are raised to think that sensible decision making is the evilz.

        1. There’s a reason why Playboy has always been a major source of funding for abortion lobbyists.

  11. Kickass characters of all shapes and sizes are fun, but kickass characters with no explanation- well, those make me scratch my head.

    I grew up on a little farm, so I was very young when I figured out that men are stronger than women. Mom and I had to think our way through heavy jobs; we used tools and machinery because we had to. Dad and my brother use tools because they enjoy it (and being smart guys, they weren’t going to waste physical effort if they didn’t have to).

    Same goes for men v. women in a fight. I did a lot of thinking about this when I was world-building the Garia universe. All Garians carry a bow and arrows, because their hardscrabble lifestyle discourages them from taking risks with personal safety. Men and women are fairly practical- if they can kill an enemy from a distance, all the better. They’re using the same tools, but the women use them because they can’t realistically kill an enemy in close combat, and the men use them because they’re not stupid and they know that killing at a distance is less risky to the person on the fletched end of the arrow.

    One of the female characters kills a couple of guys with a knife, in separate incidents, but I tried to imply that each was due to luck or accident. The first time, she snuck up behind the attacker when he was distracted and stabbed him in the neck. The second time, she- essentially- tripped and happened to be holding the knife at the right angle.

    I think a lot of writers who fall for the ’90 lb girl kicking the 250 lb man’s butt’ trap are simply not practical people. So their characters tend not to be. They go for what looks or sounds cool, which is understandable. But I’m stupidly practical, almost to the point of unimaginative, so I like characters who are the same way. One of my favorite entertainment moments of all time was when Indiana Jones shot the guy who was threatening him with a sword. I like to think I would do that, in the same situation.

    1. I think that’s why nearly everyone who loves that Indy scene loves it, because it’s so totally *sane*.

    2. And that scene in Indiana Jones is much more in character than the originally planned fight. Harrison Ford later explained that he was sick at the time, and when they started filming, he just was not up to trying to do the choreography. So he said to himself, “Forget this, Indiana would not get into this kind of fight,” “shot” the bad guy, and collapsed back into bed. Happily, Spielberg blinked and decided that hey, that would work, and thus was a classic moment made.

      1. I’d heard that. Thank goodness for improv, and that Spielberg didn’t automatically toss it out the window because it didn’t conform to his original expectations.

    1. And Delilah Jones from the same was more the classic “Woman smash!” level trope. (Also with the superpower as an equalizer.)

Comments are closed.