How would you write a fight to the death between two men?
Start there. Seriously.
Think about it.
Then back track to this question: what is the difference between a fight between two men and two women?
Except cultural perception.
The term “cat fight” implies that women do not fight about anything serious, that they fight with each other for silly, shallow, superficial reasons and don’t perform lasting damage because they are harmless. I assume the people who came up with this term have never seen two cats fight.
The idea behind the cat fight is that it’s a lot of screaming and yowling, hissing and spitting, hair pulling, slapping, clawing, etc. It turns female anger into a joke and fights between them into something comical, even when they’re not supposed to be. It sends a tell to the audience that the fight is unimportant, these women are unimportant, their anger is ineffectual in the same way that they are.
Why are female combatants often treated as sexual objects and jokes in media? Because the goal is to turn them into something ineffectual, harmless, and safe so the male viewer doesn’t feel threatened and the female viewer isn’t pushed outside her comfort zone. All women of all races get this treatment in different ways. Whether it’s the Angry Black Woman or your stereotypical Asian Dragon Lady or your standard Action Girl, the vast majority of media you consume takes great pains to remind you that women are not frightening.
Well, screw that.
Female characters can be terrifying if you give them the same freedom as their male counterparts. So, write the fight like you would between two men. Think about the fight like you would between two men.
The reason why I say that is because so much is built into how we perceive women (and men) in our everyday lives. You think about two women fighting and your mind automatically turns to the “cat fight”. It automatically turns to it being something foolish, silly, or less important than a fight under similar conditions performed by male counterparts. You do it subconsciously because that’s how society at large, and media in general, has conditioned you to think. You’re having trouble getting out of it because your mind is still bound up in all those nasty gender norms which state women (and men) must behave in a very specific and coded way.
That’s why I say “think about them like they’re men”. Not because they are men or are the same, physically, as men but because what’s been ingrained into your mind regarding women and “how they should be in fiction” is actually working against you. So, think about it from the perspective of writing two men. How would it be different? Would you still have the same concerns? Worries? Do you worry about to men fighting for their lives being taken seriously in a similar scene? How would it look if they were men?
Write that, exactly that way, except with the two characters in question being women.
It’s tricking out your mind’s sense of internalized sexism which makes you think about women as separate, other, and acting under different rules than their male counterparts.
If we want to have a conversation of what “internalized sexism” really means and how it expresses itself then it’s right here. The hardest part about writing fiction is getting over the hump which leads us, even when we’re a member of the minority groups in question, to treating these characters as separate or different.
How many movies have you watched that purport to be “realistic” and yet have women kicking ass in high heels? The Dark Knight Return’s treatment of Catwoman was hilarious in this respect. Batman gets more “realistic” body armor, Catwoman gets skintight leather, high heels, and running around with her hair flying free in the breeze.
It’s not your fault for not taking these two women in your story seriously, really. Media doesn’t take female combatants seriously and it doesn’t take the fights between them seriously. In film, nine times out of ten, you’re looking at a cat fight. Where the female characters are consistently sexualized even when brutally trying to rip each others hair out.
A lot of the time, “realism” even in realistic films is only there for the men.
There is honestly no difference, story-wise, between two women fighting for their lives and two men doing the same. Yet, media will tell you consistently that there is. The answer has nothing to do with “reality” or “realism”, but instead it comes down to perception. It comes to the ways that we think about women and their place in media, fighting against that requires accepting that we have been influenced by what we see and recognizing those tendencies in ourselves in order to overcome them.
When I’m talking about internalized sexism, I don’t actually mean the arguments that a lot of Tumblr uses to bash someone about the head to say that they’re wrong for not sharing the same opinions. I mean the actual influence media/presentation/cultural mores and norms have on the way we perceive the world around us on a very basic level.
You can’t defeat it in your own work until you actually start taking the steps to realize where it rears it’s head and, unfortunately, because it’s subconscious these prejudices aren’t always that easy to find. The tendency when writing women is to create special rules for them that often run counter the same rules being applied to their male counterparts. It’s very easy to create those rules even when attempting to be well-meaning.
And, you know, it’s really hard to take female characters seriously in any narrative when the narrative itself has to give them special concessions in order for them to be able to function.
That’s the norm and it’s repeated ad naseum by male and female writers alike.
Trust that your female characters can carry the story without you helping them. Trust that their own desire to save their life or desire for self-preservation is not some silly or simple thing.
Make it real.
You do that by giving it real human emotion. By breaking down the walls we erect to keep others out, showing the terror and the horror even when the circumstances seem silly of two people being told, forced, or volunteering to kill each other.
There’s nothing shallow about wanting to live. Nothing shallow about deciding you’re worthy of survival. That your life is more important than someone else’s. That is what you are deciding when you kill someone else, by the way.
That choice runs counter to the self-sacrificial nature of women in fiction, which affects all women but especially white women. Women in fiction are supposed to die for other, more important characters (usually male characters). They are the ones who are supposed to line up to be sacrificed, whether it’s their hopes, their goals, their dreams, or even their life. In many narratives, they exist to act as a stepping stone for other characters, a vessel into which someone else’s desires can be poured into until they are no longer useful. Even when treated as precious, they are still just a commodity. This can happen to female characters when they are the protagonists of their narratives.
It can be hard to have a female character honestly look at the camera and say, “No. My life had value. I don’t want to die.” Then fight for it and in the process take it from someone else, someone who doesn’t want to die just as much as they do.
On a basic level, that is what is happening in this scene.
It’s tragic, terrifying, and horribly human.
There’s nothing shallow or silly about it.
The problem is only your perceptions.