Q&A: Fight Like A Girl Or, Don’t

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

What do you think about Aiki Flinthart’s book on “Fight Like a Girl”? Like on the subject of girls fighting differently and I quote from an interview with Aiki.

“Women do fight differently to men, and anyone who says they don’t is making stuff up because women are physiologically, psychologically, emotionally and biologically different from men, and to pretend they aren’t is ridiculous.”

The reason why I ask this is that given it is hard to find a site or writer that has some experience in martial Arts and not invalidate female fighters. But the quote from an interview with a woman who has experience with martial art and survivor of assault throws me off and I wanted to ask this blog’s opinion on this book. Also this is one few books that directly tackles the subject on writing female fighters. I see this book alongside with this blog with seemingly contradicting statements.

So, what I will say as a female martial artist who started training at the age of five, who was trained by individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, including female instructors, who earned three black belts before they were twenty, and who also taught martial arts is — we don’t train women differently.

Ignoring the fact that Aiki Flinthart’s statement has two redundancies, (Physiologically and biologically are the same, and psychologically and emotionally are also the same) the fact of the matter is the reason why you can’t find a lot of writing that focuses on female fighters is because most martial arts advice isn’t written with the gender divide in mind. The gender divide is irrelevant to technique and training. Everyone, regardless of age, is trained the same way, they learn the same techniques. They’re tested on the same skills. They largely express the same philosophies if trained in the same martial system. The reason why I say that men and women aren’t fundamentally different as fighters is because both use the same fundamentals. We fight the way we’re trained to fight.

Reality, ultimately, doesn’t support her argument.

The follow-up argument of, “well, there just aren’t enough female martial artists to know” is also patently false. There are hundreds of thousands of female martial artists all across the world, probably millions. There are enough for the Olympics to have women’s divisions in multiple categories per accepted martial art per country. There are martial arts like Wing Chun which were created by women, and those martial arts are practiced by men. Pick up any martial arts instructional book. The philosophy and/or techniques there all apply to you. Male or female, you could learn these techniques if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.

The irony is you actually do yourself a disservice by chasing for girls when looking to create a female warrior. It’ll lead you to feeling like you’re being excluded when you’re not. It’ll lead you to exclude perfectly viable combat options, attitudes, and learned behaviors because you assume they’re men only. Most importantly, you’ll start from a false position of “how does a woman solve this problem with violence” when the important question you should be asking is, “how does my character choose to solve this problem with violence.”

The one major component Flinthart doesn’t include, because it doesn’t support her argument, is the social differences between men and women. From birth, boys and girls are socialized differently due to cultural gender expectations for their societal role. Now, socialization is very real, but socialization varies heavily by individual cultures. What is socially acceptable for a woman in one society may be completely different from the expectations of another. 

For example, you may go, “there’s no real history of women warriors on film and tv.” (False, but let’s roll with it.) And my response is, “on who’s television?” Then, I direct you to Hong Kong and Chinese cinema where there’s a well established history of female martial artists because, culturally, there’s a well established history of female martial artists. You’ll often see multiple female practitioners per film on both the protagonist and antagonist’s side. Sometimes, they’re the protagonists. There’s television shows where the male characters have female masters who train them in the martial arts. (Seriously, go to Viki. Learn to love subtitles, and, if you need a place to start, Michelle Yeoh’s filmography is a good one. Girls with Guns is/was a major subgenre in Hong Kong action cinema.)

We can move the goalposts here at this point and argue, “but, Michi, male and female warriors aren’t treated as equals in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema!”

The answer is, of course, that many societies are still patriarchal and societal expectations for women still exist. However, male and female warriors still use the same techniques, so there’s clearly nothing biological going on there. Also, every one of those films needs female stunt doubles and the actresses are either trained martial artists going in or also trained by martial arts choreographers. This isn’t some small subset, this is an entire industry.

The problem for Flinthart is that socialization for both men and women is socially conditioned behavior, it’s no different than teaching your dog not to bark at strangers, to sit, or go outside to pee. Most of what you believe about the gender divide is social and not biological, and these behaviors are socially enforced by society at large. This is in the way they look at you, the way they treat you, the way they respond to you, and what they say to you. A lot of young women are afraid to learn martial arts due to socially conditioned fears that training for violence (or even sports) will make them less desirable, because these are “men’s things.” That’s complete bullshit.

A) A lot of the behaviors ascribed as men only are actually for everyone.

B) The vice versa is also true, many behaviors ascribed to women are also for everyone.

The sexualization of female warriors in cinema is, again, about retaining and reinforcing societal expectations for women. It has nothing to do with biology. As a woman, you may even be inclined to chase that sexualized presentation because it is safer and more culturally acceptable. If you need an example of sexualized presentation, take a look at Black Widow in Iron Man 2, Avengers, and (especially) Avengers 2 versus the portrayal of Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

 Women are trained to believe objectification is desirable, we’re shown this relentlessly and constantly throughout our lives; starting at a very young age. Everything about sexual objectification is designed to take personhood, personal power, and the associated danger away.

Why should you describe a woman as fighting like she’s dancing? 

This is a really common one, a lot of writers describe female warriors as fighting like they’re dancing. Why? Because dancing implies beauty, and society says a good female protagonist must be beautiful, what is beautiful is desirable, and a woman’s first priority is to attract a mate.

Again, that’s bullshit. In combat, your first priority is to kill the enemy. However, that’s aggressive. We’re told being aggressive is a masculine tendency, and therefore undesirable. So, many women writers will shy away from aggression for their female fighters when they should run towards it. Women martial artists in the real world? They do.

I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this, but female warriors are very aggressive. On average, they are more aggressive combatants than men. Not because they need to be, just because they are. It’s a side effect of what happens when you’re trained to be passive your whole life and the shackles come off. Take the sexist definition of a cat fight, now apply that to women fully trained to kill each other. It hurts.

If you haven’t realized it yet, women can be sexist. They can be misogynists. They can buy in, even female martial artists. The myth of the gender divide feels so good, it gives the people who believe it such a fantastic sense of superiority. You get to say, “I’m different from them” then “I’m different than” becomes “I’m better than.” If you’ve ever been hurt by the opposite sex, your next step gets to be, “I’ve got nothing in common with them.”

On this blog, we have never said and never will say that martial arts training is a guarantee against sexual assault. It can act as a deterrent, it may provide you with the skills you need to identify and exit a situation, but, ultimately, a sexual predator is a social predator. The belief society instills in you and insists on is that sexual assault involves being physically overpowered, but that’s only one potential aspect. A sexual predator overpowers you with fear, fear of social consequences if you say no. Fear of getting kicked from your sports team, a failing grade, a poor report to your parents, fear of reprisals if anyone finds out, fear of your word not mattering over theirs, even fear of the predator filing a police report for assault and battery. Sexual predators don’t exist in a vacuum and you don’t either. Violence in the real world has real world consequences, both legal and social. Sexual predators know society’s rules protect them, they strike from a position of power, and their gamble is on their victim being more willing to submit in the moment than face the long term consequences of fighting back. The situation is intentionally engineered to be a lose/lose. It’s all about social power. 

The fault is never with the victim, only the perpetrator.

The sad truth is those instincts are in all of us, male or female. We also all have the same capacity for evil. The high which comes from taking power from and exerting control over others is very real. I don’t blame Flinthart for her perspective, but the claim “martial artist and sexual assault surivivor” has a lot less validity in making her a source of authority than she realizes.

The truth is that if there were a fundamental physical difference between men and women when it came to martial arts, we’d have two separate training sets for both. You’d be able to find more of a focus in the martial arts community on it if it existed because women and women’s self-defense are a huge part of the market. (We’re talking millions upon millions of dollars.) Women are, in fact, so common within the martial arts community that most members of said community genuinely forget gender parity in training isn’t a well known fact. (I forget this all the time.) Rather, most people outside the martial arts community assume a masculine default when there isn’t one.

The economics aren’t there. The training isn’t there. The philosophy isn’t there. We can’t lie to ourselves by saying there aren’t enough women for it to be an oversight. I mean, you could, a lot of people do, but that doesn’t make it true.

Don’t make me drag out all the videos from that time the whole HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) online community had a collective conniption when right wing personalities/misogynists said women couldn’t lift a sword or wear plate armor. It was bullshit then and it’s bullshit now.

What’s uncomfortable for a lot of female writers when working with female warriors and looking for references is the sensation, “but, if I do this, my character is behaving like a man.” That’s natural, these behaviors (which are necessary to be effective combatants) have been designated by society as masculine. They aren’t though. They’re normal behaviors for someone who has been trained in this style to fight. The appropriate answer is, “my character is behaving like a warrior.”

Listen to the wise words of martial arts masters in instructional manuals and on YouTube. They’re as much for you as they are the men in your life. Take it from a kid raised in martial arts, I’ve often found I have more in common with male action heroes than female ones (unless they’re from Hong Kong.) There’s a reason for that, and it has nothing to do with the limitations of sex or gender.

-Michi

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