Q&A: The Lie in Biology

How can i make my female character win a fight without forgetting about biology?? I don’t want her to be a sue/overpowered

Without exception, people who say, “women cannot fight” or “cannot win a fight,” because of biology do not know what they’re talking about. It’s an easy way to instantly recognize that the person speaking or writing is pretending to be an expert on the subject.

I’m going to be slightly hyperbolic here, but the two most important things in hand to hand combat are, stability and force generation. Now, if this was a different discussion, I’d probably step back and include some other factors, but for this discussion, those are the two things we need to look at.

Stability is exactly what it says; how well you can remain standing based on what happens to you, and what you do. More stability makes it easier to generate force, and makes you more resistant to being knocked down, or thrown. The lower your center of gravity, the more stable you will be. This why you will see martial artists go into low stances. You spread and bend the legs, while keeping your feet flat on the floor to lower your center of gravity. In hand-to-hand, there a huge advantage in having the lower center of gravity.

This leads right into one of the “biology,” fallacies. Women tend to be shorter than men. That is biology, but it’s not a combat disadvantage. Additionally, even at the same height, women have a lower center of gravity than men. For a woman with hand-to-hand training, that’s a significant advantage. She will be significantly more stable than a much larger, male foe.

The second major factor we’re looking at right now is force generation. This is your ability to put power behind your punches and kicks. It’s also another case where, “biology,” misleads you. If you’re untrained, it’s easy to believe that you’re generating the force in your arms. This leads to the idea that someone like Schwarzenegger will have a very powerful punch. As a result, it’s easy to say, “women have a disadvantage because it’s harder for them to build upper body bulk.” Thing is, that argument is irrelevant because power does not come from the arm, it comes from full body rotation, starting in the hips. You keep the entire core in line, without twisting the spine. This has a result of putting your entire body weight into the strike. Properly executed, this will deliver far more force than you need, regardless of your gender.

If you’re wondering, this is also true of kicks; generation starts in the hips, you’re putting your weight into it, and when you connect, you’ll do so with far more force than you need. A trained female martial artist can easily apply more than enough force to shatter the heaviest bones in a much larger foe. For example, a properly applied Muay Thai shin kick or sidekick into the side of the knee will destroy it.

The role of momentum, or force generation, is where we connect to the powerful spinning and jumping attacks in martial arts. The greater the moment you generate, the harder you hit. Add running to the equation and it’s even worse. You might’ve been hit by someone running at you, now imagine getting hit by someone who knows what they’re doing and can weaponize a flying leap. That’s skill, not gender.

There’s also a related detail that exists agnostic of gender: You don’t want to, “just,” punch someone. Your hand, whether you’re a man or woman, consists of twenty-seven small, delicate bones. The same structure that allows for human manual dexterity also makes using the hand as a blunt instrument, “less than optimal.” This means, understanding where to put your hands, and how to hold them are far more important than simply applying unlimited force and reducing your foe into chunky salsa, simultaneously obliterating your ability to ever operate an ink pen again.

Again, this is mostly true for the feet as well. There’s only twenty-six bones, and you’re probably not using them to hold a pen, but you do rely on them to walk. The heel is a bit more sturdy than the palm, but you can still wreck it with a bad impact. Most neophytes have no idea how to protect their toes, and you can break those toes on impact. You can’t just hurl your foot at someone and hope for the best. You need to know how to maximize your impact, turn your hips over, and balance on a single leg while delivering enough force to shatter bones.

Combat is about what you know; what you have internalized and what you’re willing to do to another human being. If you are not willing to harm another person, that is debilitating in a fight, but it is not biological, it’s social.

Society harshly punishes acts of violence, and this can result in a real aversion to following through. Additionally, many martial artists do not practice with the intention of ever using what they’re learning on another person.

If you know what you’re doing; if you have the muscle memory; the hardest part is the mindset. Being willing to set aside the social norms, and decide to end someone’s life.

That’s the one thing about this that’s almost true. In western civilization women have been conditioned against engaging in violence. This starts in childhood. Girls are frequently given domestic focused toys, while boys are given martial ones. The games they’re encouraged to engage in follow similar patterns. Media produced also follows this. Action films are aimed at a male demographic, while romcoms are aimed at women. In a real sense, men are sold violence, women are sold love. The important thing to understand is: there is nothing real about this dichotomy.

Society tells you, “you should like this,” but, you have the freedom to choose what you do and what you like. The success of female led action films in the last few years solidly illustrates that there is huge untapped market among women for more aggressive representation. Climb into any MMO, and while you will find women in “traditional,” support roles, and RP communities, you’ll also find them the endgame raiding communities, and in aggressive combat roles. There are plenty of girls out there who eschewed, “traditional,” feminine toys, in favor of the same thing the boys were playing with. This is society, not biology.

If you think, for one second, that this doesn’t carry over into the real world, remember that there are women in police, military, and intelligence roles. Some nations are far happier to put women in combat roles, while others still find the idea socially unpalatable. However, these women exist.

Society tells you, “you should be like this,” but, you have the freedom to choose who you are. Social norms would prefer you to be domestic, passive, and waiting for rescue, but peer pressure only goes so far. Especially among women who simply migrate to peer groups more accepting of who they are.

Okay, having said all of that, let’s loop back and talk about the Mary Sue for a moment. The term itself is not, inherently, misogynistic, but it is frequently applied that way.

There’s nothing, inherently, wrong with an overpowered character. However, they are harder to work with. Especially if the character is so powerful that they could easily resolve the central conflict. This doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Just that more powerful characters can easily become the focal point of the story, so plan ahead.

Second, extreme combat proficiency does not, inherently, make a character overpowered. Being superhumanly skilled at combat will help you deal with a very specific, and somewhat rare, set of circumstances. It won’t help you interact with characters in any way that doesn’t involve the application of violence. So, the character is incredibly dangerous, but, only in one field.

A Mary Sue is not “a powerful character.” They are a character unconstrained by any limits. They are, “the best,” at everything. Any challenge placed in front of them can be solved trivially, in the optimal way. It’s not that they’re good at violence, but are in over their head when the conversation turns to politics. In short, a Mary Sue never faces adversity of any kind. The result is that a Mary Sue weakens the story they appear in. They’re blatant power fantasies, who only exist as an ego trip for the author.

The term is sometimes gendered, Mary Sue/Marty Stu, though the effect is the same. This has nothing to do with the character’s gender, beyond which label you prefer. (Male characters can also be referred to as Sues.)

However, the term is also, sometimes, applied to any powerful female character as a pejorative. In this context, it is a reactionary insult by someone who is offended or threatened by the idea that a woman could possess any power to influence their world. You can probably guess that my opinion of this particular “critique” is low.

If your character faces adversity. If they grow as a person. If they experience pain and loss. If they face challenges they cannot overcome, and must find other solutions, they’re not a Sue.

Your characters can be powerful. Women can be powerful. That’s not a sign that they are flawed. If someone is threatened by that idea, it tells you more about how insecure they are.

-Starke

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