You Wish You Could Fight Like a Girl – Women in Combat

“You _____ like a girl!”

The boilerplate insult of child sexism everywhere.

At least, it used to be. The times they are a-changing.

Finally. Sort of.

Recently, I had the privilege of attending the Paddy Crean Workshop in Banff, Alberta, CA – the largest international workshop dedicated to combat for the stage and screen. The sheer statistics blow “fighting like a girl” as a concept out of the water – around half of the attendees were women.

Every generation that has come and gone in the stunt and stage combat world, the archaic “boys club” methodology has gone further and further to the wayside. Each year, new media is created and released by women, starring women, and featuring women in all sorts of powerful and construct-defying roles.

From the not-so-distant past of men performing stunts on behalf of female actors to the present day arsenal of femme fatale characters gracing big and small screens, it’s important to understand the journey that this generation of women is still undertaking towards equality.

I reached out and spoke to a few of the women I worked with at the “workshop beyond the wall” and asked them to share some of their stories with me, and subsequently, you.

An actual photo of Banff in January. I’m from Florida, a mere Southron babe. I knew nothing.

Kiriana Stanton is an up-and-coming actress based out of Toronto, CA – but don’t let the term “up-and-coming” fool you. Kiriana already has five years of stunt and combat experience under her belt working in the film and live theatre fields.

With a background featuring both dance and Shotokan karate, and some early inspiration from a few episodes of female-led Legend of the Seeker, she said she found the “stories she wanted to be a part of” relatively quickly after her entrance to the acting industry.

She’s definitely aware of the particular obstacles that still exist, and the progress that has been made against them.

“The fact that I’m a woman already makes my opinion mean a little less in a lot of situations. The stunt industry is full of some very talented individuals, but most of the ones in power are men,” said Stanton. “Not all of them are open to newcomers, especially those with different experiences and views. Now, I’ve worked with some amazing guys who really go out of their way to include more female fighters and performers, and I’m very thankful for them. But, not every[one] has the same outlook. Also, just in the film industry in general. Whenever there’s a call for Soldiers or Cops, it’s rare that they’re going to pick a young woman over a buff man in his 20’s, regardless of if she has more firearms experience or not.”

The “experience vs look vs networking” debate isn’t solely a female problem in Hollywood, but it’s compounded by a perception of women as the “fairer sex” in a lot of ways. The implication of one gender’s ability to portray certain emotions or certain archetypes is founded in history, but mostly in the fabrications of history, not the truth.

We’re familiar with the outlier stories, the Joan of Arcs. Remove the near-historical Westernized perspective, though, and objectivity gives us a little more information on what an untrue installation the sexist view of “warrior” really is.

Tomoe Gozen, for example, was a 12th Century samurai warrior – she was famed for using an oversized sword, taming unbroken horses in minutes, and a host of other heroic feats.

Tomoe Gozen, toppling the patriarchy one armlock at a time.

According to a historical account from The Tale of Heike:

“Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman, she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armour, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valour than any of his other warriors.”

My favorite part about that passage? It doesn’t even sound like the author is surprised or feels the need to address her femininity. The author refers to her as especially beautiful, but reading contemporary Japanese texts, the level of attractiveness and physical features are called to the forefront as an introduction to almost all historical figures. Hairlines, cheekbones and the shapes of frowns are meticulously examined to provide us with the most accurate possible image.

So why, then, in Western modern culture, did the “warrior” become masculinized so frequently, especially in media and literature?

It took a long time for the perception to begin to change in stage combat and stunts, even after women were fencing and duelling and murdering each other senselessly like men had been for so long! What could possibly qualify them?

As a point of note, it’s important to remember that yes, in most cultures men have dominantly appeared in the records and depictions of war in almost every culture – there’s a whole set of articles waiting to be written on why and how and the value of childbirth and polygyny as it relates to male war-related deaths, and I’m just not going down that road here. Maybe someday, but suffice to say I’m aware of it in a historical context and the complexity of it.

What I specifically find most interesting, and tried to ask around about, is how it has affected the stage combat and stunt community – to the point where women couldn’t even pretend to fight, or to where men had to pretend to be women to make sure a stunt got done “right”.

“So far in my beginning of a career in the stage combat world, it’s usually men over a certain age who don’t already know any of these skills themselves,” says Kaitlyn Farley, a Fight Instructor hopeful with Art of Combat – New York Chapter. A Musical Theatre graduate from Randolph Academy in Toronto, with several years experience in NYC conservatories, Farley has seen some of the holdovers from the “golden days” of the male-dominated action industry, but thankfully she sees the evolution as well. “There have been occasions where I’ve felt resistance, and you can feel the questioning, that subtext of, ‘okay, girl, are you sure you know what you’re talking about…’ So, many times you can immediately feel them doubt that they’re going to be able to learn it from someone they deem a ‘girl’ or ‘young lady’. But even in my few years of experience, my response just has to be a breath and a decision to remind myself, ‘yes, this woman knows what she knows and I’m not going to pretend anything more or less. I deserve to be here.’ So I let my actions and professionalism speak first and find a way to connect with them, usually successfully, so they open up to learning. Others opinions don’t need to become my doubts.”

So where does this land? Where does it go from here? Progress is being made, certainly, and the gap is closing, but how can we as a community of peers approach this progress as positive and support it?

“Always be open to learning,” advised Farley. “You can learn just as much from those deemed the ‘wisest’ or ‘best’ in the industry, as you can learn from those just starting out! Take the lessons, let yourself be open to the conversation and hold on to the things that are right for you. Reach out to and support other women, we can’t be adding to the climb by holding each other back.”

“Don’t stop just because someone says no. Don’t compromise your ideas just because one person doesn’t agree,” said Stanton, on the same point. “Find the people that do. Find the people who care about the stories you want to tell. Find the people who are just as determined as you are to make [the] change. Find people who will support you, who will fight with you- and you will be unstoppable.”

And that’s really what it’s about, isn’t it?

It’s about making your own story and making it on your terms. It’s not about deeming that only women who pick up swords are “badass” or “cool” now that it’s an option, either. That’s equally as enforcing of a standard as archaically denying them the opportunity to practice. Women aren’t amazing because they do a particular thing. Neither are men. People are amazing. Period. Hard stop. After all, isn’t that why we perform? Because we love the people in these stories, the people who wrote them, the people who watch them?

Our choices for the medium to tell our stories, how we spend our precious time and who with, our gender or race – these can’t be washed away, pretending they don’t exist and that we’re all coming from the same magical place of hindsight-blind equality. Likewise, they can’t be the mass by which judgment is placed on an individual, ignorant of their actions or character, or especially their capability.

Eastern philosophy has a concept called “tao” (or “dō” in a Japanese etymological context, where I’m most familiar with it). It translates somewhat loosely to “way” – as in, we’d understand there is karate, but there is also karate-dō, or “the way of karate”. We can simply practice a task, but to truly engage in the “way” of a task, we must do so mindfully and with a deep joy for the practice itself, not its outcomes. One who engages in the way of gardening does not do so for the flowers it brings.

The “way” or the dō of what we do as combatants, is truly the value we should all seek – and to deny somebody the deep joy of engaging in the way of something they love is a cruel and inhuman act. It’s time we stop letting people tell us what we can or can’t do, who we can or can’t be.

It’s time to be.