Strong Female Characters Aren’t Always Armored

There’s been a lot of discussion in SF about strong female characters, clothing, and armor, and I agree with a lot of the points being made, BUT. There’s a big thing being missed. Armor seems to have become the cheap tack to portray a strong, independent person, much like a mouthy, rebellious woman is the only way to have a strong female character (see, for instance, the dismissal of Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori as a strong character).

Armor does not make a strong person. Lack of armor does not make a weak person. Defying authority does not make a strong, independent person. Being a mouthy ass does not make a strong person.

During the Crusades, the Crusaders, on their massive horses (the forerunners of today’s Shires, Clydesdales, and Percherons), in heavy chain armor, had their asses BEAT by mostly unarmored Arabic warriors on light, small, fast horses. It was the same logic that made Alexander’s cavalry so effective against elephants: maneuverability, speed, minimal reaction time.

In fact, MANY of the primarily horse-based nomadic cultures wore little to no armor–Native Americans, for instance, were deadly mounted warriors. Hell, the American cavalry didn’t wear armor. The warriors of the Middle Eastern steppes? Minimal to no armor. Some of them wore heavy felt coats as their main armor.

And no, this doesn’t excuse the chainmail bikinis, because those are still stupid, impractical, and beyond purposeless. (Sure, they’re iconic to some people, some people like looking at them, yay! Go for it. Just stop trying to pretend that there’s any damn use for them beyond ‘TITS! IN ARMOR!’.)

And all this boils down to a criticism about a piece of art, which shows a warrior woman based on thousands of years of rich, nomadic culture, riding a horse based on a breed the Chinese coveted and praised as ‘the horses of heaven’. But she’s not wearing armor, so clearly she’s just a helpless virgin waiting for the prince to save her.

Fantasy doesn’t mean ‘absolutely no reality gets to happen here’, or ‘we don’t have to actually think about multicultural things’. It isn’t all based on knights and maidens, on Joan of Arc and massive steeds with hooves the size of dinner plates.

Sometimes the warrior is dressed in silk. Sometimes her sword is sheathed. Sometimes strength isn’t in your face arrogance and violence. Sometimes it’s the quiet, respectful word of a girl harnessing her hatred for someone she respects, or the steel-jawed determination to ride through anything that comes without raising a hand in anger.

And that, honestly, is damn well something that we, as writers, should be paying attention to, and attempting to understand.

**Edit** As was pointed out to me on Twitter, Crusaders weren’t wearing full plate armor. However, they were still heavily armored and getting trounced by the lighter cavalry. Then again, they were doing a good job of trouncing themselves on a regular basis. But this post isn’t about how awesome Salah ad-Din and Richard the Lionheart were. At any rate, as a former hobbyist of all things Plantagenet/Crusades/Middle Ages, I am rather embarrassed. Too many movies/fantasy recently! BUT THE REST OF MY POINTS STILL STAND. 😛

5 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters Aren’t Always Armored”

  • Great article.
    Most of the women in SF I really identify with are the anti-hero/unlikely hero types. Their looks are modest or edgy, and their complexities are built in a subtle manner.
    Its always nice to see dialog as this to keep ideas progressing!

  • In tales of fantasy as elsewhere, we have a tendency to measure heroes by their physical prowess instead of, for example, their foresight or moral authority. This approach inherently puts women in non-industrialized cultures at a disadvantage. Very few women are as physically strong as men or have the same mass, height, and reach. We can step a little outside the strength=heroism model if we allow that in some instances, the differences can be minimized by training, appropriate weaponry, or other advantages. Strength means a whole lot more than who can bash another person most brutally. It can be strength of purpose, strength of spirit, strength of capacity for love and forgiveness.

  • Nice short piece on strong characters and how to avoid tropes.

    A short thing on the armour though.
    Interestingly, by the end of the second crusade, we begin seeing Arab soldiers armoured up to the same level as the crusaders, including their horsemen (though not the horse archers to some degree). There are even historical accounts of witnesses to cavalry skirmishes being unable to tell the two squadrons of horse apart before they launched into the melee.
    The Mongols, those most famous of Steppe nomads, also had quite heavily armoured cavalry during their conquests, though I imagine this was a result of being faced by opponents with crossbows and other fast, high powered weapons used during sieges and the very few set piece battles they had.


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