Increasingly (finally), our media and fiction centers around powerful women, sometimes in positions of leadership. Characters such as Marvel’s Black Widow, Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck or President Roslyn, and Orphan Black’s entire cast, take up some hot space in mainstream entertainment. Besides the contemporary settings, we’re also seeing a lot of ancient and/or fantastic women, such as in Game of Thrones or Vikings.
When our mainstream media concerns itself women with power, in ancient or fantastic settings, we talk about women and power in a non-threatening way. This allows us to experiment via imagination, to examine our own social actions.
How are ancient, science fiction, or fantasy stories non-threatening? By setting a story in a place far removed from contemporary reality, it gives the audience freedom. Shakespeare set his plays on fictitious islands, or far from England in Italy, to:
- catch audience attention and pique their interest
- examine social morals and manners
- allow for experimentation and behavior without it affecting his social or political standing (“it’s only a play that takes place on a pretend island.”)
In the same way, playwright Naomi Wallace used 17th-century London, during the Black Plague, in her play One Flea Spare. This metaphor let her show the underlying social causes (income inequality, prejudice) of the Los Angeles riots.
I use the term “Warrior Queens” to indicate women in positions of leadership, who move themselves and their allies toward a goal, over, around or through obstacles to reach goals. What kinds of Warrior Queens are we seeing here, and how do they operate?
In the late 1990s and early 200s, Xena cornered the television market for “strong women” in an ancient, fictitious world. The television show Xena: Warrior Princess was unique in that it had a female protagonist who “kicked ass” or succeeded in combat situations. She and Gabriele drove the plot and had agency over their own lives.
Game of Thrones has women as political and social decision-makers. This show lets women showcase different methods of leadership and progress. For example, in the first book:
- Cersei Lannister uses sexuality as a villainous means of social mobility. Via subterfuge, marriage and sexual connections, she gets her teenaged son on the throne and becomes Queen Regent.
- Catelyn Stark gathers support for her clan using her family connections. She captures Tyrion Lannister (believing he conspired to kill her son) and has to negotiate with her sister for his trial. Unlike Cersei Lannister, she uses open debate and trial by combat as a means of social change. To sum up, she calls in favors that have to do with family or status, and uses the power of reputation.
- Daenerys Targaryen (Autocorrect and I fought about that one for a while) has a little of each woman’s strategy, and something else. She starts out as a gift to Khal Drogo, a sex slave intended to bring pleasure and breed an heir. She end up as the ultimate Other. Her magic power to command fire-breathing, flying dragons is the ultimate trump card. However, having had the status of a slave, she understands the mentality of those on the bottommost rung of society, and can command armies with only her own voice.
Lagertha, on the show Vikings, is based on a heroine of Old Norse legend. Most of the character’s social mobility happens through marriage. However, she becomes the Earl of Hereby because she stands up to her husband, and to rape. By stabbing him in the eye in front of his allies, she gains their support and political office. The real Lagertha commanded armies, and once sent 120 ships to save her ex-husband in battle, so there’s precedent for this character doing well in a fight.
In these stories, we’re seeing women who:
- overcome obstacles to change their lives and that of others
- have flaws, but overcome them
- use empathy to motivate others
- have social mobility and achieve it through their own actions
- aren’t afraid of blood.
Why does this matter? If female-driven television shows and movies drive box office and award-show numbers, aren’t we living in a world where we don’t need stories about women being powerful?
If you’ve read this far, you might be rolling your eyes at how obvious the answer to this question is, but I’ll lay it out for you anyway.
Every household knows at least one veteran. Women comprise nearly 15% of the Department of Defense’s Active Duty Force. Topics such as birth control and other health concerns for female soldiers, women in combat positions (the AP reports that the DoD had plans to allow women to start training as Army Rangers by the end of 2015, and as Navy SEALs by the end of 2016), and sexual abuse and rape in the military are not just theoretical concerns. They’re real things that happen to real people, and can be upsetting to consider.
Women make up 20% of the positions in the US Senate, and 19.3% of the House of Representatives. 5.2% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women. However, the wage gap makes it easier for a company to cut costs by laying off or firing higher-paid male employees, and retaining lower-paid women. The result is that many households have a female breadwinner.
These numbers- 15%, 20%, 19.3%, 5.2%- are ridiculous when you consider that women make up over 50% of the population, earn half of the advanced academic degrees, and nearly 50% of the work force (source.)
Even without considering women’s leadership roles in the military, politics, or business, every woman has her own life. She needs to see herself as a free agent, the leader of her own “army of me” (to paraphrase Bjork). Women need to move toward their own life goals without looking for permission, approval, or that hilarious “wife bonus.” Stories about Warrior Queens give them the confidence to use strategy to take steps toward goals, and understand the concept of feminism as self-determination rather than a dirty word.
We’re seeing more women in fiction and media because the demand exists. The Hunger Games set box office records for a reason. We want the metaphor, and the social experiment, so that we can look at our own lives and improve them. Myth, saga, epic and fable have always been humans’ system of teaching and learning more about ourselves. These warrior queens metaphorically give us the strength to overcome our own battles.
Jarnsaxa Rising is a podcast about revenge in the future and the past. The story is driven by characters of all genders, and the stakes are world-shattering. To find out how you can be a part of this, visit our Indiegogo page. You can follow our blog with the link above, and you can also follow us on Facebook. Thanks for reading.