Warrior Girls

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 14th, 2019

When the Wonder Woman movie came out a couple of years ago, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I’d been expecting an hour and a half of battle scenes, which usually leave me cold. But in addition to appreciating the fact that there was a lot more story in Wonder Woman than I expected, I also finally understood what generations of boys and men must experience when they watch superhero movies: the chance to project themselves into the action and feel the thrill of triumph as personal.

The fight scenes in Wonder Woman, while still never going to be my favorite part of a movie, were ten times more interesting and fun to watch because there were women doing the kicking and leaping. It felt unexpectedly empowering.

So why does the current trend of girls with weapons on fantasy covers make me a little uneasy?

Strong girls in literature saved me as a child. There weren’t so many fantasy heroines to relate to back then, but there were outliers and stubbornly-themselves girls, girls who created their own definitions of what it meant to be a girl.

I must have read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy eight times as a teenager. The Two Towers was always my least favorite of the three because so much of it takes place on the battlefield. There are entire chapters I pretty much skimmed. Still, I did slow down to read battle scenes whenever Eowyn, the shieldmaiden who disguised herself as a man in order to fight for her people, appeared on the scene. I hated the violence, but I loved her strength.

As an adult, I continue to read and love strong-girl books. The heroines in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books are fantastic; Alanna is one of the all-time great knights. There are loads of iconic figures of strength in YA—Cimorene, Katniss, Tiffany Aching, and so on—and they are brilliant to read. I think I’m having trouble with all the weaponry.

There are a LOT of girls armed with swords and knives on book covers these days. I love the strength and action of these heroines, I love their fierce capacity for protection and self-protection. I think what gives me pause is that, increasingly, we seem to be equating power and strength with weapons, battle, and conquest—which feels a little like giving in to centuries-old male visions of strength and power—power over, strength that requires someone else to fall—rather than celebrating the creative and constructive versions of those qualities, and what they look like in actual women.

Admittedly, a book jacket showing collaborative teamwork would be a snooze, and it’s hard to convey strength and leadership brilliance without using these easy symbols. The books above, by and large, look like great reads, and I love that girls can project themselves onto badass, take-action heroines. It’s just that, in a society already plagued by devastatingly real violence, I find myself yearning for new definitions of what “badass” looks like.

12 thoughts on “Warrior Girls

  1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

    Hi, folks. Thanks for all the comments (I’m the writer of this article). I actually love the bad-assery of the girls and totally understand the deep joy of seeing powerful girls, especially girls of color, gracing the covers of books—at long last! I’m just sad that our nation’s definition of bad-assery is increasingly connected to violence. The Games of Thrones TV series worship, for instance, is depressing (to me) because there is SO much brutality and violence, especially violence against women, in it that it feels desensitizing. It’s compelling storytelling, but has a frat-boy sensibility underneath. Again, just my opinion.

    The way my article started was as a cover trend round-up. I often write about book jacket trends, and I had started to notice a lot of similar girl-wielding-weapon covers in YA fantasy. I wanted to like them for all of the reasons readers here have liked them, but I also felt like the images (not the books themselves, just the cover images) were attaching traditionally male ideas of what strength and power look like. I went through the Ingram book database and pulled out every 2019 fantasy cover I could find that showed a girl holding a weapon (or in one case, a girl with a weaponized bionic arm). There’s actually one image no one caught that doesn’t show a girl with a weapon; it was an example of strength and power that didn’t need weapons (it’s the girl on the flaming bird). I didn’t pick and choose which covers to include in the collage; I used every jacket the database showed.

    While my own intentions were strictly about violence and patriarchal notions of strength and power, I understand that other readers may feel differently about that issue, or read into the article based on their own viewpoints. I appreciate everyone’s thoughts. Thanks for reading the post.

  2. Denesha Dobbs

    Everyone be offended. Everyone get mad. Stay mad. Don’t relent! Make sure that you read into this article everything you hate. That’s how you live–from petty hatred to petty hatred. Now, get on Twitter and hate some more.

  3. Sharon Turner

    Yet this article chose only POC covers.

    Women’s rights and POC freedoms are being threatened every day. Seeing strong female POC characters taking charge and defending themselves speaks to a LOT of us.

    Especially girls of color who so rarely see themselves as a kick-ass heroine. Those girls want those books. They need them. Also explain why a BW with a prosthetic arm was seen as having a weapon. A disabled character is coded as having a weapon merely because she’s Black. You can’t make this shit up. YA and Children’s Lit repeatedly prove themselves full of offensive idiots or outright racists.

    So you’ve managed to offend both POC and disabled people.

    You’re being dragged on Twitter and rightfully so.

    1. Lydia Matts

      There are 20 books there. 9 of them have white women on them. 2 you can’t tell what race they are. If the author chose 20 white women you’d moan that POC weren’t represented. Stop looking for ways to be offended.

  4. Rose

    I think people are missing the point here…author of the post (as far as I can see, but who knows, maybe I’m the one missing the point) tries to tells us that maybe violence doesn’t have to equal power and strength. Maybe we could put a badass girl surrounded by books or scrolls on cover, i.e. equal mind and intelligence with power and strength. But, even if that’s the point, I honestly think that violence is in human nature and that it will always be more or less intertwined with power and strength (as intelligence of course). And as first commenter said, violence can be used for good purposes.

    And, I would like to give one advice to the author of the post, with best intentions in mind. Ignore particular individuals on social media, especially considering who is the instigator of the rant in question. There’s no reasoning with that bunch, believe me.

    All the best!

    1. Oh no you didnt sis

      Nah, sis. Y’all missed the point. Weaponry on books, and book covers in general, aren’t meant to showcase strength of the character. Book covers represent the genre and typically the protagonist of the book. YA Contemporary covers tend to be illustrated minimally with word art on the cover. YA fantasy/action adventure have these poses and symbols of weponry for the same purpose: so that readers can judge based on the cover that what should be in the book is a girl on an action/adventure storyline. Has nothing to do with the character and what they are trying to convey as their symbol of strength.

      1. Rose

        Fair point….And I absolutely agree, but I think the covers go beyond merely representing the content of the book. These books carry strong message of girls being strong and powerful, and I honestly think that artists have that in mind when creating covers. Sometimes the artist is so good in conveying that message that people buy a book without looking at the blurb.

        The way I see it, writer of the post simply doesn’t like violence (she said so), and she doesn’t like seeing weapons on the covers, because they are inherently violent, even when used for good purposes. Maybe the post should have been about violence in fiction, not the weapons on covers, ’cause in the end, as you said, they can not not represent the content, so maybe the problem she has is with the content itself. And we’re all being mislead in this discussion.

    2. Sarah H.

      What exactly are the “best intentions” of telling a white woman to ignore all of the many women of color critiquing this post, because “there’s no reasoning with that bunch”?

      1. Rose

        Calling someone racist and sexist with providing no evidence, when nowhere in the text does the person in question exhibit that behavior, is critiquing the post according to you? And for what? Free promo, attention and couple of likes? So, yes, I stand by my opinion that there’s no reasoning with them, and if I have to explain to you why is that, even after all the harm the instigator of the rant on Twitter has done to YA fiction community (or has tried to)…well, let’s just say I don’t waste my time on hopeless endeavors. So, yes, I have best intention in mind, ’cause they don’t want apology, they want her to suffer and drag her on SM, so why would I advice her, witnessing behavior of the aforementioned instigator in the past, to interact with them? If she apologizes she will be accused that it’s not honest and still be called a racist (cue more likes and attention) )…if she doesn’t, she still gets called a racist. So, yes, from my point of view it’s best she ignore them. Because that’s what I would do if I were in this situation – if I were wrongfully accused so certain someones can feed and spread the hate.

  5. cher

    I love badass women on covers. I’m assuming you added the multi book image (or did someone else?). Either way it now highlights my to be read list. Thanks for the great suggestions.

  6. Dawn

    There have always been actual women who wielded weapons. There have always been females rebels, soldiers, hunters, and even generals. Always. Also, weapons and violence can also be tools by which people rescue others, overturn oppression, and serve justice when other choices aren’t available. I think a more interesting take would be where you looked at the covers and tried to uncover what they might be challenging about male visions of power, rather than assuming they’re supporting them.
    Also, the black woman in the top row has a prosthetic arm, not a weapon. Whoever included that cover might want to take a closer look at what assumption led them to include it.

  7. Kevin A. Lewis

    Also, we’ve got the problem of scars, missing fingers and teeth-all the “Conan ailments” we might call them. As a guy who grew up in the wide-open age of war toys and roistering fistfighting movie scenes, it took a while-in fact till I started taking Tae Kwon Do in high school-that I started realizing all this is REAL, and better be handled carefully. A lot of kids playing video games have the same problem these days. Sandahl Bergman in the 1980 Conan movie is probably the best example of the tough chick then or now, but Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind (whatever the ignorant race messages underlying) did a lot better job of playing to her strengths and letting someone else catch the grapeshot. Nuff said!

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