The Body Diverse

In a recent Guardian article, actress Carey Mulligan is reported to take issue with a Variety review of the black comedy Promising Young Woman, which read: “Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale – Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her.” Mulligan says about this: “We start to edit the way that women appear on-screen, and we want them to look a certain way. We want to airbrush them, and we want to make them look perfect. Or we want to edit the way that they work, the way they move and the way that they think and behave. And I think we need to see real women portrayed on-screen in all of their complexity.”

“Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as… femme fatale”

In our story, The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, we have Ymke, similarly to Mulligan’s character in Promising Young Woman, set a honey trap for an abusive husband. While Ymke is fairly average looking and disabled, we’ve got no doubt she could pull it off. Of course, she already turned Kaila’s head, and vice versa. And talking of Kaila, she is of course very short but also very muscled. And yes, she’s attractive. Attraction is not the same as beauty, whatever the contemporary idea of beauty may be.

Kaila and Ymke from The Red Man and Others

We’d love to see more ‘non-normative’ body types in our media, and in film and tv in particular. What the reader sees on the page is partially filled in by their own imagination. What we see on the big or the small screen leaves little room to fill in your own blanks. Genre films, superhero films in particular, have not been very diverse. Where you look at the Marvel films, you see some fairly ‘average’ looking guys like Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/Hulk) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), the women can all be classed as beautiful – even when they’re shaven-headed, black-eyed and blue, like Nebula (Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy). Hopping over to ‘the distinguished competitor’, why is Superman super-muscled and Wonder Woman isn’t?

Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill. One is not like the others.

It’s not like Superman needs to go to the gym every day after work to stay super. It all comes down to classic role patterns, right at the dawn of the pulp- and superhero: Superman’s template is the dynamic tension built Charles Atlas. Superman doesn’t get sand kicked in his face! The notes on the first sketch for Wonder Woman (1941) are revealing. Artist H.G. Peters notes that: “The shoes are like a stenographer’s.” Writer William Moulton Marston writes back: “Dear Pete – I think the gal with the hand up is very cute. I like her skirt, legs, hair.”

No more sand shall be kicked in *his* face!

Some artists draw Wonder Woman as fairly buff, but it never seems to stick. Likewise, much was made of Jessica Biel’s fitness regime for Blade: Trinity (2004), yet I also remember the ‘fanboy’ comments of her being “ugly”. I guess they’d rather stick with the female leads of the X-men movies, Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Mystique) and Halle Berry (Storm), who all started their careers as models! You’ve got to wonder how they’ll handle the upcoming She-Hulk series. Will Tatiana Maslany be set on a body building regime to bulk up like Cavill, Affleck, Bale, Helmsworth and Evans (the harmful amount of muscles expected of nowadays Hollywood leading men is another story)? I doubt it.

“Dear Pete – I think the gal with the hand up is very cute.”

There have been some tentative approaches to the diverse bodies in Fantasy franchises, but these have come with an amount of ‘but’. In Game of Thrones Gwendoline Christie was imposing as the female knight Brienne of Tarth, but it was made very clear that she was not attractive. The Witcher‘s Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) was disabled but she could only be attractive once that was ‘fixed’. Only Frøya from Norsemen (Silje Torp) comes to mind as being awesome while tall (1.78), past forty and with the muscle mass befitting a warrior woman.

Norsemen‘s Frøya (Silje Torp).

I’m also thinking of’s Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995), a straight-to-video Terminator-inspired actioner. Its lead is a young woman (Sue Price) who fights against a cyborg bounty hunter from the future. Think of the film what you will, but writer/director Albert Pyun at least had the thought: “Hey, if it’s good enough for Sly and Arnold, it’s good enough for my ass-kicking heroine to be absolutely ripped!”

Sue Price in Albert Pyun’s Nemesis 2: Nebula

Diversity, also in race, age and ability, is still very much a matter of ‘two hesitant steps forward, a frightened leap back’. It’s about time for the audience, us, to enjoy the rich variety of humanity, and not expect conventional standards of ‘beauty’. While typing this, we’re watching Doom Patrol which has a team of anti-heroes who are each, in one way or another, disabled. Vic (Jovian Wade), whose body is partially replaced by mechanical components, just made love with a woman, Roni (Karen Obilom) whose body is heavily scarred. “You’re beautiful,” he tells her, and means it. They accept each other’s disabilities, and invite the viewer to do the same. The next morning, he’s all aglow, while she withdraws, saying they’re just “two fucked-up people, who are trying to forget their shit.” This is the conversation between a woman who doesn’t want a relationship and a young man who is looking for romance. Roni asserts herself, and will take intimacy on her terms. She doesn’t need to be grateful.

Vic (Jovian Wade) and Roni (Karen Obilom) in Doom Patrol, s2e3


A commentator has recently made some waves in S&S and Fantasy circles by claiming that it would be impossible for swordswomen to exist because, basically, they’re feeble and no match for a man. This, of course, is nonsense. By the same argument, a poorly armoured foot soldier would be no danger to a knight in full metal on horseback. And yet, medieval wars were full of simple foot folk. Could it perhaps be that there’s more at play?

No medieval battle was a simple equation. How many troops do you bring to the field? Your superior horseman won’t fare well against twenty peasants with pikes. Where is the fight? Does your army have to cross a stream, to be picked off by archers? Staircases in castle towers wind a certain way so that defenders have a nice reach for the sword in their right hand, while it’s hard going upwards. Have your generals made the right tactical choices? There’s so much more to add to the mix than “one woman, one man – pah!”.

Being a good swordsman also is not simply a matter of superior weight and strength, of course. Why have tournaments otherwise? Just put them on the scales, have them lift weights and appoint a winner. No, that’s not how it works. How fit is the fighter? And how quick and nimble? Looks to me as if speed and technique could have an edge over brute strength. Not everyone can be a champion, or even adequate, and many did not go enthusiastically: either you went because you were poor and had no other choice, or your were the second son of a rich family and it was expected of you.

Kaila, one of the heroines in our stories

And then there are other circumstances, where it came down to ‘defend or die’, rebellion, uprising and other situations were the rules of warfare were blurred. And my guess is that you’d definitely find women holding swords then; sometimes by choice, sometimes out of desperation, or spurred by a calling – or revenge. In our stories in The Red Man and Others we’ve introduced the female sell-sword Kaila. We very clearly wanted to give counterweight to the big, manly barbarian of Sword & Sorcery, so she’s not only a woman, she’s also small. When we ‘found’ erstwhile weightlifter and now fitness instructor Samantha Wright, we were convinced it’d work.

Kaila will get a bit of a backstory in which we’ll also meet the woman who trained her. Of course, it was a woman. Kaila is originally from her world’s equivalent of the Middle East, and she made her way north to land, on the other side of a mountain range, in the care of a retired female warrior. I asked a colleague from Ukraine whether she’d know a suitable name for Kaila’s mentor, and she pointed us towards Nastasia Mikulishna (Настасья Микулишна).

Nastasia Mikulishna

She’s a famous woman warrior from Russian folklore, appearing in the cycle of tales around the Bogatyr, comparable to the knights of the Round Table. She’s the daughter of the epic hero Mikula Selyaninovich, and when another knight, fresh from killing a dragon, seeks to conquer her, she literally grabs him by the golden curls, drags him off his horse and sticks him in her pocket. She decides that if he’s good looking she’ll marry him, but that she’ll kill him if he disappoints. This blog post from the Russian immigrant Nicholas Kotar gives a nice overview of the different Russian valkyries.

The Eastern European swordswoman we’re most familiar with in the west, at least by name, will be Red Sonya of Rogatino. She was introduced by Robert E Howard in 1934 in the pulp story The Shadow of the Vulture. The chain mail bikini of her later comic book incarnation Red Sonja is nowhere to be found. Instead: “She was tall, splendidly shaped, but lithe. From under a steel cap escaped rebellious tresses that rippled red gold in the sun over her compact shoulders. High boots of Cordovan leather, came to her mid-thighs, which were cased in baggy breeches. She wore a shirt of fine Turkish mesh-mail tucked into her breeches. Her supple waist was confined by a flowing sash of green silk, into which were thrust a brace of pistols and a dagger, and from which depended a long Hungarian sabre.”

Roy G. Krenkel’s illustration of Red Sonya of Rogatino

Red Sonja, with a “j” (this blog goes into the particulars) meanwhile was very loosely based on Sonya in the ’70s by Roy Thomas, for Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comics. She’s had enduring popularity, now via the same Dynamite shelf that brings similarly (un)clad female heroines such as Vampirella, and Dejah Toris of Mars – they even teamed up. Some may find Red Sonja overly exploitative, some may find her a strong female character (particularly when handled by writers like Gail Simone); I’ll leave it up to you, but it was not greeted with enthusiasm when Marguerite Bennett and Nicola Scott ditched her chain mail bikini: the Mary Sue liked it, bros on the internet didn’t. Bros won out.

Nicola Scott’s redesign of Red Sonja

In Sword Woman Howard launched another heroine; Dark Agnes de Chastillon, who killed her groom and fled an unwanted marriage, then gets trained with the sword. He wrote three stories about her, which didn’t sell during his lifetime. He sent them to colleague pulpster C.L. (Catherine) Moore, who wrote: “My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Sword-Woman”. It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures.” Moore could know; she’d already launched the successful stories around the warrior queen Jirel of Joiry.

Maybe a rake thin and scantily clad Red Sonja is more comforting for certain men than a tough-as-old-boots Red Sonja would be: it keeps it firmly in the realm of Fantasy. And when writers start to challenge this image there are protests. “Game of Thrones? Unrealistic!” – dismissed off-hand, while physically Brienne of Tarth actually can measure herself against most men, and has had the training too, while Arya Stark is plausibly a dab hand at fencing and makes her size and appearance work for her as an assassin.

Gwendoline Christie as GoT’s Brienne of Tarth

Robert E Howard was widely read, knew his classics, and perhaps he’d read Thomas Bulfinch’s Legends of Charlemagne. In it we find the saga of Bradamante, a female Christian knight who falls in love with the Saracen warrior Ruggerio, provided he renounces Islam. So he does, but meanwhile Bradamante’s parents have another knight lined up to marry her. Eventually, she’ll consent to marry only he who can best her in a fight; only Ruggerio is up to the task. Shadows of Roy Thomas’ Red Sonja too here, with her vow of chastity; no surprise, as in his series Arak he introduced the paladin Valda, daughter of Bradamante. There is a lot of suspension of disbelief needed in Bradamante’s tale – there’s her magic lance and the wizard Atlantes for instance – but it strikes me that for a Renaissance, well-bred audience closely familiar with sword fights, the central premise of a warrior woman must not have sounded too ridiculous to believe.

Alex Kingston as Boudica, Queen of the Iceni

It seems that the further we go back in Western history and legend, the less the sword becomes a male privilege. There’s Scáthach, the Scottish warrior who instructs the legendary heroes of Ulster, amongst them Cú Chulainn. And more firmly rooted in history we find Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, who led the combined Celtic tribes against the Roman army in AD 60/61. It’s hard to believe that hundreds of thousands of rebels would have followed her if she had until then confined herself to the kitchen. With an eye on what we now know of Celtic history, it’s equally hard to believe that amongst her army there were not a fair amount of women, willing to fight for justice and their freedom.