Next up on the Wheel of Archetypes, we spin to a halt on a most troubling cultural phenomenon: the Y-Fighter. You’ve seen her before. In fact, you’ve seen several thousand versions of her because she’s by far the most common form of fighting woman in fiction.
I’ll make this assertion before I begin. A warrior is foremost a warrior; all else is secondary. With this in mind, the Y-Fighter’s defining attribute is the fact that she doesn’t have a Y-Chromosome. Or, in other words, she’s not a man. She’s the character you always end up with when writers get bogged down by the awareness that they’re writing a female character who fights well. Even though there’s no valid reason why women can’t be equally skillful, our historical bias is that men are better fighters because most fighters have been male.
The Y-Fighter archetype is an overzealous attempt to break man’s (supposed) iron grip on the warrior mythos, and fails in this goal because its sheer desperation hammers home the idea it seeks to undermine. No matter what style of fighting she favors, what her personal history is, how clever or disciplined or compassionate or cold she may be, the writers (and in film the choreographers) will be unable to stop themselves from repeatedly acknowledging that the Y-Fighter is a woman in a man’s profession.
Some of them are at least canny enough to try and cast this in a positive light. “See? Women can kick ass too!” This is still part of the Y-Fighter complex, because if I were cast as a master swordsman (not that that’s any kind of dream or anything), the writers would feel no need whatsoever to say, “See? Men can have amazing sword-skills!” Because, y’know, no needs to be convinced of that. The Y-Fighter is, in fact, subtly reinforcing the stereotype of masculine superiority in battle purely by going out of her way to compare herself to the men in a gendered way.
Odds are very high that either the Y-Fighter or some other woman connected with her will have multiple lines about how arrogant men are, or snidely asking if they think she can’t do things because she’s a girl, and so on and so forth. Again, by contrast, when two men fight and one gains the upper hand, the banter has nothing to do with their gender. It’s “Hirimora-Sensei always favored me because I’m better than you are!” “Imbecile! He gave you more attention because he pitied you!” and so on. See the difference? The Y-Fighter has to describe her victory in terms of her entire gender where the boys are allowed to claim it for themselves. An individual has to be an individual before they can be strong, so the further a character has to go away from that crystalline “I,” the less they can actually be empowered.
Y-Fighters are generally forbidden from fighting like their male counterparts, especially in visual media. The most egregious examples are the female characters in fighting games who do a catwalk strut where their male counterparts charge or stalk or stride. If you corner the people behind this, I’m sure they’ll say that it’s about empowerment, that they want to prove women can be strong and sexy at the same time. Great, I don’t disagree. The problem is that strength and sexiness are supposed to appear in different contexts. Let me bring up Metal Gear Rising again, because I love it but it’s also the perfect example.
Samuel “Jetstream Sam” Rodrigues. He is, in fact, the coolest:
Sam is the most polished fighter in the game with the arguable exception of the main character, Raiden. His style is powerful, aggressive, fluid, and oh-so-very Samurai. He fights from the Chudan guard of classical Kenjutsu and by video game standards his footwork is impeccable (actually, it’s decent by most standards!) Everything in his character design, body-language and move set screams that he’s a professional killer who loves his work. I’m not going to provide a female alternative example because, get this: Just take Sam’s exact fighting style and apply it to a woman. You now have a strong, lethally competent female character. You’re done, go home.
Let me put this another way. You have a female character. You put her in full-body armor that covers her face and in no way hints that she may be a woman. If she fights using proper form, people are liable to assume she’s male. That’s not your failure. It’s not even their failure, really. They’ve just been conditioned by decades of imbecilic media to think that women have to fight differently from men. Think about all the fight scenes you’ve ever watched involving women. If they’re hand-to-hand, how much punching does the woman do? I guarantee you that on reflection you’ll see way more kicks than you do from her male counterparts (some martial arts flicks aside).
Women are more likely to get floaty, balletic combat styles, and I’ve never seen a woman choreographed to do something as visceral as a pommel strike. They rarely get to grapple with their opponents and throw them to the ground even though that’s a core part of many martial arts styles. Whether it’s to emphasize their sexiness or because the people in charge want even the most lethal woman just to be a delicate butterfly with acid wings, Y-Fighters never have the same range of options that their male counterparts do. Even when actually killing people, they still have to do it with delicate lady-grace.
It goes on, because of course it does. To me, the epitome of the Y-Fighter’s moves in recent media is that she’ll spin herself up to a man’s shoulders and break his neck with her thighs. I have serious doubts about the practicality of that maneuver just from a leverage standpoint, but it has a much more basic (and slapsticky) failing. What if the man sprints under a door in the meantime? Meanwhile, Statham and company are allowed to get similar results by just jabbing the other man in the trachea with their fingers. Most basic of all: Men get swords, women get a bow and arrows.
Let’s rehash a point I’ve brought up before: Archery in the medieval sense isn’t like archery in the modern sense. Medieval bows weren’t made wussy just so your aunt’s bratty kid could handle one, and the longbows you’d need to use if you wanted to punch holes in steel plate start at a draw weight of 120 pounds and goes up from there. We’re not talking modern composite bows with all their levers and pulleys, either. If you want to operate a longbow, every ounce of that draw weight has to go back through your arms. We can identify the skeletons of English longbowmen because their bones underwent warping similar to that of Olympic athletes. At least as far as the longbow was concerned, archery was not only not for weaklings but required insane muscle strength. So you know what, handing longbows to more female characters is fine by me, except that first we need to reverse the common notion of how much strength it takes to operate one.
The worst examples of the Y-Fighter will not only have sexualized moments but outfits that try to be a mix of armor and lingerie. Memo to character designers: a medieval cuirass is a masterclass in sloped armor. Its peaked, convex shape is optimal for deflecting cuts, thrusts and blunt impacts alike. Putting a giant pair of boob indents on the thing ruins its profile and creates a nice flat area to absorb the full force of enemy strikes. You don’t need to make plate armor form-fitting, that’s what all the layers of quilted padding inside it are for.
And as for any artist who ruins a serious armor design with a chest window, bared midriff, exposed thighs, or any one of a hundred other gaffs: just quit. You have no integrity and I don’t care how good your designs otherwise are. The only intention that might possibly redeem this idiocy is if the artist in question actually believes that exposed flesh in a character design empowers women. Well, it doesn’t. That’s not female empowerment, alright? If I hear one more asshole of any gender identity whatsoever suggest that exposed armor somehow strengthens women by letting them show their sexuality, I won’t vouch for my self-control. You know what’s empowering? Getting to wear armor that protects you from being stabbed repeatedly.
As far as mannerisms, the Y-Fighter is often cocky as all hell and not infrequently a jackass to everyone around her. The message is that women can’t be powerful without also being complete (irony intended) dicks about it. Regardless of gender, the best fighters will always be more humble. That’s not to say that they lack confidence; in fact, it means they’re confident enough they don’t have to hide behind a veneer of arrogance and belittle others to mask their own insecurity. But we need to be aware of our flaws to fix them, and that same awareness brings humility by default. This secure humility is a common hallmark of male fighters but one we rarely see in women.
I can go on and on with this but ultimately there’s too much bullshit in the Y-Fighter trope to address it all here. Instead, my advice to writers and anyone else who want to deconstruct this ridiculous archetype is as follows. When you’re writing a female character who fights, focus on making her a good fighter first. Don’t bring her gender into it except where it matters. If you feel it’s important that women can be strong and attractive, that’s fair. They absolutely can and very often are. But those are things to show in two separate places (the battlefield and the ballroom, or some other ridiculous slice of alliteration), not the same. If you need to pick between one and the other, always go with strong. You’re writing a fighter, remember? Don’t constantly tear down your character’s male opponents; the best expression of strength on her part is to meet worthy foes and defeat them fairly. Do not, under any circumstances, make her a Mary Sue. Her battles are meaningless if she always succeeds without effort, same as they would be if she was male.
True equality among warriors is that they are measured only as warriors, so the paradox of a strong female fighter is that her femininity must not be too central to her identity as a warrior. Hey, it still makes more sense than this archetype!