Last week I wrote about the new movie Haywire and how there is a new female superhero to add to the ranks of Buffy, see Faith and Sydney Bristow. One person asked me via Twitter if there is a way to celebrate strong women without violence. This month, Christianity Today has an article looking at how Christians should respond to cage-fighting (mixed martial arts). Add all of these things together and I find myself needing to explore my thoughts on violence, martial arts and female superheroes.
I write this as both an outsider and an insider. I am outsider because I am not a martial artist. I have never formally trained in any martial art, nor have I participated in related sports such as wrestling or boxing. I am an insider because my husband is a martial artist. He has trained in jujitsu (the main martial art used in cage-fighting), sword-fighting (through AEMMA), and bujinkan. He is the founder of Caronport’s Bartitsu Society. He has written a book on cultivating the warrior virtues and has written about how training in a martial art cultivates virtues that extend to other areas of life (for example, at risk youth greatly benefit from martial arts training). He has, casually, taught me various stances, holds, and blocks.
Sport violence vs. real violence
Through Chuck’s interest in martial arts I have learned that at the highest levels of training, these sports are not done for the sake of doing violence. Indeed, jujitsu masters like the Gracie family would abhor such a notion. True, there are the punk wannabes who watch UFC and think that its the perfect way to “beat the crap out of someone”, but those who have trained hard know that it is not about violence. Yes, while there may be times where your opponent bloodies and bruises you, at the end of the match, most competitors shake hands and respect each others talents.
Grappling vs. Striking
That being said, I find the grappling easier to watch than the striking. Watching a person hit another in the head over and over again so that they fall over, makes my stomach queasy. Watching grappling, I find myself impressed with the ‘human knot’ — “Now how do I get out of this?” Twist a shoulder here, move a knee, and voila, the knot unties and the two opponents start again. While the grappling may not be ‘showy’ and tends to be a lot more tiny moves that are hard to see on television, the tenacity and patience that is required to get out of an attempted choke is impressive. And though I don’t like the striking aspect, I have to respect fighters like Jon Bones Jones who has an amazing wing span and makes even punching someone in the head look graceful.
Marveling At Our Bodies:
I watch the cagefighters, and am shocked at the things their bodies can do. It’s not CGI. It’s not special effects. It’s years of training and endurance. We can train to do amazing feats of strengths, and yet one well-positioned hit will cause bones to break. Our bodies bend and are flexible, and yet at the same time they are inflexible and non-bendy.
The elbow is extremely flexible with a great range of motion. Except for one angle. If you hyper-extend it, it is extremely painful and could snap. If you kick the knee cap from the front it will shatter, but if you kick it from behind, your leg will buckle and you’ll fall to the ground. If you apply enough pressure on the throat, you’ll pass out, but as soon as you go limp and your opponent lets go, you wake back up again immediately, a little dazed but none the worse for wear. If you hit a person in the shoulder it doesn’t really do anything. On the other hand, if you hit a person in the kidneys, they’ll drop to the ground.
It’s the marvel of our bodies: they are both incredibly strong and incredibly weak.
Like it or not, it is necessary for every woman to learn how to defend herself. And while we can pray that self-defense techniques never have to be used, the world we live in requires that we prepare to defend ourselves, because we are not damsels in distress. There won’t always be a big strong man around to come to our defense. We need to be ‘Gracie Lou Freebush’ and know how to SING.
Women Who Kick Ass:
But of course watching cagefighting, and learning self-defense techniques are not the same as watching Buffy, Faith, Sydney or Mallory. Some people are uncomfortable with the storied violence in shows like Buffy and Alias. Sometimes it is because people argue that women aren’t supposed to fight. I call this the ‘double standard’ position, because the same people who argue that women shouldn’t fight are the same ones who will go see The Expendables twelve times to see a bunch of over the hill old guys try to reclaim the glory days of the action hero movies of the 80’s.
Other times it’s because people argue that violence serves no narrative or redeeming purpose.
Buffy and Faith fight fairytale monsters, not real people, and we cheer when they dust the uber-bad-vamp of the week. Sydney fights in three-inch heels while napalm explodes around her. It’s not real. And yet it serves to tell a story. What would Buffy be if she didn’t slay vampires? Can you imagine a show about a teenaged girl who is shallow and fashion-obsessed and who hangs out with her friends trading witty dialogue? Oh wait. That would be “generic teen comedy”. What would Alias be if Sydney just sat behind a desk reading intelligence reports? Pretty darn boring.
And of course this is where the issue of the Christian ethic comes in. We are called to suffer, to not retaliate, to ‘turn the other cheek.’ And yet, is it possible to have Christianity without violence?. The violence that Christ endured at the hands of the Roman soldiers and on the cross was horrendous. To sanitize it and romanticize it cheapens the sacrifice that Christ made on behalf of the world in his quest to bring reconciliation and redemption to humanity. The violence, whether we like it or not, is part of THE story.
So maybe just as cagefighting is not violence for violence sake, Buffy, Alias, and Haywire aren’t either. An example of violence for violence sake would be torture-intensive horror films that try to find new ways to shock and sicken their audience without the need for a story. The reason why I can uphold Buffy, Faith, Sydney and Mallory as heroes and examples of women who kick ass, is because their kicking ass tells a story and is not the story in and of itself. And part of that story is that women are strong, beautiful, resourceful and don’t need to be rescued by men who think they are white knights in search of stranded damsels. These stories tell us that in the face of adversity women don’t have to sit back and just watch from the sidelines, as window-dressing, eye candy and ego boosts for the macho guys. These female characters actively participate in, and lead in the struggle against evil by using their gifts and talents of not only karate chops and vampire stakings, but also of situational assessment and creative “strategery”.
“I’ve been through more battles with Buffy than you all can ever imagine. She’s stopped everything that’s ever come up against her. She’s laid down her life -— literally -— to protect the people around her. This girl has died two times, and she’s still standing. You’re scared? That’s smart. You got questions? You should. But you doubt her motives, you think Buffy’s all about the kill, then you take the little bus to battle… I’ve seen her heart, and this time, not literally. And I’m telling you, right now, she cares more about your lives than you will ever know. You gotta trust her. She’s earned it.” Xander (BtVS — Season 7 ‘Dirty Girls’)