Your average female RPG character carries a variety of deadly weapons and can effortlessly hack or magic her way through armies of monsters, killer cyborgs, and mutated boss creatures without breaking a sweat. She may be an accomplished ninja, a super-powered secret agent, or the world's greatest adventurer. However, if one of the game's villains manages to sneak up and grab her by the Standard Female Character Grab Area (her upper arm) she will be rendered utterly helpless until rescued by the hero.
— The Grand List of Console Role Playing Game Cliches #148
So, the Faux Action Girl is busy slinging around multiple opponents with her seemingly competent style of Waif-Fu. In fact, she is doing so well that one has to wonder what the Big Damn Heroes are doing at all when they could leave the entire mission to her and she'd get it done and be back home in time for dinner.
But suddenly, something unexpected happens - she gets grabbed by the arm! Shock horror, now she has suddenly become the Damsel in Distress that needs to be saved.
No one is quite sure why, but it appears that any female lead's weak point in any given show happens to be on or around her upper arm (or alternatively the wrist). She could be absolutely dominating a fight, but the moment any old mook sneaks up behind her and say, grabs her shoulder, she suddenly loses all competency and is reduced to begging the hero to save her, or tries once and again to fight back but is completely useless. This trope would make more sense if the Mook also had, say, a gun to her back or something, but too frequently he runs at her unarmed and manages to reduce her to complete harmlessness. Maybe Faux Action Girls come factory-equipped with an on/off switch in their upper arms.
Giving the benefit of the doubt, this trope exists to keep fights interesting. But since it doesn't happen quite as often to guys, it's more likely that gender stereotypes haven't changed as much as we're led to believe. Alternatively, when someone tries to calm or incapacitate a guy it's much more socially acceptable to use a believable amount of force—such as punching him, knocking him out with a weapon, or beating him senseless. Until the audience gets over its distaste for seeing female characters hurt—and immediately seeing any man who uses force against a woman as a villain—there will be a double standard. A third possibility is that of simple pragmatism: while animators these days have no problems lampshading how ridiculously sexist "chivalry" is, many real life holds on women can come off as perversely sexual (e.g. a full nelson from a strong opponent, while capable of incapacitating the character, also involves her assailant pressing himself behind her, forcing her head down, and spreading her arms from her chest). It doesn't excuse how ridiculous it is for an otherwise strong female to fold this easily, however. Another take from the Media Watchdogs is that males have a lot less real estate that would be offensive to grab, leaving few positions for women that would not be reminiscent of sexual harassment. Therefore, a writer might use this as a less graphic shortcut to incur a plot development.
Note this never happens to a Dark Action Girl or a true Action Girl, who can use it before a surprise attack. If a Mook were to attempt such a thing, well, expect someone to be on the business end of a nasty kick to the crotch, aka: the standard male instant-incapacitation area (and this one is Truth in Television). And that's if he's lucky - modern Dark Action Girls are rather likely to opt for breaking his arm in three places instead of "lowering themselves" to a groin attack.
The arm is also the ideal location to grab a female character who's panicking or in the middle of a screaming freakout. No amount of verbal entreaties will get her to mellow out on her own, but punctuate a terse "calm down!" with both hands on her upper arms, and voila, she's back on steady ground again.
Note that this trope does not apply if the female character is subjected to an actual combat move such as an armlock definition a single or double joint lock that hyperextends, hyperflexes, or hyperrotates the elbow joint and/or shoulder joint or a hammerlock definition a shoulder lock where the opponent's arm is held bent against their back, and their hand forced upwards towards the neck, thereby applying pressure to the shoulder joint.. Note also that not every instance of a man grabbing a woman by the arm counts as a use of the Standard Female Grab Area, as there really aren't a whole lot of other places that a man can grab a woman that don't carry Unfortunate Implications, especially on a family-oriented show. This trope only comes into play when use of the Standard Female Grab Area makes the woman unaccountably helpless or ineffective.
It should go without saying that in Real Life, it will take more than just grabbing your opponent's upper arms or wrists and standing there to stop them, regardless of gender.
Note that this could often be justified if the one using the grab is more skilled, or more sufficiently armed. For example, Alice has a knife and is fighting Bob, who also has a knife. Charlie has a club, sword, electric spear and metal armor. He grabs Alice to make his presence known, and Alice knows not to resist or she'll get run through with something. Another common example is Charlie putting a gun to Alice's head to dissuade any attempts at breaking loose.
See also Neck Lift and By The Hair, which are far more plausible even though they may be just as unrealistically depicted.
Another episode lampshades the probable cultural origin of the trope in showing Ran, after reading a fortune telling card that says "You must be more feminine to reach the heart of your lover", practically incapacitated. Luckily, the killer of the week later reads the real card for her - "no way you can deceive your lover, just be yourself and he will get your sentiments anyway" - and she merrily trashes the unfortunate guy and his knife.
In Sailor Moon, Neptune uses it on the main heroine when they fight. After a few seconds, though, Moon powers up, and her Battle Aura sends Neptune flying.
In a dark, personal scene in Rose of Versailles, Oscar and André are arguing, when André becomes very upset at her decision to live her entire life as a man. He has always seen her as a woman as well, and their fight takes them near Oscar's bed. As he becomes physical, Oscar (being the main character) keeps fighting him off until he grabs her and the shoulder of her shirt rips. Then she's just at his mercy, asking "what will you do?" very pitifully - but this of course frightens André, who stops and apologizes repeatedly.
In Ranma ½, a shadowy assailant surprised Akane from behind, and pulled her back while cupping his hand over her mouth. She paused just long enough to gather her thoughts before elbowing him hard in the gut and slapping him senseless. (Turned out it was just the Jusenkyo Guide, who wanted her to be quiet due to all the Phoenix Soldiers flying around, but he really could've picked a better approach.)
In the anime, Akane tries to defeat Ranma's Living Shadow. Due to his crush on her, the shadow simply grabs her wrists and keeps her in place. It isn't until Nabiki says that Akane will hate him if he doesn't stop holding her that he impulsively lets his grip go slack.
This happens to Cowboy Bebop's Faye Valentine in the first Jupiter Jazz episode. She's in a bad mood and about to take it out on some thugs who surround her in an alley when Gren appears, grabs her by the forearm and drags her away to the relative safety of his apartment.
Fairy Musketeers has this applied to the male main character (who, for what it's worth, knows little about combat.)
Actually sorta justified in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, since being restrained in any way is among the limitations of Homura Akemi's otherwise very versatile Time Travel. The trope is then completely subverted when the 'victim' drops a live stun grenade on the floor and easily escapes in the panic.
Episode twelve of They Are My Noble Masters, has Ren's father use this on a couple of the servants...and it's played completely straight, despite all the female servants being proven asskickers. Apparently getting grabbed on the arm by a drunk, was their only weakness...
A canine version of this appears in the Grand Finale of Ginga Densetsu Weed, where Hougen kills one of Jerome's followers and holds the female follower hostage by grabbing her throat. He only drops her when Weed arrives in time for the final battle.
Hokuto: Although your attacks are sharp, it becomes weak once you're caught.
In Code Geass, Suzaku does this to Kallen, but this is also a subversion due to the fact that he suckerpunched her in the stomach first, and used the opportunity to twist her arm behind her and force her to sit down in a chair with such a high back that it blocked her other arm. Consequently the Action Girl's helplessness is believable.
Subverted in Berserk, where Guts gets Casca to stop yelling on two occasions - once by slapping her ass, then grabbing her breast the second time. Played straighter - but soon subverted - earlier in the series when Guts grabs her by the wrist during an argument, but she slaps it away.
Unfortunately, this trope has also been deconstructed as a result of Casca's rape, where she now panics whenever somebody grabs her.
In Fantastic Four #119 (Published in 1972) a planejacker takes a stewardess hostage by just lightly gripping her shoulder so that both her arms are still free!
Subverted in Mass Effect: Redemption. A sleazy batarian grabs Liara by the arm, thinking that she's for sale. Liara subdues him and his volus companion with a single biotic blast, while Feron, her drell companion, facepalms.
Becomes plain ridiculous in issue #14 of the original black-and-white Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic — the villain grabs April by the upper arm and then lets go for long enough to tie a cloth gag around her mouth, and then shoves her over to the mooks to take her away. Though one of her arms and both her legs are free, and nobody seems to have any weapons to threaten her with, that brief upper-arm grab seems to have made her so helpless that she doesn't even try to struggle or escape.
Films - Animated
In Mulan II, one of the Mongolian emperor's guards successfully uses this on Mulan.
Shrek: After showing impeccable fighting skills early in the movie, at the end, Fiona can only call helplessly for Shrek when grabbed this way. Granted Farquaad does eventually put a knife to her throat but only after 20 seconds or so of her doing nothing while Shrek, who is also grabbed, actually fights back.
And again at the climax of the third movie.
A rare male example in Disney's Tarzan. Earlier in the film, he successfully incapacitates a full grown silver back gorilla, but when he's grabbed by the upper arm by a man of average build, he can't break free.
Justified in Despicable Me 2 when agent Lucy Wilde is grabbed in this way due to her being in the middle of a party, with several civilians (mostly children) around, so Lucy, being a trained secret agent, probably wanted to avoid collateral damage from fighting back.
Subverted in Last Action Hero. Slater's daughter gets grabbed by one of the Mooks and becomes little more than a screaming nuisance, but as soon as the mook takes her to another room she uses her screams to cover the sound of her dealing with him.
Subverted in Live Free or Die Hard. Near the end of the flick, a henchman has Lucy firmly subdued via the Standard Female Grab Area while the Big Bad, Gabriel, threatens McClane... but the second the Big Bad's back is turned, Lucy smacks the henchman in the face, shoots him in the foot with his own gun and almost manages to finish out the whole flick by herself. When the henchman get her back under control, he grabs her by the throat and shoves a gun in her face.
Gabriel: You got her?
Gabriel: You're sure?
The same henchman also brings in Lucy when she's initially captured by this, although she's clearly struggling to break the larger man's grip. He mentions that "this bitch is a handful", and she proves him right as the moment he goes lax, she slips free and clocks him across the face. Gabriel snarks at his henchman's situation:
Aragorn does this to Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings when she sees Gandalf performing his magic on a possessed Théoden. However, she stops fighting him when Aragorn tells her to wait and as soon as Théoden was back to normal, she pulls away from Aragorn to catch her uncle.
Man of the Year: Eleanor is walking out of a mall when suddenly the Big Bad's mook comes and grabs her under the armpit. She squeals and is dragged forcefully to his van. The moment she retaliates and manages to escape is the exact moment he lets go of her.
Miss Congeniality absolutely destroys this trope by having Sandra Bullock's character demonstrate self-defense techniques against just such a grapple for the talent portion of the beauty contest.
"Hey, hey! It is not a beauty pageant, it is a scholarship program."
The Mortal Kombat film has the previously shown Action Girl Sonya Blade being held by the Big Bad Shang Tsung with her arm behind her back and gripped by her ponytail.
A justified example comes in the Percy Jackson film. A terrified woman grabs onto Annabeth's hand and renders her unable to fight Medusa - because Medusa turns the woman to stone while she's still holding onto Annabeth's wrist.
In the 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera (1943), the Phantom manages to drag Christine all the way down to his underground lair against her will by grabbing her arm with one hand. Justified, as Erik is always described as having near-superhuman strength despite his frail appearance.
Secret Window, where the antagonist drags the conscious and struggling female lead along the ground, face-down, by one wrist. No, the villain is not particularly strong; she was just Too Dumb to Live.
Played with Mariko in The Wolverine, it seems mostly effective until she decided to fight against her Yakuza kidnappers, where she lands a few blows until she escapes with Logan.
Used on Sara in Red, but justified: the attackers are armed CIA agents, while Sara just works in a cubicle. Would you try to resist? (The grab would probably have a snowball's chance in hell at working on the movie's other female lead, Victoria.)
In the Turkish Film whose title translates to "Supermen Returns", a henchman escorts Turkish Lois Lane to Turkish Lex Luthor this way. She makes no attempt to break free.
Subverted in Star Trek: The Motion Picture when Bones tries to take Ilia for a medical examination. Since she doesn't want to go, it's like trying to move a building.
This happens in Wheel of Time when a girl is grabbed by a Warder in a Crown of Swords.
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Deckard uses this on Luba Luft. When previously cornered by the bounty hunter, she outsmarted him and managed to hold him at laser point. However, once he puts his hand "laxly onto her upper arm" she ceases all struggle.
In Song of the Lioness, where the slender 5'4" Alanna is skilled and fast, and rendered helpless once her arms are pinned by a larger man. When she realizes this weakness, she decides to learn hand-to-hand combat from the local Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy so she doesn't get trapped again.
But it's defied with a vengeance in the third Protector of the Small book when Raoul's standard-bearer tries to intimidate Squire Keladry this way—by this point, she's so built that all she has to do is flex her bicep and his hand pops off.
Feet of Clay: Angua, a female cop, is grabbed in this method and does nothing while she is inside the bar her fellow coppers are in. The reason why is she's a werewolf and more than capable of taking care of the fools taking her hostage. She just didn't want to damage the place or her co-workers.
In The Dresden Files, if you grab Lieutenant Murphy, prepare to have the crap beaten out of you. Unless she's pretending and you are stupid enough to believe it.
Averted in A Song of Ice and Fire. A smitten suitor grabs Asha Greyjoy this way; she draws a dagger and makes it clear he's never to touch her without permission. During a Bar Brawl a squire does the same to Arya Stark; he's also holding a sword, so with both hands occupied there's nothing to stop Arya grabbing the dagger on the squire's belt and burying it in his belly. It is however played straight, but in a Gender-Inverted Trope, when Royal BratPuppet King Joffrey is hauled off to bed this way after annoying his Dragon-in-Chief Lord Tywin Lannister.
In Bones, Booth pulls Brennan out of a room by her upper arm on the first case they work. Despite being trained in multiple forms of self defense, she allows herself to be pulled, only smacking Booth across the face once he let go of her arm.
Subverted (unsurprisingly) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy gets grabbed like this almost once a fight. Her response is usually to use her attacker as leverage to bicycle kick some other guy in the face.
Subverted in Robin Hood with Djaq. A Mook twists her arm behind her back and triumphantly shouts: "I've got the girl!" She head butts him, retrieves her sword and mutters: "A woman, you'll find."
Played straight with Djaq's replacement Kate, who in her first episode is magically capable of overpowering grown, horse-backed, armoured men by poking them with her bare hands, and is then rendered utterly helpless in every other fight she participates in. Except the Cat Fight, of course.
Reference in Shooting Stars in a segment parodying The A-Team - "Look, it's a woman being pushed and pulled about a bit by some communists!" (Two Fidel Castro lookalikes each holding on to the Standard Female Grab Area and pointlessly pushing her back and forth)
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Kira, in the flashback episode "Necessary Evil", when she is grabbed by Dukat and submits to it silently.
Justified though as that episode takes place during the Occupation — laying hands on a Cardassian officer would be a death sentence. Kira was a member of La Résistance working undercover on Empok Nor, so couldn't afford to draw attention to herself.
And in "Dax", where a mook calmly walks up to Dax from a distance of a few meters and grabs her by the arm, forcing her to submit immediately, rather than double axe-handle him.
Justified in "The Q and the Grey" when Chakotay grabs a female member of the Q Continuum. When you can change the gravitational constant of the universe with a Badass Finger Snap, it's difficult to get your head around physical violence after you've been Brought Down to Normal.
Female Q: Let me go before I hurl this ship and everyone on it into the Therinian Ice Age. Chakotay: I don't think you can. Female Q: Don't be ridiculous. (Badass Finger Snap = No Sell) Chakotay: I don't know how or why, but something's affected your powers. Otherwise, you wouldn't still be here and you wouldn't have a bruise on your forehead. Now start talking before I hurl you into the brig.
In "Someone to Watch Over Me", Seven of Nine shows the correct way to respond when a drunken alien ambassador grabs you like this.
"Remove your hand or I shall remove your arm."
In the season one finale of Teen Wolf, Peter does this to Kate, rendering her pretty much helpless in seconds.
Rufus does this to Patricia in House of Anubis. She does keep fighting in his grip, though, so it's possibly a subversion, and seemed like it was more of a matter of her just giving up than being subdued.
Averted in the Torchwood episode Cyberwoman. Owen has to grab Gwen around the waist in order to prevent her from trying to help Jack, and even then she still tries to pull away.
Though not a physical example, the spirit of the trope is still present in The Walking Dead when the Governor threatens to rape Maggie and she makes no real attempt to resist, even though he put his gun belt down on the other side of the table. She goes from zombie-killing Action Girl doing risky supply runs to giving into torture relatively quickly.
Subverted in that they have Glen hostage in the other room and have made sure that Maggie knows this. Glen is also subdued from the knowledge that they have Maggie and only really fights back when they lock a walker in with him while he's still tied to a chair.
Male example in Once Upon a Time: Henry gets kidnapped, and even when his mother is running toward him, he doesn't bother to resist being taken through a portal to another world. It might have been understandable up until then, but Emma just needed a little time to reach them.
Before inducting her into the TNA gathering, Raven dragged Alexis Laree into the Sports Entertainment Xtreme office by her wrist. She was on the losing end of a lengthy match with Trinity, who a fresh Raven then attacked and gave the even flow DDT to, so she probably wasn't in any shape to fight him off and seemed more confused about the whole thing than distressed. It only looks like a straight example if you know ahead of time the mess Raven's Gathering turns out to be.
The Giant Killer Mike Mondo does incapacitated Maria Kanellis this way on OVW television. However, it did him no good against Alexis Laree (yes, the same one). He did know his fair share of actual debilitating holds but subduing Laree was no trivial effort.
Both subverted and played straight in Kingdom Hearts II. In the subversion, villain Xaldin attempts to force the Beast to choose between his magical rose and Belle, by holding both (with Belle held by the arm). While he's busy gloating, Belle elbows him, grabs the rose from him, and runs back over to the heroes. Played straight when Kairi is kidnapped by Axel when he simply grabs her wrist and drags her around like kleenex. Kairi just goes and follows her kidnapper while slightly squirming and only dragging her feet once; never does she consider using her free hand or kicking her abductor. One could chalk it up to an uncaring animator, though, or maybe her being a kid being dragged off by a Humanoid Abomination who's NOT busy gloating. Observe after about 4:30.
The Bouncer features a kidnapping in the opening cutscene where the kidnapped girl, while trying to escape, is stunned so much by being grabbed on the upper arm that he can put her in a headlock easily.
Mass Effect 2 involves Shepard intervening in a Beam-O-War between two exceptionally powerful Asari biotics, by wading into the conflict and twisting the arm of his/her desired target. Alone, Shepard most likely would have been smushed into paste after this, but here it serves to break their concentration and opens them up for a Coup de Grâce blast from the other biotic.
Shepard does it again in Mass Effect 3 to Samara in the Ardat Yakshi monastery. Of course, it's mentioned that biotics need precise and exact muscle movements, and Shepard is a super-powered cyborg at both points, so this means that the SFGA is a perfect way to incapacitate biotics as long as they haven't learned how to channel their abilities through their legs. Of course, the only biotic we know of with that ability is male.
Averted in Dragon Age II, whenever anyone wants to grab Isabela they grab her by both arms at once from behind, and she always manages to escape anyway if she wants to.
In Tales of Graces, Raymond Oswald manages to subdue Action Girl Cheria using this technique. Granted, she probably would have kicked his ass into next week had ol' Raymond not been backed up by a bunch of his soldiers.
In Dragon Quest VIII, Angelo grabs Jessica by the arm and drags her off to sneak away from a bar brawl over his cheating at cards.
An interesting version of this happens in the Super Smash Bros. series. Characters can grab each other, and, if someone grabs a male fighter, it'll be by the chest's clothes, or in the case of fighters that don't wear clothes... by grabbing their skin directly, supposedly. However, if one grabs one of the female characters (excluding Jigglypuff), it'll be by the arm. Of course, grabbing by the chest would lead to some Unfortunate Implications.
Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty. Talwyn can shoot guns and jetpack around all she wants during gameplay, but once she's grabbed by the arm in a cutscene, she doesn't even struggle.
In the opening cinematic for Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn. Justified as mages have low strength stats and the mage in question is descended from a race of very fragile pacifists.
Though at this point Willow is a shy and (more importantly) normal high school girl who is being held by what is essentially a demon in a human body
Double Subverted in the remake of Splatterhouse. Dr. West, the main villain, grabs Jennifer by the arm and drags her through the mansion and across time to complete the ceremony. While Jennifer is no fighter, Dr. West looks to be a fairly frail old man, and Jennifer takes the initiative and stabs West through the temple with a jagged dagger. This turns out to be little more than a mild irritant for West, and as it dawns on Jennifer that he's more than human he easily drags her into the shadows by himself.
A blink and you'll miss it example in Tower of God during the fight between Androssi and Quant: in one panel, Quant manages to catch Androssi's arm, and tries to hit her. It takes Baam and his newly acquired freezing technique to intervene and get Androssi out of this situation. Why Androssi didn't just swing her Cool Sword that she held in her free hand at Quants neck is unclear, but the surprise effect or the fact that you need to land really strong attacks on Quant to even scratch him (even the Sword Beam wasn't enough to do that) might have played into that.
Also happens with Agatha. Even sparks are not immune.
Subverted in Leftover Soup, Ellen's self-defense class was devoted solely to techniques to stop rapists grabbing one's wrist. When she asks Jamie to "give her his best shot" he kicks her in the kneecap.
Subverted in the Whateley Universe. In the second Boston Brawl, Generator (who looks like a ten year old girl) is grabbed as a hostage by Ironhawk (mutant in power armor). She slaps something on his armor, takes over his control system, and uses him as a missile for the rest of the battle.
In the episode "The Cat and the Canary" Black Canary is forced to watch Green Arrow fight her mentor Wild Cat in a cage match while being held this way. She more or less allows Roulette's goons to grab her, but as soon as she decides to get involved, she essentially shrugs them off with no problem.
Subverted earlier when she was flirting with Arrow while sparring with him, allowing him to grab and pin her this way. She then bets that if she can get out of that hold, he'll go with her on an off-the-books mission (that leads to the cage fight). Gilligan Cut to Arrow hitting the wall.
If you grab Hawkgirl or Wonder Woman there, all you're doing is giving them leverage. Except sometimes when the enemy is also powerful enough to take out the male heroes in the same way.
In the Teen Titans episode "Haunted," when Robin is hallucinating visions of Slade, he grabs Starfire here angrily, and she exclaims that he's hurting her, despite the fact she seems to possess at least a degree of Nigh-Invulnerability, and he has no superstrength to speak of. Fan consensus is that she was more emotionally hurt by her good friend grabbing her then any actual physical force. This makes sense when you consider that Starfire's powers are based on her emotions; thus her emotional distress can cause her invulnerability to weaken, allowing Robin (a Charles Atlas Superpower level martial artist) to physically harm her.
Used in the classic The Shooting of Dan McGooTex Avery short, featuring Droopy. Upon finishing her performance, Red is accosted by the Wolf, who proceeds to drag her across the room by the wrist, before switching to carrying her underarm.