So, the Action Girl is busy slinging around multiple opponents with her 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 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.
Note this never happens to a Dark Action Girl. 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 hammerlock is 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. (This depends on the girl, however; often in many cultures, women are conditioned to submit reflexively to being physically apprehended by a man or matron— which is probably the history behind the trope).
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 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, Guts gets Casca to stop yelling on two occasions - 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 grab's 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.
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.
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. While to be fair this is likely painful as hell, it has very much the same effect as this trope because Sonya is supposed to be a trained FBI agent and he is yanking her around like a rag doll while she makes absolutely no attempt to fight back. While the movie takes time to remind the viewer that he's a near omnipotent sorcerer and Shang Tsung outclasses pretty much everybody there but Liu Kang, the movie still doesn't show him using any special powers beyond grabbing her arm.
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.
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.
In Mulan II, one of the Mongolian emperor's guards successfully uses this on Mulan.
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."
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Lioness Rampant, where the slender 5'4" Alanna is skilled and fast, and rendered helpless once her arms are pinned by a larger man. On the other hand, once she gets free, beware. She will mess you up.
On the other hand, in Squire, Keladry just flexes her bicep, forcing the man to loosen his grip.
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.
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)
Rufus does this to Patricia in Houseof 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.
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. 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.
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 And 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.
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.
Gender-flipped in the Ciem Webcomic Series. Candi only defeats Musaran because she musters her strength after a punishing blow to punch him in the face. She was otherwise already paralyzed because Exploding Computer Monitors Can Do Anything, and because Musaran was using the story's own standard male grab area (ankles) in the hopes that what works for the gander works for the goose.
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.note Though this could be explained away by how her powers are affected by her emotions...
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.