Follow TV Tropes


Analysis / Action Girl

Go To

Ever notice how writers often portray Action Hero characters and Action Girl characters in ways that often still emphasize gender stereotypes?

Men Act, Women Are -Male badasses go out and beat up the enemy...female "badasses" sometimes do, but are often Chickified so the men can act and be awesome. Women can still get sympathy (or at least some people believe they can, though many hate Chickification) just by being women...or providing fanservice...which leads to...


Men Are Strong, Women Are Pretty -Male badasses are clothed and in Western media, often buff or scarred or something emphasizing "masculinity". Female badasses are barely clothed and often are like supermodels. Even fighting styles are different: Men often have plausible (or semi-plausible) styles...women often have She-Fu.

Men Are Generic, Women Are Special -Male badasses can be scarred, be a victim of Gorn or even die, and they'll probably die more often, but they at least usually get Heroic Sacrifices. Female badasses are not usually scarred, rarely victims of Gorn, and they don't die as often unless it is to motivate a male character.

Men Use Violence, Women Use Communication -Male badasses use tons of violence, female badasses can too, hence Action Girl, but many scenarios can you think of where the man is more level-headed and tries to sort out the problem without violence while the woman charges into a fight guns blazing? Other than Black Lagoon, there aren't many series where this is common.


Never a Self-Made Woman -Especially if she's the main character, an Action Girl's relationships with her (actual or surrogate) family will be an important part of her character (Xena and Gabrielle, Buffy and the Scoobies, etc.). Jennifer K. Stuller's Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology contains some detailed analysis of this.

I don't think these are always true...but they come up in a lot of Action Girl characters.By the way, the above headings are tropes on the Gender Dynamics Index.Anyone have any thoughts?

  • Some of these gender issues are, in part, from the female demographic rather than the males. Ultimately, women and men have distinct biological niches regardless of legality, regulation, or medication (though surgery is a valid 'remedy'). Those facets where women hold a monopoly (i.e. motherhood) or genetic imperative (physical attractiveness/health) are exclusive points for weighing a woman as a woman (rather than as a person in general). Those facets where a man typically holds a biological advantage (physical strength) or a biological imperative (i.e. accumulation of wealth) are areas where Action Girls and related tropes tend to tread. When a girl or woman treads on a man's territory, she's an Action Girl. Keep in mind, "Guy Stuff" generally includes risky behavior or such activities that place the man as 'disposable.' Only those action roles falling on archetypal female ground (i.e. The Matriarch/Mother) and non-disposability will generally see an Action Girl measured as a woman.

  • Advertisement:
  • Changes in gender dynamics produce all the varieties of Action Girl and Faux Action Girl you can think of. There are no real-life biological imperatives for women to strive for attractiveness or for men to strive for wealth, but there are certainly cultural imperatives for both. (Plenty of people argue otherwise, in the same way anthropologists often fall into the trap of thinking marriage is the same across every culture, thanks to ethnocentrism.) That doesn't mean the imperatives don't exist, though; thanks to Your Mind Makes It Real, plenty of people in Real Life either are that way or write characters that way (it's always easier that way, after all). More Action Girls are likely to show up in fiction as these cultural imperatives slowly dissolve and transform. Of course, you'll also get backlashes with portrayals of female characters following more traditional gender roles, as men and women who are used to The Way Things Are try to keep things that way. Status Quo Is God, after all, until it isn't anymore.

  • Another reason, of course, is the Double Standard in the society being depicted. Many otherwise potential Action Girl works take place in places and times where women were not intentionally sent, eg, the combat forces of the vast majority of armies until very recent history. Even now when they are free to join for example, the Canadian infantry, SWAT officers, etc. they still tend to be male-dominated professions (e.g., in the Canadian military, more than 2 decades after integration, women only make up 2.4% of combat troops). So all things being equal, of course there will be far more depictions of men then women fighting when men are more likely to fight in Real Life. The only ways around are either to intentionally focus on women as in Mulan or to go into Politically Correct History. A better done example of the latter (despite its many other flaws) is the 2004 film King Arthur, wherein Guinevere is changed from the older and traditional depictions of a Roman to a so-called "Woad" in order for her have a reason for taking the field (Pictic women unlike Roman ones, did go to battle certain times).

  • There's a biological basis behind this social dynamic. Testosterone builds muscle mass and bone density, both of which are necessary for physical prowess. It's why they have weight classes in boxing and separate men's and women's sports. Technique can make up for some degree of power differential, but not to the point that someone who weighs 90 lbs will take on someone who weighs 220. On average, the level of testosterone in an adult male's system at any given time is 7 to 8 times that of an adult female, which is why virtually any strength measurement of any sampling of males and females will find the males to be physically stronger, even with strength training. That's why men tend to take on social roles involving physical dominance, whatever those roles may be in whatever culture. The butt-kicking pixies of Hollywood and video games might make profits, but they're unrealistic.

  • While the above is true, it is also not the whole story. One should not mistake things that are true on average to mean that the same is also true in every particular instance. There is considerable variation in relevant genes and levels of hormones in individual men and individual women, such that some individuals will be stronger or weaker (or taller, or faster) than the average for their sex, and may in fact be equal to or better than average individuals of the opposite sex at a certain task. An individual might also have a unique combination of traits that are considered masculine or feminine, such as spatial reasoning or empathy, depending on their exposure to various hormones during different stages of development in the womb. Therefore you may have a macho male boxer who is unusually good at recognizing subtle emotions in faces, or a woman who is better at mechanical tasks or crane games than most men. It is also important not to underestimate the role of training in reaching one's potential. It may be that a grown adult can't increase their height or change their bone structure through exercise, but it is possible for women to become muscular. There are enough female powerlifters, bodybuilders, and MMA fighters to show that this can be done: it usually takes more effort to gain similarly large muscle mass, and it is very difficult to approach top male athletes' records in strength-based sports like sprinting or weightlifting without resorting to doping, but if these women are at least stronger than most men who don't qualify for the Olympics (and even some who do), then that surely makes them Action Girl material. And speaking of doping, the freaky male bodybuilders on the Olympia stage and the shredded male actors in superhero movies don’t get that way naturally—relying on injections of testosterone, human growth hormone, anabolic steroids, and/or insulin in order to bulk up beyond normal limits—and yet there are rarely discussions among fans about whether the bodies of fictional male action heroes are "realistic". Therefore, what is unrealistic about said videogames and movies is not that they depict females who are as capable at such traditionally masculine activities as men, but rather that they show them being able to do those things while having the kind of waif-like bodies typical for supermodels instead of what female athletes and fighters actually look like. This is compounded by having them wear impractical outfits like Combat Stilettos or Stripperific armor, and She-Fu fighting styles that would not hold up in real combat, instead of sensible gear and fighting styles that prioritize function over appearance.

  • The most disadvantageous kind of combat for an average woman fighting an average man—or for that matter, a smaller man against a bigger man—would be an unarmed and unarmored fight decided by striking and/or wrestling. For example, it is more difficult for a lighter fighter to throw a heavier one, and a taller person with longer arms can outreach the shorter one. A bigger and more muscular person can strike with greater force, while also being able to endure more hits due to their extra muscle and fat. Average women are also more vulnerable compared to average men because their bones are not as dense and the frontal bone of the female skull isn't as tough. The good news for an average woman (and for smaller men) is that technique can greatly tip the balance. The saying that Judo is about turning an opponent's strength against him is true of all wrestling, and the mechanical advantage provided by a proper throwing posture or submission hold is difficult to resist using brute strength. If one fighter is significantly more skilled than the other, that will probably be more of a factor than a small-to-medium difference in weight. That being said, it is inadvisable to take on an opponent who is several weight classes above you. An extreme enough advantage in physical strength can make the leverage techniques of wrestling simply irrelevant, and enable the massively stronger one to overpower even a technically better striker with the sheer force of their punches. A small person has more to lose than the larger one if they make just one slip-up, or if chance and the combat environment thwart their plans. Therefore, a small person should seek to avoid such a disadvantageous contest. If possible, one should spot danger early and run away. If you're cornered into fighting, then your chances are much better if you have a weapon. If possible, carry pepper spray, a taser, a knife, or a gun. If those items are prohibited or unavailable, carry a mundane object that could double as a weapon, or improvise one from your environment. This is not to say that even small women shouldn’t train in unarmed fighting or exercise to increase their strength; it doesn’t hurt to be prepared as long as you don’t expect technique to magically make strength irrelevant. Furthermore, not every man is Mr. Olympia, just as not every woman is a tiny waif. There’s a significant overlap between the lower portion of the male curve and the upper portion of the female curve. Finally, there are always outliers and certain women are much bigger and stronger than average.

  • Meelee combat with weapons but no armor may be less disadvantageous than unarmed combat for an average woman against an average man, or more generally a smaller fighter against a bigger one. If both parties have edged or pointed weapons with similar weight and reach, then the differences in their capabilities will be vastly leveled. It does not take much strength at all to fatally cut or stab an unarmored person with a sword, dagger, or spear, and any attempt to use brute strength to overwhelm the opponent's guard can easily be thwarted and turned against the attacker using the most basic of techniques. To qualify that, strength that is combined with skill—as opposed to strength as a substitute for skill—will always be an advantage. If a male and a female swordfighter are about equally skilled and of average strength for their respective sexes, then the stronger one will have a certain amount of advantage in particular situations. The point is not that average women have no physical disadvantages in swordfighting against average men, but rather that whatever disadvantages do exist aren't as large as some people might think, and are not as important as differences in skill.

  • The thought may arise that both fighters using shields and armor would tip the advantage back towards men, since reduced vulnerability to stop hits or counter strikes could make charging and using brute strength a more viable option. However, on further examination this assumption doesn't necessarily hold water. As shown by Roland Warzecha and other practitioners of Viking-era and high medieval shield fighting, there is a lot of binding and winding with the shields that follows a similar redirection of force principle as fighting with weapons, meaning that once again brute strength will tend to be thwarted. Also, if we look at history we find a fair number of male knights who were very successful in armored combat despite being small-statured, and modern HEMA has seen women such as Jessica Finley distinguish themselves in foot combat in armor. A notable thing about European-style full plate armor, and probably most other kinds of full armor, is that it raises your center of gravity and requires you to take greater care to keep upright and balanced. Women are thought to have a slightly lower center of gravity than men, and on average they aren't as tall. If you raise a man's center of gravity and make him more top-heavy, then he will be easier to throw if you can get him off balance. And while the armor will protect the bigger fighter from the kinds of weapon blows that would discourage them from charging in an armed/unarmored fight, at the same time it will help protect the smaller fighter from the kinds of blunt strikes they're vulnerable to in an unarmed/unarmored fight. Plus, the Square-Cube Law will actually favor the smaller armored fighter in terms of their power-to-weight ratio, just as it does with tanks: it takes more weight to surround a larger volume with the same thickness of steel, and an armor tailored for a small person will be so much lighter that it will more than compensate for that person's reduced weight carrying capacity.

  • One way a woman can compensate for sexual differences in musculature is by fighting on horseback. If the horse is moving, the velocity of the horse adds energy to the rider's strike. There have been various inventions throughout history to increase the amount of energy successfully transferred from horse to rider to weapon, such as stirrups, a high-backed war saddle, a graper on the lance, and a lance arrest on the breastplate. Horseback archery is also potentially effective, since shooting from a moving horse is something only ever done at close range (meaning that maximum range and loss of arrow velocity over distance are less important), and riding towards your target while you shoot imparts extra power to the arrow. The fact that a horse's power can compensate for lesser size and strength is one of the reasons why many historical examples of warrior women were Asiatic horse nomads, and why a fair number of male knights got away with not being incredibly bulky and strong guys. Also, a woman on horseback fighting a man on foot would reverse any advantage the man got from being taller, and a lighter rider means a horse can run further and faster (which is why a jockey's weight is used as a handicap in horse racing).

  • Archery is often depicted as a realm in which women can do better than hand-to-hand combat, as the old-fashioned side of Guys Smash, Girls Shoot. However, that rather depends on the type of archery.
    • The shooting power of a bow is determined by the draw length—how far back the archer can pull the string, and therefore the distance over which force will be applied to the arrow when the string is released—and the draw weight, which is the amount of force needed to pull the string back to full draw, and thus the amount of force that will be applied to the arrow when the string is released. A bow of higher power can shoot an arrow farther. Power also increases an arrow's velocity, which helps accuracy by reducing projectile drop, and also increases the energy transfer and penetration when the arrow hits the target. More power is also required to accelerate a heavier and harder-hitting arrow to the same velocity as a lighter one shot using less power. Upper body strength is actually very important for archery. Drawing a bow of substantial draw weight reqires a combination of back, arm, shoulder, and core muscles which are not normally used in other forms of work or exercise. Therefore, one must shoot a lot of arrows in order to develop stamina, and progress in stages from lighter to heavier bows over a long period of practice.
    • Most adult beginners in modern target archery can start out with a 20-25 pound recurve bow. In Olympic recurve archery, which involves a much greater level of difficulty, the range of draw weights is roughly 40-48 pounds for the women and 45-55 pounds for the men. A certain minimum of power is needed to humanely kill animals in hunting, but excessive power is also not required because animals are shot at close range and they don't wear armor. Medieval longbows for hunting large game such as deer were rarely more than 50-60 pounds in draw weight, and you could also kill an unarmored man at close range with the same weapon. War archery was quite different, however. Armors of layered cloth, mail, and/or plate required more power and specialized arrows to penetrate. Longbows discovered in the wreck of a Tudor warship, the Mary Rose, range from 100 to 185 pounds in draw weight, with 150—160 pounds as the average. What's more, a taller archer will have longer arms and thus a greater maximum draw length, while the opposite is true of short archers. If two bows have the same draw weight at their maximum draw length, but the maximum draw length of one is shorter, then the bow with the shorter draw will not be as powerful. It would therefore take an unusually tall and muscular woman to excell in war archery with traditional bows.
    • The equation is different with compound bows, however. A compound bow has a system of cams and cables which causes the draw weight felt by the archer to start "letting off" about half-way through the draw, so that holding the string at full draw takes much less effort than with a non-compound bow. Thus, it is more realistic for an average-sized woman to be able to use a compound bow of significant power. Getting back to medieval times, a crossbow would be more suited to average female height and strength.
    • Medieval European crossbows had a much shorter draw length, and compensated with a higher draw weight. The very fact that the draw length was so short, and that the crossbow was a mechanical contraption, meant that one could use a spanning device such as a belt hook, a goat's foot lever, a windlass, or a cranequin to draw the bow. With the help of such a spanning device, an average-sized woman could learn to use a crossbow quite effectively.
    • Finally, if we stray from archery we might consider the benefits of the humble sling for average-sized female fighters. Throwing weapons such as javelins or rocks can be less effective if a person is less muscular or has shorter arms. The sling however acts as an extension of the arm to artificially lengthen it, and spinning the sling over one’s head a few times before releasing the bullet imparts a lot of energy. The amount of damage that could be caused by a small pebble, or a sling bullet formed from lead or baked clay, should not be underestimated.

  • A deadly fight with modern firearms can be quite close to equal because the force behind the projectile comes from chemical propellant rather than the user's muscle power; the only limits on power are one's ability to control recoil and the weight of weapon and ammunition that can be carried self-sufficiently. And as long as the combat takes place at significant range, the physically weaker fighter isn't in danger of the stronger one beating or wrestling them into submission. Firearms are efficient enough at killing people at standard ranges that you don't necessarily need a great big gun to do the job. A 9mm handgun or 5.56mm rifle would be as lethal in the hands of a man or woman, and adequate for many police or military applications. In fact, a larger individual will have the disadvantage of presenting a bigger target and requiring more cover to properly protect themselves. Granted, a stronger person might be able to carry a more heavy-duty weapon such as a general purpose machine gun, or wear more ballistic armor, or carry more ammo, but the foot soldier's return on strength diminishes more quickly these days than it did in battles of yore. Modern body armor simply isn't as protective against modern weapons as medieval armor was against medieval weapons, and rifle-proof armor that covers the whole body simply doesn’t exist today. We also have explosive weapons such as hand grenades, RPGs, and under-barrel grenade launchers which do not require much strength to use. These can take out multiple opponents at once, and also cause concussive trauma which cannot be blocked by body armor. Therefore, whether it’s a woman shooting a man or a man shooting a woman tends not to matter much; the winner is usually whoever scores the first hit.

  • Average women may have a harder time doing the manual labor or marching with heavy loads which are expected in modern militaries, but the actual fighting is not necessarily to their disasdvantage. They might even have the advantage in jungle or guerrilla warfare from being able to hide and sneak more easily, and by requiring less food and water. A good example is the large number of women who fought on the communist side of the Vietnam War. If even Child Soldiers can fight in modern wars with some effectiveness, then it's no wonder that females can and do fight as well.

  • Vehicle combat opens up the potential for complete equality, since the machine does most of the fighting and the pilot's skill translates directly into action. Which isn't to deny that physical endurance or strength play their parts in aspects such as enduring G-forces, wrestling with unpowered controls, or handling ammunition, but the strength barrier is comparatively lower. The Soviet Union in World War II fielded some highly successful female flyers and tankers.

  • Of course, in fiction, there are even more ways to get around the differences in musculature between men and women. In a Superhero universe, who's to say a woman cannot have Super Strength equal to or greater than any man? And if the series revolves around Humongous Mecha, the physical strength of the pilots is mostly irrelevant.