The portrayal of women warriors in literature and popular culture is a subject of study in history, literary studies, film studies, folklore history, and mythology. The archetypal figure of the woman warrior is an example of a normal thing that happens in some cultures, while also being a counter stereotype, opposing the normal construction of war, violence and aggression as masculine.: 269 This convention-defying position makes the female warrior a prominent site of investigation for discourses surrounding female power and gender roles in society.
Folklore and mythology
Medieval women helping to defend the city from attack.
The Amazons were an entire tribe of woman warriors in Greek legend. The earliest known recording of the Amazons can be found in Homer's epic poem the Iliad, in which Homer described them as Amazon antianeirai, a term with multiple translations including "the equal of men." "Amazon" has become an eponym for woman warriors and athletes in both modern and ancient society.
In British mythology, Queen Cordelia fought off several contenders for her throne by personally leading the army in its battles as well as defending her home from her own warring family members, until she eventually commits suicide due to grief. Another example in ancient British history is the historical Queen Boudica, who led a rebellion against the Roman Empire.
Accounts of martial women were included in the Ramayana (ca. 500 BCE) and Mahabharata (ca. 400 BCE) In Hindu mythology, Chitrāngadā, wife of Arjuna, was the commander of her father's armies. Satyabhama was a warrior wife of the god Krishna who led an army against Narakasura; she was an archer and expert in wartime tactics. Shikhandini was a princess who learned "archery, martial arts, war-techniques" and fought to avenge herself for past wrongs in another life; she eventually became a man (through supernatural intervention). Kaikeyi was the wife of a king who drove his chariot in battle and saved his life.
Other examples of warrior women in India may be seen in sculpture.
India, Bala Krishna Temple at Hampi. Woman with bow, an attendant removing a thorn from her foot. Early 16th century C.E.
Srirangam, India. Sculpture of warrior woman from the Vijayanagar period, 16th century, Sesha Mandapa hall of the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple.
India. A warrior woman sacrifices herself, cutting her own throat.
Hind bint ‘Utbah was an Arab woman in the late 6th and early 7th centuries who converted to Islam. She took part in the Battle of Yarmouk in 636, fighting the Romans and encouraging the male soldiers to join her.
Khawlah bint al-Azwar was a prominent woman Muslim warrior in the 7th century, leading battles in what are today Syria, Jordan and Palestine.
Ghazala the Kharijite was also a commander in battle, making famous generals like al-Hajjaj flee. Her courage was extolled in poems.
Joan of Arc was a warrior in the 15th century and considered a heroine in France for her role in the Hundred Years' War. Joan of Arc alleged that she had a connection to the saints of her church and that they communicated with her to tell her to join the war effort of the French in 1429. Her effort in the battle of Orléans in May 1429 contributed to the retreat of the English from the city. She was later canonized as a Roman Catholic saint. In modern popular culture, Joan of Arc has been depicted many times, including in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928 film), a silent historical film from Danish director Carl TH. Dreyer. The film depicts the real trial of Joan of Arc leading up to her execution.
The narrative of the woman warrior sometimes involves the motif of crossdressing or disguising herself as a man or a male soldier. These stories belong to the cycle of La Doncella Guerrera, or The Warrior Maiden. One popular instance of this is the legendary heroine Hua Mulan of Chinese history. Mulan's earliest records date back to the time of China's Northern and Southern Dynasties era (4th to 6th century AD). In the ballad, Mulan disguises herself as a man and takes her father's place in war to protect him. Since it was first written, the original story has been retold many times by different authors. Hua Mulan was further popularized, especially in the United States, through Disney's 1998 feature film Mulan.
18th century depiction of Mulan.
In many cases, the disguised maiden enters the service of a king and discovers the queen's infidelity. The queen is punished and the king marries the warrior maiden. One example is A afilhada de São Pedro ("St. Peter's Goddaughter"), a Portuguese folktale collected by Consiglieri Pedroso. These stories are classified in the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index index as ATU 513, "The Extraordinary Companions" and subtypes, and ATU 514, "The Shift of Sex".
The Princess in variants of Aarne–Thompson–Uther ATU 551, "The Water of Life", where the hero quests for an object of the fairy/warrior princess (mirror, flower, fountain, etc.) and she goes after the prince with her army.
The female character of the tales classified as ATU 519, "The Strong Woman as Bride (Brunhilde)"
The female hero of ATU tale type 300, "The Dragon-Slayer", in variants from Latin America
The woman warrior is part of a long tradition in many different cultures including Chinese and Japanese martial arts films, but their reach and appeal to Western audiences is possibly much more recent, coinciding with the greatly increased number of female heroes in American media since 1990.: 136 : 25 Films have brought women warriors to the silver screen, such as such as in King Arthur (2004 film), in which Keira Knightley plays heroine Guinevere, originally the love interest of King Arthur. In this iteration, Guinevere is portrayed as a warrior of equal strength as her male counterparts.
Women warriors have also grown in recent years in part due to the popularity of comics and franchises inspired by them, most notably films by Marvel Studios and films within the DC Extended Universe. Characters such as Captain Marvel, Wasp, Black Widow, and, more recently, Jane Foster, a female iteration of the hero Thor, originally were superheroes in popular Marvel comic series, as well as others. These heroines have since been portrayed in films helmed by Marvel Studios and are a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Women warriors have been taken up as a symbol for feminist empowerment, emphasizing women's agency and capacity for power instead of the common pattern of female victim-hood.: 269 Professor Sherrie Inness in Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture and Frances Early and Kathleen Kennedy in Athena's Daughters: Television's New Women Warriors, for example, focus on figures such as Xena, from the television series Xena: Warrior Princess or Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the introduction to their text, Early and Kennedy discuss what they describe as a link between the image of women warriors and girl power.
Although there is a distinction between positive aggression and violence, fictional representations of female violence like Kill Bill still have the power to function positively, equipping women for real-life situations that require outward aggression.: 108, 237 Beyond the individual level, fictional depictions of violence by women can be a political tool to draw attention to real-world issues of violence, such as the ongoing violence against Indigenous women. Others say that a violent heroine undermines the feminist ethics against male violence, even when she is posited as a defender of women, for example in films such as Hard Candy.: 269
The 2020 film Promising Young Woman also explores the idea of a warrior woman railing against deadly sexual inequity, using either passive or active violence in order to restore some sense of justice to a world skewed towards sympathy for sexually violent men. Often the violence is only implicit, or threatened, and exists in juxtaposition to the film's pastel colour palette and stereotypically feminine aesthetic.
^Journey of a Goddess: Chen Jinggu Subdues the Snake Demon. Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Fan Pen Li Chen. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. 2017. p. 31. ISBN978-14384-6-7078
^Idema, Wilt L. Personal Salvation and Filial Piety: Two Precious Scroll Narratives of Guanyin and Her Acolytes. University of Hawai'i Press. 2008. p. 205. ISBN978-0-8248-3215-5
Greenhill, Pauline (1995). "'Neither a Man nor a Maid': Sexualities and Gendered Meanings in Cross-Dressing Ballads". The Journal of American Folklore. 108 (428): 156–177. doi:10.2307/541377. JSTOR541377.
Heinecken, Dawn. Warrior Women of Television: A Feminist Cultural Analysis of the New Female Body in Popular Media, New York: P. Lang, 2003.
Infante, Joyce Rodrigues Ferraz (2017). "Revisitando o tema da donzela-guerreira em Grande sertão: veredas". In Rivas Hernández, Ascensión (ed.). João Guimarães Rosa: Un exiliado del lenguaje común. Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca. pp. 205–224. ISBN978-84-9012-766-7. JSTORj.ctt1z27gt1.14. OCLC1027200292.
Inness, Sherrie A. (ed.) Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Inness, Sherrie A. Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.