A Personal Fantasy

ThrowingI’ve had variations on this particular fantasy for many years, but here’s the current one. A rabid puppy or other type of fascist or garden-variety male asshole a lot younger than me is looming over me in a threatening way, and I say:

If you try to hit me, one of two things will happen. Either you’ll hurt me, in which case you’ll go to jail, because society frowns on young men beating up old women and I guarantee I’ll file charges. Or I’ll defend myself effectively and hurt you, in which case everyone will mock you because there must be something wrong with a young punk if an old woman can beat him up

And then he probably slinks away, though in the best of all possible fantasies, he throws a punch and I take him down.

This is not a very realistic fantasy, because movies aside, most actual fights don’t include so much dialogue. Though it might happen with the kind of man who assumes his maleness and/or size is enough to threaten any woman. (I’ve known some men like that.)

I am moved to share this fantasy by a couple of items I’ve seen in the news. One was this essay in The Guardian by a guy who has a similar fantasy (though he’s smart enough not to act on it) and frames it as a male thing, even commenting that his wife doesn’t get it.

Trust me. It’s not just a male thing. It’s the kind of fantasy shared by all of us drawn to the way of the warrior, both those who think fighting is only about who’s the toughest and those who like the philosophical side of things and know that the best fights are the ones that don’t happen.

But a lot of people assume that only men are drawn to that path. And that brings me to the other news item, one that was all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds: the high-ranking Viking warrior who was a woman.

Viking women fought. And they weren’t the only women fighters in history, not by a long shot. There are many reasons why we don’t know a lot about the women warriors of the past, but an obvious one is the bias of the original researchers who found this women’s grave. She was buried with weapons befitting a commander, so she must have been a he.

When I write stories about fighting women, I usually set them in a future world where no one questions that women fight. Occasionally I make up a fantasy world where women warriors are a given.

People often dismiss women warriors in historical settings as “wishful thinking,” though the discovery of the Viking warrior contradicts that. Still, since the culture continues to insist that past women warriors were a rarity, authors find themselves having to explain how this particular woman got there. As more women have taken on combat duty in modern military forces, it has become easier to write a current day story about women warriors.

I find it possible to worry about excessive violence and cheer for the progress of women soldiers at the same time. Yes, of course that’s contradictory, but I just started a book by neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky in which he talks about his love of violent movies and his belief in gun control. It seems to be normal for us humans to have contradictory attitudes about such things.

One of my Aikido teachers used to say he would have been a mercenary soldier except that he was a Quaker.

I’m no great shakes as a fighter. My biggest takeaway from thirty-eight years of martial arts is how to stay calm in a crisis and how to avoid trouble. Also, I’ve got a body full of joints that complain unless I treat them gently. I’m not looking for a fight. That same teacher also used to say that a very good tactic in a bad situation was “Nike-do” – that is, run like Hell.

But I also know when there aren’t any other options. And I think about those situations when I’m out and about. What would I do if that guy over there came at me? What would I do if the nasty words those people are throwing at each other develop into something more?

Don’t assume us old women are harmless. Just because someone doesn’t meet your fantasy of a tough guy doesn’t mean they can’t beat you up.



A Personal Fantasy — 15 Comments

  1. <archaeologist hat on>

    Without disagreeing at all about bias, I’ll also say that there are pragmatic issues at play when it comes to determining the sex or gender of a burial. In many cases the bones aren’t well-preserved, which means you don’t have anything but grave goods to use as your basis for guessing. And even when you do have well-preserved bones, osteological measurements give you, at best, a statistical prediction, based on things like height or the width of the pelvic notch (but a tall woman who never gave birth might not have measurements that register as Probably Female). The only way to really be sure is with DNA analysis, as they did in this case — which costs time and money. (So do the osteological measurements, but much less.)

    So while using grave goods to sex burials is problematic for obvious reasons — reinforced biases ahoy! — there aren’t always good alternatives. Sometimes you’ve got nothing else to work with, or can’t afford the tests necessary to establish it for sure. Which is why it’s important to note the ones we do know for sure, and take them into account when we formulate broader theories.

    • I understand the need to make assumptions based on the information available at the time. But findings like this one should make researchers of all kinds more careful about jumping to conclusions. To me, this finding indicates we shouldn’t make assumptions about gender based on burial goods, because we don’t know enough about how gender roles worked in the society in question. With DNA analysis available, it’s not necessary any more, either.

      One thing that occurred to me in looking at the stories on this issue is that the woman in question might have passed as a man, since that was not an uncommon way for women to take up arms in the past. It would be nice to know — and probably difficult to determine (though including folklore in the studies would probably help) — if this woman led forces as a woman or passed as a man.

      Also, we need to reexamine a lot of older studies in many fields — biology being a very obvious additional one — since a lot biased assumptions came into those conclusions. I’m sure many archeologists are doing just that.

      • With DNA analysis available, it’s not necessary any more, either.

        In a world where archaeologists have all the funding they need and the remains always have recoverable DNA, perhaps. But that’s just not the case.

        The problem is less that “we don’t know enough about how gender roles worked in the societies in question” and more that we’re still fighting against entrenched assumptions that lead too many people to discount the data we already have. I wrote my senior thesis on the role of weapons in the construction of identity (gender included) in Viking Age Scandinavia, and one of the three readers for my thesis was an old dinosaur who dismissed a very influential collection titled Engendering Archaeology as “Endangering Archaeology.” The work of re-examining older studies is underway, and has been for decades; getting people to accept the new results is the true hurdle.

  2. I think we all have dreams of agency–of not being powerless in a stressful situation. Which includes physical threat.

    But then there are also people who, for whatever reason, crave the adrenaline rush of a fight.

    • There are people who fought in wars who found that the best time of their lives — everything else was too dull for them.

      A lot of people who train for years in martial arts go through a period when they really want to test their skills and seek out fights. In my experience, if they keep training, they get past that.

  3. I have a neighbor with anger management problems, and he’s a retired Navy SEAL. Now that he’s stopped drinking he’s easier to deal with.

    But, if I know I have to be around him I carry a cane. I trained as a fencer for 4 years. Research for some books. I know how to use that cane to defend myself in a controlled manner. One whop to the knee cap and he keeps his distance.

    Every woman, and a good many men, need to build the self-confidence that some kind of martial arts gives them.

    When WorldCon was in Glasgow, I had to walk from my hotel to the convention center through a marginal area. Young thugs regularly harassed other walkers–male and female–They all cowered. I walked tall and strong and they never said a thing to me. I had learned to adopt a manner that shouted “Not a Victim.”

  4. The discussions of the Viking warrior are reminding me that there’s a fairly recent book by Adrienne Mayor on the subject of warrior women called The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across The Ancient World. Definitely a good read – and one I think I’m going to have to pull out again (on top of the hundred or so other books I keep wanting to read).

    • I know of that book and need to put it on my list, too. Hmm. Maybe I can convince myself it has relevance to the projects I’m currently working on (which aren’t either historical or fantasy, but which do involve strong women).

  5. Among my Aikidoka friends, we often laugh about how the best Aikido story is one where “nothing happened” — the scenario where the threatening young man thinks better of it and walks off.
    ~”I slipped on the stairs holding something heavy, slid down four steps and landed — solid — in the one three-inch-wide spot available to my left foot with the heavy thing right beside it. I don’t know how I did that.”
    ~”A drunk guy staggered out of the bar and headed right for me, glowering. Just as we came face to face, I stood aside, and he walked on by.”
    ~”Four young men lined up across the only access to the mall, blocking me and my three teenage girlfriends from entering. I gathered my ki and walked straight between the middle two. My friends fell in line behind me and they stepped aside when I came to them.”
    I have heard dozens and dozens of these stories. The self-possession involved in having an intimate understanding of distance, speed, size, weight, and momentum is invaluable. It makes us safer in all kinds of situations. I love your fantasy. You might enjoy my blog, “DO take Aikido to a Dogfight.” 🙂

    • Here’s a link to Virginia’s blog post: http://www.yesginny.com/animals-rock/do-take-aikido-to-a-dog-fight/

      I love hearing all those stories, and I especially like hearing them from the guys who started out wanting to be tough. I think all serious martial arts training changes people that way, if they stay with it long enough to get past just learning technique, but Aikido puts in front and center. Which is why I tend to think it’s the best art for learning self defense.

      • Me, too! One “tough” guy I used to train with — covered with tattoos and very physically powerful — had studied a lot of “hard” martial arts before he came to Aikido. He felt that too much of what he’d learned was “power over” — and that, always, eventually, following that path, you’d encounter someone who could have “power over” you! In Aikido, where we seek “power with,” there is no ending, no wall to run up against. All things are possible.