Heroic Women Warriors:
Finding Them in the Strangest Places
I'm a video game player. I have been since I was allowed to buy my first Nintendo Entertainment System back in the early years of home game consoles. I remember unwrapping the packaging for the first time, pulling out the NES, the game controllers, and the PowerGun. Each item was like a new gift from above, and I knew I was one lucky kid, even though I wasn't the first person on the block to own one, and I had to share it with my younger brother.
My father always said that the Nintendo would never earn me useful skills, but he was wrong: it gave me two things: pixilated heroes that I could, in a sense, become as I controlled them; and a bank of information that might seem useless on the surface, but gives me a language with which to talk about some very profound ideas and experiences.
I was recently considering these electronic heroes of my youth, and how they profoundly affected the way I grew up and how my ideas of "heroic" were developed. Today, I look back on those days of the classic NES and realize just how important those games were.
One of the main heroes of my childhood was from a game called Metroid. I spent hours on this game, renting it over and over from the store. By the time I had finally stopped renting it, I expect I could have purchased the game brand new for the cost. The basic premise of the game was fairly simple and common: your hero, Samus Aran, wearing his protective suit that allows him to survive the atmosphere of this hostile planet and shoot up aliens, uses various puzzle-solving techniques, power-ups and a chunk of luck to get to the end, and there defeat the main boss, Mother Brain.
The description I've given is extremely simple. Suffice to say that I sent hours playing this game, and somewhere along the line, something happened to send shockwaves through the gaming community.
Samus Aran, the hero of many young boys, was a girl.
This was big, big news. In fact, there had never been a female character who could sell video games, especially without being in various states of undress for long periods of time. Girls in video games served secondary purposes, or else had seriously not-so-secondary topography that made them interesting. Girls told you what to do, provided heroes with secrets, and looked pretty. They were never heroes.
Now, though, there was a real female hero out there, one who was just as tough (if not tougher) than any male hero who had graced our television screens. She was resourceful, quick, and strong. She was, in the end, a positive female role model for young boys.
Wait, what does this have to do with ADF, hearth cultures, and real life? Are you already afraid that you missed a memo and Oak Leaves has turned into a magazine devoted to old-school gaming? Don't worry, you haven't.
What's important is that Samus Aran shows something to us all: there is a definite and strong need for good, strong female role models in our lives. Thousands of young boys found this out when Samus took off her helmet for the first time after they beat the game, even if none of us stopped to analyze this fact at the time. For a moment, these boys were able to look at a woman with real respect because they had constructed a mythic drama surrounding the game in which they had placed themselves inside the game
I compared Samus with other women from history and myth that make good role models for boys and men of all ages, and I felt that really, these women are strong role models that males can identify with because they aren't common: they do what men wish they could do.
A great example is Boudicca, the flame-haired warrior who created alliances, defeated the elite IX Hispania Legio under Cerialis (out of 6000 men, 500 cavalry is all that made it out alive), stormed a city or three, and allegedly took poison rather than be captured.* What man wouldn't want such a legacy? Great victories, powerful alliances, and defiance to the end: it's the kind of thing a man would like to think he would do in such situations.
Boudicca does not impress men because she was an equal of men, but because she seems to be "one of the guys." Interestingly, male historians tend to mention her gender in passing, while female historians tend to focus more on the fact that she was female. With male historians, the language is not of "she was a great woman," but "she was a great warrior." It's a broad generalization, for certain, but I think there's an element of wanting to identify with her, but not appear effeminate, and this causes the difference in terms.
Further study of Boudicca reveals sources that are not so flattering, though, and a good historian has to consider these as well. We find sources that speak very poorly of her, and we can't help but begin to wonder who is telling us the truth and who is lying for their own benefit. Roman historians talk of Boudicca, noting over and over again that she was female as if it were a weakness, but for some (such as Tacitus, who places a stirring speech on her lips) it is a proud thing, given that she has taken on an heroic presence, even (perhaps in
spite of) being a woman.**
Brynhild in the Volsungasaga is another good example of an heroic woman that men can admire. . . and with her as well, we find that men are not meant to admire her for long.
Brynhild is a valkyrie, and the dragon-slayer, Sigurd, rides through the flames to claim her for his friend, and here Sigurd is the deceiver, a role that Brynhild will eventually take on herself, and which will lead to the death of the dragon-slayer. She is a source of wisdom and truth for Sigurd, teaching him runes and telling him such useful things as how to deal with drunk friends.
One very interesting thing about Brunhild is that until he removes her helmet, he believes she is a man, and the audience is meant to as well. With the removal of the helmet, though, she begins a slow descent into the characteristic woman of myth: deceitful and dangerous when crossed.
Though she insists to Sigurd that they are not meant to be together, he will hear none of it. "It is not fated that we should live together," she says. "I am a shield-maiden. I wear a helmet and ride with the warrior kings. I must support them, and I am not averse to fighting." She identifies herself as a man, and even describes women as false, saying, "It is wiser counsel not to put your trust in a woman, because women always break their promises."***
Maybe the implication is that men cannot generally handle strong women, or that we are afraid of them. All these heroes become less heroic though. Brynhild becomes the deceitful woman we often expect in myth; Boudicca, instead of defying the Romans with poison, dies of sickness running from them; and Samus (my poor Samus) ends up running around the hostile planet in what appears to be a one-piece bathing suit if you manage to beat the game quickly enough the first time around.
In the end, I encourage everyone to consider the women in your lives as strong heroes, not as objects that are deceitful and dangerous. There's plenty of evidence in the mythology for both, but honestly, we can choose whether we want to use a password to skip directly to the second mission in
Metroid so we can get a pixilated eyeful of Samus Aran, or whether we'd rather see her as the hero we grew up loving. Women warriors and strong women are all around us: choose to view them that way. In the end, it's your mythic drama, not someone else's.
* - Ellis, P.B. Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature. ISBN: 0802838081
** - Tacitus, The Annals, Book XIV, chapter 35.
*** - Bycok, Jesse. The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon
Slayer. ISBN: 0520069048
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