Problematic Badass Female Tropes #6: One Of The Guys

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It’s 1997 and the extremely highly trained sword fighters are the highlight of the Colorado Renaissance Festival. At the core of the stunt fighting troupe are five young performers – the most highly trained, the most charismatic, the heaviest drinkers, and biggest heartbreakers – who execute nine spectacular fights each day of the hot, dusty, costumed event, all summer long. The group is reminiscent of the Native American mythical motif of The Band Of Young Men: a roving, shape-shifting, dangerous bunch of youths who wander the landscape, causing trouble of all kinds.

But this summer at RenFaire, one of the Band is a woman.

Dressed in men’s clothing, her presence is a running joke through the many gags, cock-swinging quips, and movie quotes that make up the scripts of each fight.

In one particular scene, a well-executed, athletically precise swordfight performed before the large midday crowds, the young woman (character name of Rosalind Silver) battles a male character (name of Lord Buckingham). During a brief break in the fight, the flashing steel swords momentarily pause and the following dialogue ensues:

LORD BUCKINGHAM: Rosalind, you fight as well as a man.

ROSALIND: I wish I could say the same of you.

BUCK: What happened to the dress I bought you?

ROS: I ‘accidentally’ threw it into the fireplace and burned it.

BUCK: Tell me: have you ever been mistaken for a man?

ROS: Why no, Lord Buckingham. Have you?

And we’ve made it to Trope #6: One of the Guys. This trope, dear readers, illustrates the story of my life.

That intrepid young female swordfighter was me, tussling and dick-joking, sexist bantering, and hearing all the details of the Band of Young Men’s many female conquests. I was not romantically involved with any of the Band; I was not there as a girlfriend, but as one of them. And as the list of broken hearts got longer and longer over the summer, the jilted ladies began flocking to my side; not as romantic possibilities, but as friends.

One afternoon, I exasperatedly asked the alpha of the Band, “Why is it all your exes are trying to become best friends with me?”

He replied, “It’s because you’re, like, one of the guys. But you have tits, so you’re safe.”

One Of The Guys is probably one of the more obvious of the Problematic Badass Female Tropes. The bait and switch here isn’t really fooling anyone, but the damaging stereotype of this trope is real and persistent. What this trope says to us is, “A woman can’t really be a badass.” How does it send this message? By showing us that the more badass a woman is, the more of a man she has to become.

This trope tends to manifest in two different ways. The first is illustrated above: the woman is ostensibly female, but shows enough masculine traits that she functions essentially as a man. That last bit of dialogue of the swordfighters above was yoinked straight from Aliens in a scene where all the hardcore killer space marines are warming up their muscularly cut bodies after cryogenic freeze. One of them, who happens to be the only female marine (one Private Vasquez), is doing pull ups, arm muscles rippling. When Vasquez finishes, she’s asked the “Anyone ever mistake you for a man?” question by one of her male crewmates, and her quipped answer is met with high fives by the dudes surrounding her. She exhibits so many (stereotypically) male traits that there’s even implied lesbianism there. She is, for all intents and purposes, basically a man.

The other way One Of The Guys shows up is with the female badass character hiding her womanhood, dressing up and disguising herself as a man in order to carry on her badassitude. Fa Mulan does this, and so does Eowyn (from Lord of the Rings). Eowyn herself actually has a telling, powerful speech in the book, where she warns us of the damaging nature of her society’s inherent misogyny, and explains why, later, she decides to become One Of The Guys. This speech comes in response to hero Aragorn and her own father, who, without her input, decide that she must remain behind to mind the old, infirm, women, and children while the men ride out into what is implied may very well be their last battle.

“All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.”

Return Of The King

Of course, if you’ve read Lord of the Rings, you know why it’s so important that Eowyn defies her orders, dons men’s clothing and a man’s name, and rides out into battle anyway. Without her there on the battlefield, the army of men would be lost and defeated.

Usually stories of women dressing up as men to do battle are based in the male dominated world of warriorship. Some time periods and cultures did or do not allow women to join military groups, or fight at all, while others are merely so male dominated that women aren’t welcome. And so, in order to be as badass as the men, a female badass character has to become a man. The unwritten rule here is that she can’t stay feminine and also be a badass—and this is where the problems of this trope pop up. Whether she’s in disguise as a man or just looking and acting like one, a One Of The Guys trope character is forced to give up her womanhood in exchange for badassitude.

This damaging trope starts early for females in many cultures: when a little girl plays with ‘boys’ toys’ she is told that those things aren’t ladylike, or they’re meant for boys, or she’s called a tomboy. What these repeated messages say to girls growing into women is: fighting isn’t meant for you. Strength isn’t meant for you. Your realm is gentleness. Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what girls are made of. Now go make me a sandwich…

I have been told that this series should be made into a book, and when and if it does, readers, O how I shall regale you with personal stories of being One Of The Guys. The stage combat, stunt fighting, and martial arts worlds were (and mostly still are) boys’ clubs, and my coming of age as a woman was affected deeply by being steeped in cultures that were teaching me (and my male colleagues) how to be a man. There is still a lovely running personal joke of sorts amongst those men closest to me: that I really don’t have much of a handle on the whole girly thing–I kind of suck at being a ‘girl’. Which, now in my ripe and seasoned middle age, I’m perfectly okay with. But it is fascinating to look back at myself: the kid tomboy, androgynous goth teen, then in my twenties becoming a member of the Band of Young Men. I can see with hindsight the pain there in daily giving up my womanhood, even before I understood what it was.

As it is, know that I still enjoy badass women-as-men stories (one of my favorites from history is that of pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Reade, who escaped hanging when their male crewmates did not. And a quote that I adore is from Bonny to Captain Calico Jack: on their way to trial, she spat, “If you’d have fought like a man, you needn’t have died like a dog.” Spectacular stuff). But as much as stories like heroic Mulan and others can (and should) be fun and inspiring, what we need to do as viewers and consumers of culture is to understand that these stories exist literally because women were and are not allowed, expected or welcome to be warriorlike badasses, merely because they’re women. Instead, they are forced to become men if they want to continue their badassery. Which, obviously, isn’t at all fair. The very least we can do is notice and call this trope out when we do. Who knows, maybe if enough of us do this and strongly enough, this sorry state of misogynistic cultural affairs will change.

Think of other One Of The Guys characters you know and love, consider how they might be improved, and stay tuned for the last in the PBFT series: I’m Only Here For My Vagina.

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