Women Warriors Are the Rage in Hollywood--But What Was the Truth?

Culture Watch

Ms. Gaboury is a PhD student in Political Science at CUNY Grad Center. She is studying issues of political theory and gender.

Casting women as warriors in film is all the rage. With contemporary roots in The Terminator and Alien, this trend can be spotted in such varied places as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill and Alias. It is an effect of feminism which has changed the way we think about women, particularly in the present or future tense as we might imagine a future or fictionalized world in which women might be astronauts battling aliens or high schools students slaying vampires. But what do we do about the thornier issue of portraying women as warriors in the patriarchal past?

The latest retelling of the story of King Arthur claims to reveal the true origins the Knights of the Round Table based on recently discovered “archeological evidence.” Reviews of this picture have seized upon the glaring inaccuracies of the script, written by David Franzoni who also penned the historically vague Gladiator. While I’m not suggesting that viewers turn to A Jerry Bruckheimer Film for a history lesson, I am interested in one of the twists of this account encapsulated in the film’s trailer this way: “Before Guinevere became Queen, she was a warrior fighting for her people.”

Though one wouldn’t always suspect it given the difficulty female cadets have had penetrating the Citadel or the nation’s ambivalent celebration of Private Jessica Lynch, women have always been warriors. Medieval Celtic and Pict societies, invoked in King Arthur, offer an important historical counterweight to the notion that women have only recently entered battle in a formal capacity. In this version of the tale, Guinevere, played by Keira Knightley, is a member of the Woad tribe, indigenous freedom fighters led by Merlin, who’s not a magician here but a mystical dark force of the woods, as we all know indigenous people to be.

Women have always been soldiers, but ladies--by definition--were not. In previous versions of this tale, Guinevere is the quintessential, though adulterous, lady in a fancy dress at home in a castle. The love triangle between Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur that comes to spoil Camelot has always been at the heart of this legend. Here, while Lancelot gives his future queen a few desirous glances, it is the ambivalent Arthur, played by Clive Owen, at this triangle’s apex. He is caught between returning home with Lancelot and their band of knights or staying with Guinevere and fighting for their people. Arthur, in this account, is of mixed blood with a Roman father and Woad mother and thus his loyalties are divided.

While Woad women might have fought alongside men in battle, most medieval women did not. So why is it that Arthur and his knights would have accepted Guinevere standing among them as a sort of equal? Don’t misunderstand me: I would love to cheer the military integration that this film suggests if it did not stink of the dishonesty of the thousands of years in which women were denied the rights and obligations of full citizenship. The movie ought to have nodded, if only in a few lines, to the bucking of convention that was taking place.

Having gone to this film specifically to check out Guinevere, I kept an eye out for other Woad grrrl-warriors in the big battle scene, and though it’s possible they were there, I did not spot any. Guinevere is depicted, then, for those without a background in women’s history, as a strange exception. Viewers have not been given any clues that women soldiers in these tribes were, at times, on equal footing with men.

Conveniently for filmmakers, Woads are said to have fought nude, thus enabling Keira Knightley’s skimpy leather battle-ensemble while the bodies of the boring Saxons and Romans are obscured in heavy metal and fur. This Guinevere is meant for consumption by the film’s target audience, adolescent men and boys. This is a King Arthur for the video game age, and Guinevere shoots and jumps and seduces Arthur like a pro.

It’s necessary that Guinevere – like all women warriors from Ripley to Buffy to Lara Croft – be conventionally sexy. It’s the thing that makes them alluring and not (too) threatening to hetero-men, invoking desire instead of fear. Xena could be a lesbian icon, but she would not have been as accepted (by the heterosexual mainstream) if she were a leather bull dyke. One does not hear people speculating how “Tobey” squeezed into his Spidey outfit in the same way that local newscasters recently promoted their program: “Find out how Halle got into her cat suit!”

One of the screenplay’s supposedly wittier moments is an exchange between Lancelot and Guinevere as they stand on the battle field as a phalanx of Saxons thunder towards them. Lancelot: “There’s a large number of lonely men out there.” Guinevere: “Don’t worry. I won’t let them rape you.” Lancelot’s quip and raised eyebrow is the only place in the film that hints at the fact that actual knights would not have allowed a woman warrior among them. And this, after all, is delivered in a film peddling the True Story of Arthur. Apparently, it was decided that rape humor was too racy for the general public as in the trailer–and television commercials–the line “rape you” has been softened to “touch you.” Ah, the witty repartee between the sexes brought to the battlefield–it’s so His Girl Friday for the new millennium.

And speaking of rape as a weapon of war, we know at first glance that the Saxons that they are bad to the bone because as they pillaging a village, a solider is about to claim his war-booty and rape a village woman. He is pulled off of her not because rape is wrong, but because sex with a foreigner would defile and taint Saxon blood. Apparently, this is a longstanding German preoccupation. The woman is then ordered killed.

In contrast to the Saxons, Arthur and his Knights are John Locke’s ancestors, full of big speeches about egalitarianism. The round table of legend unmans the Roman envoys as there is no obvious seat of power from which to issue orders. Arthur first sets eyes on Guinevere when he’s liberating prisoners from a dungeon, where she had been subjected to torture at the hands of the religiously intolerant Romans. The message, hammered into you along with Hans Zimmer’s score, is that Romans and Saxons defend corrupt hierarchies and employ brute force while the Woads and Knights (the soon-to-be-Brits) do not.

Thus, in the presence of such freedom fighters, women might too possess equality. When thinking about the problem of Guinevere’s portrayal, parallel examples can be found in the mythology of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the third installment, Eowyn, the niece of a king, rides into battle in disguise after her uncle has forbidden her to go, and she performs heroically. Eowyn is one of the few active female figures in Tolkein’s original epic. It is the dramatic horseback ride of elf Arwen, played by Liv Tyler, carrying an injured Frodo to safety that was created for screen, as it was the male elf Glorfindel who made the journey in the book. Writers Walsh, Boyens and Jackson made the decision to extract the love story between Aragorn and Arwen from the book’s appendixes and make it more central to their story. But it’s Arwen’s action sequence which first connects audiences with her character. Her role has been expanded to not only to give the actress something to do other than pine for Aragorn, but to establish a figure who is a worthy partner of the future king. This is feminism’s influence–it is no longer enough for a woman to be beautiful and sacrificing, and wring her hands as a fight sequence unfolds before her.

Another such film that successfully strikes this balance is Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, where the newly anointed queen is portrayed by Cate Blanchett. Slaying chauvinism is part of the plot line as Queen Elizabeth not only grappled with learning to rule at a young age, but squared off against bishops and conspirators who assumed that a woman on the throne would naturally be weak. Elizabeth’s triumph came in the face of the gendered obstacles around her and we side with her because she prevailed despite the odds. One of the ways in which The Lord of the Rings and Elizabeth succeed, and King Arthur fails, is to acknowledge the difficulties that women faced in assuming the role of warrior. Women in the past battled not only their sworn enemies, but often the men and social structures around them. Films ought to honor everything that they vanquished.

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Perry A. de Havilland - 5/3/2006

Whilst I do not disagree with the general thrust of this article, it does contain one recurring howler...

"*Medieval* Celtic and Pict societies"

"While Woad women might have fought alongside men in battle, most *medieval* women did not."

But 'Arthur' is set at the onset of the Dark Ages, many centuries before the Medieval period.

In this way at least, the film is actually much more 'historical' than most as if there really was an Arthur (and there probably was), he almost certainly a Romano-Celt noble of the Empire's dying days (i.e. the onset of the Dark Ages) and not the plate armour wearing chivalric era medieval knight anachronistically portrayed in fiction (by which I mean not just modern and Victorian fiction but also Medieval fiction).

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/8/2004

Interesting article. I enjoyed it, and you make some good points. I do have a bit of sympathy for the approach--though not the dialogue--in King Arthur, as you have described it. (I have not seen the movie) After all, the Arthurian legends have always echoed the society they were written for. The rules of chivalry grew and changed along with the audiences and writers from medieval chanson, to Mallory, to the 19th century romantics.

In the last few decades some writers interested in the role of religion have used the legends to reconsider the nature of the triumph of Christianity.

I don't think inserting a feminist ethic is necessarily more farfetched than these other changes.