The shieldmaiden thing

So I mentioned in an earlier post that I had some reservations about the History Channel’s Vikings, which I think is better shot and acted than its scripts really merit. Unrelated to that is the idea of having some reservations about the show’s portrayal of lots of female warriors being a normal part of Viking society, and particularly the idea of the butt-kicking female main character, Lagertha.


Now, as it happens, if we’re going to have butt-kicking Viking shield maidens, I think Lagertha’s a fine one to have. She’s portrayed in a generally positive light, she’s not shown as being wimpy next to the male warriors, she’s attractive without having the camera constantly leer at her, she has interests outside stabbing. That’s all fine.

But …

but but but …

in both historical fiction and fantasy fiction, I sometimes feel like butt-kicking female fighters function as an implied criticism of actual women. This is tied in very strongly to the idea that women fighting are symbolic of female agency. Let me explain.

There are some people who don’t believe that you can have female fighters. This has been interpreted as a way of perpetuating a myth intended to deny women agency, an idea expressed in this excellent post by SF and fantasy writer Kameron Hurley. Hurley argues that there have always been women who fought, whether in a recognised combat role like the Dahomey “Amazons“, in male drag like Sarah Edmonds, or out of necessity in local uprisings and resistance movements. This is very true, and shouldn’t be discounted. Anyone who says that a female fighter character is implausible per se is talking nonsense.

But on the other hand, there is not a lot of evidence to suggest that women in, say, Viking Age Scandinavia went around fighting a lot. There are some finds of weapons in graves, but these days we don’t even necessarily believe that weapons in male graves indicate a combat role.

And there is a lot of media out there that supports the idea that a female character’s only options are to fight or be a victim. Phil Barker or one of the other authors of Hordes of the Things distinguished between heroines, who get captured and scream, and female heroes, who fight. Also there was that dreadful meme going around a few months ago that showed a bunch of gun-toting SF heroines, who were contrasted with heroines from more mainstream media. Apparently having guns and/or knowing kung fu makes female characters interesting?

I think … I think the thing that bothers me about the whole shieldmaidens-are-great idea is that historically most women, probably almost all women in most cultures, were not fighters. So if we’re saying that women who fight have agency and women who don’t are a bunch of hapless victims, then we’re saying that the vast majority of women were chumps and that only these mostly-unreal female fighters are good. And furthermore, we’re saying that women are primarily interesting and exciting insofar as they excel in a typically male-dominated area, i.e. insofar as they behave like men.

Now, I don’t necessarily think that that’s a message that Vikings is trying to send — I don’t think that it’s trying to portray Lagertha as more interesting, more in control, more whatever than the other main female characters, Aslaug and Siggy. But I do think that there’s a detectable trend among fans to view her, and comparable female characters in other media, in that light. And I think it’s the ahistorical nature of these female fighters that makes the implied comparison, not just to those other fictional characters but to the actual women of that era and others, problematic.

I dunno. I can definitely see the appeal of the shieldmaiden — it’s a powerful image and a powerful metaphor. And I’d hate to lose it altogether. It’s just … been niggling at me for a bit.

The shieldmaiden thing

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