I've never forgotten the movie review I read on Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, when it came out a couple years ago. The review was in World magazine, and I didn't remember the exact wording so I went back and searched for the article online. (Here's the link.) This is the part that really caught my attention:
"It seems that whenever Hollywood wants to show women displaying strength, it does so with what are traditionally considered masculine qualities. There's not necessarily anything wrong with an Alice in armor brandishing a sword—except that it's a cruel waste of an Alice. Carroll's Alice is impulsive and curious to a fault. She's also highly philosophical and intelligent. Given a girl with such intriguing traits, Burton turns her into an amalgamation of King Arthur, Prince Caspian, and a thousand other male heroes in literature and film.
How much more interesting would it have been to have Alice battle for the salvation of Wonderland utilizing her unique characteristics? If Burton and other filmmakers want to empower girls, perhaps, just once, they might show them how characteristics other than physical strength and agility are valuable."After I read this review, my dad read it and said, "Ellyn, you should work this idea into one of your books." What a great plan of action for all of us! I can think of countless books and movies that are guilty of this. Writers either give women super strength and the power to endure their male opponent's wrath, or, they don't have super strength but they still win in very doubtful ways. (Think Queen Susan thwacking a guy with an arrow in Prince Caspian. Um, excuse me. Arrows are shot from bows for a reason.)
As much as we would love to believe it, women do not have the strength of men. This does not mean they can't fight at all, or that they always have to lose a physical battle, but don't be unrealistic about it. Women have strength and charm of their own.
Here are some alternatives to brunt strength that you can use to help your female heroines come out on top.
It's often hard for me to make my character 'wit' her way out of a tight spot, because of course, it means I have to be witty too. A fantastic example of use of wit is Barbara from The Sherwood Ring, by Elizabeth Marie Pope. Barbara and her brother Dick are trapped in an old house with a clever yet engaging villain, Peaceable Sherwood. Dick is locked up in the cellar and Barbara knows she has to somehow get Peaceable out of the way if she and her brother are going to live. She and Peaceable remain perfectly civil to each other while eating an evening meal, and all the while Barbara is not only fooling Peaceable - she's fooling the reader as well! It's splendidly done.
I don't want to step on anyone's toes here, but women are usually more compassionate than men in certain situations. Sometimes compassion can be unpredictable, and surprise is the greatest weapon. In Dust, when Ethen kills a wolf, Dust feels sorry for it and gives it a proper burial while Ethen looks on in pure astonishment. He has never, ever met anyone like Dust before. If she had responded instead with some sort of congratulatory comment and kicked the wolf across the clearing, she would not have commanded his respect the way she did.
Women can use their feminine charms in a variety of ways. There's Maid Marian from the BBC Robin Hood series, who kisses up to Guy of Gisbourne and raises his false hopes in order to gather information for Robin. This does not end up well for her in the end of the series, and I do not admire any heroine who abuses her feminine powers.
On a more positive note, I've found that by behaving in a ladylike manner and embracing femininity, people - especially men - treat me like a lady. Heroines also could avoid a deal of conflict this way.
Women have a gift for talking. Use it, heroines. Keep talking - it may confuse your opponent, or just irritate him into giving up. Amberglas, a sorceress from The Seven Towers by Patricia Wrede has mastered the art of twisting sentences to be as confusing as possible. She rattles on and on, concocting some plan at the same time, while her poor opponent just stands there wondering how they went from talking about an arrest to dirty socks and snowstorms.
Speech can also be used as a debate technique, to corner an opponent in his opinions or motives.
Just because a physical battle is taking place does not mean that you have to supply your heroine with that all-too-common superhuman strength. If you must be physical, give her speed to duck blows or run away or climb a tree. There's no shame in a retreat if it helps you win (aka, stay alive). Think of Rue from The Hunger Games. That girl was smart, quiet, and she played to her strengths.
This fits in with "speed." Most men can punch, but do they know the specifics behind that? If this quality fits with your heroine's personality, you can make her very learned in the art of fighting - parrying, disarming, etc. I couldn't think of any examples for this category, but I'm sure that loads exist. Any ideas?
There we have it! Your heroine may complain about all the above weapons, as they may seem inadequate for a battle against, say, a jabberwocky. But come, now - six impossible things before breakfast?