Fighting and Gender

by Nancy Jane Moore

At a recent meeting of my writers’ group, we discussed fight scenes while critiquing an early draft of my novel in progress. The discussion went something like this:

“Women fight differently from men,” one of the guys said in pointing out that the sword fight scenes didn’t vary much.

I didn’t think he was referring to the inaccurate stereotype that women can’t fight, but I also didn’t think his point applied, so I said – speaking as a long-time martial artist and instructor as well as a writer – “In my experience, that’s not always the case, especially with weapons.”

And he replied, “Yeah, but you’re big.”

I let it go at that, because he was right that the fight scenes needed work, but it bothered me. After some reflection, I realized what the problem was: If my experience isn’t key to discussions about how women fight simply because I’m a woman about the size of the average U.S. man, then the issue isn’t biological sex or gender; it’s body size and build. The average man may be bigger than the average woman, but there are plenty of small men – and big women – in the world. Also, there are some people who don’t fit into standard gendered categories, and they, too, come in a variety of body types. As writers, if we make assumptions about fighting styles based on sex or gender, we’re not going to create scenes that reflect the complexity of real fights.

There is only one situation in which writers should give some consideration to the gender of their fighters, and that’s if they are creating a world in which the culture puts distinct rules on gender behavior. Most current societies give girls and boys very different signals from an early age, with the girls getting the message – incorporating it into their bodies – that they aren’t capable of handling themselves physically in dealing with men, and the boys, regardless of size or skill, learning that they have power over women. In a world in which calling men and boys “girls” (or much less acceptable words for female) is a major insult, women who fight will have to deal with the cultural dynamics.

So if you’re writing a story that includes women warriors, you must give some consideration to societal rules. Is it a society that generally accepts both men and women as soldiers and fighters or is it one that assigns very different roles to each gender, so that a woman fighter must struggle against society to make her place? Women who grow up being told they aren’t capable of competing against men have to deal with that while they’re learning to fight. Men who grow up being told that women are physically inferior have difficulty accepting that women can be good at the arts of war.

However, if your world assumes a higher level of gender equality, women fighters aren’t going to struggle with that particular demon and men aren’t going to make wrong assumptions. In my novel in progress, the culture recognizes both men and women as soldiers. So for my work, and others like it, gender differences are not relevant to fighting styles. But body type is always relevant.

Here are a few ideas about how different body types affect fighting gleaned from my thirty-eight years in martial arts:

  • Big, strong people can succeed on strength and size, as long as the person they’re fighting isn’t either stronger than they are or more skilled as a fighter. Sheer muscle works for them.
  • Smaller people, who often fight someone larger than themselves, must learn good technique because they can’t rely on strength. You can’t out-muscle someone who is stronger than you are. But a smaller person can throw a larger one because it’s easier for them to get under the big person’s center. Every size has advantages.
  • With weapons such as swords and staffs, it’s important to consider wrist strength as well as overall strength. Many of the more subtle moves with weapons require flexibility in the wrist. It is better for a person with small wrists to use a lighter weapon – something I learned the hard way. If your fighting system is built around big, heavy weapons, give your fighters big wrists along with big shoulders.
  • Flexibility can also be quite important and does not always correlate with body type. I trained in karate years ago with a man built like the proverbial fireplug – short, wide shoulders, big torso, short legs – and he could kick me in the head with no problem. Having good knees and being flexible can give a tall person the option of using size or dropping low, which is another useful way to play against type.
  • The only fighters who are going to stand there and trade punches and blocks are young, strong people or, even more likely, drunks. Anyone with skill, not to mention anyone getting on in years, is going to rely on getting out of the way whenever they can.
  • Joint techniques such as those taught in Aikido or ju-jitsu require almost no strength when done properly and can take even the strongest person down.
  • A weak person who knows how to grab using their center rather than their arm strength can stop the movement of a stronger person. And by the way, a grab is best done using the smaller fingers of the hand to grip, not the thumb and forefinger, which are easier to twist away from.

Now that I’ve given the issue some thought, I’m off to rewrite my fight scenes. I think I’ll make one of my male characters short, but very quick and flexible, and one of my women tall and muscular. It’s always fun to play against type.


Nancy Jane Moore is the author of the science fiction novel The Weave as well as a number of shorter works of fiction. She holds a fourth-degree black belt in Aikido and has also trained in Karate and Tai Chi. For several years she was the chief instructor of the University of Maryland Aikido Club and she also taught regularly at Aikido Shobukan Dojo in Washington, D.C. She now lives in Oakland, California, with her sweetheart and his cats.