Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons and Queen of Armies, destroyed entire kingdoms in Game of Thrones. It’s easy to see why this runaway HBO TV hit has captivated audiences. The unexpected plot twists and revolving-door deaths of major characters is riveting, but there are greater reasons to tune in: the show underscores the real-life cast of characters in our American Presidential run (from Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and those left in the dust), and the latest season is dominated by women warriors.
Almost a decade ago, I heard the term “women warriors” while riding the chunnel from England to Paris. I was feasting on a meal fit for Marie Antoinette. I can still taste the fresh slices of a French baguette (the kind with the crispy hard crust and soft, cloud-like interior), creamy camembert cheese wedges and the mini bottles of chilled Chablis. Next to my seat, someone had left a ragged newspaper that I nearly discarded except for the tiny article at the top of the page that caught my eye. It described the anniversary of Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain’s fictional story, “Sultana’s Dream.”
The paper celebrated the anniversary of Hossain’s story from 1905; it was written by a young feminist social worker from Bengal, India whose heroes were penned before George Martin’s Game of Thrones. The feminist utopia created by Hossain centered on an unlikely band of women defeating an invading army of men using nothing but mirrors and sunbeams. The story received little acclaim for many decades, probably because the “sultan” (meaning female ruler) challenged India’s traditional notion of male strength by having the women ingeniously defeat the men. But Hossain’s use of “women warriors” caused me to wonder whether or not her image of women as warriors was groundbreaking.
Historically, female warriors have not been widely celebrated and, in some cases, women were portrayed as evil warriors like the Warrior Woman character in Julia Koenig’s 1977 marvel comic book. The cover shot depicts Warrior Woman’s epic battle with Captain America as she uses her Nazi spy background and extraordinary powers.
After further digging, I discovered a storied history of real warrior women like Hossain’s whose feats truly have gone largely unnoticed in popular culture. Sure, you’ve heard of a few exceptions like Joan of Arc and Harriet Tubman; mind you both women were often dogged by reports of strange visions and craziness. Likewise, how many times did you study historical women only in the context of how they positively impacted male leaders; whether it was their husbands, brothers, or fathers?
Growing up, I remember emulating two fictional characters whose intellectual strengths solved crimes. They were warriors and I wanted to be just like Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie. Their role modeling effect was so great that I honed my deductive skills while reading Sherlock Holmes several times over, before seriously considering a career in law enforcement.
In lieu of my binge-watching discovery of Game of Thrones, I realized it was important for more women and girls to meet a few of the hundreds of warrior women in history. They have challenged the limits and powers of women way beyond literature and pop culture. For instance:
- Algeria’s Dihya–Berber Queen and military leader from 680’s who led the resistance against Arab expansion into Africa;
- Japan’s Lady Hangatu–samurai warrior who helped raised an army in 1201 to prevent the overthrow of the Emperor; and,
- Vietnam’s Trung sisters–military leaders from the first century who trained an army of women (including their mother) to become generals, and who then thwarted the Chinese invasion of Vietnam ((Trung Trac later became the first “She-king”).
Girls exposed to strong female archetypes learn they are powerful in their own right. As a mother, I was embraced stronger female Disney characters and their effect on my three daughters. Mulan and Ariel conveyed the importance of strength and independence; with Mulan battling as a samurai warrior in a man’s world men, and Ariel bucking tradition amongst a sea of maidens waiting to be rescued.
My middle daughter, Lauren, can still attest to the Mulan-effect in her life. Mulan taught Lauren to battle, as she demanded karate lessons to thwart schoolyard bullies interfering with her recess games. Likewise, the rebellious streak in Ariel influenced my youngest daughter, Kelley, who took Ariel’s role modeling of freedom from convention and social expectations to heart. The only downside Kelley was her brief encounter with Ursula at Disneyland. Ursula was the evil sea queen who terrified Ariel and also gave my daughter nightmares.
We’ve made progress as television networks and Hollywood moguls have capitalized on stories about strong women. Suddenly these stories are everywhere, as executives compete for award winning programs and top-ratings in daytime talk shows. Celebs like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres fought their way onto the stage after giants like Lucy Ball and Carol Burnett, changing the conversation about race and sexual orientation along the way.
Entertainers like Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer continue to push the conversation further. Schumer’s comedic material is unapologetic with no subject off limits. Her recent writing and acting debut in the movie “Trainwreck” challenges dating stereotypes of women as sexual victims. I’ve noticed Lawrence seems to go out of her way to choose roles in movies like “Joy” and “The Hunger Games”, both dismissing women as passive participants in life. The ingenuity of her Hunger Games’ character, Katniss, role models the virtues of intelligence over might, especially when Kat defeats the Capital government by pretending to commit a double suicide with Peeta. In many ways, her victory mirrors Hossain’s clever women outsmarting the men.1
Lawrence has even taken her role public, shooting a proverbial arrow through the heart of producers when asked her to lose weight for the Katniss role. Standing her ground, Lawrence refused to promote unreal expectations for young girls, saying they needed to be proud, independent and strong.
Promoting stories about women warriors from past and present is critical if we want the fate of the world to rest on equal shoulders. Doing so helps not only to challenge strongholds on gender issues and a woman’s place to rule, it forges a path for new generations to realize anything in life is possible. In season 5 of “Game of Thrones”, Daenerys outwits her captor when she angrily responds to a threat by him: “Woman! Is that meant to insult me? I would return the slap if I took you for a man.”2