Red Sonja and the Allure of Female Badassery

Casing the Castle Phallus and in desperate need of hot oil treatment

Any feminist can tell you who set off the flash point on the fuse of their worldview.  Some women will point to Gloria Steinem as their matriarch, or point to a quote from Bella Abzug, or a passage from Gertrude Stein or she might even reference some crack (word choice: deliberate) made by Madonna at some point, fer chrissake.  Me, I bow to the mighty, mighty Red Sonja. Red Sonja: “She-Devil With A Sword.”  Red Sonja: “The Warrior Woman of Hyrkania.”  Red Sonja: the Ultimate Badass.  Red Sonja came to me, folded delicately within the staple-bound pulpy leaves of “Savage Sword of Conan” #78.  Her story was one of brutality and transcendence.  As I am primarily a humorist (and therefore a secretly sensitive pillow-biter of a pussocrat), I don’t have the intestinal fortitude to discuss how she was horrendously robbed of both her family and her innocence by a gang of mercenaries.  But as the horror that was inflicted upon Sonja is pivotal to Red Sonja’s story, and bearing in mind there’s no laughing in feminism–clunk, there it is.  Sonja’s prayer for vengeance is answered by an androgynous representative from the League of Made-Up Sword And Sorcery Gods who offers Sonja invincibility in exchange for her chastity.  The only man who can have her is the one who bests her in swordplay. I was 14 years old when I discovered Red Sonja.  I’d grown up in a cultural climate in which women with aviator glasses and long straight hair burned bras on the news, so aside from a vague inkling that I’d been born into the losing team, (and the fact I hadn’t even developed a reason to own a bra, let alone burn one) I wasn’t much of a feminist at the time.  There was something about Sonja, though, encrypted within the contradicting combination of her voluptuous curves and deadly sword, trembled the sort of seismic shock to the consciousness that precipitates a quaking awakening.  

Okay, maybe that quaking awakening was hormonal at first.  Sonja was, as drawn by Dick “Wonder Woman” Giordano/Terry “X-Men”Austin and later in SS #83 the trio of Esteban Maroto/Neal “Deadman” Adams/Ernie Chua, was undeniably hot.   Sinewy upper body, one of those unclean washboard stomachs, but no skimping on the boobs or butt, Sonja’s artistic crew then managed to up the masturbatory ante by dressing her in a barely-there bikini of what could almost pass for a loose association of silver dollars.  And that hair…that wild cascade of flame.  “Savage Sword” was a black and white comic, but Sonja’s sizzling temperament was the only colorist necessary for the job.   She frankly came across as one hot piece of ass except that she was only out to kick yours, be you the bad guy or the bad girl who really shouldn’t be standing right there in the middle of the newsstand, drooling over a damn comic book.  So, okay, all right already, dammit– that quaking awakening was most certainly hormonal at first.

Separated at birth?

Separated at Birth?

Once the, um, quaking subsided, I grew to view Red Sonja as a survivor of male brutality magically set free by The Goddess to fight the further evils of men like only a beautiful bad ass can.   On  the surface, Red Sonja would appear to be the sort of action-figure-friendly feminist icon that our sagging, flagging ideology could use right about now.  But she isn’t anything of the kind, which used to puzzle me until I realized that she already has several strikes against her.  (At this point, I’d like to introduce you to our special guest star my pal Abba Kafka, who takes on the helm of Feminist Umpire, charged with the duty of calling those strikes.  Abba is a Gulf War vet and roving photographer, who, in a way that transcends mere comic book legend, embodies the Bad Ass ethos.  This description will no doubt mortify her to tears but will hopefully teach her a valuable lesson about impressing dweebs like me.)  The following is an excerpt of a conversation about Red Sonja we’d had two weeks ago.  It’s important to note that it actually took me two weeks to generate a worthy comeback to her deconstructive brilliance.  If I ever went geek-toe-to-geek-toe with Abba Kafka, I’d most assuredly be toast.

  • Abba’s Strike 1: Sonja is the product of a male imagination and as such, “relies on a male perspective to define self.  That is, it seems Red Sonja needs a man in order to define her character. She is strong because no man can conquer her. She is not strong unto herself. Her reasons for strength stem from an act of violence done to her by men.”
  • Abba’s Strike 2: “Her skill with a sword and such comes from divine intervention instead of her own natural born talent and she won’t be with a man unless he defeats her in battle.”
  • Abba’s Strike 3: (At this point I suspect Abba is dumbing it down for me.) “I just think that Red Sonja is certainly more of a man’s idea of what a strong woman is: Strong enough until she meets the right guy.”

Red Sonja, from a strictly classical feminist perspective, is therefore rightly called out of the game without even making it to first base because she exists within a male power paradigm.  I would like to argue with my Ump and all the Beautiful Badasses who proudly call themselves feminists, that a change of perspective may be in order in the way feminism is applied in the way we look at the arts and human congress in general.  But since this is a blog and not a book, I’ll confine my case to scantily-clad comic book heroines, thank you very much.  What I’m proposing is a widening of the discourse horizon in light of a certain inalienable truth that 100-odd years of feminism have yet to change: the patriarchy ain’t going nowhere.  Dismissing Sonja as product of the patriarchy would pretty much mean every one of us would have to sit out the game, too. Defining self in relation to the patriarchy is unavoidable in both fiction and reality. Let’s face it: it’s a man’s man’s man’s man’s world.  Even though neither Abba nor I have to deal with men on an (ew!) intimate basis, we’ve been employed by their businesses and fought in their wars.  The patriarchy isn’t the pollutant in the proverbial aquarium, it is the aquarium.  A brutal, war-torn, greedy, underhanded, materialistic aquarium, yes, but let’s recognize that it also made us what we are*, just like (aha!) Red Sonja.  And though Abba is right  that Sonja’s reasons for strength stem from an act of violence done to her by men, I say bully for Sonja, and any woman who refuses to be a victim.  It’s true that we women don’t own the game board, nor do we write the rules, it’s only in the defeatist self-definition that we are ever truly defeated.

Abba called foul on Sonja’s magically-actualized swordsmanship, and again, I must quibble.  This is the realm of fantasy we are talking about, after all (although it might not always seem like it at this point).  In fantasy, almost anyone can be a hero.  Obviously, for this kind of equal opportunity ass-kickery to take place, the playing field has to be levelled in some way.  Check out Elric of Melnibone (another one of my favorites):  a sickly will-o-the-wisp whose dependence on life-sustaining drugs is broken only by his acquisition of Stormbringer, a sword that magically lends him strength.  If Sonja’s divinely-bestowed prowess-sustained-by-abstinence  makes her a half-clad nun who brandishes a sword instead of a ruler, then Elric owns the most kickass crutch in the convalescent home.  Or something.  Broadening the context further: Superman owes his powers to our yellow sun, Batman to his gadgets, and so on.  It just sucks for Sonja that she’s not allowed to get laid, to boot.

Speaking of which, it’s in this invincibility via virginity crux that I find Sonja’s true feminist resonance.   While Sonja as a general rule is not the biggest man fan, she does occasionally stumble upon a cute one who instigates a stirring inner conflict of the cloud-thought-balloon kind by day/swirly-sexy-dream-sequence kind by night.  But to survive as a warrior, Sonja must not succumb as a lover.  In this, Red Sonja faces the fact that sex is compromise of power.  Sonja fights the bad guys and her hormones and(!) she must win every time or she loses utterly.  This “win or die” credo can be seen in real-life gender politics, albeit in a less thought-balloony/sexy-dream-sequencey kind of way.  Any woman who succeeds in a male-dominated field does so not just because she succeeds, it’s because she never fails.  She’s not just good; she’s exceptional.  She might even sacrifice elements of her sexuality and identity as a woman to succeed.  And like Sonja, she must win every fight.  How else can Condoleeza Rice or Janet Reno be explained?

Female badassery is hot as eternal damnation and all the sins that earned the burn.  That a woman can stand, clear-eyed, and strong in the face of oppression, free of the guiles of weakness, is profoundly please-go-to-the-prom-with-me impressive.  Red Sonja is an icon who entwines the dual compulsions of human congress: fight and fuck and in that entanglement, incarnates the struggle of what it is to be a woman in a man’s world. *To be fair to my Ump, I must disclose that this is a point I more or less stole from her.

The men don't know, but the ComicCon girls understand.

The men don’t know, but the ComicCon girls understand.

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9 Responses to “Red Sonja and the Allure of Female Badassery”

  1. Laura Says:

    Gawd I lurve you.

    This sentence: “…neither Abba nor I have to deal with men on an (ew!) intimate basis…” made me think of this:

    “Flea has a post up containing second-party information on how to perform a blow job without gagging.

    Flame me if you will, but I posit nevertheless that no woman, since the dawn of the patriarchal co-option of human sexuality, has ever actually enjoyed this submissive sexbot drudgery. There’s a reason that deep-throating a funk-filled bratwurst makes a person retch.*

    How dare I presume to impugn the sanctity of a woman’s right to the blow job? I do so mostly on accounta I will get a big bang out of the impassioned arguments defending it.


    *Reason: It’s fucking gross.”


  2. Riff Says:

    I’ll take your Red Sonja and raise you a Xena.

  3. Caroline Says:

    “There’s no laughing in feminism” made me laugh, it made me laugh a lot.

    I also appreciate your umpire of feminism. Is he really a valid umpire, as a man addressing a woman’s female hero? Being a woman’s image of an umpire of feminism as an objective observer deciding whether the man’s image of a woman’s . . . woman is a . . . Yikes.

  4. hellraisin Says:

    Umpire Abba Kafka is all woman and is indeed in a league of her own. In fact, I dare say she’s a cute, spunky Lori Petty to my churlish Rosie O’Donnell. Abba will be doing auditions for the Madonna part just as soon as she can get her casting couch out of hock.

  5. andre Says:

    I love the line about Any woman who succeeds in a male-dominated field does so not just because she succeeds, it’s because she never fails. I was a diesle tech for years and your satement is sadly ture. It never mattered how well I did my job, if I showed up, how many certifications I had none of that. Just the fact I didn’t have a winky. So I got a tiny little plastic one a glued it to my tool box right on top for all to see. hahaha

  6. Nobody’s Perfect, Superman « The Gaytheist Gospel Hour Says:

    […] I possibly resist an opportunity to experience Wonder Woman as a studly dude or Superman as a delicious female badass?  In the end, I have to say I’m glad I missed it the first time around.  Let’s break […]

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