Warrior women, such as Wonder Woman’s Amazons of Themyscira, are called upon to empower generations of Western women to wield a weapon—both literally and figuratively. This trope that we might call “Girls With Swords” (GWS) has become evergreen. For years, I greatly disliked it because of its ties to feminism. Now, I still see the trope often abused, but it holds some promise when we see the idea in line with biblical principles.
Because many people associate GWS with feminism, let’s look at three prominent views on feminism among Christians: (1) All feminism is bad because it will lead to abortion and a rejection of biblical gender roles, (2) All feminism is good because God made women to be strong, and we must reject archaic fundamentalist views of women, (3) Some feminism is good, and we can agree to those aspects which uphold both biblical gender roles and true gender equality.
I used to hold to the first view, and I now hold the third. Why? Because it’s human nature to overcorrect mistakes. We should fight for balance and more critical thinking on such delicate and nuanced topics.
The GWS trope is similarly nuanced. After all, as Charles Spurgeon said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong; it is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” When we practice discernment, we can better detect where others have veered off the road of truth either “to the right or the left” (Proverbs 4:27).
Let’s first identify how the “strong female character” is abused in film and literature.
First of all, sword– or gun-toting heroes were historically men, so modern women with weapons are often perfect replicas of men, only with long hair and narrow waists. This gender-swap lacks originality and an understanding of humanity. It also fails to preserve any semblance of biblical gender roles. But one of the biggest problems for our culture is the message GWS sends to women: to be strong, they must act like a man. And the message to men: these women are just sexy, sword-swinging objects.
Is there no such thing as feminine strength apart from masculinity? Not according to Scripture. In fact, most women who read Proverbs 31 walk away feeling they might never live up to the standard set by that ancient and strong feminine character with her intelligence, skill, tenacity, and tireless service.
The trope also poses a second danger: the complete rejection of men as protectors. This is tricky for a story whose heroine must have agency and move the plot forward. Not many people will enjoy a book about a distressed damsel always waiting for men to fix all her problems. Still, biblical heroines like Ruth and Esther had incredible agency to accomplish God’s will without carrying weapons or rejecting men’s protection over them.
Can we find balance between extremes? Every story has particular needs that affect our answer. Still, I can see a guiding principle in the Garden of Eden. When Eve was tempted to eat the fruit, Adam stood by while Eve took control of the situation without consulting him. It wasn’t Eve’s agency that was sinful, but her usurpation of authority. Similarly, in other stories, a woman can defend herself, but would err by ignoring or rejecting the protection of her husband or father.
Because of this concept of rejecting male protection, stories often show women on the front lines of war. That’s something I would argue the Bible rejects. (And no, the book of Judges doesn’t state or imply Deborah actually fought in a battle. I would guess that she was at a nearby camp.) Many Christians accept such fiction about female warriors, but might ironically be offended if the U. S. government instituted a military draft of women into combat units.
That said, I’ve come to believe there’s still room for this trope to function within biblical principles. Of course, a sword can also act as a metaphor for non-physical battles. For literal battles, too, a warrior-heroine can also use her weapons and training in self-defense. Yes, men should serve as protectors, but they are not bodyguards. They can’t and shouldn’t follow their wives and daughters around wherever they go to ensure constant safety. Nor can every man protect a woman in every situation. From early childhood, I was taught women’s self-defense was wise, and necessary. Plus it’s a great way for a GWS to show off her knife skills!
Good stories can also adapt this trope for life-or-death scenarios. Although I don’t think biblical principles allow women to fight on front lines, it does allow for exceptions in dire circumstances, such as to save someone’s life. If the heroine is forced into battle in a rare moment in order to save lives, she’s acting rightly.
GWS can also appear at the beginning of a positive change character arc. I really enjoyed how Morgan L. Busse did this in her young-adult fantasy novel Mark of the Raven. The heroine, Selene Blackburn, is trained to be a cold-blooded assassin. Selene begins to change, and learns that her true strength lies elsewhere. Instead of putting away her swords, she occasionally uses them in self-defense.
As with much in life, we need not throw babies out with dirty bathwater. But let’s not also value the filthy water for the sake of treasures within. I pray that as you read about strong female characters, the Holy Spirit will guide your thoughts and conscience to see what is and what is not a reflection of his truth.