The concept of the female warrior has long been fascinating in fiction. Lately, it’s become trendy for authors and directors to make a point of including a Strong Female Character™ in their work sometimes regardless of need. But how realistic are these characters compared to the real thing?
I get asked this question a lot. I’ve spent my entire adult life serving my country in uniform, like my mother did for twenty-four years before me. My military and combat experiences have given me a certain perspective on what it’s like to be a woman in the military, but it’s just that: my perspective. I was talking to a friend of mine and another truly badass military chick, and she said that she gets asked a lot of the same questions, which got me thinking that it might be fun to put together a bit of an FAQ regarding Strong Female Characters™ in the military.
First, let me introduce you to Lieutenant Colonel Jennifer Whetstone. Lieutenant Colonel Whetstone is a USAF pilot and Regional Affairs Strategist for Latin America. Like me, she flies the mighty UH-1N Twin Huey in the Washington DC area. She earned her wings in 2003 and has over 1800 hours in the UH-1N and C-12 aircraft.
So, without further ado, I give you a few of the most Frequently Asked Questions of Military Servicewomen as Relates to Science Fiction and Fantasy (FAQOMSARTSFF, because you know we military chicks like to abbreviate stuff).
How did you become interested in a career as a military officer and aviator?
KE: When I was seven, I read Dragondrums, and fell in love with Anne McCaffrey’s dragons. I wanted more than anything to be a dragonrider when I grew up. However, as dragons are in relatively short supply on Earth, at nine years old I decided that being a pilot was close enough. Both my parents were career Air Force officers, and so when I told my dad about this, he recommended that I go to the Air Force Academy. So that’s what I did.
JW: I can’t point to a specific moment when I decided that this was the career for me. My father and grandfather are both military helicopter pilots, so I’d been exposed to aviation my entire life. I do remember at a very early age not thinking of the military and aviation as actual work. My mom tells me of a time at about six years old when I asked my dad when he was going to get a “real” job, like working in a grocery store!
In any case, I’m so grateful for my grandfather’s and father’s career choice as it exposed me to the wonders of flight throughout my childhood. I have fond memories of visiting the cavernous hangars where my dad worked, climbing all over aircraft as if they were playground equipment, watching Santa fly in on a helicopter every Christmas season, and spending hours under the hot sun at airshows every summer. This cumulative exposure influenced me to the point where I just couldn’t imagine doing something else for a living.
If I were to point to a single, defining moment that swayed me towards this career, it’d have to be when my grandfather, who worked for Bell Helicopter at the time, strapped the entire family into a Huey and took us for a flight through the Palo Duro Canyons. With my feet dangling out the open doors, wind in my face, a feeling of pure and intense delight settled over my ten-year-old self.
Yes, six-year-old me was right. This hasn’t been a real job—it’s been a passion that has opened the door to myriad opportunities to grow as an officer and a leader.
Who are some of your favorite fictional female officers/warriors and why?
KE: So, it’s impossible not to love Honor Harrington, even though she is annoyingly expert at everything she tries. Honor really embodies what I consider to be a first principle of success in any career field, but especially the military, which is this: First, Be Competent. No one will respect you or even like you if you can’t do your job and do it well. This is especially critical in career fields where one’s job performance directly affects whether your comrades live or die.
Also, I was always a huge fan of Princess Leia, in part because she was both badass and unapologetically female. Michael Z. Williamson’s Kendra Pacelli and Angie Kaneshiro are the same way. And, of course, there was Lessa, who I loved because she wasn’t perfect. She was prickly and not very nice to people sometimes, but she held the strength of her convictions and was absolutely dedicated to her cause. That really appealed to me as a slightly socially awkward little girl.
JW: My family had a tradition of settling in on Friday nights with a pizza, a bag of Doritos, and a two-liter soda to watch the new episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. From the pilot episode, I was taken with Lieutenant Tasha Yar. Not only was she a Starfleet officer, but she was the Chief of Security! As a female! I was intrigued by her strength and competence amongst her male peers. At the same time, I admired that she didn’t lose her femininity despite holding a traditionally masculine leadership role. Needless to say, I was devastated when her character was killed off in the predictable Star Trek manner of doing away with Security Officers.
Another character that I admire is Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley of the “Alien” films. Specifically in the first film of the series, Ripley’s place as a capable member of the crew is seen from the start, with no regard for her gender. At the time of the film’s production, her role as a strong, female protagonist was likely viewed a radical one! Nonetheless, Sigourney Weaver’s powerful portrayal of an officer resolutely determined to save humanity from a dire threat demonstrated to me that women need not degrade themselves (with skimpy clothing, saccharine personality, etc) to satisfy the stereotypical expectations of a heroine’s behavior.
Are there any character traits common to female warriors in fiction that you find
particularly realistic? Unrealistic? Why?
KE: I have to be honest. I get really annoyed when female warrior characters are portrayed as “just one of the boys.” Because in truth, we’re never “just one of the boys.” It doesn’t work like that, and trying to hard to be “one of the boys” is a surefire recipe for ostracization and erosion of morale and unit cohesion. It’s just too weird for everyone to wrap their head around. Plus, it’s unnecessary, in today’s U.S. miltary at least.
The men who serve our country are by and large well equipped to treat women as complete equals, as long as everyone adheres to the first principle of being competent at the job. For a woman to try to be something she’s not just leads to awkwardness and a lack of communication and connection. And in the military, sometimes those connecting bonds are what keep us safe.
When talking to young women coming into the military, I encourage them to strive for a dynamic of being “a sister among brothers,” rather than trying to be “one of the boys.” It’s a far more natural dynamic that allows everyone to be more relaxed with one another. Again, Angie Kaneshiro’s interactions with her crew in Angeleyes is a great example, although not all of her crew were male.
But above all else, she must be competent. And in large part, I think that fiction gets this principle right. John Ringo’s Faith and Sophia in the Black Tide Rising series are great examples here. While it’s easy to raise eyebrows at the idea of a teenaged lieutenant of Marines, one can’t deny that John took great care to represent Faith’s essential competence. The way he wrote of her Marines responding to that competence they witnessed is entirely realistic, in my opinion.
JW: I find it unrealistic when a female warrior does not demonstrate vulnerability. By vulnerability, I don’t mean weakness. But, when there is a strong character who seems to have divorced herself from all of those things that make her a woman, I have difficulty identifying with her character. I want to know about her struggles. I want to see that, despite whatever difficulties she faces, she can use her training and her problem-solving skills to come to a solution. I don’t want to see a character making the perfect decision in every situation, never facing any conflict. Characters develop and grow amidst conflict and imperfection. I tend to identify with imperfect characters who have the integrity to make the tough decisions in order to accomplish the mission, despite the personal cost.
What problems or dilemmas for female warrior characters are under-addressed in
KE: So, like it or not, women are still the only humans who can carry and birth children. And once the child is born, someone must raise it. This is a huge area of discussion among my real-life peers, because the question must naturally arise: “How far can we go to accommodate pregnancy/childrearing and still accomplish the mission?” And the truth is that there’s no easy answer (except maybe the Honor Harrington method of growing a fetus in an artificial womb tank). I don’t see authors addressing this facet of female military service very much. One exception is Tom Kratman’s The Amazon Legion, which I found to be a really interesting and innovative solution to the problem of “who cares for baby when mommy’s out kicking ass?”
On the other hand, while I know that sexual harassment and assault still exist and are absolutely crimes that have no place in military service (or anywhere, really!), I’m super tired of every female warrior being portrayed as the victim of a sexual assault, just as I’m tired of every male warrior being portrayed as a predator who wants nothing more than to exploit his female comrades. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of my brothers-in-arms are stand-up, good men who would cheerfully geld someone who threatened their sisters. We are taught to look out for and protect one another, and that’s what most warriors do. The exceptions are there, but to be honest, they mostly don’t last long in the military. Not that I’ve seen.
JW: One thing I’d love to see addressed more frequently is family life! Just because a woman is in a powerful position of leadership doesn’t mean that it’s an all or nothing proposition. There are fictional female warriors who have had children, but their role as mother is oftentimes either glossed over (Leia Organa) or becomes a singular motivation, to the detriment of the character’s career (Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity.) To realistically present a female warrior as a mother requires a delicate balance. You want to avoid the maternal aspect of the character overshadowing her ability to stand alone as an interesting and valuable character. At the same time, it is useful to discuss the challenges a female leader faces in trying to balance career aspirations and family life. Fiction often informs real life and provides young and old alike with allegorical lessons from which they can learn and apply to their own circumstances. As such, balancing work and family obligations is a very real issue facing young women today. Seeing these issues addressed by powerful women in fiction provides hope and inspiration for the next generation of warrior mothers!
How does being female affect your command style?
KE: It would be super easy for me to be flippant and say that I don’t know, because I’ve never not been female. But the truth is that coming up female in a male-dominated career field has shaped the way I look at things and interact with people, and that’s naturally going to affect my command style.
A lot of us are socialized as little girls to take great care of people’s feelings, and not to say anything hurtful if we can help it. While being cognizant of people’s emotions is useful and necessary for a commander, I have learned that I must communicate clearly, even bluntly, regardless of how people’s feelings might be hurt. That being said, I do take care to deliver information, orders, feedback, in a manner appropriate to the situation, and I don’t know that I would have the awareness to do that without that early training in reading and responding to people’s emotions when I was young.
JW: Being female has absolutely affected my command style throughout my military career, but in different ways as I’ve grown and matured. When I first commissioned into the Air Force in 2001, I felt that the only way to be a strong leader was to be more assertive/confident/dominant than my male peers. I don’t think I was unique in that regard; many females I’ve spoken with also felt pressured to overcompensate with certain personality traits historically associated with the traditional (male) leadership ideal. I, like several of my female counterparts, had abandoned my femininity.
Thankfully, I realized fairly quickly that I wasn’t becoming a better leader by conforming to those previously established norms. As I developed my leadership style over the years, I found that it has been much more beneficial and effective to embrace those qualities inherent in me. Empathy, compassion, and sheer grit are all qualities intrinsically associated with women and employing those qualities in my career has taken me farther than I would have imagined.
What do you want to see in your “ideal” female warrior character?
KE: I can’t say it enough: First, Be Competent. Unless her lack of competence is part of the story, a female warrior who isn’t good at her job is a) no warrior and b) so unrealistic as to throw me out of the story. People who can’t do the job don’t last long in the military, and oftentimes, women who can’t do the job are the first to go. This isn’t sexism, it’s just my observation.
Secondly, the character should be herself (again, unless it’s a plot point that she isn’t). If she’s a girlie-girl, she should be able to own the fact that she’s a girlie-girl when socializing with her comrades, otherwise, it’s not reflective of the level of comfort that military members really need to have with one another in order to do the job and keep each other safe.
Thirdly, she shouldn’t be omnipotent (Sorry, Honor!). No woman is a master of everything she tries. And unless you’re talking biotech enhancements, no woman is going to physically overpower a man of equal training and greater strength and build. It just doesn’t work that way.
Fourthly, she really does need to have a sense of humor and a relatively thick skin. But I think that’s true of all military/warrior characters. The nature of our job demands it, and there’s a reason why we all indulge in dark humor as a coping mechanism. When dealing with life and death matters, sometimes the choice is to laugh so that you don’t start to cry. Whether you’re male or female.
JW: The ideal female warrior character demonstrates balance in her life. She is competent, cool under pressure, fierce when necessary, but never loses her humanity. Women bring a lot to the table already and there is no reason for a female leader to sacrifice her innate abilities and characteristics that make her uniquely female. A beautiful woman and a combat boot-wearing badass can exist in the same space—for me, that’s the epitome of a female warrior.
Now, like I said above, these are just our perspectives. And if you’re in love with a completely over-the-top, kickass, one-of-the-boys, does everything right heroine, we’re not trying to tell you that you’re wrong. But it might increase your enjoyment to compare and contrast her outlook and demeanor with the perspectives of a couple of women who’ve served. We’re not necessarily representative of all of our sisters-in-arms. Like any group of individuals, we’re going to have diverse perspectives and ideas. However, I think you’ll find that if you talk to us, you’ll see that like many Strong Female Characters™, we take pride in being ourselves, and being good at our jobs.
Which is really just good advice in general.
Copyright © 2018 Kacey Ezell and Jennifer Whetstone
Captain Kacey Ezell is an active duty USAF instructor pilot with 2000+ hours in the UH-1N Huey and Mi-171 helicopters. When not teaching young pilots to beat the air into submission, she writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror fiction. She’s contributed to multiple Baen anthologies, including the story “Family Over Blood” which was featured in the Freehold universe anthology Forged in Blood and selected for inclusion in the Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction Volume 4. In addition to writing for Baen, she has published several novels and short stories with independent publisher Chris Kennedy Publishing. She is married with two daughters.
Lieutenant Colonel Jen Whetstone is a United States Air Force pilot presently stationed at Joint Base Andrews, MD. She has accumulated more than 1800 hours in both rotary and fixed wing aircraft. In addition to her aviation background, she has extensive international experience and has served abroad as a military attaché. Jen and her husband, Zane, enjoy a blissful life with their two sons Aidan and Dalton and their kooky Weimaraner, Shadow.