Men and women fighting in fiction (especially visual): drawing the line?

Let me say straight out to start that I’m really really hoping that I’m addressing this issue in a respectful way, and that I have nothing but contempt for domestic abusers of all stripes, and that victims deserve support and respect.


This was inspired by an entry on TV Tropes about the card game Magic: the Gathering:

To make something clear, both Garruk and Liliana are planeswalkers, masters of magic so powerful that they’re about as close as you can get to gods while still being mortal. Also, if you couldn’t tell from the art, Liliana is also pretty evil. Finally, the TV Tropes entry is under the category of “YMMV,” meaning that one person’s reaction is not necessarily another’s. I proceed on the assumption that there were sufficient people who thought the way the entry describes to elicit some kind of reaction from Wizards (of the Coast), the publishers of the game.

The train of thought this brought to mind: is there a way to depict men and women in physical combat in a way that does not “[resemble]… domestic violence”? There is a major stereotype in our society that men are always, always stronger than women, and it’s caused a lot of real life problems, but I’m talking about the applications to fiction here. There are a lot of factors and complications to this, but I think (hope) y’all are well read enough to know what I’m getting at here.

Thoughts, either on this particular situation or in general?

I think it works if you avoid brutal “street combat” type scenarios. While I don’t see it on that card, I can see how the “pinned down” art can make it look a bit brutal.

Generally people don’t have much of an issue when it’s swordfighting or martial arts. There have been plenty of martial arts movies with man vs woman combat (usually with the trope that women have speed and finesse while men have strength).

However, even that may not be right. Buffy wasn’t exactly the most polished fighter and she regularly fought men, even losing several times so it’s not like it only works if women are the victor. Granted, Whedon clearly knows what he’s doing. In Angel Season 1 there was a scene where Buffy hit Angel and he hit back and Buffy looked at him like he was an evil domestic abuse monster; to which the response was along the lines of “Don’t give me that shit; 1. you started it. 2. you’re way stronger than me.” The general tenor of the episode had Buffy as antagonist, so we seemed to be meant to side with Angel. (Of course, the need for the characters to explicitly acknowledge it is in itself an illustration of this).

In the case of the card, it could potentially be a limitation of the standalone nature of CCG art. It may very well be tame if you know the lore, or if it were in the context of a comic that showed the battle, but in isolation to someone who’s not entrenched in the lore I think it looks a lot more damning. You just see a man about to beat a woman to a pulp, not an epic battle that culminates without one uber-powerful god about to defeat another. Sure, a reasonable person may be able to infer that’s what happening with just the knowledge that it’s a game about wizards and magic and gods, but emotions don’t always follow that level of rationality.

Personally I think that specific card is fine, but I think there’s definitely a touchy issue here. On one hand, the “a man should never hit a woman” chivalry thing is considered harmful, on the other hand, domestic abuse is a real problem and we can’t glorify violence against women. And of course there’s the always touchy issue about PTSD triggers. I don’t think you can create any hard and fast rules about which side of the line any given example is on, and have to judge on a case by case basis.

Some humor helps. Booster Gold, the time traveler speaks on the issue: "Where I come from equality of the sexes is a given, so we can hit anyone".

This is one case where I think the usually-horrid description “gender-related violence” actually fits better than “domestic”. There isn’t anything in that card which makes me think the two combatants have any “domesticity” going on; any relationship to violence within the family / within romantic relationships was being projected by the viewers.

Upon thinking about it for a bit, it occurs to me that such a question rather implies that the only possible relationship a woman could have with a man is as a wife/girlfriend. It’s rather like asking if you can portray two men fighting without it resembling fratricide.

This mirrors my thinking on the matter. It would seem that people are too quick to frame things based on whatever their sensitivities are.


And as I was big on comics coming up, both genders battled each other all the time. I suppose the key distinction was that most of these characters were pretty much equals and the point of emphasis was good vs evil or these powers vs those powers, unlike many domestic cases where someone is imposing, bullying, dominating, etc. the other, because they can.

Kerfuffles like this make me wonder exactly how out-there the reaction to the Outlander TV series, which will air this summer, will be. There’s a scene in which the hero beats the heroine (his wife, at that point) with his belt, and plenty of book-readers already have a problem with the scene. Ho lordy lordy, there’s gonna be some good internet outrage when that episode airs.

Still in the old days…just from memory…it seems to me whenever any possible good male vs. evil female combat came up, the producers would make sure if a good female were available to use her. And if it were Evil male vs good female, the evil male is dismissive in the fight.

Example, Star Trek. It’s Uhura who disarms Marlena in “Mirror Mirror”. In the same episode with Everyone vs. Evil Spock, ES would just shove Uhura away while taking piledriver swings at Kirk.

and often in Marvel comics, Wasp and Invisible Girl would be dispatched with the back of a hand.

I think it depends on the circumstances. For example, I play a pen-and-paper RPG where it’s entirely possible for a given woman to be stronger/tougher than a given man (either because she’s a stronger race or because she’s cybered/magicked up to give her extra oomph). There are plenty of illustrations in the books where a man and a woman are beating the crap out of each other. I think the only area where it would be touchy is if the man is obviously getting the upper hand and overpowering the woman physically, and the woman looks frightened (as opposed to pissed that she’s losing the fight).

Even then I wouldn’t necessarily think “domestic violence” as a first thought.

The card in question, though, I can see why people might have thought that. The woman is smaller, obviously overpowered, and the guy does look rather like an abuser. If I were the art director, I’d ask for some changes before approving it.

I suppose it depends which characters you’re talking about, given some of the guys were dealt with in much the same way. Wasp and Sue weren’t really characters who could go toe-to-toe from a physical point, so I suppose yeah, they could be taken out pretty easily if it got to that.

But then there are characters like She-hulk, Rogue, and Ms. Marvel. I recall the latter had a pretty huge throw-down with Ultron in this issue of FF. And she won.:smiley:

I do think it’s funny that in so many settings, we have to go through the requisite dance of “I’d never hit a lady, but you’re no lady” before the hero dispatches with the evil woman.

Anyone who thinks that card is related to domestic violence or gender violence didn’t read the caption. The man is saying “Rid me of this curse, witch, or die with me.” —Garruk Wildspeaker and that’s printed right on the card.

So it’s obvious that she holds some significant power over him. It’s obvious why he’s threatening her. From the quote alone, I would infer that he’s actually the wronged party here.

Here’s what’s really telling to me about how pathetic our impressions of these things are: It’s only because she’s pretty and thin that we assume she’s innocent. Because we all know that people with heavy brows are evil, but pretty women can’t possibly do wrong.

If the artist had contorted her face, like giving her Buffy-style vampire brows, then we’d know she’s evil and there’d be less outcry. Pretty = good and ugly = evil. We all know that. :smack:

I think depicting the woman as frail, pretty, flinching, being pinned by one hand while the other is raised to strike, etc. is always going to look like victimization. I was half expecting it to show him getting ready to backhand her, which would make it even more explicit. I know the OP said that she is really powerful, but I don’t see “power” in that figure on the card. She looks utterly powerless.

Batman and Batgirl beat up a bunch of cute schoolgirls. Who have swords and nunchuks.

Well, that just looks bad because Batman’s face looks ridiculous.

Xena frequently fought men, and was sometimes even defeated by them. The only time I remember Xena fans complaining that the series was depicting domestic violence was an episode where Xena (for reasons too complicated to explain) brutally attacked her sidekick Gabrielle. And the problem there wasn’t that the victim was a woman, Xena fought other women fairly often, but the nature of their relationship. Even if one didn’t 'ship the two, they were still best friends who lived together.

With Xena, Buffy, and other female action heroes then the audience knows they’re supposed to be tough and that they’ll usually win in the end. A man who fights one of them is probably a baddie, but he’s not beating up on someone who’s significantly weaker than he is. I’m not familiar with the Magic characters on that card, but it strikes me that the woman is depicted as being both vulnerable and sexualized. She’s wearing a low-cut gown with the skirt shoved up almost to her waist, and it looks like she’s got on a garter belt underneath. She’s so much smaller than the man that his forearm looks to be bigger than her torso. He has her pinned down with his leg between her thighs. This picture alone, without any other context, doesn’t look like a fight between two equals. I wouldn’t even say it looks like domestic violence. It looks like a man is about to rape a much weaker woman.

I gather that someone who knows who these characters are would understand that this isn’t a depiction of sexual assault and that the woman is much more powerful than she looks, but that isn’t conveyed by the image itself. It might have helped if the two characters had been in a slightly different pose, where the woman was more upright and it didn’t look like the man was shoving her legs apart.

This really long article contains a discussion (starts a few pages down) of the evolution of the domestic violence depicted for comic effect in the comic strip Andy Capp.

It seems to me that the way American TV usually handles it is by pretending that women are the physical equal to men. Especially on cop shows. I try very hard to suspend my disbelief when I watch Castle and see 90lbs Kate swing a big guy’s arm behind him and cuff him in one motion. In reality she would get her ass beat by anyone who wanted to resist. But for the show its easier to pretend she is as tough and physically able as guys twice her size.

The fantasy author Steven Erikson has armies that at times appear to be 50/50 male and female, and he addresses the issue by… never addressing it. It is never commented upon that a particular soldier happens to be a woman, and when it comes to combat he makes no distinction between the effectiveness of male or female soldiers. They are all equally badass.

He does write one scene where a woman gets overpowered and raped, but the implication was not that a woman should not be fighting a man, but that somebody lightly armoured with a rapier should not be trying to tackle a huge guy in heavy armour.