1. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Medieval World Where Women Aren't Allowed to Be Fighters

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by T.Trian, Feb 17, 2016.

    So @KaTrian and I are writing a few different medieval fantasy stories set in the same universe and roughly the same time period. These societies are all somewhat reminiscent of medieval Europe, meaning religion plays an important role in people's lives, and, as it tended to be in medieval Europe, the only way for women to be fighters was crossdressing and pretending to be men.

    All of the above means that most women aren't fighters, and those who are, are rare exceptions. In 3/3 of these stories, we have one crossdressing woman/girl per story, all of them different characters. They are from different countries and different social groups, so beyond the universe, there is no real crossover between the stories save for the few neighboring countries sharing the same patriarchal religion.

    To be fair, these three girls and women are of different ages, sizes, with their own personalities, developmental arcs, pasts, aspirations, stories etc, and even the ways they are "fighters" and crossdressers are different: to one woman it's just about self-defense, no more, no less, she still has long hair and she alternates between presenting as male or female depending on the situation.
    Another woman is a mercenary, i.e. to her, fighting is a livelihood instead of something particularly glorious, and she has to conceal her sex at all times for her safety (if her enemies or even allies found out she was female, she would suffer a slow and painful death).
    The third is a teenage girl with somewhat childish dreams of becoming a swashbuckling adventurer like the heroes of the folk tales she fell in love with as a child, and a part of her story is about the grim reality hitting her in the face once she's exposed to real world violence. In essence she grows from a fledgling newbie into a proper warrior over the course of the story (although she develops otherwise too). Her friends do know she's female, but she maintains her male persona pretty much throughout the story except when she's alone or with just her closest friends.

    We're a little worried that because all three characters (note: they are co-MCs, i.e. there are other MCs in the story as well) are females who crossdress as men and partake in violent altercations as defenders and at times even assailants instead of always being only victims, they could be lumped together by some readers as the same archetype of the fighting female (or "fighting fuck toy" as some call it if the character is physically attractive) in different clothes, especially considering that all three are rare exceptions in their given societies.

    We don't really agree with that view because we firmly believe that females can be capable of violence without sacrificing their individuality just as much as males because there are a ton of male fighters in stories and it's impossible to lump them all together as some archetype of "the fighting man" or some such.
    In essence, we believe that just because female fighters have less representation, they don't all have to fall under the same archetype. We do our best to be conscious of the rarity of the characters in their given societies and have deliberately allowed the characters to develop into wildly different directions to drive even deeper wedges between them (we tried to let ot happen as organically as possible, though).

    What do you think?

    To give the thread a purpose beyond our stories, do you generally write such exceptions to the rule or do you prefer to use more ordinary (I mean characters who are largely average) characters and possibly place them into extraordinary situations?

    Generally we do both because we enjoy writing both exceptional individuals and their exceptional lives as well as "ordinary" people in extraordinary situations where it's interesting to see how they handle such scenarios etc.

    Anyway, ladies, gentlemen, the floor is yours.
     
  2. furzepig
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    furzepig Member

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    I think a solid job of characterization will keep readers from feeling that these characters are all the same sort of thing in different clothes. It might be really interesting to read what would lead three very different people to take similar paths.

    Also, I figured I'd just point out that there were many reasons why a medieval woman might find herself having to fight--defense of the home being the primary one. (And I don't mean with frying pan. Many women throughout history have been taught to use weapons.) It's also not unheard of for a male military leader to die and for his wife to take over in his place. That said, as far as I know, actual cross-dressing and passing for male has always been taboo. Joan of Arc wasn't executed for going into battle alongside men, it was for cross-dressing.

    Assuming that your world is very similar to medieval Europe, would it make sense for any of the female fighting characters to fight as women? That would actually be more in keeping with historical precedent than having them dress as men. If they must cross-dress, what are their varying reasons? I ask because having a woman pretend to be a man was considered against the natural order--it was heresy. It was like having a person from a very strict fundamentalist Christian home convert to radical Islam. You wouldn't expect to see three examples of this sort of thing all at the same time, unless something remarkable was going on. By contrast, having a woman, dressed as a woman, fighting in battle was just unconventional.
     
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  3. Lew
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    Lew Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think you might want to examine the women fighters of the modern-day Yazidi and Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

    I have a woman fighter in my WIP, a female Xiongnu of 100AD who has risen to command an arban squad of ten horsemen at age 22. I think that three things are necessary for a woman to rise in a fighting culture, especially the physical combat of my era and yours, with swords and arrows:
    1. The society must be in great stress. Women are more valuable than men in this era, because women can only procreate serially, while men can propagate in parallel. A small community can lose most of its men and survive, but if it loses most of its women, it had better look for a lot of newcomers coming in. Therefore, men normally fight, women breed. My fictional story takes place after the Chinese actually overcame the Xiongnu north of the Yellow River in 93AD, and killed, captured or drove off 600K. The surviving clans were under great stress, needed fighters for survival, and could not afford to be picky.
    2. The woman herself must have some personal trauma that causes her to seek revenge in this non-traditional role. Hina lost her family and entire encampment to the Han Chinese. The Yazidi and Kurdish women I mentioned above had been gang-raped, pressed into service as sex slaves, or watched their family and friends murdered before their eyes, with no one able to stop ISIS. They never want to be that helpless again.
    3. The fighting woman must be bigger and stronger than the average woman, because that kind of fighting is very physical. And she must be tough enough to prove to her comrades that she is very good at all she does, and is not their fighting fuck toy (which comes up in my story - she put a lot of boys on their asses while she was being trained to be a warrior at age 12)
     
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  4. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    Having three examples certainly would be showing a theme. More so, if they are fairly young then it would seem deliberate. Also a case like Disney's Mulan is nonsensical for many reasons. Crossdressing or not, the moment they are told to strip down would be the instant they are outed. I cannot imagine a military institution that would allow a woman to slip through. Even as a militia this would present lots of issues and it would be a trivial matter to discover.
     
  5. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Is there any way that you could insert a nationality/culture where women are sometimes fighters? Having any precedent in the fictional world would, IMO, make this seem less like a string of unlikely coincidences.

    Similar but not quite the same, making this a tradition for some family, tribe, village, anything would again reduce the coincidence factor. Or making a specific point that all three were inspired by the same story/legend, or...something that short-circuits the reader's discovery, "Hey! These are similar!" through the author instead saying, "Hey. These are similar."

    I'm assuming that your research of our world assures you that women wouldn't use weapons. That's not the definite vibe that I get when I do quick and sloppy research, but it is indeed quick and sloppy research. :) I'm fully prepared to assume that your research is far more complete.
     
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  6. Lewdog
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    Lewdog Come ova here and give me kisses! Supporter Contributor

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    The first thing that came to my mind was Joan of Arc, and how she fought for France but was later burned at the stake for being a woman fighter. In some societies women were accepted to fight while in others it was an offense punishable by death. There is also the Disney story Mulan where a Chinese girl disguises herself to go to war against the Hans. I've never seen the movie so I don't much more about it than that.
     
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  7. A.M.P.
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    Why can't it be a society that doesn't approve or support female fighters but if one can do it, they're free to do it despite constant ridicule and discrimination.
    She'd probably have to beat up a lot of guys constantly just to prove herself useful.
     
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  8. Feo Takahari
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    Feo Takahari Active Member

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    On the broader subject, I generally don't discuss bigotry in fantasy settings unless I plan to take it on directly. For instance, I only write societies that are sexist if it's important to the plot and themes that some of the characters prove their assumptions wrong. I feel that bigotry is a complicated enough subject that it can distract from other subjects I may wish to spend more time discussing.

    As for your stories, what strikes me the most is the division between characters who are fighters and characters who are not. I would assume most characters, male or female, would at least attempt to struggle if they were cornered and lacked another means of survival. I'm also curious if you have characters who can "problem-solve" by means other than brute force--a hidden knife, a drop of poison, even a well-timed word.
     
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  9. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Wow, I didn't really expect much of a discussion, but I'm glad I was wrong. :cool: This is gonna be another mammoth post, but oh well...

    @furzepig you're right that the world we created isn't exactly like the historical medieval Europe, but more like modeled after it to a degree.

    I know women partook in battles as women in medieval Europe, but from what I've read, I've come to understand that usually the women led from the rear (as did many of their male counterparts), and that those instances when women did fight in the front lines as regular foot soldiers, they were often peasants crossdressing as men at least in cultures where women weren't allowed on the battlefield.
    However, the difference there seems to be that it were the nameless peasant women who crossdressed in order to get to fight whereas the noble (or otherwise upper class) women didn't crossdress because they, as leaders, were kinda like icons and figureheads for the war effort, sources of inspiration for the common foot soldiers etc, so concealing their identity would have been counterproductive, but these upper class women usually led from the rear sans the occasional exceptions.

    Of course there's exceptions to every situation, so I'm sure there have been situations where e.g. women were the only ones left, so they grabbed weapons and fought in whatever clothes they were wearing, but I'd imagine another reason for crossdressing for battle was that those long medieval dresses weren't really suited for mêlée combat.

    But that's just based on what I've read about women and violence in medieval Europe, and since I'm not a scholar on the subject or anything, I'd love to hear more as it's a hugely interesting subject.

    Anyway, I'll also reply to you here, @ChickenFreak, regarding different cultures where women are accepted as fighters (I hope everything below will also address what everyone else said). I'll try to be as brief as possible while still nailing all relevant plot points etc, but yeah, here's the settings of the three characters:

    1. Mirlin (5'9, normal athletic body type, originally from a nation where women were not accepted in the armed forces) is the reluctant wife of a nobleman, so many people in her home country could recognize her.
    Because she ran away from her asshole husband (whom she knows to be obsessive and possessive over her) to search for her missing father, she has to conceal her identity while she's prowling the country as well as the neighboring country.
    In order to do that, she sometimes crossdresses as a man, but a secondary reason for opting for the male garb is pragmatism: she's a horse girl through and through and is prepared to fight to defend herself, and both activities are easier in men's clothes. The same applies to wilderness survival too, come to think of it, but she does also have a set of women's clothes with her, so when she feels it's safe enough, she does dress as a woman. She doesn't look for fights, so while she has some training under her belt, about a year, mostly basic stuff, she only fights for self-defense.

    2. Lania (5,8, very wiry musculature, but she's very skinny due to starvation, so the only real way for her to fight men effectively is with weapons, e.g. the longsword and dagger, weapons that that don't require much strength to use) is approximately 19yo (she doesn't know her age) peasant girl in a war-torn country. Her home town is right at the border of the enemy nation, so her town is ravaged by both enemy soldiers as well as their own troops who are allowed to basically take whatever they want, force boys and men to join the military, and occasionally they also rape girls and women, so violence and danger are a central part of Lania's everyday life. Because the town was a rough, poorer area even before the war, she often had to defend her younger sisters against bullies and such, so she ended up fighting from a young age.
    Because she got her ass kicked so often, she figured she needed to learn to fight. However, because women aren't allowed to carry weapons (they can carry knives and such for utility but no swords, battle axes, spears, crossbows etc) or train martial arts, she has no choice but to crossdress as a boy. She couldn't afford a sword, so she scavenged one of the battlefields after a recent tussle and took a sword and other stuff off a dead soldier (things like fencing gloves, the belt, sheath, and frog etc). That's when she joined the fencing classes as a boy.
    One day when she was out and about dressed as a woman, a drunkard started hassling her. When he got rough with her, she ended up killing him with her dagger while he had a sword. To save face on a social and political level, the guy's rich family hired a group of thugs-for-hire to 1. spread word Lania flat out murdered their saintly son, 2. spread a sketch of Lania as she was seen at the scene, i.e. in a dress and long (-ish) hair.
    That's why Lania cut her hair, adopted her male persona, and ran away with the hired thugs on her heels (btw, there's no police in this society, just groups like the Pinkertons in colonial USA).

    Long story short, eventually she winds up earning a living as a mercenary in a mercenary troop hired to help with the war effort. Basically it's a group of ex-cons, deserters, murderers, thugs, psychos, rapists etc.
    Because her new "friends" are such a dangerous bunch, she's very careful about maintaining anonymity and keeping up with her male persona because she's afraid (and rightly so) that if her companions discovered her sex, she would meet a very slow, agonizing death in their hands, and her fears are pretty much confirmed whenever they e.g. raid an enemy village (read "supply depot") and she sees her companions killing the men and raping and killing the women etc, the usual cruelty and ugliness of war, so she has to be careful, especially when leaving the mercenaries isn't possible at that point for plot purposes.

    Her situation is bad in general, but this one is possibly our darkest story, so the constant danger, violence, and ugliness are just par for the course.

    3. The last one is Ava (5,10, very muscular upper body and a normal, athletic person's lower body), a teenage girl who's physically very strong (she has worked beside her dad as a blacksmith since early childhood and she had enough food/protein in her diet to grow muscles, hence her notable upper body strength) and taller than most women and even many men, she has crossdressed from an early age to, again, gain access to fencing/combat training, and has idolized the heroes of local folk tales, so she's the only one of the three who has been crossdressing since childhood and has all the time in the world to prepare for her journey through the country with a small group of friends (two of whom know she's female).
    Because of the nonpermissive environment, she has no choice but to present a male persona because her country is ruled under the same religion (church and state are combined) which doesn't allow women to carry weapons or train martial arts.

    While Lania does fight for a living, to her it's a matter of survival whereas to Ava, fencing and fighting are a passion. She constantly seeks to become better with the sword, and while the world dropkicks her in the face the first time her childish ideals meet real world violence, instead of being scared back home with her tail between her legs, she dusts off the dirt and blood and just tries harder.
    Her story arc pretty much takes her from a naive fledgling to a real badass in a full suit of plate armor (which she made herself in her father's smithy, sweating her ass off every day for over a year).
    At least in the current version she doesn't reveal her sex to the public until the near end of the story when the group she's joined attempts to overthrow the tyrannical government led by the patriarchal church because at that point being a female fighter is no longer a problem but a political statement and an opportunity to lead by example as they ride to battle.

    @A.M.P. there is, actually, a female professional soldier from a neighboring country in the story (she's one of the MCs) who is usually openly female and a soldier (i.e. she wears armor and carries a sword and dagger), and yes, she does receive her fair share of both criticism and adoration from the general public, but because she comes from a society where female soldiers are as common as male soldiers, she's not an anomaly, and it's not surprising to meet a female soldier from that nation.

    @Feo Takahari , yes, all three stories have fairly large casts, and all three characters described above are only co-MCs, i.e. there's no single "main MC." And yes, some of the characters are what you might call non-combatants who solve problems in their own ways, but the three fighty women also solve problems without fighting. They just have the capacity to defend themselves and others also with violence which, in their societies (as it was in medieval Europe), is a fairly rare ability among females or, more specifically, rarer than among males since not nearly all boys and men could fight/have received any kind of formal training.

    We also don't draw as clear lines between combatants and non-coms as it might seem judging by this thread: in the societies of these stories, it isn't uncommon for "ordinary" people of either sex to be able to defend themselves in some ways to a degree, but, again, formal training is pretty rare among men and even rarer among women. There are characters in the stories who haven't received any training and who still fight when necessary, but we do draw distinctions between the "uninitiated" and trained fighters (who by and large have better weapons and sometimes even armor) because it's just a fact of life that those who have proper training can usually fight circles around those who haven't. Of course e.g. mobs are always dangerous, even when none of its members have any training, but you get the gist.

    I hope I covered all the relevant plot points. All three stories keep evolving and especially Ava's and Mirlin's stories have already gone through several vastly different iterations (they're over 8yo), so I may have contradicted myself here and there if I've mixed up old versions with the new stuff, forgotten something or whatever and I'll end up giving people totally the wrong idea, but I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

    PS. Oh, and the reason why women are so oppressed in these stories is because we want to have a similar setting to historical medieval Europe where women were, indeed, oppressed (at least as far as we know). Of course "medieval" is an incredibly broad term, but let's say the stories reflect, up to a point, Europe at around 800-1400AD.
     
  10. bossfearless
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    I only read a portion (I'll go back and finish in a moment) but there's an issue that I think you need to address. Lania, who is weak and scrawny from starvation; you say she only uses weapons that don't require strength to use. Unfortunately the longsword does require upper body strength to wield well (a real one is way heavier than the flea market knockoffs you see today). And unfortunately, even the more dextrous blades like rapiers are still heavy and still require arm strength. Now, I'm NOT saying that Lania should be dropped or couldn't become a fighter. But you MUST address the strength issue. Please please please don't make this yet another story where a 75 pound girl straps on 150 pounds of armor and weapons she's never been trained to use and then runs off and kicks ass like it's no big deal. The progression of these characters like Lania from little weakling to warrior woman in a realistic fashion will be so much more rewarding.
     
  11. bossfearless
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    bossfearless Active Member

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    After reading the rest of the summary I think you're going to have to work really hard to get this to not just come off as cliche. I'm not saying it can't be done, just that it has been done. A lot. "Girls dressing up as boys to go fight because girls can do anything boys can do and they're gonna fight the patriarchy" is pretty tired at this point, and it rarely gets done well. I.e., instead of writing actual strong female characters, authors tend to write the males around them as incredibly weak so they look strong by comparison; no consideration is given to the very real difference in strength between men and women that would play into melee combat (if we were talking guns, sure no problem...but swords, especially European style swords, require upper body strength to be effective). This would actually be much more doable in a Far East setting. There were melee weapons developed specifically for women, such as the Naginata (totally badass female samurai teaching raiders that just because the men are away at war, you still better not cross this village). There are plenty of instances of women as fighters throughout history, but it almost never coincides with the Hollywood warrior princess narrative. Break out of that trope, get your women kicking ass in their own way rather than perpetuating a really bad cliche.

    Sorry if this was a bit harsh, but it needed to be said.
     
  12. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Hmm... we have clearly different experiences. I've been to Guy Windsor's (one of the big names in historical European martial arts circles) HEMA school, and he's fact-checked our first medieval fantasy story (Mirlin's story) to ensure that the fights are as realistic as possible and that the gear-related stuff is a-ok.

    Furthermore, I've handled real longswords and historically accurate replicas, and, well, they were really light. Windsor said that, as a general rule, longswords are light enough that a "normal," healthy 12yo girl could wield one effectively.
    While Wikipedia generally isn't a perfect source, I believe here they have a pretty good grasp on the situation: according to the wiki article on longswords, their average weight is 1.1–1.8 kg (2.4–4.0 lb) which, when divided over such a long length of steel, leaves us with an incredibly agile weapon.
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longsword

    Here's a quote from thearma.org (http://www.thearma.org/essays/weights.htm#.Vsjp7Mtygj1), one of the best online sources of medieval weaponry and their use:
    "Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Medieval swords were indeed light, manageable, and on average weighed less than four pounds. As leading sword expert Ewart Oakeshott unequivocally stated: 'Medieval Swords are neither unwieldably heavy nor all alike - the average weight of any one of normal size is between 2.5 lb. and 3.5 lbs. Even the big hand-and-a-half 'war' swords rarely weigh more than 4.5 lbs.'"

    I tend to believe those sources and Windsor (who has taught hundreds if not thousands of girls and women in the use of longswords) considering what I've learned about bladed fights in general, i.e. including modern day self-defense situations involving e.g. knives. Basically bladed fights are very quick, very short, and very bloody and brutal. Generally wielding bladed weapons like knives and longswords doesn't require brute strength.

    Of course strength IS an important factor, but it's not necessarily a deciding factor when blades are involved. Also, don't get me wrong: Lania has suffered of periodical starvation to a degree, meaning she's a bit too skinny for her good, shs hasn't really developed notable curves (although that's mostly her natural body type: gangly and skinny) etc, but she has done physical labor all her life, so because she's strong enough to work, she's strong enough to fight with edged weapons.

    NOTE: if/when she ends up in a clinch with a significantly stronger man, she IS at a disadvantage, but because of the nature of fencing, it's not really comparable to e.g. a 100lbs school girl beating up three 300lbs bodybuilder MMA fighter guys with her bare hands alone. For instance, if she ends up in a clinch where her longsword is tied up, she's going for her dagger etc.

    Oh, and check out e.g. Samantha Swords. She's not all that big (if memory serves me right, she told me she's 5'10) and she won a worldwide invitational longsword tournament where she fought against men:
    http://fashionablygeek.com/videos-2/this-armored-lady-won-the-longsword-competition-at-a-world-invitational-tournament/

    That being said, Lania does get her ass kicked more than once, and she does get injured when that's the way the chips fall, so she isn't like some invulnerable super hero.

    Luckily my wife and writing partner, @KaTrian, is about Lania's height and weight/body type, and she has trained historical European martial arts, krav maga, boxing, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu in groups that were mostly male, so at least we can draw from her experiences of how it felt to go against guys twice her size during sparring. :D
     
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  13. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    No worries, we totally understand where you're coming from. We were a little worried that the description can come off as some SJW bullshit propaganda with zero realism.

    Anyway, I think I addressed your points in my first reply to you, but I'd like to ask which are these myriad of books with crossdressing girls and women hacking and slashing their way through men? Because I've actually searched for such books to see how others have done it (always check out the competition, eh?), but so far I haven't found much except one children's/YA book series (the Lioness/Lion or some such) which definitely wasn't all that realistic (Eon/Eona was better, at least the beginning of the story, but the setting was closer to feodal Japan than medieval Europe). I'd love to find more such books to see how different authors have tackled the subject.
     
  14. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    As this topic has sloshed around in my mind, I find that I see nothing wrong with embracing the idea that, "Oh, yeah, I write about cross-dressing fighting women a lot." There are a whole lot of society and identity issues addressed by that, so it's something that could have enough--energy? juice? relevance? interest?--to be part of a few stories.
     
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  15. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    At least we hope so as that's our goal: we're planning to discuss societal issues (gender equality, class equality, poverty, religion, warfare etc), identity issues (gender identity, individual relationships to religion, gender equality on an individual level, violence and other trauma, death, love, and sex in a puritanical society etc), and so on.

    Because all three stories are separate stand-alones (one is a part of a series), at least we have plenty of room to address each issue more than just on a surface level.
     
  16. Feo Takahari
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    Feo Takahari Active Member

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    Oh, you have no idea . . . Not all the girls on that list are warriors, but a good deal of them are. You can trace it to the '50s through Princess Knight, before the 20th century through The Girl Who Pretended to Be a Boy, and into the first millennium AD via Mulan.
     
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  17. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Thanks a lot! A bunch of those just went on my to-be-bought -list.

    It'll be very interesting to see how others have done this. I just hope I can find other adult-oriented instances of medieval crossdressing besides GRR Martin's stuff because quite a few seem to be either children's, YA, or older classics (which are almost always much milder than what I have in mind). No guts, no glory!

    And damn... Alanna/Alan from the Lioness series veers awfully close to Alain. Perhaps it would actually be smarter for Lania to pick a name as different from hers as possible to help maintain anonymity. That actually makes much more sense. Guess you could call this a happy accident! :D
     

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