Why female assassins mean so much to queer kids growing up

For those of us who grew up feeling vulnerable to the violence of hegemonic masculinity, warrior women on screen taught us a different kind of powerful.

by Otamere Guobadia
22 October 2020, 1:00pm

My first delicious, life-altering taste of unbridled on-screen feminine power came in the form of the Pink Ranger. For many proto-gays, their nineties love of Pink Ranger was a necessary rite of passage — teenager Kimberly Hart in her bubblegum-pink and white armour represented a roseate paradise, an outward projection of an inner, latent faggotry. My love for her was an affinity that laid bare a queer truth that I would not be able to put my finger on for years. She was also, crucially, a fighter — even if perhaps I did not fully recognise the importance of this then. In Pink Ranger's Earth-defending pastel glory, was the planting of an enduring seed: a love for warrior women.

This burgeoning adoration of televised high-femme fatales and renegade women, would soon encompass a worship of female assassins, spies, and all their orbiting, merry band of ass-kicking sisters (and the often trope-laden and obvious cinematic vehicles that let them shine).

Our screens have long fetishised the dangerous woman — her mercuriality, her glamour, her unpredictability, her thigh-slit, killer dresses. Nikita. Colombiana. Hanna. Lara. The Bride. May Day. And now, Villanelle of Killing Eve: the psychopathic, impetuous, couture-wearing anti-hero of British television. The femme-fatale has a long and checkered history: a figure brought to life in a straight male-dominated cinematic landscape, she was unsurprisingly, never intended to be morally instructive, nor a feminist manifesto, but rather as eye-candy. In her most peripheral and unsophisticated iterations — the love interest — she was and often still is just a personification of beguilement. Changeable and chameleonic, volatile emblems of sin and seduction that throw our strong, steadfast (and ultimately 'good') male hero into sharp relief. Stilettoed, heavy-handed metaphors for temptation and corruptibility, that will lead said hero to his untimely doom should he fall into her clutches. Even when they take centre-stage in plots like Colombiana, La Femme Nikita, and Kill Bill notably, stories told by straight men this character is still wrapped in sexual fantasy; women, in impractical dominatrix-wear, who men attempt to control; Lilith figures with their violence as fetish, inextricably intwined in some unspoiled delicate, feminine sexiness.

But despite the deployment of stale tropes, lazy plot-holes. and even lazier misogyny, these screen sirens have always been patron saints to me — I never needed a director's sensitive touch to illuminate their motivations. My mind breathed complexity and life into them. For me, these women had all the dimension in the universe.

I have spent more of my life being trampled upon than I often care to admit. The first time I was called “faggot” I was seven, sitting in a science class. I did not know that I would hear that word and its every variation and related sentiment ad infinitum. Two summers ago, in broad daylight, a group of men confronted me threatening to beat me up, for the crime of being visibly queer. My life continues to be punctuated by these abuses, both major and minor, in streets and supermarkets, in times loud and quiet. I still cross the street when roving groups of straight men threaten to cross my path. Mine is not a unique experience. These gun and stake-wielding women became more than just projections. They became for me — and still are — dangerous, glittering and perfected avatars of my ambition to rise above victimhood, my hunger for a vengeance righteous and swift; women who won their battles; women who punched their way out of graves; women who emerged from fictitious underground bunkers, from origins and lives mired in trauma and bullying confinement, turning the tables on the violence of their early days; women who asked all the right questions and pulled the trigger anyway.

Rory, a gay doctor in his 30s, explains his lifelong connection to the women of fists and fury in the 90s beat-em-ups and horror games that he grew up on. He tells me in particular about his love of Resident Evil's Jill Valentine: "She was up against all these odds, alone [with] monsters at every corner, and she never gave up," and Mortal Kombat's iconic, bladed fan-wielding Kitana: "I had an absent father who was abusive and an alcoholic growing up," he says. "Kitana's storyline of her father being this horrible man who controlled her resonated with me so much. I would play as her and complete Mortal Kombat 2 over and over again to see her ending, in which she overthrew him and took back her power. She owned her story and never needed to be saved… I suppose I sought these women out in the media I consumed as a kid to remain in that ‘safe space’ away from hegemonic masculinity. Kitana took it all within her control," he adds, "and looked sickening doing it!"

In a world in which their purported delicacy was mocked or locked away, and their femininity derided as weak, these women turned their infringed-upon bodies -- the very thing they were so often denied autonomy over -- into jaw-breaking weapons against bullying, bulldozing patriarchs. This is the underling's history written in my queerness, the feminine parts of myself disregarded daily as weak, compromising and enfeebling. These characters empowered me in my limp-wristed effeteness, showing that there was more than one kind of powerful. These women were my furies in finery. They gave wings and flight to my retribution against a (straight) man's world. They gave my righteous anger fierce bodies to stand in some realised mortal plane — even if my vengeance fell only under the socially acceptable auspices granted by their fictional contexts.

"Between the ages of 11 and 15, I was completely obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the author and journalist Shon Faye, tells me. "For a teenager who's assigned male at birth, Buffy's a very complex view of light and shade through a female lens, of what it is to be a woman, and what it is to be strong, and what it is to be good and evil," she continues. "I was very addicted to those themes. The idea that you're perceived as feminine and weak to the outside, but actually, Buffy has this latent strength and power and she's more than what she looks like. She looks like this tiny little blonde, but actually she's got superhuman strength, and is this terrifying superhero who demons are afraid of. It's just a very potent reference point when you're not what you seem to other people, and people see you as weak."

These dangerous, deadly women -- whose determined physicality seemed to draw on some infinite and preternatural power their male rivals had no access to — not only rumbled with and rivalled the brutish, cruel, masculine energies that tried to crush them, but bested them. That this power was vested firmly in the feminine, constellated in caricaturist laser lipsticks, and the curve of a bow, in iconic dual pistols, in impossible dresses, and camp, perfectly-timed quips — made them all the more delicious to me. These were creatures who found a unique and inalienable strength in their femininity. These characters and their stories give me a boon every time some new blockbuster, coming-to-a-critical-panning-near-you trailer debuts on the internet.

These women were, and remain, my idols. They provided me with escapist moments of brilliance, acted as guardian angels and amphoras to store my small petitions for freedom, as a world built by the kind of man I failed to be trampled me under foot. They evidenced that there may be some hidden, yet undiscovered power in my queer and faggy form; that the men whose cruelties and vindictiveness I had endured would proof me, fire me in my rage, make me as shining, powerful and indestructible as them. These women promise that something like justice might be dredged from the chaos of this world, and that I might no longer be a victim in it. And what a wonderful promise that is.