Who doesn’t love seeing a girl clad head to toe in protective gear with a sword in her hand? Historically accurate or fantastically decadent, armour is used to show strength, power and status – but it’s rare to see it on a woman. We associate the image with fairytales and mythology, things that might first seem childish and fantastical – but fairytales have always been used to teach lessons in secret and history in code.
The original Little Red Riding Hood taught young girls not to talk to strangers in case they ate their grandmothers, but in fact to avoid sexual assault. Bluebeard reminded women to be careful of the dark histories their new husbands might have. So why, in a canon that shows the suffering of women at every turn, is seeing a girl become her own knight in shining armour so damn empowering? The answer may seem obvious, but it’s about more than just showing strength
Protection is, of course, the most obvious function for armour. Metal, leather or even meagre layers of fabric can come in handy when battling a fearsome foe. There’s debate as to whether female armour should be identical to male armour in order to avoid inequality, or whether it should be ‘feminised’. Personally, I quite like Susan Pevensie’s leather and chainmail tunic over her long dress in the most recent Narnia remakes, but who hasn’t watched a female warrior put on screen and ultimately outrun by the men because of patriarchal expectations in how she should look?
People care more these days about the costume designs for our super-heroines; girls can save the world and look good at the same time if they want. But we’re interested in how they’re going to save the world in those heels first, so their image can be an extension of the power they already have. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok is the perfect example: the avenging warrior covers herself in black leather guards until the final battle where she switches in for a silver uniform with cape and flowing hair. It reflects her character’s arc from troubled mercenary back to realigning herself to the legendary Norse warriors after a devastating defeat; a narrative device that uses the visual presentation of a woman without demeaning her.
Superhero costumes in general have become a sort of uniform in themselves; it’s literally a rite of passage in all origin stories to find or make your suit. While identifying them in the token futuristic aesthetic, it also grounds them in their strength: skin-tight jumpsuits with questionable colours generally work for both men and women. It’s no wonder, then, that Patty Jenkins’ heroine made such a stir last year when she strode into our cinemas in thigh-high boots and strapless dresses that were about so much more than visual attraction.
There’s a lot of skin-baring in the female costumes of Wonder Woman, but it doesn’t feel over-sexualised. Of course inspired by the Amazons of Greek myth, Diana’s costume leaves her arms and legs pretty open for attack. But the film’s costume designer Lindy Hemming wanted to leave as much of the body on show as the men of Ancient Greece did. By exaggerating the strength and muscles in the women’s bodies (and their confidence in doing so), we get a heroine who isn’t scared to own her femininity and physical prowess.
We can also turn this on its head when we consider The Lord of the Rings’ Eowyn. In complete contrast to Diana, the daughter of Rohan has to hide her identity to sneak into the ranks of soldiers at The Battle of Black Gate by wearing men’s clothes. For a character who is first introduced as a somewhat ‘princess in the tower’ despite her skill with a sword, Eowyn ends up killing the Witch King with that iconic line ‘I am no man’ as she pulls off her helmet. Having been totally limited by her circumstances, Eowyn uses her armoured masquerade to get what had been denied to her, and defeats the previously untouchable villain as a result. Makes you think that maybe they should’ve given her formal training and seen what carnage she could’ve done then.
But one of my favourite examples of women in armour probably has to be Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman. Not just because her final form is badass, but she goes full on knight in shining armour to defeat the evil queen and does so alongside (and in spite) of her male companion played by Chris Hemsworth. From the second we see Snow as an adult she’s resourceful, determined and scarily brave, all wrapped up in the fairytale princess façade. Introduced in a dark cell making a fire for herself, she takes the next twenty minutes to trick her way to escape, scar her attacker, and find a secret way into the sewer and out of the castle all by herself. A princess’s gown drenched in sewage (which is surprisingly satisfying to see) is soon torn in the forest in favour of a tunic and practical pants.
The film itself is interesting when we consider the original fairytale and its obsession with jealousy and material beauty; as the evil queen Ravenna says, ‘when a woman stays young and beautiful forever the world is hers’. But for those of us who fell in love with fairytales a long time ago and have idealist ambitions for feminist readings and modern retellings, Sanders gives us these little subversions – like acknowledging the desire for physical beauty is a consequence of patriarchal expectations – all the way through. The crowning triumph being the reimagining of Snow as a badass warrior.
She gives the final speech before the battle in true heroic style and shining in her suit of armour. When the castle is stormed, she’s literally within the line of soldiers, told apart only by her central framing and lack of a helmet. It’s her homecoming of ancient epics; the hero transformed – and better off for it – but still with that one spark of attitude that made them themselves. The design of the armour itself wants to accommodate the female body, but not exaggerate its differences in the meantime. It’s still marked and scarred all over, maybe borrowed from a fallen solider, but we escape the idea of purity in a princess. She’s a fully-clad warrior there to claim vengeance, and she’s not scared of things getting messy.
Tim Burton’s reimagining of Alice in Wonderland does something similar, placing Mia Wasikowska in silver armour for her final battle with the Jabberwocky, harking back to John Tenniel’s illustrations in Through the Looking Glass. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen in other remakes of Carroll’s classic, but it isn’t the first time in the film we see her with a sword either; she bears one while still in the Red Queen’s castle. This adaptation definitely puts more of an emphasis on Alice’s go-getter attitude, and the need to find ‘herself’ again after growing up. As mentioned, we see this mythological canon of women in armour as a imaginative fairytale idea – but in fact Alice doesn’t get to don it until after she’s decided who she is.
And who can say women in armour is still a childish fantasy after they’ve watched Elizabeth: The Golden Age? You can’t really beat Cate Blanchett as a female figurehead, especially when she’s perfectly stern, poised and impossible-not-to-adore as the English regent. She’s incredibly assertive; there’s a weight to her power long before she wears any chainmail. But she’s imposing in her gown too, and I think that’s key. Instead of the character becoming powerful by changing themselves into a traditionally masculine form, it feels more like she’s finally found a moment to visually manifest that power she’s held inside those bones the whole time.
Elizabeth didn’t wear full armour at Tilbury as she does in the film (though she supposedly wore a breastplate), but that’s not really the point. There are historical figures who were women and wore full suits of armour; famously Joan of Arc as shown in Luc Besson’s French epic The Messenger. But these images are used as historical accuracy with a creative license, because the point of these moments – from Susan and Diana to Alice and Elizabeth – is that they are symbols of powerful women. As a visual medium, cinema has the chance to take ideas and manifest them immediately in front of the audience’s eyes. Putting women in armour makes it pretty clear what’s trying to be said.
Maybe the accessibility to these images is why they’re so empowering. Not literally accessible (I don’t know about you but as a student I definitely can’t afford my own set of shin-guards and sword belts), but with less of an emphasis on ‘the chosen one’ narrative and more on the individual determination of the women themselves, it’s an empowerment that feels more open for us to project onto. We don’t have to the seventh son of the seventh son with magical powers or destiny on our side to identify with these characters, we just have to be headstrong, resolute and looking for our own swords instead of knights.
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy is studying film production at Arts University Bournemouth with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. If you can’t find her lost between the shelves of a bookshop you might be able to see her in a dark cinema if you squint hard enough. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and find her general ramblings as @thedaisydeer at Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.
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