Recently, author Andrew Klavan spoke out on conservative podcast The Daily Wire and shared his opinion of the Netflix fantasy series, The Witcher. I won’t get into his overall view on the series, as it isn’t particularly relevant, but Klavan did say something that I absolutely need to address. Klavan criticised the series for its depiction of women in battle, stating that it was unrealistic, and that no woman could ever defeat a man with a sword. This is absurd, because not only have their been numerous well-documented historical women warriors, as well as athletic women in martial arts, who were more than capable of wielding a weapon and defeating men, but because of the extreme confidence of his highly inaccurate assertions. I’m not going to mince words here, nor am I going to waste civility on such an idiotic statement, because the “simple truth” that Klavan is trying to assert is an ignorant assertion of untruth based on his own lack of familiarity with swords, martial arts, and apparently historical precedent. His full quote is below.
“And immediately I was put off by the fact that there is a queen in this who fights like a man and there are a couple of scenes where women fight with swords. And I just hate these scenes, because no woman can fight with a sword. Zero women can fight with a sword. What I mean by that is that in a situation where you are fighting men, who are used to fighting with swords you are going to get killed if you are a woman fighting with a sword. One hundred percent of the time, right? Now you can — a woman with a sword can kill somebody, a woman with a sword can kill somebody who doesn’t know how to fight with a sword. But in a war situation, where you are swinging this five to ten pound sword again and again and again against much, much, much stronger men, they are going to kill you.” – Andrew Klavan, author and conservative commentator for The Daily Wire, on The Witcher
What is historically factual is that throughout history there has been a monumental devaluation of women and their physical and intellectual capabilities. Klavan’s comments do nothing to validate this devaluation, but his ignorance and androcentric agenda are a deliberate perpetuation of that devaluation, and that is something that all women should take issue with. His criticism of the warrior women in The Witcher is not based on historical knowledge or martial arts experience. It is founded solely on his own erroneous beliefs. That belief can be summarized quite neatly by his own words: ” What actual observation or experience is he drawing from when he makes his statement that no women could defeat a man? He has no combat experience. I would be genuinely surprised if he’s ever even held a real sword, and I daresay that most women with a sword and training could defeat him in combat without much effort, because it is training and experience that make a martial artist good. Their sex and gender are largely irrelevant.
You cannot ascribe weakness or strength in generality to gender. There are tall men and tall women. There are large men and large women. There are strong men and strong women. There are fast men and fast women. Likewise, the same can be said for short men and women, thin men and women, weak men and women, and slow men and women. A person who is fast must still be skilled to defeat a stronger opponent. A person who is tall and heavy may have certain advantages of strength and force, but they also have the disadvantage of fatigue and slowness in recuperating when energy is expended. Yes, a taller person probably has greater reach in their attack, but their lower limbs may be more exposed. Yes, a heavier person may have more brute strength, but they will also have to use that strength more to recover when they are thrown off their balance or grounded. This has been shown in competitive martial arts, both unarmed and armed, between two people with different body types. It has also been shown in matches between people of the opposite sex.
“What I mean by that is that in a situation where you are fighting men, who are used to fighting with swords you are going to get killed if you are a woman fighting with a sword. One hundred percent of the time, right? Now you can — a woman with a sword can kill somebody, a woman with a sword can kill somebody who doesn’t know how to fight with a sword.”
Firstly there are quite a number of factors and variants in combat. Height, size, and strength are some of them. Academic study of technique is another. Most importantly of all, however, is study, practise, and experience. The more studied and experienced the fighter, the greater their skill, and this is true regardless of their physical type or their sex. Now, statistically, it is a fact that the average man is larger and stronger than the average woman, but size and strength are not the sole determining factors in combat. A smaller, lighter person can win a match against a larger, heavier person. All that is required of this is greater speed and agility, technique, and skill. Klavan himself dismissed the rebuke from many female martial artists that they could overcome him in a match by pointing out that his, and I quote, “a sixty year-old scribe,” and not a martial artist or someone with combat experience. So, he is essentially acknowledging one of the major logical holes in his own argument, because he is imply an unskilled and unpractised woman with a sword could not defeat a skilled and practised man with a sword, and likewise that only an unskilled and unpractised man could be defeated by a woman. Well, of course the more experienced person has an advantage, and that has nothing whatsoever to do with their sex. You can’t even argue that a trained swordsman will always defeat a trained swordswoman because the contrary has been proven in fencing matches, Asian martial arts, and historical European martial arts (HEMA).
One could argue in defense of Klavan that he is basing his statements on the women actors that we see in most action and fantasy films and television series who have no real martial arts training or weapons experience. In many instances, in shows like Xena: Warrior Princess*, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Alias, or in films like Atomic Blonde, Wonder Woman, or Anna, the women that you are seeing on-screen are there due to their talent as actors or due to their attractiveness for the intended male viewer. These aren’t typically athletes, martial artists, or soldiers. What you usually see on-screen with women warriors are actors who could not realistically take down a male opponent, provided that opponent had the proper training, but this is because what you are seeing isn’t real; it’s entertainment. This is also true, however, for what you see in fight choreography with male actors. It’s still not realistic. And Klavan should know this, so his criticism should not be supported by what he has seen in entertainment, but by what he has seen or studied in reality. He doesn’t provide historical examples. He doesn’t provide contemporary examples. He doesn’t provide his own direct observations or experience (again, because he has none). So, I therefore cannot accept any defense of his statements based on this, since it is actually further evidence of his ignorance on the matter.
* For the record, I love Xena, but Lucy Lawless was never so much as trained how to hold a sword. She consistently and incorrectly grips a single-handed sword with two hands, her fingers overlapping or interlocked. Her edge alignment is non-existent. She doesn’t use stances that you use in sword-fighting to prevent loss of balance or over-extending your thrust, which means she is vulnerable to being knocked down or countered and struck. She is constantly turning her back to her enemies to spin around or stab blindly behind her leaving her exposed to an opponent’s attack. These aren’t the kind of mistakes that someone with years of experience makes. These are mistakes that an actor makes when they aren’t adequately trained how to use weapons and fight, but given showy choreography that has no real-world value in combat scenarios.
“But in a war situation, where you are swinging this five to ten pound sword again and again and again against much, much, much stronger men, they are going to kill you.”
Secondly, I want to address what he says about strength and the weight of a weapon, because this is where his comments are most egregiously inaccurate and ignorant. I personally own or have handled many swords of different types: Japanese katana, Viking swords, German bastard swords, English arming swords, Italian long swords, Scottish claymores, and so on. Not one of them weighs 5 to 10 lbs., not even close, so where Klavan pulls this number from I can’t fathom. This is where he shows himself to be totally unqualified to even offer criticism on the subject. Almost all swords fall within a very small weight difference. The lightest is usually just shy of 2 lbs. and the heaviest is rarely more than 4.5 lbs. and in that rare instance it’s not at all a typical sword, but likely a great sword that would be over 5′ long. Most katana come in between 2.6 and 3.2 lbs., most Viking swords between 2.1 and 2.6, and even the Italian long swords and Scottish claymore come in under 4 lbs., so Klavan’s assumptions about sword weights are off by double or even triple what real swords weigh. Swords are made to be light and efficient. The particular steels used and smithing methodologies employed are to ensure that a sword isn’t too heavy and that it can be wielded, either in duels or on the battlefield, depending on the sword type and purpose, by a person of minimal strength.
Yes, you do need to be able to lift and swing around a few pounds, and yes, you do need to be able to stand and balance yourself, and yes, you do need to be able to move reflexively and dynamically in reaction to your opponent. But, no, you don’t need to be a bodybuilder in order to be an effective swordfighter. When used properly and with training, and in some cases without training, weapons greatly enhance your effectiveness in a fight. They are very much equalizers and reduce the disparities presented by height, size, weight, and strength. A trained fighter will know how to negate their opponents physical advantages to create a more even match. This is true almost entirely regardless of weapon. It should also be pointed out that a weapon in any person’s hands greatly enhances their lethality, because weapons are by their very design and purpose force multipliers, meaning that simply having a weapon at your disposal improves your attack’s capacity to do harm. For example, I could punch someone as hard as I can, and depending on their resilience to pain and their strength, they may be able to recover quickly. However, if I punch that same person with the same level of force while wearing brass knuckles, my capacity to effectively harm them is greatly multiplied and they are less likely to recover as quickly. If I strike you with my arm as hard as I can, hitting you directly, it will knock you down, but it will only incapacitate you depending on where you are struck. If I strike you with a katana utilizing full force, hitting you directly, it will sever your limbs, and regardless of where you are struck, you will be incapacitated or dead as a result. So, simply having a sword, even if you are not trained, increases your lethality in a fight. Having a sword when you are trained, massively increases your lethality in a fight, and your sex isn’t particularly pertinent.
What’s more, in most war situations, spears, axes, polearms, and projectile weapons ranging from the light bow and arrows, slings, and muskets to heavier siege weapons like catapults and trebuchets, would have been used more than swords. Swords have taken on a romanticism of the lone warrior, but in reality, they were used as a last resort, because soldiers would fight in specific formations. When you are in such tight quarters that you can’t even stretch your arms out at your side, you’re not going to favour a sword, but rather a spear. And many women throughout history fought alongside men and against men using spears. There were times when peasants fought against the aristocrats and nobility, and in these instances, the peasants may not even have had access to swords. They would have used what they had already, such as farming and carpentry tools, or they would have created makeshift weapons. These could range from pitchforks, knives, hammers, sickles, and torches to clubs, spears, garottes, and axes. If one examines the peasant revolt of 1381, it managed to do the damage it did because of peasant numbers, and the lack of preparedness of the nobility. The peasants were not soldiers or warriors. They did not have access to the same kinds of weapons that the soldiers they fought against did. Many of the peasants in the uprising were women.
Thirdly, there is actually a long history of women in battle, and though men were more renowned in battle due to the greater proportion of men engaging in battle, the presence of women warriors was also largely overlooked by contemporary chroniclers of history precisely because those chroniclers themselves were predominantly men. But, that in mind, I am willing to bet that most people who aren’t familiar with military history could still name at least one woman warrior for every three male warriors. There’s the obvious ones like Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni tribe, who fought against the Roman Empire, and then there’s the female samurai Tomoe Gozen, who was kind of like the Japanese equivalent to China’s more famous Hua Mulan. But then there are the less obvious, such as Anne Bonny and Mary Reed, both fierce pirates, and Frances Clayton who disguised herself as a man to enlist during the American Civil War. There are many women, both famous and obscure, who have taken up arms in battle and who have been skilled, formidable warriors. These women warriors should not be discounted as true warriors, nor should they be seen as novelties, because there are just as many women warriors who have gone without recognition and renown. From famous female pirates who attacked ports for treasure to viking women who raided villages full of armed men in order to take their lands, history is full of women who showed their skills and strength through combat, and the more you look for them, the more of them you will find. There are also cases where women adopted the traditional uniforms of men and disguised themselves as male soldiers in order to go to war. Why, just recently an archaeological grave site was found, wherein four skeletons, identified as being from three generations, were found buried together with weapons. All of them were women.
This brings me to my next point. Klavan has done no research to verify any of his claims. He, as I have pointed out many times already, does not possess any martial arts training, experience with weapons, or military history. He did not make any attempt to validate his assertions through personal experience, physical evidence, or historical documentation. His claims, which he made with extreme confidence, can easily be disproved through even just a quick internet web search. Anyone who has studied history, not even extensively, but at large, can counter his claims with numerous examples. One need only look to contemporary martial arts to see multiple instances where women beat men in matches. So, why did Klavan even make such remarks? Was he so ignorant that he thought people wouldn’t challenge baseless assertions? Did he simply speak out of turn as someone who himself was ignorant? Or was he making his argument for a specific audience that already devalues women because he knew that their innate prejudices weren’t founded on reality? Personally, I think this was the latter, I think it was calculated, and I think this is yet another example of conservative men attempting to assert social dominance over women by revising or omitting documented incidents where women have shown themselves to be the intellectually and physically capable of equalling or rivalling the capabilities of men. One argument for male dominance over women is that men have lower vocal ranges and therefore can make their voices and sound more aggressive. However, it has also been shown that male primates with smaller genitalia are prone to more aggressive behaviour and louder mating cries, which doesn’t do much to bolster claims of masculinity equating to military or physical superiority, but it does suggest that male insecurity manifests itself in more boastful claims, with or without the benefit of being able to back them up. That’s all Klavan’s comments are. Rather than being a stalwart bastion of masculinity and strength, Klavan has exposed himself as an insecure, ignorant, and petty man who doesn’t want to acknowledge that women are equals. Alas, through his words ironically, he has simply drawn attention to the fact that anyone who enlightens themselves will seem that as just that.