From Heinlein’s Friday to Underworld’s Selene to Sanderson’s Vin to my own modest (*snrk*) effort’s Lilta, there’s something about chicks who kick ass that’s cool. But what is it? No one has ever defined the quality that makes ass-kicking chicks so very excellent.
Feminist grrrrrrl power? No, it’s not a political thing. Besides, it doesn’t matter whether the ass-kicking chick is kicking female ass or male ass.
Violation of expectations? Maybe thirty years ago! But nowadays what’s more common than chicks kicking ass? So no, that’s not it.
What, then? What, Fleet? Please enlighten us with your superior insight!
Very well, since you said “please.”
It’s the lack of ego.
See, being physically tough is part of masculinity. So when a man kicks ass, he’s more masculine as a result. Or anyway, he’s perceived as more masculine. For a man to kick another man’s ass means he, the victor, has out-manned the other man, so to speak. So even if he’s not thinking, “Ha! I’m more man than you,” he might be thinking it, for all we know.
Now contrast this with women. Since kicking ass is not part of the definition of femininity, a woman who kicks another woman’s ass is not thinking, “Ha! I’m more woman than you,” or “Ha! I’m more feminine than you,” or whatever. There’s no female ego thing that is on the line here.
This leaves open the idea that the woman is kicking ass only because she has to. Indeed, the best female ass-kicking scenes, in fiction or movies, have this quality: The woman is a good guy in a situation in which she has to fight her way out or die, or something like that. This applies, e.g., to Heinlein’s Friday, who never picks a fight in that book; she only fights her way out of bad situations when they descend on her.
Notice that when it’s drawn off into messaging, in the nature of a woman kicking a man’s butt to show that Girls are just as tough as boys!!! it becomes boring message fiction. Yawn. Suddenly the fun is gone.
There is more dignity and drama in a person fighting because she has to than because she’s like, “Whoo hoo! I kicked your butt!”
You have to love that scene in True Romance in which the young woman kills the professional hit man who was sent to kill her. He almost does her in, and she takes a lot of damage. But in the end, she kills him. And you’re like, “Whoo-hoo! Thank goodness!”
“But wait,” you say. “Men can kick ass in an ego-free way too.” Well, maybe, but you never really know. And even if a man doesn’t pick a fight, he can still be glad in a male-ego way that he won it. Note I’m not saying that there’s necessarily anything wrong with being happy about winning a fight – that depends if the winner is a bad guy or a good guy. Nor is there anything wrong with being glad specifically in a male-ego way. But it can be a distraction from the drama you, the author, are trying to create in a fight scene. And it changes the emotional tone of the fight.
Undeniably, the emotional sense of two men fighting is different from the emotional sense of two women fighting. If we want the reader to be focused on good versus evil, or something like that, we don’t want the irrelevance of “Ha, I kicked your ass so I’m more of a man than you!” distracting us.
And that is why chicks kicking ass is a cool thing: It’s pure kicking ass, devoid of ego distractions.