Feminist-ishThe “Little Miss Badass” Trope

A purple graphic featuring an cut-out image of Arya Stark smirking in leather armor with a sheathed sword at her side. Bold black text says “Episode 2 The Little Miss Badass”

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones (Photo credit: HBO)

Welcome to Feminist-ish: a video series deconstructing the feminist-adjacent tropes that we love to hate.

In Episode 2 of Feminist-ish, Marina Watanabe explores the Little Miss Badass trope. If you’ve watched shows like Game of Thrones, Firefly, and Avatar: The Last Airbender or movies such as Kill Bill (2003), Logan (2017), Zombieland (2009), and Kick-Ass (2010), you’ve no doubt encountered the Little Miss Badass. Little Miss Badasses are young female characters who, more often than not, have not yet entered adolescence. These fictional girls are typically younger than the other characters around them and significantly smaller in size and stature, making them easy to underestimate. However, they’re skilled in combat and can easily overpower any grown man (or woman) who crosses them.

The trope itself is powerful because audiences also often perceive young women as vulnerable and nonthreatening, and the reveal that a character is secretly a Little Miss Badass subverts their own expectations of the narrative.

However, it should be acknowledged that nearly all of these characters have experienced some type of major trauma. The 1994 film The Professional, starring a twelve-year-old Natalie Portman in her first onscreen role, exemplifies why the concept of a girl being “mature for her age” is a slippery slope that can end up sexualizing and harming minors.

Watch the full episode of Feminist-ish below, and in case you missed it, click here to catch up on the first episode!

Feminist-ish: Episode 2 - Little Miss Badass

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[FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT]

[Title sequence with Feminist-ish logo]

[Episode title card: Episode 2 Little Miss Badass]

Content Warning: This episode contains graphic depictions of violence and discussions of child sexualization.

[voice over narration over silent footage and lo-fi music]

MARINA WATANABE: In the 2010 movie Kick-Ass, Chloë Grace Moretz plays the character Mindy Macready, a twelve-year-old girl who goes by the alter-ego Hit-Girl. In one of the more memorable scenes from the film, the tween vigilante successfully tricks four armed men into doing her bidding.

[Kick-Ass Clip]

Hit-Girl knocks on the locked front door of a hotel lobby, wearing pigtails and a school-girl uniform.

MAN: Let her in.

The concierge at the front desk shakes his head.

MAN: That’s a little kid. What’s the matter with you?

He lets her in.

MAN: You ok, sweetheart?

HIT-GIRL: [fake crying] I lost my mommy and daddy.

MAN: Do you wanna use my cell phone?

HIT-GIRL: [nods]

MAN: Can you remember the number?

HIT-GIRL: [nods again]

The man goes to give her his phone and Hit-Girl puts a gun in his mouth. She shoots and kills all four men.

MARINA: If you’ve watched shows like Game of Thrones or movies like Kill Bill, Mindy’s manipulation tactic might be familiar to you: she is the prime example of the Little Miss Badass trope. Little Miss Badasses are young female characters who, more often than not, have not yet entered adolescence. These fictional girls are typically younger than the characters around them and significantly smaller in size and stature, making them easy to underestimate. However, they’re skilled in combat and can easily overpower any grown man (or woman) who crosses them. 

[Zombieland Clip]

TALLAHASSEE: You got taken hostage by a 12-year-old?

COLUMBUS: Well, girls mature faster than boys. She’s way ahead of where I was at that age.

MARINA: Hit-Girl manipulates the adult men around her by altering her appearance, tone of voice, and expressions. While she definitely falls into the category of being “mature for her age,” as do many of this trope’s characters (more on that later), she has a firm understanding of how she is perceived by other adults and the expectations placed on her. Because she’s just a little girl, every person she comes in contact with underestimates her and incorrectly identifies her as a non-threat, which ultimately becomes their downfall.

The trope itself is powerful because audiences also often perceive young women as vulnerable and nonthreatening, and the reveal that a character is secretly a Little Miss Badass subverts their own expectations of the narrative.

[Title Card: Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender]

One of my favorite characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender, Toph Beifong, is a particularly interesting example of the trope. As both a young girl and a blind character, Toph’s parents assume she is completely helpless, going great lengths to protect her from the world around her. However, they are completely unaware that their daughter has secretly mastered earthbending, making a name for herself as the champion of her town’s underground tournaments under the pseudonym the Blind Bandit.

Like other Little Miss Badass characters, Toph changes her appearance to meet her parents’ expectations, dressing more femininely, as well as changing her demeanor and way of speaking. When the Avatar demands that she teach him earthbending so he can fulfill his destiny and defeat the Fire Lord, she initially resists the call by manipulating her family’s guards.

[ATLA Clip]

TOPH: Now get out of here. Or I’ll call the guards.

SOKKA: Look, we all have to do our part to win this war, and yours is to teach Aang earthbending.

TOPH: Guards! Guards, help!

Aang and his friends flee.

GUARD: Toph, what happened?

TOPH: I—I thought I heard someone. I got scared.

[Title Card: Arya Stark from Game of Thrones]

MARINA: Another popular example of this trope is Arya Stark from Game of Thrones. Similar to Hit-Girl, Arya is a trained assassin who is frequently underestimated, and at times, even takes pleasure in violence.

[GOT Clip]

Arya Stark stabs a sword through an enemy’s throat, an eerie look of joy on her face. Polliver coughs up blood and dies. She wipes her bloody sword on his shirt.

MARINA: When Arya runs into a group of men indirectly responsible for her mother and brother’s murders, she pretends to be helpless in order to get close enough to them to enact her revenge

[GOT Clip]

ARYA STARK: [pretending to be helpless] Mind if I keep warm?

MAN: Fuck off.

ARYA: But I’m hungry.

MAN: Does fuck off mean something different where you’re from?

ARYA: I’ve got money.

Arya holds out a coin to give to the man and purposefully drops it.

ARYA: Sorry.

The man leans over to pick up the coin and Arya repeatedly stabs him with a knife.

[Title Card: Examining the Role of Trauma]

MARINA: It should be acknowledged that nearly all of these characters have experienced some type of major trauma. This can be due to a dangerous upbringing, like Hit-Girl, River Tam from Firefly, and Laura from Logan, or because of the conditions of the world around them, like Arya, Toph, and Little Rock from Zombieland. Because of their traumas, Little Miss Badasses are emotionally guarded and cynical. For many of them, anger is the only emotion they feel comfortable expressing.

These characters also frequently have a dead or absent parental figure. Or in the case of Arya…

[GOT Clip]

THE HOUND, talking about Arya: Her aunt in the Eyrie is dead. Her mother’s dead. Her father’s dead. Her brother’s dead. Winterfell is a pile of rubble.

MARINA: Since trauma is so central to this trope, every character has had to grow up extremely quickly because of experiences like the murder of a parent, endless wars, or a zombie invasion. They aren’t given the space to just be kids because they’re too busy trying to survive.

[Title Card: The Rejection of Femininity]

Another common feature of the Little Miss Badass trope is a rejection of what is considered traditionally feminine.

In the episode “The Tales of Ba Sing Se,” Toph resists Katara’s encouragement to brush her hair or bathe, telling Katara that she doesn’t normally like “that girly stuff.”

[ATLA Clip]

KATARA: You know what we need? A girl’s day out.
TOPH: …do I have to?

MARINA: While Toph associates femininity with cleanliness and proper grooming, for Arya Stark, rejecting femininity means refusing to become a wife and mother.

For several seasons, she even pretends to be a boy, using the moniker “Arry,” so she can move through the world more easily.

For Lyanna Mormont, another young girl in Game of Thrones who exemplifies this trope, rejecting femininity means disregarding standards of beauty and becoming a great warrior.

[GOT Clip]

SANSA STARK: I remember when you were born, my lady. You were named for my aunt Lyanna. They said she was a great beauty, and I’m sure you will be too.

LYANNA MORMONT: I doubt it. My mother wasn’t a great beauty or any other kind of beauty. She was a great warrior though.

MARINA: And for Hit-Girl, it means dismissing interests that other girls her age might typically enjoy.

[Kick-Ass Clip]

BIG DADDY: So, have you thought a little more about what you might want for your birthday?

HIT-GIRL: Can I get a puppy?

BD: You wanna get a dog?

HG: Yeah, a cuddly, fluffy one…and a Bratz movie-star makeover Sasha.

[long pause]

HG: [laughing] I’m just fuckin’ with ya, Daddy. Look—I’d love a Benchmade 42 model butterfly knife.

BD: [visibly relieved] Aw, child.

[Title Card: “Mature” for Her Age]

MARINA: It’s difficult to talk about the Little Miss Badass trope without acknowledging the 1994 film The Professional, starring a twelve-year-old Natalie Portman in her first onscreen role.

[The Professional Clip]

MATHILDA:: Leon, what exactly do you do for a living.

LEON: Cleaner.

MATHILDA: You mean you’re a hitman?

LEON: Yeah.

MATHILDA: Cool.

MARINA: I think this film exemplifies why the concept of a girl being “mature for her age” is a slippery slope. Throughout the course of the movie, we see Mathilda smoking cigarettes, witnessing the murder of her entire family, befriending a hitman and training to become one herself, and eventually escaping from the same people who murdered her family. 

This would be A LotTM on its own, but there’s also an undeniable element of child sexualization in this film. Mathilda repeatedly flirts with Leon, telling him she thinks she’s in love with him. While I’m not going to show the scene, there’s an entire sequence in which Mathilda imitates older, notoriously sexualized women to impress Leon—she dances around wearing a Madonna costume, performing “Like a Virgin,” and dresses up as Marilyn Monroe, singing “Happy birthday, Mr. President.” Considering the fact that the filmmaker, Luc Besson, married and impregnated a 15 year old and has literally gone on record saying that Mathilda’s character was inspired by this predatory relationship, there is zero chance the film wasn’t, to some degree, intended to sexualize a 12-year-old girl.

During the 2018 Women’s March, Natalie Portman spoke about her experience starring in the film and the real-world harm the role caused her.

[Clip of Women’s March speech]

NATALIE PORTMAN: I excitedly opened my first fan mail to read a rape fantasy that a man had written me. A countdown was started on my local radio show to my 18th birthday, euphemistically the date that I would be legal to sleep with. Movie reviewers talked about my budding breasts in reviews. I understood very quickly, even as a thirteen year old, that if I were to express myself sexually, I would feel unsafe and that men would feel entitled to discuss and objectify my body to my great discomfort.

MARINA: Unfortunately, The Professional isn’t the only example of a Little Miss Badass character being sexualized. In Kick-Ass 2…well, this happens.

[Kick-Ass 2 Clip]

Hit-Girl stares into Kick-Ass’s eyes, down at his lips, and back again several times. She leans in and kisses him. Music plays.
KICK-ASS: What was that?
HIT-GIRL: That was my first kiss.

[replays Kick-Ass 2 Clip]

KICK-ASS: What was that?

MARINA: Yikes.

Okay…so…in the first movie, Hit-Girl is 11-turning-12 and Kick-Ass is 17-going-on-18. At the end of that movie, it fast forwards to four years later when Hit-Girl starts high school…but in the second movie, she’s only 15 and starting her freshman year…and Kick-Ass is inexplicably still a senior in high school? So, shouldn’t this dude be like…22? 

[Kick-Ass Clip]

KICK-ASS: Oh shit. I hadn’t thought about—oh my god.

Cut to Big Daddy pointing a gun at Kick-Ass.

[Kick-Ass 2 Clip]

KICK-ASS: You’re a fifteen-year-old girl.

Hit-Girl punches Kick-Ass in the face.

MARINA: Although the sexualization of the Little Miss Badass character isn’t inherent to the trope, it occurs often enough that it would be weird not to bring it up. When you portray 12-year-old girls as emotionally impervious, manipulative, and capable of handling themselves against significantly older men, sometimes it ends up justifying their sexualization.

So, is this trope empowering or creepy?

In the wrong hands, TV and films that depict the Little Miss Badass trope can end up objectifying young women under the guise of empowerment and provide an excuse for adults in the real world to abuse and sexualize children. But when done well, the trope can subvert expectations of the narrative and challenge audience perceptions of age and gender.

[End Credits: Written and edited by Marina Watanabe, designed by Jessica de Jesus, music by BerryDeep]

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by Marina Watanabe
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Marina Watanabe is Bitch’s senior social media editor. Previously, she hosted a web series called Feminist Fridays. She’s also been called an “astrological nightmare.” You can find her on Twitter most days.