There are all kinds of women warriors in pop culture: The Wonder Woman Amazon, the Black Widow martial arts expert, the Lara Croft tough-as-nails adventurer. And then there’s the including equestrian heroines, like Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) and Mulan (1998). Numerous factors influenced the design of these characters—like how well they could be turned into merchandise—but it’s interesting that both Xena and Mulan address the same issues of feminiity that female heroes have been have been dealing with since Ancient Greece.
Both Xena and Mulan echo the image of womanhood set out in mythology by one of the original horse-loving heroines, the goddess Demeter. Myths of the Greek goddess of agriculture Demeter tell of a story of hybrid identity. When she is a nuturing mother, Demeter appears on earth as a white horse. When she’s enraged and on the war path, she becomes a black mare. Neither solely the mother with the ability to initiate spring and fertility, or the vengeful woman, Demeter’s myth is one that uses horses as a symbol of nuanced womanhood.
The same is true in Xena. The Xena: Warrior Princess series tells the story of Xena’s quest to redeem herself after a violent and destructive past as she travels around doing defending justice. It’s a story of balance and unity, a challenge to patriarchal myths emphasising domination and conquest.
Although Xena is nomadic, elements of home and love are strong in this series. She eventually becomes a mothers, complicating the relationship between her public lives as a warrior and her private, domestic lives as a mothers. This relationship is further complicated as her child often falls into the fray or is left behind while she goes off on her missions. It is a sense of nuance added to the hero narrative, an image of female motherhood that is both public and private, light and dark.
Xena’s character is also influenced by real-life Scythian women of the grasslands—early women who inspiring some of the Amazon legends we hear today—fought on horseback right along-side the men. The historic Scythian women’s cultures were deeply interlinked with horses, allowing their nomadic cultures freedom to roam and move as needed. In Xena, she relies on her own trusty mount, Argo, is a warrior character all its own, who responding to Xena’s infamous battle cry (something along the lines of “YIYIYIYIYI!”) and bravely carrying her through her missions.
Like Xena, Mulan, though reductive, represents contrasting forces in balance. She is neither at home as the calm and demure daughter conforming to traditional gender roles nor as the masculine recruit heading to war. Mulan is in conflict over her inability to be “a perfect bride or daughter,” but after her quest—entering into battle dressed as a man—she finds redemption, as herself confronting the notion that women must perform masculinity to become effective warriors.
Mulan succeeds in training for battle, set to a song declaring that the captain will, “make a man out of you.” With the help of her protective horse (and a dragon), Mulan uses speed and cunning in battle, suggesting a value in balance rather than simply relying on brute strength traditionally associated with masculine heroes.
Later on, in true Disney form, Mulan redeems herself and saves the day. How? She returns home to intercept an attack on the city, devising a plan in which the men dress as concubines—a clumsy attempt at challenging essentialism.
While both narratives find themselves limited by Orientalism and sometimes fumble in their representations of female power, they are interesting in their representations of women warriors as a more balanced hero, with their re-telling of female mythology that challenges patriarchy.
The violence in these narratives certainly gives me pause, however in the stories it is justified as necessary, in the name of love and good, set apart from the typical hyper-masculine stories of conquest and brute strength. And with their roots in myths of powerful women and so few female action heroes standing on their own (well, astride their horse), these narratives remain important.