From Xena to Wonder Woman: The Physics of Female Fighters

by Panka Bencsik

General Antiope (Robin Wright) moves seamlessly among the training Amazons, checking each move, giving directions for correction where necessary. The women’s moves are accurate and dynamic, often closely resembling contemporary dance or professional gymnastics. The muscle groups, especially in the thighs and upper arms, visibly flex and loosen repeatedly. Their jumps and kicks come from the power they gain from pushing away from the ground with full strength. Slow motion further accentuates these movements, and we are left with no doubt — the women in Wonder Woman are beyond capable. Diana (aka Wonder Woman), along with her Amazon aunts, derives her power from her own gradually built physical ability. If she were in an actual fight in the actual world, she’d kick ass.

The honest physical ability to fight and move athletically has been more and more a part of female characters in recent years. While TV series and movies successfully portrayed leading female characters with their own will and power, it’s usually mental strength and agility rather than physical capability. In the early 1990s, the first female fighter who was regularly portrayed in battle on the big or small screen was Xena of Xena: Warrior Princess fame. And if we remember one thing from the series (besides how queer it really was), it’s her signature “ayiayiayiayiayi” shout. She starts all encounters with the high-pitched battle cry, only to swing into a foot kick series she regularly executes while spinning five feet high, exactly horizontally, on her stick. She also starts her fights regularly with a forward flip, instead of making a simple step forward, a needless move in any practical sense. Overall, her fighting style is campy, certainly entertaining, but far from rooted only in the actress’ or the stunt double’s musculature. While she trains in the series, Xena’s fighting style doesn’t improve or change; she executes very similar moves throughout the series. She is a fighter in her own world, but it’s clear to viewers that she may not win equally challenging battles outside the world of ancient Greece.


Another contemporary heroine, Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer similarly left battles victorious, despite the physically impossible movements her body makes. Despite ongoing vampire slayer training, Buffy fights in a very similar manner throughout all seven seasons of the show. Her face kick, executed from a run or a jump, and her spin with the stake arriving right in the vampire’s heart are both examples of signature moves, consistent and unchanging for close to a decade. While somewhat more realistic than Xena’s, Buffy’s movements are also rarely dictated by the laws of physics. We don’t see muscles flexing or calves and thighs shaped by intense training and athleticism, even when Buffy wears one of her signature miniskirts. Buffy is fit, but far from toned enough to execute the gravity-defying moves.

Of course, Buffy is fictional, but there’s an important narrative power to giving a thin, not particularly muscular woman the role of strongest fighter in the world. Buffy’s abilities are independent from the body she was born into, or vice versa; her body cannot be a force to reckon with in its own right.


The newest addition to depictions of warrior women in film and TV is Wonder Woman. Midway through the movie, which is set during WWI, Wonder Woman and her ragtag team of Allied fighters try to reoccupy a village from the Germans. Needing to reach an opening several stories up, Wonder Woman jumps off of a disembodied truck door held by her team. She runs towards it, and with the extra energy she gets from their synchronized push, she reaches her target. Every step of this process mirrors how gymnasts start on the vault, sprinting towards the springboard so they can perform their event with full power. Sure, Wonder Woman is working with godly powers, but the manner of her jump is supported by physics.

We see the same pattern with the other Amazons, particularly at the beach battle on their island of Themyscira, where they fight intruders who unknowingly sailed towards to mythical island. In this battle, the Amazons show off their bodily strength and sparring prowess, all with a realistic feel that comes down to casting. The film rounds up some outstanding sportswomen to portray the women of the island. Samantha Jo, Madeleine Vall Beijner, Ann Wolfe, Brooke Ence, and Hari James are some of the world’s best in the martial art form wushu, in professional fight or MMA, in boxing, and in CrossFit. Furthermore, two other actresses playing Amazons are trained in dance and in horseback riding. Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, served as combat trainer in the Israeli Defense Force; regardless of the political cloud created by Gadot’s support for the IDF, her movement and strength within the context of the film were no doubt aided by her military experience.


However, casting women who work their muscles on a daily basis is only half of the power in Wonder Woman. The training scenes, in particular Diana’s training scenes, are the other half. It is a classic step in the heroine’s growth process to see her train, but we rarely get to experience her abilities actually increasing. With Katniss in the Hunger Games or Kara Danvers in the Supergirl TV series, the characters practice their physical skills, but their performance barely seems to shift due to the workouts. Not so with Diana. As she grows up mimicking her aunts and then later receives personal training from General Antiope, she visibly becomes better at fighting. Seeing her 8-year-old self, her most engaged muscles appear to be her face muscles, grimacing as she imitates her relatives, play fighting with imaginary equipment. When she learns to wield the sword, her movements are wobbly, but over time she becomes precise and successfully engages her full body in each sword attack. This realistic physicality of Wonder Woman offers a different narrative about our own bodies. The message is clear: Fighting skills can be improved tremendously with dedication and a professional, and preferably Amazonian, personal trainer. At last, we see a female fighter who fights realistically and gets better the more she trains.

This attainability of realistic, physical power is in stark contrast with the narrative of female heroes before. In Wonder Woman, camp is replaced by accuracy and aptitude. Female power is not a joke anymore, it’s not something that is contained within our TV set or silver screen for the comfort of those unwilling to see women rise. Female power is here, it’s physical, it’s palpable, and it’s attainable for every girl who would like to own it.

wonder woman

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