Have you ever noticed how movies (and sometimes TV) use the exact same trope for revealing a “badass female” to another character? You know, they’re masked or shadowed so you can’t see their faces, they wear armor or masculine attire that hides breasts and hips, and they don’t speak until they reveal that they’re a woman? It’s one of the most predictable “twists” I’ve ever seen (next to the “first nice guy you meet is actually the bad guy” twist, that is). And I swear almost every movie featuring female fighters does this.
Let’s run through some examples so I can show you what I mean.
It happened in How to Train Your Dragon 2. Hiccup is flying through the clouds when a giant dragon appears with a masked rider. Of course, we’re supposed to assume this is a man because that’s a pretty husky rider, right? Nope. It’s Hiccup’s long-lost mother, Valka.
We can’t forget the Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi twist, where the bounty hunter who delivers Chewbacca to Jabba the Hutt turns out to be none other than Princess Leia.
In fact, Star Wars is chock-full of female surprises! Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones has an attack scene in the beginning of the movie (The link has the best video I could find). We’re supposed to believe the woman who gets killed is Queen-turned-Senator Padme Amidala. But…wait? Isn’t there a pilot who doesn’t take his helmet off, even though someone’s talking to him? Oh, yeah. That’s because he’s Padme Amidala. GASP.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans pulls something similar. In the opening sequence (which you can see at the start of this trailer), a rider is being chased by Lycans. Notice the helmet and the cool sword shit? Yeah, she’s totally a vampire woman—and not just any woman, but the vampire leader’s daughter, Sonja. But she doesn’t reveal that until after she’s defeated the Lycans (Read: before proving her badassery).
I’m starting to think Natalie Portman has a female-warrior-surprise clause in her contract. During a Your Highness scene in Marteetee’s arena with Fabious and Thadeous, they see a warrior wearing a hood/mask who doesn’t speak, but does manage to kick the shit out of everything. And then, there’s an ohhhhhhhhhhhh it’s a womaaaaaaaaaan reveal.
Or what about Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides when Jack Sparrow hears there’s a man in London masquerading as him in order to hire a ship crew? Jack finds this impostor dressed in his garb and hanging out in the shadows (though he, himself, is perfectly lit). And, naturally, the impostor never speaks. Well, guess what? It’s a woman.
Oh, here’s a good one. Do you remember A Kid in King Arthur’s Court (1995)? The climatic joust determined who would marry Princess Sarah (played by Kate Winslet), who disappeared during the joust around the same time the infamous “Black Knight” showed up to win the battle. You’ll never believe what happens next…
Okay, this one’s more complicated. We know that Eowyn is riding with the Rohirrim into the battle at Minas Tirith during Lord of the Rings: Return of the King since she revealed herself to Merry. But the Rohirrim don’t know that. Nor does the Witch King of Angmar, who mistakes her for a man, leading her to deliver her “girl power” line.
Why are these so annoying? Well, for one, it’s obnoxious. It’s like filmmakers think we’re not going to pick up on the subtle cues of someone not taking their helmet off when everyone else does. I’ve gotten to the point now where I’m like THAT’S A WOMAN whenever I see a warrior who’s wearing a mask while the others around them aren’t. Surprise ruined. It’s like the off-screen death thing, you know? We’ve seen it so many times that we know the character who died off-screen isn’t really dead and will come back later.
And then, of course, there’s the whole idea that seeing a skilled female fighter is supposed to be surprising, which is, well, kind of insulting. In most instances, the characters see the masked woman fighting and remark, “Wow, he’s a really good fighter!” or some variation of that exclamation. It’s no different than when you tell someone you saw your doctor, and they say, “Oh, what did he have to say?” and you’re like, “Hey, my doctor is a woman, jackass.”
Besides, we live in a pop culture world where Buffy Summers, Xena, Black Widow, Katniss Everdeen, Sarah Connor, Lara Croft, Beatrix Kiddo, Ellen Ripley, Hit Girl, and Yu Shu Lien exist. The whole “female fighter” thing shouldn’t be surprising. But I guess Hollywood still thinks it’s surprising. Because bewbs + weapons = WAIT, SHE?! (Don’t worry, bros. The “Surprise! It’s Not the Person You Were Expecting!” happens to on-screen men, too. Just not as often.)
At least Futurama poked fun at this exact trope in “War is the H Word,” where Leela was very obviously dressed as a man, but NOBODY caught on, though it was (again) very obvious.