GIRLS AND GUNS
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A BADASS OR WRITE ONE EFFECTIVELY?
AMBER LOVE 14-APR-2015 I’ve written a couple “how to write” posts previously on rape culture and having female characters who survive sexual assault. When I agreed to take some firearm training, I knew it would be another opportunity to give some insights and encouragement about writing characters effectively even if I’m not a famous published author. Part One about my classroom training was posted in February.
I’m certainly not looking to upset anyone who has been affected by gun violence. It’s appropriate for certain jobs and self defense. This won’t be political. Nonetheless, consider this a Trigger Warning if you have issues with violence.
“I seem to be getting a lot of things pushed my way that are strong women. It’s like people see HACKERS and they send me offers to play tough women with guns, the kind who wear no bra and a little tank top. I’d like to play strong women who are also very feminine.” ~Angelina Jolie
That quote is attributed to Angelina Jolie on brainyquote.com. Jolie might have finally achieved that softer side in her image, but she came from roles of “badassdom” like Lara Croft of TOMB RAIDER and Evelyn in SALT (rumored to be in development for a sequel). Girls and guns – audiences love them.
NOTE – NOT EVERYONE IS A CONVERT DRINKING THE KOOLAID
I wrote about my experience of surviving an NRA pistol safety training course. I explained back then that I have no interest in renewing membership because I feel the organization has derailed from what used to be sensible mission statements. That’s so far gone now, but I can say this about the folks that run the courses I attended: the instructors don’t try to sell us memberships. That was a massive relief. Instead we learned a lot and had separate time at an outdoor range to put in some practice time with the skills of knowledge and handling (physically getting comfortable with the firearms).
NOT ALL PISTOLS ARE EQUAL
In 1832, Samuel Colt crafted his first pistol. It exploded on the first fire. He kept at it and eventually became one of the most iconic names in firearms. I’m perfectly comfortable with my Colt because I’ve owned it for 20 years. I’ve tried all different brands, but none feel as good a match for me.
Sunday’s range time included people who were first-timers including a woman that had to be in her 70s; she was sweet, polite, and smiled at me on breaks even giving me a cheerful “God bless” as she left. She was using a .22 semi-automatic all afternoon. She and her husband, a man sporting a dashing curled mustache, were both new and complimented my accuracy. The man’s glorious mustache would have been greatly accented by my old style revolver, but we didn’t have time to try out each other’s pistols.
I did try one that my father recently purchased, a Derringer with a breech loading barrel that used .410 shells. I couldn’t pull the trigger. We thought it was malfunctioning, but turns out I have lame weak fingers. When I finally got it to go off after the twelfth or so time, I thought I broke bones in my hands. No, sir, I’ll take my .357, thank you very much. I couldn’t use my left hand for the rest of the night so I’m glad I saved that for last.
If you’re writing a person who picks up a firearm, don’t assume knowing how to use one type means they should know how to use any type. The way my revolver loads is nothing like a semi-automatic or like a breech barrel. The safety levers seem to be in similar places on the gun bodies. The hammers, if they have them, are in the same place. The amount of force on the triggers are incredibly different. And a double-action revolver, once it’s loaded, is ready to go; a semi-automatic is not until you manually chamber a round.
Writers, and pretty much everyone, have used the phrase “hair trigger” to describe someone’s temper. It means it doesn’t take much to set it off. Well, I’d say my Colt Python’s trigger is a medium and the Derringer for me was nearly impossible. If an assailant had been charging me while I had that pointed, it would’ve been useless and I’d be the victim of that scene. My Colt is kind of like what it feels like to pull the trigger on a toy cowboy gun (if you can still find those cap guns anywhere). I’ve only dry fired (meaning empty) my airsoft pistol and that one is quite easy/light effort to pull.
YOU (AND YOUR CHARACTER) CAN BE A FEMINIST & OWN A GUN
I know my Twitter stream is filled with protests about personal weapons right now. It’s been a sore spot since tragedies like Aurora, Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School. Every blog network distances itself from tackling this issue. And I don’t disagree with them completely when the individual bloggers speak out through their own feeds. It’s hard to get most people, my friends included, to see why on Earth I would even own a gun no less talk about it during an era of firearm abuse as we live in today.
I wanted to take the classes and write about it because of our entertainment consumption. I’ve been writing about comic books since 2007 and have written my own since 2011. I’ve been reading crime fiction since middle school although I’m partial to cozy mysteries that feature poisons or stranglings before guns. I wrote my first mystery novel about a decade ago (never published it) and my second one is currently in revisions. I’m a huge fan of cop shows like CASTLE and NUMB3RS which have their share of firearms and explosions even though they focus primarily on the deductive reasoning process. I also love the current cinematic version of Black Widow as seen in THE AVENGERS and CAPTAIN AMERICA movies.
Guns are part of my consumption and some of my creations, so I want to write about them accurately. I don’t want to be shamed for it. I doubt you’d want to see Lara Croft pick up a gun and not know how to use it. Instead, we see her pick up any weapon and know it inside and out even though they vary and would require training. In the TOMB RAIDER movies, we saw that Lara takes considerable time to train physically and mentally. It’s the concept of “badass women” that brings me this second look at my own training. As I said, I was trained decades ago, but hadn’t handled a firearm of any kind in ages other than posing for pictures. The refresher was good, and as a piece of machinery, I think it’s also good for the gun to be fired once in a while.
It may not always be firearms, per se, but the notion of being a badass usually comes to down to wielding some kind of power or a weapon. That power may be magical like The Evil Queen or Maleficent; the power could also be political, but they seem to involve characters who can be responsible for other people using weapons like Olivia Pope in SCANDAL or Elizabeth McCord in MADAM SECRETARY. Olivia Pope has her minion Huck at her disposal, not to mention by virtue of her affair with the President, the entire U.S. Armed Forces are activated on her behalf. Then there are characters like Joan Watson on ELEMENTARY who has been constantly trained by Sherlock Holmes in hand-to-hand tactics and use of blunt objects.
“STRONG” FEMALE CHARACTER VS. “BADASS”
In any situation, whether dealing with actual firearms, martial arts, or magic, being a badass should not be confused with being strong. There are plenty of people who have already explained that “strong female character” doesn’t mean one who kicks ass physically. Badass, however, resonates more with physical fighting than the word strong.
- Makes her own choices (Eowyn in LORD OF THE RINGS).
- Physical ability can be limited – someone who isn’t a fighter (Jessica Fletcher in MURDER, SHE WROTE or Cordelia in ANGEL).
- Mental ability can be limited through genetics, disease, or lack of education, but choices are still presented to her (Kimmy Schmidt in UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT).
- Has her own story to be told and it doesn’t have to related to a male character (Luna Lovegood in HARRY POTTER).
- Usually understands self-sacrifice for the sake of the greater good or saving someone else (Queen Gorgo in 300).
- Physically able to fight even if it’s from a wheelchair (like Oracle in BIRDS OF PREY).
- Mentally could be limited to strategic planning, but lacks emotional connections (Mary Shannon in IN PLAIN SIGHT).
- Knows fighting styles and weapons (Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER).
- Doesn’t need her own story arc (Lady Deathstrike in X-MEN).
- If she makes a mistake or goes against her superiors, she may only care about how it affects her (Tauriel in THE HOBBIT/SMAUG).
- Able to physically fight even if it’s through character evolution where she couldn’t at first (Sarah Connor in TERMINATOR).
- Learns from the world around her or through training (Mystique in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS).
- Her own story arc might not have been intentionally the lead story, but it stands out (Beckett in CASTLE).
- Makes mistakes and recovers from them often leaning on a supportive team or network of friends (Willow in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER).
WOMEN BELONG IN THIS DISCUSSION
There are plenty of top box office and literary sales with women wielding weapons. From Katniss and her bow to Black Widow and her gun-fu, people love to see women armed and capable. Why then can’t feminist blogs discuss firearms outside of discussions about genre and fiction? Why are we limited to archery, sword fighting, and martial arts? Guns are mentioned only in English countryside fox hunts. Good ladies don’t seem to talk about firearms. However, Geena Davis is a champion archer and leading voice for women in film; swords are “ye olde” so they aren’t a real threat; martial arts are sold to women as “self defense” from rapists; ergo, they are okay to showcase as far as some feminists are concerned.
In February, when I attended the first part of the pistol course and pitched my experience to several feminist blogs, I didn’t even get a reply, no less a rejection. These are the same sites that will scream, “Why NO Black Widow figure?” when the token weaponized female of THE AVENGERS and CAPTAIN AMERICA is missing from merchandise or as a playable character in a game.
“Most critics of gender division are women, and they’re worried about girls and the roles presented for them by gendered entertainments. They are quite right to be. Telling girls that the cars and the guns are beyond their domain of expertise, and that they should content themselves with clothes and friendships, is limiting.” Writer Russell Smith, brainyquote.com
Why can’t REAL women talk about REAL guns? This is possible to do without getting tits-deep in politics. I don’t need to get into tragedies like the Sandy Hook or Aurora massacres in order to discuss what my experience in a class was like.
WRITERS LOVE RESEARCH
As a writer, isn’t it beneficial to get your hands on the things you’re writing about if it’s done safely, legally, and with self-awareness? I’ve seen plenty of male writers of comics and novels talk about going to the gun range or even the FBI training facility. Women seem to be allowed to discuss martial arts or fitness and that’s it for the aspects of empowered women of badassdom. Screw that. I’m not going to avoid a subject, particular in fiction, because it’s the domain of male creators.
My Sunday afternoon began with my father taking me in the Volkswagon Bug instead of his truck which he had hooked up to the camper so it wasn’t available. The Bug was not the best option for this field trip. The “road,” we were warned, was a little rough. We should have been in an SUV. Luckily, the potholes were filled with fresh dirt and the mud was stable enough to traverse though not quite completely dry. We followed the other people who were in an appropriate vehicle down the “road” of Island Dragway which was where I worked summers in high school. The “road” then got even smaller and rougher passed a couple more houses and into the seclusion of the field bespeckled with a dilapidated school bus, cargo containers, tables, sheds and other things that I believe are used when they host paintball and airsoft war games. Our place was at the range all the way in the back of the field against a high berm.
It was sunny and my flannel shirt was far too warm, a complete contrast from the day I took the classroom training in a snow storm without working heaters in the building. Despite the sun, I opted to stay as covered as possible because of my skin so sweating was going to be my own personal inconvenience du jour.
We had a total of three turns at the targets. The minimum requirement was 20 rounds from any of the pistols as long as 20 was the total. Except for the two shells I fired from the Derringer at the end, I used my six-shooter for everything.
I had two speed loaders which I’m not particularly speedy with. The instructor and safety officer of the day was a different man than the one I had in classroom instruction. He kept encouraging everyone to go slowly. Every time I was up, he reminded me to slow down and reset myself even if it was during a block of six shots. I wasn’t in any kind of hurry other than to be polite and make sure the others had enough time too. Two people at a time would go up to the line and I didn’t want my slow loading to hold anyone else back. I was the only revolver person there that day. Everyone had magazines for their semi-automatics that probably averaged 15 rounds. Those were loaded back at the tables, but not inserted into the pistols until walked up to the line.
My first instruction was to aim for center mass. When the instructor saw my accuracy and precision with that, he said I could try for head shots which I did fairly well. I’ll admit the head is harder, not because of the smaller target zone, but because I’m short. Center mass for me is eye level because I’m basically a hobbit with a gun. My arms extended out will be aimed at someone’s chest. I have to work harder to aim higher than that. Therefore, if you’re creating a character who happens to be a short person, that’s something else for you to keep in mind.
For our final rounds, I requested paper targets because I wanted something to bring home and I have no idea where my old targets are, but I suspect they were tossed in the garbage sometime around 1997 along with my former dreams of going into the arbitration niche of public administration (hilarious, I know).
I think the Derringer is the Texas Defender model, but I’m not certain. All I know is, it’s pretty to look at, but I never want to use it again. My father said he might return it for something else. We used .410 shot shells and they spray like crazy. I can’t imagine anyone in history thinking that was a good idea. As I mentioned earlier, it also destroyed my hands. I know shells are used in so many types of hunting, but it’s something I can find little use for. I prefer them filled with salt and shattering ghostly spirits like those fought by Sam and Dean Winchester.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
- The physical build of your character including strength and height.
- Not all pistols are equal. Don’t mix up the mechanics of how they operate or think that a character trained in one is an expert in all of them.
- There is no gender better at using firearms with the exception of considering physical strength (not gender based, but definitely varies person to person).
- Laws vary from state to state. There was an AR at the range being used by a group of regulars, but I thought ARs were illegal in NJ. I even found a news article that says they are; however, I also have seen countless news reporters on TV screw up the language of firearms and report things inaccurately. So now I’m not even sure what the restrictions are in my own state.
- Characters need to run out of ammo eventually. The hilarity of the neverending stream of bullets is best left to the action movies of the 1980s. By now, audiences expect more realism even in their unrealistic fandom universes.
- Having a character stuff a pistol down their waistband is a stupid move. As long as you know it’s a stupid move, then feel free to continue writing it that way, but no one with a permit to carry should be dumb enough to do this.
- Having access to a gun doesn’t keep your character safe by default. As I experienced trying to shoot the Derringer, I would have been assaulted/killed if someone had been coming at me with intent to do harm. I would never have protected myself successfully with that thing.
*Images from the event are property of AmberUnmasked.com. All other images were found on Pinterest, Tumblr, and Google Image Search.