Friday, December 20, 2013

From Whence the Kick-Ass Heroine?

I've been wondering lately about the origins of the phrase "kick-ass heroine." According to the OED, the verb phrase "to kick ass," as well as its adjectival form, "kick-ass," refer to a person who is, or acts, "roughly, aggressively, powerfully, or assertively." Today the phrase kick-ass heroine is ubiquitous, used to describe protagonists of urban fantasy and paranormal romance on page and screen, from Kristin Cashore's Katsa to Suzanne Collins's Katniss, from Xena, Warrior Princess to Buffy, Vampire Slayer. But before the late 1970s, the phrase was simply unheard of, the gender-breaking combination of the masculine "kick-ass" with the feminine "heroine" not something English cared to name. Just who coined this phrase, and why was its coinage suddenly necessary?

The OED suggests we have Rolling Stone to thank for the first appearances of both "to kick ass" and "kick-ass" in print; two different 1977 articles describe the playing of male jazz and rock musicians as "kick-ass." Four years later, in her novel Tar Baby, Toni Morrison used the phrase to describe the black women of New York City, "Snapping whips behind the tellers' windows, kicking ass at Con Edison offices, barking orders in the record companies, hospitals, public schools.... The manifesto was simple: 'Talk shit. Take none'." The above usages suggest the term originated in African-American culture, but don't say much about the origins of the hybrid term "kick-ass heroine" in the current-day sense of the phrase.

I've not yet been able to find an instance of the combined term "kick-ass heroine" before 1996, although the existence of female protagonists to whom one might apply the phrase certainly predate this: Ripley of 1979's film Alien; Robin McKinley's literary characters Harry Crewe (from the YA fantasy novel The Blue Sword, 1982) and Aerin (from The Hero and the Crown, 1984). A Google Books search limited by date suggests that Julius Marshall's 1996 film guide, Action! The Action Movie A-Z, may be the first appearance of the phrase in book form. Using it to describe Rene Russo's character in Lethal Weapon 3, Internal Affairs detective Lorna Cole, Marshall writes, "Besides offering Riggs some spirited romantic interest (with a wacky game of 'I'll show you my scar, if you show me yours'), head butts and spin kicks confirm that Lorna's one gal who knows how to take care of herself, a kick-ass heroine in league with T2's Linda Hamilton and Aliens' Sigourney Weaver" (119). A "kick-ass heroine" knows how to fight, perhaps even enjoys fighting. And though her role may in part be to function as romantic interest for an equally-adventurous male hero, she doesn't rely upon said hero to help or save her: she "knows how to take care of herself."

I also found the term in, or rather, on, another 1996 book, Bitches, Bimbos, and Virgins: Women in the Horror Film, an essay collection edited by Gary J. and A. Susan Svehla. The cover copy describes the book as "the history of women in the horror cinema, profiling their evolution from coffee-maker to scientist, from seductress and victim to kick-ass heroine, and finally detailing their emergence as well-drawn characters who play important roles in horror movie history—past, present, and future." The "kick-ass heroine" is a sign of growth in the role of women in the movies; she serves not simply as backdrop or romantic reward/threat for our protagonist hero, or as the symbolic trophy of his conquest over the forces of evil, as she did in the early days of cinema, but instead as the heroine of her own story.

I'm guessing, though, that there must be many examples of the term in magazines or in scholarship produced between 1981 and 1996, works that Google has not yet got its digitalizing hands on. And I'm eager to find out when the term was first applied to heroines in romance fiction. If anyone out there knows of in-print examples of the term "kick-ass heroine" that date from this period, I'd love to hear from you. Especially if the author of the phrase turns out to be a woman...

Do you think the "kick-ass heroine" has changed since her first appearances in the 1980s? Who are your favorite kick-ass romance novel heroines?

Photo credits:
Sigourney Weaver in Aliens: Allstar/Cinetext/20th Century Fox, via The Guardian web site
Buffy and crossbow: SciFi, Fantasy, and Historical Writing


  1. Personally, I thought Mrs. Peel was a pretty cutting edge tv female character.

  2. So here are some books with kick-ass in the blurb:

    Born to Darkness by Suzanne Brockmann kick-ass refers to female's attitude
    Dead Man Rising by Lilith Saintcrow kick-ass refers to female
    The Devil Inside by Jenna Black kick-ass refers to tattoo of female
    Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost kick-ass refers to female
    I'm No Angel by Patti Berg kick-ass refers to Jimmy Choos
    If Looks Could Chill by Nina Bruhns kick-ass refers to female
    Kiss of Surrender by Sandra Hill kick-ass refers to male Navy SEAL
    Superb and Sexy by Jill Shalvis kick-ass refers to male
    Taking Him by Jackie Ashenden kick-ass refers to a generic computer game heroine that the female should emulate

    The first consistent newspaper references I see of the word kick-ass is for rock n roll around 1980. "Kiss ass, Cat" slogan t-shirts were also referenced in 1980 from the 1978 University of Kentucky basketball championship.

    The first references I find with "kiss-ass female" are seen in 1997 in the UK referencing comic books.

    the first female characters referenced with the words kiss-ass female are also found in the UK 2001 generically referring to creating a kiss-ass American private investigator.

    Then again in the UK 2003 kiss-ass female in reference to Trinity in the Matrix.

    kiss-ass woman

    a 1998 Globe & Mail quote by Bruce McDonald referring to Jacqueline Susann
    1999 Honolulu Star quote by Carol Goto (married to Milton Goto) referring to Elizabeth

    "kiss-ass" and "book review"

    Paris Trout by Pete Dexter Boston Globe 1988

    And then there are the women of "Paris Trout," not unlike the kick-ass ladies of a Dashiell Hammett novel, both glorified and slightly stereotyped

    1. Thanks, anonymous, for all the kick-ass research. You obviously did far more than just a simple Google search. Knew I should have taken myself over to the academic library for some more intensive research before posting this one...

      Interesting how "kick-ass" becomes "kiss-ass" in your notes above. Was that intentional? Or a typo?

  3. ah, sorry, must have been an auto-correct thing. I used three different programs. Or I have nibbling asses on my mind and did a finger slip.

    I dug a little deeper. The phrase kick-ass heroine shows up in the US newspapers around the mid-aughts.

    Further quick search shows that Harlequin used kick-ass as part of its marketing for the Bombshell line in 2004. EOS had a Girls Kick Ass! promotion in 2005. Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn was the lead book with a first printing of 100,000. Dorchester also started a few new projects BLISS in 2003 I think, then 2176 followed by Shomi. TOR might have started their paranormal romance line in 2004. Elloras Cave was getting national notice and I believe they liked to use the term kick-ass and out of the box. I think Engler was on Montel in 2005. Not sure how US chick lit or mysteries were promoted.

    It's interesting that when I searched for xena or ellen ripley, I did not find any newspaper references labeling them as kick-ass females. But I did find a reference about making a Joan of Arc movie. The thought was to appeal to female audiences they should use Kate Wislet's kick-ass female character in Titanic as the base template but kick it up a notch.

    Hope I didn't throw any extra kisses in there.

  4. I've only read that expression kick-ass heroine in the last years. Looking backwards, it's true that you can recognize certain kick-ass heroines avant-la-lettre. Certainly, Sigourney Weaver in Alien is one of them.

  5. I think this is my favorite post yet! I'll have to look at my collection of books (back covers and book jackets) to find "kick ass" and I'll get back to you.
    By the way, you gave me a thrill referencing Harry and Aerin. Robin McKinley is one of the few authors I still buy in hardcover as soon as published. Just bought some of her books to give as Christmas presents.
    I am a major Buffy fan, as well as an admirer of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley (or in most anything), and I loved Rene Russo in "Lethal Weapon 3" (it's a pleasure to be reminded of her). Would like to add Kate Beckinsale in the "Underworld" series, and Angelina Jolie as Mrs. Smith, to the mix.
    One of my favorite kick-ass heroines in Romance would be Nalini Singh's Guild Hunter Elena. Kay Hooper has some strong characters in her SCU/Haven psychic series. In the suspense arena, Gayle Lynds has written some great heroines and Madeleine E. Robins' character Sarah Tolerance certainly qualifies as K-A.
    Will try to find some older books I'm remembering as having powerful, competent, assertive heroines.
    Thanks again for the thought provoking posts.

    1. Thanks for the recs, CynthiaZ! I've not heard of Hooper, Lynds, or Robins...

  6. Hm, when I think of kick-ass, Joanna Bourne's spy heroines come to mind- they are historical too, even more impressive! And they're not wallpapers! One thing that I'm finding is that kick-ass females are going out of vogue or people are "tired of them," but it's a shame because I think there will always be segments of the female population or just phases in our lives where we will relate to the physically powerful female. We shouldn't ever phase them out, imo.

    Maybe it's because of the recent discussion of "strong female characters" and what that means and conflating "strong" and "kick-ass."

    1. Oh, yeah, love Joanna Bourne's heroines.

      What makes you think/feel that kick-ass heroines are/are going out of vogue?

  7. The original name for the Powerpuff Girls during their conceptualization was the Kick Ass Girls. Fighting crime, trying to save the world, here they come just in time...

    1. Thanks, Maze, for that great informational tidbit. Making me nostalgic for the days when my daughter was a huge Powerpuff fan...

  8. I don't know where the term kickass heroine came from or when, but I find it limiting, as it implies a level of physical strength and derring-do atypical of the average woman. Yes, she's an improvement on the helpless heroine, but she's only a step in the right direction.

    By her very exceptionalism, the kickass heroine implies that only extraordinary women deserve extraordinary men or extraordinary love. In the real world, on average women aren't likely to be as strong and fit and physically trained as men are on average, some of this is due to societal pressures and expectations and some of this is due to physical differences. Where does this leave those women? What about women who assert power through the force of their personalities, their intellect, or their intelligence, emotional or otherwise? They're left out, too.

    This whole topic reminds me of Sophia McDougall's essay in the New Statesman I Hate Strong Female Characters, which can be summed up by the subtitle: "Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong."


    1. Hey, Lawless:

      I don't think that the term itself is limiting. It's the fact that so few other terms are available for us to describe heroines positively. As the McDougall essay notes, men get to be heroic in a lot of different ways, including "strong." I don't think we need to take "strong" off the table for women, just broaden our definition of female heroism to include other aspects besides "strong."

      As someone who taught classes about fantasy fiction for a long time, I don't believe that every story has to be realistic. I'm more interested in the particular ideologies that underly particular fantasies. Do they present women in positive ways? Or are they invested in a conception of woman as lesser, as weaker, than man?

  9. Presenting women in positive ways isn't the sole test. How are women (more to the point, the female MC) presented in comparison to men (specifically, the male MC)? Does the book buy into gender essentialsim? Is an overall balance achieved between them, or does one person call the shots even if the other gets to express his (or her) opinion about it?

  10. I'm doing my Masters in Literature on warrior women in romance fiction and using the Athena Force series from the Silhouette Bombshell line which only ran from July 2004 through to January 2007. The term "kick-ass" is sometimes seen as interchangeable with warrior woman, also the terms action heroine, or alpha female. A fascinating topic!

    1. Thanks, Marian, for stopping by. Your thesis sounds fascinating!