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I watched a semi-popular movie called deadpool, in which the "hero" comes across this dilemma while fighting female assassins, and we are not shown the results of his introspection. Here is the problem as I see it:

Men fighting women. Then you have to deal with inter-gender violence. "Your good guy is hitting a woman!" Women fighting only women, and possibly the slimiest and most evil of men. Then you have to deal with inequality - "what, women aren't good enough to fight alongside men?" Women don't fight or get hurt. Then you have to deal with lack of representation. "What, women aren't important enough to be given an important role?"

Say the story revolves around a female villain who is a pretty significant threat. Not in the way of Catherine tranell, a character who is dangerous in the way a femme fatale is, but can kill you through magic or some other kind of power. Things will have to get physical at some point between her and the male hero. How would you write that? Would you find it cringy?

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    Have you seen Family Guy's Stewie vs Penelope fight? That might give you ideas. – J.G. Jan 28 '18 at 18:19
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    Atomic blonde. For all that we know (until the end), the main character could be the main villain of the story. – NofP Jan 28 '18 at 22:09
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    Thor Ragnarok did this very recently. – sudowoodo Jan 29 '18 at 10:50
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    FYI to me your delema is sexist, not hitting women – Andrey Jan 29 '18 at 17:08
  • Good question. There was a big protest against a billboard for one of the X-Men movies because it showed a man fighting with a woman. I found it curious that the objection wasn't to the movie, but just to the billboard. The studio apologized and took down the billboard. hollywoodreporter.com/rambling-reporter/… Frankly, I see this as an example of the paradox of feminism: Women are just as strong and tough as men and to say otherwise is sexist, and also women are delicate flowers who must be carefully protected and to say otherwise is sexist. – Jay Jan 30 '18 at 23:43
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In Deadpool, this dilemma is rooted in the main characters (pretty chauvinistic) view of the world - and that‘s what you need to take into account in your story as well.

What is society‘s take on this in your setting? And what is your hero‘s mindset?

If your setting is a world where men and women are considered equal, then to me as a reader there should no problem if violence is also „equal“. However if your hero has been portrayed as someone who considers women as people who need to be protected, the reader might be irritated if he attacked her in cold blood.

And if it‘s self-defense (as you described, she could attack him with potentially lethal magic), then no one could condemn the hero - or the author - if he uses violence out of self-preservation.

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First, I have to ask you the most important question:

If this is such a dilemma for you, why did you write this villain as a woman? You are literally in control of every aspect, why a woman if you want the male protagonist to take her down in a battle of fisticuffs?

That aside. Frankly, if she didn't want to have people punching her in the face, she shouldn't have gone the route of all-encompassing evil. I, me personally, have no issue with men hitting women, or the other way around (within the context of a fantasy setting where good versus evil is a thing). Because:

If he doesn't stop her, people will die.

But. Two work-arounds, if you're not in the mood to have to defend this. Either, make your protagonist a woman. Who's going to get upset with a woman slapping another woman around? The other, make your villain a man. Or do both, and have it be about women taking on the patriarchy (that's a joke, in case you're wondering).

Look. As a woman, I really don't care about that. In my current work in progress, in the opening chapter, I have my MC getting attacked by a group of men, and have her killing half of them. It isn't about violence against women--otherwise a dozen shows I know would be getting WAY more backlash (RWBY, Powerpuff Girls, Avengers, the list goes on). This is about the reason behind it.

So, if you get this published, and someone asks you why your very male protagonist had to slap a clearly less physically capable woman around, you need to be able to answer that: Why does the villain have to be a woman, and why does the protagonist have to be a man?

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    +1 - however, as a woman I‘m always happy about strong female characters, so just switching the villain‘s gender to a man (given it‘s a strong and capable character) would seem like a wasted chance – lu_siyah Jan 29 '18 at 20:18
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    @lu_siyah I agree, but I'd rather read about a well written man, than a poorly written woman (villain or otherwise). – Fayth85 Jan 30 '18 at 0:24
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To quote Batman: "The hammer of justice is unisex."

Your hero isn't fighting the villain because she's a woman. He's fighting her because she's a villain. And since she isn't a femme fatale who uses her gender to her advantage, her gender is ultimately completely irrelevant to her conflict with the hero.

So the best way to handle the gender dynamic within the story, is to ignore it. Don't treat it as a man fighting a woman, and don't have the hero think of it that way. Treat it as a hero fighting a villain, and nothing more.

If you still fear that readers may find any violence against her unacceptable, there are two options:

  • Tone down the violence. Have the hero do only what he needs to in order to defeat her. If she doesn't have to die, have the hero knock her out and incapacitate her. If she does have to die, have her hoist by her own petard.
  • Amp up the villainy. Have the villain go flying over the Moral Event Horizon. The more the readers hate her, the more accepting they'll be of any violence against her, regardless of gender.
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I don't see the problem. But then IRL I surround myself with strong women. I was taught to fight by a woman. My sister has taught Tai Kwan Do for 40 years. My mom was the second female CPA in New Jersey.

But in a story you have to make it clear that this female antagonist is extremely dangerous.

In addition, I would make it clear that the antagonist started the fight and won't let the protagonist live without killing or disabling her. These requirements I feel are necessary because of the current society in the US where there has been a lot of sexual abuse. I would also make it clear that there was no sexual relationship between the two, both in the present and the past.

A good example of a dangerous female antagonist is in the webcomic A Girl and Her Fed. Clarice (Agent 146) is a dangerous psychopath who has at least considered killing 90% of the human race just so that she'd be remembered after she died. There is a valid reason for this in the comic: the more people who remember you, the more powerful you are as a ghost after you die.

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Personally I don't see any problem as long as "get physical" involves a weapon/power of some sort. If Eve is a master hacker who steals Bob's parents' life savings and Bob tracks her down and punches her in the face that would make me dislike Bob. If Bob tracks hacker Eve down and holds a gun on her until the police arrive, or Eve is a wizard who covers Bob's parents' farm in snow and there's an epic magic battle where Eve loses an eye, I'm still fine with Bob.

There are plenty of female villains that face male heroes--Azula in AtLA, Bellatrix and Umbridge in Harry Potter, Ventress and Zam Weisell in Star Wars--but who wins the battles doesn't have anything to do with men typically being physically stronger than women.

I would avoid creating minor female villains who are constantly defeated (especially if you have very few female characters to begin with--Scott Lynch is pretty good at having female characters if you need recs) and generally find petnames or sexual innuendo from the hero to the villain cringy if the hero has the upper hand.

There are some series like The Black Company where many of the interactions between male and female characters are cringy for effect. I'd be very careful with this unless you're writing for a primarily male audience or have Glen Cook's world building ability.

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It is not your problem. The one having the problem is your character. Your job is to figure out how he solves it and convey that to the reader.

As such while the other answers gave some good advice on how to deal with such issues, there cannot be a general answer that works for all characters. The solution necessarily depends on the values and personality of the character. Unless they see it coming and can prepare it will also depend on the situation and the circumstances.

I think the correct mindset would be too see this as an opportunity to add some depth to your characters by letting us see them struggle with an issue that doesn't have an obvious correct solution. And it does not end with the action either. Problems without clear correct solution usually result in regret and rethinking of your choices based on your experiences. In short, character growth.

Also the problematic nature of solving problems with violence does not actually depend on gender of the target of the violence. The distortion really is not that violence towards women feels wrong, it is that we unthinkingly accept violence with certain pre-conditions. I am mentioning this here (with an edit) because if using violence towards the villain causes the hero to question his choices that can extend to him questioning his right to use violence as a solution in general.

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That is the problem. You seem to tend to a real world ethic that men shouldn't hit woman.

But the problem is: You write about a whole new world or a world with it's own microcosmos, rules and ethics.

In the medival ages it was common to hit a woman, cause there she was seen as "birthmachine" and property of the men.

The problem of the most writers are, that they stick to their knowledge of the normal world, they live in. But that is the worst thing to do. Your story takes place in a different world. Even if you place your hero in a similar world to ours, the circumstances of his character development has made him to what he is. Is he driven by instinct? Is he driven by an abusive family? Is the setting of the world so, that beating woman is normal?

You are the creator of your world and there is nothing wrong with hitting a woman in your story, if the setting allows it. Even if your hero is a feminist, it would be accepted if he hits back in a state of survival instinct. Hell, even rape is considred acceptable in a story where war takes place. I read almost 4 books where a war was described and the winning fraction raided the city and raped the surviving woman. The hero didn't liked it and killed the soldiers who did that ... but that was his decision

What I wanted to say in short: Try to get a hold of your world. Think about it's rules and ethics. Think about the occuring situations and common reactions. Authors and writers have to seperate their own pictures of morale and have to think about their world. Then you find your answer. And in consideration of the characters and their development you find out, if your "hero" is able to hit a woman.

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