“You Couldn’t Kill Me If You Tried For A Hundred Years”: Female Character Development in “Vikings”

Confession time—I am an avid watcher of historical dramas. Unfortunately, there is a common trend among these shows that has turned me into a hesitant viewer: the lack of development for women. Now, to be clear, I’ve never expected a show (at least one that is loosely based on a previous time period) to go out of its way to place women in roles that they would otherwise not have been in. That being said, just because you’re basing your show on the past doesn’t mean you can’t use your female characters just as diversely as your male ones. Which is why I’m glad that I stumbled across History Channel’s show called Vikings. Not only is the show excellent at storytelling, cinematography, and a semi-accurate account of how the actual Vikings were, it has introduced me to Lagertha Lothbrok a.k.a. medieval Wonder Woman (minus the alien part).

A quick introduction to the society that Vikings take place in for those that may need it. The Vikings in the show were a society known for their raiding culture. For most of the year they were farmers, but come springtime men were destined for adventure. They would pack up their ships, follow their leader, and head off to distance lands to pillage. This set up would make it quite easy for the writers of Vikings to follow the binary that Jeffery Brown establishes in his book Dangerous Curves. He says, “[this] situates men as active, women as passive—men as violent, women as having violence done to them.” (21). In this case, men would be the warriors, creating violence in far off lands while the women were at home always act the risk of violence coming to them. While these set ups do occur in Vikings, there is always a twist and that’s where Lagertha Lothbrok comes in.

Lagertha’s everything that is to be expected of her, dutiful mother and wife, but she goes a step further, she’s one of the most famous shield maidens of her time. If you’re not sure what a shield maiden is, they’re essentially female warriors that fought with their male counterparts on the field, and were expected to be given just as much respect as the men.  She’s ruthless on the battlefield and one of the running jokes on the show is that she’s saved her husband’s life countless times. Lagertha is thus one of the show’s most prominent action heroes but, as Brown discusses in Dangerous Curves, she is not simply a man in female clothing.

There is no denying that Lagertha is subjected to the male gaze quite often but like Brown notes her body is not filmed in this manner as a “mere sexual commodity” but also as “a body designed to be functional.” (25). If you look at her shield maiden attire (pictured below) you can see that she is covered in protective gear. Unlike many similar female action heroes, her battle armor is actually practical. Her chest and stomach are covered in chainmail, her wrists in bracers and under her dress she’s wearing protective leggings. While in this still her hair is pictured as free flowing toward the bottom, in most battle scenes it is shown to be tied back, keeping it out of her face.  By showing her to be holding a sword (and her skill at wielding one), Lagertha has “usurped a particular phallic means of power.” (31).

Lagertha goes on to illustrate her skill in warfare by what Brown refers to as “the second most emblematic sign of the action heroine’s masculinized persona,” physical strength. In the pilot of the series, Lagertha and her daughter, Gyda, are left behind while her husband and son go to trade. Referring back to Brown’s claim of the gender binary, this scene is set up for both women to have violence done to them. Two strange men enter the Lothbrok’s workshop, demand that Lagertha wait on them or else they’ll do terrible things to her daughter and herself. She refuses and one of the men say, “I don’t want to kill you, woman.” Lagertha, subtly lifting one of the swords from the fire, hisses, “You couldn’t kill me if you tried for a hundred years.” They fight, the pair of men and Lagertha, and they’re depicted as equals. She eventually wins and the men barely hurry off with their lives (one having been stabbed in the throat with a hook and the other in the gut with a sword). This is just one of hundreds of moments of Lagertha illustrating her physical strength being on-par with the men surrounding her.

Despite all this, Lagertha is still shown to be feminine. She is a loving mother who protects both her son and daughter with the fierceness of a lioness. When later in the series her second husband threatens to have her son killed (said husband has also been hurting her), Lagertha murders him without remorse. This is also a moment of her overcoming gender roles as the murder of said husband leads to her becoming Jarl (lord) of the town. However, her aggressive nature with her second husband cannot be an accurate depiction of her as wife, as with her first husband, Ragnar, she was incredibly loving and wanted to do what would be right by him (although she never did allow him to order her about). When in discussion with those that could be considered traitors, she often uses her femininity as a means of gaining information, flirting with the men or pretending to upset before she walks off to report back. As Brown says, “the conscious manipulation of traditional perceptions of female characters as weak” has become a way for female characters to instead be strong. By exploiting what the men around her think of her, Lagertha can be both spy and warrior.

From the start, Lagertha Lothbrok has always been what I like to refer to as a medieval feminist. She acts as an idol for the young women in the series, with many of them saying that they would someday like to become like Lagertha. She never tolerates violence to be done to her, both in the physical and emotional sense, and by that she steals the role of action hero out from under the male character’s feet. She is both strong and soft all rolled into one—the female character development that more historical dramas need.

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