One type of “odd couple” pairing in genre stories that pops up from time to time is the combination of badass women and nerdy men. They’re frequently part of an ensemble cast and are either already married or a committed couple.
The male halves are often scientists, but not always. The badass ladies include soldiers, space pirates, thieves, gangsters, and assassins. With badass women and nerdy men couples, it’s not so much a case of “opposites attract” as “love knows no bounds”.
In mainstream television and movies, couples of this type are almost always created by men (at least from what I’ve seen). Such couples frequently deliver a certain fantasy for (cis-het) male creators and viewers: badass woman as sexual fantasy figure. It’s also rooted in the trope of the nerdy guy gets the hot girl.
Despite usually being framed with the male gaze, I, a cis-het woman, adore this type of pairing. As a longtime geek, I’ve loved it for decades—but not for the same reasons as my male counterparts. And there are others like me who dig such couples, too. Let’s explore why!
My first taste of this type of pairing was Emeraldas and Tochiro Oyama from Leiji Matsumoto’s classic anime, Space Pirate Captain Harlock. She’s a space pirate; he’s an engineer. She’s willowy, buxom, and tall; he’s stocky, goofy-looking, and short. Given their wildly different personalities, one might look at them and think, what do they possibly see in each other? I questioned this couple’s chemistry at first—why was Emeraldas with Tochiro instead of a man like Captain Harlock?—and in retrospect it’s because I was bumping up against a fantasy that wasn’t targeted at me. But because I found Emeraldas so amazing, I began reflecting more about what she sees in Tochiro. And then I began building an entirely different framework for this particular dynamic.
For me, these badass female characters are, first and foremost, empowerment fantasies. It’s fun to fantasize being extraordinary like them and having their amazing abilities. They’re cool and wear stylish outfits. Many men often see badass women characters as sexy and exotic; to me, they’re powerful and progressive. I’m aware of the sexual objectification aspect, but since that’s not my jam, I reframe it as the characters having sexual confidence. All this reclaiming is like sifting for gold in a stream of problematic waters. Such is often the life of a female genre fan if we’re to have any fun with these couples at all.
Do these badass women serve a sexual fantasy function for me in any way? Truthfully, in some cases, they do. Hey, I’m only human! So yes, their sexy natures can cut across genders and sexual orientations regardless of the creators’ original intents. But that’s not all they have to be, hence I often reject the problematic canonical elements and build on the foundation of ones that lend themselves to different interpretations.
One well-known couple in this category is Zoe Washburne and Hoban “Wash” Washburne from Firefly. Zoe is a soldier by trade and second-in-command of the Serenity; Wash is Serenity’s pilot. Where Zoe is serious and all business, Wash never met a quip he didn’t like. Zoe is smart, tough, and a consummate professional. Her way with guns is downright legendary. As for Wash, well, he recites her poetry. Omg all the feels! I see a woman like Zoe and think, she totally deserves a partner who helps rejuvenate her emotionally, especially given her many dangerous missions.
The nerdy side of these pairings (especially in light of the broader trope) often functions as a self-insert character representing the interests of male creators and viewers. A badass woman they can have sex with, essentially. From my perspective, however, adorkable guys like Wash serve a different function altogether: Best Husband/Partner Ever. It’s not about what their badass partner can do for them (e.g., sexually titillate), it’s about how gung-ho these men are about supporting and loving such amazing, talented women.
Sometimes their caretaker role is canon, such as when they use their science or other skills to support their partner in some way, e.g., making her weapons or performing domestic duties (because she’s usually busy with missions). Also, they’re often romantic and very attentive lovers. If all that isn’t explicitly canon, I make it my headcanon.
I view these nerdy partners in the context of how much they support and adore their wives/partners rather than as a self-insert character through which I objectify the female halves of the relationship. Sometimes a male nerdy character functions both as a self-insert and as a supportive partner, which makes for an unsettling viewing experience if your fantasies don’t align with those of the creator(s).
>My Wife Is a Gangster (2001) is a South Korean action film about a marriage of convenience between Eun-jin, a fierce gangster boss, and Soo-il, a nerdy civil servant. They start the marriage with wildly different values and personalities (often with comedic results). Soo-il is a hopeless romantic and a born house husband who takes on the domestic duties with gusto. He’s pudgy, which is not only a refreshing change from the chiseled Alpha type, but also downright adorable. His focus is on collaborating with Eun-jin to make the entire marriage work, not just consummating it. The payoff is during the last scene, when we learn just how devoted of a husband Soo-il becomes.
Whatever your opinion about Minions (2015), there’s no denying that supervillain couple Scarlet & Herb Overkill are a great example of the badass woman-nerdy guy pairing. Scarlet is the Alpha wolf to Herb’s Beta fox and they make a deliciously evil couple. Herb is Scarlet’s inventor sidekick husband. In addition to making her groovy gadgets, he gives her romantic cards and playfully dips her. He’s very tall and it’s wonderful to watch as at various times he angles his body downward to diminish the height difference between them. Herb doesn’t just worship Scarlet; he supports her in every way possible, a fact which is made clear from numerous visual clues.
Here’s an interesting anecdote: Minions character designer Eric Guillon originally envisioned Herb as a short man, just like Matsumoto’s Tochiro.
The similarity is striking and also frustrating. While the characters are decades apart, it reveals the enormous amount of privilege male creators have had and continue to have regarding perpetuating their fantasies about badass female characters. It wouldn’t be an issue if female creators had just as much opportunity to diversify SF/F with their favorite types of couples, but that isn’t the case.
Luckily, sci-fi romance offers another source for the badass woman-nerdy guy combination, one more tailored to the interests of folks seeking a new spin. The main difference from the above examples is that women write most of the SFRs featuring this type of couple. The following books deliver great ones:
What makes these SFR stories different? They have just as much action-adventure, sci-fi goodness, fun characters, grit, and intrigue as the other stories I mentioned. In essence, the difference comes down to the female gaze. The heroines have amazing skill sets and aren’t sexually objectified. They play an equal role in the relationship and have plenty of agency in the story. And, of course, the sex is wonderful, but especially for the heroine. Even if the love scene is described from the hero’s POV, it’s often with the female gaze and thus delivers a female-centric experience.
Needless to say, I look forward to discovering more badass women-nerdy men couples. In fact, anything in the LGBQT spectrum would be fantastic, too, since this pairing isn’t gender/sexual orientation specific. It’d be even better if more female creators could have a crack at them in high-profile, mainstream mediums, shaping such couples in a way that’s specially formulated for fans like me.