I learned about Lady Death the summer I first held a gun. In 2018, barely a year into the Trump administration, my friends and I feared apocalypse, a coin toss between Gilead and the diesel-and-blood-saturated desert hellscape of Fury Road—so learning certain practical, tactical skills, like how to grow and can food, or how to shoot, seemed prudent. A friend offered to take me to a gun range that he promised wasn't what I'd expect: The people sending their paper targets down the lane were an even mix of women and men; they were from all different cultural backgrounds; and they ranged in age from the 20-somethings who took selfies next to the case of shotguns in the lobby to the gray-haired woman hitting bull's-eyes with the same kind of .9mm Glock my friend selected for me, just to see how I'd take to it.
I loved it instantly. I thrilled in the precision of aligning muscle and aim, a process that seemed both mathematical and orchestral—like a careful calculus of micro-movements blending into a symphony of boom. That sound, followed by that hole in the paper, gave me a sense of power that was heady as a Champagne high and unabashedly primal. I loved it so much that I started taking lessons. I settled on the Walther PPQ as my gun of choice, the gun with which I shot my first bull's-eye. I started researching everything I could about women who shot—which led me to Lady Death, aka Lyudmila Pavlichenko, one of the greatest Soviet snipers in World War Two, and in the entirety of military history, male or female.
Lady Death sent at least 309 Nazi soldiers, including 36 Nazi snipers, to their ignominious graves before she was 25 years old—a kill count that earned her that moniker. In 1942, Stalin sent Lady Death to the United States on a publicity visit to galvanize the Yanks into forming a second front. However, the American press couldn't reconcile Pavlichenko's gender with her lethal proficiency with a Mosin-Nagant 1891/30 7.62mm rifle: The New York Times dismissed her as "the Girl Sniper;" other papers opined that her uniform's skirt was too long, which made her look "fat." Another journalist earnestly asked Pavlichenko whether women soldiers could wear makeup at the front. "There's no rule against it," she replied. "But who has time to think of her shiny nose when there's a battle going on?"
Decades after Lady Death sent her last Nazi straight to hell, another Russian woman with an affinity for guns would captivate American audiences. That same summer of 2018, when an English translation of Pavlichenko's memoirs was released, Maria Butina, an alleged Russian agent whose cover story of being a persecuted Russian gun rights advocate allowed her to cozy up to the NRA, and some of the most influential figures in conservative politics, was arrested. She launched a flock of headlines about the comely "Red Sparrow," complete with glossy photos in full pin-up mode—clad in a leather jacket and black stiletto heels, wielding two handguns; poured into a little black cocktail dress and donning yet another pair of stilettos and another pair of handguns; and wearing snug safari-lite gear to pose with an enormous assault rifle—offering what Pavlichenko wouldn't: that svelte, rouge-lipped vision of a woman whose passion for, or mastery in, shooting, a pursuit otherwise deemed masculine, is made palatable by her prettiness.
The cartoonish dichotomy of Butina's photo spreads, of her persona as a "gun babe," is hardly isolated—images of women using guns have long teased a tension between old-fashioned machismo and a mollifying hyper-femininity. There are pink guns especially for ladies; NRA Women, an NRA TV channel especially for "empowered women" with shows like "Love at First Shot" and "Armed and Fabulous;" and concealed carry purses built to hold handguns. TV and film have been populated with gun-toting hotties: Robert Rodriquez's Planet Terror obliterates any subtlety by replacing its go-go dancer heroine's leg with an actual machine gun. Today, Instagram abounds with "gorgeous gun girls," aficionados who pose in denim cut-offs and belly-baring cotton T-shirts with "USA" tantalizingly stretched over the bosoms, cradling rifles against their shapely hips or staring down the scopes in a way that shows off their perfect smokey eyes.
The gun babe's appeal fuses her down-home wholesomeness with an ostentatious toughness. She says things like, "I was in the military, I'm religious, and I represent what America's all about" and "sometimes I show skin, but I can still live in a man's world. I believe that women should feel sexy in anything they wear." She's the gal you want to bring home for Thanksgiving dinner—because she can kill and clean the turkey, serve it up with all the fixings, and still wear high heels to greet your mother. Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse assessed Butina's gun babe persona as "an NRA Cool Girl, a unicorn dream of what a man who loved guns might be seeking in a woman to love him."
But many of the women who use guns for work or sport, who've learned to shoot because they need protection now, or to prepare themselves for a day they hope never comes, or because they simply love that symphony of boom, aren't NRA Cool Girls—and their relationship with their gun savviness and femininity is more nuanced.
Susan Katz Keating, a journalist who once served in the Army, can still recall the thrumming pride she felt when she achieved the Expert ranking in firing the M-16 rifle: "I felt like I was the most badass soldier ever… before we went to the firing range to qualify on our rifles, the male drill sergeants made it clear that they thought we were all pretty useless." However, once they realized that Keating, whose father taught her to shoot when she was a child, was talented with her rifle, "they were thrilled… earning the Expert badge gave me a status among the men." That Expert badge was one of Keating's most prized possessions—not because the drill sergeants whooped and high-fived when she earned it (though they did), but because it symbolized a new surge in her confidence. Today, Keating's work can take her into places "that leave me vulnerable. I am small and female and to some people might look like prey," so she has a concealed carry permit, because "I view weapons as a force equalizer." She sees the gun babe as "an interesting trope… she speaks of self-empowerment, which means owning your own personal and sexual power, which often is unexpected of women." However, Susan says that the trope can sometimes "cross the line into [a] cartoon character, which is what Maria Butina sort of did when she posed for the glamor shots." Though she likes the image of a woman "who says 'back off or I'll kick your ass'… that is just one of the many faces of the gun-using woman."
Though Jasmine Riggins de Green, a police officer in Baltimore, is highly skilled, "less lethal certified"—meaning that she is tactically trained to respond to critical situations with less lethal fire (such as shooting a bean bag at a less vulnerable area of a suspect's body to subdue them)—she hears that she is "too pretty to be a cop… like this profession is too dangerous for someone like me, as if I can't defend myself." So, she can appreciate images of highly feminine, stylish women throwing down with shotguns or .9MMs, images that we might be tempted to dismiss as "Cool Girl" chic—she cites, specifically, Téa Leoni's character in Bad Boys, a lithe beauty who is chronically underestimated until she gets to throw down and blast some bad guys.
If anything, the cult of machismo that often surrounds gun culture is more damaging to the reputation of gun owners and users than the prospect of a woman with winged eyeliner peering through the scope: the fetishization of bigger guns; the sneering at "snowflakes," including teenagers who survive mass shootings, who lobby for, frankly, minimal gun control; and the "man's man" preening that precludes them from learning the basic mechanics of shooting safely, or even well. During one of my first training sessions, I stood next to a beefy dude who rat-tat-tatted off his assault rifle—a sound that made my heart stutter—but couldn't hit the paper of his target, let alone any rungs on the target itself. Riggins de Green says that she's encountered more than her fair share of people who "really have no idea of the magnitude of what they are doing [with guns]."
Beth Coleman's father custom-builds guns, including AR-15s, and she eventually became a competitive shooter. "It was never about a photo op," she explains. Other women and teenage girls participated, but she never witnessed "the sort of skinfest I've seen on the media where a Tomi Lahren-type is holding a rifle like a flag pole." That isn't to say, she notes wryly, that these types wouldn't have been "thoroughly welcomed." She's seen gun babe-style pin-ups from the Girls with Guns Pinterest page pop up in online "sportsmen" forums. "I can't say if it was a cultural shift or entering my own adulthood where I saw guns start to enter this weird fetish sphere," she adds. She noticed it most acutely with Angelina Jolie's booty-shorted badass Lara Croft, who wielded her twin .9mms with lethal acuity: "A much more palatable fantasy than showing a woman in the actual military, in lumpy fatigues and surrounded by other men."
When she was an intern on Capitol Hill, Coleman put shooting sports as an interest in an online dating profile: "Boy, did that generate interest," she says. She wanted to meet a guy she could go to the range with—but she encountered a slew of wanna-be Clint Eastwoods: "Many dates didn't understand [that] while I was interested in shooting sports, I wasn't reassured by strangers outside of law enforcement carrying guns into casual situations." She ended up striking that interest from her profile. Still, for all the supposed cachet and ballyhooed hotness of girls with guns, Coleman notes that her father consistently gets requests for Punisher logos on his AR builds, never the Marvel Black Widow insignia or a Colombiana silhouette. There remains a silent, pervasive assumption that the serious gun owner and user is always, inevitably male.
Women have precious few gun-savvy role models. Annie Oakley comes to mind, though she has hardly been given the same depth and intensity of attention as her cohorts, Buffalo Bill and Chief Sitting Bull. When the historical spotlight shines on her, it illuminates the "Little Sure Shot," a pretty young woman gifted at gun-powdered parlor tricks, not the women's rights advocate who wanted women "to know how to handle guns as naturally as they know how to handle babies" and offered to train a regiment of women sharpshooters for the Spanish-American war (a request that was, of course, denied). Snipers like Chris Kyle and Vasily Zaytsev have fewer kills than Pavlichenko, yet both have received the glossy American Oscar-bait biopics before her—she is apparently unworthy of the "great man" treatment.
Arguably, the gun babe is so popular because, in her own incomplete way, she offers some semblance of direction. In an interview with Rooster, gun enthusiast Lidia Porter notes that most of her Instagram followers are men, but "I would prefer mostly women… Sometimes, I'll have women comment on my photos, asking what gun to purchase for their first time, what holsters to get, or what to wear to the range. I absolutely love answering those questions." But that direction often takes a sharp turn toward the hard right, careening into a thicket of alt-right ugliness and violent machismo—only sweetened up in lip-gloss and heels. Learning to shoot has emboldened me and empowered me in the moments when I've pulled the trigger—but my great challenge as a woman, as a person in the world, is to be so bold, so full of strength, in all the other moments of my life.
I've worn winged eye-liner to the gun range—because sometimes, I like wearing winged eye-liner, even to the supermarket. I've also gone completely bare-faced—because, sometimes, I'd rather go bare-faced. I certainly wasn't the only woman in the firing line with a full face of makeup, or sans makeup. Ideally, women could simply want to learn to shoot—for sport, for fun, for protection, for all in a day's work—and that would be enough. But it's never enough: The politics around guns, like the politics around gender, are inevitably, inextricably fraught.
I've been shooting for just over a year now, and in that time, Democrats won the House, abating a more immediate slide into full-tilt authoritarianism. But as state after state systemically abolishes reproductive choice and autonomy, climate change ever-threatens to choke the world unlivable, and Trump and co. feel freshly emboldened by the reporting around the Mueller report, I still fear Gilead, still wait for the thrum of engines down Fury Road. So, I'm glad I know how to use a gun. I'm proud that, if I ever had to, I could handle myself—or at least, so my trainer says. I hope I never have to find out. The power of a bullet pushed through a chamber, that echo of a pulled trigger thundering up my arms—it's seductive. Sure, sometimes, I daydream that, if called upon, I could be a Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a sharp-shooting slayer of fascist scum. Then I remember that the country that Pavlichenko bled and killed for was an evil empire of its own. It's tempting to be lulled by that seductive potency of the gun, to think that the power it confers should ever be an end in and of itself—but it shouldn't be.