Backwards and in high heels: What 1947 self-defense has to teach us

You may have seen this 1947 self-defense film going around the internet. Is this useful? Is it stupid? Is it practical? Is it just drama?

Those are some of the questions I’ve been asked since this video resurfaced in Social Media Land.

Before I get into the practicalities, I have to start with the utter fabulousness of it all. (Warning folks: The adjectives are going to get a workout here.)

A woman showing self-defense on film in 1947! Excellent! Doing it in heels and a romper! Super-cute! Boppy orchestral swing music! Perfect! And major points for theatricality without getting overly dramatic.

Now to the nuts and bolts. Useful moves can be found in this video, sandwiched between the crazy stuff that won’t work in real life. Watch and learn:

Grab the attacker’s hair and pound their head into the ground or floor. Supremely simple, doesn’t take any practice, very effective. Can knock someone out if you need time to get away.

Knee to face. Need to focus on keeping the attacker’s head down (as mammals hardwired for survival, anyone who sees a knee coming toward their face will try to stand up). Otherwise straightforward, and can knock someone out. Note you’ll have to get in close to do this—if you have a high ick factor this is not the technique for you.

Palm to face. She actually does this one twice, taking her whole palm and pushing it into the attacker’s face. Can simultaneously scratch their eyes or slam their nose. Either one is usually plenty to put someone in enough pain that you can get to safety, which is the whole point of physical self-defense moves. Ditto on the getting in close.

Defense against a hair pull. Look closely: When the attacker grabs her hair, our Woman Warrior puts both hands up and tamps down the attacker’s hand or braces her hair against her head. This is the most important move if anyone ever grabs your hair because it protects your neck. Then you’re free to swing around and use your other handy body parts to cause them pain (stomp on their foot or break their knee are two good ones.) In fact, if you’ve got their hand solidly under both of yours, you can break their wrist simply by turning around. That’s a disincentive for them to keep hanging on!

Found weapons. While I can’t say I recommend flipping an attacker over your back while controlling them with a short piece of leather you just happen to have lying around, there are some important lessons here, including:

  • You can pick up things around you and use them. Almost anything – a pen, a credit card, a cup of coffee or tea, a water bottle, a comb, and so on — can be used to reinforce a strike.
  • Use your weapon the same way you would use your body parts: strike the nose, the eyes, the throat, or groin; or toss the liquid into the attacker’s eyes.

Other notable moves. At one point this Woman Warrior places her foot, with some force, on the upper part of the attacker’s thigh. In real life (duh!) that’s a vicious groin strike. She also, while both of them are on the ground, brings down her leg like an axe and kicks him in the face or throat. Both actions show more of the targets most likely to bring an attacker to their knees: groin, face, throat.

Now to the moves I don’t encourage you to try at home: The throws, the rolls, the joint locks. If you’re seriously trained in a martial art that uses these techniques, go for it (and I still have lots of hesitation about their application in real life). But for the other 98-plus percent of us, they’re unrealistic. They take years of training to learn, and they’re not things you want to be trying to do on a determined attacker.

Stay in close, get off your techniques that cause pain (like palm strike to the face) or temporary disability (kick to the knee) and get to safety. Fancy rolls, flips, and throws may look wicked cool, but we’re about safety, not the style.