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In fiction, most villains are used to dealing with the Distressed Damsel. They scream, they're easily subdued by grasping their Standard Female Grab Area, they're generally easy to dominate. This can get rather dull if it goes on for long enough.
As a result, the villain tends to be pleasantly surprised when he captures an Action Girl and she puts up a fight. Oh, he'll still hold her hostage. He'll still kill her when the time comes. But when she spits in his face, kicks him in the crotch and insults him with a witty rejoinder, well, he can't help but shake his head (perhaps smirking as he does so) and say, "I'll give you this. You Got Spunk."
That last word tends to vary, since "spunk" is occasionally used as slang for... a certain substance. "Moxie" is a good substitute, as are "fight" and "spirit". This is meant to be a compliment, because hey, we all "love a woman with spirit," but it usually comes off as a rather condescending Stock Phrase.
These days, this isn't strictly a man-to-woman trope. It has a much darker and creepier connotation when used in the middle of a rape scene. It may also be used in less extreme situations by someone who's not a villain, merely a Grumpy Bear, in which case they'll make it a backhanded compliment by adding "I hate spunk." Not that real villains can't hate spunk, too.
For the non-rapey version, please see "I Love You Because I Can't Control You". "You Got Spunk" is more "I will love you because it is hard to control you", and unsurprisingly, has the less pleasant implications. Compare Will Not Be a Victim (for the Action Girl's perspective) and I Have You Now, My Pretty (for the villain's perspective). Contrast No Guy Wants an Amazon and No Guy Wants to Be Chased.
Anime & Manga
- Shikamaru in Naruto when commenting on Temari: "I forgot: this girl is a spunky one. I hate spunky."
- Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Shmion to Rika: "Oh you still got some strength left? Well, it would be no fun if you didn't!"
- At some point late in the Gravitation manga, Mr. K says to Yaoi Fangirl Rage as they have each other at gunpoint: "Heh. I like your spirit... spattered across the pavement!" His wife stops him from hurting anybody by hurting him. She's that kind of woman.
- The Hentai series Spunky Knight manages to use both definitions of spunky for its main character.
- Ranma 1/2 says Akane has spunk.
Films -- Animation
- In Disney's Hercules, a centaur tells a captured Megara, "I like 'em fiery."
- In The Jungle Book, Shere Khan says to Mowgli, "You have spirit for one so small."
- In the Aladdin sequel the Return of Jafar, Jafar tells a captured Jasmine who's face he has grabbed: "Mmmm such spirit." In response Jasmine tries to bite him.
Films -- Live-Action
- The Dark Knight
- In Batman Begins, a young Bruce Wayne was told this by mob boss Falcone.
- Happens near the end of Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood; while trapped in an elevator with the Leprechaun the Final Girl smashes him with a dislodged light fixture and proceeds to electrocute him with one of the cables. Afterward the Leprechaun, pretty much unfazed, states "I like her" while she flees the scene.
- Though not specifically voiced, the villain in Live Free or Die Hard is obviously impressed by Lucy when she uses the phone call to her father to calmly inform him how many men he has left to kill.
- In Stuart Little 2:
Snowbell: (to Stuart) You've got guts, kid! Guts, and... and spunk! Not to mention moxy! You got guts, spunk and moxy!
- Ever After (film): Le Peu, as he tells Danielle more than once, likes a girl with spirit.
- In The Sting Kid Twist is interviewing people to be in on the con that they are pulling when the guy he talking to is one that he saw get beat up by a cop for keeping his mouth shut. Twist asks him if he got the banged-up nose from the cop, when he says yes, Twist says, "You got Moxie, Kid" and hires him.
- The Assassins of Tamurin: Lale gets a response of this nature when someone tries to rob her at knife point. He's so amused, he practically jokes he would like to rape her after all, as she originally thought. The results are not pretty... for him.
- A minor Running Gag in Discworld involves generically villainous thugs claiming to like "a girl with spirit", with footnotes informing us that these men will very shortly prove to be mistaken.
- Happens in The Good Guy by Dean Koontz when the hitman, Krait, kidnaps Tim's mother, who spites him, hides her fear and despair as best she can, and generally does everything in her power to foil her captor's plan. Krait is very amused by this.
- The Darkest Powers trilogy
- A werewolf says this to Chloe when she asks about his leg, which she stabbed with a switchblade a few days earlier.
Liam: Don't worry. I forgive you for the leg. I like a little spirit in my fillies. Makes them more fun to break.
Liam: You do have spunk. We're gonna have fun, just as soon as I take care of your boyfriend.
- Mariel of Redwall: The title character is cornered by three searats and kicks one in the throat, killing him. The others don't use the exact usual words of this trope, but they come close. "A warrior maid, eh?"
- In the second Percy Jackson and The Olympians book, Polyphemus says this to Clarisse, before trying to force her to marry him.
- Vorkosigan Saga: Ges Vorryter mentioned that women with spirit (meaning Cordelia) should be more fun to break. Fortunately for her, he never got to test that.
- The goblin kings of the Hollow Kingdom Trilogy admire a kidnapped bride who utterly detests them and tries her best to escape, because it shows that she has the strength of spirit to carry a strong king for the next generation.
- In the first book, Kate manages to one-up them all by outwitting Marak repeatedly, agreeing to marry him on her own terms (a previously unheard-of occurrence), and then getting past the heavy enchantments to keep the King's Wife bound to the kingdom in the second half. Marak is of course delighted, and not just because she did the last to rescue him.
- Averted in Belisarius Series. Venandekatra the Vile was to cowardly to like spunk. He had no idea that Shakuntala would have killed him if he had been allowed to try to rape her.
- The most famous usage is arguably Ed Asner's subversion in the pilot for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, when his character, Lou Grant, gives Mary the aforementioned compliment, only to follow it up by saying, "I hate spunk." This exchange was also used when Asner appeared on The Colbert Report.
- Star Trek Enterprise ("Borderland"). T'Pol and other crew members are captured by Orion slave traders, one of whom is played by enormous wrestler Paul "Big Show" Wight.
Orion Slaver: (with his hand around T'Pol's neck) You've got spirit. I might just keep you for myself.
(T'Pol delivers a well-aimed kick to a sensitive area)
T'Pol: I'm not for sale. (she's beamed away)
Ken: That... was not permitted.
Buffy: Yeah, but it was fun.
Ken: You've got guts. I'd like to slice you open and play with them.
Glory: (grinning) Ooh, I like her. She's sassy! (pauses, tone turns serious) And I'll kill her.
- In an episode of Fawlty Towers, the incompetent builder O'Reilly speaks of Sybil Fawlty, "I love a woman with spirit! I do! I do!" She beats the shit out of him.
- Played straight by the script and yet subverted by the performance in Robin Hood: Kate has been captured (again) and is flailing about in front of Prince John who comments that she's "fiesty". However, Prince John was played by Toby Stephens, and therefore he comes across as bored rather than impressed at Kate's "spunk".
- Pushing Daisies: Aunt Lily absolutely abhors the shady and manipulative Dwight Dixon. Dixon, on the other hand, is fairly amused by her hostility and refers to her as "my spicy cocktail."
- The West Wing: Senator Lloyd Russell is attempting to soothe his just-fired adviser, Mandy Hampton. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it doesn't help:
Russell: You’ll bounce back. You’ve got spunk.
Mandy: I could kill you with my shoe!
- Dinosaur King: Dr. Z says this to the heroes Max and Rex after they wreck his Alpha Bots.
- Possibly Lampshaded in Team America: World Police, where, after Gary Johnston stands up to a terrorist, the terrorist responds, "I like you. You have balls. I like balls."
- Volgin from Metal Gear Solid 3 says about the captured EVA: "She's got spunk."
- There's also a woman-to-man example in Metal Gear Solid 1 from Wolf to Snake:
Wolf: Would you like to die now? Or after your female friend?
Snake: (resisting) I'll die after I kill you.
Wolf: Is that right? At least you've got spirit.
- Kingdom Hearts II: "I tell ya, Kairi, you got a lot of guts jumping straight into the darkness like that."
- In Tales of Monkey Island Chapter 1: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, after Guybrush completes the three pirate newsmaking tasks, Davey Nipperkin becomes impressed and says:
Davey Nipperkin: You know, Threepwood, you've got spunk. Pirate spunk.
- Togainu no Chi: Shiki becomes interested in Akira when he doesn't run, scream, or beg for his life like other participants. On his route, this doesn't end well for Akira.
- This episode of Concession.
- Though an outright example hasn't occurred in Girl Genius (yet) this fashion spread with accompanying speech bubbles shows that the Foglios are well aware of this trope and perfectly willing to inflict it on their paper dolls.
- The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob Riboflavin says this to Galatea when she threatens his BFG-toting Mooks with her petite little claws.
- Hudson, who was voiced by Asner, said the "I hate spunk" version once, as well. Asner said that while auditioning for the show, he knew he had the part as soon as he saw that the description included "Hates spunk."
- During a battle in Paris, Thailog grabs Angela by the back of her belt while commenting, "Well, aren't you spunky?"
- Darkwing Duck: Taurus Bulba mentions how full of "spirit" Gosalyn is both times he captures her.
- Negaduck does the same thing in the episode "Darkwing Doubloon", only to say "I hate that!" afterward (the second time, the Liquidator says it).
- Teen Titans: Adonis purrs at a pinned Raven, "You're feisty." She is not amused.
- Totally Spies The video game-themed villain, Lady Dragon, says, "You girls have spunk. I hate spunk!"
- In the Mirror Universe episode of Codename: Kids Next Door, Negative Number 3 says this to Number 4 in her We Can Rule Together speech: "Listen up, shorty! I don't like you, but you've got spunk, so I'm gonna make you an offer you'd be stupid to refuse!"
- Lobo does this to Lois Lane in Superman: The Animated Series--since he's Nigh Invulnerable, he in fact encourages her to slap him.
- Johnny Dangerously:
Johnny: You got spunk. I like spunk. (points at her breasts) You got those. I like those.
- In Disney's Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers, a gangster mouse says this followed by "I hate spunk."
- The Batman, "Two of a Kind": The Joker brings Dr. Harleen "Harley" Quinzel back to his lair, were she proposes writing a tell-all book. He responds, "You've got moxy! I feed moxy to the hyenas." He sics the hyenas on her, only to have her yell "SIT!", causing them to... well, sit.
- On Batman the Animated Series, the villain tells Zatanna, while holding her at knife point, "You are most engaging, my dear -- beautiful, impetuous... I could be persuaded to spare you if properly implored..." CRUNCH Cut to Zatanna's heel crushing his foot.
- Ben 10: Ultimate Alien: When Captain Nemesis arrives to kidnap Julie, she (futilely) whacks him in the head with her tennis racket.
Captain Nemesis: That's good. Fight back. I like that.
- Angelica from Rugrats was told she had spunk from a mafia-isque restaurant owner.
Angelica: I got spunk? Is that good?
- Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy: This is invoked by Eddy in the episode "They Call Him Mr. Ed" and by his brother in The Movie.
- One rhino in Babar had "You got spunk...I hate spunk!" as his Catch Phrase.
- My Life as a Teenage Robot: In the episode "Puppet Bride" Little Acorn says about Jenny after falling in love with her and she attacks him "A women with spirit! I like that!"