I’m going to revisit the old “chainmail bikini” thing for a moment – I’ve written about it before, and everything I’ve said there still stands, but I’m encountering some new territory regarding it while I’m writing a story, and I want to bounce a few ideas around.
On the one hand, the chain-mail bikini (or the female warrior wearing almost nothing) doesn’t make a lot of reasonable sense in any martial application. Likewise, the idea of a woman killing things in her underwear is also not inherently sexy – it’s kinda off-putting in terms of sexual attraction. Both of those things I cover in the linked post there. I want to take this discussion a bit further, though. For instance: what happens if everybody is wearing irresponsibly small amounts of clothing?
I’m thinking, specifically, about sword-and-sandal type stories. Here, we have shirtless barbarians, toga-wearing kings, and a complete lack of pants to be found on anybody at all. Nudity and partial nudity seem to be the order of the day, right? Even guys in ‘armor’ are basically just carrying shields and helmets and, if they’re really well equipped, the occasional matching sets of greaves and bracers. If they do wear a breastplate, it is more-or-less shaped like their actual chest anyway and, let’s face it, the subgenre rarely has anybody wearing breastplates.
So, say you put a female protagonist in this subgenre. A strong female protagonist – not some bimbo for Conan to save, but rather a female Conan (and no, not Red Sonja). Do you dress her in furs and keep her covered up? Do you have her bare to the waist and brazen about it, fully in control of her sexuality and dismissive of the audience’s cultural attitudes towards nudity? I mean, to be fair, the males in these stories wear every bit as little clothing as the women do, so presumably nudity as we understand it isn’t a problem in that world’s context.
But it is a problem in our world’s context. Women’s bodies and how they are portrayed so often shows them as objects of sexual desire, and the artwork associated with the Conan stories
and similar are designed to paint them in that same light. Is Red Sonja really memorable for her strength as a character, or is she rather popular for her scant clothing? Can the two be easily divorced in the mind of the audience? How does so-called ‘rape culture’ affect our ability to accept the idea of a woman wearing almost nothing as still an independent person with all the same power and potential as shirtless Conan over there?
I’m writing a story right now set in an ancient-world fantasy setting aboard a trireme. A woman has control over a crew of pirates and is forcing them to row deep into uncharted waters. It is hot. The men, naturally, are wearing little-to-nothing (loin cloths and that’s it). The woman, my kick-ass protagonist, would probably be wearing something similar – loin cloth, some kind of top, maybe a cape. That’s what makes sense for the setting, anyway. Hell, it would probably make sense for her to wear not much more than Red Sonja, but then I get into the trap of the audience focusing on her body more than her predicament, which is both counter-productive and objectifying. If I stick her in something else (a robe, a toga, etc.), I risk underscoring her identity as a woman of action – she wears what the men wear out of practicality. She does not fear them, nor is she shy or afraid of her image, so to put her in a piece of clothing untrue to her character for the purpose of assuaging prudish (or maybe prudent?) concerns about depictions of the female body seems to ring false.
So, I guess in the end I have a line to walk. This character is not meant to be a sexual object, she just happens to be dressing to fit the setting. I want to let the audience know this, and I want them to know I know, since what I’m ultimately trying to do is tip upside down all those old Boris Vallejo paintings and let the woman be not object, but rather subject, in a world where loincloths and chain-mail brassieres are the order of the day.
Okay, gentlemen, I have a serious question for you: What is the deal with the picture on the right here?
I’m following the idea that she’s showing a lot of skin – I am a man, after all – but you kinda lose me as soon as you get into ‘crouching over dismembered bug-aliens and wielding battle-axe’. This gets my circuits all jammed; I’m not sure how it doesn’t for you.
Let’s skip the part where I point out how this is objectifying and degrading to women – we all know that. I’m even going to jump past the clear ‘realistic’ problems here (why on earth would anyone go into battle naked? I mean, even the Celts painted their whole bodies blue. And what’s with those blades sticking off her arms? You can’t tell me that one of those wouldn’t wind up stuck in her ear or back…). I want to get down to question the basic, underlying assumption here: Why do men consider this sexy?
The difference between this shot and the picture you’d encounter in your average skin-mag is really only a couple things: the weird glowing eyes, the bizarre armor, the weapon, and the dead things. I would like to address each one in turn, if I may:
- Glowing Eyes: I have been laboring under the assumption that we, as human beings, are attracted to other human beings. How is it an attractive thing for this woman to not be a human being? Like, she might eat you. She certainly seems violent and odd (look at her toes!). Granted, everybody’s got weird fetishes, but I really don’t get this. Human women are clearly superior, and in a wide variety of ways.
- Weird Armor: So, the ostensible sex symbol is clad in pointy, sharp things. Is this some kind of metaphor that appeals to the underlying assumption among geeky men that they will not, cannot, and should not be able to have a romantic relationship with a woman who they consider actually beautiful? In the first place, that’s pretty damned sad; in the second, it is also untrue. Also, how the hell is she supposed to reach over her head without impaling herself? How do you, as a geek, not concern yourself with that?
- The Big Damned Axe: Phallic imagery – I get it. I mean, it’s an axe and not a sword, which sort of messes with the metaphor a bit (it’s a chopping weapon, not a thrusting one – get it?). What I find strange about the weapon as phallic image in this context is that it – being a penis – is being wielded by a woman. To kill things. Doesn’t this strike you, penis-owning male, as somewhat…uncomfortable? I mean, I’m all for women having power and equality, but you can’t seriously sit there and tell me that’s what this picture is about, can you? As a sexual fantasy, why would you want the sexual object to have weaponized your own sexual organ to, potentially, be used against you if you misbehave? Is this an S&M thing? Anyway, I don’t find it all that attractive…just…odd.
- The Dead Things: You know what doesn’t go with sex? Violence. Any kind of violence. At all. Ever. It is disturbing that anybody, anywhere thinks otherwise under any circumstances. When we add in the fact that she has, apparently, just slaughtered a wide variety of bug aliens, it gets weirder. I can tell you with perfect confidence that one of the least likely times my wife will want to get it on is immediately after I have crushed a cockroach with my bootheel. Indeed, that is one of the times I am unlikely to want to get it on. Violence/killing things doesn’t go with sex. I shouldn’t have to say this.
The chainmail bikini thing is a bizarre fetish that I don’t understand. I mean, the women are attractive and everything, but they don’t make me want to woo them. We can be friends, sure, but they’re going to have to show me that they can be nice and kind and funny and smart before we get to the whole ‘making out’ stage. Does this mean I’m intimidated by strong women? I rather doubt it – I have a lot of strong women in my life and I admire and love them a great deal. Don’t fool yourself into thinking the above picture is about women being ‘strong’; it’s a reflection of a regrettable and disturbing lack of confidence among geeky men and their confused and often stunted views of the opposite sex. It’s more sad than anything else.