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.