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.
Most stories have a good love interest somewhere in there. The hero or heroine pines after this fella or that girl while in the midst of fighting the forces of evil or passing the bar or getting the band together for one last gig or whatever. We’re humans – we’re saps for a good romance. Fantasy fiction is no exception, either. I might even go so far as to say that the ‘love interest’ angle present in a lot of fantasy novels is, in some ways, more central to the plot than in many other genres. Maybe.
Well, if not more central, then certainly odder and potentially more problematic.
I’ve written previously about my difficulty with the female image in fantasy literature; this isn’t precisely about that. What I’m talking about is less the objectification of women and more about the romanticized idea of love. In fantasy novels, there is a certain male and a certain female character who are destined to fall in romantic love with one another and that is that. We all know who it is, too. Mad Martigan and Sorsha, Conan and Valeria, Rand Al’Thor and Elayne, Min, Aviendha and god-knows how many others in that series…
I could go on, but you know what I mean. Did any of us honestly think Luke was going to walk off with Leia? Nope. She was for Han the whole time. We could tell, you see, because they fought. Fighting means love, folks. If you don’t bicker, you don’t care. I know if I were locked in a rusty old space freighter for what was probably months with some woman I was always fighting with, we would almost certainly fall in love and make babies. Obviously. That’s how love works, right?
Fantasy and science fiction have a tendency to treat romance with idealized and ham-handed attention. They make it into something it’s not, they warp and define it to suit the story. Some of this can be blamed back on the old fairy tales of our youth – normalized gender relations rendered into gory and terrifying metaphors about witches and towers and wolves in the forest. Others can be blamed on the typical audience for fantasy and science fiction literature – young, single men. The idea of romance is tailored to suit their fantasies, as silly as that is. That these fantasies are wrong or even offensive to women (and men!) is only understood by those with a little age and experience behind them. In other words: when I was 14, much like all men, I had certain romanticized ideas of what falling in love would be like, and they were almost all entirely wrong. I blame the books I read for this, and the books I read were primarily of the fantasy and science fiction persuasion.
Some things I learned:
Terrifying Experiences Do Not Enhance Romance: Horror movies are one thing, but actual terrifying things do not make you want to cuddle. Or, if they do, it isn’t the kind of cuddling that involves making out and fondling each other in front of a roaring fire. It usually involves shivering while one or the other of you sobs and the other one tries to find some way to make the other feel better by cracking bad jokes. No sex is had. None at all.
Not All Women Admire Your Competitiveness: Remember that scene in the movie Red Sonja, where Arnold and Red Sonja fight each other all day until eventually discovering they loved one another? Well, that might be a thing if you’re going after Red Sonja, but in general being over-competitive jerk who wants to beat his girlfriend at Trivial Pursuit to the point where he’s grimacing at the game board and cursing at a die roll of ‘3’ is not sexy. They think you’re crazy. They are right.
Violence is Not a Turn On: No matter how much you think otherwise, gents, beating the crap out of somebody, no matter how much of a douche they are, is not likely to engender the affections of the opposite sex. Most girls will just be disgusted with the entire affair, since fighting (contrary to fantasy literature) is an unattractive thing to witness.
Sometimes You’re Just Friends: Look, guys, you are not the main character in your own epic saga of fantastic adventure. All the women will not be falling for you. Even if they’re nice and they seem to like you, that doesn’t mean you are just one date request away from deep and abiding love. Sometimes they just like you because they like you, not because they want to be with you. Sorry, them’s the brakes, kids.
The Opposite Thing From That Last: If a girl treats you badly and makes fun of you and abuses you physically and says she hates you, guess what? SHE HATES YOU. It is almost certainly not a game and, if it is, I’d suggest looking elsewhere since this girl seems to have severe self-esteem issues if she feels the need to abuse those she likes. In either event, the whole ‘love you until you stop saying no’ concept is both bonkers and borderline creepy. Cut it out. In the real world, people tell you who they are.
Now, the caveat here is that all people are different and all relationships operate differently, so I suppose it’s arrogant of me to say all of the things I said above – ‘your mileage may vary’, as they say. That said, I think it’s fair to assume that basing our expectations of our love lives based off of works where people ride dragons and throw fireballs from their hands is, speaking generously, completely ridiculous.
To give the genre credit, many of the most recent crop of fantasy novels (A Song of Ice and Fire, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and so on) do a pretty good job of interfering with the standard tropes, and romance has become a much more complicated affair in those worlds of late. Still and although, it is often the job of the fantasy reader, hard as it may sound, to separate the fantasies we choose to believe and the ones we don’t when taking our magical journeys into dreamland and beyond.
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.