I’ve been a fantasy novel reader and tabletop role-player since I was a boy. I’ve don’t have a lot of high fantasy in my bibliography (though that will change with time), but I’m a writer and it’s one of the genres in which I’m interested. Furthermore, I’m a male in 21st century who remembers when the Equal Rights Amendment failed to become the law land, who has seen more women than I care to count marginalized or dismissed because of their sex, and who was raised to respect women and treat them as equals.
This gives me a few opinions on chainmail bikinis.
Recently, an issue of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America that featured on their cover this image:
It’s pretty typical of the genre, but this on the cover of a magazine targeted at fantasy authors, who are starting to count more and more women among their number, combined with a couple of articles that seemed less than progressive in terms of gender roles… well, it has caused a bit of a tizzy, one that fantasy fiction and art often has coming to it.
I’m not ashamed to say that when I was a teenager, I was turned on by such images (Or pretty much any image of shapely women. Or by virtually any woman. Or by stiff winds). I practically fell in love with the cover of Dragon Magazine #94. That said, I don’t think I ever felt that this was how women were supposed to dress or what they were limited to, either in real life or on the page.
The women gamers I knew, by and large, didn’t seem to be offended by such images. One gamer girl I knew played a paladin whose fighting style involved beating baddies to death with her “gozangas”, complete with requisite breakaway breastplate (though later, probably after the joke wore thin, she switched to a longsword). One of the best gaming experiences I had was a con where I was playing a female satyr (that’s a short anecdote in and of itself) who, with a female GM running the game, had to seduce a brothel’s madam for information.
Most of the people I knew who read fantasy were women. I never really asked them if any of them felt objectified. They weren’t reading Conan novels or anything set on the planet Gor, more Mercedes Lackey and Anne McCaffery; my suspicion is that they did not. But I can totally get how one might and in fact how it’s likely that many girls and young ladies interested in sword and sorcery found a certain amount of testosterone fueled imagery to be a barrier to entry, or perhaps even enough to turn them off the genre entirely.
The roots of how women are portrayed in fantasy are, I’m guessing, rooted in how women historically played into folklore and historical conflict. They were more often being married off or taken prisoner to be bedded prizes back inthe homeland than they were the ones doing the raiding and pillaging. Women warriors have existed and were (and are) every bit the heroes their male counterparts are, but they’ve never really been the norm. Even Boudica, one of the greatest warriors in history of either sex, started out her path of revenge on the Romans only after she and her sisters were raped by them.
As a male author, I’m always a little scared of writing female characters, especially when it comes to how to play out love scenes and romantic interests. If I make them too sex motivated, then I’m playing into adolescent male fantasy. If I play their sexuality down too far, then I’m unsexing them and turning them into dudes with boobs. Make them the victims of violence, and I’m being misogynistic. Keep them from violence, I’m making them passive. Rescue them, I’m reducing them to damsels in distress. Make them perky and I’m playing into the pixie dream girl fantasy. Make them aggressive then I’m turning them into Action Bimbos.
It’s a hard line to walk and is one governed by the rule that you can’t please everyone, but you can sure piss everyone off.
Now, if at this point you’re reading this going “let me play a tiny violin for you, white male”, I can understand. Any challenges I face as a male author pale in comparison to those faced by female authors trying to get respect in a male dominated genre (many recent successes, especially in teen literature, notwithstanding). And any tightrope I feel about how I represent women is nothing compared to the tightrope that most women are subjected to in day to day living. Women who feel objectified or marginalized by anything, including the chainmail bikini, have a right to be outraged and plenty of bedrock reasons to want to see changes made.
I think that as time goes on, we’re going to see more of those changes happen. It’s been in my lifetime that I’ve seen the idea of a woman being a cop or a soldier or a politician go from being a laughable proposition to an everyday reality. Fantasy is a reflection of the author’s attitudes of what should be, often placed in stark contrast with what they find most offensive; we’re going to see more strides, both from authors of every sex, towards female characters just being characters who happen to be female.
But I don’t think we’ll ever see them cease to be sexualized, not because that’s just what women get, but because that’s part of our fantasies. When women write women in the genre, they don’t describe them as looking frumpy or particularly unattractive. They write them as being beautiful, sometimes buxom, often athletic, just usually in more practical clothes. Likewise, men are written with strong arms and chiseled jaws with rare exception; we want our love interests to be characters the reader could see someone falling in love with, which often means playing to societal norms of beauty.
There will, perhaps sadly, always be a societal norm of what’s beautiful and it will always be kind of predictable.
I think, however, that such truths aren’t fatal to any genre, any more than the fact that someone will always be drawing on other stereotypes in fiction. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a character, male or female, being beautiful or sexually aggressive. We want to represent our characters as complete people and sometimes overt sexuality or societally approved good looks are part of that. As long as we’re not limiting people to those stereotypes and then acting as if that is all they can or ever will be, then I think there’s a slot in the description for such attributes.
I think the cover art above is pretty silly. I can understand how it might be considered offensive and I don’t think I’d want it on the cover of anything I wrote except maybe as a joke. I agree that putting a sword in a characters hand doesn’t automatically make you a feminist author, even if you have her being bad ass with it.
But I think there’s a line where you can guard against such things too far. Maybe it’s a line we need to be less concerned until it’s the one being crossed too often, but it’s there and I hope we don’t forget that.
When I finally get around to writing that high fantasy trilogy that’s swimming around in my head, I will warn you that the women will likely be beautiful, buxom and some of them athletic. But I promise, no one will yell at them as they run bravely into battle “Put some damn clothes on!”.