Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Fantasy Women: The Birth of the Chainmail Bikini

As I briefly mentioned in another article, Fantasy and Sci-Fi can have a problem with diversity. This is partly JRR Tolkiens fault, partly the fault of longstanding social norms and partly because for the longest time the only people who really cared about the genres were predominantly male, western geeks and they had it to themselves long enough to create the tropes.

Of course the group I didn’t previously discuss who suffer from this most are women. Not only those who are already committed geeks, running the risk of being called out as ‘fake’ by insecure comic book artists, but any who might have a passing interest in the realms of geekdom and are greeted by…well, by this:

The Boobs of JusticeSource

Now I don’t want to spend too long on the visual representation of women in Comics, Fantasy and Sci-Fi because it’s so plainly ridiculous that I think it speaks for itself. I like boobs and chainmail bikinis as much as the next guy, I just don’t pretend that real women look like that outside of comicon. I also don't think it offends as many people as the mainstream media would have you think.

What I’m more interested in is how this started, when did we wake up and decide that all women in genre fiction, but particularly in Fantasy, need to either be completely helpless or to be supremely competent except in the rather vital area of selecting appropriate armour.

Well, this time it’s only partly Tolkiens fault.

Leave me alone you Hairy Bastard!Source

See, in the LOTR trilogy there is a distinct lack of fleshed out female characters. Those that do appear are mostly of the maiden in the tower type, wistfully staring off to the East while their male counterpart. Sorry to break some bubbles but this is actually pretty much all Arwen gets to do, sit around Rivendell sighing wistfully the majority of her heroic badassery in the films is either an addition or else is stolen from Glorfindel (probably because that’s a much harder name to say and he wouldn’t have Liv Tylers lips).

As with the lack of ethnic diversity, this would eventually filter down into modern fantasy because almost all modern fantasy is ripped off of Tolkiens work to some extent.

Now I say it is only partly Tolkiens fault because he did have at least one female character who not only was competent but also remembered to wear appropriate clothing on the battlefield. That character is, of course, Eowyn: Shieldmaiden of Rohan.

Stare too Long and she'll cut youSource

 Eowyn filled in as the Valkyrie type figure in Tolkiens saga, filling in both a feminine role (she is Theodens cup bearer) and that of a warrior (killing the Witch-King) which is a pretty fleshed out character as far as these things go.

So if the grandaddy of fantasy isn't responsible for female fighters in revealing clothes, who is? 

Well the truth is, it's probably barbarians fault.

See, when most of you saw this articles title I bet you immediately thought of this woman or at least something very similar:

Clearly it's a distraction technique?Source

That's Red Sonja, a character originally written up by Robert E. Howard in 1934 then taken up with a vengeance by the publishers of the Conan the Barbarian comics. She pretty much invented the armour bikini that is now pretty much synonymous with female fantasy characters. So much so that if you happen to play an MMORPG like World of Warcraft you are probably completely used to any female avatar wearing basically nothing even if the excact same armour set on a male avatar yields heavy plate.

She, or more appropriately the artists who drew her, is definately the modern progenitor of this trope but the more astute of you might wonder where she herself sprung from. Well, as is my wont, I'm here to fill in the blanks with speculation and historical bias!

First, meet Boudica:

"In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a great golden torq; and she wore a tunic of diverse colours over which a thick cloak was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire."  
Dio Cassius - Roman History

She was the Queen of the Iceni, a tribe of British Celts present during and immediately after the Roman Invasion of Britain. When her husband died her lands were taken, her daughters whipped and she was raped repeatedly. In retribution she led a rebellion that very nearly drove the Romans out of Britain.

The description above is the most famous we have of her and the one which leads artists to depict her like this:

This seems oddly familiar...Source

The thing is, Dio Cassius was writing a good 150 years after the event and he himself had spent most of his life in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. What he was describing was less a literal portrait of Boudica and more a rough sketch of what the Romans considered every barbarian woman to be, as compared to the dutiful and pliant wives and slaves they expected women to be at home. 

It should come as no surprise that the Romano-Greek world still has a huge impact on the stories we tell, and how we tell them. Including, in this case, what we think of when we picture a wild sword-wielding woman on a blood soaked battlefield. 

Did Cassius create Red Sonja? No, a Spanish artist did but I think what he resonated with was a deeply held image of the barbarian woman in all her glory.

Until next time friends, let us say Skål! and drink together…

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