Monday, March 19, 2012

On Short Skirts and Big Swords: Modern Feminism and Fantasy

Yesterday I attended WonderCon for the first time, which turned out to be a “Comic-Con Lite,” with fewer crowds, but the same geek camaraderie and creative energy as its big sister.  The most intriguing aspect of this con, however, was not the actual con itself; it was the fact that, rather than have the Convention Center all to itself, WonderCon shared facilities with both a high school cheerleading competition and a girls’ volleyball tournament.  This was either poor planning on Anaheim’s part or inspired, depending on one’s perspective. 

Suffice it to say, scantily-clad girls were in abundance yesterday.  Whether they were dressed as Supergirl , Xena, or any number of half-dressed manga mavens or trotting around in tight, barely-there volleyball shorts and cheerleading uniforms, the half-naked women at the convention center yesterday outnumbered the men, and at times, as geek fanboys snapped photos of underage girls in sparkly cheerleading costumes and volleyball girls posed with R2-D2 for pics of their own, the lines between fandom and reality became curiously blurred.

When I arrived home last night and settled down with the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly (Game of Thrones, people!  Get excited!) I came across an article about how Zoey Deschanel’s New Girl has come under fire from feminists for her silly, spunky, gushy girliness, and how producers have responded by “toning down” the very thing that has many viewers in love with the show: title character Jess’s combination of girlish innocence and silliness.

Cap this off with my near-constant questioning of how women are portrayed in fantasy art and on covers, and I found myself pondering the question: what does feminism mean in today’s society?  And what does it mean for the fantasy genre?

One thing is for certain: women and girls growing up in today’s society are not practicing our mothers’ feminism.  We aren’t burning bras, we’re embracing them, particularly the sexy, lacy, push-up kind.  And not because we have to, but because it’s what we want.  The cheerleaders, the volleyball girls and the bikini-clad woman warriors with swords aren’t scantily-clad to satisfy the male gaze of our patriarchal society; the former wear short skirts and tight shorts because they can more successfully compete as athletes, and the latter walk the halls with all the confidence their super heroine personas inspire, a confidence I wish I had as I slump around in my sweatshirt and jeans.  Jess of New Girl recently came under fire from feminist organizations because she’s just so girly, to which the producers and star say, “so what?”  Can’t a woman be girly and a feminist?  Is the bodice a constrictive symbol of male power if I choose to wear it?

This leads, inevitably, to how women are portrayed in modern fantasy.  Yes, women in Martin’s Game of Thrones are perceived by society as lacking power, but no one who crosses Cersei, Dany or Lady Stark would believe the truth of that statement.  These women are fiercely protective of their own, tough as nails, and able to manipulate the subtleties of power in ways their men cannot.  My Ki’leah from Song and Northern Queen prefers to wear dresses and do her hair, but they don’t define who she is or how she governs.  In fact, I would argue that women who present themselves as women in fantasy have more power because they are underestimated by both the men in their worlds and the readers themselves, whose preconceived notions of women in fantasy have been defined by the centuries of patriarchal expectations.  One answer is to put swords in the hands of women, send them into battle, and call it power, but must women give up our very nature in order to gain power and be viewed as strong?

And where do men fit in?  As I waited in line for the Snow White and the Huntsman panel (which I missed—argh!) I noticed a tremendous amount of men in line for the next panel, which was a sneak peek at the next Resident Evil movie.  At the panel, I watched clips of teeny tiny Milla Jovovich kick major zombie ass—while men clapped and cheered.  I was intrigued to discover that this video game-turned-movie franchise is ten years old, and RE’s Alice is the only female action heroine to carry an entire movie franchise.  When guys read my book, they tell me their favorite character is Britta, the female warrior.  Clearly, men aren’t threatened by women with power; so why do we continue to give them—and ourselves—a bad rap?  Isn’t it time to lay this particular argument to rest?

Like Princess Leia, who used her sexy slave costume to choke her captor and forever turned societal expectations of women in fantasy upside down—creating generations of fanboy believers in the process—I believe it’s time for feminism to accept that yes, women want to be taken seriously and we want to be heard, but not at the cost of what makes us female.  And not at the cost of men, either.  People, it’s time to bring balance to the Force.

by Kim Vandervort


Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Wow. Kim, you were inspired this weekend!

I'm off to catch a plane, so don't have time for a lengthy comment, but want to let you know I really enjoyed this. Very thought provoking. I'll be back with more to say later. :)

Terri-Lynne said...

Kim, Kim, Kim--this brought tears to my eyes. Seriously, I'm typing through blurry vision right now.

The crux of EVERYTHING is choice. When women are subjugated, coerced, belittled or EXPECTED to dress or act in a certain way, it's bad. When a woman chooses it because it is what she WANTS, it's good. Very, very good.

I hate that a girly-girl is made to feel somehow traitorous to her sex because she likes ribbons and lace and is perhaps a bit flighty/silly. I hate that our girls have to be strong, smart and fearless/tearless to be "real women." We're all different. We like and hate different things. What makes a woman a woman isn't defineable!!! It's not something we can categorize or give parameters for. THAT is what got us into trouble--the notion that there were boundaries we had to wedge ourselves into in, when in fact, there are none.

Leia throttled that slug while wearing her bikini thing, Xena conquers in leather and a short skirt, and Ellen Ripley kicks serious ass in a tank and modified cargo pants. And you know what else? Eleanor of Acquitaine conquered two medieval superpowers with manners, sex and cunning (as did too many others of her time to name here,) Melanie Hamilton saved Scarlet's ass, not once but several times, and Little Red out-smarted that crafty wolf (don't listen to Perault who got the huntsman to save her.)

The power we have is what we decalre by actions, not in how we dress, what sort of make-up we wear (or don't!) or how much feminist literature we read.

Thank you for this! As always, you rock.

Clint Harris said...

I never got why women were considered traitors for not subscribing to a certain brand of feminism. Isn't it about one's right to do what they want, rather than conforming to an ideal? Isn't personal choice the most empowering thing a person can do, period?

Terri-Lynne said...

You'd think that, wouldn't you? But there are those who judge a girl for wearing a short skirt, and others who judge those wearing lace and frills.

Heroines of Fantasy said...
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Heroines of Fantasy said...
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Karin Rita Gastreich said...

This is Karin now, hoping that my comment doesn't get eaten by the system.

Kim, you've got so much in this post, I can't tackle it all in one comment; but I suppose there are topics here we can come back to later on down the line.

From my perspective, there are many kinds of feminism, and each one provides a different lens, with different powers of illumination. My mother, whom I would consider a feminist though I think she would not call herself one, never burned bras, nor even considered that a practical thing to do. But she did bring up her daughters with a certain independence of spirit (much to her chagrin, in some instances), and worked very hard to provide us with opportunities denied to her because she was a woman.

Being a feminist doesn't necessarily mean rejecting provocative clothing. But then again, wearing provocative clothing does not make one a feminist.

I'd also say provocative clothing doesn't define the feminine, though it is presumably designed to enhance it.

So I wouldn't know either, how to reconcile cheerleaders with WonderCon with Xena with New Girl, or how all this fits with the various expressions of feminism and fantasy. But it's definitely fun to cross the streams once in a while, just to see what happens.

Terri-Lynne said...

Posting comment just to see if I actually can. Something strange is going on with my account.

Unknown said...

Fantastic article, and i couldn't agree more. It's not the sexy fantasy art that is inherently sexist, it's what too often HAPPENS to the characters wearing the stuff- they are at the whim of their environment, the men in the story, and their own lack of power. As story tellers we can turn that on its head- real agency is when women are allowed access to just as much triumph, just as much joy, just as pain and just as much suffering as the men- we are all HUMANS before we pick our gender!

Terri-Lynne said...

Thanks for reading, Barbarian! And for taking the time to chime in. This is an old post! Your comment made me go back and read it again. Thanks for that, too!

"we are all HUMANS before we pick our gender!"