Monday, March 26, 2012

Sensible Clothing for Heroines

This week's guest on Heroines of Fantasy is author, Sandra McDonald. Kim's post last week sparked some thoughts for her--and oh! What thoughts! I'll let her take it from here.

Back in college, my friend Tony had a poster on his dorm room wall of a scantily clad fantasy-novel babe, all chainmail and chains, her improbably beautiful golden hair a halo around her come-hither expression, lush red lips, and big round tits. She also was wielding a giant phallic sword. That poster was one of the reasons I wouldn't date him. You can see similar images just by typing "fantasy woman warriors" into your nearest image search engine. Regarding Kim Vandervort's recent post about scantily-clad cheerleaders, athletes and convention fans, I think it's important to realize that many real-life women and female characters are still trapped on Tony's wall, adorned and posed to please the male gaze. They just don't know it.

A few weeks later, I attended a Margaret Atwood reading at my local university. On the way to the correct auditorium I passed through the lobby of a national dance competition. Girls of all ages flitted about in glitter, heavy make-up and tight, often skimpy uniforms. Power? Confidence? Sure, they had it. But real power and real confidence, in this brave new age of the twentifirst century, would manifest in being able to compete without the feminine trappings. Not being trapped, as they were, in an athletic version of Toddlers and Tiaras.

That this dance contest was happening adjacent to Margaret Atwood's talk – Margaret Atwood, whose dystopian vision of The Handmaid's Tale is coming true with ever- increasing restrictions in our nation regarding women's reproductive rights – ah, cruel irony.

Why was Princess Leia Organa, a member of the Imperial Senate and hero of the resistance, a woman who had survived torture on the Death Star, thrown into a skimpy metal bikini for Return of the Jedi? It wasn't to show her power or intelligence. It wasn't part of her cunning plan to rescue Han Solo—the plot required her to fail. She was stripped of her sensible, would-be-rescuer costume in order to make the fanboys drool. Carrie Fischer is said to have not enjoyed filming those scenes, duct-taped as she was into metal, rubber and leather, nearly naked on a set crowded with men. I certainly didn't enjoy seeing it as a ten-foot wide poster in my local movie theater. This is what genre women have to look like, that poster screamed. That Leia strangles Jabba with her chain is a great moment, but the bikini itself was irrelevant to her success.

Jedi was the first step in my disenchantment with princesses, queens and warriors packaged up in prettiness and sensual costumes. I preferred Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion and that great opening, with a young woman leaving home to join the army. (Check out the cover – there's a woman soldier for you!) Or Lois McMaster Bujold's Cordelia Naismith, battling the patriarchy in order to save her unborn, disabled baby. Or Nancy Kress's tales of Sleepers and Sleepless, Beggars in Spain, with Leisha Camden as a brainy heroine grappling with ethics. In fact, it took Kelly Link's awesome story Travels with the Snow Queen to lure me back into reading anything with "queen" in the title. Later I fell in love with Megan Whalen Turner's The Queen of Attolia, whose shocking punishment of a thief sets forth a story of redemption, transformation and love.  Today I approach female characters in speculative fiction with a wary eye; I hope I write them in a balanced, sensible clothing kind of way.

Ugly women are feminine. Women who dress in sweatpants are feminine. Men who dress in women's clothing are feminine. Feminine is a set of behaviors associated with gender, but associated by who? Why? When my thirteen-year-old niece wears a midriff shirt with her underwear poking out, it's because she's been raised on a steady media diet of airbrushed bodies and faces, of a sexualized culture where looks must exceed talent. She doesn't burn her bra because she doesn't know she can. She doesn't know why she should. I need to take her to see Margaret Atwood.

It is my hope, in this brave new age of independent and digital publishing,  that we'll embrace more definitions and examples of the feminine and move beyond The Warrior Babe.  I hope that some day she can put down the phallus, don a sweater and some pants against the chill, and maybe even enjoy the novelty of flat shoes. But somewhere right now there's fanboy like Tony, tapping on his tablet in a dorm room. What do you think is on his wall?

Sandra McDonald is a former military officer and recovering Hollywood assistant.  She is the author of five published books with two more on the way, and has more than fifty short stories in print.  Her feminist, apocalyptic, gender-bending story Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots was recently named to the James A. Tiptree Award Honor List.


Clint Harris said...

I dunno. I think it's all subjective. The only woman in my family with fake boobs was also a Marine Sgt. She was tough as nails, but also displayed some of the most typical "self-esteem" issues I have ever seen. Eating disorders. Poor decisions when it came to relationships, etc.

Empowerment is all about how we enable ourselves to have power. Most of us (male and female) are very much lacking in power when it boils down to it.

Also, I don't know if we should confuse Carrie Fischer with Princess Leia. Leia was the only one who could shoot well in the entire trilogy. Carrie Fischer used to hold a lottery during Star Wars filming at the end of each day to pick who got to unwrap the tape that held everything in place under those Senatorial robes.

Anonymous said...

Great blog! I don't think there's anything wrong in feeling sexy, enjoying being found attractive and so on; and women dressed in provocative, revealing ways may sometimes feel empowered. What's sad is that these images reinforce and uphold a picture of women as passive and 'to be desired' not active and ambitious. That, one way or another, whatever their level of badassery in other ways, that the women are there for the men. The individual woman may feel great, but in a society with patriarchal baggage, these images carry negative social meanings. It's not how I want to see myself and, though I wouldn't want to rush to judgement on anyone else's behalf, I would be concerned for any woman who wanted to think of herself as a trophy for men to aspire to.

Obviously, there is so much more that can be said here and I may not be doing a good job; but I thought the post was wonderfully revealing.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Sandra, thanks so much for your thought-provoking post!

Just for the record, I like my fantasy heroines to dress comfortably and have muddy feet. (And if you don't know what I'm talking about, have a closer look at the cover art for Eolyn. The credit for that particular stroke of genius goes to Jesse Smolover.)

Having read Kim's post last week, and yours this week, I realize that no matter what side of the argument one takes, I'm capable of playing devil's advocate.

I don't have an issue perse with provocative clothing; and having studied dance for years, I have to admit, all those sparkly costumes and that colorful makeup is a lot of fun, a change of pace from the ordinary.

But I can see how from a certain perspective and under various circumstances such costuming can be seen as limiting and artificial.

One thing I will say about fantasy and sci fi heroines: The development of the genre has allowed them to be expressed in a huge variety of ways, running the spectrum from Tony's wall poster to Attwood's Offred (who struggles to survive in a world where she is not only denied reproductive freedom, but the freedom to enjoy and display her own sexuality as she chooses).

So those of us who are tired of bikini-clad princesses do have other places to which we can go for our stories, and I can't help but believe that is a good thing.

J. Kathleen Cheney said...

I remember when I was in junior high, whene suddenly girls got flight-suits and uniforms like the boys. It was one of the things I remember most fondly about the original "Battlestar Galactica".

OK, so their uniforms were a bit more form-fitting than the guys, but it was really the first show I can recall that had the women in the military dressed like the men. I was so excited, because I never could understand why a military organization would put women in unpractical outfits like the ones worn in Star Trek or, heaven forbid, UFO.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hey Kathleen --

I remember very little of the original Battlestar Galactica, but that's a cool point you make about the switch to a more standard military uniform.

I suppose the key to understanding the why of those short skirts in the original Star Trek is that they weren't, uhm, designed by the military. ;)

J. Kathleen Cheney said...

The mini skirts never -sense- to me...which is one reason I disliked them. (Also, I certianly couldn't imagine myself wearing that, while I could imagine wearing a BG uniform!)

Kim Vandervort said...

Thanks Sandra, for the excellent post!

I will admit, I am either a very complex sort of feminist, or very confused. I have ALWAYS detested the chain-mail bikini art and the heroines who wore it. In my mind, it's completely impractical and downright dangerous to fight (or even travel cross-country) with one's boobs and butt hanging out. I definitely think that the art of Boris Vallejo, his contemporaries and followers all create art specifically for the male gaze, and do nothing to further perceptions of women as strong and independent. I put that kind of art in the same category as pornography, pure and simple.

At the same time, I have no problem with women who choose the frilly or the sexy because it's what they want and it makes them comfortable. Now, if they're doing it because that's what society dictates... that's another story. And where is the line between? Do any of us even know why we dress the way we dress, or think something is pretty or sexy? Is it because we're conditioned or because they appeal to us? I don't have the answer to that.

The women in my books, and those I prefer to read about, wear comfy clothes, boots, cloaks, and carry weapons befitting their size and abilities. But I'm still toying with a question that I posed last week and can't quite answer: is the woman who dresses sexy and uses the "male gaze" as a source of power less powerful, or is she just buying in to what's expected of her? I don't have the answers to that. I don't know if I'll ever come to a resolution that satisfies me.

For the record, I throw up a little in my mouth every time I see little girls sexied up for their dance competitions or made up for Toddlers in Tiaras. Those little girls aren't being given the choice to express themselves like that, they are being told that it's expected. They have NO power, and the adults who allow and encourage them to dress too sexy for their age should be flogged. There's a difference between CHOOSING to appeal to the male gaze and being FORCED to. I have HUGE issues with the latter.

Anyway... thanks for the great post! I enjoy these discussions and ideas. No matter what, they encourage us to challenge ourselves and others to think and grow, and that's what forums like this are all about.

Terri-Lynne said...

I love this conversation. Whatever side of the fence we're on, we're actually still on the same side of it, just at different ends.

I love a woman who claims her power. If she can use her sex appeal for her own cause, fabulous. If ribbons and lace is her thing, grand! As many have said, it's about CHOICE. Choice gives us power, even if that choice is colored by our upbringings or societal mores. Chosing to act within that is still choice. We all know when we're chosing something because we WANT to, and because we have to, or think we should. There lies the difference.

Unknown said...

I loved this post. I've had these same thoughts many times. My hubby and I were watching a movie about king arthur a while back and the women were running out fighting with a few strips of leather tied around their chests. They would have all died pretty quickly. A little bit of realism would be nice when it comes to female warriors.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi DelSheree!

I think I know what movie you're talking about -- That was Keira Knightley in those strips of leather. Talk about a pleasant fantasy! (for some folks, anyway) ;)

Thinking about Keira's Guinevere for some reason brought to mind the movie 300. Before ever seeing it I was told by a friend (who also happened to be a man) that in his estimation, the costuming was especially designed for women viewers. Even now I can't help but smile whenever I think about it: all those well-muscled bodies in leather underwear and capes. I'm not sure how practical those outfits would have been for warfare, but I gotta admit they were kind of nice to watch on the silver screen...

Terri-Lynne said...

I just tried to find a pic of an "authentic" Spartan warrior, and mostly came up with stills from the 300 movie, and comic art much the same.

The one statue I found actually was the leather underwear and cape sort of thing!

Pongo Pygmaues said...

The Ancient Greeks, during the classical period, abandoned their heavy and rather crap bronze breastplates and fought either lightly clad from knee to neck (as the shield covered this entire area anyway) and wore helmet and greaves (or later on leather boots). But even when they wore the bronze corslet it wasn't unusual for them to fight naked from waist to knee. As in naked, not wearing a kilt or loincloth or whatever. For baffling reasons film portrayals (of which 300 was merely the most egregious) have shied from this (as novels and films about Thermopylae have shied from mentioning the institutionalised paedophilia of the Spartan state, but that is another topic - hard to have plucky defenders of freedom who also bugger 12 year old boys, eh?).

I saw Ms Knightly in the street in Ludlow once. She is actually even prettier in the flesh than onscreen (I didn't recognise her, but it was mentioned to me later it was she I had been staring at) but also even shorter and thinner than she appears to be on film.

Historically bare breasted (indeed almost naked) female warriors served as bodyguards and soldiers to the C19 King of Dahomey and possibly (though more questionably) as fighting troops in the medieval Khmer state. These were both cultures where armour was basically unused by the bulk of infantry though (and it's possible that in the case of the Khmer, the female guards were merely decorative -- though in Dahomey they were fighting troops).

These are the only formed bodies of fighting women I'm aware of prior to the late C20 (while individual women fought alongside men at times prior to that date the evidence that they did so in any numbers anywhere else is debatable at best).

But fighting naked or semi-clad was actually quite widespread amongst the poor or amongst troops who sought to keep the enemy at a distance and fought in loose order. The Balearic slingers, for instance, or Numidian cavalry. Even some troops who fought hand to hand preferred to do so naked or in their shirts (Celtic fanatics, C17 highlanders - who cast off their heavy plaids before charging).

there's actually no real reason why women shouldn't fight naked or lightly clad so long as it fits with what the men do in similar circumstances.

Possibly related... a pregnant Norse lady bared her breast and struck it with a sword to frighten off marauding natives in America in the 11th century, so exposure has it's uses at times...

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

I had a feeling Pongo would step in with some history of warrior dress (or lack thereof) in ancient times. Thank you! Very interesting.

Terri -- I think your comment may have gotten eaten up again. I'll check my email & repost it if I find it.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

I was right. Here's Terri's comment, originally posted just prior to Pongo's:

I just tried to find a pic of an "authentic" Spartan warrior, and mostly came up with stills from the 300 movie, and comic art much the same.

The one statue I found actually was the leather underwear and cape sort of thing!

Pongo Pygmaues said...


Breastplate but no gential protection:,r:0,s:0&tx=93&ty=71

Naked bar helm and greaves:

breastplate but naked from waist to knee

There is a school of thought that says the nakedness is purely artistic but that is not followed by the majority of military historians who have studied the period in any detail (especially Hansen whose 'The Western Way of War', though flawed in respect to how hoplites held their spears and the reason for the number of ranks, and also a little silly in its attempts to take Greek warfare as a basis for the whole modern western approach to war, is nonetheless admiorable in its analysis of equipment, physical demands on the warrior, etc).

Pongo Pygmaues said...

Is the naked from waist to knee one.

For some reason the links don't show as such but hopefully cut and paste will work.

Otherwise search:

greek phalanx pottery

and these images are in there.

Heather McDougal said...

I think there is a funny thing in our culture about nakedness equaling sexiness. For some reason, more flesh is considered more exciting. If you look at the Victorians, for whom a glimpse of an ankle was incredibly arousing, this modern obsession with leaving nothing to the imagination is sorely lacking in mystery.

My sexiest outfits don't actually show that much flesh; they tend to point at possibilities, to show me in my best light. In my mind (perhaps that's the only place this is true), the hinting is the really exciting thing, the possibility. As Kim says, by depicting women with so little on, they're not necessarily making them sexier, they're just making them THERE. For you to look at. Like porn (which by the way, I mostly find less sexy than, say, Colin Firth as Darcy coming up to his house with a wet shirt on).

Just sayin'.

Terri-Lynne said...

Neddeth--less is more. It's the same way I feel about sex scenes. It's all that leads up to it that's dead sexy. Once you get to the act itself, it's...well, a release from the sexy.

And we are in absolute agreement on Firth/Darcy and his wet shirt. :)