Armor Up, Ladies!

Let’s do some quick role play. Say you’re alone, walking home one night, minding your own business. It’s cold, so you’ve got your coat buttoned all the way up and your hands in your pocket. Because it’s late you decide to take a short cut through an alley. You’re half way through when OMG a dragon appears from the middle of nowhere, looking like it’s had a seriously bad day. (It’s a role play, bare with me.) Do you:

a) Dive into the dumpster on your right and hope it didn’t see you.
b) Crap your pants and play dead.
c) Wonder which of the two-week old mold colonies in your refrigerator did it this time.
d) Whip out your pocket knife and strip yourself down to your underwear because shit, you’re gonna fight this thing!

If you chose option d, you’re probably a woman, right? No? Curses, internet! You’ve lied to me again!

As ridiculous as the above scenario is, as far as much of the internet, gaming, comic book and general fantasy & science fiction communities are concerned, battling in your unmentionables is not only perfectly acceptable for a woman, it’s downright mandatory. Impractical, dangerous, and sexualized female armor is so pervasive in our fantasy media culture that we’ve become desensitized to the gross differences between male and female character design, and what it means to the larger gender discussion. And before we hear the chorus of ‘male characters are sexualized too’, let’s ask ourselves when was the last time we saw chain mail banana hammocks and steel nipple stickies as fundamental pieces of male battle armor in a non-ironic way. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Because that’s what we’re talking about here. The fact that female characters are portrayed as seriously going into battle in stiletto heels, with all their vital organs exposed and a couple strips of metal wedged between their butt cheeks and over their cleavage to serve as armor–while their male counterparts are wrapped in enough iron to alter the Earth’s magnetic poles. And don’t even get me started on the ‘she’s so strong she doesn’t need armor’ bullshit argument. That’s not a strong female character, that’s a masturbatory image and don’t even try to pretend otherwise.

But putting aside how ludicrously impractical such armor is and how these designs are blatantly there to appeal to male fans, these images also contribute to a number of gender stereotypes regarding sexual attractiveness, capability and womanhood. Take the strong female character argument from above. How is it that the strength of a female character is inversely proportional to how little she is wearing? We see this outside of fantasy worlds as well. Women who can’t or won’t conform to a very specific model of beauty and sexuality are seen as less intelligent and less capable of doing their jobs, even when physical fitness/attractiveness have nothing to do with their vocation.

Stepping into the private sphere we can also see how these stereotypes are damaging. The designers make it clear that beauty trumps safety for their female characters. In reality, the preoccupation with beauty, fashion and materialism is almost shorthand for ‘female’. Quick, how long does it take the average woman to get ready in the morning? Forever, right? Gawd, we were supposed to have left an hour ago! (For the record, it only takes me about seven minutes in front of a mirror to do everything I need to do to look human). It’s a bit of a catch-22: to be taken seriously a woman must be beautiful, but if she spends too much time or energy on being beautiful then she’s vapid. Conversely, if a woman chooses to walk against the current standards of attractiveness, she opens herself up to all sorts of slings and barbs aimed at her womanhood, her sexuality and her femininity. Hell, one of the arguments against covering female characters in actual, practical battle armor is that it would take away her femininity, as if that matters when she’s wading though a sea of swords and spears and stabby, stabby death.

Bogu_do_-_kendoWhich brings me to my last point: armor is not sexy. I know this from seven years of bouncing around in leather and cotton, swinging a bamboo sword at peoples’ heads. It’s hot, sticky, awkward and heavy. When I take off my men (mask) I have hair plastered to my forehead, my face is red, and any mascara left over from work has migrated down to my flushed, freckled cheeks. Unattractive as this may be, I’m relatively protected from serious injury while completely fitted out. With this experience in mind, I’d like to offer some advice to the more… liberal female knights of the fantasy world:

1) Padding is essential. The bottom edge of my do (torso protector) sits right on my hip bones. A couple good hard whacks there and even the heavy cotton tare (hip and groin protector) and hakama (trousers) can’t protect from the bruises. If you’re going into battle with metal against bare skin, you’re gonna have a bad time.

2) No uncovered backs. Oh god I wish I had some back protection in kendo. The back isn’t a legitimate strike zone, but that doesn’t mean accidents don’t happen. Getting hit in the back, right along the ribs at full force is one of the most painful injuries I’ve ever sustained in kendo.

3) Get rid of the lace and the floaty, billowy capes. The lace will make you chafe so bad you’ll wish an arrow takes you in your uncovered back, and any fabric that’s just dangling around uselessly is going to trip you. God knows I’ve tripped more than once on my hakama.

4) The shorter the hair, the better. If you absolutely must have long hair, braids are best. Pony-tails are a nightmare and get tangled in everything. I’ve been tempted a few times to ask for scissors to just cut the damn thing off rather than spend minutes untangling it from the straps it gets caught up in.

5) Boobs are malleable. It’s not going to kill you to push them up behind some flat chested armor that will protect you better in the long run than ‘female form fitted’ armor.

6) Arrows, pike thrusts, crossbow bolts and mace strikes however, will kill you if they connect with the soft squishy bits where you store your vital organs. Note above that the only piece of armor that is actually solid, hard leather/bamboo/resin is that part that protects the throat, chest and abdomen. Yeah, keep that in mind.


If you’re interested in more great examples of ridiculous female battle armor, check out Bikini Armor Battle Damage and play along with them on their female armor and female armor rhetoric bingo cards.

Want more? College Humor knows how much Female Armor Sucks. As does Chain Mail Bikini Squad. (not safe for work)



15 thoughts on “Armor Up, Ladies!

  1. As a semi-related aside, in both film and illustration, women warriors are so often portrayed as impractically svelte. If you look at women who compete seriously in combat sports (boxing, wrestling, MMA) you’ll see that they tend to be built much like their male counterparts, heavy and muscular. This is not to say that a woman or a man who is thin can’t fight well (Jackie Chan weighs about as much as one of my legs) but in any high impact sport having bulk layered over your bones is a big advantage.

    Part of this is the weird idea of female beauty that the media still clings to, that women can’t show visible musculature and be attractive. Obviously there are differences in the way that men and women develop physically, but I would expect a woman who spends a good portion of her life swinging a heavy steel sword to have some bulk and definition to her arms and shoulders. 5-11 and 120 pounds just doesn’t strike me as having good odds on the battlefield.

    • Well said, Misha! I can’t stand fantasy book covers that show warrior women who have skinny arms with no muscles. How is she supposed to even pick up her sword? It’s ridiculous.

    • I absolutely agree. Twiggy women with big busts would be about as useful on a battlefield as a canary. Going back to kendo, seven years of up-down swings and balancing on the balls of my feet has given me some pretty awesome biceps and calves. Thinking about what Virginia had to say, the beauty image for heroes and heroines is ridiculously unrealistic in fantasy. I’ve only read a handful of books where there protagonist and his/her love interests aren’t described as, if not epically beautiful, then at least passably attractive by they world’s standards. Heroines have it worse though, I think. They almost always have to be attractive. Male heroes can at least least get by if they’ve got a reputation behind them. A notable exception to this is Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane in which (if memory serves) neither the female protag. Jenny, nor her male counterpart John are all that attractive by their world’s standards. It was also one of the many, many reasons why I loved Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy.

    • The bikini armor especially. I mean, aside from how unprotected the chest is, I can’t even jog without a super tight sports bra holding everything in place. Don’t even wanna know how painful it would be to fight with boobs bounding and jerking this way and that.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Maybe I should talk about kendo here more often. My kendo blog has been collecting dust recently, due to my increased activity over here.

  2. Amen! This is one of my favorite armor sites: (Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor). Though in most cases the women are still posed or drawn attractively, at least they’re more or less covered up. It’s a step in the right direction.

    The one thing I will say is research shows that both men and women are judged on appearance in the workplace. It is without a doubt worse for females, but there’s plenty of research showing that men who are tall (above 6″) and have good heads of hair are more likely to be thought of as capable at their jobs and are promoted faster.

    The problem for women is that the (generally unintentional) perception of “attractive” people being better at their job is heavily mixed with straight up (completely intentional) chauvinism (don’t even get me started on that. I caught a partner of my ex-company staring down my shirt one day… right before I quit). The real question is whether or not the unintentional perception of “attractive” people being better at their job is completely a media driven phenomena, or if it also has some root in genetics/survival (i.e. the part of us that says young, healthy, strong people make better mates, won’t pass on sickness, etc).


    • Oo! Thanks for that site. I’ll give it a look see.

      Yeah, the attractiveness issue certainly does cross gender lines, I agree. Good god! Staring down your shirt?! WTF? I’m glad I’ve never had to suffer that at least. 😦

      Like anything else I think the ‘attractiveness=capability’ thing is a little bit of both nature and nurture, in part because our standards of attractiveness shift so much that it’s hard to pin it all on biology. There’s definitely a lot of media influence in how we perceive the people around us, but I’m not going to deny that the attractiveness factor does have roots in mate selection.

  3. Bravo! I remember watching Star Wars and feeling sorry for Princess Leia for having to wear the gold bikini with attached skirt when Jabba’s prisoner, especially when, of course, she escapes wearing it. Just the look on her face said it all and I’m so glad she didn’t hide her disdain. That said, I only later realized, when I was older, how boys watching the movie sexualized her. Just…gah! She was Princess Leia! Smart, tough Leia, but in the end, she was the hot chick in the gold bikini with the honey buns over her ears. tsk, tsk.

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