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.
Which 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.