Competence Is Hot

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


By now everybody and their brother has probably seen the post by (SF Novelists’ own) Jim Hines, wherein he attempts to pose like the women on the covers of some fantasy novels. The results are suitably absurd — not because there’s anything wrong with Jim, but because there’s something wrong with the covers. He caused himself actual physical pain, trying to replicate some of those poses.

Ah, you say, but Jim Hines is a writer, a class of people known for their sedentary lifestyle. Those heroines are probably all in fantastic shape, the better to kick supernatural ass.

Okay, I’ll see your counter-argument, and raise you a link I meant to post before Jim beat me to it. 😛 A fabulous lady on Tumblr made her own pair of posts on the topic, complaining about the ridiculous contortions of women in superhero comics. That lady? Is a highly-trained martial artist and contortionist. (No, really. There are pictures to prove it. I’m “thirteen years of ballet training” flexible, but some of the pics of her make me wince.)

And she says these poses are stupid.

Sure, comic books are way worse than we are over here with our fantasy novel covers. (Like that’s anything to be proud of.) But it’s all part and parcel of the same thing, which is the notion that depictions of women must put T&A on display.

We can come up with all kinds of specious justifications for it. Leather is practical! Wonder Woman can’t have her mobility restricted by pants! Gameplay requires that Elizabeth stand out somehow! (Apparently “somehow” = “breasts.”) What it boils down to, though, is the knee-jerk habit we have in our society, of using women’s bodies to market things. Books, comic books, video games, movies, cars, Axe body spray, anything and everything. Because women are sexy, and sex sells.

Here’s the thing. You get people claiming that giving Elizabeth blatant cleavage in Bioshock Infinite “broadens its appeal” — and that’s a quote from the article criticizing the decision. Even the guy who’s on my side unthinkingly parrots the party line, that everybody likes boobs. But I don’t find that kind of thing hot, and not just because I’m a straight woman.

What do I find hot? Competence.

Contrast the tumblr Escher Girls (WARNING: pics there often not safe for work, or sanity) with Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor. As far as I’m concerned, the latter wins, hands-down. Or take a look at blogger Anna’s response to Jim’s post, where she contrasts the poses of men and women on book covers. There’s just no competition. One set says “competence and strength;” the other does not. One attracts me to the people depicted; the other drives me away.

What puzzles me is the fact that these urban fantasy covers are almost always on books written by female authors, for a largely female readership. Romance, which is comparable in terms of authorship and readership, doesn’t look like that; they do have a percentage of scantily-clad women, badly-posed on the covers, but they also have all the beefcake you could want and more. I understand the message of those covers: imagine you look like this, and a guy who looks like that wants you more than anything in the world. But the urban fantasy? Imagine yourself contorted in this uncomfortable position, holding a sword like you don’t know what to do with it. That isn’t a message that draws me in.

Do these covers actually appeal to women? It seems like they must, or publishers wouldn’t use them . . . but I’m not sure it’s that simple. At this point, they definitely work in terms of advertising “this book is an urban fantasy!,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean the underlying appeal is very strong. Possibly it’s a move designed to attract male readers, who otherwise might not pick the book up. I don’t actually know. I just know it doesn’t work for me, at all. I was pretty happy with the original cover for my first novel — she’s (almost) fully clothed, standing in a reasonable position, and holding that sword like she knows how to use it — but I love the cover for the reissue. The way she’s staring straight at you speaks of confidence and determination. And that will get my attention any day.

I meant for this post to go on and talk about competence some more, but I’ve already rambled on for quite a while, so we’ll call it quits for now and come back to this next month. I leave you with this post by an actual armorer, discussing how to do female armor wrong, and how to do it right. He, too, thinks the ridiculous crap isn’t nearly as sexy as more reasonable alternatives.

If only more artists and game designers agreed.