T&A on Parade

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


Last month we talked about honorary males: the idea that for a woman to be powerful, she has to be like a man. As I indicated at the time, that was meant at least in part as a lead-in to this month’s post, in which we look at the other side of the coin.

The genesis of this post was a video on the blog Crazy Sexy Geeks, though the ideas that crystallized then had been circulating in my hindbrain for a while. The issue of superheroine costumes is pretty well-known; even the ones who escape the bikini trap often have bare midriffs, peekaboo cutouts, or an inexplicable lack of pants. So the CSG people picked an iconic example and went around asking various people whether Wonder Woman should wear pants. The answers skewed heavily toward “no, she’s fine as she is” — but the reasoning was a carnival of double-standard thinking.

Some people said that the swimsuit look, with or without the miniskirt, makes sense because y’know, Wonder Woman needs mobility. (Male superheroes don’t?) Others say she’s invulnerable, so there’s no need to protect herself with clothing or armor. (Which is why Superman runs around in a Speedo, right?) But the crowning touch is Emma Caulfield, who says Wonder Woman and her costume prove that you don’t have to sacrifice your femininity to be strong.

I don’t disagree with that idea; that’s why I made last month’s post about honorary males, as a preface to this one. But there are two issues that I want to bring up, that complicate what sounds on the surface like a perfectly unobjectionable point.

If you’ve watched the video, you know that I’ve slightly misquoted Caulfield’s response: she actually said you don’t have to sacrifice your sexuality. But a moment later, she goes on to connect this to the idea of the honorary male, that a strong woman has to “act like a man [. . .] I don’t want to be a man.” In the equation that she presents, then, sexuality (not social roles, or anything else) is what makes a woman not a man. And she isn’t talking about behavior, either — who Wonder Woman sleeps with isn’t at issue here — the conversation is about costumes, and the bodies that wear them. So the implication of her words is that femininity consists of T&A, and the displaying thereof. If a superheroine wears a costume that doesn’t advertise sexual availability, it makes her less of a woman.

That’s one issue. The other is that, as I said last month, I don’t think the honorary-male pattern is a huge problem anymore. It’s been replaced by a different one: instead of requiring female characters (and real-life women) to choose between femininity and strength, we require them to have both. How often do you see a magazine interview with a male politician begin by describing the outfit he’s wearing? How often is the unattractiveness of such a man made the butt of comedians’ jokes? God help the woman who goes into an important meeting without putting on makeup. In our enlightened day and age, “attractiveness” still ranks as the third-most important quality companies say they consider when hiring female employees — behind experience and skills, but ahead of education. (Sadly, I’ve misplaced the link to the study that quoted that result; I’m not making it up, though.)

Just take a look at the armor in video games. Here’s a set of heavy armor from the game Dragon Age; here’s what it looks like on a female character. (Well, you have to put boobs in it, no matter how bad of an idea they are in reality — otherwise it isn’t girl armor!) This suit of leather armor is even worse. (You wouldn’t want your armor to protect anything useful — like, say, your internal organs.) And then there’s the character of Morrigan, whose top kind of defies belief. Not just for its utter improbability — seriously, I don’t know how that thing stays on — but because she shows up wearing it, she’s the only character who can wear it, the thing comes with stat bonuses that encourage you to have her go on wearing it, and then eventually there’s an upgraded version that looks exactly the same but with better stats so she can wear it through to the end of the game! Yes, I know she’s there as candy for the straight male gamers, but you don’t see Alistair (the candy for the straight female gamers) prancing around in equivalent getup.

Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoyed Dragon Age, not least because it’s the first game I’ve seen that offers the player the option of a gay romance as well as a straight one. But it bugs me a little that my female character can be a warrior or a mage or a backstabbing thief, from the highest noble human origin to the lowest dwarven commoner one, and she can save the world from an archdemon and be the Queen of Ferelden besides . . . but her armor still has to put her breasts on display. Because if you hide those, then she doesn’t look like a girl anymore, and we can’t have that.

Give me women in armor who look like this. (Okay, so the joints of the armor would be ripping their hair out — but the armor itself isn’t boobalicious. It’s progress.) Don’t set them up to be eye candy first, everything else second. I want to admire these characters, not ogle them.

A while back, I read a post that ranted about how this insistence on sex appeal wherever there is female power is a means of undermining that power, of objectifying women so we can still be controlled. I don’t have the space or the theory chops to unpack that idea and decide how it holds up, but I have the eyes to see that the pattern is there. Strength in men can be sexy, whether their physical assets are on display or not; why can’t the same be true for women? Why does the strength have to be paired with physical objectification? Give me women in sensible armor, and Wonder Woman in pants.