T&A on Parade

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 It’s been replaced by a different one: instead of requiring female characters (and real-life women) to choose between femininity and strength, we require them to have both.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.

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  1. 1. Sam

    Sadly Dragon Age is quite a step up from the usual standards of female armour in computer games, at least it doesn’t have the usual cut-out directly over the heart to show cleavage. (But then who needs it if you’re making armour that hugs every contour…)

    Sadly expecting them to design armour that makes practical sense isn’t ever going to happen, because even the majority of male armour doesn’t make much sense in computer games, they’re both designed for style not function, so they have embelishments that would happily guide the force of a blow into all the wrong places rather than deflect them.

    In male armour the embelishments are usually to make the character appear more fearsome or cool, and in female armour it’s always “of course” to look sexy.

    Realism has nothing to with either choice.

    It’s also intentional.

    Unlike many of the subjects of your previous posts where unconcious bias is the point, the simple fact of this situation is that it is entirely intentional: it has nothing to do with protraying whether a woman is or isn’t strong, and everything to do with putting T&A on display, because they feel that that’s what their market wants.

    The personality of the female character is irrelevent to whether they’re “made sexy” or not, it’s just purely a “we’ll grab more eyeballs this way” issue: more T&A = more sales. (The fact that that’s a self-reinforcing circle and quite probably a fallacy is also besides the point unfortunately.)

    There’s also in a number of games some technical considerations to do with how much they can change the underlying model shape for the character and how much of the appearance of “different armour” is merely using different textures: ie, you’re using the same underlying geometry for the shape of some figure-hugging leather armour as for the gothic-plate armour, you’re just making one look like leather and one look like metal – with male figures that’s a lot less noticably absurd than it is with female figures.

    That may seem like a lame excuse, but there’s quite a few games out there where they’ve honestly tried to produce female armour that covers everything up to an equviliant extent as the male armour, and yet you still get the same effect as in those Dragon Age pictures.

    Frankly I just breathe a sigh of relief whenever I start a new game and find that the female warriors aren’t waltzing around in thigh-high high-heel boots (Korean and Japanese games are truly awful for this one…)

    I’ve rambled a bit, and probably completely failed to make whatever point it was I was trying to make, so, er, I’ll stop.

  2. 2. The Gneech

    FWIW, I always assumed that Wonder Woman (and for that matter, pre-Tim Burton Robin) was wearing beige tights.

    -The Gneech

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    Sam — I almost made the mistake of diving into the whirlpool of TV Tropes to find their links for things like Unnecessary Armor Spikes, but pulled myself back just in time. :-) (I have more important uses for the next hour of my life.) But yes, you’re right that video-game armor is rarely about practicality on any front, and DA is better than most.

    You make a good point about textures, too: it doesn’t justify the V-neck leather armor or midriff-baring idiocy, but it does partially explain why boob curvature shows up; they’re just retexturing the underlying model. On the other hand, DA’s designers have shown they don’t *have* to do that, because if you put the female characters in plate armor, they go as flat-chested as the men; that polygonal model supercedes the basic one. So they can do realism when they want to.

    But yes, they’re caught in this self-reinforcing trap, because the T&A parade caters to male eyes, which sends the message that female gamers are an afterthought, which makes it more likely that women won’t play. (Lesbian women are, I’m sure, not even an afterthought, though they may enjoy the candy.) DA is better than most on this front because it includes a number of genuinely interesting female NPCs, and designs its plots with gender in mind; the result is that they draw in a goodly number of female gamers, who end up complaining on their forums about the idiocy of female armor, pointing out that we, too, would like to look fearsome. Maybe one of these days, the companies will listen.

    Gneech — like figure skaters!

  4. 4. Yonatan Zunger

    One odd side note about news articles commenting on sartorial choices: I’ve been paying attention to this lately, and noticed an odd pattern. Senior women’s wardrobes (Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton) are always commented on — but so, oddly enough, are the President’s. Other senior men’s wardrobes are only occasionally mentioned. The description language used for men’s and women’s clothing is very similar, tending towards the matter-of-fact and happening in the first or second paragraph.

    I have absolutely no clue what this indicates, but it’s an interesting data point. I suspect that at least in part, it harkens back to an earlier interest that men in politics had in what the people above them in the hierarchy were wearing; there was definitely a huge uptick in the popularity of Hart, Schaffner & Marx suits among the (male) DC elite after Obama’s election.

    Given that the WaPo’s main audience are DC political flaks, this may mean that these data points are wholly irrelevant to the rest of the media. :) The NYT’s coverage of wardrobes has been limited (as far as I’ve noticed) to the fashion section, where Michelle Obama has gotten a lot more attention than anyone else in Washington.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    I wonder if it’s the talk of fashion or Obama that made WordPress assume this comment was spam. :-)

    Anyway, to your point: I didn’t realize the president’s wardrobe was still attended to, though I know it used to be; JFK was (if I recall correctly) the first president not to wear a hat regularly, and I’ve heard it said that ended the reign of hats as a feature of men’s fashion. The First Lady has certainly been a fashion figure since the days of Jackie Kennedy, and probably earlier. Looking to society’s top figures for the mode has been going on for centuries, though it used to be monarchs and nobles; now it’s mostly celebrities, of which politicians are no longer the shiniest.

  6. 6. Sam

    Marie @3:
    On the other hand, DA’s designers have shown they don’t *have* to do that, because if you put the female characters in plate armor, they go as flat-chested as the men; that polygonal model supercedes the basic one.

    Yep, it can be done, but that additional mesh comes at a cost and has to be budgeted for as a trade-off elsewhere in the “polygon budget”, the “memory budget” and even the “disk-space budget”, so it’s a conscious choice that they have to decide it’s worth that trade-off to them… or they can just keep something that most of the male players will consider an added bonus.

    DA does get bonus points in my book for the female characters actually being characters though, and Morrigan’s lack of clothing even has a half-way convincing explanation to do with her overwhelming vanity covering up for her fairly plausible insecurities (given her background…)

    To vaguely return to your original points though, “Should Wonder Woman wear trousers? (I’m a brit, pants mean something else, I’d hope she’s wearing those given the mini-skirt…)”, well I’d be inclined to say, “She can wear whatever the hell she wants, I’m not about to argue with her.” ;P

    That women must always be portrayed to be at the very least attractive, and nearly always “sexy”, to be considered admirable in other ways is a definite fact, and one that doesn’t apply to men so much.

    That said, there’s a strong bias for it in men too, there have been some good studies about how biased job selections are for six-footers, and while there’s plenty of ugly male politicians, the “conventionly handsome” ones tend to do better given otherwise equal abilities.

    You make a point about “God help the woman who goes into an important meeting without putting on makeup.”, and it’s certainly true, but imagine a man going into an important meeting without having shaved that day? He wouldn’t be taken as seriously either, ditto if he’s wearing his tie in a sloppy fashion.

    If someone doesn’t looke like they’ve taken a meeting seriously enough to look after their appearance, then the other parties will take it less seriously – that’s true for either gender, it’s just expressed in different ways.

    Heroes and admirable people, of either gender, are nearly always expected to be attractive, or “good looking”, I don’t think that’s particularly sexist, although it says a lot about our society that looks and admirability are so tightly coupled.

    Where the problem lies IMO is that for the most part the only representation used of a “good looking” woman is through use of blatant sexuality, whereas for a “good looking” man… well that would probably be laughed at.

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Sam — it seems to me that while you do use up resources in the moment of swap (going from one polygon set to another), after that, it’s *less* resource-intensive to go with flat-chested armor, as it’s a simpler shape to render. But I’m not a programmer, so I could be wrong about that.

    Gotta say I don’t find the Morrigan explanation convincing, though. If we’re looking to personalities to explain how the characters dress, then I demand that Zevran come equipped with special Gigolo Armor. :-)

    On a non-game note, you’re right that attractiveness is an underlying factor for all humans; we’re both hard-wired and socially conditioned to find it appealing. But I think shaving falls into the “hygiene” category, along with brushing one’s hair. It isn’t just a matter of the same idea being expressed differently for the two genders; it’s that women have to jump through all the same hoops as men (be clean, dress nicely, shave off the hair society doesn’t like) *plus* extras that have to do with making ourselves appear as young and sexually attractive as possible. There have been periods in Western culture when men regularly wore makeup and/or clothing that expressed as much range as women’s still does, but those days have passed.

  8. 8. Attackfish

    To the person talking about the armor spikes: Is this the tv tropes article you meant? http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ScaryImpracticalArmor

    There’s also the “Spikes of Villainy” but that doesn’t seem quite right.

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    Aaaaaagh! <falls into TV Tropes; is never seen again>

  10. 10. Damien RS

    An odd one from anime: Sengoku Basara, a very gonzo take on the wars of unification of Japan, with Nobunaga as the Demon King… I’m not sure what the ostensible market was, you’d think shounen (boys) but I’m told it was quite popular with middle-aged women. Impressively armored gruff older men + impressively open-shirted younger men samurai + yaoi overtones.

    Really odd was Tokugawa Ieyasu, drawn as a rather short and unattractive dumpling face, who wore full armor… except over his midriff, which was bare. I joked that he was gutless and didn’t need armor there.

    The completely ahistorical blonde fishnetted female ninja felt like token service for straight male viewers, compared to everything else…

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    Damien — you get that sometimes in anime and manga, stories that fall between the shounen and shoujo camps, in that they have more shounen-ish plots but aspects that cater to a female readership. (I’m thinking of CLAMP’s stuff in particular, like X: 1999.)

  12. 12. D. Moonfir

    Fable, an older game, also allowed gay marriages but their romance plot was a little more than a sim game and the best way into anyone’s pants is to throw diamonds the size of your head at them. In return, they chuck magical weapons at you from across town.

    The shape of armor is one of those things that is just strange in games. I know it is to appeal to the male gamers (or those who love the female form). There is a book, the Curse of the Azure Bonds, which makes comments about the cleavage-exposing armor, but it came off as justification of cleavage more than anything else.

    Of course, I also rant that armor for a dwarf somehow magically fits the elf. It is a troupe of the genre, in many ways, since all armor looks terrible on a dwarf and looks fairly good on the elves.

  13. 13. Larry Russwurm

    The male superheroes like Superman and Batman would probably just have freeing shorts, except that the artists would then have to draw annoying leg hair. I vote for laziness on the artists’ parts. Why society deemed leg hair mandatory for men and mandatory for women to shave off, the artists didn’t feel the need to comment on. Why do we accept lipless, eyelashless men in these comics? Because the artists are simplifying and overemphasizing minute differences between the sexes. I don’t believe in a conspiracy.

  14. 14. Marie Brennan

    Sorry for the delay in approving the new comments; we had some WordPress issues the last few days. (All fixed now, hopefully.)

    D. Moonfir — I remember reading Azure Bonds. The armor came with magical protection over the giant cleavage cutout, and I think in a later book there was a line about how the heroine really enjoyed wearing it, because her enemies would predictably try to stab her in her apparently unprotected sternum. All of this was of course justification for putting her on the book cover in Cleavage Armor, but at least the text made some attempt to justify it.

    The armor-size thing is just flagrant simplification for the purpose of game enjoyment. I know it makes no sense, but I’m just as happy not to get a set of uber-armor that I have to sell because it was made for another species.

    Larry — the artists could do the same thing they do for the men, which is to draw skin-tight clothing that’s tantamount to a naked figure. And sometimes they do exactly that — I’ve seen Batwoman pictures, frex, that put her in a full-body unitard — but for some reason the women get random cleavage or midriff cutouts, or a swimsuit bottom cut up to the ribcage. It doesn’t have to be a conspiracy for it to be a sexualization and objectification of women that annoys a lot of female (and some number of male) readers.

  15. 15. Andrea K Hosth

    Morrigan aside, I found Dragon Age’s armor fairly inoffensive. Yes, the metal had breasts, but at least they were covered – and as a poster notes above, in part this is all related to the mechanics of the game’s graphics.

    As opposed to, say, World of Warcraft and the shrinking female paladin armor. Same outfit from male to female lost half the coverage.

    I do recommend you take a look at some of the upcoming Final Fantasy XIV images, which for all the shapely girls has some SPECTACULAR chest-baring outfits for the male Elezen (elves).

  16. 16. Marie Brennan

    Andrea — the bishounen aesthetic means you get some ridiculously half-clad guys in anime/manga/Japanese video games, that would never fly in the US.

    Dragon Age is *certainly* not the worst offender for female armor, but it’s the one I’m familiar with (I don’t play many games). I probably wouldn’t have thought about it much at all if the utterly inexplicable “leather bra” Dalish armor and its complete lack of coverage over vitals hadn’t made me notice some of the other bits of armor illogic (like the V-neck tops).

  17. 17. A'Llyn

    OK, this is off topic, but…how do you become Queen of Ferelden? I want to be Queen of Ferelden!

    And I tried, but Alistair broke up with me because Gray Wardens can’t have children together.

    If you reject Morrigan’s offer, and let Alistair take the final stab at the Arch Demon, do you get to take over the kingdom?

    Oh man, my mind is all awhirl with plots. One of these days I’ll get around to playing it again.

    Ridiculous armor and all–and that’s a good point about Morrigan’s outfit.

    I found some Chasind armor that showed about the same amount of skin (on a female character, at least…I should have tried it on Alistair to see what it looked like), and which I didn’t really want to wear, but the bonuses were so good, I couldn’t justify taking it off.

    And whew, were the breasts ever dramatic on some of those suits of armor.

  18. 18. Till

    Not to say anything, but shouldn’t a stylistically accurat middle ages games include codpieces?

  19. 19. Marie Brennan

    A’Llyn — I’m so sorry, your comment ended up in the moderation queue and I didn’t spot it there. Anyway, the short and off-topic answer is that if you’re a female human noble and don’t convince Alistair to marry Anora, you end up the Queen of Ferelden so long as neither of you dies. :-) (Male human nobles can become King by marrying Anora.)

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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