(or, The Visual Representation of the Warrior Woman)
Despite what I said about strong female characters being too focused on the warrior woman, I am here today to focus on … the warrior women!
Particularly their visual representation, because, you know …
It is well known that tough ladies in any genre can suffer from a ridiculous visual representation. Fantasy warriors get dolled up in metal bikinis, science fiction has a habit of churning out sexy alien lasses, superheroines fight evil in revealing, skintight apparel that would barely stay on while walking down the street, much less brawling with baddies, and even spies and detectives somehow find themselves in stiletto heels at most inconvenient times. Historically, this is a result of men working in male-dominated industries marketing toward a male-dominated audience, and though the demographics are shifting, old habits die hard. But there are plenty of places around the internet that go into depth on that score, so I’m not going to ramble on too much here.
One major complaint against some of the more outrageous designs is in terms of practicality. Any lady cosplayer can tell you that things like heels, patent leather, corsets, and so on may look cool, but they can be a pain to wear and usually end up being very limiting to your mobility. I can say from experience that even trying to tie your shoes while in a steel-boned corset can be a frustrating and laborious process (that is very fun to watch, apparently), and it’s impossible to run at full speed wearing pencil-thin 4″ heels. And, needless to say, when it comes to stopping bullets or blades, steel or Kevlar does a much better job than Spandex or bare flesh.
The other complaint is sexualization and objectification, another thing lady cosplayers know well. Films and comic books are especially guilty of presenting gratuitous cleavage, near-nudity, and other sexualized representations of women, often when male characters are not treated the same way. Often times, this is pandering to a male demographic, but sometimes it’s just a matter of taking a cool-looking design a step too far.
The problem in finding a solution is that there are so many factors to balance. When I go to choose an outfit in the morning, I have to think of what the weather is like, where I’ll be going and what is considered appropriate for that environment, what will be most comfortable for the tasks I’m going to engage in, whether I’m in a mood to be pretty, or cute, or professional, or bad-ass – the list goes on. Different ladies (and men too) have different motivations for the attire they choose each day, but there is always a thought process, even if it’s as simple as, “I’m not leaving the house today, so I’m not going to wear pants.” The (often but not always male) artists and designers who give visual form to the many warrior women of fiction don’t usually seem to take the approach of thinking from the character’s point of view about what they might wear. Rather, they take a purely aesthetic approach, designing based on what looks good to them, fits their overall style, and best complements (or exposes) the female form. The aesthetics do matter, as evidenced when an artist who recently did a series of practical superheroine costume redesigns as an exercise got backlash for the designs being unattractive and frumpy, but they need to be tempered with a little sense.
I think the most important factor about the visual representation of a warrior woman (or any female character) is whether or not she would realistically approve of the attire. If the character in question is some lusty, sexually-liberated femme fatale, then she’s probably going to want to show a little skin whenever possible, but if she’s a strong-willed peasant woman trying to defend her village from marauders, she’s probably going to want to get as much protection as she can using what’s available to her. It is possible to have a character look amazing and still dress suitably to face her story’s conflict. Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor does a great job of gathering images of practical and/or historically accurate armors as designed for or worn by women, and other resources for inspiration are endless. An artists needs to think of the character’s personality, what kinds of resources she has, what her society considers appropriate and whether or not she would agree, who she fights, how she fights, whether or not she would dress in some kind of standard uniform or style, whether she is more stylish or more practical, and so on. Readers and viewers of genre fiction are always willing to engage in some suspension of disbelief, so as long as you are faithful to the character, and you are being honest with yourself about being faithful to your character, you’re probably on the right track.