Tuesday 3 July 2012

The Chainmail Burqa

This is Red Sonja:

Originally designed by the great Barry Windsor Smith as a red-headed female warrior with a chainmail top and bare legs. So far, so what? Well, in 1973, Esteban Maroto re-designed her costume to this:

and an icon was born. This was in 1973, the year Gygax quit his full-time job to concentrate on finding a way to publish "Dungeons and Dragons", which would appear the following year in almost no good bookshops near anyone, but it would grow.

In the years since, D&D and Sonja's "chainmail bikini" have lived interwoven lives, and this relationship is still very much alive today. In fact, due to the changing demographics of gaming and the rise of the Internet the back-and-forth over this issue is probably more alive today than it has been for a long time.

[edit: people coming from escapistmagazine.com, see end note.]

Boys' Games with Boys' Rules
The early days of gaming, after D&D broke out of the US collage scene and landed on Britain's civilised shores, is one run through with embarrassing "boys only" tropes. The most cringe-worthy of all was probably the report (I think in White Dwarf) of a campaign the writer had encountered where the strength of women was inversely proportional to their charisma so that the good looking ones "would be easier to rape" according to the DM.

I'd like to say that this was an extreme example. But it wasn't particularly. The mix of in-your-head escapism, testosterone, and fantasy art by the likes of Boris, Frazetta, and Archilleos (who sold his first nude in 1973 - maybe they were putting something in the water) allowed adolescent male minds to wander far from the fair fields of chivalric and courtly love.

(Not) A hotbed
of gamer dating
The result was a hobby which was openly female-hostile for the most part, and only made the moreso by the often begging tone of all-male player groups' small-ads in Games & Puzzles and White Dwarf looking for female players. Although I never had too many problems with running games for the opposite sex (although it wasn't a regular thing back then), I know that any rational woman dropping in on a local RPG group was going to run a mile.

Throughout this period, the best known females in the genre were Bêlit and Red Sonja, and possibly still are today, even although the hobby has more sub-genres Sonja, in particular, is known by reputation pretty well across the board and the phrase "Chainmail Bikini" will evoke a long response from Google, including several suppliers should you want one for yourself.

I believe that the chainmail bikini "trope" (as da kidz say) is most strongly associated with D&D than any other fantasy game, and I think this is largely a result of the parallel development of Sonja in one boy-dominated interest (comics) at the very same time that those same boys were discovering role-playing through D&D. RuneQuest, for example, did not pick up quite the same image of sweaty teen boys in dark rooms that D&D had, although some pointed remarks were made about the cover image's slowly decreasing armour.

(effects of climate change)
But, in the UK at least, this was was mainly a spiralling co-dependency between early D&D, fantasy skin art, pulp fantasy comics and the very overt objectification of women, and many who looked in at that combination remember it today and are talking about it on the Internet.

New Games, New Rules
That was how things stood in the early 80's as the fantasy role-playing craze burnt itself out, as all crazes do. Following the collapse of TSR and the removal of FRPG rulebooks from mainstream shops (not even just bookshops!), a lot of the steam went out of the sexism. In fact, a fair bit had already gone as the original players finally got laid and even married, while younger players were less exposed to these more primal aspects of gaming due to the fear (in America; it hardly had any impact here) of the Moral Majority and the Satanic Game Scare™ which caused a distinct turning down of any sexual implications of either adventures or artwork*.

"Like 'headlights'?"
"Dude, he means boobs huhhuh"
Whether this is why, in the following years, more and more women entered the gaming community is not clear to me. It seems more likely that the rise of the computer game, which could be played in private without the need for Beavis and Butthead staring at your headlights when you so much as breathed, had more to do with it. Young girls could grow up with a gaming mentality for the first time without having to live through the trauma of being asked out after each major combat by someone who hadn't showered in the current geological epoch.

[I think there's an interesting parallel here between what it would have been like to be a girl in gaming in 1978 and what it can be like to be a girl in online gaming in 2012. The "easy to rape" type has not gone away, it's just discovered that it can actually interact with real women from the safety of a room many miles away.]

Whatever the cause, there are more women in role-playing now than there ever has been, at least as a percentage and probably as an absolute number too. Being a sexist tool in a face-to-face game is not a viable option any more for males who may be in the minority at the table.

Be Reasonable, This is Fantasy (?)
But this brave new world has some baggage from the old. And one major item in the bagging area is what is an allowable/acceptable depiction of the fantasy woman?

So tired are some people of the chainmail bikini that they have started blogs and tumblrs to push a new image of fantasy heroines, most well known of which is probably Women Fighters in Reasonable Armour (although they spell "armour" wrong). This, in turn has spawned "Women Fighters in Unreasonable Armour".

Now, I like both sites but I have a bit of a problem with the thinking behind the former, and many of the blogs that also push the idea that this:

is "shit", while this:

is a more acceptable depiction of a female fighter and, presumably, not shit.

I actually prefer the second painting but I don't agree that it's any more reasonable than the first one. The first illo is clearly a homage to 300 and the men behind those women are probably wearing less than they are - even if they're dressed historically accurately, let alone based on the movie. The second image is, to me, just as much a male fantasy as the first - the girl is far too slight to really be a fighter, she's very pretty and lacking in battle scars, and she has access to some excellent hair products for a mediaeval fighter. The reasonableness is illusionary. My favourite example of this is this Elmore paining:
Great armour, great depiction of a mace, great looking woman; no chance of doing any serious damage with skinny arms like those.

Meanwhile, here's a picture of some real-world warriors (and their kids, by the look of it) in full battle-dress:

As part of our primary school's mission to traumatise the under 10s, we were shown footage of similar tribesmen actually fighting for real and I vividly remember one sticking his spear through the leg of an enemy tribesman. These guys were not kidding around and were not play-acting. Yet they, like the vast majority of warriors in human history, wore little or no armour. For them, Red Sonja is over-dressed (albeit they might think a shield a worthwhile investment, and some paint).

So, it's simply not true to think that any fighter of either sex who is depicted basically naked but for a loin-cloth/bikini is being "unreasonable" or that anyone in plate is automatically "reasonable". So, let's leave "reasonableness" as a justification out of the discussion. This is fantasy and reasonableness is a long way down the list of requirements. Which winds us up the long and winding path to the main point:

Chainmail Bras Don't Burn, They Just Rust.
FRPGs are no longer the preserve of spotty boys; we have spotty girls too, and lots of them. And when our spotty apprentices look at this already classic painting of Conan and Bêlit by Brom, they should all be able to feel inspired to some epic adventure, to tread the jewelled thrones of the world beneath their sandalled feet, whether as a man or a woman of any subjective level of attractiveness.

D&D allows this sort of play, in fact the existence of so many protective devices rather encourages it as does the fighter class's high hit points and the encumbrance rules. (And for that matter, it also almost completely ignores the difference in physical strength between real men and women; there's no mechanical reason not to play an adventuring fighting-woman.)

Telling players that such images of women are embarrassing is no longer a case of telling Sweaty Bill and his group of Unwashables to put it away and get a real girlfriend, it's now perforce also telling girls that they're not allowed to have the same power-trip fantasies that we men had when we were growing up.

Here's some scantly-clad women:

This group of fans is saluting Frank Thorne, probably the best known of the classic Marvel artists for Sonja. Third from right is Wendy Pini, creator and co-writer of ElfQuest. I used to know Wendy and I can assure anyone who asks that this is not an image of a bunch of weak-willed or desperate girls brow-beaten into indulging someone else's sexual fantasy (that just happens to be a bonus for Frank).

For these women, the attraction of Sonja was that she was an independent woman making her way in a tough fantasy world without the help of a man. In fact, she was chaste and refused to become any man's lover. She, like the comic-book Conan she was a counterpart to, could survive and thrive in bloody combat without heavy armour. What she did wear was more by way of symbolising the impossibility of of accessing what was underneath; a "forget it" sign to all those hormonal man-boys who wanted to get their grubby paws on the goodies.

So, let's just get over the whole "cheesecake/reasonable armour" thing. If men are free to be this:

then women should be free to be this:

Otherwise the chainmail bikini is just replaced by a chainmail burqa. And, sister, that ain't progress.

[Edit: People are coming here from an escapistmagazine forum post but I can't post there without joining Facebook, so here's my reply:

The problem with the last image of Sonja is not that her arse is towards the viewer. The problem is that there is basically no way to depict her which is not going to be seen as "sexual". From the front she has lots of cleavage; from behind she has lots of ass. The question is - so what? I think those that are complaining about this are saying that there is a "good" way to depict women - and only women - and that we should only accept images where they are "decent". Heroic fantasy deals with physically idealized people; if anyone finds them sexually attractive, well that just means they're normal. Sonja there is a million times better role model for girls than any Disney Princess or Barbie Doll.]

*My theory is that because God never has sex with anyone in the Bible but slaughters men, women, and children at the slightest whim Christians have been left with the strange idea that killing people is, at worst, just rather rude, while having sex with them is simply against Gods Plan®™ and therefore totally EVIL.


  1. The be fair about the last pair of images though, have you ever seen Conan presenting his arse to the artist while looking over his shoulder? Thats the problem - not the armour itself.

    1. Well, I have seen similar amounts (and more) of male arse in many Frazettas.

  2. No doubt, but is it in that sexualised pose? I'm not saying it's not, that is a genuine question. My suspicion, of course, is that unlike Red Sonja, who appears to be actively presenting her arse to the viewer, the pictures of 'Conan' arse are less overtly sexualised, and/or represent a far smaller proportion of the 'Conan' pictures.

    I am reminded of:


    1. The danger I think is that we have grown so used to condemning such images because of what they say to men that we can forget that they can (sometimes) say something different to women. In this particular case, my wife (and I, to be honest) saw a strong action heroine covered in blood in a dynamic pose. Likewise another female friend thought she looked like a fun character to play.

      If we avoid all images of women that *men* find sexy or even sexualised then frankly we'd be in danger of not having any images of women at all.

    2. "If we avoid all images of women that *men* find sexy or even sexualised then frankly we'd be in danger of not having any images of women at all."

      Or even of Bugs Bunny is a dress!

      I agree with you, for the most part, but we do have to remember that this is commercial art produced for an audience of boys and young men. And, from that point of view, I actually have quite a problem with the hyper-muscular mostly naked portrayals of Conan - first, he wears chainmail in most of the stories, which saves his life, or at least some clothes; second, that kind of physique is near impossible to develop and maintain without chemical assistance, and definately impossible to maintain without the gym being a central part of your life. Hell, I played rugby to a pretty good level, and while there were gym nuts, fitness freaks, and guys who had natural Herculean strength, none of them looked like that.

      As an example of what has changed in our expectations of the male body, watch Death Race 2000 (1975). Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine have a near naked wrestling match. Two action stars. And they look like normal, fit, men. In a film made in the past ten years, near every male character has muscle and definition that takes serious work. I don't think that's healthy, and I like lifting weights!

      But that's an aside, apologies for the derailment.

    3. But, to return to the point, if the problem is that we're "also telling girls that they're not allowed to have the same power-trip fantasies that we men had when we were growing up", then, aside from questioning whether we should have been dreaming of being a 'roid-freak (rather than a 'realistic' [or reasonable] fantasy warrior, can't we just ask, 'why does Red Sonja and other fighting women have to present their arses to the artist, or be overtly sexualised, in a way that men's power-trip fantasy images are not.

      When the standard Conan art is drawn by Tom of Finland, I'll buy the equivalency. I won't say it's healthy, mind.

    4. Well, I think there's plenty of room for improvement. But I don't want "improvement" to become "Covered up=good/ Skin showing=bad" I think that cements certain Victorian values and the classification of heavy armour as "reasonable" is just a subtle way of doing it.

      I do feel that perhaps I've touched a particular nerve with that last pic, and that a frontal view may have drawn questions about showing cleavage from someone else instead.

      I agree with what you are saying about the trend (quite old now) towards warrior figures being more like bodybuilders than a real fighter. The tribal warriors we saw in school were liked chiselled granite but slim rather than bulky.

      But even reading Conan in the original, for example, it's hard to come away with anything other than a feeling of exaggerated masculinity when he's fighting Thak, for example.

      The sort of fantasy we're talking about here is all about exaggerating the ability of the lone person. D&D doesn't spend a lot of time on the question of how corporations will seek to crush the adventurers' efforts to change the course of history, for example.

      I can't honestly say that men's "power trip fantasy figures" are not sexualised, when viewed by women. I'm saying that I don't care so long as there is something more going on and I felt that the picture of Sonja up there did have something else going on and that the pose spoke to me and my wife of cutting down the last opponent as they attempt to sneak up from behind.

      I don't think we're really disagreeing on anything substantial here, just a slight difference in where the lines are drawn.

    5. "I don't think we're really disagreeing on anything substantial here, just a slight difference in where the lines are drawn."

      I agree. That we're not really disagreeing.

  3. Very interesting reading, not sure I agree with some of your generalisations, but then that is hardly unexpected. I remember as young lads we all enjoyed the scantily clad women in our fantasy art, but it was very much a sideshow to the adventure game. Mind, I do recall a character I had in WHFRP who was betrayed by his lady love, I took that personal in my mid teens, and I think it probably was on the part of the game master! :D

    1. I think you came to the hobby a bit later, though, didn't you? A lot of the very simple wish-fulfilment campaigns burnt out quickly. But many of them were pretty appalling while they lasted.

    2. Could well be; though "wish fulfilment" was part of our early nineties games, it is just that they were sideshows, the game taken in a different diversionary direction.

  4. "Throughout this period, the best known females in the genre were Bêlit and Red Sonja, and possibly still are today"

    I would have thought that Hermione Granger, Buffy and Bella Swan would all be better known.

    Unless by "the genre" you meant sword and sorcery in particular. But sword and sorcery nowdays seems to be mainly known by older people, and to have an element of nostalgia to it (whether for the pulps or Marvel comics).

    1. PS and the main character from The Hunger Games.

    2. I was mainly talking about Swords and Sorcery, yes.

    3. Personally I think it's a mistake to talk about sword and sorcery as if it was relevant to either non-OSR D&D, or to most fantasy fans.

    4. OK, well the blog is mostly aimed at OSR D&D. In addition, the characters I'm thinking about in this post are mostly S&S-type characters.

    5. The example pictures you gave don't seem to be from OSR products though.

  5. Actually I just realised an interesting fact about that list: they're all teenagers.

  6. PS Even ignoring the poses, Frank Frazetta's Conan doesn't look like a male sex symbol, wheras Red Sonja does look like a female sex symbol.

    Megan Fox could play Red Sonja, but Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp couldn't play Conan.

    Perhaps a more fair comparison would be if gaming art was suddenly full of elvish bards with their tops off for no good reason. I suspect that would draw protests from male gamers.

    1. My only comment about sex symbols is that I find it as hard to recognize what women I know think of as attractive as they seem to find it to recognize what I think is attractive, so I can't easily say whether your claim is correct.

      The question in my mind with this post is what is aspirational and what is exploitative. There's plenty of men who would be happy to be that version of Conan and I think plenty of women who would be happy to be that version of Sonya too.

      Now that we have so many female players the line between male fantasy and string female role-model is not as clear as it used to be. Sonya is an interesting case because her *character* is clearly not a male fantasy - she doesn't even bother to dominate men, so there's not even that aspect. She treats men as equals and expects the same in return.

      So, are we saying a strong female character isn't allowed to show as much skin as strong male characters for fear of inflaming male passions? Isn't that exactly the argument for forcing women to cover up with ridiculous veils and head to ground sheets?

    2. I don't know what other people are saying, but I personally am saying that the analogy between semi-naked Conan and semi-naked Red Sonja is false, because

      i) Conan's not posing in the same way that Sonja often is

      ii) Conan's not a male ideal to straight females, whereas Red Sonja is a female ideal to straight men.

      iii) Vastly more men want to be Conan than women want to be Red Sonja.


      If there was a true equivalent of Red Sonja in gaming art (something like doey-eyed elvish bards with their shirts off for no good reason) I'm pretty confident that male gamers would complain.


      The argument that Red Sonja is justified because Conan's just as naked and unrealistic is invalid.

    3. Well, I dispute most of that. I don't think any male gamers would care about shirtless elvish bards other than on the grounds that they were elvish bards (why elvish bards are comparable to RS is a bit obscure to me anyway); I have met many women who thought RS was a good role-model and an interesting character (which I mentioned in the post); and there are many many men who would like to - and make efforts to - look like Conan.

      The "pose" issue is a stronger case, but I think it is one that points up a parallel problem with assuming the audience is a mostly male one when it no longer is. This requires adjustment both by artists and by critics. I'm not saying there's no such thing as exploitative depictions of women in fantasy art, I'm saying that condemnation of particular pieces simply because they show female skin are not nuanced enough.

      The "300" piece I put in the post may be a pretty weak bit of art from a PoV of technique but saying that it's "shit" *because* the women are scantily dressed is, in fact, a sexist statement given that we all know that the men are wearing even less. What the criticism actually boils down to is a thinly disguised version of "those women should be at home; this is men's work".

      That may have been true in the historical setting that the art references but that attitude is not, IMO, valid in a fantasy setting and is simply patronising female gamers who might *want* to play a female warrior on the borders of their country fighting off the foreign invaders in a manner similar to their male counterparts.

      Telling such players that they can only do that if they are "reasonable" and cover their characters up is not a progressive attitude and, in fact, reminds me a bit of the ecclesiastical court condemning Joan of Arc to death for not wearing "reasonable" attire, i.e., the sort men thought she should be wearing.

    4. Looking at the sort of female 'adventurer'-type characters that have lots of female fans, it seems that very few women identify with characters that look like that.

      Even Xena was significantly more dressed, which I find remarkable given that she became a sex symbol for lesbians.

  7. "why elvish bards are comparable to RS is a bit obscure to me anyway"

    then how do you know that your argument isn't a straw argument?

    1. It's the specificity of it. Why elves? Why bards? The general gist of male torsoness is fair enough.

    2. Because the notion of an elvish bard conjures up a lithe, but healthy-looking (rather than bulky and roided-up) body and a sensitive but confident personality.
      I can't speak for straight girls, but my understanding is that's the type a lot of them idealize, given the popularity of fellows like Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, and George Clooney.

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