Women in Armour vs. Chicks in Chain-mail

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One of the more common tropes of fantasy illustration is depictions of women in armor, but this is not necessarily unique to fantasy illustration. Armored women have been depicted in art throughout the centuries. Most notable among these are depictions of Joan of Arc.

The “Maid of Orleans” according to legend, was a peasant girl who heard the voice of God telling her to don armour and go into battle for the cause of France during the Hundred Years’ War. The French folk heroine has been invoked over the centuries by writers and politicians alike and paintings of her in her battle garb abound. Some images have her depicted in full armour while others armour her top half while keeping her lower half in a skirt as in this Victorian era painting by John Everett Millais.

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Historically there have been women who have donned armor and gone into battle. This is an undeniable fact of history. The Celtic warrior queen Boudicca as well as Joan are testimony to that reality. However, it is also pretty safe to say that the vast majority of warriors throughout history have been male. Women warriors have been a minority if not an oddity in history.

This is not so much the case in modern fantasy. Although not always the majority, modern fantasy novels tend to have a preponderance of women in armor. The Warrior Maiden is not unknown in mythology. The Valkyrie of the epic sagas — most familiar to us today represented by Brunhilde from Wagner’s Ring Cycle — was a tradition that Tolkien borrowed from with the character of Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings.

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Tolkien, however, was predated by Robert E. Howard who had a number of female characters who took up the sword and armor and were just as capable as a man. Despite the many who criticize Howard for being sexist, the pulp writer from Cross Plains was, in fact, ahead of his time in his attitudes towards women. A writer who created characters such as Valeria, Dark Agnes and Red Sonya of Rogatino cannot, in all fairness, be characterized as sexist.

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From the pulps C.L. Moore created Jirel of Joiry, and Lin Carter had Tara of the Twilight. At the time they were considered little more than a literary novelty act but in latter times have been adopted by certain factions as proto-feminist heroes.

Other women warriors in modern fantasy range from the realistic to the outright impossible. From Howard’s Sonya of Rogatino comic book writer Roy Thomas morphed her into Red Sonja. This Sonja was born from the outrage of rape (echoing the historical Boudicca) although she moves quickly into outrageous territory with her predilection for wearing very scanty chain mail.

It is certainly absurd to go into battle wearing little more than an armored bikini, but artists tend not to dwell on realism, preferring to dwell on womanly curves. Thus we move from women in armor to that bane of fantasy illustration: Chicks in Chain-mail.

Now, were I to go into battle and I knew I would be facing sword and axe wielding foes I would probably weep piteously for my mother. However, if I had to go, I would certainly want to be protected (particularly my fingers – an artist protects his hands!). I can see absolutely no situation where I would consider it advantageous to leap into battle wearing merely a chain-mail Speedo.

Yet, here we have example after example of fantasy artists who regularly produce images of women entering into the bloody fray wearing little or no armor and even less clothing. The classic Marvel Comics depiction of Red Sonja is probably the most egregious of these examples. Just as a woman should not enter into a store wearing only a bikini (unless one is in Florida during Spring Break) much less enter a battle. Red Sonja should not be doing what she is doing in her chain-mail bikini. And yet, there she is.

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Now, originally she wasn’t depicted so scantily. Her original appearance in Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian as drawn by Barry Windsor Smith, depicted her with a longer chain mail shirt and a belt as well as leather boots. Of course she eschewed leggings in favor of a bikini bottom and bare legs, but at least the shirt was sensible. Other artists have tried to depict Sonja a little more realistically, notably a recent portrait by Donato Giancola which covers her (somewhat) in leather armor.

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What possesses an artist to paint something that flies in the face of any semblance of reality? Well. I can’t really say, having contributed at least one image to this sub-genre: my cover for a fantasy novel, Foolish Gods (which, incidentally, was never used by the publisher, so it up for grabs if anyone out there has a fantasy novel that the image fits – I can make changes to suit, for a modest fee, of course)

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Oh wait? Could it be money that motivates these artists? Maybe. Also the fact that drawing naked women is what a lot of young men got into art for in the first place! Artists will usually paint what they’re told to paint by publishers, but they cannot abrogate their responsibility in that fashion. Artists (many, many artists) will depict this unreality, these Chicks in Chain-mail, all on their own. They’ll tell you that it is to help sell a painting or an image and that is, for the most part, a good motivation, but if an artist is honest (and I’m talking about male artists here) he will admit that he just likes to draw semi-naked women holding sharp objects. Simple as that.

But what about Rowena Morrill? What about Julie Bell? They are women artists who perpetuate exactly the same images as their male counterparts. Doesn’t that make a case for the market having a great influence on the types of images that are pushed to the forefront?

Well, yes, but can one lay the blame on the market or does one have to look at society as a whole for the reasons? What I have discovered as I have been exploring this issue, writing these articles and reading comments, is that it is very complex. One could even say that, in writing this blog post and including images, I am perpetuating a harmful stereotype, and indeed, I don’t really know that I can argue that point.

It seems to be true that the fantasy art world is somewhat male dominated, but that is changing. Perhaps not fast enough.

This is a big topic and I can’t do it any justice in one blog post, but I will certainly visit it again. As always I welcome your feedback on this subject. Give me a piece of your mind.

15 thoughts on "Women in Armour vs. Chicks in Chain-mail"

  1. I think this would be a really good article for you to read regarding this subject: http://aidanmoher.com/blog/featured-article/2013/05/we-have-always-fought-challenging-the-women-cattle-and-slaves-narrative-by-kameron-hurley/

    History as we learn it in the classroom very much focuses on men, but as the article says, women have always fought. So that’s not new.

    But yeah…the itty bitty bikini…. A huge part of the issue when you bring up inequality in terms of fictional costumes is that people will say “But there are people that look like that, or who dress that way!” Which is true. But not every single woman is going to look like that and dress that way, and it seriously takes away from your narrative if every single woman looks the same. Apparently sex sells and I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I dunno, the most recent issue of X-Men was pretty undersexed, and I think it’s doing pretty damn well (because it’s amazing).

  2. The near-naked female warrior has always seemed a bit silly to me. Of course, in some cases, it could be magical armor, I guess. In which case, showing some skin might be an advantage in a fight by making it harder for a male opponent to concentrate.

    BTW, I have to give credit to the game "XCOM-Enemy Unknown" for having the female marines wear almost the same armor as the male marines. They also have "military" hairdos that keeps their hair away from their faces.

  3. Profile photo of David Kilman David Kilman says:

    Near-naked men holding sharp objects is not exactly rare either – Conan, Barsoom, and so on. I for one was always impressed with the way vikings in Frazetta (and other artist) paintings managed to brave the north sea in underwear and a helmet. So instead of Chicks in Chainmail, you get Lunks in Loincloths.

  4. … not to mention that if you want to wield a sword, you want to tie down your breast. Not boost them! 😀

  5. *You* have been guilty of painting chicks in chain mail? Well what can I say. Eternal shame on you. 😛

    I think (I suspect) there have in fact been quite a few women warriors throughout history – as well as seafarers, scholars, and other male professions: women who were unaccepting of their assigned gender roles, just like Eowyn in LotR – but I think generally, they would dress up as, and pretend to be men (just like Eowyn does in LotR). And they would make damn sure to keep up that disguise. For one thing, if they were outed, they would make themselves subject to gang rape and being burned at the stake, among other unpleasant experiences.

    Perhaps this was easier to do in an age which put greater emphasis on modesty in clothing — which is another reason why those chain mail chicks are so completely unrealistic. NO medieval woman would have dressed that way! As far as I can figure out with a quick google search, the bra in its current design is a 20th century invention (though I seem to have read somewhere that it was around before then, an item of clothing usually reserved for prostitutes). Before that, women would wear corsets.

    So on both these counts, the chainmail chick should perhaps be grouped with the dragon and the unicorn, as a mythical creature which only exists in people's imagination. As such, she has a reality of her own. Just as long as we don't confound her with an actual women – just as we don't confound a unicorn with a horse, or a dragon with a lizard, eh. 🙂

    1. Profile photo of MD Jackson MD Jackson says:

      I'm afraid that i am as guilty as any artist (if not more so) of perpetuating the Chicks in chain-mail trope — or as I refer to it "Near-naked women holding sharp objects"

      Yes, that's a good point about women being disguised as men. If they can carry it off no one would be the wiser unless you're in a shakespeare play and you fall in love with the male lead and have to reveal yourself to avoid awkward complications, or you are Pope and rather unfortunately give birth during a public ceremony.

      Your point about the bra is also well taken. Sonya's bikini is certainly ahead of its time as well as being inadequate protection against edged weapons. And they certainly do exist in people's minds, young men (and middle aged artist's) at any rate, but they are not entirely mythical. One can see them at renaissance fairs and at comic and gaming conventions quite regularly.

      1. But at least you have given them some scars on those unsheltered expanses of skin! Mainly, the Chick in Chainmail is not only scantily clad, she is also unmaimed, freshly out of the shower, and perfectly coiffured in a blow-your-long-red-hair sort of way.

        Like I say. She's a supernatural being, she ain't a woman. She's an incarnation of Artemis, or Brünhild, or Kali. And as to meeting them at conventions – well I tell you, *I've* recently met an Ent. 😀

        Yup -depicting a woman in a bra in an "ancient" sort of setting, is about as historically accurate as painting a viking or a medieval knight wearing blue jeans!

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