A panel at BristolCon on October 20th 2012 considered this topic. It was introduced in the programme with, “Like the Girl in the Negligee, framed in a gun-sight in 50s detective novels, the inhumanly developed woman in Not Enough Armour has been an icon for SF. … after 100 years of female emancipation is it time to move on and dress these women in sensible armour?” The panel was moderated capably by Philip Reeve, who directed questions to Jonathan Howard, Danie Ware, Joanne Hall (taking time out from excellently organizing the con with the brilliant Andy Bigwood – artist of my ARIA ) and Foz Meadows. Using seriousness of the issue of women soldiers getting hurt when only wearing chain mail bikinis, and much humour, the topic focussed mainly on of-course-women-should-wear-sensible-armour. We have to be sensible don’t we? Although we don’t have to suck up quite as much as Jonathan when he said he was outraged at images of scantily-clad girls on cover art. Perhaps his tongue was in cheek. Oh, and again we are reminded by Danie that we shouldn’t call adult females, ‘girls’. Allyson Bird, I’m afraid you’ll have to rename your excellent collection from Bull Running for Girls to Bull Running for Women. Kind of loses its shock and edge, but it would please the panel.
To add balance, at least Foz Williams declared her nausea at the sight of naked male torsos. (I’m buttoning up my shirt now).
It makes sense. Instead of using the splendid projection and big screen system to demonstrate the offensive images, we were obliged to imagine armour shaped to accommodate FF breasts. Such armour surely invited swords, pikes and other stiff staves aimed at the chest area to channel themselves between the metalled orbs and up into the chin. The audience agreed this would be a consequence if real armour was made like that. It occurred to me that chest plates should have been designed more as the opposite – even an inside out chest plate: a metal ridge in front of her cleavage so that spears and other pointy weapons would deflect off to her side. Men too.
It is self-evident that halter-tops and mini-skirts afford little protection to the women wearing them. However, the point was made that many men faced by such a sight might be distracted long enough to be fatally smitten – in more ways than one! A cunning plan by les madams fatale. You can imagine the enemy sergeants shouting to their men, “Don’t look, don’t look at her.”
Yes, it is politically incorrect to illustrate books and film posters with scantily-dressed women, and was so even in the 1970s, so why do they do it? This wasn’t really discussed by the panel. Perhaps because the sex sells motive is too obvious. Yet it has to be said. I recall an episode of Frasier where Daphne moaned that “You men, you always use sex to get what you want.” Frasier replied, “No. Sex IS what we want.” Putting sex on book covers gets the publishers what they want, just as viewers go to watch Bond films, and Rhianna wears less with each album. Men and many women are hard-wired to be aroused by exposed flesh, but more than that, they find exhilarating the idea of women-who-fight. Just changing book covers to matt colours won’t change biology, only the sales figures. Having said that Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t have much of an erotic image on the cover. Not easy though for publishers to arrange the same level of word of mouth promotion, as EL James did through her Twilight forum entourage.
The irony is that the gallery section of BristolCon had several erotic images of women, some painted by women. Many of the books for sale also featured fleshy torsos, and they are beautiful, enhancing the beholder – except, presumably for the panellists.
It was pointed out that women soldiers do not need especially adapted apparel. They can squeeze into man-shaped armoured garb, and yes that would make them sensible on the real battlefield. Does fiction want to be that realistic? I doubt it. Fiction is about drama and OTT characters, not sexless automatons – on the whole. I wonder, though, how many contemporary fantasy novels display women in non-sensible armour? I struggle to find one on the shelves. Perhaps the panel is already redundant. Charlie Stross has cleavage on his most erotic novel Saturn’s Children (2009) cover, but she’s a main character but not really a traditional warrior.
We should discount those mildly erotic fantasy novels with nymphettes in diaphanous negligee because they are not fighters in the battlefield sense. Similarly, we should not consider erotic vampire cover art for the same reason. Pity because Sam Stone is at least as sexy as her leading women. I recall Liz Williams’ Banner of Souls (2006). The cover art is of a spaceship but the protagonist is Dreams-of-War, the most feisty woman warrior I’ve met in a book. Her armour is so sensible it has artificial intelligence. Yet Dreams-of-War is sometimes obliged to reduce it to be skin deep, and for one encounter divests herself of everything but a knife – and then ashes and mud. Seductive, very clever and compelling. In other words the eroticism is mostly in our head even if many of us need triggers.
Most action women in contemporary SFF fiction tend to be sensibly dressed – such as Hit Girl in the Kick-Ass graphic comics and films yet seductive to view. We don’t need scanty apparel even though the human form is beautiful – even when not perfect, whatever that means.
I have written erotic scenes in all my fiction but would I want publishers to drape seductive women warriors on the cover? No, unless the novel was about Amazon Ninja Poledancers but I would pick such books off the shelf even if only to indulge in my hobby of collecting first sentences.
Tags: Allyson Bird, armour, Banner of Souls, BristolCon, Charles Stross, Danie Ware, erotica, Fifty Shades of Grey, Foz Meadows, Joanne Hall, Jonathan Howard, Kick-ass, Liz Williams, Philip Reeve, Saturns Child, scantily clad, sex, Women