Disclaimer: I am all kinds of fine with sexualized characters in fiction. I’ve heard friends describe themselves by saying: “My sexual orientation is the cast of Teen Wolf.” That’s awesome. I love beautiful characters in books, in comics, in film, on television. Fanfic, even. It’s not just that sex sells and adds a few bonus points to the media that I am consuming—it can add another layer to a character and to character relationships.
So, with that disclaimer out of the way, let me just say that, sometimes, sexualizing a character really sucks. Sometimes, it’s a bad move purely from a storytelling standpoint. Case in point: the “chainmail bikini.”
This has a lot of forms, but basically the idea is a female warrior of some sort (whether she’s a futuristic super-soldier or a warrior princess in the sword and sorcery type of fantasy storytelling) whose armor seems designed to titillate consumers (readers, viewers, etc) rather than to actually protect the female character’s body from harm.
Now, sometimes, clothing is revealing. Emma Frost from X-Men is a great example.
But, as you may have noticed, her clothing is not even attempting to be armor. Emma Frost is a telepath—she does not fight you hand-to-hand, she destroys your mind from the inside out. And if she can’t and she needs to protect herself from some sort of physical danger, well, she can shift her body into an organic diamond form. Not a lot of armor out there that can beat that, you know? And, like every person, she is welcome to dress however the hell she damn well pleases. Female characters in comics are too often sexualized for no apparent reason, but sexuality is very much a part of Emma Frost’s character.
When I say armor, I mean some sort of protective attire that is supposed to physically protect characters against harm. If you aren’t the sort of fighter who wears armor, that’s fine. But the idea of putting a character in minimal armor and then arguing that it “serves as a distraction” is, well, absurd.
How about nope.
In battle, you kill your enemies. You don’t pause, do a Squidward voice, and exclaim: “Oh, no! She’s hot!”
But, this isn’t a post to argue with people who want to shut their eyes and make-believe that “distraction” is a good enough reason for a character to leave herself unprotected. Actually, I really started thinking about this post because this post showed up on Tumblr (here you can see where I’ve reblogged it and added my own comments; the original poster then reblogged it from me which is always really flattering).
If you are totally dead-set on having a character be drawn provocatively, you can give it a more plausible explanation. Let’s say that you have a female warrior character who is, personally, almost invulnerable to physical harm (like Superman, but maybe she’ll get a decent film made about her). So, why would she wear armor? It would be an expensive extra weight that is much more fragile than her own body. She would wear, I assume, clothes that allowed her to move freely. Probably not a bikini, but reasonably attractive clothes.
If you really wanted, you could have her buy some very expensive undergarments, made of diamondmail or dragon scales or whatever you like. Then, if you’re totally dead-set on your female warrior going around in various stages of undress, you can have that be her contingency plan. If her clothes are torn off by a pack of wolves or incinerated in a fire, she’ll still have her ultra-durable underwear that is from a material that is too darn expensive or heavy for the rest of her body.
It’s a crowbar move, but it’s an option.
I hate crowbar plot moves. Sometimes, when a writer really wants to do something, he or she will go out of his or her way to rearrange everyone and everything in a story to make that one thing plausible. Ever see a show suddenly change dramatically in a single episode, with a character getting a massive wardrobe/design change and another character leaving abruptly? That happened on Andromeda when they switched lead writers (and it was a tragic twist). Sometimes we see it from one season to another on all sorts of television shows, when a killed-off character suddenly ceases to be dead “because of reasons” or someone’s personality changes.
That’s annoying enough without having the clear purpose of getting your character’s clothes off.
If you want sexy characters, whether it’s a TV show or a novel, there are plenty of ways to do that. With the exception of a certain nevernude from Arrested Development, people are naked in real life all of the time. In fantasy, this can happen even more. Shape-shifters, especially those who take other-than-human forms, can very plausibly end up in little to no clothing as a fact of life.
As it happens, my Super-Best-Friend and I are writing a book right now that involves a few shape-shifters. In our case, we weren’t really sitting around plotting to write a book about a bunch of characters who sometimes don’t wear clothes (it’s actually an occasional obstacle in writing, because dramatic scenes don’t need to be interrupted by people reacting to each other’s nudity). But it comes up.
It comes up when comic writers write Incredible Hulk stories. Or Superman (or Superboy, on Young Justice – unlike Superman, Superboy’s clothes were normal human attire, not Kryptonian material, so if someone shot him in the chest with an energy weapon or clawed at him, his clothes were torn. No one complained).
There are so many ways to write characters, especially female characters, who can be strong and sexual without perpetually putting themselves on display for other characters—and for the reader. Writers need to be conscious of this. Readers need to be conscious of this.
Sexual characters are great—so long as they make sense. And, ideally, so long as the sexualization is evenly distributed.
And we all need to call out people on their nonsense.
You Might Also Like ...