Fantasy Art, Fishnets, and Red Sonja’s Chainmail Bikini

August 6, 2013

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Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of many fantasy novels, including the Creature Court trilogy and the Mocklore Chronicles. Her short story collection, Love and Romanpunk, was released as part of the critically acclaimed Twelve Planets series. She is the co–host of Galactic Suburbia and the Verity! podcasts. Check out her blog at or follow her on Twitter at @tansyrr.

I have some complicated thoughts about fishnet tights.

Specifically, I have some complicated thoughts about fantasy art, fishnets, and Red Sonja’s chainmail bikini.

I’ve devoted a lot of energy over the years to the analysis of women in comics, especially superhero comics, which I love. I’ve looked at Wonder Woman’s lack of bra straps, and asked the hard questions about why exactly the teenage Supergirl has to have quite such a short skirt as she flies over the Metropolis skies.

As a feminist, a comics fan and a historian, however, I will defend Black Canary’s fishnet tights to the death.

So will Gail Simone.

Simone’s fresh take on iconic fantasy heroine Red Sonja launched recently, with a whole lot of buzz and the support of some amazing female guest artists on covers. This version of Red Sonja wears the same tiny chainmail bikini she always has — but that doesn’t mean she’s not capable of cutting your face off in the middle of battle, or staring you down until you run terrified off the nearest cliff.

“I get why it upsets some people, there’s a long tradition of sexist costumes and bullshit going back to the end of time in comics. But, I don’t know, to me, it’s a bit like Canary’s fishnets, which I defend forever. To me, it makes some sense for Sonja. She wears what she damn well pleases and couldn’t care less what you think about it. Conan wears less. The comics versions of Howard’s barbarian characters barely wear clothes at all. Their core concept is freedom, a hatred of being encumbered. They’re barbarians, not knights.”

Gail Simone, interviewed by DC Women Kicking Ass

Black Canary’s fishnets are a great example of the Fantasy Art Problem, and indeed the Comic Book Art Problem, when it comes to women. Black Canary was designed in the 1940s, and her original fishnets didn’t look remotely kinky — they were a hash pattern over what looked like thick blue leggings. On the page, they didn’t look any sillier than Wonder Woman’s skirt, or Batgirl’s suit.

However, artists started getting more “mature” in the 80s, and Dinah’s fishnets never quite recovered from the emphasis on the stripper/porn implications of her costume. DC tried to change her outfit a few times but the problem is, without the fishnets, she doesn’t actually look like Black Canary.

This awkward balance between acknowledging the history of female characters, and addressing the sexist problems with that history without making that history disappear altogether, is constantly with us in characters that have longevity. You can’t put Tarzan or Conan in blue jeans without radically changing their characters. You can’t have Bruce Wayne fighting with his face showing.

It’s not a coincidence, though, that when it comes to male characters that have been around for decades, the essential elements of their physical character are rarely about how sexually appealing they look to male readers. And in the case of female characters… well, it’s hard to escape.

In the same week that Red Sonja #1 debuted, there was another announcement around the character: Gail Simone is putting together a major anthology of short comics called Red Sonja: Legends. This will feature work by an array of mostly female writers and artists including Tamora Pierce, Marjorie M. Liu, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Nicola Scott, Mercedes Lackey, Rhianna Pratchett and Devin Grayson. Many of these writers and artists are known for their credible and thoughtful portrayal of female characters — with Rhianna Pratchett’s work on Lara Croft and Tomb Raider another recent example of giving character, depth and respect to a female character that has often been seen as a sex object.

This is where I stop myself, because — actually, that’s unfair. Just because a lot of people used to make crude jokes about Lara Croft’s boobs doesn’t mean she wasn’t pretty awesome in the early Tomb Raider games. I loved those games. She was dressed practically, she was good at shooting wolves, and at least she tied her hair back unlike almost every action heroine in movies/TV/comics ever.

It’s worrying how easy it is to slip from critiquing the outfit chosen for a female fictional character to criticizing that character herself. Wearing sexy clothes is actually not a moral failing, in real people or fictional characters, and yet a lot of well–meaning gender critique can have a ‘shaming’ element to it that has a knock–on effect with real people, such as the cosplayers who are mocked or derided for wanting to wear (beautifully made, with geeked out details to the max) sexy sci–fi outfits.

I was drawn to a discussion that happened in the comments of the “Red Sonja: Legends” post at The Mary Sue about the problematic history of Sonja’s chainmail bikini, her portrayal over the years, and the important question of whether it was possible for a character to be a power fantasy AND a sexual fantasy at the same time.

A great explanation of the difference between a power fantasy and a sexual fantasy, especially with gendered gaze, can be found at Shortpacked, a web comic that has made some excellent commentary on gender issues in comics over the years, and particularly on the ‘New 52 Starfire’ topic back in 2011. The comic “False Equivalence” addressed the common argument that male superheroes are just as ‘sexually objectified’ as female characters are, because of their muscles, and explains the difference between sexual fantasies and power fantasies.

However, it’s not that simple. Plenty of characters do fulfill both roles — and as female fandom becomes more and more vocal, we’re seeing far more expression of female power fantasies. As a social phenomenon, cosplay makes far more sense if you accept that most cosplayers do not choose a costume just ‘to look hot’ (though that is a perfectly legitimate motive in itself), but because they want to express themselves through that character. Many of them do in fact want to role play that character.

If you rule out the idea that all the women who dress up as Poison Ivy or Harley Quinn are doing it to nab geek boys, then the logical assumption is in fact that they are doing it because THEY WANT TO. They enjoy walking in those shoes.

I was quite excited at the recent announcement that Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti were getting their hands on Harley Quinn, because they have a long history of combining smart writing and cheeky, sexy (occasionally self–mocking) superhero art that also treats all the women on the page like they are people. This sort of thing makes a difference.

Back to Red Sonja, a character who is often held up as an example of everything that is horrible and sexist about the portrayal of women in comics and fantasy art — while also being the original badass, kickbutt warrior woman. Now she’s being written by Gail Simone, who has a long history of addressing issues to do with feminism, sexism, gender and similar issues in comics. Her regular artist is male, but she’s being presented to the public through a bunch of interesting cover art by some of the most important and exciting female artists in the business. Now there’s going to be an anthology as well, harnessing the power of a LOT of talented creators who have made it their business to address issues to do with gender, female superheroes, female warriors, sensible armour, and all those other things over their careers.

Does this change the fact that the history of the portrayal of women in fantasy art has been deeply problematic over the years? No, it doesn’t. For decades, ‘women in fantasy’ have often been represented by images of half–naked women in impractical, barely–there armour and/or wisps of satin. Chainmail bikinis and similar garments of improbability have defied physics and logic, not to mention any idea of genders being treated with equal respect. And while, yes, Conan likewise got around in a few scraps of leather, the depiction of women (and their body language in particular) was more consistently demeaning.

As a teenage girl learning about the genre largely through secondhand books, I found many of those covers profoundly embarrassing — and it only took one Gor novel to teach me that however bad it is when a perfectly sensible female character is drawn as a metal bikini model on the front cover, it’s SO MUCH MORE DISTURBING when the sex slave covers actually reflect the contents of the book inside with some accuracy.

Can Red Sonja’s chainmail bikini be reclaimed? Well, why not? If she’s drawn with confident, non–demeaning body language despite her her traditional costume, and scripted by a smart writer who is aware of the gender implications of the history of the character, then we might actually end up with a comic that has much wider appeal — to readers of all genders and orientations who like to look at sexy ladies AND readers who like to read about active, well–written female characters cutting heads off and kicking butt (it’s okay to like both things).

There are plenty of potential readers who won’t make it past the chainmail bikini. I’d never have considered picking up a Red Sonja comic if it wasn’t for the trust I have in creators like Gail Simone and Fiona Staples.

But it’s interesting how many of Simone’s ‘Red Women’ of the Legends project were excited to be part of a project to reclaim Red Sonja as a hero for women. How many great writers and artists loved her, not because of how she looks in her tiny and inadequate scraps of chainmail, but because of the power fantasy she represents.

“My pitch is pretty simple. When a lot of female characters were still mostly wet blankets, hostages and love interests, Red Sonja was commanding armies and cutting off demon heads. She is lusty, a bit of a drunkard, she does what she wants, says what she wants, and if you give her any shit, it’s entirely possible she’ll slay you and your best friend and your best friend’s cat… It’s a new series, a new story, it starts off at ground zero… there’s no catching up involved, no knowledge of history required. She hits the ground running and slaying.“

Gail Simone, interview at DC Women Kicking Ass

I really enjoyed the first issue of Red Sonja, despite knowing almost nothing about the character, and never having read a comic featuring her before. She felt like a grungier version of Xena, with slightly more variable moral lines, and a more adult rating for gruesome violence. I liked that the story was full of female supporting characters, and that Sonja had Opinions about not wanting to wear ‘respectable’ dresses or curtsey meekly to kings. I came away feeling like I had a strong sense for the character, and why she’s the sort of person who sleeps by the campfire in a chainmail bikini.

Red Sonja is a very powerful character, and her power comes from not only her experience and competence on a battlefield, but her self–confidence, her sense of humor and her loyalty.

She’s just — a tough, in your face barbarian warrior who can wear that outfit, because no one’s ever going to get close enough to cut her, and no one is ever going to dare make fun of her.

And now I want to know what she’s going to do next.

© Tansy Rayner Roberts

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  1. Paul Weimer (@princejvstin)

    She felt like a grungier version of Xena, with slightly more variable moral lines, and a more adult rating for gruesome violence.

    That’s really insightful, and could help make her a female hero that appeals to a wide swath of readers, both male and female, especially in this Dark Fantasy/Grimdark age.

  2. Will Shetterly

    It seems to me that so long as female cosplayers feel the chain mail bikini is empowering, it is. Arguing about its practicality misses the fact that costumes for adventure heroes in visual media are symbolic, not naturalistic.

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