Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Sherlock, Watson & Chainmail Bikinis

Description: A red-haired woman warrior locked in combat
with a lizard monster taller than she is. She holds a shield
to defend against attacks, sword ready to strike.  The armor
she is wearing is a chain mail bikini, leaving much of her body
exposed to attack.
There are two terms in literary criticism that have been used in the wider world of media fandom and fiction critiques: Watsonian and Doylian. Watsonian means looking at something from an in-universe perspective. For example: "Sherlock Holmes died in that story because he fell off a cliff," would be a Watsonian explanation. "Sherlock Holmes died because the author was sick of writing stories about the detective and wanted to start something new," would be a Doylian perspective, named after the author of the Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle. It was first used on a Bujold-Master fan discussion list and spread from there. It's basically making a difference between talking about something a character says or does and how it fits with the character's fictional world, and why or how the writer's choices fit into our real life life culture, society and circumstances.

There can be a bit of a problem in discussions of fiction when a Watsonian (in-universe) perspective is used to dismiss a Doylian (real world) criticism, and nowhere is that more apparent in both tabletop and gaming circles than the trope of the Warrior Woman Who Fights In A Chainmail Bikini.

The chainmail bikini has been a staple of pulp fantasy art since the 1930s, and has appeared in one form or another in the art and character designs of fantasy novels,tabletop games and video games ever since. Take the cover art for Runequest up there. An in-universe explanation for why the character chooses to wear a chainmail bikini because she feels powerful, almost invincible in battle, and doesn't think she really needs to wear practical armor, so what's the big deal? That would be a Watsonian view.

Description: Video game renders of characters in
armor.On the left,a woman wears armor that covers
armor covering her hands, feet, legs& shoulders while
barely covering her crotch and breasts & exposed
midriff. At right, a male character in armor leaving
nothing exposed but his head.
But the artist or character designer choosing to draw her or portray her that way isn't a value-neutral choice when you look at it in a Doylist (real world) sense. Sure, in the fictional world the story takes place she's Druscilla the Invincible and her bikini symbolizes her fearlessness. But the character also exists as part of a whole trope of chainmail bikini women in fantasy battlefields that have the men warriors decked out in armor from head to toe. And THAT exists among a tradition and media landscape showing women dressed like that merely acting as decoration for men who look like the traditional badass power fantasy. In-universe, the chainmail bikini could represent the character's choice to show fearlessness. In the real world, it is the artist who is choosing to create this look for a character, and those depictions mean something else entirely.

So yes, you can totally appreciate and acknowledge just how awesome Druscilla is in her story
setting. You can't, however, make the context for her portrayal and her appearance vanish or ignore it just because you happen to like her story or her character. So if someone points out how that portrayal in the wider world is sexist, and you counter with "This armor has a practical advantage and it's the character herself choosing to wear it!" you are trying to counter a Doylian crtique with a Watsonian explanation, and that doesn't quite work. Someone pointing out the inherent sexism in chainmail bikini art and representation is also about everything else in fiction in specific and society in general that that bikini can represent. If you're bombarded with those images and these portrayals amongst the constant sea of objectification of women, and you're a woman, you can't just not exists in the world you're living in and you can't just un-see it.

When someone points out issues with sexism in a game, it doesn't make the people who play it bad people. It doesn't make the artists or writers bad people either (though it might show them to be making lazy decisions). Critiquing elements of a game isn't an attack on the game or an attack on people playing it. Criticism of something you like isn't an attack on you. And this isn't just limited to video games.As recently as 2013, the The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's (SFWA) magazine The Bulletin generated controversy with its cheesecake cover of a woman in a chainmail bikini...on the heels of editorials and columns written talking about "lady editors" and rating women solely on attractiveness and how Barbie should be a role model to women in sci-fi and fantasy because she was "dignified".

Most people protesting what they see as gratuitous elements don't want to see things banned and certainly aren't trying to censor anybody (besides, censorship is something only a government body can do)-- they'd just like it to not be the default. It would be cool to have the default be something other that just skimpy or revealing attire. It'd be nice to get a break from the constant objectification. And these critiques can open up the door to considering other things we take for granted. Why not a lithe man calling himself Dru the Invincible wading into battle in naught but a thong? Does that seem silly to you, but not so much if it were Drucilla in her chainmail bikini? Why not?

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