Red Sonja’s scale mail bikini is not a weapon of feminist doom. I repeat; Red Sonja’s scale mail bikini is not a weapon of feminist doom. It is very tempting to think getting rid of her bikini and replacing it with a different outfit will somehow make her a “good” female character or make her feminist and that her costume automatically and inherently makes her unfeminist and a problematic female character but that line of thinking is erroneous and contains its own problematic ideas and ideals about femininity, female bodies, and female experiences.
Underrepresentation, misrepresentation, and oversexualization of women in comics is a real problem. The very successful blog Escher Girls is based on submitted and administrator located images of comics (and games and other media) women sexualized out of context, drawn in ways that indicate no knowledge of how breasts work (Note that the criticism is not of the size of the breasts because women have breasts of all sizes and in combination with many different body shapes, heights, and hip to waist ratios. The criticism is of ‘how’ the breasts are drawn.) or of how the human body can actually move, and other problematic aspects of how women are visually represented on the page (or on the screen). I picked Escher Girls as an example in part because of the value it places on not including or permitting body shaming in redraws or other content submitted to and otherwise posted on the site, but it is far from the only place such discussions are occurring, both on and off-line, and the issues raised in them are ones that need addressing, including and especially by the big two comic publishers (Marvel and DC) and with long-standing and popular titles and properties, of which Red Sonja is one.
However, in attempts to address concerns and also in discussions about problematic character portrayals and visual depictions, people (and I do mean ‘people’. It is not just men who do this) can go for “easy” solutions that do not actually address what was being discussed and/or that bring in ideas and principles which are actually not female friendly and feminist at heart. A big part of this and what I will be discussing in connection with Red Sonja is the magical pants fix. It does not always involve putting actual pants of the character but the jist of it is that giving the (female) character a costume with more coverage in terms of fabric or other material will somehow make her a “good” female character and alleviate and address the concerns and complaints of female (and male) comics fans about how women are portrayed and drawn in comics. That is a more creator oriented angle and fix and while well intentioned by those executing it (or pushing for it, as with Dynamite’s (temporary) push on the previous Red Sonja run for costumes with more coverage than the scale mail bikini) is not always successful and does not inherently and automatically fix the problems with women in comics in general or with the handling of specific female characters in particular.
As well, on the fan end (or more on the fan end), discussions of these problems with the ways women are depicted visually and narratively in comics and discussions of particular characters (such as when the new, Gail Simone penned run on Red Sonja was announced earlier in the year) can veer into territory that includes body shaming and slut shaming as well as the setting of rules about what women can and cannot wear … all of which run counter to the ideals, if not always the practice, of feminism. There is nothing wrong with costumes for female comics characters that include pants or that cover all or almost all of their skin. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with costumes that cover much less skin or that can otherwise be viewed as particularly “sexy.” It is a matter of execution and also of ‘choice’. If either type of costume is ‘required’, ‘then’ it becomes a problem, whether the required costume is one showing a lot of skin or one showing little to none. Otherwise, both should be included and executed well. It is just as possible to sexualize a fully clothed female character out of context and contort her body into impossible to near impossible positions in order to show her breasts and buttocks at the same time as it is to draw a female character wearing little clothing and not put her into any of those unrealistic and extreme poses or sexualize her out of context.
This brings me to a trip to the comics store a few weeks ago to see if I could get a print copy of Gail Simone and Walter Giovanni’s Red Sonja #1 and to the interesting sample of artwork I got when I flipped through the store’s available back issues of Red Sonja comics from the same publisher as the new run, Dynamite. What I saw was part of the impetus for this post because I not only had my eye caught by a beautiful cover (pictured above) that had a wonderfully drawn scale mail bikini clad Red Sonja inside but also noted many issues where Red Sonja had been put into a variety of different and more “modest” outfits … and yet was fairly consistently being drawn in unrealistically contorted poses and sexualized out of context.
This hearkens back to my point about well-intentioned “fixes” because those issues were part of an intentional push by the publisher to address concerns about women in comics and because it is also possible to draw Red Sonja in both good and bad ways … in the same outfit. To flesh out my random sample a bit more, I read through the complete story arc that one of the issues (She Devil with a Sword #69) was a part of and kept an eye on the art as I read. All four issues for Swords Against the Jade Kingdom had the same cover artist, Walter Geovanni, and stability with the rest of the crew (barring a change in colourist on the last issue in the arc) … except for the person drawing the interiors. And it showed. Except for what I refer to as Red Sonja’s Xena the Warrior Princess cosplay outfit in the last issue of the arc, she wears her iconic scale mail bikini and in all four issues the amount of skin showing has no automatic correlation with how realistically she (especially her breasts) is drawn, her ability to take impossible poses, and the occurrence of inexplicable up-skirt panty shots and out of context sexualisation. Which are all real and valid and important areas of concern when it comes to how women are represented in comics and which do not (have to) involve any elements of body or slut shaming in order to discuss or address them.
Personal preferences aside, the problem with the Xena-esque outfit in She Devil with a Sword #71 (and the story’s prologue in issue #67) is not that it covers up little more than the scale mail bikini in the earlier part of the story arc did. It is that the Red Sonja in it is drawn in poses that are ostensibly action shots during battle but are actually designed to be up the skirt panty shots, complete with white panties made clearly visible by the (re)positioning of Sonja’s armor.
The same also happens in one of the issues with Sonja’s iconic scale male bikini, along with problems in how her breasts are drawn. Again, it is not a problem of size. It is how the breasts themselves are drawn, including or especially where they sit on the chest and how the weight and fullness are distributed.
At the same time, there are issues within that same story arc with Red Sonja wearing the same outfit or general amount of coverage as those two problematic issues … and her breasts attach how and where they actually would on a real body and distribute their weight and fullness in a realistic way and there are no out of context poses meant to show off (perplexing for a barbarian and one rather travel wearied and who rides horses bareback) pure white panties or panels that consist solely of close ups of Sonja’s breasts and/or buttocks.
It is the same story and the same writer but not the same Sonja because of how well the art does (or does not) relate to the character. And ‘that’ is what makes (or does not make) a “good” female character. Not what shoes she wears or how big her breasts are or how much fabric (or metal or leather) she covers herself with, but how well her writers ‘and’ her artists treat her and what they do with girls who want to vamp it up in heels and fishnets or wet their swords with blood while wearing little more metal than took to make those blades or who like a well cut pair of pants or a bodysuit for saving cities in.
All of this brings me to the new run of Red Sonja at Dynamite and issue one of Gail Simone and Walter Giovanni’s comic of the same name, starting with the variant cover pictured above. Unlike the other variant covers and the main cover, this one correlates directly to a scene from the story and it is there I want to begin. That cover and the corresponding image from the scene it is a part of could easily be questionable and problematic in the vein of artwork and narratives showing beautiful (and beautifully drawn) women waiting to be taken advantage of in the vulnerability of sleep, or drink, or both … but it is not. The cover art is beautiful and so is Red Sonja but she is beautiful in a naturalistic way and the “story” of the cover art is not that she is there to be and about to be taken advantage of. Red Sonja knows those men are there and will not allow them to commit whatever acts they might think are acceptable or permissible because she is female, because she is scantily clad, because she is sleeping and unawares, because she drank and drank enough to pass out. And that is fantastic. Especially since that is echoed and reinforced in the scene itself and it is not done in a way that implies that if Red Sonja had not been aware and did not have the ability and skills with which to defend herself that she would have “deserved” whatever happened to her. In fact, one of the deciding factors for Red Sonja in how she deals with all but one of the men (the one who refuses to join in) is not that they came to her camp looking for money and food, since she would have given that to them gladly and can easily understand and would not be hard on those who have fallen on hard times. It is that they would take, especially after mistaking the meaning of her comment about the drink affecting her aim to mean that she could not successfully defend herself, advantage of what they perceived to be a helpless and vulnerable woman.
Being raised female in American culture, that is wonderful and powerful to read and see. Red Sonja, even from what little is seen in the first issue of her new comics run, wears what she wants, does what she wants, and is not ashamed of and will not let anyone shame her for that … or think that they can take advantage of her and be justified in it as a result. Which is also why I find the comments and discussions around her scale mail bikini problematic. Even when not raised in an especially religious or conservatively religious household (and other environs), there is still a strong purity culture and related cultural forces at play and much of it focuses on and causes harm to women and girls in what it teaches them about their bodies, responsibilities, choices, and actions. So characters like Red Sonja and Wonderwoman in their iconic and “problematic” outfits are wonderful when you have been taught and are constantly being retaught, reminded, and having ideas reinforced about how your personal worth and moral character are not just reflected by your clothing but also determined by it. And also that your clothing makes you responsible for the actions of those around you, specifically and especially men, and that if you dress the “wrong” way that you “deserve” what happens to you.
Red Sonja is a great, fun adventure and sword and sorcery comic and when executed well, as in the promising new run from Gail Simone and Walter Giovanni, is a comic that is in fact very female friendly, empowering, and dare I say feminist. And yes, I do dare. Because how many times do women get to see stories about women who dress and do as they want, including drink as much and as often as they like, and have those women not be the villains and not be made into morality tales to show what happens to “bad” girls who do not follow the rules?
Note: All images shown here are the property of Dynamite Entertainment and Red Sonja LLC and are used for review purposes.