Thursday, January 3, 2013

chain mail bikinis: context matters

Ask me if the chain mail bikini is stupid, and I'll agree with you.

But so are any number of pulp fiction conventions. Shooting from the hip or fanning a six-shooter for example. The Lone Ranger never took off his mask, which had to get mighty uncomfortable. Why Batman isn't constantly getting tangled in his cape when he fights, I dunno.

But in stories that are not supposed to be realistic, what looks coolest always wins.

Ask me if the chain mail bikini is sexist, and I'll ask at least two questions.

The first is why cosplayers like to dress as Red Sonja.

© Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

The second is "What are the men wearing?"

I love this video because it explores a double standard:

But when you look for the origin of the chain mail bikini, you don't find a double standard. Red Sonja went from this:

To this:

Originally, Conan showed more skin. When Red Sonja got the mail bikini, it was a draw: she showed more hip and belly, but she sometimes had higher boots, she had some upper torso protection, and she had gloves.

Now, if I was writing Red Sonja, she'd go back to something like the earlier costume, because the mail bikini only makes sense for a circus performer or a gladiator, not a wandering adventurer, and I like a bit of realism in my fantasy.

But while stupid and sexist often intersect, they ain't the same. So long as Conan's showing as much skin as Red Sonja, both costumes are sexist or neither is.

PS. If I had to be in a swordfight and my choice of costume was a furry diaper or a chain mail bikini, I would choose the bikini in an instant. Are there women who would prefer the diaper?

PS 2. In patriarchal societies, women publicly showing skin is a transgressive act. Part of the appeal of costumes like Wonder Woman's or Red Sonja's for cosplayers is the thrill of flouting a social convention. If this was a serious essay, I would mention nudity at Mardi Gras—most societies have holidays when people are allowed more freedom with their flesh than usual.

PS 3. While it's very true there's a double standard in the amount of flesh most superheroes display, anyone talking about the issue might want to consider 11 Rather Risqué Male Superhero Outfits - Topless Robot. And any serious essay about fantastic heroes who show skin would probably have to start with Tarzan, Jane, John Carter, and Dejah Thoris.


  1. Actually, I'd go with the furry diaper myself. If nothing else, it would be warmer. Also, assuming the other person's sword wasn't all that sharp, it might tangle up their weapon given that it appears to be fairly thick, loose, animal skin. Heh. Of course, either way I'd probably just get stabbed in the belly.

  2. At the 1983 Worldcon here in Baltimore one of the more amazing sights was a young woman in a chain mail bikini. She was also quite pregnant. Talk about transgressive. -- Michael Walsh, who chaaired the con

  3. There isn't a double standard between Sonja and Conan in how much skin they show.
    However, Sonja is supposedly armored but isn't drawn that way to show more skin. Conan chooses not to wear armor at all. That's a difference that should exist, but doesn't.

    You're comparing two things that are dissimilar and showing how they are the same.

    1. A fighting outfit is a fighting outfit.

      And where has anyone claimed that Sonja's wearing full armor?

      Mind you, I'm not saying that her costume isn't stupid. I'm just saying it's no more sexist than Conan's--he really ought to wear a vest, at the very least.

      Captain America has chain mail and Batman doesn't, but they're both superhero suits.