When Gunthera1 posted High heels and female warriors, I found myself thinking, “Well, I’m sure glad that doesn’t happen in World of Warcraft!” And it’s true that you won’t find high heels in Azeroth. However, the chainmail bikini lives on.
A lot of the game’s armor is gender-neutral. Male mages and priests wear lovely, long, luxurious dresses most of the time, just like female casters. My dwarf warrior woman is covered head to toe in titanium plating, just like our guild’s human male paladin tank. Skimpy gear can look the same on males and females, too.
But sprinkled throughout quest rewards and loot drops are items that look very, very different depending on your character’s gender.
See the common thread? Normal-looking clothing or armor on the guys. Thongs, thigh-highs, and bras on the girls.
None of this is groundbreaking stuff. Women in fantasy and sci-fi have been wearing provocative and impractical clothing and armor since the early days of pulp cover art. Drawing on the style of thirties and forties pin-up art, Earle Bergey introduced sci-fi damsels in metallic bras, and his work was later cited as the inspiration for Princess Leia’s slave-girl getup. Red Sonja may be the most famous woman warrior to hack and slash with hardly anything on, but Larry Elmore painted multitudes of anonymous half-naked swordswomen as a staff illustrator for TSR in the original D&D days. Heavy Metal magazine pushed the trope even further into explicit eroticism. Lara Croft is just a janey-come-lately.
Blizzard’s inclusion of revealing, sexy gear for female toons shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s a genre convention, and since heterosexual men and boys have historically made up the bulk of the player base, it’s fanservice and a smart business decision. Players who dislike sexed-up female armor have options, too: They can generally choose other gear for their characters without compromising their ability to overcome in-game challenges. As objectifying video games go, at least WoW gives players an out. Don’t like it? Don’t wear it.
But there are some issues to ponder here:
The game includes sexed-up gear for female toons, but transforms that gear into standard, boring breastplates and pants on men. Why? Why doesn’t Warrior’s Embrace lovingly cup a male orc’s pecs while leaving his toned belly up for admiration? Why don’t the blood elf guy’s butt cheeks peek out around a thong? Of course a lot of players wouldn’t like it — it’s weird, it’s girly, it’s gay! But don’t like it, don’t wear it … right? Or is it just too transgressive to mix male bodies and the fashion features that supposedly make women sexy? If you’ve never considered the consequences of imposing female standards of sexiness onto male bodies, then run, don’t walk, to vito_excalibur’s brilliant reversal of a how-to-draw comics manual. It’s tempting to object, “But men don’t look like that! They don’t dress like that!” Neither do most women! And in a game where shoulder armor routinely sports huge phallic promontories and weapons glow with eldritch energies, I think verisimilitude has gone out the window. There’s another standard at work here.
- How much does the sexualization of female video game characters matter, anyway? Why does it matter? This is ultimately part of a much, much larger conversation about images of women in pop culture — advertisements, movies, sitcoms, music videos, and so on. In “Sexuality and/in Representation,” art historian Lisa Tickner writes “Representations enter our collective social understandings, constituting our sense of ourselves, the positions we take up in the world, and the possibilities we see for action in it.” Again and again, we see women represented one way: idealized into a narrow standard of beauty, bodies put on display, (un)dressed to highlight secondary sexual characteristics, photographed and painted and animated to be admired by straight men. Now that we’ve achieved near de jure equality in so much of the world, do these images still harm us and limit us? Or have we become so enlightened, so progressive, so media-savvy that we’re immune to their influence?
- How do we talk about this? Plenty of women dislike the sexualization of their toons, but conversations about the issue often end up mired in troubling attitudes about women’s sexuality. “The female night elf dance reminds me of some skanky stripper.” “My character is not a slut.” “I don’t want to look like a whore.” Is there room for a more nuanced approach to the chainmail bikini, one that resists objectification and compulsory sexiness without hating on sex workers and sexually adventurous women?
My own perspective on this is mixed. I avoided skimpy gear on my first toon, because I wanted her to look tough and intimidating instead of flirty and decorative. On other characters, I’ve had a blast chasing the most outlandishly sexy pieces of gear the game has to offer. I want an approach that acknowledges the problems in our culture’s representation of women, but still allows for experimentation, silliness, and fun with fashion. As Elsa at Destructoid notes, sometimes the chainmail bikini annoys us, and sometimes we long for the levity.