Plate Mail Bikini

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.

A low-level quest reward, Cobalt Legguards are equally revealing on male and female models.

A low-level quest reward, Cobalt Legguards are equally revealing on male and female models.

The Raptor Hide Harness actually covers more on a male model than on a female one.

The Raptor Hide Harness actually covers more on a male model than on a female one.

But sprinkled throughout quest rewards and loot drops are items that look very, very different depending on your character’s gender.

The Carapace of Tutan'Kash mysteriously shrinks when female toons put it on.

The Carapace of Tutan'Kash mysteriously shrinks when female toons put it on.

The Bloodscale Legguards raise the specter of a plate armor thong.  Ow.

The Bloodscale Legguards raise the specter of a plate armor thong. Ow.

These are called Metro's Slimming Legs, but are thigh-highs really slimming?

These are called Metro's Slimming Legs, but are thigh-highs really slimming?

The Warrior's Embrace: Well, it is called a breastplate, isn't it?

The Warrior's Embrace: Well, it is called a breastplate, isn't it?

Official name: Pants of the Naaru.  Common nickname: Panties of the Naaru.  A'dal, you dog.

Official name: Pants of the Naaru. Common nickname: Panties of the Naaru. A'dal, you dog.

The Lofty Legguards need to be seen from the back to be fully appreciated.

The Lofty Legguards need to be seen from the back to be fully appreciated.

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:

  • Is your average (male, heterosexual) MMO player ready for men in thigh-highs?

    Is your average (male, heterosexual) MMO player ready for men in thigh-highs?

    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.

About Hot Tramp

Twentysomething girl gamer from Southern California. Currently playing entirely too much WoW.
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33 Responses to Plate Mail Bikini

  1. I usually put it in terms of wanting to look competent and dangerous. My characters, when I played World of Warcraft, were heroes. They should look that part, not be on compulsory display for some design team’s idea of the lowest-common-denominator male gaze. And in the credit where it’s due department, the Northrend armors in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion did a fine job of competent and dangerous.

    Of course most of the women toons in WoW still /sit like they’re in training as Gorean kajiras so they don’t get that much credit. Speaking of compulsory displays.

  2. Kingfox says:

    “Male mages and priests wear lovely, long, luxurious dresses most of the time, just like female casters.”

    Not entirely true. Not even the clothies get exactly the same gear for both genders. Case in point, Vestments of the Shifting Sands: http://www.wowhead.com/?item=21499#screenshots

    For the men, a bulky pink bathrobe. For the women, a bellydancer’s outfit.

  3. Veneretio says:

    I don’t think we’ll see any real headway in the genre until posts/speeches/letters focus primarily on the solutions instead of the problems.

    Frankly, posts that cry, “women’s garments look sexier than men’s” are guilty of the same crime as the issue itself. An easy way to get attention.

    • Hot Tramp says:

      Veneretio, if I had the solution to sexism, I’d be off implementing it right now! :) As I said in the post, I think this is a complex issue, and I’d like to foster discussion about different folks’ perspectives on it. Should we advocate for the total removal of revealing clothes from games? Is there a way to have sexy options, since striving for sex appeal isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, without supporting our culture’s compulsory sexiness? If you’re just looking for a How to Tear Down Patriarchy manual, I’m afraid I don’t have one.

      Also, I’m not sure if I’m reading you right, but I don’t agree that the issue at hand is women trying to get attention by dressing in revealing clothes.

      • Jalestra says:

        I think if it was across the board, men got the kind of sexy options we do, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. I just want fairness. If you’re going to exploit one gender’s sex appeal, then I say exploit both. I’m more all or nothing.

    • oliemoon says:

      I think any “solution” to the problem of rampant sexism in games will, at the very least, have to include an widespread awareness and acknowledgment of the problem itself, a goal that this blog post contributes to.

      I also think there is a big difference between chainmail bikinis as a means to “get attention” (given that they are typically programmed by men and forced on female avatars and players without a choice) and women using their voices to bring attention to the issue of sexist double standards in armor design. I think you have to ask yourself, who exactly is seeking the attention and to what end?

  4. Bittercup says:

    I’ve got to thank you for that link to the reversed comic drawing manual. I’ve never seen it before and I’ll be passing it around.

    Great blog. Please keep up the great work!

  5. Saelorn says:

    As you mentioned, it’s not mandatory for female characters to wear that kind of stuff, but it’s almost impossible to find flattering gear for male characters.

    As is often the case in real life, females just have more options when it comes to socially acceptable dress. That’s unlikely to change in-game before it changes in real life.

    Of course, my personal beef is their standardization of body types to fit their pre-conceived notions of what players want to see (which is really the same argument, since the same people designed the bodies and the clothes). They pretty much resigned themselves to skimpy female outfits and huge male shoulderpads as soon as they programmed the universal narrow female waist (even on cows!) and football-player male shoulders.

    • Brinstar says:

      As you mentioned, it’s not mandatory for female characters to wear that kind of stuff, but it’s almost impossible to find flattering gear for male characters.

      As is often the case in real life, females just have more options when it comes to socially acceptable dress. That’s unlikely to change in-game before it changes in real life.

      That’s really great, but…

      • Feylamia says:

        Can I just say thank you for that link to Derailing for Dummies? It SO made my day.

      • Saelorn says:

        Although I sincerely mean no offense, there is no way for me to respond without it sounding like an insult, so I will respectfully take my leave of this site.

  6. Jayle Enn says:

    Raptor Hide Harness: Lederhosen of the Damned.

  7. Mantheos says:

    I knew it! I knew this issue would come up! Haha. I have noticed it in games before. I’m okay with sexy outfits in videogames, but as long as it’s consistent. I don’t like it when a piece of armor changes completely based off of the gender of the character wearing it, especially if you switch it between two characters right in front of you. Apart from the obvious sexism, it completely defies physics.

    Physically, armor made for a woman will be of a different shape than armor made for a man, for obvious reasons. But it is ludicrous that something that covers the whole chest and torso of a man doesn’t do the same for a female character.

  8. Excellent and thoughtful post.

    I also liked Elsa’s.

    As a woman-born-trans I honestly can find both attractive. As I said in response to Seraphina’s thoughts on the matter what annoys me the most is the lack of *choice*. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a chainmail bikini, sometimes I feel like making a well endowed character, and other times not.

    It’s what I love about text-based RP, I have 110% control over what my character looks like and I can change her up situationally. When I want her to be sensual, she is. When she needs to be professional and well-protected, she is.

    With video games you’re more at the whim of what the devs allow.

    I loved LotRO and Dragon Age for giving women realistic armour. It’s a huge boon and makes the sight of my character’s fights hurt a great deal less. :P I do not believe, and I know you do not believe, that there is anything intrinsically wrong with big breasted characters or skimpy outfits. Just the lack of choice involved and the ridiculous over-representation of them.

    I especially liked your last point, however, which was very thoughtful; when we talk about these things we tend to use terms and concepts that degrade women just as much. I’m very glad you acknowledged that. As a feminist I think one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century women’s movement is to confront and shake off internalised misogyny.

    So, to answer your question of “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?”

    I would say: Yes, absolutely!

    Choice is the key, as it often is in so much else involving the rights of women. That’s how we should frame this. There’s nothing wrong, nor nothing to be ashamed of, when it comes to showing off skin or being sexy. Taking charge of your sexuality and owning it is critical. But for the times when you want to present differently, you should be enabled to do so.

  9. Melponeme_k says:

    I absolutely hate the double standard in armor in WoW.

    Yes, I tried switching out armor but sometimes the metal thong had better stats than anything else. Which meant there was no choice at all.

    Most times female toons get grief simply because they are female. The skimpy armor just adds fuel to the problem.

    And do most players really like the look of the metal bikini? I really don’t see that many female toons wearing these sets without wearing shirts underneath or tabards over them.

    I agree that Northrend armor had the right mix of sexiness and practicality.

  10. DM says:

    I haven’t played much EQ2, but I think, if I recall correctly, that there’s an option for worn armor and display armor so you can get the stats and the look you want. Can anyone who’s played much of that game comment on how that might work (or not) in subverting the mandatory chain-mail bikini?

    • Cuppycake says:

      It definitely works just how you’re saying. You have an entire slot for appearance armor so that you can wear whatever you want and not be subject to forced appearance based on stats. Of course that still means that you have to find a non-sexy outfit that looks the way you want, but EQ2 seems to have armor that covers more skin.

  11. Darkrose says:

    What annoys me most about the armor issue, especially in Aion, is that the women’s armor is frequently completely and utterly useless. What’s the point in a mail hauberk that leaves your upper chest and belly completely exposed? The closest the men get to ridiculous outfits are the male mages, who have absurdly chest-baring tops, but even that doesn’t compare to the female mages. Most of their outfits show their underwear when they fly.

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  14. edie says:

    I’m just into equal objectification. I think I tend to thwart the chainmail bikini intentionally- I keep my male elf in hotpants and my female elf in long dresses because she’s a modest Priestess and he’s a scatterbrained hunter.

    Though she had the panties of the Naaru for a while and kept feeling awkward that the Draenei god was giving her such skimpy clothing. I believe it spawned a running joke that he kept glittering on her and she didn’t understand what that meant.

  15. DruidMage says:

    @DM

    WoW has a philosophy that you can tell someone’s gear level by seeing what gear they are wearing and recognizing its relative power. To hide that behind whatever you guys are suggesting to cover it up would mean you have a much lower chance of knowing if they’re in pvp gear or raid gear (although they’re probably in heroics and blues gear if they want to cover it up)

  16. Snowpetal says:

    @DruidMage

    What you say is mostly true, except for druids. Not only can’t you tell what kind of armor they’re wearing while they’re out “working”, each form looks the same at every level.

    And it gets kinda boring…

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  19. Gunthera1 says:

    I am always disappointed when this occurs with heavy armor. Do women need less protection when going into battle? A female warrior would need her stomach protected just as much as a male warrior so why give her a mid drift top?

  20. Twyst says:

    I scanned the comments, so if i missed this being said already, i apologise! Sometimes there isnt a “choice”, as so often in games, this is the illusion of choice. It is a choice when there are equal rewards, but usually, a piece of gear is better stat-wise, so if you choose not to wear armor because of how it looks, you are setting yourself at a disadvantage in game.
    If it is a tier piece, you cant really not wear it.

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  23. TR says:

    I always loved WoW’s lack of high heels, but my early level outfits were so damn revealing so often, I wore a guild tabard all the time, and that’s probably the only thing that let me play until it stopped sucking. Still have a tabard on now, it’s just the Loremaster one. Ugly, but I’m not taking it off. Swimming actually bothered me as well, ’cause the camera would always go to a very awkward spot behind my female human warrior due to said revealing outfits…

    It seems there’s always disappointment to be had somewhere… I was so excited when I saw a practical, realistic, badass outfit on a Demon Hunter from a Diablo 3 video, I think, and then, bam! High heels. Ugggggghh. No. I have worn heels all of five times ever, and there is just no way that works. I’m hoping against hope that it was just for the video, but I’m ready to be let down. After all, my Amazon never got pants, no matter how heavy the armor.

    I really would like to see more choice about it, agreed on that point. Body proportions too, really. And faces, for that matter. My characters are generally women because I like women, but not very many games allow me to make the pretty boy I want.

    Well, at least my male death knight can wear all the dresses he wants. He looks very nice in the brewfest dress. Still, I’d like to just be able to play games without being subject to all that stifling objectification that I already get bombarded with everywhere else. It’s impractical, it’s irritating, and it’s really not very creative.

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