Originally designed by the great Barry Windsor Smith as a red-headed female warrior with a chainmail top and bare legs. So far, so what? Well, in 1973, Esteban Maroto re-designed her costume to this:
and an icon was born. This was in 1973, the year Gygax quit his full-time job to concentrate on finding a way to publish "Dungeons and Dragons", which would appear the following year in almost no good bookshops near anyone, but it would grow.
In the years since, D&D and Sonja's "chainmail bikini" have lived interwoven lives, and this relationship is still very much alive today. In fact, due to the changing demographics of gaming and the rise of the Internet the back-and-forth over this issue is probably more alive today than it has been for a long time.
[edit: people coming from escapistmagazine.com, see end note.]
Boys' Games with Boys' Rules
The early days of gaming, after D&D broke out of the US collage scene and landed on Britain's civilised shores, is one run through with embarrassing "boys only" tropes. The most cringe-worthy of all was probably the report (I think in White Dwarf) of a campaign the writer had encountered where the strength of women was inversely proportional to their charisma so that the good looking ones "would be easier to rape" according to the DM.
I'd like to say that this was an extreme example. But it wasn't particularly. The mix of in-your-head escapism, testosterone, and fantasy art by the likes of Boris, Frazetta, and Archilleos (who sold his first nude in 1973 - maybe they were putting something in the water) allowed adolescent male minds to wander far from the fair fields of chivalric and courtly love.
|(Not) A hotbed|
of gamer dating
Throughout this period, the best known females in the genre were Bêlit and Red Sonja, and possibly still are today, even although the hobby has more sub-genres Sonja, in particular, is known by reputation pretty well across the board and the phrase "Chainmail Bikini" will evoke a long response from Google, including several suppliers should you want one for yourself.
(effects of climate change)
New Games, New Rules
That was how things stood in the early 80's as the fantasy role-playing craze burnt itself out, as all crazes do. Following the collapse of TSR and the removal of FRPG rulebooks from mainstream shops (not even just bookshops!), a lot of the steam went out of the sexism. In fact, a fair bit had already gone as the original players finally got laid and even married, while younger players were less exposed to these more primal aspects of gaming due to the fear (in America; it hardly had any impact here) of the Moral Majority and the Satanic Game Scare™ which caused a distinct turning down of any sexual implications of either adventures or artwork*.
"Dude, he means boobs huhhuh"
[I think there's an interesting parallel here between what it would have been like to be a girl in gaming in 1978 and what it can be like to be a girl in online gaming in 2012. The "easy to rape" type has not gone away, it's just discovered that it can actually interact with real women from the safety of a room many miles away.]
Whatever the cause, there are more women in role-playing now than there ever has been, at least as a percentage and probably as an absolute number too. Being a sexist tool in a face-to-face game is not a viable option any more for males who may be in the minority at the table.
Be Reasonable, This is Fantasy (?)
But this brave new world has some baggage from the old. And one major item in the bagging area is what is an allowable/acceptable depiction of the fantasy woman?
So tired are some people of the chainmail bikini that they have started blogs and tumblrs to push a new image of fantasy heroines, most well known of which is probably Women Fighters in Reasonable Armour (although they spell "armour" wrong). This, in turn has spawned "Women Fighters in Unreasonable Armour".
Now, I like both sites but I have a bit of a problem with the thinking behind the former, and many of the blogs that also push the idea that this:
is "shit", while this:
is a more acceptable depiction of a female fighter and, presumably, not shit.
I actually prefer the second painting but I don't agree that it's any more reasonable than the first one. The first illo is clearly a homage to 300 and the men behind those women are probably wearing less than they are - even if they're dressed historically accurately, let alone based on the movie. The second image is, to me, just as much a male fantasy as the first - the girl is far too slight to really be a fighter, she's very pretty and lacking in battle scars, and she has access to some excellent hair products for a mediaeval fighter. The reasonableness is illusionary. My favourite example of this is this Elmore paining:
Meanwhile, here's a picture of some real-world warriors (and their kids, by the look of it) in full battle-dress:
As part of our primary school's mission to traumatise the under 10s, we were shown footage of similar tribesmen actually fighting for real and I vividly remember one sticking his spear through the leg of an enemy tribesman. These guys were not kidding around and were not play-acting. Yet they, like the vast majority of warriors in human history, wore little or no armour. For them, Red Sonja is over-dressed (albeit they might think a shield a worthwhile investment, and some paint).
So, it's simply not true to think that any fighter of either sex who is depicted basically naked but for a loin-cloth/bikini is being "unreasonable" or that anyone in plate is automatically "reasonable". So, let's leave "reasonableness" as a justification out of the discussion. This is fantasy and reasonableness is a long way down the list of requirements. Which winds us up the long and winding path to the main point:
Chainmail Bras Don't Burn, They Just Rust.
Brom, they should all be able to feel inspired to some epic adventure, to tread the jewelled thrones of the world beneath their sandalled feet, whether as a man or a woman of any subjective level of attractiveness.
D&D allows this sort of play, in fact the existence of so many protective devices rather encourages it as does the fighter class's high hit points and the encumbrance rules. (And for that matter, it also almost completely ignores the difference in physical strength between real men and women; there's no mechanical reason not to play an adventuring fighting-woman.)
Telling players that such images of women are embarrassing is no longer a case of telling Sweaty Bill and his group of Unwashables to put it away and get a real girlfriend, it's now perforce also telling girls that they're not allowed to have the same power-trip fantasies that we men had when we were growing up.
Here's some scantly-clad women:
This group of fans is saluting Frank Thorne, probably the best known of the classic Marvel artists for Sonja. Third from right is Wendy Pini, creator and co-writer of ElfQuest. I used to know Wendy and I can assure anyone who asks that this is not an image of a bunch of weak-willed or desperate girls brow-beaten into indulging someone else's sexual fantasy (that just happens to be a bonus for Frank).
For these women, the attraction of Sonja was that she was an independent woman making her way in a tough fantasy world without the help of a man. In fact, she was chaste and refused to become any man's lover. She, like the comic-book Conan she was a counterpart to, could survive and thrive in bloody combat without heavy armour. What she did wear was more by way of symbolising the impossibility of of accessing what was underneath; a "forget it" sign to all those hormonal man-boys who wanted to get their grubby paws on the goodies.
So, let's just get over the whole "cheesecake/reasonable armour" thing. If men are free to be this:
then women should be free to be this:
Otherwise the chainmail bikini is just replaced by a chainmail burqa. And, sister, that ain't progress.
[Edit: People are coming here from an escapistmagazine forum post but I can't post there without joining Facebook, so here's my reply:
The problem with the last image of Sonja is not that her arse is towards the viewer. The problem is that there is basically no way to depict her which is not going to be seen as "sexual". From the front she has lots of cleavage; from behind she has lots of ass. The question is - so what? I think those that are complaining about this are saying that there is a "good" way to depict women - and only women - and that we should only accept images where they are "decent". Heroic fantasy deals with physically idealized people; if anyone finds them sexually attractive, well that just means they're normal. Sonja there is a million times better role model for girls than any Disney Princess or Barbie Doll.]
*My theory is that because God never has sex with anyone in the Bible but slaughters men, women, and children at the slightest whim Christians have been left with the strange idea that killing people is, at worst, just rather rude, while having sex with them is simply against Gods Plan®™ and therefore totally EVIL.