Within twenty minutes of my tweeting this link about putting an end to “boob armour” in fantasy game development, I got three private messages in my twitter inbox about how it’s all just fantasy and it doesn’t matter, so I should leave it alone.
That’s three complaints, within twenty minutes. And with only 307 Twitter followers (as of the time of writing), I’m not broadcasting to the whole world here. Think about that for a minute.
This is only a tiny, tiny, infinitesimally tiny fraction of what women themselves deal with when they assert their wish to be represented in fantasy fiction as real human beings and not as mere tropes. Consider, as an example, the astonishing and ugly misogyny faced by Anita Sarkeesian, who ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to produce a series of videos about misogyny in video games. (Here’s where you can hear her story.) My three complaints were mostly polite; Sarkeesian’s complaints included death threats. There’s a real problem here.
So here’s my overall reply.
Yes, it’s fantasy, but still, it matters. The question that needs to be asked here is: What kind of fantasy do you want? Do you want female characters who are only “girl-toys” for the male characters? Or do you want female characters who are independent, autonomous, free-willed, and accomplished human beings, with any number of merits and flaws like any male characters may have?
To me, the latter are much more interesting. Most of the female characters in my novels are sexual beings but their sexuality runs on a spectrum: from one character who uses sex as a tool for social manipulation, to others (several in fact) who aren’t interested in sex at all. I admit that several of my female characters wear heels sometimes, because I happen to find them sexy. But none of them are walking “girl-toys” for the male characters. They have wants and plans, they have problems, they have strengths and weaknesses, and they have histories and identities. And so do the male characters. That’s what makes them interesting. If a female character is only a “girl toy” for the male characters, then she’s not really a person; she’s a piece of furniture. And so she’s not really interesting.
To which a critic might reply by saying, “But it’s only fantasy”, or “But it’s my fantasy”, or “But no one is harmed by my fantasy”. Well, it is fantasy – but I say again, it still matters. Fantasy fiction, like any fiction, is a way we reflect, contemplate, experiment with, explore, criticize, and sometimes escape from reality. But it always exists in some complicated relationship to reality. So behind that fantasy of a girl-toy, there’s a real human being somewhere in the world, with real feelings and real thoughts and real problems. Behind that fantasy is a woman in your family, your workplace, your neighbourhood, your school, your church, or any other social group that you belong to. How do you think she feels when you show your interest in a girl-toy fantasy character? Did you even ask?
The point of objecting to the “boob armour” (the thing that got me started here in the first place) is that it represents an unjust power-dynamic between men and women. In this unjust power dynamic, women have to appear as if they are perpetually available for sex. They do not normally act from their own initiative: for the most part, they only respond to others and serve others.
Now in the real world, if a woman wants sex, she might say or do something so that the man who interests her will know it. But even if she doesn’t do anything to demonstrate her sexual desire, it’s not right for a man to demand that women present themselves as if they’re available for sex all the time. She might not want sex all the time. Or, she might not want sex with You. And to assume that she does – and to demand that she should – is to disrespect her humanity. And guys – if we are honest with ourselves – neither do we want it all the time either. So there’s a justice issue here: it’s unjust to make others keep to a standard that we ourselves are not willing to keep.
I think our fantasy stories, whether in fiction or television or film or video games, should reflect reality in a more critical, more experimental, less escapist way. It should expose and question social injustices, rather than systematically presuppose them as given truths of reality. It should do this by portraying all its characters, whatever their gender, orientation, ethnicity, age, education, wealth, poverty, or whatever, as interesting human beings, and not as furniture. This really isn’t too much to ask. (And if you think it is too much to ask, then I think something might be very seriously wrong with you.)
Therefore, in keeping with the Bechdel Test, I’d like to propose a “Lunsford Test”, named in honour of Michael Lee Lunsford, the artist who created this series of images of popular fantasy heroines in sensible dress. Let’s say that a film, TV show, video game, or whatever, passes the Lunsford Test if:
1. The lead and supporting female characters choose their own clothing,
2. The clothing they choose is appropriate for whatever they are doing, and
3. The clothing they choose portrays them as human beings with a distinct and interesting identity.
Notice that the characters in Lunsford’s gallery are dressed for adventure, action, and initiative, like a hero (or a villain!) of a fantasy story should. And they’re kind of sexy; the Lunsford Test as I propose it here does not rule out sexiness. Curiously it might rule out women who wear a uniform of some kind, except insofar as she chose the career which requires the uniform, and the career allows her some meaningful autonomy (career army officers, maybe? Airline pilots?). But the important thing is that it rules out costumes which do nothing more than demonstrate sexual availability. And that matters.