Somewhere in the dark, shadowy, and very wide valley between “body positivity” and “objectification”, there’s a herd of lost, confused people stumbling about blindly and shouting that feminism is some contradictory bullshit. Lest those poor souls waste away down there, I think it’s time we illustrate just how big and treacherous and sexy that valley is.
Thanks to movements like Escher Girls and The Hawkeye Initiative, which bring attention to objectification through humor, the geek community is becoming more vocal about the problematic ways that women are depicted in certain comics, manga, and video games. The problem, of course, isn’t unique to illustrated or computer-generated media, but because artists aren’t limited by trifling little things like biology or the laws of physics, they can pull off fascinating maneuvers like the boob sleeve:
Then there’s the strange cleavage-and-buttcrack-visible-in-the-same-shot pose:
And of course, the stick-on armor:
The last one is especially notorious in video game characters, whose pixel-nips never seem to escape their tiny housings or take catastrophic battle damage. It should surprise nobody to hear that these characters—generally speaking—are designed to appeal to the male gaze. There is the occasional midriff-bearing, spandex-sporting gent, but in most cases it’s women who are presented scantily clad and awkwardly posed so as to fulfill a fantasy that has everything to do with butts and very little to do with characterization. Yet there are women who, with absolute sincerity, choose to cosplay these very same characters, who find a sense of pride in these absurd costumes, and who revel in the sexuality of them. This is the juncture at which confusion arises: how is it objectification if women get something out of it too? How are men doing something wrong if women voluntarily dress in ways they supposedly despise?
The difference is twofold: context and intention. If a woman takes pride in her body and chooses to expose it, or even if she is shy but admires a character who happens to dress in a provocative way, the choice to put on a revealing costume is hers and hers alone. In the case of real women in the real world, agency can be determined. In the case of a character, however, the costume has been designed by an artist—who is, by sheer statistics, most likely male—with the intention of appealing to an audience who is also statistically male. Even if the artist is female, her choice is not necessarily the character’s choice. When a character is objectified, what she might want for herself in light of her own history, personality, and aesthetics doesn’t come into the equation.
If we empathize with fictional characters in the same way that we empathize with real people (and I think most of us do) it is essential to realize that a character’s choices and desires matter within the context of their universe. If a character shows skin because she genuinely loves her body, that’s a very different scenario than showing skin because whoever did the inking thinks it’ll make her function better as a plot device. Removing a character’s decision-making capabilities makes her powerless.
There are cases where a character’s intentions are made clear within the context of the fictional universe. Kate Bishop of the Young Avengers had her own costume made to her specifications, and enthuses that “being a superhero is amazing, everyone should try it.”
Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, idolizes Carol Danvers, and when fantasizing about being an Avenger herself, she says, “I would wear the classic, politically incorrect costume and kick butt in giant wedge heels.” She later decides that maybe wedge heels aren’t her thing, but her passion for the costume and what it represents is obvious and genuine.
In her most recent comic book appearance, Red Sonja wears a very trope-typical metal string bikini into battle, but does so expressly because a) it’s very lightweight and b) because she has a strong sense of her own sexuality and feels that it suits her. When she acquires said bikini, she acknowledges that it “doesn’t cover much” but also that “you can’t hit what you can’t catch.”
The all-important element of choice should be inherent to video games as well, where avatars are meant to represent the player in one way or another, which is why players can customize their characters. The problem with video games is that the only female options tend to be revealing options. If a player wants their female avatar to wear full plate with no heart-shaped cleavage-hole, they are likely to be disappointed. This makes the intent of the designs clear: these characters are not meant to let you express yourself; these characters are meant to titillate you.
The difference between a sexual character and an objectified character is as simple as the difference between a person and a toy. It’s okay to want to wear a metal bikini as you crush your enemies, but nobody else has the right to make you wear a metal bikini. So when characters inexplicably appear in sexy, unreasonable costumes with no explanation of their intent, fans feel a vicarious sense of discomfort and powerlessness. Women are not paper dolls, and it’s only reasonable that their representations in media should not be paper dolls either.