The Sartorial Nightmare of Kick-Ass Female Characters

A couple years ago I finally got around to picking up a collection of Robert Lynn Asprin short stories as a taster (long overdue for a fantasy scholar, I know). Unfortunately, by page 2 I was wondering what the hype was about. Or, more accurately, whether the hype wasn’t fueled by the nostalgia factor. You know, a time where we didn’t (overly) concern ourselves with sexist racism (or sexism and racism).

“Myth-Adventurers” (2007), the first story in Myth-Interpretations (2010), starts off normally enough: two female characters chatting; one human (“a Klahd, actually”, p. 7; whatever that means), the other reptilian (something called “a Pervert… or Pervect if they knew what was good for them”, p. 7). A nod to interspecies racism, but still within the realms of the standard Fantastika set-up.

The first descriptive paragraph alludes to the idea that the two are killers with the “lithe, athletic, graceful look that put one in mind of a pair of lionesses discussing a kill” (7). Lovely metaphor. Paints a pretty picture of two kick-ass ladies and I’m settling in to enjoy their adventure. (Although I’m wondering whether lions are treated as animals or people in this narrative, but that’s just a stray thought.)

Then we flow into the next paragraph: “If their builds and manner weren’t enough of a giveaway, their outfits completed the picture. The Pervect, Pookie, was wearing one of her favourite” (7) -> here is where I turned the page and immediately regretted it:

action leather jumpsuits with multiple zippers which both issued a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade. The Klahd, Spyder, was still working on her look, but today had settled for calf-high boots with fishnet stockings, a dark plaid mini-skirt, and a sleeve-less black leather halter top which left considerable portions of her midriff bare.

Asprin, p. 8

Here, I paused. Now I’m all for female empowerment and a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear. If you want to wear calf-high boots with fishnets and a miniskirt, by all means, go ahead. I have nothing against a “sleeveless black leather halter top” except for the redundancy of the description (halter tops are, by definition, sleeveless). But I’m questioning how any real “killer” is going to be fighting in these outfits. Have you ever tried moving in a skintight leather outfit? Let alone one that “both insured a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade”? How? How does it do both? Does her skin have any circulation?? But maybe as a reptilian species, she moves differently….

The description continues:

All in all, she looked like a parochial schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut.

Asprin, p. 8

Yeah. No.

No woman looks in a mirror and describes herself like that. Maybe a school-girl gone bad. maybe a goth girl. Maybe a biker-chick. But not a combination of the three, and definitely no woman aims for a “slut” look. The idea just seems to scream the whole “she was asking for it” mentality. You know. “What was she wearing when she got raped?” “Maybe she wanted to get raped.”

And then the description continues with this bit of ridiculousness:

Throwing stars and knife hilts jutted from their sleeves and belts, along with various mysterious instrument….

Asprin, p. 8

At this point, I was completely unable to continue reading. As Eddie Robson pointed out when I posted the excerpt on twitter, it’s nearly impossible to tuck knives into the sleeves of a sleeveless halter top.

Here’s my own artistic rendition of this outfit:

But now that I’ve made the sketch, I’ve realized it’s not tooooo far out from other kick-ass Fantastika females. I’m sure one of the first kick-ass female killers that pops into people’s minds is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2001), who regularly fights in leather and heels. And when I think kick-ass females, I will always think of Lucy Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). I mean, it’s in the title. If you haven’t seen Xena’s iconic, um.. armouring, then please do google it now.

Of course, it’s not just females that are made to be ridiculously overly-sexualized in books or in film/tv. Who can forget the show that launched the Xena spin-off, Hercules (1995-1999) with Kevin Sorbo’s deep-v sleeveless tunic? And really, any action adventure sword and sorcery-type film from the ’80s have plenty of bare-chested muscly men (I’m looking at you Schwarzenegger/Conan the Barbarian, 1982).

Given the context and history, Asprin’s description of his characters isn’t surprising. But I suppose my disgruntlement with Asprin’s work is two-fold. One, the posthumous collection published in 2010 would benefit from an introduction that glorifies the works a bit less. (I’d like to say that about ALL of the “classic SF” writers, actually. I’d like to see an introduction in classical-reprints that gives a small nod to the racism and sexism that many of these writers actively peddled). Perhaps I shouldn’t except the 2007 Myth-Adventures to be “woke” or sensitive, but, there is always a part of me that argues that, regardless of “the times”, writers and artists should do better.

But the second reason the passage aroused my pique only became obvious when I attempted to re-read the collection again, this time alongside Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Rat Queens (2013-2019). Rat Queens, if you haven’t read it, is…. how to describe it…? like a car-accident that you can’t look away from, but one involving a clown car crashing into a trailer full of dragons. At times violent, humorous, incredibly gory, and extremely touching. Now, I can easily see one of the characters (Betty, in particular) describe themselves as a “schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut”. BUT, and here’s the distinction for me, there is one thing to have a character describe themselves as such, and another thing entirely for an omniscient narrator to make the comment. And, right from the first two pages, it’s clear that the narrator has a voice, has thoughts and ideas about the look and carriage of these characters. It may be due to the difference in medium (narrative voice versus graphic art), but Wiebe’s graphic medium doesn’t have the same level of authorial commentary as Asprin’s narrative descriptions.

So I end this post with a plea. If you’re a writer, please, PLEASE think about how your narrative voice might unintentionally be peddling the male (or female) gaze. And if you can’t do that, at the very least think about if the outfit you described would be functional in an actual fight. Thank you.

Who Owns Star Wars?

I sincerely hope this is my last post on Star Wars for a long time, but I felt the need to speak after seeing so much “fan”-bashing over the latest film.

I’m putting fan in quotes here because I’m not entirely sure if the *real* fans are the haters or the lovers. Both sides seem to equally claim and deny to be a fan. It’s a confusing mess.

There are a lot of flaws in the last film. I’m not going to deny it. BUT, I think a lot of these issues were a result of trying to cram in too large of a story into too small a space. There are rumours floating around of a potential director’s cut as J. J. Abrams had said he wished he could have done a Part I + Part II of Episode IX – but it would’ve broken the 3 trilogy structure.

So yes, there are problems with pacing and character development, and not much time to just breathe and enjoy the film.

That being said, I’m not sure I understand the venemous backlash against the film. “Dumpsterfire” and other less tasteful words have been used to describe the film. But probing into these emotions doesn’t seem to get me any real answers. Vague statements that cover general concepts (like issues of pacing) may be aired, but these concepts don’t seem to correlate to the sheer level of hatred. (If you have more concrete ideas, please do comment below. I would love to get to the heart of it). A similar outcry occurred with Episode VIII. (Go read the blog at BitterGertrude for an absolute fantastic breakdown of the response to the last film; you’ll see a number of similar complaints being made for Episode IX).

Part of the reason, of course, is because popular culture is personal. It’s owned by the fans. Any deviation from what they would like to see is a betrayal to the *real* fans. But, then we’re still left with the lingering question of “how do we define “real” fans?”. And, more importantly, “why are we gatekeeping?”

There have been cries that the studio gave into “fan service”; a criticism that confuses me to no end. (Tangent: if Disney really gave into fan service, they would have backed the Poe/Fin-ship instead of raining down hard with hints of heternormative relationships. Really, my biggest problem with the film is the lack of aliens in character roles that are played by humans purely, it seems, for hints of romantic interest. But I guess interspecies relations would be even more of a transgression than LGTBQ+ ones). So who are the “fans” that Disney is supposedly giving into? For instance, while Kelly Marie Tran (who plays Rose Tico) was cyberbullied after the release of Episode VIII, there was also a strong fan movement supporting her. Her character was downplayed in the final film, but is this due to the “backlash” of people rejecting her character, or due simply to intricacies of the plot and lack of time? Interestingly, it seems to me that the same people who complained that Episode VIII focused too much on character development and not on plot, are not decrying the lack of character development. So did the studio give into the cries from (mostly) hetero normative, white, middle-class males?

Yet, we not only still have a strong female cast (more females than male supporting characters as in the first 6 films), but we also have a complete revision of the hero’s narrative so that Episode IX re-frames Leia as the Skywalker hero. While it’s almost impossible to break the epic narrative cycle, it IS possible to shift it into something new. And Star Wars does that. As I said in my last post, Episode IX confirms and reveals Leia as the hero of the story. She passes on her torch to Rey; a matriarchal lineage, rather than the patriarchal heritage from Anakin to Luke to Ben. It’s this shift, I suspect, that the “fans” are reacting against, rather than anything else.

Which brings me to my final thought. The criticism that “George Lucas didn’t want it done that way.”

Okay. Well. 1. Then he shouldn’t have sold the rights to the movies. But he did. For a lot of money. And he did knowing they can do what they want to the story. Why are you giving your loyalty and allegiance to a man who didn’t return that favour to his fans?

2. George Lucas also gave us Jar-Jar Binks. So, use a more valid objection, please.

Which leads me to 3. George Lucas is not infallible. His original trilogy was based on the heroic pattern found in Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, which was published in 1949 – 70+ years ago! Campbell’s theories, while at times useful, are also restricted and limited. The new series revises the heroic pattern by shifting the story onto Leia and Rey.

And finally 4. This shift, in my mind, undoes a lot of the damage that George Lucas did with Episodes I-III. And no, I’m not talking about Jar Jar Binks (although :/ ) , I’m talking about Padme. Here we have this kick-ass female leader; queen, solider. And she’s relegated to the place of abused wife who dies because “her heart is breaking.” I mean. COME ON. Leia would never had said that line. Neither would Rey. Can you picture it? (I’m now visualizing Leia saying anything remotely like that to Han Solo, and I’m sure Carrie Fisher is looking down and giving me the finger at the very idea.)

So. Who Owns Star Wars? Well, I’m sorry to tell you fanboys that the torch has been passed. And that, I believe, is the heart of much (although not all) of the vehement, emotional, disgust aimed at the last film. Turns out, women can be the hero of the Epic journey too.

(Yay! It’s 2020! We finally made it! … :/ )