Is a naked heroine sexist?
I can already hear the detractors, the angry feminists calling me out as a sexist. Their argument, I imagine, will go something like this,
Thelana is the lead heroine in Nick Alimonos' fantasy epic, "Ages of Aenya," and she has everything we love to see in a female character: strength, intelligence, and she can dish out punishment good as her male companion. She even passes the Bechdel test! So why am I up in arms about Thelana? Well, when it comes to hyper-sexualizing women, this author's hit rock bottom. We're not talking chainmail bikinis or skintight tights here either, because with this super hero, there is no costume. You read that right. She is utterly, unapologetically, naked. If "Aenya" was some kind of erotica, I might give it a pass. But no, this is serious fantasy, straight out of Westeros and Middle Earth. So, as a woman reader, I am left scratching my head, wanting to scream, 'Put some clothes on for god's sake!' The author even has the audacity to call himself a feminist. He defends himself by pointing out, "Hey, look, the guy is naked too!" But this critic isn't fooled. Thelana exists to tickle the author's fancy and titillate male (immature) readers.
While I have yet to find an angry mob outside my office door, I suspect that, as Thelana grows in popularity, it's only a matter of time. The thing is, feminists have a lot to be angry about. We still live in a largely male dominated society. We have yet to see a female president (go Hillary!), and if we're lucky, we'll have our first woman on paper currency, the $10 bill. Despite such signposts of inequality, women have made huge strides in this country, and most Americans now agree women deserve to vote, to decide what they can do with their bodies, and to get paid the same for the same work. Modern sexism is much more subtle, and in raising two daughters, I see it all the time. The hero in any video game/book/TV show/movie is almost always male. When a woman does take center stage, they are more often treated as eye candy. The message this sends is clear: 1) Women are of lesser importance and 2) A woman's most important quality is beauty.
To contrast this message, I tell my kids what I would if I had boys, "#1 thing in life is knowledge and compassion." Being a father to two awesome girls, fairness and equality matter a lot to me. I want them to grow up feeling invincible, like they could go to Mars if they wanted. I direct them to strong heroines like Lisa Simpson and Hermione Granger. When it comes to my own writing, I am conscious of inequality, and would hate to contribute to the problem. Unfortunately, Thelana draws out the sexists like flies. Most guys never bother to look beyond the flesh, to read the accompanying story that defines the character. On DeviantArt, Thelana gets lost amid the countless soft core images, those devoid of any life or personality. Much of this could be remedied by simply giving her something to wear, leather armor perhaps, but this is where I part ways with most feminists, because we should never define a woman by the clothes she is wearing or not wearing; and more to the point, we should not make women responsible for the way men treat them.
A girl in a mini-skirt is not "asking for it," and she certainly isn't looking to be raped. This centuries' old taboo, regarding females and clothing, goes hand in hand with sexism, and absolves men of any wrong-doing. False modesty and shame is imposed upon women by the world's worst sex offenders, from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan. Nudity, in and of itself, is neither pro nor anti women. A nude portrait can be liberating and empowering, or it can be humiliating and degrading. Like sexual consent, choice is everything. A woman stripped of her clothes is a victim. A stripper who loves what she does is not. Either way, it is the men typically calling the shots, the men who produce porn, watch porn, and, paradoxically, create the society in which women who engage in it are ostracized. If you're a woman, it's a no-win situation. Women learn from an early age to kowtow to men's desires, but that it is taboo to express their own.
This double standard extends to how male and female heroes are regarded by some feminists (Cracked.com/Upworthy). Superman and Batman, in their skin-tight outfits, represent the male ideal, but Wonder Woman in her bikini bottom is somehow "objectified." Even Namor and Conan, who wear even less, do not represent equal treatment. Why? Because male superheroes are a projection of male fantasies, what men wish they could look like, or so the argument goes. But there are a number of problems with this theory. Firstly, it supposes that a majority of Superman fans are envying his looks, but as a reader of the comic since childhood, such a thing never crossed my mind. Sure, he's nice to look at, but what appeals to me most, and what I think appeals to most every male, are his powers. And really, who doesn't wish they could fly? Secondly, this argument supposes women do not have similar projection fantasies, that female readers never imagine themselves with a goddess-like physique, like Wonder Woman or Power Girl. Of course, given how my daughters love to dress up, and adding to that the glut of supermodels in magazines like Cosmopolitan, I think it is more common for girls to look at other girls for this very reason. Lastly, this theory implies women do not enjoy sex, or looking at male bodies, or that they have no interest in expressing their own sexuality. Not surprisingly, it is typically the male feminists making these assertions.
More clothes = More empowering?
In 1972, writer Samual Delany changed Wonder Woman into a more "modest" outfit, which he believed was the feminist thing to do. That was, until women's rights pioneer Gloria Steinem got involved, stating how much she hated that the traditional costume was taken away. Wonder Woman has long stood for female empowerment. We should not suggest that she cannot, or should not, expose her thighs, or that by doing so she is somehow diminished. We would never call Tarzan a whore for wearing only a loincloth, or say that James Bond is objectifying himself for exuding male sexuality. Male heroes are curiously exempt from any such moral judgments. While it is true that men enjoy looking at women, it is also true that women sometimes enjoy it when men look at them. Why else do women purchase sexy outfits? Mini-skirts? Thong bikinis? (OK, sometimes, it just feels good to be loose). But if no woman ever wished to be looked at, they would voluntarily don burqas, but it is always the men forcing them to do so. Female sexuality has long intimidated men and there is a storied history of patriarchal societies trying to repress it. In Egypt and throughout Subsaharan Africa, vaginal mutilation is a common practice, to diminish desire and enjoyment of sex. But to deny a woman's sexuality, whether physically or socially, is to deny her personhood.
What matters in feminism is choice and who is doing the choosing. I am not suggesting women should be nude, or sexy, only that the women who make that choice, and believe me there are those that do (they're called nudists!), need not be objectified or labeled. Thelana may be naked, but it is only because she chooses to be so, refusing to be repressed, or be defined by others. When, in Ages of Aenya, some men mistake her lack of apparel for vulnerability, it does not end well for them. By breaking with traditions of false modesty, in choosing to forgo the trappings that clothing represents, Thelana empowers herself, and it is a power that can never be stripped away, humiliated, or degraded.