Can a totally naked female character become a lightning rod for feminism? Or does sex appeal, and the gratification of the male gaze, distract from any message of equality?
I can already hear the detractors, the angry feminists and, let’s just call them “SJWs”, calling me out. Their argument, I imagine, will go something like this:
Thelana is one the main characters in Nick Alimonos’s fantasy epic, “Ages of Aenya,” and she’s got everything I love to see in a kickass female warrior: strength, intelligence, agency, an actual backstory that doesn’t involve rape, and the power to dish out punishment like her male counterpart, Xandr. She doesn’t exist merely as his love interest and she even passes the Bechdel test! So why am I up in arms about Thelana? Well, when it comes to hyper-sexualizing women and the male gaze, this author’s hit rock bottom. We’re not talking chainmail bikinis here or skintight tights, because Alimonos’s Thelana is totally, unabashedly naked, as in—she wears no clothes whatsoever, not even your generic loincloth. Now, if “Aenya” was more forthcoming about the type of readers it wants to attract, if it were written as erotica, I might give it a pass. But no, this is serious fantasy straight out of Westeros and Middle Earth. So, as a female reader, I am left wanting to scream, ‘Put some clothes on for god’s sake!’ At least Red Sonja has the good sense to wear *something*. Alimonos calls himself a feminist, and defends himself by pointing out, “Hey, the guy is naked too!” but he’s not fooling anyone. Thelana exists to tickle the author’s fancy and to titillate his male (incel) readers.
While I have yet to find an angry mob outside my office door, I suspect, as Thelana grows in popularity, that it’s only a matter of time. Social media is, after all, a machine driven by outrage. Thing is, feminists have a lot to be angry about. We still live in a largely male-dominated society, despite what every neckbearded YouTuber wants you to believe. We have yet to see a female president and only if we’re lucky will we ever see a woman featured on paper currency. That being said, women have made huge strides toward equality in this country. Most Americans agree that a woman deserves to vote, to decide what they can do with their bodies (unless you live in Texas that is), and to get paid the same rate for the same amount of 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. Sure, we do see a shift happening. We’ve got Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, but male superheroes still outnumber them by a wide margin, and again, the anti-SJW crowd goes bananas every time one of these films gets made. When women do 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 attribute is beauty.
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 to. I direct them to strong heroines like Hermione Granger, Kora from Avatar, and the new She-Ra. When it comes to my own writing, I try always to be conscious of inequality, as I would hate to contribute to the problem. Unfortunately, Thelana draws out the sexists like roadkill attracts flies. Most guys never bother looking past her boobs, never read the accompanying story that defines her character. On DeviantArt, Thelana gets lost amid an unending slew of naked warrior women, most of which are devoid of any life or personality, many of them posed to satisfy arousal or worse, to service some weird, Sci-Fi rape fantasy. All this, I am aware, could be remedied by simply giving my heroine something to cover herself with, some leather armor perhaps or the bare minimum loincloth, but here I part ways with the majority because I am a nudist, and as a nudist I believe we should never define a woman by the clothes she is wearing or not wearing; and more to the point, we should never make it so that women become 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. The centuries’ old taboo regarding females and clothing goes hand in hand with sexism and absolves men of any wrong-doing. False modesty and shame are 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/Redditors on “mendrawingwomen”). And here’s where I might come off the wrong way, because, according to the SJW crowd, Superman and Batman, in their skin-tight outfits and with their perfectly chiseled features, represent the male ideal, but Wonder Woman in her bikini bottom is just being objectified. In almost every Marvel film, we are exposed to a racy shirtless scene, where the camera slowly pans over the muscled torsos of Captain America, Thor, Starlord, and even Antman. We even got to leer at Wolverine’s/Logan’s bare ass, in an entirely gratuitous scene, in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
But no, this isn’t eye-candy for women, apparently, just us guys envying a nice ass, because male superheroes are only a projection of the male reader’s identity (never mind the sexy shirtless scenes) everything men wish they could look like, or so the argument goes. So while Jason Mamoa’s pecks remain in full view in Aquaman and Justice League, Black Widow’s pants are way too tight! And she lands too sexy! But the theory that sexy men are for men and sexy women are also for men runs into some problems. Firstly, as a comic reader since childhood, I never thought much about how attractive Superman was. Sure, he’s easy on the eyes, and I’d never want to see a fat, balding actor play the character, but what appealed to me most, and what I think appeals to just about every boy, are his powers. Who doesn’t wish they could fly? Secondly, this argument assumes women do not have similar projection fantasies, that they never picture themselves with a goddess-like physique, despite so many girls showing up at Comic-Con wearing next to nothing. Given how my daughters love to dress up, and adding to that the plethora of supermodels splashed all over magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vogue, I think it more common for women to ogle one another for this very reason. Lastly, the theory implies that 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 feminist making these assertions.
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. Male heroes are curiously exempt from moral judgments. While it is true that men enjoy looking at scantily clad bodies, women do the same, and sometimes even enjoy it when men are looking at them. Why else do sexy outfits exist? And mini-skirts? And thong bikinis? It’s not the men buying these items, not the incels of the world forcing female cosplayers to dress in their favorite sexy superhero outfits. If women never wanted to draw attention to themselves, they would voluntarily don burqas, and yet it is always the men forcing them to cover up. This is no surprise. Female sexuality has long intimidated the male gender. Throughout history, and in many parts of the world today, patriarchal societies have worked to repress it. In Egypt and across Subsaharan Africa, vaginal mutilation is commonly practiced, 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. Now I’ll admit, I am a dude making choices for my female protagonists, and some feminists have taken issue with that, arguing that male writers cannot give their female characters their own agency, which is patently absurd if you think two seconds about it. It suggests that authors should be limited to writing only about their own sex. Taking this to its logical conclusion, books written by women could only include female characters. While I may never know what it’s like to be a woman, I can do my best to understand and relate to that perspective, just as I would writing about any experience I’ve never had. If I can imagine being a vampire, a robot, or an alien, I can imagine being a woman, and contrary to what some male feminists contend, can put myself in the shoes, or bare feet rather, of a female nudist who does, in fact, exist. It isn’t just a male fantasy! As a card-carrying nudist, I feel especially privy to this information, having personally met dozens of women in the community who prefer going about their day without so much as a stitch (unless it’s cold, that is, women hate the cold). There are many fantastical elements about the world of Aenya, but the fact that my heroine hates wearing clothes is not one of them!
I am not suggesting female characters should be nude, or sexy, only that the women who make that choice, and believe me there are those that do, need not be objectified. Objectification can take many forms, but the percentage of skin on display does not factor into the equation. The way women are portrayed in media is important, but what matters is the intent of the piece, the message the creator is communicating through his work. Nudity in storytelling can represent a variety of things. Shame. Subjugation. Victimhood. A woman forcibly stripped bare is violated, made to seem weak and in need of rescue, or worse, is reduced to nothing but an object of desire. But a naked hero, male or female, owning the display of their body can be a show of power and confidence. Making that choice for themselves, they can never be humiliated. Thelana lives naked, fights naked, adventures through the world of Aenya naked, but it is only because she chooses to do so, refusing to be defined by others. When, in Ages of Aenya, some jailers 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, she empowers herself, and it is a power that can never be taken away.
Now I can’t wait to see some Thelana cosplay at the next Comic-Con!