Can a totally naked heroine become a feminist icon?
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 is everything we love to see in a female character: strength, intelligence, and the power to dish out punishment like any other male hero. 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 here or skintight tights, because this girl is totally, unabashedly naked, as in—no costume whatsoever. You read that right. Now if “Aenya” was meant to be 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!’ At least Red Sonja has the good sense to wear . . . *something* over her crotch. This 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, as Thelana grows in popularity, that 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 might finally have a woman featured on paper currency, the $10 bill. But 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, 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. When the 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 attribute 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 always conscious of inequality, as I would hate to contribute to the problem. Unfortunately, Thelana draws out the sexists like roadkill attracting flies. Most guys never bother to look beyond her bare skin, to read the accompanying story that defines her character. On DeviantArt, illustrations of Thelana are lost amid countless soft core images, most of which are devoid of any life or personality. All this can be remedied by simply giving her something to wear, leather armor perhaps, or the bare minimum loin cloth, but here I part ways with many 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 and with their perfectly chiseled features, represent the male ideal, but Wonder Woman in her bikini bottom is “objectified.” Even Namor and Conan, who wear even less, are never regarded as examples of equal treatment. Why? Because male superheroes are a projection of a male reader’s identity, everything 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 appearance, but as a reader of the comic since childhood, such a thing never once crossed my mind. Sure, he’s nice to look at, but what appeals to me most, and what I think appeals to just about every boy, are his powers. And really, who doesn’t wish they could fly? Secondly, this argument assumes that women do not have similar projection fantasies, that female readers never picture themselves with the goddess-like physique of Wonder Woman or Power Girl. Of course, 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 is more common for a girl to look at other girls for this very reason. Lastly, this 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 to be 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, sometimes, women enjoy it when men are looking at them. Why else do women purchase sexy outfits? Mini-skirts? Thong bikinis? (OK, sometimes, it just feels good to be loose). But if women never wanted to draw attention to themselves, they would voluntarily don burqas, and yet it is always the men forcing them to do so. 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. I am not suggesting that 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 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, Thelana empowers herself, and it is a power that can never be stripped away, humiliated, or degraded.