Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Concerning Chain Mail Bikinis

When we were working on Fiend Wake 0th edition, it never felt right to have busty she-elves in leafy loin cloths.  It seemed to clash with the inspirational roots of the game which were the lamentations of people who saw Victorian Era civics and propriety fall by the wayside as the world transitioned into the 20th century.  Even though we may have gotten away with it in that "National Geographic" sense, the culture of the Greenwalkers didn't showcase topless aboriginals precisely because the whole world was supposed to mourn the loss of bygone mores.

Something you'll notice as you peruse the social media side of RPG culture: some illustrators get ridicule for having chain mail bikinis in their pictures.  

Resenting feminine bodies is not new to fantasy media.  Reviewers for various gaming magazines had unfavorable things to say about the cover of the D&D "I9" adventure module, Day of Al'Akbar.  Concerned parents, religious leaders, and others have always done their part to deride art with the faintest scent of sexuality — proclaiming that such pictures are the gateway to prostitution, AIDS, domestic abuse and the destruction of decency, virtue, democracy, pie, high school diplomas, etc..

There's always at least one pedant who recoils at the sight of tactical lingerie, eager to proclaim its inferiority as battle gear.  I can't help but pity the realism police who look at a picture of a sword-swinging babe facing off with a dragon and say that her outfit is the unrealistic part.

Domenico Neziti's 2006
illustration "Dragon Huntress"
Used with permission.
Having fervently resisted the inclusion of skimpy outfits in a game's illustrations for artistic reasons, I feel a saddened when people resist the same for non-artistic reasons. Watching artists live-stream their painting process and getting crap for cleavage as "completely inappropriate battle attire" makes me sympathize with those who say games aren't art.  It certainly seems to be the case that some gamers don't understand art.

That Michelangelo's David has a disproportionately large head and hands does nothing to invalidate the significance of that piece.  The fact that his nudity makes him totally ill-equipped for battle did nothing to discourage the Florentine people from using him as a defiant warning against Rome and political threats.  David is a malformed, under-dressed symbol of independence and defiance and we love him for it!  No realism necessary.  (He was also an inspiration for another of the central tenets of Fiend Wake:  That of autonomy struggling to survive against an inexorable hegemony.)

When an upstanding citizen like Domenico Neziti gets accused of every terrible thing under the sun for his Dragon Huntress piece, it seems almost like gamer culture is trying to sabotage its credibility as an artistic community.  He rightly questions why Conan doesn't get the same criticism.  I can't help but wonder why we need to define characters by what they wear rather than the things they do and the courage they display doing them.  (Fun aside: In Howard's original Conan novels, the titular character didn't really wear his signature loin cloth except in certain, fan-service moments like when he's crucified then escapes like a badass.)

Perhaps we do this because gamer culture is a microcosm of civilization itself and we're going through our weird puritanical phase.  Trying to push chain mail bikinis out of the scene is our equivalent of being the Vatican museum curators who hacked the penises off of statues.

Now and again, you'll encounter sensible souls like John Wick who get it and do what's right for the artistry of the game and somehow manage to elude the tirade of whiners.  Yet another reason why Wick is magic, I guess.

A decade ago, Slate ran an article about the former US president George W. Bush who had a painting of a fellow riding a horse over a hill.  The president interpreted the scene as an intrepid and stalwart soul helping tame the American west or something noble like that.  The painter who made the piece tells a different story.  He says that the central figure is a horse thief escaping justice.  Bush's political detractors loved the irony that a man, whom they believed criminal but who believed himself a hero, would believe this painting's criminal to be an inspirational hero.

Surely, we are free to interpret art in whatever way we wish but sometimes, our misinterpretations of art can be more a reflection of ourselves.  Sometimes we stand to benefit from stepping back and extending some courtesy to artists – and to ourselves – by considering what we see differently.

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