Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Thoughts - 2013.5

We're entering June this coming weekend, and that puts us in the sixth month of the year. A month later, in July, over half of the year will have gone. Doesn't time fly when you're playing nun?

Well, what can one say? I've played two excellent major video game releases from this year - Tomb Raider and BioShock Infinite - and of course I've enjoyed others. In terms of books, I can't say I've particularly kept up with this year's releases. I read Alison Croggon's Black Spring, a gothic tale in the spirit of Wuthering Heights and Malinda Lo's utterly sublime Adaptation (think teen drama-meets-The X-Files), but little - if anything - else. I've been faithfully purchasing 2000AD every week, and that has also had some really good stories in it. With American comics, I've been following a few here and there, but my interest is waning as time goes on, but the collected editions of last year's The Creep and Alabaster: Wolves (both from Dark Horse Comics) were brilliant.

So now it's time to sit back and get ready for the second half of the year. The DVD release of Cloud Atlas, Treecat Wars; the third Stephanie Harrington novel from David Weber & Jane Lindskold, the start of a new series with Mark Charan Newton's DrakenfeldSaints Row IV hitting the stands - and much, much more. With the second half of any year often seeming the busiest, perhaps it's time to clear those shelves a little, finish those unfinished games and watch the movies we bought months ago that are now covered in dust, just in time for the first wave of goodies to hit.

Onwards, questers, for the Sword of Asnagar awaits!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Opinion - Merida's Redesign

Over the past couple of weeks, a lot of sites have been talking about the redesign of Merida, which was done in order to 'welcome' her into the Disney Princesses franchise as the eleventh member. She's now alongside 'classics' like Snow White and Cindypants, as well as more recent characters like Mulan, Rapunzel and Tiana. And, well, this whole debate has driven me absolutely batty.
Merida's redesigned dress (pilfered from The Mary Sue)
The new design caused a lot of sparks to fly because Merida's figure had been changed to something  more conventionally attractive (wide hips, small waist), her dress had become even tighter(!) fitting, more low cut and quite sparkly. I did notice that they've kept the split elbows from the film, however, which is very much a good thing, and I have seen notions that her Princesses dress is based off the one she wears at the end of the film. In terms of going against that - it's clearly not her 'daytime' dress (something most of the other princesses share as a theme), so it would obviously be more elaborate. We also see in the film itself that she wears a corset, which goes some of the way to explaining her figure. The final piece of the puzzle was an image of Merida in a slightly seductive pose, looking over her shoulder.

Whilst I agree with a number of the arguments against it (e.g. the 'slimming' of her figure), I think you have to bear in mind that the Princesses line is *highly* stylised, and both Merida and Rapunzel (who is never mentioned in this respect) had to be changed from 3D animation to 2D. This on its own would need to bring changes in order to allow Merida to seamlessly fit in with the visual look. As it stands after the 'reversion' of her design, she sticks out like a sore thumb. I don't agree that her hips needed widening or her waist thinning, I think those two aspects were certainly unnecessary, though it may be worth mentioning she still manages to have one of the widest waists of the group. And this is why I find this argument to be very insular and problematic, as it doesn't actually address the issues at play. Merida's redesign is not the issue here *at all*. It's actually one of the least problematic designs in the range! Have a look at, say, Rapunzel. It looks like she would snap at the waist in a light breeze - Jasmine is no different in this respect, either. How about Snow White's expression, often drawn with a slightly coy "come hither" vibe? SHE'S FOURTEEN. Truth be told, most of those expressions are quite worrying when you really think about them.

Disney Princesses: Flowery are our names, seduction's one of our games.
(Note also how Merida is rather incongruous with the style)
To put it another way, it feels like attention has been placed on a minor issue within the larger picture. This backlash shouldn't just be about the way Merida was redesigned, it should be about what Disney have done with the franchise as a whole. It should be about how the range sexualises a whole range of characters, teen or otherwise. It should be about how they are focused with pushing these same few ideals over and over again - something Brave was heavily praised for going against. Even Mulan and Tiana (The Princess & the Frog) were both films (well, counting Mulan 1+2 as a single film here, as they really should be) that subverted the typical messages that girls are shown every day.

See, I do think there's a good counter argument against Merida's redesign. She is one of the least sexualised characters within that range, and this was something that should not have been ignored with Merida. A major aspect of her story was about how she wished to live her own life at her own speed, and not be forced into anything she didn't want. She wasn't interested in a romantic partner and she was even willing to go against the traditions of her culture in order to remain a free spirit.

But, you know, I think there's a ray of light that is managing to get through some of the thick clouds surrounding this issue. If this range gets more kids watching Brave, Mulan, The Princess & the Frog, then we have to take that as a victory. Whilst the messages are occasionally handled in a hamfisted manner (e.g. Mulan's relationship), they show kids that being true to yourself is more important than what others think, but that you also have to make it happen for yourself. Tiana's struggle at the start of her film is, to me, one of the best messages I have seen in a film of its type. She's not just wishing on a star, she's working to make her dream happen. And those kinds of messages are very important.

To summarise; I do see the issues with the redesign. But I don't see them as being issues that only apply to Merida, and to single her out is to do her and the idea behind it a disservice. We should be looking at the whole range and how those characters are depicted and marketed. Snow White's coyness, the neglect of Tangled's story for Rapunzel. We should not be ignoring Merida, no, but we should not be focusing our efforts on her, because her design is a small piece in a much wider, more problematic system. Getting Disney to revert Merida's design changes nothing in the grand scheme of things. It is a hollow victory, because the wider issue has not even been touched upon.

And yes, I do actually like her 2D design.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Opinion - Armour, Art & Attitude

As a fantasy and science fiction fan, and one with artistic tastes at that, I spend some of my time browsing tumblr, DeviantArt and other sites looking at genre-related art. I'll admit it's typically related to either book covers or art for tabletop/card gaming, as a number of artists do both, but it's almost always fantasy art that I look at. Combine this with my interest in female characters, and you can see where this is heading.

Ouch. (Source)
I could, of course, link to the recent article on Tor.com where boob armour is discussed, albeit without actually adding anything to the debate. I could link to an article by a blacksmith about fantasy armour, I could link to repositories of reasonable armour, I could even link to a tumblr feed about obscene poses women are typically represented in, or any other examples of ridiculous behaviour along those lines. I'd be here all day, week, month or year finding these examples. And that'd still just be a fraction of them.

See, I think it's important to make a point before I truly go into this. It's not about being angry about artists drawing pretty women. I don't have a problem with that as such, as I know there is a definite attempt to present aesthetically pleasing people in most art, hence the perfect figures and faces. I also think that argument could be a bit problematic in itself, as attractiveness is definitely subjective, but it leads me onto a point I think I should make. You can have cute and/or pretty women in armour, no problem. They could be the toughest warriors to have existed. But that doesn't negate - on any level - how armour works nor the point of it. Red Sonja's large chest and striking features do not make armour somehow less functional, thus she can go without it, as an example.

So, in fantasy art you tend to have two main styles of art. You have Realistic & Sensible, and you have Fantastical & Impractical, which I'll refer to, respectively, as R&S and F&I from here on. You will also typically find that R&S art is more anatomically correct, whereas F&I is frequently exaggerated. Let me present two examples, of different styles, artists and genres, to give a rough idea of what I mean.

This first image is titled, ahem, "hottie warrior 4" and it's by an artist on DeviantArt by the name loztvampir3, and you can find it here. As you can see, she is wearing armour that is mostly insubstantial, leaves various weak points unprotected, and she's drawn with a disproportionately large bust. In fact, I think you'd struggle to find anyone with a bust that size and shape who hasn't had extensive surgery, and even then I think it'd be a push.

It is, therefore, easy to put this particular piece into the Fantastical & Inappropriate pool, due to the lack of protection and the over-sexualisation of the wearer.
This next image is by an artist whose work I quite like. This is Donato Giancola's Joan of Arc (a page about this piece can be found here, on Donato's site) and it shows a fairly average looking woman in what is easily a historically accurate set of armour. It is a sober and respectful piece of work, showing Joan as a warrior - a loved one at that - not as a woman.

Of course, this isn't to say that you can't have femininity in fantasy art. You can, certainly. It is entirely possible, and reasonable, to draw armour with what we would consider 'feminine' touches, although with plate armour this - as discussed elsewhere - is highly impractical and typically a trait of F&I styles. This femininity can be represented any way the artist wants, either in terms of the armour itself or with other touches. I'm going to present another two examples and compare them to show how femininity can be represented in different ways. I'm going to use pieces from the same artist, a DeviantArt member by the name of Ruloc, from the same themed set.
These pieces are titled Storm Caller and Kethil Wyvernsbane respectively, and depict two characters that are played by Pathfinder fans. As is clear, both characters are female, but this aspect is represented in two different ways. With Storm Caller, the character's build - though mostly obscured by a steel cuirass - is clearly of a build we'd consider feminine, and this is further compounded by her facial structure and hair style. There is no reasonable doubt that this character is in fact female, yet this is clearly shown without any unreasonable or fantastical approaches. The character of Kethil is represented in what we'd consider a more feminine manner, she's wearing clothing that accentuates her figure and makes it clear she has breasts, and her hair and face again suggest a female character. As she is not wearing armour, the artist - and player - are able to take liberties with practicality, though I'd personally argue the character's outfit is entirely reasonable. But again, this is handled in a modest way by Ruloc, without focusing on any sexual aspect of the character.

This brings me to another point, however. Can armour be revealing, and impractical, without being distasteful? And I think I can happily say yes to that question. This is when it comes down to a matter of taste, and perhaps even respect. I also think one can allow for some degree of handwaving when it comes to cultural sensibilities - after all, some (if not all) Celtic tribes used to run into battle naked wearing naught but their torques and a coating of woad (a dye made from plants), although this would have been a mixture of cultural beliefs and genuine tactics, i.e. putting fear into the enemy. This doesn't apply as much to, say, an Elven ranger in the forests, but there are places where rules can be relaxed a little. The one issue I have, however, is the amount of bare skin typically on show.
Is it not sensible to suggest that the character in question may have a shirt on underneath? Something to sit between the armour and the skin, reducing the chance of chafing or discomfort?

I suppose this brings about a point about context. A work which bends the rules (or even violates them) should be taken contextually. If a character is in a humid, warm forest, it is reasonable to suggest they may wear lighter armours - even show skin - in order to keep cool. If they are in dungeons, caves or even zones of a low temperature (e.g. mountains), it would make sense that they are covered in order to keep warm and dry. They wouldn't reasonably be walking around with bare legs and bare chests - they'd die, essentially. One could argue the same for sandy areas - suitable clothing would be worn to keep the heat and sand away. Bikini armour might be good for getting a tan, but it'd be uncomfortable if the sand got into it!

Finally, I'm going to move on to the 'Attitude' part. To me, this argument is very much a part of the Sexism In Genre debate. It is tied to the way women are viewed, portrayed and represented in fantasy fiction (and, to a lesser degree, science fiction). Without wanting to make huge, sweeping generalisations, I personally find that the vast majority of fantasy art is made to portray women - of any type - in a sexual, attractive manner. It is not about showing how good a warrior she is, it is not about showing her skills, it is about making it clear she is attractive. This can be evidenced by the lack of sensible armours, by the accentuation and exaggeration of the character's busts - contrary to how armour (and breasts) actually work, and by the poses said characters tend to be found in. Whether it's in a comic or general themed artwork, there is a culture of deliberately representing women in these ways, whether they're the heroine or a monstrous creature. They might not have a pretty face, but they'll have perfect breasts (often accentuated in some way) or an attractive figure.

To conclude;
The attitude towards female armour, particularly in fantasy art, really needs to be changed - and now. Women are portrayed, in the majority of pieces, as sexual in some manner. This may be their pose, their expression, the accentuated bosom, or even the armour itself. They are represented in this way at the expense of reason. Revealing armour does not protect - it endangers. Boob-plate armour does not protect - it endangers. Loose hair, loose cloaks and loose clothing do not protect - they endanger. Whereas men are typically shown as bastions of strength and power, women often seem to be shown as if they are merely playing - perhaps why their armour can often look like they should be sold next to the "Sexy Nurse" and "French Maid" outfits. These characters are not treated seriously, and thus cannot be taken seriously. A female warrior would not be concerned about whether her breasts are accentuated by armour, she would be concerned about having her weak points protected - the very point of wearing armour. Armour is worthless if it does not protect, at which point it becomes heavy - and cumbersome - decoration.