I’m no expert, but I’ve noticed a difference between armor for men and women in fantasy fiction: men wear more of it.
I’m no feminist, but I do believe in treating people with decency and respect. I’m also fairly pragmatic. Most female armor in fantasy fiction isn’t respectful or decent, and pragmatic it most certainly is not.
Here, for example, are male and female warriors from one of the Dragon Quest video games. In the game, they have exactly the same role on the battlefield. Is unreasonable to expect them to wear roughly the same armor?
In the picture above, the male warrior gets a padded tunic over mail hauberk, along with leather gauntlets, a sturdy helm, a kite shield, and articulated armor plating for his legs. The female warrior, by contrast, gets a tiny mail blouse, half a mail skirt, and random bits of plate armor on her arms and legs.
There are several problems here.
The most glaring issue is sexism, of course. It just ain’t fair for male characters to be fully armored while female characters wear swimsuits. (I’ve touched upon this before.) It exemplifies the concept known as the male gaze: the way visual arts often assume the viewer is male. The male gaze ogles female characters or puts them in revealing clothes, like the chain mail swimsuit above. It’s insulting to women.
(For those ready with the “fantasy fiction is not supposed to be realistic” arguments, I believe at least a small amount of realism makes fiction more believable. If a woman wears dangerously revealing armor, there had better be a good reason for it! For those ready with the “you should stop taking everything so seriously” arguments, I don’t believe fiction is a valid excuse for sexism or double standards.)
This is not, however, a blog post about sexism. Nah, today’s post provides a more pragmatic rationale for giving female characters better armor: the kinds of armor worn by most female characters in fantasy fiction would get them killed.
Let’s take armor styles one at a time.
The chain mail bikini
It was challenging to find a picture illustrating this style of armor that wasn’t NSFTMTF. (For those who don’t know, NSFTMTF stands for Not Safe For Typewriter Monkey Task Force: a designation covering vulgar language, extreme violence, sexually explicit material, and any media related to Kristen Stewart or Justin Beiber.) Even the picture above pushes the boundaries of good taste.
The chain mail bikini describes any style of armor that (sometimes barely) covers only the naughty bits of a lady’s anatomy. I need hardly describe the practical difficulties of such armor. It exposes vital organs such as the stomach and lungs, providing practically no protection whatsoever. More often than not, what little armor is worn looks like it could fall off at any moment. High heels, which are often worn with chain mail bikinis, don’t allow for quick movement or proper balance.
Are there benefits to chain mail bikinis? I’m really reaching here, but I suppose they could offer good mobility, and might prove distracting to enemies.
Nah. Who am I kidding? Chain mail bikinis are completely useless.
The boob plate
Opinions are divided on the usefulness of the boob plate, but the most logical view is that it would probably kill you.
You see, armor doesn’t merely shield the body from sharp or spiky things. It also deflects the force of blows from weapons. A blow from, say, a club will do far less damage if it glances off a breastplate than if it strikes it squarely. In other words, armor is meant to deflect blows, not to absorb them.
The problem with boob plates is that they wouldn’t necessarily deflect blows away from the chest. They could also deflect them inward, funneling them into the cleavage between the breasts—and right into the wearer’s breastbone. Even if a weapon didn’t penetrate the armor, it could fracture the wearer’s sternum. Flipping heck, even falling forward could slam the ridge of metal separating the breasts into the breastbone, breaking it.
As it happens, people who wore armor usually wore padding beneath it, so a woman’s chest would probably be wrapped or padded and wouldn’t require a form-fitting breastplate in the first place.
The battle dress
A battle dress is a dress worn into battle. Like the boob plate, it’s fairly self-explanatory.
I applaud the battle dress for being less blatantly sexist than other styles of female armor… but it still gets low marks for practicality. Long skirts and dresses have the same problem as capes in The Incredibles: they get caught on stuff. A woman can hardly run, ride a horse, or vault over bushes in a dress. Sooner or later, it will snag on something.
Besides, dresses offer no protection… unless they have chain mail or plate armor sewn into them. Then, unless the armored sections are kept close to the body, such weighted dresses are even more likely to snag on stuff. Besides, any heavy part of the dress left hanging, such as a skirt or long sleeve, impedes movement by swinging awkwardly.
The sensible armor
The armor in the picture above isn’t perfectly practical—it should lose the flowing skirt, and the breastplate really ought to cover more of the abdomen—but it isn’t bad. (I would cut off the braid and add a helmet, but what do I know?) The shoulders, chest, and legs are protected, leaving the arms free and allowing bend at the waist for wielding so large an axe. The armor also looks awesome as all heck.
Women can wear more or less the same styles of armor as men, with minor adjustments for shoulder width. Even adding a slight outward bulge for breasts is fine, provided it doesn’t include the sternum-shattering cleavage mentioned above; a gentle convex curve can deflect blows as well as anything. Designing sensible female armor doesn’t have to be that difficult.
Is impractical lady armor ever appropriate in fiction? I suppose it has its place, such as in comedic tales and parodies of fantasy fiction. In more serious stories, styles of lady armor which would be useless in battle could be used for ceremonial purposes: parades, coronations, etc.
In the end, however, I think practical armor is definitely the best way to go.