I have this friend, Mel, who is one of the most absurdly talented people I know. Her talents extend in many directions, but one of the most impressive branches of her creativity is her costuming. Seriously, the girl is like a cosplay ninja–she does things with wearable electronics that border on witchcraft. Here is a recent example, which I stole (with permission) off her twitter account:
Look at the attention to detail in the armor. Look at those lights–especially the ones in the stomach! How the hell do you even make something like that? Work like this ought to spark tons of admiration and questions about just what kind of black magic she used to make it happen, right?
Well, no. Because when Mel posted this picture, all anybody could talk about was the boob window, over-looking every other aspect of the costume, including the complex engineering. And that. I mean. I just. Ugh.
LET’S HAVE A CONVERSATION ABOUT CONSIDERING WOMEN COMPLEXLY, SHALL WE?
First of all, I can understand why people zero in on the boob window. It’s well-established that female characters in pop culture often get impractically designed costumes that favor showing off their body parts over actually protecting them, and it’s a huge problem, especially in nerdly mediums. This is why things like the Hawkeye Initiative exist–to illustrate how absurd the over-sexualization of women in media really is. Seeing a similar costume choice in a cosplay design clicks right into that pre-existing mode of thinking about female characters, and it seems only natural to side-eye the decision to add a boob window just because a character turned female.
But here’s the thing. The reason all those female characters with their boobs and butts on gratuitous display are problematic is because they aren’t real people. They didn’t make a conscious decision to embrace their sexualities and flaunt what their mommas gave them because they literally do not have brains. Any costuming or personality choice they make reflects the decisions and viewpoints of their creators, who are overwhelmingly straight men. Female characters don’t show off their boobs because they like doing it–they do it because the men who read and write them like it. It’s like that ranty post I wrote about Barbie; you can’t claim that a made-up woman is sexualizing herself in order to reclaim her personal agency when she literally doesn’t have the capacity to think. Boob windows on fictional women reflect an idea about how women should look–not how they are.
Mel, on the other hand, is not a fictional character. She is an intelligent, thoughtful, multi-faceted and stupidly talented real life human being. Her costume design results from many different factors, including some material limitations that more than explain the presence of the boob window, but frankly that shouldn’t matter. Mel is an adult woman who likes to build and wear sexy costumes with crazy amazing light components, and if she wants to add in a boob window, then she can damn well add in a boob window. She is allowed to sexualize herself as much or as little as she pleases, and nobody else gets to have an opinion about it.
This is why feminism is so important in media. We treat women in the real world the same way we see women treated in stories–that is to say, like objects with no personal agency, who exist only in relation to men. It’s easy for people to look at a costume like the one Mel built and never see the brain behind the design, because we’re all too busy talking about the boobs. We are encouraged to see a woman’s sexuality in lieu of her personhood, and this even bleeds over into feminist discussions, where overtly sexual women are sometimes called anti-feminist over their wardrobe preferences. The problem is not that women in media are too sexy. The problem is that women in media are exclusively sexy (leaving no space for other versions of femininity), and only rarely depicted choosing it for themselves, so when we see it in real life we assume the woman in question is similarly not in control of her own choices. Real women can, and often do, choose to sexualize themselves, and that is their prerogative.
Are there external cultural pressures on women to be sexy that can influence how they present themselves? Yes, absolutely. It would be nice if we lived in a world where women weren’t constantly told that their value was dependent on their sex appeal. But that doesn’t mean you should assume that those women who do embrace their sexuality are doing so under duress, for the benefit of other people. Feminism is all about creating a world where people are free to make their own choices. Don’t disregard someone else’s agency just because you personally wouldn’t have made the same choice.
Okay, rant over. I’m going to go drool over Mel’s amazing cosplay now. You should, too.
“If you can take out a female character and replace her with a sexy lamp, YOU’RE A FUCKING HACK.” -Kelly Sue DeConnick