The less she wears, the more powerful she is!
Length: 1,500 words
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Novaseeker asked me a question a while back. He wrote,
“Since you’re in Asia, here’s a question about this issue relating to that culture.
The image in the post that is referenced in this specific sub-discussion is from a 2020 video game created in Poland called “Cyberpunk 2077”. I don’t play games, but in searching for that image I came across a number of other ones, including many from Asian-made video games — Japanese and Korean mostly — featuring similarly “kick-ass” female hotties-with-guns as power/sex symbols for what I assume are mostly male players. Especially some of the Korean ones seemed to be extremely sexualized/feminine in appearance yet doing very “powerful”/masculine actions (as you would expect in a video game I suppose). I thought that even in Korea and Japan, which are more West-influenced than some other Asian countries, the norm was still feminine women — in other words, the “kickass woman with sexual authority, too!” arises from Western feminist culture. It appears that this also is a common trope in cultures like at least Korea which, while probably considered off the charts feminist for Asia are not particularly feminist from an American or European point of view. Why has this happened there as well?
I mean I realize gamers everywhere are lame and passive and tend to prefer “dominant woman” stereotypes — is that all there is to it, and it has very little to do with the ambient cultural feminism, which is clearly very different in Korea than it is in California? It’s a puzzle to me, given how other aspects of Asian culture don’t mesh with it.”
In response to NovaSeeker’s question, I did a little research on this topic. The rest of this post will cover the history, the artistic design, and the cultural context of the sexy, kick-@ss female stereotype in comics, anime, and video games.
On the History
I read some articles about this phenomenon (originally written in Chinese), and gathered up a bit of the rather long history that goes back 50 years or more.
Female heroine characters in the arts and literature date back to antiquity. But in the area of comics and video games, it seems the sexy kickass woman was inspired by Marvel comics’ Red Sonja, which first appeared in 1973. The Red Sonja character, and similar characters have reappeared in many comics since then, and later was made into a film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It is generally believed that the bikini armor first appeared in anime the early 1980s in “Fortune Star Boy”. In this manga, the author, Rumiko Takahashi, had only a hazy concept of bikini armor and did not emphasize the concept, so it did not receive widespread attention.
Then, in 1985, the Japanese anime film, Leda: The Fantastic Adventure of Yohko,* featured a female high school student, Yoko Asagiri, who was transformed into a female warrior (see next image). Of note, Yoko Asagiri’s bright red hair clearly reflects the image of Red Sonja. During the plot, she was swallowed by a flower while being chased by someone. When the flower spit her out, she was wearing a bikini which somewhat resembled armor (e.g. shoulder pads, shin guards). Asagiri instantly transforms into a female warrior and she defeats her enemy. The bikini armor gained popularity after this anime, probably because the bikini armor was the only fixed equipment of the heroine.
Also in 1985, on the other side of the world, Richard Fletcher made a movie, “Queen Excalibur”, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, which was directly modeled after Marvel’s, Red Sonja.
In 1986, there was a game called “Dream Warrior” that used bikini armor as its signature feature, further consolidating the popularity of bikini armor.
Another game released in 1988, “Dragon Quest”, featured a heroine in iconic red bikini armor.
In 1994, the game, “The Elder Scrolls: Arena”, had female characters wearing bikini armor, but the clothing was more bikini than armor.
From this time on, generations of artists continued to create aggressive female characters wearing bikini armor on the basis of their predecessors. Bikini armor slowly evolved to be more beautiful, sexually alluring, and (somewhat) more functional as armor.
* Leda is not to be confused with another, Tenya Lida (Japanese: Tensei Ida) AKA “Ingenium”.
On the Artistic Design
From the writers’/designers’ standpoint, a character can wear anything he chooses. So the final decision about what specific types of clothing to attach to the characters all depends on what the audience likes, what creates visual and mythical appeal, and what will sell. Therefore, in any specific application, what the heroine wears mainly depends on the setting and other attributes of the anime or game.
For example, “The Sakura Magic Girls” mimics a combination of cartomancy and a Victoria’s Secrets style fashion show, so the clothing is mostly based on the sex studded Lolita style. Another example is “Star vs. the Forces of Evil”, in which the main character, Star Butterfly, is modeled after the butterfly/fairy personification*, which appeals to both eastern and western fantasy. A third ubiquitous example, which brings us back to the topic of discussion, is the iconic female warrior.
One source speculated that the concept of female warriors and bikini armor originated in the gladiator culture of ancient Rome. Gladiator fights are essentially entertainment for others. In order to enhance the presentation, gladiators showcased their physique, as well as their fighting skills. Thus, male gladiators streamlined their armor and female gladiators wore minimal clothing.
However, it was pointed out that wearing armor on the breasts has little benefit if the rest of the body, especially the abdomen, is exposed.
So the writers/designers came up with a rule of thumb that supports the use of less clothing: “The more exposed, the stronger the combat effectiveness”. They had to come up with several explanations of how this could be true, and make the character depictions match this reasoning in order to produce an overall mythos that was convincing and believable (within the intrinsic suspension of disbelief necessary for one to engage in the fantasy).
Ayame, a Magic Sakura Girl
One reasoning is that female warriors should not wear heavy, burdensome armor, as that would slow them down.
Another line of reasoning claims that the primary source of defense is mainly derived from magic, speed, or a special skill or technique, rather than brute crushing strength.
In addition, the sexual authority of this type of character plays into the overall power of the character, that is, cleavage and lots of skin have the effect of distracting and confusing a male adversary and thereby weakening him.
Another work around is that some female characters are designed to avoid direct confrontation, such as a sorceress, sniper or bowman.
The authors state that these sexy characters were intentionally designed to appeal to a male audience, and yes, the kinds of guys who are into comics and video games tend to be attracted to dominant women. Thus, the bikini armor is just for visual appeal to male viewers. However, these characters also appeal to pre-adolescent girls too, as it is seen by them as a role model of sorts.
Being good-looking is a qualifying trait for any woman, whether she be the girl next door or the heroine of a fantasy, and this is a consistently enduring, standard fare for comics, games, and anime.
* For comparison, the butterfly/fairy personification has also morphed into butterfly armor, which continues to make reappearances from time to time, most recently in “Monster Hunter”.
On the Cultural Context
So far, I’ve only discussed the archetype of the female warrior within comics, games and anime, but NovaSeeker’s question was more focused on its cultural affect.
One source said that this type of character is a representation of the feminist “Strong Independent Woman” archetype. Another author said that western feminism is trying to kill this type of portrayal of women, because it objectifies women’s sexuality. So the reaction is a mixed bag, which I think reflects the inherent confusion in feminism.
Butterfly armor, as it appears in Monster Hunter.
Overall, I would say that ultimately, the comic and video game industries are businesses that try to produce content that will sell, and the sexy kickass woman archetype definitely sells to teenage males. It is charming. It appeals to their curiosity and desires. It conveys “heroine psychology” (which is seen as a mysterious anomaly). It transports them to an ancient, distant world which has different norms and rules of engagement. However, it is a microculture of fantasy. Outside of this targeted demographic, these characters are not popular at all.
Another thing that plays into the cultural interpretation of this, I think, is how different cultures regard the archetypal mythos of the knight who rescues the princess. According to western chivalry, the knight does this out of a sense of honor, cultural preservation, and because it is the right thing to do. Asian audiences read this type of story and see through all the talk about honor as mere posture posing. It is tacitly understood that the real motivation is for him to have the woman, and everything that entails. But again, all of this is regarded as archetypal mythos — stories that convey the basic nature of men and women. When men and women actually behave like the mythos, in Asia, it is usually seen as playacting or being over the top. The exception would be when it is done in a truly dangerous situation that would require true courage and bravery.
- VITO Magazine: Why do heroines in game anime always fight in bikinis? (2021 April 4)