For Anyone Still Wondering, Yes, Women Can Wear Full Armor, Too

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If you go to the “Female Armor” page on the WoW Wiki, you’ll find a very silly statement. To quote:

Female armor tends to cover less than does male armor. Though there are many people who see this as mere fanservice, there are real, practical reasons behind it. First, females are statistically less muscular than males, and depend more on agility and cunning than raw strength in combat, thus lightweight armor makes more sense.

Now, the WoW Wiki knows that this argument is silly. It’s part of a series of satirical articles and says “This is a silly article” at the top. That got a smirk out of me when I saw it, but it also reminded me of the times that I’ve come across people actually trying to use this argument in a non-silly way. It comes up as a justification for why female characters shouldn’t get full armor or big weapons, or even as a counter-argument to those of us who would like to see more equal treatment for female player characters (and NPCs, too). To portray anything otherwise, these people say, is unrealistic.

Rather than dismissing this offhand, I’d like to take this opportunity to break down why this rationale doesn’t fly. It’s time to put a few dents in that idea’s armor. Unravel a few threads. Cut a few holes in the — okay, okay, I’ll stop.

If we’re going to talk about realism, we’ve got to start with biology. It’s true that, on average, men are larger and have more muscle mass than women. Of course, male muscle tissue is no different than female muscle tissue; men just have more of it. So even if a man and a woman engage in the same strength training exercises, the man is still probably going to be able to lift more weight and move faster. Now, this doesn’t mean that men are physically superior to women. That’s an assigned cultural value, which I will come back to later. The muscle mass thing is merely a biological difference, just as women tend to have stronger immune systems and an advantage in long-term resilience. To put it in gaming terms, men have a natural Strength bonus, women have a natural Constitution bonus. And as every gamer knows, there are no base stats that are inherently better than others. It all depends on what things you want your character to be able to do.

To continue the analogy, a character’s base stats don’t matter as much as the skills and abilities you train in — which is how real life works, too. The cool thing about that identical muscle tissue I mentioned is that it reacts to physical exertion in exactly the same way, regardless of gender. Take a look at these awesome images from The Athlete, a photoshoot by Howard Schartz and Beverly Ornstein. The photographers captured Olympic athletes of all sizes and shapes, and the result is a gorgeous look at physical diversity across genders. I don’t see anything here indicating that women somehow have a natural proclivity towards “agility and cunning.” What I see are people who have trained for very specific tasks, and it’s clear from these pictures that Mother Nature doesn’t particularly favor one gender over the other in that regard. There are a few women in there who could handle wearing full plate — and a few men who look like they’d be more comfortable in light, flexible armor.

At heart, I don’t think the Silly Armor Argument is really about biology. I think it’s got everything to do with the sorts of activities that we are culturally comfortable with women participating in. This is why there are so, so many games which only show female characters as healers or ranged classes. We’re totally okay with women acting as caretakers, but if a woman must act violently, we’d rather have her do so from a detached distance. Women, we’re taught, aren’t supposed to brawl. We’re not supposed to get bloody and muddy and bruised. This is why it is more rare, out here in the real world, to find women who are soldiers or professional athletes. It’s not because we can’t learn to rough-and-tumble as the boys do. It’s because we’re not encouraged to do so. I suppose that one could argue that the difference in size and strength might make more women inclined to seek out combat roles that did not involve physical contact. But just because some might doesn’t mean that all will (case in point: the US Army women participating in cage matches).

Let me jump back to physical ability for a moment. I actually know a little bit firsthand about what it takes to wear a suit of armor. Many moons ago, I used to work at a renaissance faire. Because my particular faire was big on historical accuracy, none of the female performers could wear armor. However, most men didn’t either. The men who did wear armor could only do so as a result of lots of practice. One time, I asked an acquaintance if I could try on his chain mail hood — just the hood, mind you, not even a full shirt. I slipped it on, and immediately had difficulty holding my head up normally. Then I took it off and handed it to my male friend. He had the exact same reaction. Even though he was bigger than me, he hadn’t been trained to carry that sort of weight. Now, if we had both trained, it’s highly likely that he’d wear a larger, heavier set of mail in the end. But I’d still be able to wear a set of my own, so long as it was crafted to suit my body.

And that’s where it gets tricky. Because male and female bodies do work a bit differently, they require differently tailored armor. This is the crux of the Silly Armor Argument, but what it ignores are the kinds of differences that make sense. Smaller armor and lighter materials? Good. Easy access to vital organs? Not so good. There’s nothing that says that in order for armor to be lightweight that it has to be drastically different in design. This was recently addressed in an article by Ryan at Mad Art Lab, who is, in fact, an actual armorer.

Plate armor is the way it is largely out of necessity. The layout and articulations of the plates are the best solutions the designers could come up with to balance mobility with protection. Also, note that nobody was naked under their armor. There was a ton of padding between the metal and the flesh that absorbed the energy of the blows. That means the difference between male and female plate armor is relatively trivial because once you’ve padded it out and left space for movement, you’ve all but erased the figure of the person inside…However, artists aren’t always going for practicality or historical relevance. Style will often trump practicality in costume design.

That’s what fantasy armor design ultimately comes down to: artistic choice. In a fantasy setting, a character’s appearance should reflect not just their role in the game, but what culture they’re from and who they are as a person. It’s much more of a costume than a practical piece of equipment. As I mentioned last week, the preview material for Diablo III does a great job of this with the male and female models for the Barbarian class.

In my eyes, this is damn near perfect. I can tell that these two are from the same culture, and that they perform similar tasks. Some of the style differences are obviously inspired by gender, but in such a way that feels both realistic and artistically appropriate. The male Barbarian is carrying more weight than the female, but in terms of realism, that makes sense. These are two characters who can do the same things, just in slightly different ways. Exactly how it should be.

Since some of you are already probably thinking it, no, most male fantasy armor isn’t terribly realistic, either. I highly doubt that anyone dressed like a small piece of artillery would be able to fight for extended periods of time, regardless of what sort of training they have. But when people complain about female armor, it’s not typically a lack of realism that we’re bothered by. It’s the fact that male characters are overwhelmingly portrayed as power fantasies while women are portrayed as sexual fantasies (if you’re not clear on the difference, this comic has you covered). Now, I’d like to stress that I don’t see anything inherently wrong with sexualized characters. There’s a time and a place for that, and hey, if you like dressing up your game characters — of any gender — in sexy clothes, that’s fine by me. But this sort of imposed sexual dimorphism has been the rule rather than the exception for way too long. If we’ve gotten to the point where people are so accustomed to scantily clad women that they argue that women as a whole aren’t suited for anything else, there’s a problem.

So here’s my honest question for anyone who uses the Silly Armor Argument. You, O Hypothetical Person, claim to believe that women wearing full armor in a combat scenario is unrealistic. Okay. I’ll set aside every contrary point I’ve just laid out and let you have that. But let’s look at all of the other stuff that games often ask you to accept at face value:

  • Magic or psychic abilities
  • Fighting while carrying dozens of items, which may include books, large sacks of gold, or rocket launchers
  • Aliens, monsters, and/or zombies
  • Casual resurrection
  • Buster Swords

Out of all of these things, the thing that you can’t accept on grounds of realism is the idea that women aren’t as physically strong as men? Why? No, I’m serious, why? If you’re willing to suspend disbelief for everything else, then I have to conclude that you don’t really care about realism. If you don’t care about realism, then you’re acknowledging that games are a fantasy. And if games are a fantasy…why do the women in them have to be sexy? Why can’t they be powerful, too? Why is it somehow sacrilege to tell more than one kind of story?

If you prefer your female characters to be uniformly sexualized, you have every right to feel that way, even though I don’t share that view. But own it. Call it what it is. Don’t try to pass it off as realistic, and don’t claim that the alternative — fully-covered or even non-gendered armor — makes less sense. And if you find yourself trying to justify skimpy armor in terms of biology even though your real reason for liking it is simply because you find it sexy, then let me ask one more question: Why do you feel the need to hide that viewpoint at all?

Image credit: Sang Han (fluxen), via Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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