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Adventure, passion, and sexiness for the modern market

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Yora, Dec 9, 2019.

  1. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I am complete and unashamed fan of Sword & Sorcery. The niche of fantasy that is known for its muscled hunks in loin cloths, with goblets of wine in one hand, the decapitated head of an enemy in the other hand, and one or more mostly naked beauties clinging to their legs.
    It's awesome, but also stupid and offensive.
    Now the old classics that stood the test of time have a lot more depth than that. A lot of the derivative trash that followed does not. Much of that stuff is as awful as it sounds.

    In either case, it's a form of fantasy deeply rooted in romanticism. Where passion beats reason every time. Adventures that are about action and daring instead of intrigue and strategy. With larger than life heroes and villains who always throw themselves fully into the thick of things and never apologize for what they are and what they feel.

    "Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content." - Queen of the Black Coast

    I feel that this is something you don't really see showing up in contemporary fantasy, and I really want to bring it back. Unfortunately, fantasy of this kind expresses its romantic nature through a literary language that is soaked in sleaziness, violence, and selfish egocentrism. What is supposed to an admirable hero also usually comes across as a prejudiced bully, based on ideals of manliness and femininity that are abhorrent to the modern mindset. You can not simply write stories like they used to anymore. It's one thing to cut some slack for the blind spots of people from 60 or 80 years ago, but you can't repeat the same archetypes, dynamics, and aesthetics now when you should know better.

    I think a new literary language needs to be developed to bring unashamed romanticism back into fantasy. And there are several things we would need to figure out to present in ways that reflect our contemporary culture.
    Masculinity and femininity
    Passion and responsibility
    Exoticism without stereotyping
    Luxury and excess
    Violence with restraint and forgiveness
    Sexiness without sleaziness

    Looking at this list, this kind of sounds like a monumental task. But I think looking at it from the opposite site, it also appears like a huge opportunity to create fiction that is meaningful and really has something to say.
     
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  2. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

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    It sounds like a fun challenge. I think the current fantasy market is a lot broader then it was in the 90's and there's definitely room for more.

    I think the modern day Sword & Sorcery is Superhero stories. A protagonist with over the top powers, sure of him(her)self, violent when needed and so on. The setting is different in that it's usually in the present day, though some trace their origin and powers back to some ancient source. And transport a (magical powers based) superhero to a tiny village in the bronze age and you're getting closer to modern day sword & sorcery.
     
  3. Hexasi

    Hexasi Scribe

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    A very interesting insight, YoraYora. I think the best way to do this is to look back to stories from a long time gone - they are often the most romantic at heart. We have a lot to learn from them.

    In many ways what might be best is to tackle this thing head on - go full on in with all the muscle lather you want in your Sword & Sorcery, and let yourself run with it, see where it takes you. If you do it with enough balls, who knows, people might lap it up.
     
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  4. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I think problem is almost exactly what you’re advocating for. Instead of writing things that are cool and fantastical, it’s all about the sociological meaning and implications of the plots.

    There’s no adventure because writers are more focused with the themes of our society rather than being transported to a fantasy society.
    There’s no sexiness because...well, I guess that depends on what you’re into.
    And there’s no passion because people are too wrapped-up in sociology and cultural commentary to enjoy a piece of art.

    Anyways, that’s my terribly cynical take on all this. With the story I got going on now, I’m trying to do a lot of what you’re suggesting but I’d wager I’m going about it differently than what you’re suggesting (it I’m reading you right).
     
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  5. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I've seen many people suggesting that many of the element that were popular in Sword & Sorcery currently live on in grimdark. And there might be something to it. Sword & Sorcery has always had a strong connection to horror and fascination with violence. It seems very much plausible that many of the itches that made people fall in love with Sword & Sorcery are today satisfied by grimdark.

    But in other ways, it's really not the same. Grimdark is fully submerged in bleak nihilism and craves it, while in contrast Howard and Leiber also had a huge emphasis on pure joy. (Moorcock and Wagner admittedly not so much.) To bring back that classic quote by Robert Howard "I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."

    Superhero stories certainly can have the fun and excitement. The superhero genre is a product of the pulp culture that birthed Sword & Sorcery and Planetary Romance, so there certainly is a very close genetic relationship between them. But by the very nature of superhero's target audience they are intentionally safe and clean. When they get "controversial" they might make a monocle drop here or there, but that's it. I feel like Sword & Sorcery is kind of what you would get when you bring grimdark and superheroes together, though that's not fully describing it sufficiently.

    I feel a big part, and perhaps the key element of Sword & Sorcery, is that it's sensual, visceral, and passionate. A blend you don't get in either of the other two genres.

    Sword & Sorcery has never been high culture in any incarnation, and both during its two prime periods in the 30s and in the 70s/80s it was trashy. I would even say leaning into exploitation fiction. And the more I am thinking about it, I feel like it always was somewhat transgressional and deviant. It always has been a little bit offensive to mainstream culture, though on different grounds than what we would now regard as problematic about it. But look for example at the art of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. Even with all the naked ladies, don't tell me you're not seeing the subtext here.

    Now I am a fully committed and unapologetic queer, green-blooded, intelligentsia lefty with a background in religious studies and currently working on a BSc on sustainable food production. (I don't have blue hair, though.) But I think the cause of tolerance and inclusiveness is really in serious need of some transgression these days.
    How to think of both masculinity and femininity going into the future is a huge issue. So are excess and craving for the exotic, as well as sensuality. These things are regarded as problematic, and the prescribed behavior is to not touch them at all. That's not positive discourse, but internalized repression. All the discussion revolves around what is bad, but rarely does anyone seem to say what is good. Because it might offend someone's sensibilities. And what transgression we do see is not positive or inviting discourse, but just plain hate speech.

    I think Sword & Sorcery might be uniquely well suited as a genre for stories that go against the grain. Not everyone is interested in tearful drama stories to reflect about self-image and identity. Young men in particular being hard to reach with the language in which our culture talks about such things. Wild fantasy adventures full of action and passion could be another way to communicating positive messages to people who aren't really John Green readers.
     
  6. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I think sword and sorcery should be transgressive and deviant. It’s like the punk rock of fantasy fiction. It’s all about the individual fighting against the savagery of the world be it cruel barbarism or decadent civilization.
    That’s the core of the genre for me.

    I think the decline in its popularity has nothing to do with it enforcing traditionalist gender norms or degrading ethnic stereotypes.
    Yeah, Conan is a manly man but cimmerians don’t get a lot of respect in his setting, they’re dismissed as backwards and primitive (based on Howard's on dealing with anti-Irish discrimination). Red Sonja is an enduringly popular S&S character and she’s a woman who breaks her cultural norms by being a hardass warrior. The Elric is a whimpy, whiny pretty boy drug addict.
    The genre has always been inclusive. I think the decline of the genre has to do because modern sensibilities don’t really go for the tough-as-nails individualist going against the world kind of narratives the way that they used to. I think the genre is more wrapped-up in stories about institutions like politics and militaries.

    And sorry if this post isn’t well-written or in-depth, I’m typing on my phone which is super restrictive and I probably shouldn’t be doing that. Crom help me.
     
  7. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    After reading some Robert Howard beyond Conan, I've started to believe that not only is it unjustified to call his stories sexist or racist, I think he was actually pretty progressive, even by today's standards.

    Women and black men seem to always be underprivileged in his stories, but he never leaves it at that. His stories work with the fact that this is unfair to them, and the protagonists generally are sympathetic to their situations and treat them with much more respect than anyone else is doing. He is not creating ideal worlds in which discrimination does not exist, but worlds in which people have to struggle with their discrimination. I know of two contemporary horror stories that are about murders committed with voodoo magic and that instantly rings all alarm bells. But when you read the stories, they are really about people resorting to the most desperate measures available to them to fight against the horrors of their enslavement.
    Since he's a Texas man from the 1930s supporting his family by writing for the mass market, he's is using the language of the day to describe women and blacks. Most of what we get to read that uses that language is highly discriminatory, so we take the terminology itself to be sexist and racist. But the statements that he actually makes using those terms really speak a very different language.

    It's not so noticeable because Conan is a white man and he doesn't take shit from anybody, but many of the secondary characters are actively struggling to gain some agency of their lives in a world were real freedom is simply out of reach.
     
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  8. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    But Conan isn’t a “white” man. Conan is supposed to have existed before there was a concept of “white and non-white”. He was created in a time when Irish people weren’t even really considered “white”.
    It’s only when one tries to retroactively imposes their sociopolitical beliefs onto the work that the work becomes a problem.

    I think the decline in the subgenre’s popularity is partially based on this “it’s not in-line with our modern sensibilities” way of thinking which causes people to ignore or dismiss what can make these works universal. Like the themes of a look-down-upon individualist making a name for themselves or the contrast between barbarism and civility. Or just the trashy entertainment value of pulp adventure.
     
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I've always viewed Conan and kin as being the fantasy manifestation of the Western cowboy and the hard-boiled detective. In all three cases we have a loner hero who has a fierce but highly personal sense of justice, the courage to overcome his own fears, and enough physical skill not to just get swatted aside by bad guys.

    Viewed in that broader context, I'd say there is room to explore some of the issues you mention, YoraYora.

    But while there's a strong romantic streak in Howard, I'd also point to another source of romanticism. I'm thinking of something like Peter Beagle's Last Unicorn, which is a lovely story, wildly romantic and with nary a bulging bicep to be seen. Tolkien's works have an element of gentleness to them, even amidst fierce battles. Fantasy is a big tent. So big, in fact, that people have become somewhat preoccupied with setting up smaller tents within it.
     
  10. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Sage

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    The OP mentioned romaticism. So I tried reading up on this and how it might relate to fantasy. Romanticism, as I understand it, is a counter-culture going against the cold, mechanical nature of the modern industrial society. It's all about deep feelings and wonder. Of course, modern society today is different from what it was in 1800s. But I think there is a common core, which makes me want to rebel against the soulless, mechanical zeitgeist.

    Here's two quotes I think are totally romaticism:

    THE ART OF DRAWING IN LEAD PENCIL (1921):
    Some artists favour what may be termed a "loose" method of working, even for drawings and sketches which still come under the category of line work. The pencil responds none the less well to this peculiarity, as may be seen by reference to the attractive working sketches by Lewis Baumer (Figs. 105, 106), where confidence and dexterity are apparent in every touch.

    PRACTICE AND SCIENCE OF DRAWING (1913)
    In abstract form and colour—that is, form and colour unconnected with natural appearances—there is an emotional power, such as there is in music, the sounds of which have no direct connection with anything in nature, but only with that mysterious sense we have, the sense of Harmony, Beauty, or Rhythm (all three but different aspects of the same thing).

    Note that this is from how-to books on drawing! Modern equivalents never dare to go anywhere near this degree of romanticism. Rather, they'd give mechanical step-by-step instructions. I have found that a lot of writing from that time has a lot more poetic a flowy feel, compared to today's writing.

    Likewise, modern novels seem mostly inspired by the staccato-form of texting. We hardly ever encounter semi-colons or em dashes, as they have a more flowy, romanticism-like air. This blogpost shows how even todays dictionaries go against romanticism: You’re probably using the wrong dictionary « the jsomers.net blog

    I personally try to go for a more flowery language, with solid metaphors and "unnecessary words".

    When it comes to metaphors, I can recommend I IS ANOTHER. It gives a deeper understanding of how those things work and are just plain fun.

    Another book I liked is WRITING WONDER by David Farland. I feel it fits the topic of romanticism. The book talks about "wonder" as a genre in its own right. Each genre, like thiller, romance or comedy, is promising a specific emotion. The "wonder" genre is promising wonder. Both scifi and fantasy, the author argues, are subgenres of the much larger wonder genre. They are promising that sensation of discovering something strange and new.

    While small children encounter wonder all the time—everything is new and wondrous to them—we don't get to see it much as adults. But some stories can give us some of the same experience. Here's some stuff I think of as full-blown "wonder":
    — The Matrix
    — The Lord of the Rings
    — Star Wars
    — The Twilight Zone
    — The Dark Crystal
    — Jurassic Park
    — Myst
    — MDK
    — Avatar
    — The VR medium

    Of course, a lot of scifi/fantasy has very little wonder. They just throw the old tropes around. Also, not all wonder is scifi or fantasy. For instance, the movie JAWS is all about the 'wonderous' idea of the epic killer shark.

    Don't know if I worded this right. There's more to this book, of course. Here's a blogpost by the author:
    Creating a Sense of Wonder in Your Fantasy - David Farland
     
  11. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I love the movie. Saw it once as a child and it really made an impact on me, even though I only remembered some fragmented images, like the castle at the sea and the flaming bull. Somehow I only watched it again well into my 20s, and I still really quite liked it. Been a couple of years since then, probably should go watch it again.
    From what I currently remember it's very much within the broader scope that I was thinking about.

    Romanticism goes even further back, being a countermovement against Enlightenment since the mid 1700s. I've read some Goethe and Hoffmann in school, and some of their work would clearly be called fantasy today. At the time of their writing, Urban Fantasy.

    I am very much in agreement regarding descriptions. There are a lot of things in the content of Tolkien's stories I am quite opposed to, but I really love them for the richness of his description. He's telling you how to put together a painting of the places in your mind. I've often seen Howard praised for that as well, but I never noticed it myself when reading. It's something that I've been very much missing from many modern books, wich can have great plots but read more like scripts. I enjoy the majestic in fantasy and that's something you just don't get without giving the reader lavish descriptions and some time to let it soak in.

    Interesting that you mention Star Wars and Myst. Like The Last Unicorn, they are both on my pretty short list of works for aesthetic references. I'd also add Morrowind and the artwork for Planescape to that, but that mostly covers it. I've not seen anything of The Dark Crystal, but it always looked like something I should get around to, just based on the visuals.
    One thing that really upset me about the latest Star Wars movies was that they never actually felt like Star Wars to me, because one thing that is terribly absent from them are the long and lavish establishing shots of the environment every time the location changed in the older movies. Even in a visual medium where you can havr all the props on screen, these moments are adding a lot to the overall experience.

    One recent work of very populat media that stands out for me in regard of telling a bold passionate story that does not appologize for anything and feels no need to explain itself is Fury Road. It doesn't have the supernatural aspects and they are on cars instead of horses or ships, but the narrative to me encapsulates everything else that I think a modern form of Sword & Sorcery could be. Furiosa is the perfect archetype for modern heroes that fully commit themselves and give absolutely everything without any need for sentimental dialog. She suffers a lot put dishes it out even harder, and she will ask for help when she needs it, but does not depend on it.
    In a time where there has been lots of crybaby whining about women in action movies, this one was a huge hit with the masses. And I still find it funny when I remember that it was created by three old white men. That movie is full with visual symbolism that is all up right in your face, but it still works as a high adrenaline action spectacle because it lets the symbols and events speak for themselves and never asks to have a moment of your time while it's getting up on its soapbox.
     
  12. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    I was never a big Conan fan-more due to the writing style than the stories themselves- though I read a few books. I suspect the sentiments of the genre manifest themselves in a variety of other places, whether it’s in litrpg or whatever the hell else. The bigger issue with its market would be in trad, where the publishing houses are going to be less likely to touch the stuff with a ten-foot sword because of current touchiness out there. Indie? Somebody must be trying it, but The market is so flooded with books it’shard to find things these days.
     
  13. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I feel the need to - I don't know - I guess, disagree with this assessment.
    I find it troubling that your praise of this film immediately gives way to a complaint about "crybabies" complaining about the depiction of women in action films followed immediately with a critique (of sorts) of the film's creators being old, white and male. I think the age, race and gender of a story's creator should be irrelevant. Likewise, good art shouldn't really be shackled to things that happen in the outside world such as what critics/crybabies say about it or the demographics of the people who create, enjoy or critique it.

    Also, (and I'm going to be super cynical here and also attribute motive like a jerk so apologies in advance) I wonder if you would hold Furiosa as a perfect archetype of a modern hero if she didn't happen to be a woman in a genre that is traditionally (though not always) dominated by male heroes and meant to be consumed primarily by men.
    Obviously, I'm not saying she should have been a man or that the gender-related themes should have been removed from the film. Trust me: I have my own gripes with her and the movie but none of them are directly tied to gender.

    I don't think any genre of art (in writing or otherwise) would ever really get anywhere when there's a constant specter of sociopolitical philosophy hanging over it and even the demographics of the creators need to be taken into account when one assesses their enjoyment of a work.

    You guys are cool (y)
     
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  14. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

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    I disagree that this no longer exists. You just don't find it in fantasy. But characters like James Bond or Jason Bourne definitely count as tough-as-nails individuals going against the world alone. James Bond definitely has a lot in common with Conan (if you ignore their outfits and the world they exist in). There's bad guys who are clearly the bad guys, a good guy who fights mostly alone and who is completely bad-ass, womenly women who have an otherwise unexplained attraction to the good guy and so on.

    I think the main reason it doesn't exist in fantasy these days is simply because no one is writing it well. Fantasy has moved in the epic / urban fantasy direction, which is what people believe will sell and thus what publishers pick up. Sword & Sorcery has the Conan image attached to it, which gives it the 70's pulp fantasy connotation, which is part of the reason people believe it won't sell well.

    But the truth is that no one knows what will sell until it does or can predict this. I don't think anyone predicted that a erotica novel with a female protagonist who was submissive to some rich dude would find mass market success (among women). And yet, 50 shades of grey seems pretty popular...

    All that means is that there is a gap in the market where there's room for new writers.
     
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  15. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I am really surprised by all these responses here. When I tried to start similar discussions in the past, I always felt like nobody was really understanding what I was talking about. Responses here have been great.

    Regarding the recent action movie heroines, there are lots of very legitimate complaints about badly written female characters in plots that don't make any sense. I am thinking of the recent Star Wars and Terminator for example. Those movies absolutely deserve being called out for their nonsense. (Though blaming the actresses for defending their performances is absolutely unacceptable.) But Fury Road is an example where this really wasn't the case. There were still complaints about icky girls in a boys movie and their beloved macho series being turned into feminist propaganda, but those people always complain about it in any action movie that has female characters in meaningful roles. I completely stand by calling those idiots crybabies.
    The background of the creators does indeed not matter when it comes to judging the quality of their works. That was what I meant to get at. Old white men are supposedly the most out of touch people when it comes to creating works that appeal to contemporary sensibilities, and here you have three of them doing it completely effortlessly. Writing good female action characters and giving them plots that address their status within their society is not dark magic. Everyone should be able to do it with just a little bit of effort and approaching the work seriously. The big legitimate complaints we had in recent years seem to basically come down to those movies appearing to be written completely half-assed and as nothing but cash grabs. Put some women in lead roles, give them guns, and wait for the mountains of money to come in. That just doesn't cut it. To me this feels a lot like the cliche of having one black guy in the cast who is then the first one to die without having contributed anything. They check off a box and call it a day, because apparently they don't understand what the issue is but hear some muffled cries about diversity somewhere off in the distance.
    I think Furiosa would have worked really well as a man, too. She's just more noticeable because she's a woman. I really like Max in the movie too. He's a bit antisocial, especially in the first half, but I think that's attributed to mental illness. Once he starts to socialize again he becomes a selfless hero who doesn't judge any of the low social status people around him.
     
  16. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Thank God there’s a new Ghostbusters coming out to (hopefully) wash the stink off the franchise.

    Back in my screenwriting days, one of my favorite descriptions of H’Wood came from Elliot and Rossio: There’s a stupid cloud over the city (paraphrased). Whenever you start trying to write to an agenda other than entertaining you tread a dangerous road, which isn’t exactly what they were talking about, but it’s part of it these days.
     
  17. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Oh, YoraYora, you must read the book. It's quite short. Easily half the magic of the story is the language. I liked the movie; I love the book.
     
  18. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    So some thoughts on the skimpy clothes.

    I think fantasy literature itself doesn't really have that much of a problem with it. At least I don't ever recall a writer spending long paragraphs on describing the details of a chainmail bikini. It's really much more of an issue in cover art and movies. It probably would be quite easy just to never mention it and you'd perfectly safe in that area. And of course, you don't have to if you're not comfortable with it or don't think it feels appropriate for your work. But I still believe that it's something that should not be dismissed out of hand for being problematic and seriously be considered when writing passionate and hedonistic stories that revel in life and physicality.

    The main reason I see is that when you are having characters who are driven by their emotions and inner desires and who live life to the fullest, it will obviously intersect with sexual and erotic elements at some points. Not necessarily for every character, every character will interact with it very differently, and it depends hugely on the overall tone of the work how subtle or explicit you want to make it. This can obviously extend into erotica and smut, but that's a whole different discussion from the topic we have here. Just to clarify, what I want to talk about here would be more mainstream literature, though that can still mean "rated 18" (if there were ratings for literature). But perhaps I am thinking way too innocently about this without first hand knowledge what is going on in grimdark. ;)

    This can actually be done pretty tamely. The two movies Return of the Jedi and Fury Road both have very skimpy outfits and I don't think many people would consider them sleazy or creepy. They are also among my most favorite movies and I've been thinking quite a lot about whether I can really defend them against accusations of objectification instead of just dismissing such claims out of hand.

    And my conclusion is that creators are totally entitled to dress characters up in everything, if it is appropriate for the context. You can put a character in anything you like, but with a lot of outfits you have to justify your decision. When you put your characters in sexy outfits, you are making a strong statement with that, and you better be able to defend it. Sex sells is not a sufficient reason. That's by definition exploitation.
    I see two contexts in which skimpy enticing outfits are absolutely appropriate. The first one is when the characters choose to wear the outfit because they want to look sexy and be looked at. If that's the context of the scene, that's completely justified. The other one is when the outfit is forced on the characters against their wishes and when the story acknowledges it as the grave injustice they are enduring. The two images of costumes I linked above are examples of this second case. Those are not ordinary outfits for people in their worlds. They are symbols of the objectification they are subject to and the stories make clear statements that this situation is unacceptable and needs to be overcome. I can totally accept that. (Though I still don't understand how they got that chain strangulation into a PG movie.)

    What absolutely does not fly with me are the chainmail bikinis. They are clearly no substitutes for armor. The only situation where chainmail bikini's could ever be justified is as a stripper costume. When the context calls for practical outfits, the characters have to wear practical outfits and not put on a show for the audience. It drives me absolutely crazy in 95% of all fantasy videogames.
     
  19. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Chainmail bikinis no, but maille bikinis! It all depends on what kind of attack you’re guarding against, heh heh.
     
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