GeekPlanetOnline community member and columnist Roz Mosis examines issues of gender in genre entertainment and fandom. Often challenging, frequently highly-charged, her column aims to call out the problems and draw attention to the triumphs.
So, I was discussing classic Power Rangers a while back with a few of my dude friends and the Pink Ranger came up. I always appreciated her as being a kind of prototype Buffy Summers - someone who was unashamedly feminine but was also friendly, upbeat and kind in addition to being physically strong.
Speaking of Buffy, back to the conversation with my dude friends.
‘The actress who played her was a stunt double on Buffy!’ I told them.
‘Didn’t she also do porn at one point?’ One of them asked, to some sniggering.
‘Yes, knew there was a good reason for her to learn the splits!’
I couldn’t really articulate why this bothered me back then, but I can now after seeing similar themes come up again and again with nostalgic female characters, no matter what context. After Carrie Fisher died, there was comment after comment from nerd bros my age all lamenting how she ‘gave them their first boner’ or words to that effect. Or remembering the slave outfit, which for years was a symbol of how her character was treated by the very vocal male Star Wars audience.
To remind you, Leia was forced to wear that metal bikini by a guy (er, male slug… thing…) who liked to watch women die for his amusement. The fact that so many men didn’t notice how dehumanising the outfit was speaks volumes; the fact that Leia as a character became remembered only for that outfit for decades – I’d argue right up until the start of the last decade - speaks libraries. The metal slave bikini. Not her iconic white princess dress, not her rebellion base get-ups or the dress from the Ewok village. Just that damned gold bikini. The one time out of the entire original trilogy that Leia is made to be utterly powerless, submissive and silent.
This sort of sexualisation is not limited to Star Wars, of course. I recently tried Googling April O’Neill and most of the images that came up were some uncomfortably framed low cut jumpsuits and latex sexy cosplay. It made my inner six-year-old feel deeply… gross. Can you imagine if all the images of the Ninja Turtles were close ups of stills from the old cartoons, focusing on their crotches? Or of fanart of them posing in thongs? Or jack-as-all-hell cosplayers in sexy Raphael costumes?
Then there’s Janine from The Real Ghostbusters – who, as an aside, became technically was the first female Ghostbuster during season one of the cartoon, when she got her own jumpsuit and Proton Pack and saved the rest of the team from a God as close to Gozer as the show ever got. And what is most of her fan art? Ugh. Take a guess.
I Google Princess Peach. I scroll down. Skimpy bikini complete with butt-crack. I Google Gadget from Rescue Rangers, a character I adored in my childhood. Twelve results in, tits. Oh, and her own cult created by skeevy Russian dudes in leather jackets, because apparently we live in the darkest timeline. Fan art and nostalgic interpretation is key here; it shows how men have looked back on the women they saw represented during their childhoods and most of it comes back as… well, porn.
Look, being attracted or aroused by characters is not a crime, it’s often something one cannot help. I, for example, felt uncomfortably attracted to Launchpad McQuack from Ducktales. But there’s just something that skeeves you out when you had one female character to identify with and most of what you can find is a drawing of her with her baps out. Most male characters get dark reimaginings or gorgeous renderings of a more “realistic” nature, but the ladies? They get to be pin-ups. Now, you could argue that this is down to the characters themselves not actually having much to them beyond being “the sexy one”, and certainly the fan art reflects this, but a) that wasn’t always true and b) we as an audience should and could do better.
These beleaguered female characters are being framed as being submissive sex-things. When they are portrayed in a deliberately sexualised manner what little agency they had to begin with - April O’Neill as an intrepid reporter, Leia as a resistance fighter, Gadget as the smart scatterbrain, Janine as smart-alec Ghostbuster - is taken away. In some respects, I feel like we’ve moved past a lot of this. April’s reimagining in the Nickelodeon’s 2012 reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has her looking like an actual human being - a brave teenage girl in point of fact. Sadly does not stop creepy fans sexualising her, but at least it’s a step. With the 2016 Ghostbusters movie, we get to see female ’busters who dress like real women would dress if they had a choice and agency and stuff and, I’d argue, that’s what made so many dudes so mad.
And as for Leia, most of the wider nerd audience now cringes at that slave outfit. You hardly see it in merchandise or in modern Star Wars spin-offs anymore, as if it were quietly retired. Following Carrie Fisher’s death, a lot of tribute art and articles (drawn and written largely by women, I might add) portrayed Leia in her first princess outfit or as General Organa; as she truly was, not as a nerdy blow-up doll.
I have to elaborate here. It’s not being sexy in and of itself that is bad, or having early memories of a childhood crush; it’s letting that crush blindside you into narrowing this character’s options especially when she’s the only prominent female character in the franchise. All I want is to be able to finally create enough space for future young nerd girls to google their favourite characters and not be bombarded with images of them in a ‘fuck-me’ pose or peek-a-boo titty shots. Maybe, just maybe, if we as audiences can see female characters as more than just something to wank to, creators might take the hint?