First of all, have a fascinating article about sexual dimorphism in the world of WoW from Wired.
Also, check out this picture from the oft-hillarious, sometimes disturbing, and rarely safe for work Boobs Don't Work That Way:
Arguing about the portrayal of men and women in fantasy (especially on the internet) is something of a hobby of mine. In fact, I've gotten a little sick of discussing this, so I'm writing this post in part so whenever this comes up I can simply post a link and say "see this - this is what I think."
First of all, I will the first, second, third, and last to admit that I appreciate fantasy chicks. The Chainmail Bikini has a place of honor in my heart, alongside the Naked Powerful Evil Queen (the Abigail loves to mock me about this one), Swords of Unusual Size, and Extremely Flash Magic.
That said, you need to watch what you're doing. Fill your story (or video game, or movie, or RPG book, or whatever) with half-naked women and you are sending an extremely powerful message: this work is intended to excite and titillate the men in the audience. Women who like women may glean some enjoyment if they can get past the discomfort of seeing their own gender blatantly and unfairly sexualized. Women (and men) who like men need not apply.
This is not a message that I intend to send with anything I create. It's also not a message I like to see in anything I consume.
"But Mark," I hear you say, "you just said that you're a fan of chainmail bikinis and wicked sorceress-queens lounging nakedly on thrones of skulls!" I hear you say it through the Internet. It's a new app I just bought, and it's awesome.
The thing is, there's nothing wrong with sexualized fiction. Mighty thews and heaving bosoms have been with us for as long as there has been writing; check out an accurate translation of the Song of Solomon if you don't believe me. The trick is to consider what message you are sending with your work. Are you excluding someone? Are you only giving eye-candy to a segment of your audience? If the answer is yes, you need to deal with it.
This is where the chart I posted at the start of this post comes in. It may be intended as a bit of tongue-in-cheek commentary, but I think it's actually useful as a guide for balanced titillation. What you need to do is this:
- Decide where on the X-Axis your story is going to fall. Is your work Realistic? Heroically Idealized? Sexualized? A combination of the two (for example: largely Heroically Idealized but with a few sexy bits that slip over into Sexualized or largely Realistic but with a Heroically Idealized climax scene).
- Keep yourself in that category for both male and female characters. Period.
I mean it with step two. That's where the magic happens. Balance between the depiction of the sexes is what sends the message "this work is for everyone to enjoy!" For every man covered in grime and sweat I want to see a woman who hasn't had a bath since she set out from Caer Amithar a fortnight ago. For every heaving bosom I want to see a mighty thew. For every levitating breast I want to see a buttock of a tautness that defies the durability of human flesh. And no fair skimping on the narration - you must describe everything with an equal degree of loving, sexy, titillating detail. If you aren't up for appealing to everyone in your audience, aim for the left side of the diagram and leave the sexy stuff to the professionals.
And by the way, you should probably take some of those examples with a grain of salt. I'm not into guys, so I'm not sure what actually qualifies as the equivalent of a heaving bosom or levitating breast. Do some research with your female-favoring friends of the male and female persuasion.
There is one more objection I hear a lot, usually from people who make more of their money in one or another artistic industry. "Mark," I hear them say (through the app), "the thing is, people who like to look at guys are used to this sort of thing and they'll buy our art anyway; people who like to look at girls (specifically, male people who like to look at girls) won't."
To this I say: grow the hell up.
Artists - quit being lazy wimps. You want to change the world with your work? Take a stand. The days of fantastic fiction being the purview of men and men alone are long gone - and good riddance to them. Don't hide behind the need to make money. I guarantee you that you can find a way to make a statement you can actually be proud of and also make a buck, if you try.
And all the girl-looking-at-male-people out there - guys, we can do better. I guarantee you that photons bouncing off words describing buff guys (or even - and I know this can be hard to believe - pictures) won't do you any harm. They don't cause eczema, hair loss, or cancer. Everybody else has had to look at what you like for centuries, and they're all fine. You'll live.
Before I go, I want to hear from you. Who does a good job of balancing appeal for those who like boys and those who like girls? What are some works of fantastic fiction that pass the Zeppelin Test?