There’s been a lot of discussion in SF about strong female characters, clothing, and armor, and I agree with a lot of the points being made, BUT. There’s a big thing being missed. Armor seems to have become the cheap tack to portray a strong, independent person, much like a mouthy, rebellious woman is the only way to have a strong female character (see, for instance, the dismissal of Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori as a strong character).
Armor does not make a strong person. Lack of armor does not make a weak person. Defying authority does not make a strong, independent person. Being a mouthy ass does not make a strong person.
During the Crusades, the Crusaders, on their massive horses (the forerunners of today’s Shires, Clydesdales, and Percherons), in heavy chain armor, had their asses BEAT by mostly unarmored Arabic warriors on light, small, fast horses. It was the same logic that made Alexander’s cavalry so effective against elephants: maneuverability, speed, minimal reaction time.
In fact, MANY of the primarily horse-based nomadic cultures wore little to no armor–Native Americans, for instance, were deadly mounted warriors. Hell, the American cavalry didn’t wear armor. The warriors of the Middle Eastern steppes? Minimal to no armor. Some of them wore heavy felt coats as their main armor.
And no, this doesn’t excuse the chainmail bikinis, because those are still stupid, impractical, and beyond purposeless. (Sure, they’re iconic to some people, some people like looking at them, yay! Go for it. Just stop trying to pretend that there’s any damn use for them beyond ‘TITS! IN ARMOR!’.)
And all this boils down to a criticism about a piece of art, which shows a warrior woman based on thousands of years of rich, nomadic culture, riding a horse based on a breed the Chinese coveted and praised as ‘the horses of heaven’. But she’s not wearing armor, so clearly she’s just a helpless virgin waiting for the prince to save her.
Fantasy doesn’t mean ‘absolutely no reality gets to happen here’, or ‘we don’t have to actually think about multicultural things’. It isn’t all based on knights and maidens, on Joan of Arc and massive steeds with hooves the size of dinner plates.
Sometimes the warrior is dressed in silk. Sometimes her sword is sheathed. Sometimes strength isn’t in your face arrogance and violence. Sometimes it’s the quiet, respectful word of a girl harnessing her hatred for someone she respects, or the steel-jawed determination to ride through anything that comes without raising a hand in anger.
And that, honestly, is damn well something that we, as writers, should be paying attention to, and attempting to understand.
**Edit** As was pointed out to me on Twitter, Crusaders weren’t wearing full plate armor. However, they were still heavily armored and getting trounced by the lighter cavalry. Then again, they were doing a good job of trouncing themselves on a regular basis. But this post isn’t about how awesome Salah ad-Din and Richard the Lionheart were. At any rate, as a former hobbyist of all things Plantagenet/Crusades/Middle Ages, I am rather embarrassed. Too many movies/fantasy recently! BUT THE REST OF MY POINTS STILL STAND. 😛