Comics, Critique, Feminism, Gender, Masculinity, Sexism, Sexuality

Getting a Feminist Makeover: Red Sonja, Gail Simone, and Chainmail Bikinis, Pt. 1

Gail Simone’s run on Red Sonja has been a huge boon to the character. Simone has changed the character’s origins, tweaked some of her personality (or more accurately, “enhanced”), made her canonically bisexual, and worked with artists who are willing to depict Red Sonja as the powerful warrior woman and complex character that she should be. Issue 18 will be Simone’s final Red Sonja, and that is after at first agreeing to only a short run, then signing on for more single issues, several anthologies, and a huge crossover event. Simone has done significant and important work with this character who boasts a 40-plus year history, and has even “hand-picked” her successor. In celebration, I will be exploring the various origins and history of Red Sonja in this series. In Part 1, I begin with Red Sonja’s 1973 debut.

Red Sonja became my idol when I watched the 1985 movie starring Brigitte Nielsen and Arnold Schwarzenegger with my mom. In the movie, Nielsen as Sonja wears a warrior woman ensemble consisting of a bustier style top with a gladiator style skirt. As the outfit was pretty similar to my other idol, She-Ra, I didn’t see anything wrong with it. It seemed like a common warrior woman type costume.

Had Nielsen been decked out in the infamous chainmail bikini, I am not sure if my mom and I would have bothered with it. And I don’t mean in a righteous feminist fury kind of way, but more likely in the sense of, “well, that’s clearly not for us.”

When Gail Simone took over writing Red Sonja, she was surprised to find how many female artists were “secret” fans of the character, and when prompted in an interview with Comics Alliance if she was a fan of the character prior to writing her, Simone said:

“I was a fan of the idea of Red Sonja, but the gender politics of the character made her hard to read for me, at times.”

Simone hits the nail on the head—the idea of Red Sonja is great, but she’s hard to read sometimes. She’s a badass warrior yet we have to continuously see her in poses that blatantly denote pornography for heterosexual men. She’s on the battlefield in a thong, or straddling a reptile in brokeback pose, etc. Her expressions are more often lascivious or bored rather than promising, “I will gut you like a pig.” (See the Escher Girls for some examples.)

Red Sonja is a compelling character. She’s a formidable warrior, and in less serious writers’ hands, a brawler. She’s not necessarily a hero nor an antihero. She’s cunning. She questions power and authority at every turn whether the storyline revolves around more personal troubles or epic world-endangering problems. She’s fiercely independent. That’s not particular to her as a female character, but as a protagonist in the sword and sorcery genre in general. Conan is also all of these things, but Red Sonja’s a woman, and this impacts how we (writers, artists, readers) engage with her. In addition to this, you throw in the chainmail bikini and her first origin story which was based on rape, and reading Red Sonja can be very difficult.

(A quick note: My research is based on several excellent books about comics, internet research [mostly ComicVine and the Grand Comics Database], and my own copies of Red Sonja stories in single issues and/or collected trades. I have tried to give credit where applicable, but trying to parse out who wrote, penciled, and inked what at Marvel in the 1970s is kind of a hot mess. If I have missed anything or miscredited, please let me know in the comments section!)

From Red Sonya to Red Sonja

Magic Carpet, January 1934

Magic Carpet, January 1934

Sword and sorcery, a subgenre of fantasy, is often credited to Robert E. Howard. Howard was the creator of Conan and the character Red Sonya, which inspired writer Roy Thomas to create Red Sonja. A warrior woman of Eastern European descent who carried a sabre, two daggers, and two pistols, Red Sonya first appeared “The Shadow of the Vulture,” which debuted in the January 1934 issue of the pulp magazine Magic Carpet.

Pulps were magazines that emerged as cheap alternatives to the “slick” more expensive magazines of the early twentieth century. Literacy was common enough by this point that affordable literary entertainment was deemed a lucrative market, exemplified by the existing dime novel and the penny dreadful. Pulp, dime novels, and similar paraphernalia are all predecessors to today’s popular fiction: mass market paperbacks, and yes, comic books. Pulp magazines were thus called because they were printed on cheap, wood pulp paper using cheap printing techniques and cheap labor. Writers looking to get their start, or to maybe restart their flagging careers, turned to pulps for quick money. Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many other “literary” authors all wrote for pulps at one time or another.

Pulp magazines published mostly genre fiction: horror/occult, science fiction, noir, westerns, romance, and others. Color printing and bright covers had a lot to do with pulp magazine’s sales because they drew in passerby, often with their sensational focus on violence, sex, drugs, and the like (for a look through some of the sensationalistic Weird Tale covers, check out this blog). Doc Savage, Buck Rogers, Tarzan, and Zorro all have their origins in pulp magazines.

Considering this attention to spectacle and sensationalism, the sword and sorcery genre fit right at home in the pulps. And while pulps fell by the wayside, comics easily stepped in with similar elements of sensationalism:

Muscle-y dudes and lots of skin. Frightened women (though Belit looks more pissed than frightened on the comic book cover). Weapons. Flying bird people. Both covers are fantastical, offering fantasies of heroics and power. I wholeheartedly love this. I just don’t want it to be limited to dude heros only. I want my own female power fantasy. Roy Thomas, the creator of Red Sonja, the comic book character, knew many women wanted this and sought to capitalize on it for Marvel.

Red Sonja: From Hot Pants to Chainmail Bikinis

Conan the Barbarian #24, written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith, Marvel, 1973

Conan the Barbarian #24, written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith, Marvel, 1973

In the introduction to Dynamite’s The Adventures of Red Sonja Vol. 1, Thomas states that while working at Marvel, he developed Red Sonja as a female equivalent to Conan in order to expand the Conan market. Further, as a redhead, she was distinguishable from the other two prominent female characters in the Conan ‘verse—Belit, the raven-haired pirate queen and Valeria, a blonde mercenary.

In Red Sonja’s 1973 debut in the Conan comics, she was drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith in a mail shirt and red hot pants (hot pants were kinda big in the 70s).

Windsor-Smith drew Red Sonja for two issues: Conan the Barbarian #23 and Conan the Barbarian #24. In these two issues, the most backstory revealed about Red Sonja is her vow to have sex with no man unless he can defeat her battle. Thomas claims to have made this choice based on William Butler Yeat’s play On Baile’s Stand which features a warrior queen named Aoife who made a similar vow. In these issues, Red Sonja asserts her own sexual agency and exploits Conan’s attraction to her in order to achieve her own ends.

A new artist, Esteban Maroto, was the first to draw the chainmail bikini for Red Sonja. According to Thomas, Maroto sent an unsolicited drawing to Thomas. Thomas liked it and reasoned since Conan wears a loincloth, what was so bad about a chainmail bikini? The chainmail bikini made its debut in the magazine-format comic The Savage Sword of Conan #1, which premiered in August 1974 and featured Red Sonja in two stories: “Curse of the Undead Man” and “Red Sonja.” “Curse of the Undead Man” was penciled by John Buscema and inked by Pablo Marcos, while “Red Sonja” was penciled by Esteban Maroto and inked by Neal Adams and Ernie Chan.

Savage Sword of Conan #1, Marvel, 1974

Savage Sword of Conan #1 featuring Red Sonja, Marvel, 1974

Somewhere along the line, Thomas decided that he had to come up with a “mildly twisted rationale” based on “a troubled childhood” for Red Sonja wearing the chainmail bikini. By this, Thomas means the rape origin story which appeared in Kull and the Barbarians #3 in 1975. In this story, Red Sonja is a young woman when pillagers invade her village, slaughter her family, and rape her. Afterwards, the warrior goddess Scathath hears Red Sonja’s plea. Scathath grants Red Sonja great power on the condition that she never have sex with a man unless he can defeat her in battle. This is a significant addition to the “sleep with no man unless…” caveat because at this point, Red Sonja no longer has consentPrior to this change in her origins, her decision to only sleep with a man if he could defeat her in battle was assumedly based on her own choosing, not a diety’s. 

Red Sonja would continue to pop up in Conan stories and eventually Marvel Features until her solo title debut in 1977. By the time of her solo debut, the chainmail bikini (sometimes called the “iron bikini”) was Red Sonja’s singular outfit with slight variations depending on the artist.

With all this in mind, changing Red Sonja’s origin story is questionable move on Thomas’ part. After all, Conan wears little clothing as well, yet he does not have a backstory involving rape. Further, Red Sonja’s earliest backstory (as depicted in Conan the Barbarian #24) already involves elements of sex due to her adamant refusal to have sex with a man unless he can defeat her in battle. Additionally, throughout issue 24, she taunts Conan with veiled promises of sex in order to get him to help her retrieve an artifact. This may not seem too surprising—sex is spectacle, and spectacle is what sword and sorcery is all about. Conan has had many love interests even in his early teens. But the presence of sexuality in these two supposedly equal characters does not make them in fact equal. 

“No, It’s Not Equal”: Body Type, Clothing, Beauty, & Posing

In order to examine these disparities, I found it helpful to apply Kelly Thompson’s 2012 article for CBR, “No, It’s Not Equal” to Red Sonja’s history. In this piece, Thompson takes weak arguments about the supposed equality of male and female comic superhero representation to task. She bases her argument on four elements: body type, clothing, beauty, and posing. And while Thompson is specifically addressing the superhero genre, the overlap between the superhero genre and sword and sorcery genre is significant.

Body Type: Thompson argues that male superheroes are drawn with “idealized ATHLETE body types” while female superheroes are “generally portrayed with idealized PORN STAR and SUPERMODEL body types.” This disparity occurs with Red Sonja; while Conan is drawn with the body type of a male bodybuilder (hence why Arnold Schwarzenegger, a professional bodybuilder at the time, was the one to epitomize the barbarian on the big screen), while Red Sonja is drawn with significantly less muscle definition (if any). Frank Thorne’s rendering of the She-devil became iconic, and under his pen, she was buxom and full-lipped with the feathered hair of the 70s. However, there is little in the way of muscle definition on her.

Clothing: It comes down to this: female superhero costumes are usually skintight and revealing, while male superheros’ are often skintight, but lacking in boob windows and the like. Conan and Red Sonja could arguably be equal on this point, but there is one caveat: the aforementioned origin story that provides the “rationale” for Red Sonja’s costume. This rationale radically alters how we read Red Sonja and interpret her costume as opposed to how we read Conan’s. Red Sonja’s costume is LOADED with meaning in a way that Conan’s costume is not.

In part, Red Sonja’s origin story offers a revenge fantasy during a time in our history in which violence against women was finally being addressed in public forums. Many second wave feminist activists worked tirelessly to address sexual harassment and other violence against women. For example, the mid-1970s started to see the criminalization of marital rape. Also in 1975, a particular type of criminal was getting a lot of media attention: the serial killer. Not only was the notion of the serial killer entering public conscious, but so was the idea of “troubled childhoods.” There is a certain timeliness to Red Sonja’s origins coinciding with increased societal awareness of spectacular forms of violence such as serial killing, gendered violence, and child abuse (which often overlapped).

Beauty: While superheroes are idealized in body type and looks, there still tends to be a skewed ratio of less attractive male superheros to female superheros. Thompson uses The Hulk as the example par excellence for this. While The Hulk is often represented as grotesque, She-Hulk is a total babe. This same discrepancy occurs with Red Sonja and Conan.

Okay, first of all, like Thompson says: beauty is highly subjective. She’s right, but looking over images of Conan…he’s not particularly conventionally attractive, especially when we compare him to his male superhero counterparts. Superman’s usually classically handsome. Peter Parker—cute nerd boy, whether in the 70s or current day. 

Red Sonja, though, is always very, very pretty. And she is often drawn with make-up, styled hair, and jewelry. While this may be perfectly in line with some female comic book characters, let’s remember: Red Sonja is a barbarian, the female equivalent of Conan.

Posing: Posing is perhaps the most pervasive of these disparities. Female superheroes are drawn with spines that can rotate to impossible angles in poses that emphasize their to-be-looked-at-ness, while male superheroes are drawn in poses that reflect power and prestige. If you look over the covers depicting Red Sonja from the 1970s, this is actually not much of an issue. She’s usually drawn in the midst of battle with a perfectly normal spine. I actually have many of the Frank Thorne covers from Red Sonja’s first solo title adorning my wall for this very reason.

But once the bad girl phase of the 90s began to take over, well, that changed…a lot, which is something we will get into in the next part of this series, along with Red Sonja’s second solo title in the 80s where she was drawn by Mary Wilshire.

  1. jack

    September 15, 2015 at 4:01 am

    Simone wasn’t the first to address the origin, though. Brian Reed did away with the problematic stuff for his run with issue 35 of the first series. Sonja started out as a happily married woman who gets pulled into things by the murder of her husband. He also had Sonja learning her skills rather than handed to her by Scathac or through surviving a slave pit as Simone did.

    1. Ginnis Tonik

      September 15, 2015 at 9:56 am

      Yep, but that didn’t occur till about the late 2000s which I will get to in later parts of the series. 🙂

      1. Jack

        September 15, 2015 at 5:13 pm

        I see, patience is a virtue, I guess. This has been an interesting read.

  2. Will Shetterly

    September 15, 2015 at 10:25 am

    In Roy Thomas’s defense, Red Sonja was always presented as a survivor, not a victim. Her “origin” was in the tradition of Batman’s—the tragic, transformative event was something that neither Bruce Wayne nor Red Sonja could change, but they could forward as strong characters. Getting her skill from a goddess may see deus ex machina, but Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman got theirs magically too.

    That said, the rape always seemed gratuitous to me, and chainmail bikinis only make sense on gladiators. (Though if I had to fight and was given the choice of Conan’s or Red Sonja’s traditional costume, I would take the skimpy chainmail over the bearskin diaper.)

    1. Claire Napier

      September 15, 2015 at 10:38 am

      I don’t think Roy Thomas needs defending, really. He’s hardly being prosecuted here.

    2. Ginnis Tonik

      September 15, 2015 at 12:22 pm

      I agree that she is a survivor which like I noted is an appeal of a revenge fantasy, especially in the context of the 70s. And while her origin is in the tradition of Batman, this is rape, it is a vastly different kind of trauma than Batman’s origin and one that ONLY female characters experience as a catalyst for motivation. Also, the power per the goddess isn’t a problem (for me – some fans and writers like Simone prefer the origin where she earns her powers and for valid reasons, too), but the terms of her powers are the problem – there is no sexual consent.

  3. BJ DuVall

    September 15, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Interesting. I never really got into that character, just based on her appearance. Like you said “not for me”. Hearing the troubling aspects of her origin doesn’t surprise me much, but it’s unfortunate for sure. Why did no one along the lines ever give her a badass armor type outfit that covers her up more and makes her more “battle ready”? the chain mail bikini was just so stupid a concept, I personally could never get past it. So, in the updated version of the origin, did the goddess make it so that she HAD to have sex with someone if they bested her in battle? Wasn’t clear on that part. If so, that’s pretty icky.

    1. Jack

      September 15, 2015 at 5:10 pm

      The vow, as I recall, was ‘you will not love anyone who can not best you with a sword’. Some writers and many fans have taken it to mean she has to have sex with whoever out fences her. Conan 115 back at Marvel has that more odious idea. While Conan doesn’t end up having sex with Sonja it’s still icky. That issue has put me off the thought of seeing them together ever since right up to and including the recent crossovers with them from Dark Horse and Dynamite.

      1. Ginnis Tonik

        September 18, 2015 at 10:51 am

        “You must never allow yourself to be loved by another man unless he has defeated you in fair battle” – you are right, Jack, it is an important distinction, it still takes away consent, but “be loved” does not equate have sex. In Conan #24 (prior to the origin story in Kull), she uses the language of be with and like with the Conan comic you mention, there’s the conflation of love/sex. Interesting. Definitely will be keeping this in mind in Part 2. It’ll be interesting as I keep getting my hands on old issues how often the story is alluded to as as sex or love. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

        1. Jack

          September 18, 2015 at 5:44 pm

          Some writers have used that distinction so that the meaning is more that she will not love someone who can not beat her, but can have sex with whom she wants. ‘One More Day’ by Jim Palmiotti seems to imply that distinction. Sonja comes to the aid of a King who’d been one of her friends with benefits before he’d become king. Unfortunately, after explaining that bit of history to the general asking about Sonja being there she brings up the vow in a sense that skews back more toward the standard fight me to sleep with me route. Should the future writers return to some version of the vow, I hope they have one which gives Sonja some choice in the matter like ‘you will not love with someone…’ I do confess a preference for the vow since I don’t trust comic the average book writer not to do something even more painfully sexist or stupid with it gone so far as sex and relationships go.

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