I have talked about Red Sonja in particular before, but now I want to address the more general issue of sexism in Sword & Sorcery literature and how it seems to be embedded in the very fabric of the genre. Since all of this started in the pulps back in the 1920s, it is hardly surprising that the general approach to sex and women in S&S was a very pulp approach. Women were present, if at all, as adornments, prizes, or temptations, not as characters.
The conventions of pulp adventure fiction are very male-centric, with square-jawed, male heroes who fight their male way through legions of enemies. Women were wanted only as a pretty girl to put on the magazine cover – preferably in some kind of skimpy attire – and this enhance the sex appeal of the stories, even if the woman in question was not much part of the plot. This was a standard demand of publishers, and even Howard complained that editors pressed him to include a love interest of some kind.
However, the woman could not usurp any of the male hero’s glory, and so an array of princesses, slave-girls, kidnapped heiresses, and concubines paraded across the pages of Weird Tales and the other early sources of S&S. There needed to be someone to put on the cover in a dark ages bikini, and often the woman could serve as additional motivation for the hero if he needed it. A kidnapped princess was such a standard trope it was cliché even a hundred years ago, but it was an easy way to work a female into an adventure story.
Things got a little better with the move from pure pulps and into more general print. We got writers like Leigh Brackett and C. L. Moore writing tough female protagonists, and support characters that were more than just scenery. And yet things seemed to kind of stop there.
The S&S boom in the 60s was mostly reprinting and pastiching the works that had come before, and in the 70s the genre moved beyond literature into comics and games, and then later into movies. All of this seems to have done more to freeze or even regress that role of women in the genre, rather than allowing it to evolve and grow.
Comics and game art have visual demands and require excitement, and one of the ways to up that excitement was with naked flesh. More relaxed standards allowed for even more nudity, or near-nudity than before, and the ubiquitous oiled-up barbarian was almost universally accompanied by a naked or almost-naked girl who posed prettily while the hero brandished his axe. Even when a female hero is presented, she is stuck in the same kind of pinup role.
It can be argued (and often is) that the barbarian male heroes often wear little but a loincloth and vaseline either, but it is the posing and presentation that tell the tale, as no male hero is posed to look sexy. They stand ready, legs set wide, weapons uplifted, an expression of anger and defiance on their faces. The females, by contrast, pose with backs arched and chests thrust out, pouting kittenishly at the viewer. Often, they are in the twisted “boobs and butt” pose that shows off what we are presumed to want to see. The male is centered in a way that makes him look powerful, the female in a way that focuses on how sexy she is.
And it’s not that a female character should not be sexy, it’s the fact that every female character is drawn this way, posed this way. It’s not the exception, it’s the rule, and the oppressive ubiquity of the imagery has kept the S&S genre from progressing out of its overheated teen fanservice phase. It’s 2017, and even comic book superheroes are trying to stretch out beyond the “skintight boobs” approach to female characters, while S&S almost defiantly remains neanderthal in its attitudes. Sword & Sorcery fiction needs to be lurid and vivid, but it doesn’t have to be sexist.