Data Point: Re the SFWA Bulletin

Part of the recent kerfuffle in SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) was over Issue #200 of the SFWA Bulletin using a warrior woman in a chainmail bikini (on a snow-covered mountainside!) for its cover image.

I was a SFWA member from the late 1980's until 2009.  (I let my membership lapse then because I hadn't written or sold anything for three years by that point.)  Since I tend to keep anything printed on paper longer than any sensible person would, I thought I'd go thru the back issues of the Bulletin I still had accessible, and see if anything similar had ever been used on a cover.

It turned out I had 55 issues from 1988 to 2005 available on my shelves.  (There are more unshelved issues in various boxes, but I didn't want this to turn into a Major Project.)  Those earliest issues, under the editorship of George Zebrowski and Pamela Sargent, used photos for their covers:

Mark McGarry was the next editor, and he tended to use fan-art or repurposed professional art for the Bulletin covers.  Mark Kreighbaum followed, and tended to use semi-abstract digital art for the issues he edited.

The closest thing I found to a "cheesecake" cover was this George Barr cover under McGarry's editorship.  The slim, aesthetic alien might be considered "beefcake". 

To find a woman in a skimpy outfit, you have to look a little closer, in the background behind the central figure.

Shades of some of the costumes on the original Star Trek!  Is it sexy?  Yes.  More to the point, though:  Is it absurd?  Barr's illustration looks like a desert environment, and most of the characters seen are wearing loose and/or skimpy clothing.  So I don't think it's completely absurd or ridiculous.  (One might complain she's overdressed -- did I just say that? -- in a fashion sense for a casual trip to the marketplace.)

Compare that to wearing a metal (!) chainmail (!) bikini (!) in the snow (!!!).

So overall, from the issues I have on hand, I'd have to say that the SFWA Bulletin has pretty well avoided depicting unrealistic women on its covers.

The woman depicted on Bulletin #200's cover is actually supposed to be Red Sonja, the character originally created in one of Robert E. Howard's stories.  The notorious chainmail bikini actually originated in the Conan comic book version published by Marvel in the 1970's.  But that wasn't what Red Sonja originally wore in that comic.  A little history:

The original artist for the Conan comic was Barry Windsor-Smith, and the outfit he dressed Red Sonja in was this one:

And here's a representation of the three faces of Sonja, as described by Howard and later illustrated by Roy Krenkel, as Barry Windsor-Smith drew her, and the chainmail bikini re-design by Esteban Maroto:

illustration by Frank Thorne

Red Sonja was originally a pirate, so the Howard/Krenkel version makes a lot of sense: Loose clothing for fast movement on deck, and, hey, you really don't want to wear a lot of heavy armor or chainmail when one of the main dangers in a shipboard melee is getting knocked or pushed overboard.

On the Windsor-Smith version, the bare legs and granny-panties are problematic, but the chainmail shirt gives good protection to torso and arms; it's even got a high collar for some neck protection as well.

And then we come to the chainmail bikini.   *sigh*  This is a ridiculous costume.  This is an absurd costume.  It's been ridiculous and absurd since the very first time it appeared in comics.  People have been pointing out how ridiculous and absurd it is since that very first appearance.  Yet it's been the iconic costume for the character for over thirty years.  And it's also been one of the main things people point to when they say comics are read by frustrated pimply teenagers who wank off over women depicted in comics because they can't get their hands on real porn (or real women).  It's also one of the main things people point to when they say the comics industry caters to those wank fantasies for the sake of sales.  I can't really think of a good counter-argument to that.

In the wake of SFWA Bulletin #200's cover, people objected to the absurd, ridiculous figure depicted there.  In response, Jim Hines -- who's done a number of popular posts at his own blog about unrealistic depictions of women on SF/Fantasy book covers -- was asked to contribute an article about images of women in SF to Bulletin #202.  I haven't read that article, and I don't know if it's been published anywhere except in the Bulletin, but I'd expect that Jim probably said a number of wise and perceptive things about the subject.  (Whatever he may have wrote seems to have been thoroughly overshadowed by the blowback on Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg's "lady editors/anonymous attackers" column.)

The sad thing is that an opportunity was missed.  If the Hines article had been commissioned for the issue with the Red Sonja cover, it could have been prominently highlighted on the cover text.  In that instance, the Red Sonja depiction might have served as a visual aid, an adjunct, a bad example, for the Hines article.  Publishing it two issues afterwards was an instance of locking the barn door after the horses bolted.


No comments: