Examples of Change: Gail Simone's Red Sonja
I find that people often try to reduce things to a binary view of the world. For instance, if I bring up the negative feelings many women feel towards sexualized images, the argument gets reduced to banning all such images or keeping the status quo. In reality, this oversimplification of solutions often leads to silencing and censorship of its own and it leads us to false dilemmas. What we often need to do is find another way, one that doesn’t result in an either/or situation.
One person who has found that other way is Gail Simone, especially in regards to Red Sonja. Last year, Dynamite relaunched the Red Sonja storyline with Simone as the writer and Walter Geovani as the interior artist. What the two have done is taken a character that is widely known for her scale/chain mail bikini, and updated her for today's audience. Just two notes. There will be some spoilers in this article. Also, keep in mind that this is written from the point of view of having read just the first 6 issues of the reboot, so there could be things that happen in other issues that contradict what’s written here.
The Metal Bikini
First, a bit of history. Originally, Red Sonja wore a scale mail shirt and red shorts.
According to Wikipedia, Esteban Maroto first drew Red Sonja in her now signature metal bikini, an outfit that other female characters drawn by the artist also wore. This drawing was an uncommissioned submission, meaning it was not in the original artistic vision for the character. However, it quickly became popular.
Due to that popularity, the bikini became iconic for Red Sonja. There are often mixed reactions to it. For some, it doesn’t seem that much different from what others, like Conan, wear for clothing. She lives in a hot place where lots of people wear little clothing. For others, she often feels objectified, like she’s being drawn for the reader more than as an accurate representation of her character. I think there’s a middle ground here that Simone captures in this quote.
Let's face it, for a period of decades, most female characters in comics were not designed to attract female readers. They were designed to attract male readers. That left us females who loved comics to sort of appropriate these characters for ourselves. And we did.
But out of that pool, some characters refused to just be pin-ups and sex objects. Some captured the imaginations of young girls, and they survived when the others fell into disinterest and disuse.
For me, there's something incredibly appealing of a weary, terrifying Red Sonja under a blood red sun, holding a bloody sword over the bodies of her enemies. That isn't about bikinis, and it's the soul of the character.
One of the ways Simone changes the focus from the bikini to the soul of the character is by having a wide array of female artists create the covers for Red Sonja. The first issue had 6 covers alone, created by Fiona Staples, Amanda Conner, Colleen Doran, Nicola Scott, Stephanie Buscema, and Jenny Frison.
I love this for a number of reasons. For one, it illustrates that women are not a monolith since one character is presented in so many different ways. Looking at these and other covers, I find that they show Red Sonja has multiple facets to her personality and that individual women (as well as people of all genders) may embrace different facets more than others. In addition, contrary to the thoughts of some, in shows that female artists do not need to be relegated to creating only stereotypical “female friendly” content lacking in references to sexuality and sexiness and dealing with what society tends to consider feminine topics.
While Red Sonja wears her scale mail bikini on all of the covers I’ve seen, she has a bit more to her wardrobe than that. When she’s in the mountains in the north, she wears furs to help keep her warm, similar to the outfit she wears when we see her hunting with her father and brothers.
When she’s a prisoner in the slave pits and is forced to fight in the gladiatorial ring, her outfit is made of coarse material.
We also see how uncomfortable she is in formal dress.
In addition, during her big end battle with her sister from the the Zamoran slave pit, Dark Annisia, she’s wearing armor with more coverage. I saw this change of armor as an indication of the skill of Annisia. Most of the time, Red Sonja’s skill versus that of her opponent is great enough that she can wear the bikini and not worry. However, against Dark Annisia, she needs more protection, they are just too closely matched. Likewise, Dark Annisia is in heavier armor. I’m not sure if that was the intent, but it is how I interpretted it.
A World Full of Women
The world of Red Sonja is full of women. For me, it seems silly to have to point this out, but too often when it comes to fantasy literature, women are only included when their gender is needed to make a particular statement and are often excluded even when I know that they should be there. That’s simply not the case here.
One of our first indications of this is that the king sends two women to find Red Sonja and request her presence. We also quickly learn that many of the men are gone. Wars have been going on and the soldiers keep dying. There are very few men in town but many women. When she arrives, she remarks that there are no guards. In fact we see just one woman at the gate, holding a sword that, to my eye, seems to heavy for her. At the party, the background seems to have many women. The same is true when we see her conscripts.
Before they are gathered, they are called mostly farmers and craftsmen, not women, not mothers, wives, and daughters. King Dimath also wishes for his people that they die fighting instead of being burned. I really like that they are not presented as weak and incapable but rather that there simply isn’t enough time to train them properly and there isn’t enough equipment.
Additionally, the “terrifying general” of the Zamorans is a woman, the previously mentioned Dark Annisia. She has a kick ass outfit that I love. She’s also one of Red Sonja’s first teachers of the art of battle (her father focused primarily on the hunt). Before their first day in the gladiatorial arena, Annisia gives Red Sonja advice about how to fight and what weapon to pick.
Modifications to the Back Story
Older versions of Red Sonja’s origin story focused on elements that may not sit as well with today’s audience.
During the Hyborian Age, a red-haired girl named Sonja lived with her family in a humble home in the western Hyrkanian steppes. When Sonja had just turned seventeen years old, a gang of cruel mercenaries killed her father Ivor, her mother and two younger brothers, and burned their house and all their possessions. She survived, but at the cost of her own virginity after she was brutally raped by the leader of the group, leaving her in shame.
Answering Sonja's cry for revenge, the red goddess Scathach appeared to her, and offered to bestow upon her unparalleled skill in battle on the condition that she would never lie with a man unless he defeated her in fair combat. Sonja gladly accepted the offer. She grew to womanhood as a wandering adventurer, and as she journeyed her legend grew as well. She became known as Red Sonja, due to her flame-red hair, fiery personality, and uncanny ability to spill the blood of her enemies wherever she went.
While the new version makes clear what could have happened, at least in the first six issues, I don’t think she’s ever raped. Instead she fights off the person who tries to kidnap her and, over the course of several hours, hunts down the people who destroyed her village and killed her family.
Her own cunning and skill, not the gift of a goddess, is what gets her through. This has the added benefit that, as far as I know, Red Sonja will not lose her abilities if she sleeps with a man who hasn’t bested her (potentially also meaning that if she takes male lovers, they won’t have to be warriors).
Overall, I think Gail Simone’s Red Sonja illustrates that with skill, forethought, and attention to detail, it’s possible to take a long-standing character like Red Sonja and tell her story in a way that is, in my opinion, more inclusive, a character that many people, especially women, are less likely to feel that they have to make compromises to love. I thank her for that.
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