Wow, that’s some fundamentally loaded question…
The premise of asking for ultimate criteria of gendered power fantasy is kinda flawed… First, there are VERY different facets of indulging in the male fantasy. Let’s make it clear: strong, overly-muscular men aren’t the only representation of male power fantasy, they’re just the most obvious one, cause they’re extending the stereotype of maleness to ridiculous degrees. They appeal to the deep-rooted societal notion that male = stronger, that’s why to make the character seem powerful the designers exaggerate the “manly” aspects of the him.
But when it comes to female characters, it gets complicated.
The thing is, our culture tends to view things almost exclusively from the (straight) male point of view. Men try to extrapolate their own experiences onto us and assume that how they feel is how we feel. That’s why conventional female “power fantasy” either emulates the male one (butch warrior woman) or (more often) assumes that female power comes from controlling sexual availability to men. That’s where the sexy femme fatale warrior stereotype comes from. Men imagine that the only area where women can be in total control is sex.
Going back to the male power fantasy, it’s important to realize how Buff Warrior Dude type basically comes down to eliminating the fear of ever being threatened by other men. Notice how Sexy Warrior Babe type, instead of eliminating the fear women have (of being overpowered, assaulted etc.), feeds onto the fear men have (of being rejected and/or sexually controlled by women). That’s why villainesses are very likely to be portrayed in most sexual characters.
This disingenuous female power archetype is the result of filtering everything through male perspective.
To create a genuine power fantasy, female point of view must be applied and male one must be deconstructed. We can’t latch onto the simplistic and hurtful notion that associates maleness with strength and femaleness with weakness.
I touched upon this recently, but the genre of magical girl narrative is one of the basic deconstructions of that: the powers, weapons and outfits of the heroines are usually designed to be as girly as possible, so that monsters are defeated not with the male-coded brute strength, but with sparkly magic beams from pink, heart-shaped rods and jewelry. Things associated with the “weak” part of femaleness stereotype become the source of their power.
That said, it does not mean that no female character ever can find their strength in being butch or sexual. Just that those female power stereotypes (especially the sexual one) have so far been framed in how men see them and thus, problematic.
Also, Sexy Warrior Babe type of character is vastly overused, so it’s really hard to to make it work without looking like you’re playing it straight. That’s one of the reasons this blog exists.
Big thanks to our dear friend ami-angelwings for helping me to put our collective female perspective on the subject to words.
(Disclaimer: wincenworks is a cishet male so can only give information from observation and received from women who have spoken about the issue)
Firstly, the story of a character who is so badass that they can run into fights with no protection and be assured of a victory without injury is a pretty boring story. There’s no tension or drama if the outcome is pre-ordained – even less so if it’s only pre-ordained to justify a costuming decision.
Secondly, the buff barbarian look isn’t about selling men a fantasy of being fit and attractive (Conan is traditionally not a pretty man, he often gets injured and he’s not above wearing armor) – it’s about recognized as physically powerful and coded as a great warrior and one who is above caring what regular think of them. Howard wrote about the appeal of this aspect at length in letters and at least one artist has already explored what Red Sonja might look like if she was given the same visual coding Conan is.
Bikini armor on fictional women doesn’t project this, because after decades of it’s being used for senseless titilation, for Ms Male Characters and damsels who are to be rescued by manly men. They’re not designed with the intention of anything done, or having other primary traits other than “sexy” by Male Gaze standards.
This leads to (in case you missed it, at the top of the post you’re replying to):
See female power fantasy characters are meant to reflect female fantasies and it turns out women are people. So their fantasies tend to be more complicated than “look sexy to the assumed straight male audience and be do something badass to justify my position as ‘strong’ character”.
Thus a female character is more likely to read as a female power fantasy characters if she looks more like:
- Chief Judge Hershey
- Tank Girl
- X-Men’s Storm, with mohawk
- Lady Sif, as she’s been featured on BABD
- nihilnovisubsole ‘s Saints Row boss, Rosie
That said, many characters who are wearing outfits that are not particularly power fantasy inducing have become female power fantasies to certain groups of women via particular traits, their personalities and their stories.
None of these function on the half-arsed justification of “I mean can’t a woman who is attractive and so skilled she can kill enemies without armor be a fantasy for women as well.“ They tend to be things more like “I’d like to treated with respect regardless of my body or how I dress, be feared by tough guys and able to smack them down if they threaten me.”
Most women, in my experience, are not really that adverse to the idea of having or wearing awesome armor which is why our “positive examples“ posts tend to get lots of love and we get awesome asks like this one from yondamoegi :
So in summary, the primary flaw with your argument is that women shouldn’t be expected to be for men’s benefit. The secondary flaw is that women actually aren’t expected to wear armor more than they are bikinis so have no reason to wish they could be free of armor.
Bringing this back as a reminder that a muscle men with their big barrel chests on display are not equivocal to wispy women in metal lingerie. There’s a massive gulf between a character being powerful in a way some people will find sexy, and being sexualized in a way marketing will claim is “empowering”.