Gearing Up or Dressing Up? On female fighter equipment

By: Raven Wu September 10, 20210 Comments
close-up of an angry blushing Ryuko from Kill la Kill

I’m pretty finicky about my entertainment, especially when it comes to armaments and fighting. I cringe internally when a character dual-wields swords. I recoil in horror when the cavalry charges heroically into a wall of spears. I experience actual physical pain whenever anyone so much as mentions a katana. This makes it really hard for me to watch anime sometimes, as you can probably imagine. I’m also really fun at parties. 

When it comes to a particular category of battle-related gripes, however, I think I’m less the annoyingly fastidious critic nobody wants to watch a show with, and am actually harping about something genuinely important: female fighter equipment, which too often sacrifices realism and practicality in favor of sex appeal. In anime, this issue manifests in three major forms: “boob armor,” high heels, and “chainmail bikinis,” all which hurt the dignity of not only the characters who must wear them but also the female viewers who must endure the real-world effects of such normalized sexualization of womens’ bodies.

“Boob armor” is not only unnecessary and degrading, but is actively detrimental to a heroine’s well-being. This kind of armor adds two bulges to the top part of a breastplate. The design is sometimes justified as making room for the breasts so that the armor is more comfortable to wear but more often than not, its purpose seems primarily to emphasize the femininity of the wearer for the benefit of the audience. 

The thing is, there’s a very good reason why normal breastplates are smooth and curve slightly outwards: to deny enemy weapons any purchase on the armor and to deflect attacks away from the torso, protecting one’s vital organs and reducing the force of the blow at the same time. When you add two random bulges to the armor’s surface, rather than deflecting a blow, there’s a good chance that it would instead catch it, transferring the force to the body; or perhaps the central valley would helpfully slide the point of the enemy’s spear up and straight into the wearer’s throat, neither of which is ideal.

a woman (in boob armor) riding a horse
“Stop staring at my breasts!” Shouts Katsuie Shibata from The Ambition of Oda Nobuna, but given that boob armor’s only merit is to accentuate one’s sexual features, she is at least partially to blame for this – or her creator is, at any rate.

Unfortunately, this is not a fact that anime heroines and their creators seem to be aware of or care about judging by the ubiquity of boob armor in the artistic medium. It appears everywhere, from comedic works like KonoSuba: God’s Blessing on this Wonderful World! to works that generally portray themselves as serious, such as Saint Seiya. You can also find it on at least half the female characters in the Fire Emblem game series.

High heels are notorious for being tricky to walk in, much less run, and can be thought of as the modern counterpart of the grotesquely sexist practice of footbinding from ancient China. The purpose of both high heels and footbinding, ostensibly, is to enhance a woman’s beauty, coming at the cost of her comfort, her health, and her ability to act independently. 

It’s also a status symbol of sorts, declaring to the world that the woman is not someone who needs to do things like manual labor that would be hindered by having her foot bound or by wearing highly impractical shoes because she, or “her man,” is incredibly wealthy and has underlings to do that sort of drudge work for her. 

Given that high heels are footwear literally designed to be difficult to do things in then, it should be anyone’s last choice going into a life-or-death situation like combat, and yet it still finds its way onto the feet of many a fashion-conscious female fighter in anime. Bishamon from Noragami, Homura from Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and Angewomon from Digimon Adventure can all be seen wearing the worst combat footwear. 

close-up of Angewomon's high heels

Angewomon’s case is also complicated by the fact that the high heels are one of the ways the creators differentiated the feminine Angewomon from the masculine Angemon, making them not a neutral design choice for angels but an item of clothing implied to be inherently feminine. It gets even worse when you realize that these gender stereotypes are laced into an anime for young children.

Because, unlike boob and bikini armor, high heels are commonplace in reality. “Choice” is really the key word here and what makes this more just than a benign, if comedic, discussion about practicality. Female characters in anime aren’t really choosing to wear high heels. Their wardrobe is chosen for them but unfortunately not for them. A woman doesn’t have to be literally fighting in high heels for it to be absurd and sexist either. In real life, women the world over are fighting for the right not to wear heels even in careers that require them to spend all day on their feet, as their photos of blood-filled shoes are greeted with sexist remarks.

Finally, there’s the infamous so-called “chainmail bikini,” which is armor that prioritizes the maximum amount of exposed skin in order to increase the sex appeal of its wearer with a complete disregard for providing protection, the supposed purpose of armor. The term and design comes from the pulp fiction genre, popular in the U.S. in the early-to-mid 1900s, when the character Red Sonja donned the look in the Conan the Barbarian comics.

four images of Ezra in different revealing armors
Erza Scarlet, master of over a hundred defensively questionable and unnecessarily lewd armors.

Being in a state of perplexing undress for battle is not unique to Red Sonja or indeed to female warriors in the genre. Conan himself is covered only by rippling muscle and a loincloth. However, unlike Red Sonja, Conan’s near nakedness serves to emphasize his athleticism and strength, qualities that are virtues in their own right and not inextricably tied to gender. 

Today, the use of the “chainmail bikini” is rarely literal, but this imbalance of intent and the unabashed attitude of its proponents remains the same. It’s also a trend that has unfortunately become widespread in anime. You can see it on Clementine from Overlord and at least half-a-dozen times on poor Erza Scarlet from Fairy Tail.

Male anime characters are not immune to this phenomenon of having incredibly stupid equipment either. Ichigo from Bleach has a hilariously unwieldy sword, and the Supreme King from Yu-Gi-Oh! GX wears “intimidating” spiked armor. One might therefore argue that this is just making a big deal out of nothing, that this kind of silliness falls under artistic license or the “Rule of Cool,” and that the audience agrees to suspend their disbelief when they watch anime in order to enjoy the work.

Ichigo from Bleach and the Supreme King from YuGiOh GX

There is, however, a big difference between how this artistic license is wielded in regards to male and female anime characters, and in that difference lies the problem. High heels, boob armor, and chainmail bikinis are not just innocent fashion statements but fall cleanly under the label of “fetishization of women’s bodies.” 

The sexist nature of this kind of equipment is made all the clearer by the fact that similarly sexualized stylistic choices for male anime characters are rare. And when a male fighter’s fashion choices are sexualized, more often than not, it’s sold as weird or comedic rather than sexy. What if male fighters went into battle dressed like swimmers from Free! with maybe a perfunctory pauldron and greaves on top? JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is an interesting showcase of what this kind of world might look like. Alternatively, of course, we could just be equally and properly respectful of characters of all genders.

three very buff men posing in only loincloths
Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.

Even if it’s not meant to be serious, entertainment is something we’re exposed to constantly and helps, if only subconsciously, to set the standards in our brains and in our societies for what is normal and acceptable. In both creating and consuming media then, it is of utmost importance that we do so critically and responsibly. This is especially the case for content, like anime, that is in large part targeted at impressionable children and adolescents. 

Creators must be aware that what they decide to say and display matters and be mindful of the kinds of messages they may be propagating or stereotypes they may be perpetuating through their works.

On the flip side, consumers need to be more attentive of what lies between the lines of what they’re watching and to recognize that they hold the power for change. Fanservice like boob armor, high heels, and bikini chainmail persist in part because creators perceive that there is a demand for that kind of content. We can help change that. Already there have been moves towards greater representation and equality across media due to increasing awareness and activism on the part of conscientious consumers and critics. But it’s not enough and we’re not there yet.

So overanalyze your hearts out. Raise your voices about the little things. It’s not nitpicking if it matters.

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