Will the Fantasy Genre Ever Grow Up and Ditch the Chainmail Bikini?

Industry bulletin's cover sets off firestorm

Headshot of David Griner

It's taken the fantasy genre decades to grow out of its image as a juvenile boys' club obsessed with cleavage and crossbows. And just as Game of Thrones seemed to be lifting fantasy into the modern mainstream, it's now taken a step backward—with many of the genre's professional writers shocked to see that a recent issue of their most-respected industry journal had dedicated its cover to the image of a warrior woman in a scalemail bikini straddling the corpse of a frost giant.

Sure, scantily clad women with swords were a staple of fantasy fiction in the 1960s through the 1980s, thanks largely to the popular artwork of husband-and-wife team Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell. But as the pool of writers and readers for the genre has become more diverse, the exploitative cover art style has fallen out of fashion. (Here's a good gallery of what modern fantasy covers look like.) So when the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America ran the scalemail bikini cover on its winter 2013 SFWA Bulletin, many members were offended. Making thing worse, the next issue featured an essay from a male writer praising Mattel's Barbie doll for "maintain[ing] her quiet dignity the way a woman should."

Then the minotaur shit really hit the fan with the next issue, in which two veteran genre writers, Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg, argued at length that there's nothing wrong with busty barbarians and that the SFWA was being bullied and censored by irrational feminists bent on "thought control." The effect of this attempted rebuttal was a bit like dousing a campfire with a bucket of bullets and gasoline.

In recent days, female fantasy authors have blogged at length about what they perceive as a clear pattern of sexism by their own industry publication. "That isn't armor she's wearing, and she's not a warrior woman," author Foz Meadows fired back on Sunday. "She's a masturbatory fantasy from your misspent youth, and now you're trying to act as though the past fifty years of equality never actually happened." Similar reactions were posted by authors such as E. Catherine Tobler, Kameron Hurley and Mary Robinette Kowal, all of whom are worth reading for more context on how the debacle played out.

The SFWA president has issued a lengthy apology and created a task force to look into how the bulletin could or should be reimagined to better reflect the people writing fantasy today.

UPDATE: Here's a handy list of more than 50 authors who've written blog posts criticizing the SFWA for allowing a pattern of sexism in its quarterly Bulletin.

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@griner david.griner@adweek.com David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."