Saturday, October 12, 2013

Why Breasts on the Breastplates?

Note: This came from an online discussion that I liked and expanded into this blog post.

What’s telling to me is that there have been, in almost any era, women warriors: Fu Hao, Tomoe Gozen (of whom I’m writing a book), Boudicca, Arachidamia.  They generally stand out as the exception, rather than the rule, rendering them even more exceptional.  For example, Tomoe Gozen was said to have been incredibly strong, not just carrying a sword, but one that was oversized.  But I have to believe that due to social and cultural constraints and pressures, many women warriors have been relegated to the back corners of history.  In 1997, Jeannine Davis-Kimball published “Warrior Women of Eurasia” describing a historic analog of the Greek Amazonians:

“Now 50 ancient burial mounds near the town of Pokrovka, Russia, near the Kazakhstan border, have yielded skeletons of women buried with weapons, suggesting the Greek tales may have had some basis in fact.”

That said, when world building for any fantasy novel, it’s possible to dictate some, if not all, of those socio-cultural constraints away and make a wholly believable, strong and capable, female character, even as a main character.  Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time series balanced his male lead characters with equally (or more) powerful female characters.  Although, his three main characters, around which much of the action and the entire story are told, were male.  Still, Jordan created some very unique female characters.

But there are pitfalls.  Female characters should not just be male characters with genitalia swapped.  There are considerations in regards to female versus male characters that should be mentioned and dealt with.  I think that’s where character creation becomes the most interesting.  Strength and speed are, on balance, male dominant traits.  They need to be dealt with to have a character who carries a shield and wields a sword . . . or she doesn’t, and how and why.  Magic and other supernatural elements can certainly aid the writer in creating a world where a female character is the match, or the better, of her male counterparts.  But other aspects can play in that too.

George R.R. Martin's Brienne of Tarth is worth mentioning as an excellent example.  She was trained as a warrior, achieved the knighthood, but still takes into consideration her male counterparts in a fight.  Brienne also doesn’t fall into the two traps that often occur in fantasy female characters: she is not a buxom babe with a sword, she is  “butch” but she is not a “butch” lesbian.  There is nothing wrong with either, but they are too often tropes that writers fall into.  Brienne is a woman who has taken control of her own power and decided her own course within the fantasy world.  She is at once a badass, but also a woman who has loved, a loyal friend who sympathizes with a mother, and a knight who can fight with the best of them.

Finally, please, please, please stop putting breasts on breastplates.  Whatever these are meant to signify, they're stupid.  I don't just mean that they over objectify a woman warrior (although they do that).  They are anachronistic and even dangerous.  Emily Asher-Perrin does an excellent job explaining this problem with her post “It’s Time to Retire “BoobPlate” Armor. Because It Would Kill You.”  As does I_Clausewitz in his article “Why Female Breastplates Don't Need Breast-Bulges.”  Female heroes would wear sensible armor, sensible clothing, and sensible undergarments appropriate to the time and place.  They would be more interested in surviving a battle than looking like an over-sexed and under-clothed runway model.  

If Joan d'Arc didn't do it, then neither should you.

Edited To Add: As you can see, this article generated some interesting comments.  Rather than limit the discussion there, I wrote a follow-up article, Why Breasts on Breastplates: Part Two, to address many of the questions regarding the topic of breasts on breastplates and why they're so silly/dangerous.  Enjoy — RRAM


  1. This may seem pithy, perhaps even smarmy (for that I apologize in advance) but how does one have a well fitting armor in a female if you do not make certain allowances for differences in "architecture". An ill fitting piece of armor is almost as dangerous as not wearing any at all. Unless you wish to advance the somewhat curious theory that all female warriors are "flat chested". It's not like we had gaffer's or duct tape back in those days?

    1. You can take into account difference in body type without resorting to "BoobPlate."

      If an overweight male warrior put on plate armor, he wouldn't have two separate and defined bulges for his man-boobs.

      And they did have padding, string and cloth back then. That is all that girdles are made from and can be used to minimize the chest as much as minimize the waist, if it is necessary.

      In short, there are many ways to address that issue without resorting to "Breast-bulges."

    2. Hi deaconks! Thanks for the comment. It's interesting to me how many people focused on that aspect of my article, which was really meant to be about world and character building, especially female characters.

      However, your question is a good one, because it would seem (culturally at least) that armorers should make such an allowance. However, since we're so far removed from the society where armor meant the difference between life and death, it's understandable.

      First, plate armor was never worn by itself. Unless you were very rich, most armor wasn't custom tailored, which meant it was generally bigger than the average man-at-arms (bigger being preferable to smaller, which would cause all kinds of mobility issues). To compensate for this layers of clothing would be worn, usually a padded leather jacket or gambeson (rich, customized armor would have already taken these layers into account). Once that was in place, unless the lady in question was extremely busty, all chests are essentially rendered equal.

      The other thought toward breast compensation (as you can read from either of the links I provided) is that breasts on a breast plate negate the entire point of the armor. Instead of shearing off the force of a weapon to either side, away from the vital central region, those lovely metal spheres create a wedge pointed straight at the center of the wearer's chest. Any force that hits the breasts will now smash that wedge into the chest, damaging the very area it’s supposed to protect.

      Notice in the first and third pictures I provided how the plate armor bulges out at the center line. Most (good) armor does this. Reversing that is like putting a spear at your most vital spots.