In the latest SFWA Bulletin (Summer 2013, Volume 47 - Issue 3 AKA Issue # 202) one of the cover articles is "Cover Art and the Radical Notion That Women Are People." Now there's a title. Apparently the cover for the Winter 2013 Issue generated quite a bit of controversy. I dug out my copy of that issue and studied the cover by Jeff Easley.
It depicts a red-haired barbarian 'sword-person' straddling a dead frost giant. She gazes defiantly at the viewer while holding a bloodied broadsword in her right hand. She wears a copper or gold bikini top and triangular bottom, both in scale armor, as well as leather and metal arm guards. A large fur cape billows out behind her, although it's not clear how it's attached, and she wears a pair of high leather boots. Essentially Red Sonja, but with gold rather than silver armor. I'm sure you've seen the comics and cover art, not to mention the cosplay outfits at various conventions.
Some people felt it represented a strong and confident woman; others said it objectified women as sexual objects and was unprofessional of SFWA. Others felt it was a tribute to fantasy's pulp roots.
This has been an issue that has been around for quite a while. First off, sex sells. The late, great, Marion Bradley once said that cover art existed to sell the book, and not to depict the events of the story. She sold a lot of books, however, that did not rely on sexy cover art. But then, not everyone can write like she did.
When there were still large bookstores within easy walking distance I spent many hours browsing the shelves, and sexy covers abounded. Murder mysteries, spy thrillers, and romances all exhibited the female form, and much of the male form as well. Then there were the comics and graphic novels, with costumes that might have been spray-painted on. Doc Savage was exceptionally clothing challenged, with torn shirts being his usual attire. The romance section was filled with covers depicting muscular Vikings, cowboys, lumberjacks, American Indians, sheiks, pirates, and Corsican bandits, all in some form of undress.
To the best of my knowledge none of the aforementioned ever waxed their chests.
In movies we all recall our former Governor of California in the Conan movies. If you've ever seen a Yakuza movie, (Yakuza are the Japanese mafia) there is invariably a scene where the hero rips of his shirt prior to fighting. But since the Yakuza are known for their full-body tattoos there may be more than simple nudity at work there.
And while the women in those illustrations often have figures that are hard to imagine outside of a playboy centerfold, so do the men. Have you ever looked at the men depicted on those covers? Here in San Francisco we have quite a thriving Gay community, and I sometimes see men who look like that. My first thought is steroids. The poses are another matter. Most of the women in those covers will most like be visiting their chiropractor soon.
Why do depictions of scantily clad female forms generate so much controversy and those of men don't?
Being technically oriented, and a bit of a geek, I noticed other things when I saw the cover in question. For one thing, she's holding her sword in her right hand, presumably being right-handed like most people, but her scabbard hangs on her right hip. It's a full-length sword, so a draw would be difficult. A friend noted she must have some sort of magic spell to ward off the cold, since snow and ice can be seen. I don't see that as significant, since here in San Francisco, when it gets that warm girls break out the shorts and tank tops. (Mark Twain once said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Others dispute he said that, attributing it to Admiral Byrd.)
I've never worn a scale armor costume so I can't speak from experience, but it does look uncomfortable. Nevertheless numerous young ladies wear those costumes at conventions with no apparent discomfort, and there is much rejoicing.
How practical it would be is another matter. Scale and mail can be pierced, and her armor would not be protection against a slashing cut. If she must wear such a skimpy costume, for whatever reason, why not dispense with the metal scales and just wear the fabric?
I do have armor, Kevlar with ballistic inserts. I last wore it during a bodyguard gig in Atlanta, Georgia a few years ago. Atlanta. In August. Outside it was hot. Inside the air-conditioned buildings it was cold. Outside I was hot, itchy, and uncomfortable. Inside I felt like I was freezing. I do not like armor and will not wear it unless I have to. BTW, you cannot scratch though armor.
In my Lin Mei stories Lin Mei eschews armor, relying on her wits, speed, and skill, although in the short story "Winter In Khotan" her brother, Biao, dons a mail shirt for the climactic battle. Lin Mei wears clothing appropriate to the situation, usually a quilted leather jacket, wool trousers and felt boots, and silk when in a more formal moment.
I'm not too concerned about the attire of female characters in fiction. I am more concerned about the roles they play. There are few women in fiction who are strong and believable characters. Of concern is the Princess culture promoted by Disney and others in mass media. While the young women depicted as princesses are dressed in manner that would please my mother, they depict women in traditional and subservient roles. Brave, the recent animated film, was a refreshing exception. On the other hand the women depicted in skimpy attire on the covers of paperbacks and comics often have some control over their lives and actions, and take an active and significant role in the events they are caught up in. Action, more than looks, counts with me.