I didn't get what I wanted.
Instead I engaged in some confusing discussions-turned-arguments that left me feeling like decoration was the ultimate goal for these ladies. "Fine" I thought "but then why do more or less the rest of the female assassins in the universe who populate worlds of varying plausibility look the same as one that exists only as eye candy?" Because that's all female characters are expected to be? Not exactly, since now it's thankfully fairly popular to point and laugh at the scantily-clad female warriors who receive bikinis where their male counterparts enjoy the benefits of plate armor.
It gave me the feeling that while female warriors are more often being expected to wear reasonable armor (you know, the kind that actually protects you) the poor female assassin is still getting issued an ill-fitting set of clothing. I kept thinking and thinking about it to the point where I wasn't sure if the points I was raising in my own head were even valid anymore. I just like for things to WORK regardless of style, I don't like to see female characters get the short end of the stick and I really don't like to be pandered to. I won't reveal what designs specifically are irking me, but simply google image-searching "female assassin" will yield enough examples of the type of thing I'm talking about.
So... yeah. Strap yourselves in, this is going to be a long one.
--- I'll note ahead of time that I'm talking more about female assassins as characters or character classes in video games, rpgs and books rather than pin-up images, mainly because pin-ups don't really have to conform to an established setting or try to create a suspension of disbelief. I'll also take this time to say that no, I don't think that all assassin art is bad or that what I'm talking about needs to be applied to every setting. Lastly, draw whatever the hell you want. I'll never tell you what to draw or that what you're drawing is "wrong." This is about what I want to see more *and less* of---
Now I know what you're thinking - "Hey, it's fantasy. If it looks cool it's fine and no one's going to put that much thought into it." Well, the current growing trend is that it's not really fine for female warriors to go around with exposed stomachs or chain-mail bikinis. People want to see actual strong female characters and the reasonable equipment helps us relate to them. It seems like female assassins aren't getting the same treatment, and I just don't "buy" these characters because of it. Also, while a lot of my gripes can apply to male assassins as well, female assassins seem to have more problems because they need to display "the sexy." I'm actually fine with female characters looking attractive, but I'm not really ok with it when it serves no purpose or hinders them in their activities.
It might have to do with the fact that it's easy to apply form-follows-function to warriors (add more armor, cover things up) since the warrior has a nice, clear-cut function; get into scraps. Assassins obviously assassinate, but what does that mean in game terms, in narrative terms? We know that they need to kill people, we know they do so using subterfuge and we know they're not meant to take a pounding in a fight, but the how is ill-defined. So what's the assassin's function?
When you think about what an assassin (lets stick with medieval fantasy assassin) needs to DO, what's the first thing that pops into your head? Mine is of a person sneaking through a building, avoiding guards and other people within, dispatching her target stealthily (slitting of the throat while they're alone, poisoning food etc.) and making a quiet, unconventional escape out of a window or over a wall. Chances are you thought of something similar. The first thing usually isn't fighting an epic fight or having to dispatch every guard in a well-defended building in order to carry out her mission. The assassin (generally) needs to;
- Remain unseen
- Remain unheard
- Squeeze into small spaces (to gain access or hide)
- Not draw attention to themselves when approaching or leaving the area of the assassination
I can think of a number of things that a lot of female assassin designs share that can disrupt (or even make impossible) this scenario:
-Things sticking out
- Cloaks and capesI'm going to catch flak for this especially but hear me out; a cloak or a cape is a disguise, like a dress, tattered rags or a suit of motley. It conceals the assassin while they're getting to the location of the mission, it doesn't follow them INTO the mission. Why? if I had to think of the worst thing to wear while I needed to crawl, climb, tumble, sneak, squeeze through, run, remain silent and generally not brush against or knock over things, it would be a nice big billowy cloak I can get tangled up in.
- Carrying every item you ownEight throwing knives, small crossbow, ten bolts, rope, grappling hook, climbing claws, blow-darts, main dagger, off-hand dagger, long-sword, buckler, backpack, pouches and pouches filled with stink bombs, smoke bombs, stun bombs, poison, acid, etc. etc. etc... if the kitchen sink was a common murder weapon I'd imagine they'd strap that to their back as well. The argument is that assassins need to be ready for any contingency, but a better argument is that a good assassin knows their mark and plans ahead. Who needs poison when the mark has taste-testers? Who needs throwing knives or crossbows when the mark never leaves the house? Who needs daggers when the mark never leaves the park? Who needs rope if it's not an urban area or there are no walls? Each item is another thing that can get in the way, weigh you down, or make noise. I'm not advocating being stupidly under-equipped, but a lot of assassins seem too loaded down to LOOK stealthy.
And lastly, most prevalent, and most relevant
- Random skin, random armorA boob window serves no purpose. I've actually gotten the argument that "the assassin is just expressing herself and wants to be sexy/noticed!" If she was at a party, sure. If she did anything that an assassin is supposed to do? Nope. On the way to the mark she'll catch the eye, and if she's recognized for what she is that boob window becomes a heart target. Then there's the assassin that wants to wear armor... but nowhere near her vital organs. She'll wear metal armor on her limbs, the things that need to move deflty and quietly. If you want my opinion, the best assassin, one that's never seen or heard, is actually NUDE with camo body paint and slippers (to eliminate and "sticking" sound the feet may produce when walking on smooth surfaces).
|Kinda like this... but less messy|
Even your own clothing makes sounds when you move, and in the dead of night a simple ruffle can undo hours of cautious sneaking. This however is no excuse for a two-piece bikini with fully armored arms and legs. The intent is pretty clear.
So what does this all add up to, and what could be a possible solution? I know that sometimes showing "the sexy" is sometimes unavoidable. Sometimes it's even appropriate. My gripe is that the sexiness shown generally has no purpose and actively hinders the feeling of a stealthy character. I also know that strict realism is sometimes not an option; actual ninjas probably didn't wear black and probably couldn't sneak though a populated building and silently murder someone "video-game style". They usually wore civilian clothing, mainly performed espionage and when they did try to kill someone, historically some the most solid examples are of them trying to shoot people in the face. With guns. Not exactly the type of nail-biting sneak-fest we want to imagine.
With all that in mind we have a female assassin who is wearing an appropriately stealthy but attractive set of clothing or armor, equipped with the things she needs to perform a fantasy type assassination, and lacking most if not all of the things that will hinder her in reaching her goal.
Here's what I came up with as a general archetype:
I can hear it already - "It's too revealing!" "It's boring!" "how's that an assassin!" And that would be true, if the assassin wanted to get into fights, impress her targets and be recognized as an assassin, but she DOESN'T! The assassin is the one class that doesn't want to be intimidating, because the assassin doesn't want to be seen, period.
Then again, she's not real, she's a piece of art that's meant to engage us. So why do I also feel that this works as good illustration and interesting art? Because no medieval characters are wearing a tight leotard, which instantly sets her apart as a fast non-combat character, and the female form is interesting enough on its own; I feel this is a way to accentuate the form in a non-trashy way that also supports the character's activities. No clothing around the major points of movement means on swishy sound. This also makes swimming easier. The large simple shape of the clothing creates a silhouette within the body that highlights the curves of the torso. Note too that this is just a basic archetype, a simple design of equipment that works. Make some allowances for style and there a lot you can do. Lastly, this is a design that would work just as easily on a male. No boob windows, no bikinis. In fact I'd go even further and eliminate his top as well.
Let's get specific about sound for a moment here, and why this person is showing skin; Stand up and try to find a place that as quiet as possible, turn off appliances/music if you can. Chances are you're wearing a t-shirt, but regardless of what's on your body - raise your arm up as high as you can, somewhat quickly and listen to the sound it makes.
That sound is why it's easy for you to actually hear people try to sneak up on you when it's quiet enough (ever pretend to be asleep when you're a kid and hear someone get close? Likely you heard their clothes) Pull up your sleeve beyond your shoulder and try it again. Damn near silent. Now imagine that it's the middle of the night, the manor you've snuck into is completely still but there are still guards here and there that are alert. Would you rather have on some clothing (or worse yet, armor) that could betray your presence at the slightest movement, or would you rather have the freedom to perform actions silently and quickly just like.... an assassin?!
This design is fine when an assassin wants to be heard less, like indoors during the day, but what about being seen less, like outdoors or in the dark where her skin might set her apart from her surroundings? What about disguises, or even armor? What if you feel like the original design is too odd or bland?
Now we're getting more into the traditional ninja look, but with an important difference; tight clothing, tied off at the major points of movement. Baggy clothes will definitely increase the assassins profile, make more noise and make it easier to be grabbed and held. The basic design of the assassin makes it easy to hide underneath almost any sort of costume, costumes that they'd be wearing almost nonstop except during missions. The only sort of armor I can think of that the assassin could be wearing would be lamellar leather armor (hardened leather straps or pieces layered on top of each other) with each individual piece wrapped in cloth. The overlapping nature of the armor means that nothing gets squeaked as it's folded, plus the cloth prevents clacking and rubbing noises.
Is this too much to go through? Is it too nit-picky? I don't think so. For me this is going beyond the symbols that we've gotten so used to and trying to visualize these characters as real beings with real goals. For sure this is not really applicable to the incredibly far-out assassin designs mostly seen in pin up images or tongue-in-cheek settings but more and more popular games are taking some weird licensees with the assassin that they don't with female warriors. I'd like for realism, however much is applied to the fantasy setting in question, to be consistent. If female warriors are expected to be outfitted to do their job, why not the assassin? If assassins need to be sexy, can't the be sexy in a way that doesn't earn them an oubliette in the castle dungeons? What about style? I think that even just a little bit of effort can turn this new archetype into anything the artist wanted, retaining elements of the original to influence the overall plausibility and look.
I remember Matt Rhodes, in a post on his blog, lamenting the fact that it's becoming harder to create character designs that haven't already been done. To be fair, part of that is true; most fantasy assassins, especially female ones, blend together with their seemingly necessary cloaks, leather armor, boob windows and spiky accessories. Then again, none of those assassins look like they could actually do their job. Sometimes when the flow of ideas begin to trickle and stop, you need to get back to the source. I'm probably the last person who should be giving someone like Mr. Rhodes advice, but if he asked I'd say;