A couple of blog posts back I used a phrase and didn’t think much about it. However, upon reflection the phrase is actually quite loaded with significance. I used the phrase: science fiction bikini.
Within the context which the phrase was used it probably raised few eyebrows. I was describing a piece of artwork, a cover illustration for Samuel Delaney’s novel Babel 17. The piece by Vincent Segrelles depicts a woman wearing what I described as a science fiction bikini. With the accompanying illustration beside it the phrase made perfect sense. A reader, even one not familiar with science fiction, would know exactly what I was talking about.
I even used the phrase as a keyword when I posted the blog. That’s when I started thinking about the phrase itself and all of the cultural touchstones that it contains.
Let’s unpack the phrase.
I don’t have to explain what science fiction is to readers of this website. That is the reason that you are here. I’d just be preaching to the converted. However, even among lifelong science fiction fans the phrase can still have different meanings depending somewhat on context and the reader’s own cultural bias. For some science fiction fans, like myself, there is a completely different set of thought patterns that are raised by the phrase science fiction as opposed to the phrase “sci-fi”, a phrase coined by the late Forrest J. Ackerman.
The appellation “Sci-fi” has been, for many of us, a derogatory one used to describe a cheaper version of the genre which employs the trappings but not as much the substance of the literature. Hollywood was wont to produce “sci-fi”, usually as cheap low-budget flicks with a lot of action but very little sense. For some the difference between “science fiction” and “sci-fi” is vast. For others the term is interchangeable. Either way, the phrase “science fiction’ has meaning that goes well beyond the individual meaning of the two words that make the phrase. (I’m not going to try to unpack the phrase here. Whole books can and have been written on that topic alone and there is still room for much argument)
So, we have the phrase science fiction, a phrase that has meaning to fans of the genre and even to those who are not sf readers but merely casually acquainted with the subject. But what happens to the phrase when we put the word “bikini” behind it?
The bikini is, as most people know, a skimpy two-piece bathing suit for women. Designed by French engineer Louis Réard and separately by fashion designer Jacques Heim in Paris in 1946, the bikini was specifically made to cause an explosive social and commercial reaction. Although today the bikini is ubiquitous on beaches everywhere, its history is filled with controversy. The word “bikini’ today is still packed with cultural significance. The word itself attracts attention. One need not even be shown an example to understand the cultural and socio-sexual connotations that the name contains.
Science Fiction Bikini.
The phrase says so much more than the words themselves do. It conjures up some of the most egregious examples of sexism that the genre has produced. It also conjures up some of the worst excesses of the “sci-fi” genre that comes out of hollywood and other places. It is the default for the science fiction illustrator. It is the subject of erotic fixations in male gamers (and, in some cases, female gamers) and, as such, is the touchstone for both sides of the sexism debate within the genre.
The science fiction bikini, along with its fantasy genre equivalent, the chain-mail bikini, stirs emotions on both sides of the sexism debate. From advertising to illustration it is, at best, a necessary evil. Where nudity is out of the question the bikini becomes de reguer. From pulp covers to the original (and the newer) STAR TREK to the current Slave Leia craze, the science fiction bikini seems to be overwhelmingly everywhere.
Three simple words, and yet so much cultural mileage.
(Editor’s note: Amazing Stories intends to follow this piece with one on Science Fiction Speedos, provided we can source at least one illustration….)
For me, the skimpy science fiction attire brings to mind Earle Bergey’s covers for Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Captain Future in the 1940s. Often Bergey’s undergarments looked to be made of metal – uncomfortable in any climate, and useless in space.