Dress For the Occasion: The Scantily Clad Female

So, here’s a question:

Say you’re a beautiful woman (I assume some of you reading this actually are women. Please believe me when I say that in my eyes all women are beautiful. If you’re a man reading this, then use your imagination) and you need to leave the relative safety of your spacecraft to go out into the vacuum of space or maybe planetside where there is a strong possibility that you will run into hostile aliens.

What do you wear?

It’s a tough one, I know.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that a self contained space suit with a substantial air supply and radiation shielding. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

But not so fast. If we’re examining the history of science fiction illustration (which, at the moment, I am) then we have to think outside the box of conventional wisdom. Here we must enter the strange wisdom of the science fiction cover illustration.

So, what does the typical beautiful woman wear into space?

How about an evening gown?

That seemed to be a good idea to the woman depicted in a Norman Saunders’ painting for Marvel Science magazine in May 1951 in which two adequately suited spacemen appear to be manhandling a negligee-clad woman into a spaceship.

Now, according to something that we like to call science, the human body cannot survive unprotected in a vacuum. So the chances that the lovely lady in this painting is alive are slim to 0 to the power of 10 billion. She does, however, leave a beautiful corpse, which is surprising since her body has been exposed to hard vacuum.

Okay, let’s try another example: Suppose you are the human leader of a galactic army of robots. What would you wear that would be suitable imposing alongside your metal soldiers. One would assume a suit of protective body armour would be called for, but not so fast!

How about a black one-piece bathing suit? Sounds reasonable to me. We’ll accent it, of course, with a winged helmet (one that does not cover your beautiful features, of course), black gloves, a sparkly belt and a flowing red cape. For your own defense you also have a gold plated laser pistol.

Sounds crazy? Not according to R.G. Jones in his cover illustration for William P. McGivern’s The Galaxy Raiders in Amazing Stories in July of 1950.

Let’s try another one; you’re a beautiful woman and you are floating among the asteroids fighting with some sort of laser whip against a bald-headed assailant. Do you wear a protective spacesuit? Okay, sure, this time you do. Is it armored to protect against an obviously lethal laser-type weapon?

Of course not! It’s completely transparent. You have an upside-down fish bowl as a helmet and a space suit made of saran wrap. So, what are you wearing underneath all that? How about a low-cut red bathing suit with funky pointed shoulders and a pair of red pumps?

Am I mad? Well, perhaps… but this idea seemed to make sense to Kelly Freas when he supplied the cover art for the November 1953 edition of Planet Stories.

The point is that throughout its history the “literature of ideas” has been saddled with artwork that, although fabulously rendered, has been consistently redolent of adolescent imagery. Certainly the majority of science fiction readers has in the past been mostly male and young, but that may have been a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy when the artwork that attracted readers seemed specifically designed to zero in on that demographic.

I’m not done with this topic and I will revisit it again in a future post. As always if you disagree with anything I have said, or feel I have missed anything (like the point, perhaps?) don’t keep it to yourself. Use the comment box. That’s what it is for.

Give me a piece of your mind.

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  1. Come to think of it, the classic Weird Tales artist, Margaret Brundage, painted numerous scantily clad/practically nude women covers for that magazine way back when. Make of that what you will, but it definitely sold copies! And some of those issues are now worth a nice chunk of change, too, as collector's items.

  2. Considering that the majority of the brass-bra era of stfnal magazines was during the pulp era (especially the late 1930s and into the 1940s), the vast majority of science fiction readers were young males, so such cover art definitely played to that consumer base. I don't this misogyny is the culprit here, more of an economic reality. Then again, who's to say that some of the writers and artists of that day were or were not misogynists? Like MD Jackson said, most of those people are long gone now, so we'll never know for sure. Definitely a good topic for the more literary-bent bloggers here.

  3. Let me propose either an additional problem, or a solution, for the scenario in the Norman Saunders painting.

    I'm a science guy, and the first thing odd to me is not the woman's lack of a spacesuit, but if it is indeed space, how are these guys climbing a ladder! They would be in a free fall and there would be no preferred direction and nothing to climb!

    So that's either another problem, or it suggests the possibility that they're not in space proper, but in an atmosphere of a planet at night. They've come down from the skies to…ahem, kidnap our women, because Mars needs women or moms or whatever. They've got suits on because they're aliens and the atmosphere is poisonous to their physiology, or they're human and just couldn't be bothered to change out of their space clothes for a job in the atmosphere.

    Anyway, I like to think she isn't dead and the artist had more of a clue than it might appear at first brush.

  4. I love this topic too, and have long wondered about the dearth of female attraction to SF. Even after the point where women were flying planes and were astronauts, outer space was ruled by men, with women as afterthoughts or plot devices. It can't just be the obvious "sexily clad" enticement alone, since the first readers were not seeing sex at all….think Jules Verne, Dime Novels, early Science and Invention (Gernsback) magazines. It was mainly all rockets, robots, gizmos, maybe a BEM or two until the early 40s-50s. Margaret Brundage may have set the wheels in motion, 1932. But that doesn't answer the question…the catering to the audience, and the audience being male. I, too, am intrigued by this – and why the field in general also attracts so few female artists. (i.e, historically not commensurate with the talent out there) I've got a feeling that you, me and Astrid could spend weeks on this topic alone! 🙂

    1. Don't get me started…. I have lost treasured human relationships over this. :S

      As a female artist who has made a dash at breaking into the field – my original ambition when I went and studied multimedia design was to get into special effects and film making – I can assure you that it is not just "lack of attraction" that is the problem. Some – by no means all, but certainly enough – guys working in that industry will defend it tooth and claw as one of the few "male only" provinces left. Maybe the reasons for *that* will be worth an analysis though, I'll hand that over to MD.

      Let's just say that, studying Computer Graphic Design as a female, and more mature person, a lot of people were unable to perceive that I was actually pretty good at this. My class started out with 20 people, 17 guys, 3 girls, I was the oldest by 10 years. 11 or 12 people finished – 10 guys, 2 girls, the third girl left because she'd already done a course and felt she could not learn much. Out of those 11 or 12 people, only 4 managed to finish the course in the given timeframe, the rest had to apply for extension – 2 guys, 2 girls. I was one of the four. While I was studying there, and since, I have never once been contacted to participate in one my fellow student's personal projects, let alone for a job offer. One of my tutors once told me, audibly in front of the rest of the class, that I was "struggling". Another asked me, audibly in front of the class, if I was happy to watch a certain excerpt from a movie "on account of my age". Much of my time and energy at school was spent fighting for my right to be there, which took away time and energy from doing the actual work. I could have been sitting there modeling Gollum, and people would still have perceived me as someone who was no good at this – simply because it didn't fit into their world view that someone like me could be. When I attended a CGI convention a while ago, I was mistaken for the cleaning lady.

      I've since decided to concentrate on 2D illustration and web design, simply because that hill seems a bit too steep for me to climb. My fervent hope is that by simply having done this, it will be just a little bit easier for the next person.

      The other girl who studied with me, Erin Woolhouse, has a credit on the Hobbit. For dailys and assistant colour grading, but still. 🙂

      1. .. ok I realize this is not about science fiction illustration as such, but I think the mindsets are very similar in those two closely related fields.

  5. THANK YOU for this early morning laugh. The first image you feature lends some proof to my theory that art of this kind is often done by artists who have never seen a naked female. Or even a clad female, it would appear! *That* is clearly a boy with two halves of a melon glued on. Or something.

    By all means, keep them coming! Favourite topic of mine, too. 🙂

  6. Great post! I just love to look at these old covers and shake my head. I think I'm past getting righteous about it. I'd love it if you delved a little deeper – can you find any of these artists and ask them what they were thinking?!?

    1. Diane, unfortunately most of these artists have long since passed on, but it's a good area to explore. From my own experience as an artist I suspect that economics has more to do with it than misogyny. The client knows (or at least thinks they know) what's going to make a magazine sell and he directs the artist accordingly.

      1. That doesn't leave mysogyny out of the equation, it just shifts it from the artist to the client, and from the client to the audience.

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