Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Image archaeology: Paladin Girl

Who knoweth not of Paladin Girl?

M:tG card art for Knight Exemplar, by Jason Chan (2011). Exemplary in more ways than one!

Paladin Girl has become a cliche of modern fantasy art. She always looks the same. A young, slender woman in plate mail armour (often improbably form-fitting), no helmet, straight hair usually worn long and loose, conventionally-attractive face. On horseback, she might have a spear or lance. On foot, she usually carries a sword. 

Paladin Girl is a fairly straightforward combination of traditional masculine and feminine signifiers. Her weapons and armour convey traditionally masculine power and 'hardness'; her face, hair, and figure convey traditionally feminine 'softness' and prettiness. The optimistic reading would be that strength and heroism are compatible with femininity. The pessimistic reading would be that women only get to be powerful as long as their strength remains compatible with conventional standards of female beauty. Either way, she is clearly associated with a particularly chaste and non-threatening form of sex appeal, with her armoured body symbolising her guarded sexuality. Unsurprisingly, she mostly turns up in works targeted at predominantly male audiences.

I became curious about where this image came from, and did a little digging. Here's what I came up with.

One obvious source is Joan of Arc. A sketch from her own time depicts her like this - 


but by the later fifteenth century she was being painted like this - 


- and by 1505 like this:

Then there's Bradamante and Clorinda, the original 'female knight' characters, who appear in Arisoto's Orlando Furioso (1532) and Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (1581), respectively. Around 1600 they were being depicted like this:

Paolo Domenico Finoglia. Clorinda's the one on the right.

Antonio Tempesta, Bradamante Valorosa.

This, in turn, is not dissimilar to the way Joan of Arc was being depicted in the early seventeenth century:

Reubens, Joan of Arc (1612)

William Marshall, Joan of Arc (1642)

So 'attractive female knight in armour' is clearly not a foreign concept in Renaissance art. But the armour looks like real armour, and there's little sign yet of the extravagant hairstyles that are so much a part of contemporary Paladin Girl imagery. Reubens shows Joan with long hair, but that's because she's literally letting her hair down. In battle she's obviously going to be covered beneath the black helmet on the ground beside her, relying on her plumed crest rather than her bare head to ensure she stays visible in combat. 

Like most of modern fantasy iconography, Paladin Girl derives much more from nineteenth-century art than from anything actually medieval. As late as 1856, Delacroix was still painting Clorinda pretty much in the Renaissance style - 


But three years later he also painted this image, of Ermina, also from Gerusalemme Liberata :

 
Classic Paladin Girl, right? Except the whole point of this image is that Ermina isn't a female knight: she's a princess disguised as a knight. (More specifically she's disguised as Clorinda, whose armour she's 'borrowed'.) Thus the long hair and the skirt: this is less wargear than cosplay. Clorinda, who's the real deal, wears full armour, has a more practical haircut, and carries a rather unfeminine bearded axe.

The real shift comes with the Pre-Raphaelites, whose chocolate-box medievalism lies at the root of most modern fantasy art. Here's Millais 1865 painting of Joan of Arc:


We're getting very close, now; and Walter Crane's Britomart, from his 1895-7 illustrations to The Faerie Queene, gets us even closer. Note sword, long hair, armoured skirt, and the large rondels on her chest that give the impression that her armour has breasts.


Leighton's 1901 painting The Accolade isn't a Paladin Girl image as such, but it clearly fed into the subsequent iconography.


There are plenty of other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century examples:

Charles-Amable Lenoir

John Gilbert

Albert Lynch, 1903 - surely the secret inspiration for the haircuts used by 40K's Sisters of Battle!

Paul Antoine de la Boulaye, 1909

Note that more form-fitting armour is becoming the norm, here, with tapered waists and armoured skirts allowing these painters to display a classically feminine 'hourglass' figure even in full armour. (Contrast this with the armour in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century images, which would mask the wearer's gender.) It's this iconography that fed into the 1948 Joan of Arc film starring Ingrid Bergman, although the need to make a costume that was actually wearable clearly led to some concessions to practicality.

Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc, 1948.

Bergman again, in the 1946 play the film was based on.

Paladin Girl went into abeyance somewhat during the 1970s, when warrior women in fantasy art tended more towards the 'valkyrie' or 'amazon' archetypes. (E.g. Red Sonja, Valkyrie from Marvel Comics, Hildebrandt's interpretation of Eowyn, every woman Franzetta ever painted.) She only started to make her way into D&D via Larry Elmore's illustrations of everyone's 1983 fantasy waifu, Aleena the Cleric.

BARGLE YOU FUCK DON'T SHOOT HER FOR SHE IS MY ONE TRUE LOVE!

NOW ALEENA IS DEAD AND I HAVE ONLY MY EIGHTIES HAIR TO CONSOLE ME!

It took much longer for her to become the default, though. In the very same book, Elmore's other female cleric - an idiosyncratic reworking of the 'valkyrie' type - looked like this: 


Most 'female fighter' illustrations in 1980s and 1990s fantasy media tended much more towards 'sexy' designs with lots of exposed skin, and armoured female fighters in D&D-adjacent media were more likely to look like this - 

Clyde Caldwell, cover illustration to Dark Heart (1992). 

When D&D 3rd edition came out in 2000 there was a self-conscious push against this kind of imagery, with Elmore's influence rejected wholesale in favour of the 'dungeon-punk' iconography for which the edition is famous (or notorious). Its iconic female paladin, Alhandra, looked like this:


However, in 2004 World of Warcraft launched, and all its female paladin-types looked more or less like this:


What had happened in the interim, of course, was an explosion in the popularity of anime, manga, and JRPGs in western geek circles. Manga and anime had a long preoccupation with 'female knight' characters, from the original Princess Knight manga series in 1953-6 to the epochal Lady Oscar (1972-3), and modern Japanese fantasy media is littered with 'cute female knight/cleric' figures. From the female priest in Dragon Quest III (1988), whose chainmail bodysuit, tabard, boots, mace, and haircut seem to have been directly based on Aleena five years earlier - 


to the iconic figure of Saber from Fate / Stay Night (2004), who basically defines the type going forwards. 


These Paladin Girl types grew out of the older pre-Raphaelite Joan of Arc figure reinterpreted through a manga filter, and in the early 2000s they were reimported to the West, with immediate effect. This anime-by-way-of-World-of-Warcraft style was everywhere in the fantasy art of the period. Tellingly, the 9th Edition of Magic: the Gathering (2005) saw the art for the iconic white card Serra Angel shift from this cone-bra stripper-samurai horrorshow -


To this - 


And that's where we've been ever since, basically. In 2009 Pathfinder even made it quasi-official by having their actual goddess of paladins, Iomedae, look like this:


And finally we end where we began, with Joan of Arc.

Art from the Joan of Arc board game, released 2019 by Mythic Games.

So what does it all mean? Paladin Girl, I'd suggest, represents a compromise between the sexualised 'warrior woman' designs of the 1980s and 1990s, with their loincloths and armoured bikinis, and the ideals of equal-opportunities empowerment that most modern fantasy media pays at least lip service to. She's 'empowered' - she wears full armour! She's got a sword! - but in a way that emphasises her 'good girl' femininity, rather than clashing with it. (The armour emphasises her breasts, waist, and hips rather than hiding them, she's obviously wearing make-up, and her power is clearly wielded on behalf of the existing social order, not against it.) She stands for female empowerment in its most non-threatening, least socially-disruptive form. Probably this is what led male artists to develop the type in the first place, against the backdrop of the original women's suffrage movement of 1897-1918, which presented them with much less comfortable models of what female power might look like.

But I wouldn't want to paint too bleak a picture of Paladin Girl. She can get pretty silly in her more fanservicey incarnations, all bare thighs and miniskirts and breastplates with cleavage windows: but, despite this, I've known several women to whom this iconography really appealed. As I mentioned early on, the optimistic reading of the archetype is that femininity is not incompatible with martial fantasy heroics. Think of it as the Legally Blonde of fantasy art cliches. 

Because if Elle Woods ever played D&D, you know her PC would look something like this...

37 comments:

  1. I'm a female DM who mostly runs games for other women, and yeah we eat that shit up. They love playing them, they love meeting them as NPCs, they just can't get enough of chivalric adventures where all the characters are ladies in armor.

    Everything you said about mainstream art is correct in my experience of trying to find refernce art for games, but if you dig around you can usually find independent artists who aren't afraid to draw charcaters as muscular or at least a little butch.

    Thought for the day: the honorific for a female knight is "Dame"!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for this - it's good to know that my anecdotal experience isn't completely unrepresentative!

      There are definitely counter-traditions. D&D3's 'dungeonpunk' ended up being a bit of a joke, but there's certainly a vein of grimy, punky fantasy art out there that's quite happy to depict female warriors as being just as tough and scarred and crazy as their male counterparts. In WFRP, for example, the Paladin Girl equivalents look like this:

      https://static.wikia.nocookie.net/warhammerfb/images/a/ad/Warhammer_Sisters_of_Sigmar.png/revision/latest/scale-to-width-down/280?cb=20170707202402

      Like I said, though, I don't think there's anything really *wrong* with the Paladin Girl iconography. It's wish-fulfilment fantasy, after all. Who *wouldn't* want to be able to beat dragons to death without smudging their make-up or messing up their hair?

      Delete
  2. In my D&D games, I find more and more often that I am describing characters (PCs and NPCs alike) in as unflattering terms as possible: balding, greying, overweight, grizzled, scrawny, wrinkled, dirty, etc. Mine is a hard, cruel world and it takes a toll on everyone.

    Except the elves, of course. That's why they're universally hated.

    All of which is to say, I'm not a huge fan of "paladin girls." However, if one equates a high charisma with physical attractiveness (as isn't unusual) I think there's a justification for the beatific faces shining from their armored shells. But that applies to paladins (with their 17+ charisma) ONLY. Ranger women? Not the same.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 'Ranger girl' could be a post in itself. The bows, the cloaks, the tight green tops, the shoulder-length red hair...

      I try to dirty up my fantasy worlds too, but I also try to bear in mind that beauty standards are relative. To the filthy, malnourished peasants who see him riding by, the athletic young lord - with his clean clothes, his unbent back, his smooth skin, and his ready smile that shows off the fact he still has all his own teeth - is going to look like a vision of masculine beauty, even if he'd probably look pretty ordinary by twenty-first century standards!

      Delete
  3. You know a lot of folks lining up to buy paintings of ugly people?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pretty vs ugly's not the point. As you note, most people prefer fantasy art that features attractive characters, but there are lots of different ways of communicating attractiveness. I'm interested in the development of this particular *extremely specific model* of what 'an attractive female fighter' might look like.

      Delete
  4. For every 10 Aleenas, there's one Morgan Ironwolf skulking somewhere in the shadows to split someone's skull.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I dunno, mate... they both have wasp-waists, Farrah Fawcett hair, and chain armour that shows off their feminine attributes implausibly well. I'm not seeing a huge disparity.

      Delete
    2. Honestly, given her giant spherical breasts and nipples that are somehow visible through chainmail, I'd put 1980 Morgan more in the 'sexy warrior woman' tradition of Frazetta et al. I guess it depends a bit on whether you 'read' her legs as being bare or not.

      Delete
    3. I do like her facial expression, though. She's clearly a woman who will cut you if she has to!

      Delete
    4. Oh, I totally agree she's in the Sonja tradition -- even if she is wearing leggings.

      But it's like a St. Trinians or Facts of Life thing where the good girl and the bad girl wear the same outfit, and the only way to differentiate them is by affect. Aleena is definitely Blair to Morgan's Jo.

      Delete
  5. Paladin ladies are honestly one of my favorite fantasy archetypes, (charisma + singleminded determination + killing demons and / or being a thorn in the side of British imperialism is a great combo) but I definitely agree that the motif (especially in commercial art) needs widening. Joan is only one of four core paladin types, we need more lady paladin representation from the Superman, Doomguy and Alexander Anderson camps.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a great set of paladin archetypes. Knight, priest, superhero, and space marine.

      40K's Sisters of Battle lean into the Doomgirl space, and there's a fair few Anderson-style battle nuns out there. And haven't there been, like, six different 'female superman' characters in comics at this point?

      Delete
    2. And Samus Aran is right in the overlap of Doomgirl and Paladin Girl.

      Delete
  6. To add my two-pence remark : in the village near mine, they've preserved a house rumoured to be "Joan of Ark's house". Of course, this is neither her birthplace nor her father's one, but according to a genealogy found on Internet, her ancestors might have stemmed from that thorpe Art [art] sur Meurthe being thus the origin of "of Ark/d'Arc"; and we know she made a pilgrinage in the region (Saint-Nicolas, the birthplace of Santa Claus, then Nancy to visit the duke of Lorraine) before she started her military campaign. So, I just need to walk one hour among fields before reaching that house and I actually sat on the stone bench. You can admire the French patriotic art depicting her as a Female Paladin (no date is given, but I'd bet it comes from the Third Republic, when her cult was intense until she was canonized by the Pope after WW1) :
    http://patrimoine-de-lorraine.blogspot.com/2015/11/art-sur-meurthe-54-maison-dite-du-pere.html
    Very good post, as always !

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the link! That bust really does look like it could be a generic modern fantasy heroine, which says a lot about just how influential her iconography has been...

      Delete
  7. Thanks for the picture of the "other" cleric. It usually gets lost in all the hype for Aleena, but as a boy it made a big impression on me, probably the first time a picture made me think "hey, women can be cool too" (not that I'd have used that term at the time - describing things as "cool" was very much uncool when I was growing up!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've always liked that picture, too. She's very dynamic - charging forwards while looking left, shield raised against implied off-screen attackers, lips parted to speak, mace brandished as though to signal allies forwards, or to whack anyone who pops up unexpectedly within arm's reach of her. The fact that her hair, tabard, and holy symbol are all in motion contribute to the sense that we're seeing her in the middle of *doing something*, probably something exciting and dangerous. Paladin Girl types mostly just stand around posing.

      Widespread internet legend suggests her name is Clarion, as per the Red Box text: 'Instead of saying “I’m Clarion, a Second Level cleric,” the character should say “I’m Clarion, the Adept.”'

      Delete
  8. Take a look at these pages from KSBD- https://killsixbilliondemons.com/comic/king-of-swords-2-11/
    https://killsixbilliondemons.com/comic/king-of-swords-4-34/

    Allison's got the long hair, but she's also realistically Buff and Scarred. What's interesting about this is that she starts out the story as much more conventionally pretty- as she gains power and more of a moral compass, she gives up fitting into the conventional feminine ideal.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Also, have a look at this: https://throneofsalt.blogspot.com/2020/05/the-war-of-bull-and-sable-maid.html

    "She will meet him there alone, smeared in the mud and blood and shit and sludge of the battlefield. Her body aches, half for the trials of her war and half from the knowledge that the end is here."


    A paladin, and a girl, but very much *not* Paladin Girl.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for both. There are certainly alternative takes out there, especially in the last few years. As Mathilda's comment above suggests, though, part of the ongoing appeal of the Paladin Girl archetype is clearly the desire to *not have to* give up 'the conventional feminine ideal' in order to obtain 'power and more of a moral compass'.

      The Hunger Games novels, of all things, have some really interesting explorations of how Katniss variously experiences traditional femininity as a resource or as a weakness in her own journey to become the Joan-of-Arc style saviour of her people, although Katniss herself is more Ranger Girl than Paladin Girl in her personal aesthetics...

      Delete
    2. Personally, I love characters whose power is deeply tied into not fitting with Gender Norms, but to each their own flavour of wish-fulfillment.

      Delete
    3. Thanks for reminding me that I should really do more with the Maid and her followers.

      Delete
  10. Thanks for this cool tracing forward of the iconography from its first appearance to the modern day. I tend to go for more roguish characters when I'm playing, but just seeing these women gives me a bit of an itch to play one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Anne! And, as with Matilda above, thanks for confirming that it's not *only* male audiences to whom this iconography appeals!

      Delete
  11. When I think of depictions of male paladins that I might have seen, these tend to appear as rather handsome types, ranging from prettyboys to rugged but still good-looking. Usually clean-shaven (five'o'clocks at worst). Blond hair optional but welcome. Perhaps it's a comparison.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think male paladins mostly come in two models:

      1) The 'King Arthur'. Dark hair, beard and/or moustache, 30-something, muscular, serious, grim. Heavy, bulky armour. Sometimes scarred. Two-handed weapon.

      2) The 'Lancelot'. Blond, cleanshaven, 20-something, slim, gorgeous, amazing hair and teeth. Beautiful shining armour, often decorative. Sword and shield.

      In anime-adjacent media the second type may sometimes be so bishie as to be virtually indistinguishable from Paladin Girl, whose haircare products he's obviously been raiding on the sly.

      Delete
    2. Or, "the Uther Lightbringer" and "the Prince Arthas".

      Delete
    3. Definitely two of the characters I had semi-consciously in mind...

      Delete
  12. The appropriate bits of the brain only started firing this afternoon, but you will find in Margaret Atwood's brief 'Weird Tales Covers of the 1930s' (collected in In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination) with a discussion of the metal brassiere and some of its symbolic echoes.

    A little far from Paladin Girl perhaps, but a discussion of the Maidenform bra ('...blindingly white....with concentric circles of stitching that suggested armour') suggests that it was presented 'less as an aid to seduction than as a guarantee of security and, combined with the name, of chastity. Athene, the maiden goddess, with her shield and spear and her helmet, is perhaps a distant relative.'

    ReplyDelete
  13. You know, I keep thinking that part of the issue is that a Paladin Girl is, in a way, a different concept to Girl Paladin. I mean by this, there is a number of standards associated with paladins and being sexually sugestive isn't one of them. (Good looks, yes, but no explicit sexuality.) In post-D&D depictions they tend to be some sort of religious order with all the associations this draws. Mix this premise with the general idea of a god-looking Knight in Shining Armour, and it's no wonder you end up with a Catholic church youth group girlie in plate armour.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Edit: "good-looking", not "god-looking". Although this typo is oddly fitting in the context of paladins...

      Delete
  14. that caldwel illustration is that kitiara? there is some nice tension in the DL books between sensual anti-paladin kitiara and budding paladin laurana. and when i say nice i mean interesting for thinking about silver age d&d and sexuality

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, it's Kitiara - 'Dark Heart' was her prequel novel. I think you're right to pinpoint Dragonlance as a key point of transition, where the sexually aggressive warrior woman in the Belit / Red Sonja model shifts from ally to antagonist, displaced by a 'good girl' heroine whose capacity for violent action is not mirrored by her sexuality. Elmore's Dragonlance illustrations still depict Laurana more in the 'valkyrie' style, but by the time we get to an image like 'The Death of Sturm' she's about 90% of the way to full Paladin Girl.

      Delete
  15. Replies
    1. I own a copy of that issue, as it happens. In the very next issue someone wrote in asking why she was wearing so much armour, to which the editor replied, IIRC, 'to stop the dragon from slicing her to ribbons'.

      If you compare it to the kind of female fighters who were appearing on the covers of Dragon magazine at the time - e.g. the Parkinson illustration on Dragon 106 (1986) - you can see why she would have stood out at the time. But the punk stylings - the hair, the face tattoos, the tights, the spikes - mean that the overall effect is very different to the later 'Paladin Girl' types. Here, the armour is confrontational, a statement that she's serious about violence - the fantasy equivalent of a real-world punk girl going out wearing Bovver Boots. I suspect that it's no accident that she looks more than a little like Siouxie Sioux!

      Delete
    2. One figures a multiclassed rogue/fighter can slay dragons too.

      Delete