“She’s dressed that way because she uses her looks to seduce and manipulate people to her will. It’s empowerment, not exploitation.”
If you’ve ever complained about overt sexualization of a female character in a film, comic or video game, you’ve probably heard some variation of this line. It probably sounds a bit hollow, which might have to do with the fact it’s a load of crap.
At the core lies a false dichotomy. Empowerment and exploitation are not mutually exclusive; just because something qualifies for empowerment in the sense that a woman isn’t portrayed as a helpless and delicate flower doesn’t mean that it’s not at the same time exploiting through sexual objectification those same women. It’s true that the archetypal stripper-ninja¹ is a subject in what she’s doing at the first remove. But that doesn’t actually remove or even alleviate the sexual objectification inherent in portraying a stripper-ninja. Such a character exists to appeal to a largely male audience, without regards for the interest or well-being of neither the female character that is portrayed, nor women in general. The sexual objectification is in no manner gone; unable to make the sexual objectification all-encompassing, writers and artists ladle objectification and sexualizaton onto what the woman is doing and how she is doing it. The female character may technically be a subject, but the only way in which she is allowed to be a subject nonetheless serve to objectify her.
The nuances of why this is kind of exploitation is bad could cover entire books, and probably has. However, in addition to the objectification and blatant pandering to a male audience, I feel that another core issues is how it demonizes the portrayal of a female sexuality that isn’t subservient to a man.
One of the most common portrayals of women who gain power through the use of sex is the archetypal “femme fatale”. The femme fatale is perhaps best known from the noir genre, but the general portrayal of an evil or morally unscrupulous or ambiguous woman who seduces men as part of her ploys exists well outside of noir. It it a general archetype more than it is a noir archetype, and elements of it are found in a wide variety of villainesses. The core of the problem with the femme fatale is that, in terms of being a portrayal of female sexuality as a power, the femme fatale is almost always evil. Emotional manipulation does, in general, not lend itself well to messianic or morally upstanding characters, which inherently makes any portrayal of using sexuality as a weapon have undertones that characterize it as “not good”, but the portrayal of a femme fatale goes far beyond that. Femmes fatales tend to be unscrupulous criminals, especially murderers. The early instances of the archetype, if wikipedia is to be believed, were characters who used supernatural powers to seduce men, such as witches and demons, which further serves to – quite literally – demonize female sexuality. Succubi, seductive female vampires, the huldra, sirens and other female monsters all use their stunning beauty to kill men, and it’s this tradition that the femme fatale draws on.
The problem with this is that it presents a monolithic view of female sexuality. The overwhelming majority of media portrayals show that when women have a sexuality that is not subservient to a man, this sexuality is associated with evil and immorality – and furthermore, that this sexuality is inherently dangerous to men. The human brain works by associative logic, where things that look alike are considered to be related, which means that when the overwhelming portrayals of female sexuality in media are bad or villanous, then people will learn that female sexuality outside of media is bad and villanous. This means that actual real-life women who have sexualities that aren’t subservient² to men will be regarded as evil (for example, through accusations of using sex to get money out of men, or to entrap men through pregnancies and force child support payments); which is obviously not fair to those women.
The singular femme fatale in a vacuum may be a powerful character, full of agency and a subject in terms of characterization. There’s no denying that sexuality can be powerful, we just have to look to the epitome of male power-fantasies, James Bond³, to see that using one’s sexuality as a weapon can be a powerful tool in the hands of a protagonist. However, there’s still the fact that when it comes to characterization of female sexuality not subservient to a man, the demonized portrayal of the femme fatale is the predominant one. And, furthermore, that a femme fatale stripper ninja who dresses in revealing clothing to seduce men does not challenge this portrayal; the femme fatale stripper ninja perpetuates it. Such characters marginalize women without regard for their interest and well-being, and confine every expression of their sexuality that isn’t subservient to carry the label of “evil”.
 A “stripper ninja” is a criticism of a commonly male portrayal of empowered female characters. It refers to a character who is in some way an expert warrior, such as a ninja, yet is drawn or otherwise depicted as wearing clothes that are more likely to appear on the strippers in a strip club (i.e. sexualized and revealing, often with high heels) than worn by an expert warrior.
 Lest I demonize all female sexual submissives, I wish to make it clear that I’m not referring to sexual submission in the BDSM sense, but in the sense of not having the freedom to use their sexualities on an equal level with men.
 I’ll probably call a lot of male characters “the epitome of male power-fantasies” as I write more articles. It’s hyperbole more than a serious statement about their quality and sociocultural position.