've gotta say that this has been the hardest column for me to write. I've rewritten it a number of times, talked to a number of respected art directors and artists in the community, and spent many hours talking to you folks in the social media arena about this subject.
Let me start this discussion with a bit of a caveat. I'm not here to justify the choices that other companies make, or to wave a magic wand over the past and make every fantasy image that someone finds offensive disappear. Instead, I'd just like to have a conversation about sexism in fantasy art, and specifically art in the realm of Dungeons & Dragons.
Where to start?
How about if I start with a bit about me personally? Let me put the cards on the table—I'm a 50+, male artist who grew up in the south, and I work as a creative director for a game company. Those personal details come with a whole host of biases, preferences, and historical baggage. Because of my age, I grew up in a time when feminism wasn't a commonly used word. I remember when the movement swept through New Orleans and the stir it created. I didn't get it. I came from a family of strong female personalities. Feminism? My great grandmother could work most men into the ground on her farm. I didn't have to be convinced that women were strong . . . I already knew it. Did I mention New Orleans? As a southern boy, I was taught to open doors, give up my seat on the bus, and offer my arm. And I did so not because the women were weak or needed to be "taken care of," but rather out of respect and admiration. Lastly, I mentioned that I'm an artist. I bring that up because I start every discussion when I'm looking at the art with this question: "Is it good art?" I don't start the conversation with questions about the depictions of women, race, or ability. That isn't something I was taught in art school. It is something I've had to learn about when dealing with a public property and working for a corporation. When I draw, I like to draw things that attract me. I draw all kinds of stuff, and when I'm drawing the human form, I like to depict beautiful forms. I'm a bit more on the classical side, though. I'm a fan of the Baroque school of painting.
So where does this leave me? Well, I didn't dig into the professional side of my life, so let me go there for a minute. As a professional in the creative industry, I have the responsibility to do the best that I can for the fans of the brand I'm working on. In these types of roles I've had to argue both sides of the sexism argument. There were times, brands, and circumstances when I argued on one side . . . and then different times, brands, and circumstances when I argued the other side. It's not that I'm a flip-flopper, but rather that my position doesn't often offer me the opportunity to collapse my personal and professional opinions into a single entity. To keep my job, I often have to leave my personal opinion at the office front door. As a consumer, you have the freedom and right to take any stand that you wish. I wish everyone had that same freedom.
So you see: a little bit of baggage. Alright, enough background—let's dig into this subject. I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to be asking lots of questions.
Are you aware of the definition of sexism? I wasn't. I thought I knew what it meant, but during one discussion I decided to make sure all the voices in the conversation were working from the same point of view, so I looked it up. Obviously there are many variants, but the most consistent definition I found was this: Sexism is defined as having an attitude, condition, or behavior that promotes stereotyping of social roles based upon one's gender. Okay, that wasn't exactly what I had in mind. My definition was, well, simplistic and more limited. It turned out that the rest of the folks in the conversation also had very different definitions of what sexism was. Agreeing on a definition really changed the conversation. What about you? Does this definition change the conversation a bit for you too? As I proceed with this conversation, I'll keep coming back to this definition as a touchstone.
After figuring out the definition for sexism, the next place most of my conversations went dealt with folks exchanging images and "judging" whether they were sexist or not. How about we play the same game?
Let's start in the realm of fashion. As a guy who used to do fashion photography, I know there are all kinds of issues around fashion photography when it comes to depictions of women. What do you think? Sexist?
Photography: © Zhang Jingna; Model: Natalia Bonifacci/Ford LA
Yes or no?
Does the image have an attitude, condition, or behavior that promotes stereotyping of social roles based upon her gender? I might be naive, but she strikes me as being a strong, independent, and intense person. Is she sexy? Some might say so (I think she's too skinny), but she is showing some flesh. Does that promote a stereotype of a social role? I don't think so, but I'm open to the idea that it might. Now you could definitely have a conversation about whether this is an image that you want your daughter to use as a role model about body acceptance, but that isn't the same thing as sexism, is it? So is the image sexist? My straw poll ended up tied among the folks I polled.
What about this image? It's an illustration of a 1950s "housewife" that I found while reading an article on being a housewife on Femme-o-nomics. Is it sexist?
Yes or no?
Does the image have an attitude, condition, or behavior that promotes stereotyping of social roles based upon her gender? When I did my straw poll on this one, 100% of the folks told me that it was sexist. The consensus was that she was shown in a position of submission and servitude. Many folks took the greatest umbrage with the image because of the caption "Life can be wonderful." They felt that the depiction supported a stereotype that was deprecating and demeaning to the role of the wife.
Now here was the rub in this straw poll. For each group, I showed them only a single image. I didn't show them both images. After I compiled the results, I went back to each group and showed them the other image and asked them to judge whether that image was sexist. When they looked at the two images together, the conversation around what was sexist and what wasn't completely changed. I was accused of playing a trick on them. The truth was . . . I did.
As you might have guessed, I have an agenda here. I'd like to dismiss the term sexism for a bit and get down to the meat of the subject. I think that the term "sexist" is convenient, inflammatory, and polarizing. It doesn't actually address the issue that most folks are asking me to address—and that is the issue of the role and depiction of women (and I get a surprising number of requests about men as well) in fantasy.
So the real question seems to be this: Where do you stand on the depictions of characters in fantasy, and specifically in D&D? Do you disagree with depictions of "perfect specimens" of humanity? Do you want to see normal-looking folks charging into battle? Do you want to see folks only in poses that look "natural"? Do you want to cover all skin on an armored warrior (male or female)? Do you want to see an equal number of depictions of men and women? Do you want to see depictions of equivalent visual strength? Do you want to see both men and women in distress, not just damsels in distress? These are just a few of the questions that have been forwarded to me.
Let's look at an example. If you are a reader of the D&D Comics, you should be familiar with one of the Fell's Five, Tisha. She's a strong and capable character with lots of spunk. The majority of the folks that I've talked to love her character, but a few have commented to me about her depiction. They acknowledge that my main audience is older males. They acknowledge that her "role" doesn't require armor. They even acknowledge that her look is in line with the general depictions within 4th edition. Despite all that, they still have some concerns about her depiction. Too much skin, too sexy, too large breasted, and so on.
For every email I get along these lines, I get ten from folk who love her. Does that make me right in my decision to "approve" this depiction? I'm sure there will be folks on both sides of that argument. I made a decision based upon the business goals, the sales channel, the audience as it was defined, and what was acceptable in the market at the time. Times change. Audiences change. Business goals change. And fan acceptance changes. When that happens, I change my decision-making process as well. Remember, I mentioned earlier that I am a professional creative. I make decisions that help keep me employed. If the world changes, the way I do business changes.
So I get it. Many of you want to see more respect shown to the depictions of genders in our product. You'll get no argument from me on this point. I, too, get sick of DD cups and chainmail bikinis. I'll admit it: many artists have a love affair with beautiful objects (including me—remember, I mentioned this earlier about myself). It is tough to get an artist to give me an image of an "ugly" character without actually asking for it. They inherently want to give me something beautiful. Does that mean we're always stuck with amazingly beautiful people in amazingly awkward poses in stereotypical roles? No, we have opportunities to show more diversity and realism.
We are having serious discussions about where the lines will be drawn and putting down guidelines for the brand. Will you always agree with our depictions? No, no more than there is agreement about the appropriateness of depictions of the sexes in art from the 70s, 50s, or other eras. Just like the little experiment I did earlier with the images—everyone comes at the depictions with their own baggage, perceptions, expectations, and definitions of what is appropriate. In a discussion I had earlier this week with a fan, he said that it has become obvious to him that the only way to make everyone happy with the art would be to put empty boxes in the book and have everyone imagine what the art should look like. That is so true, but it doesn't mean I'm not going to give it a try.
So, in the end, I come back to a question.
If you were going to write the visual guidelines for D&D, what would be important to you? Would you require that we aim for an equal number of female and male depictions? Realistic poses? Standardized proportions? Or would you swing the other direction and ask for something completely different? This is your chance to be heard and to make your mark on the next iteration of D&D. How many times will you have the ear of the creative director like this? Be bold and make your voice heard.
I'm going to ask one favor, though. Please don't use the comments section to argue with someone's point of view. Just write your own. I'm not looking for the "right" answer. I'm looking for your answer.
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.