It may have come to your attention that you haven’t really done all that well with regards to positive portrayals of women in your D&D 4th Edition products. Sure, I’ll admit that you’ve certainly made improvements over previous editions; when compared to previous editions, there are more women in 4th Edition portrayed in active poses, more women portrayed as fighters, and more women who look like active and engaging protagonists.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that overall, your portrayals of women are still blatantly sexist across all of your products. The women you portray in your core books and in other products like Dragon Magazine are overall depicted as less active, and as far more suggestive as their male counterparts – with the vast majority of all suggestive figures being female. Furthermore, women are still underrepresented in official D&D art, despite game texts saying that men and women can excel equally at adventuring in the D&D universe.
I know this must seem like an old complaint to you, and one that you’re frankly tired of hearing – I’m quite sure. But please, hear me out. Because, thing is, what I – and other women, and other men for that matter – are asking really isn’t a huge step away from what you’re already doing. The new edition already has a lot of really great art of women who look like they could kick your ass and who aren’t sexualized. There’s a lot of 4th Edition art that blew me away with the quality, and with how exciting they are as representations of female avatars.
Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of art that falls into the same old traps of rendering women as nothing more than sexual objects to provide titillation to your presumed (straight) male viewer.
This is something you should absolutely care about. This is a big deal, and it’s holding D&D back. And here’s why.
A lesson from recent history: DC’s New 52
DC Comics, as you’re probably aware, recently re-launched their series – starting their canon over as part of their “New 52″. As part of this relaunch, they fired most of their female artists and writers and redesigned most of their popular female characters (those who weren’t axed from the DC lineup completely) to appeal exclusively to a male audience.
Not surprisingly, post re-launch, while DC enjoyed an impressive bump in sales – the numbers aren’t as encouraging as they could be. DC’s own market survey post-relaunch revealed that only 5% of readers surveyed are new to comics, and a staggering 93% are male.
Did they succeed in re-capturing lost readers? Yes, though incremental but steady decreases in sales since the relaunch suggest that perhaps the sales bump is temporary. Did they succeed in capturing new markets? THEY ABSOLUTELY DID NOT. They failed utterly at capturing new audiences, as is not surprising. Female and other minority readers were incredibly vocal in voicing their discontent with plans for the New 52 relaunch. DC responded by ignoring their anger, and as a result actively drove away a large portion of their loyal fanbase. Additionally, they alienated potential younger readers who had grown up watching series like the Teen Titans but who were turned off by what they saw as a betrayal of characters that they had come to love through other media than comics.
How is this relevant to D&D 5th Edition and why should you care?
So why bring this up? How is this relevant to the new edition of D&D? Why should any of this matter, when tabletop is an entirely different medium than comics?
Well, apparently one of the goals for the new edition is to greatly expand D&D’s audience - a goal that I whole-heartedly support. As an ardent gamer, I would love to see games like D&D become more accessible and more commonly played! But many of the decisions that Wizards has made with regard to the direction of the new edition don’t exactly fill me with confidence that they have any intention of doing anything other than the same old same old. Mike Mearls and Monte Cook as lead designers don’t exactly signal that Wizards intends to look at any significantly new approaches with regards to their system, which doesn’t give me a lot of hope for the fate of women in 5E art.
In re-launching the New 52, DC decided to exclusively target their primary existing market – young 18-34 straight males – at the expense of female and minority fans who weren’t part of the primary market but who considered themselves fans anyhow. And from the few details that I’ve heard of progress regarding the new edition, it makes me worry that 5E D&D might find itself venturing down the same path. Sexualized cheesecake women in fantasy art is such an established part of the landscape that a team of primarily male designers who have been part of the industry for several decades probably wouldn’t think to question it. BUT THEY SHOULD.
The problem is that “business as usual” is flat out incompatible with drastically expanding D&D’s audience. If D&D is going to succeed in capturing markets outside of the ‘young white nerd male’ market, it needs to stop insulting its potential customers. There is still a very widely held common perception that games like D&D are for socially maladjusted, mouth-breathing, sexually repressed men and that people who play these games are deviants. And frankly, art like the above mostly-naked tiefling warlock doesn’t really do a whole lot to dispel that notion. If D&D wants to shed that negative stereotyping, it needs to change its image – LITERALLY.
Start by getting rid of the stupid cheesecake women and having the women that are portrayed get to be strong, competent, and not pointlessly sexualized. Yes it will require work on your part, as well as some very strong art direction. Artists are people who get used to working within a set of industry standards, and doubtless you’ll have to spend a lot of time getting your artists to re-draw things. It will be tedious and aggravating, and I’m sure you will find yourself wondering why you’re bothering to be so incredibly picky. There’s only so many times you can say “guys, this isn’t what I asked for” before it starts to feel like so much pointless nitpicking. But here’s the thing.
It will be TOTALLY WORTH IT.
It might seem silly, and maybe even a little counter-intuitive, but I guarantee that making an effort to be inclusive will have positive effects on your bottom line. As a counter-example to the DC relaunch, I offer the case of Archie Comics – which have been subject to a boycott because of their recent issue that features a regular character who is a gay man getting married to his partner. As Archie Comics’ CEO admits, several years ago Archie was nothing more than a retro-nostalgia brand that was resting on its laurels and not trying all that hard to pursue new readers. When Bryan Young became CEO, he made a concerted effort to change the direction of Archie Comics by reaching out to new audiences through inclusivity – with one of the major parts of this being the introduction of said gay male character. The issue in question has completely sold out – a testament to the positive effects that inclusivity can have on a stagnating brand.
So please. Take some time to really think about this. You don’t need to improve your depictions of women for feminism, or for social justice, or to change how people view the participation of women in the hobby – though I’m invested in all of those things. You should improve your depictions of women because ultimately, it’s good business and will be good for your bottom line.