I’d recently read Jon Schindehette’s discussion on art direction for the nebulous “D&D Next”. Some of my thoughts on the piece are less-than-charitable, but I suppose I can “get” where he’s coming from to an extent. (If you haven’t already read Tracy Hurley’s really excellent reply, you should.) Vivian already discussed many of the issues with this article here. Furthermore, Elin has pointed out that art should speak for itself. I want to talk about the one example he calls out, that I have firsthand experience with.
Forget the two pictures. Let’s talk about Tisha Swornheart, the referenced signature tiefling character in the current D&D comic. Let me get a few things out of the way. 1) I love this comic. It’s hilarious and well-paced and conveys all the fun of being a player character without even so much as leaning on the fourth wall. 2) I love tieflings the way some people love elves. 3) I’m bisexual, so I’m also sexually attracted to women.
I’m not here to criticize the comic or press an agenda about how everyone should play my favorite thing. The last note, however, is a pretty sticky point for me. I can fully admit that sometimes I look at a very male-gaze drawing and have a moment of “wow, that’s HOT” before my rational thought kicks back in and I find myself thinking things like “Why the hell is she wearing HEELS in a dungeon?!” That’s all this allegedly sexy male-gaze art is, though; a moment of lizard-brain titillation. Is that really the message you want to send with your art? This is a subject upon which people far more eloquent than I have expounded upon, so I’m going to move on to using the real example Mr. Schindehette brought up.
All the characters in the current comic are racial stereotypes, but presented in that really fun way a good player plays up said stereotype. The human’s a fighter, the elf is a ranger, the dwarf is a paladin, the halfling’s a thief. The tiefling, Tisha, is a warlock, so no exceptions there. Given that we’re already not breaking any new ground, I can forgive that the de facto party leader is the male warrior, and the party’s only spellcaster is a woman. There have been many a game I’ve played in where this was the case, and it wasn’t sexist, that’s just the way we chose to make our characters. Adric Fell doesn’t go out of his way to treat her differently, and is not characterized as the stereotypical booty-pursuing, testosterone-loaded, heavily armored lunkhead we see in a lot of fantasy.
Tisha is also supposed to be very beautiful. I guess this is supposed to be an excuse for her ridiculous outfit. Mr. Schindehette states some conflict over what to make of her depiction, because some people say they really love her while others criticize what she’s got on. Allow me to alleviate this confusion.
Tisha Swornheart is a well-written character. She has agency. She’s clearly intelligent and capable. She delivers snappy one-liners. She’s never used as a prize for the arm of any of the male characters. When she’s alone with any of the male characters, their relationship is that of two adventuring peers. As a reader thinking of the comic as a transcript of a game, I can easily imagine that she’s actually being played by a woman, with a group that’s comfortable having her around. As a female gamer, I think, “hey, that could be me.” (And it has been!)
This has absolutely nothing to do with the way she is illustrated, which in a comic – if you’ll excuse my language – is a pretty big fucking deal. You’d think this would turn me off, but as discussed elsewhere, it’s okay to like problematic things. In this case, I don’t think the subject material is inherently problematic, and a slight shift in character design would stop this from being an issue.
Let me delineate the problems, from bottom to top. Before you accuse me of splitting hairs, consider that Bree, the other female character, has a perfectly reasonable outfit on.
- Heels. The adventuring heels gotta go. Seriously. Some people love shoes. Some people can pull off walking in any kind of heel. Great! There’s a time and a place for wearing sexy footwear. Trudging through sewers, ancient Dwarven tombs, and the depths of the Feywild are not it. I don’t particularly see anything else wrong with the boot design. Fanciful cool footwear is part of the fun. I just want to see characters wearing shoes with soles that wouldn’t risk personal injury.
- No pants? I’m never sure if she has pants on. If you can’t see the problem with this, I’m not sure what else to tell you. Would YOU wear leggings almost exactly the same color as your skin in real life? In the same context, I mean – that is, under that loincloth looking… thingie she’s wearing. (Closer inspection reveals that no, she is not wearing pants.)
- That Loincloth-looking thingie she’s wearing: Besides the fact that this is absurd, it’s for the sole purpose of showing off her legs as sexual objects. It’s cut so high/slung so low we get a nice eyeful of her hip and lower abdomen. Don’t even try to tell me that isn’t intentional.
- Bare midriff: I’ll never get this. Abs are sexy, but for fuck’s sake, if your vitals are in danger of being stabbed COVER IT UP. Beyond my realistic contentions, the lines draw the eyes straight up to her cleavage. Oh, and for the record? She actually gets stabbed, right in her bare side. (Spoilers?)
- Corset: Why is it unlaced? Does that much skin need to be showing? Don’t corsets usually go down to the waist? Now you’re not even trying to convince me that this image is for any reason other than to turn an otherwise excellent character into pure eye candy.
From the neck up, we do get the sense she’s a beautiful woman. Or at least, I think so. You may think my notes above are unfair, so let me talk about how she’s actually portrayed in a lot of action shots within the comic itself.
The artist can’t seem to decide whether or not she’s a badass or a sex object, and so the depictions of her vary widely from panel to panel. To be clear, I do mean that when the word ‘object’ follows ‘sex’ it then becomes mutually exclusive with ‘badass.’
In some panels, she’s in the terrible hand-on-hip-hip-thrust-out-hello-here-are-my-boobies pose. In others, she’s stabbing villains like it’s no big deal and unleashing bolts of dark magic from her fingertips.
When the party fights enemies armed with chain weapons, there’s a whole panel dedicated to her chest and her arms being bound in front her, while the thief, the paladin, and the ranger all have normal around-the-neck strangulation attempts performed on them.
I have the hardback anthology, which contains a number of splash images between chapters. In the prevailing majority where Tisha is pictured, it’s in some provocative pose either with her hips or breasts thrust out in one way or another. This image is a particular offender. What the hell is she doing? Lounging sexily on some dungeon stairs? Leaping down them? I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s entirely impractical and the pose exists for the purpose of showing off her body. There’s even some creeper in the background to represent the rest of us. Maybe he’s just trying to figure out what it is she’s doing. (As a note, this is also the image on the back of the anthology!)
As the party gets pulled through a suddenly activated portal, the rest of the party members are illustrated falling in an understandable manner, while Tisha is drawn arching her back and making an expression that I can only describe as an “Oh” face. I suppose when tieflings get pulled unwillingly through dimensional portals, they have an orgasm. Someone had better tell my warlord that. (Image commissioned at Otakon 2011, illustrated by Heidi Black)
Those are just a few highlights from the first volume.
What I think we are supposed to be seeing is ‘sexy woman’ but what we get is ‘sex object.’ It’s at a sharp disconnect with her textual characterization. I readily identify with the badass, confident, good-looking, and capable spellcaster. I don’t want to be looked at like a piece of meat. This means that either the writing or the art needs to change, and I don’t think it should be the writing. Take a page from this fan project and see that a fantastical outfit can show skin and still look utilitarian AND sexy. Her arms and legs are bare, and the model is wearing a leather skirt that looks like it might protect her legs while still being flattering. Her midriff is not exposed, and, while minimal, there is even some protection over her chest – all without sacrificing the allure of the character. I find it very difficult to believe that Tisha would be a less appealing character if her top was laced up and covered the majority of her torso, and she, y’know…maybe had pants on. Or at least a real skirt!
To be absolutely clear, this isn’t an argument against sexy art. I am all about sexy art! However, if there is going to be such a beast, it needs to go both ways, and it needs to avoid objectifying its subjects.
In short, Tisha is a good (?) example of the juxtaposition between a well-written, solid female character and the male-gaze-y art that many female characters, especially in Wizards of the Coast products, are frequently subject to. Because she’s a comic book character, there are a lot more places for the art to offend, but many other single-frame objectified images of women are often right next to text that doesn’t quite sync up, and we need to recognize that this is part of the problem.