• What WOTC Says to its Female Audience (and What We Hear)

    by  • May 14, 2012 • Design & Art • 11 Comments

    It is very rare for large companies of any kind to talk openly about sexism.  It is unlikely to have any sort of good result for them.  So while I am trepedatious about writing critically about WOTC’s latest efforts in this regard, I think it will be helpful for both them and their readers to understand exactly what kind of message they are sending.  Jon Schindehette, D&D Next’s Art Director, has written an article for WOTC entitled “Sexism in Fantasy”.  He has bravely taken the first step in opening a dialog, and I will take the next step in trying to understand what he is saying.

    When you are doing any sort of writing, it helps to consider the audience you are writing for.  You may be writing for more than one, and so sometimes you will call out those different groups.  I’ll do it here as an example:  [To Jon Schindehette and his fans–]  For the record, I think Jon has written some great stuff about D&D Next.  His articles have given me a positive feeling about where the art direction for the new system is going.  He seems like a good and thoughtful person and I get the impression that he is very good at his job.

    Jon is writing to two different groups of people here:  “group A”, women gamers and their allies, and “group B”, the main bulk of D&D’s male fan base.  Here, necessarily summarized, is what he says, and what I hear when I read it.

    Jon says:  “This has been the hardest column for me to write.”  I hear:  “Writing about sexism in fantasy art is hard.”  I agree!  It is a difficult topic.

    Jon says:  “How about if I start with a bit about me personally?”  Jon gives a brief description of his upbringing, his respect for women, and his professionalism.  I hear:  “I am not a sexist.”  OK, I can understand why you want to get that out there.  But, you have to understand, it comes across as a bit defensive.  Generally, these sorts of caveats are used when you expect to be accused of sexism.

    Jon says:  “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.”  I am a bit confused.  What are “both sides” of the sexism argument?  Pro and con?  Exists or doesn’t exist in a particular work?   But I certainly hear: “I have a job to do and I need the money to put food on the table, and sometimes my personal opinion has to take second place to that.”  Fair enough.  I do this as a hobby, so I’m freer to express my personal opinion in that regard.

    Jon says:  “Are you aware of the definition of sexism? I wasn’t.”  Going back to audiences for a second, this was not written for me.  This was written for “group B”, Jon’s mainstream male audience.  I hear:  “I am giving my mainstream male audience the opportunity to save face, while at the same time trying to get them to think about this subject in a different way, so possibly they might change their opinions.”  Well, sure, why not.  I’m all in favor of trying to change people’s minds about something in a way that will work and not be overly confrontational.  People who are confronted directly tend to sit back on their heels and refuse to budge.  I’m not sure that this approach will work, but I’m willing to let Jon run with it.

    Things are going so well, right?  Here’s where they become problematic:

    Jon then shows two pictures, neither of which could really be categorized as typical fantasy art.  He asks which are sexist.  And he says that when he switched pictures, the conversation that people were having about sexism changed!  Like, there could be more than one kind of sexism!  How could that be possible? [/sarcasm]

    Jon says:  “I was accused of playing a trick on them. The truth was . . . I did.”  I hear:  “This whole sexism thing is really a trick to make us say the wrong thing!  There is no right answer.  Sexism is confusing and no one really agrees on it.  We can’t get it right, and when you ask us to get it right, you are trying to trick us!”  Followed immediately by:

    Jon says:  “I think that the term “sexist” is convenient, inflammatory, and polarizing.”  I hear:  “You can’t call me a sexist, it’s mean.”  Jon, chill out!  You already told me you weren’t a sexist back in the first part of the article!  But what you are really saying is, “you can’t call anyone a sexist.”  And that is not cool.  There are people who are sexist.  You need to realize and deal with that fact.  And we will call them on it.  And if you don’t like being called names, you should hear the stuff that we get called on a regular basis.  Toughen up.

    So, back to us trying to trick you into being sexist.  Jon then presents a bunch of questions representing stuff he has been asked by “group A,” women gamers and their allies.

    Jon says:  “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?”  I hear:  Pretty much exactly what you said.   This is a good run down of some of the big issues.  Glad to see we are back on track.

    Jon then presents a picture that is a typical example of fantasy art.

    "Tisha" from the D&D Comics

    Jon says:  “She’s a strong and capable character with lots of spunk.”  I hear:  “She’s got a lot of spunk, you know, moxie, she’s a tough dame, a sharp broad, she’s probably been a very naughty girl…”  You lost me with the word “spunk,” Jon.   For me, that word just has too many connotations of a female stereotype, not a actual real character.  Ditto for the word “fiesty.”  If you want me to take the character seriously, these are words to avoid.

    Jon says:  “[Some folks I have talked to] 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.”  I hear:  “You realize you are in the minority right?  For every one of you, there are ten men who enjoy ogling this character’s breasts?  Just making sure you know where you stand.”

    Jon says:  “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.”  I hear:  “I am going to do what the majority of the fans want, and, as stated above, they like breasts the size of a woman’s head.”

    Jon says:  “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.”  I hear:  “It is ok to do what the majority want and ignore the minority, because there is no way to make everyone happy.”

    So, we are back at square one.  Why are we talking about sexism in D&D?  There is no point to talking about sexism, since it is difficult and confusing and no one agrees on it.  So we should fall back on making business decisions based on what sells the most.  And what sells the most is sex and violence, both of which D&D should have covered.

    Jon says:  “If you were going to write the visual guidelines for D&D, what would be important to you?  . . .  This is your chance to be heard and to make your mark on the next iteration of D&D. . . .  Be bold and make your voice heard.”  I hear:  “We will now take a poll, and remember, you are still in the minority.  But maybe if you can be loud enough, we will listen.”  Jon, you just told me that you weren’t going to listen if it made no business sense to do so!  You made it very clear from your questions above that you know what the issues are.  You know what we, “group A”, are concerned about.  And you have acknowledged receiving that message.  But if you say that you are still going to go with what the majority male audience wants, what exactly is the point?

    I will predict what will happen as a result of this article.  People will continue to disagree about sexism in fantasy art.  Some people will call Jon a sexist.  Many people will defend him.  WOTC will continue to make business decisions based on the wishes of the majority of their fan base.  And, most importantly, WOTC will continue to point to articles like this as examples of how they are reaching out to the female fan base and trying to acknowledge their needs.

    So here is my message to WOTC:

    Telling me that you have listened to my opinion is great.  Thanks.  And thanks for letting me know that you aren’t going to be taking that opinion seriously until there are more women gamers or less sexism in the world, because you are a business and have to make business decisions.  So, if I want to be successful in getting the kind of fantasy art I would like to see in D&D, I need to create more women gamers and eliminate more sexism.   I’ll get right on that.



    I am a gamer, a lawyer, and a mom. Not necessarily in that order.

    11 Responses to What WOTC Says to its Female Audience (and What We Hear)

    1. avatar
      May 14, 2012 at 17:36

      Thanks for phrasing things to clearly and courteously, Vivian. I would have been far grumpier. I really wish Mr. Schindehette and other people with some measure of clout on the matter would do their homework and read up about the basics of the issue rather than spending so much time explaining why we shouldn’t talk about sexism.

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    2. avatar
      May 14, 2012 at 17:43

      Yeah, that WotC post really hit a lot of the usual “I’ve seen a lot of callouts on this and I’m trying to figure out what the magic words are to do a +10 armor vs. sexism callouts spell” stuff. The whole ramble about “I can’t be sexist! Look at how not sexist I am!” shows that he’s not quite at the point where he’s figured out the problem.

      Of course, the fact that he seems to think it’s an either-or game, in which you can either have ALL sexy ladies or ALL unsexy ladies, but never a mix of different types, shows that, too. Why is half and half never an option for these folks?

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      • avatar
        May 15, 2012 at 16:47

        Because moderation is hard, much like delayed gratification and empathy.

        I’m not even being sarcastic. Whether it’s hardwired or cultural, I don’t know, but these things are skill sets that need to be cultivated, and the sad truth is they aren’t skill sets that our culture does a great job at encouraging (though we talk a good game).

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    3. avatar
      May 14, 2012 at 18:08

      Thank you for writing this. You hit on so many of the points I was feeling but having trouble putting into words.

      I’m so frustrated with how the conversation is framed where even the people looking for the “+10 against sexism armor” (great image there Sooz!) make it about the “unfun feminists who don’t want us to look at boobies” v. the “fun feminists who think it’s totally great” (for which anyone should just feel free to substitute “exceptional women.”)

      I like boobies. I do. I just want a little variety in my art. I don’t read the same book over and over, I don’t play the same PC over and over (well, some people might argue that, but I maintain…) and even when I replay a video game it’s not usually for 500 times right after I finished it.

      Sometimes it’s like the people in these discussions are rehashing Bread and Jam for Frances, only they never get to the part where she wants something other than bread and jam.

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    4. avatar
      Darla Magdalene Shockley
      May 14, 2012 at 18:56

      1. OH MY GOD SERIOUSLY? at “spunk.” Really dude? Really?? That is one of my very few “I’m pretty sure I just don’t want to talk to you at all” heuristics. It’s a heuristic, of course, I’m sure there’s someone, somewhere who would use that word that I might erroneously refuse to talk to, but, eh, I think I’ll survive. (I will admit I couldn’t get through his post, there was just too much eye-rolling. And I’m not a D&D player, so I didn’t figure it mattered that much to get through it. So I haven’t read the “spunk” quote before now.)

      2. Minor disagreement, but honestly, I do prefer to avoid calling people “sexist.” I mean, maybe some people are sexists, sure, no argument. But most people don’t want to think of themselves that way, and I’d rather not get into an argument with anyone over whether they personally are sexist, because it’s simply completely irrelevant. What’s relevant is what was said or done, and how it is harmful. (In case someone in the world isn’t aware of this, what I’m saying here is very, very similar to what Jay Smooth is saying in his How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist video.)

      And certainly plenty of non-sexists say sexist things. I’ve been known to say some awfully sexist things. (And you know, of course I’d rather not consider myself a sexist.)

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    5. avatar
      May 15, 2012 at 07:06

      Great article, though I would say that the sentiment it expresses is not exclusively what women hear from WOTC. I sure heard it after reading the original Jon Schindehette article, though I struggled to clearly organize my thoughts/feeling on the subject. Vivian has pretty much nailed exactly how I felt. I also can’t help but feel that Jon is somehow speaking for me, since I’m the “majority” audience for D&D, and I don’t like that at all. What he says in that article is certainly not how I feel.

      Jon’s comment of “artists like to draw pretty things” and “do you want to see perfect specimens or ‘normal’ people” threw up a lot of red flags. As did the “for every email I get (complaining about Tisha) I get ten saying that they love her.” I noticed he didn’t detail the contents of those “I love Tisha” emails. I wonder what they would say. I imagine they’re something along the lines of “GAWD, I love that Tiefling chick. What’s her name? You know, the one with the huge boobs. Heh heh heh.” I actually blushed and quickly scrolled past that character illustration when reading the article on my smartphone while on a crowded train. I felt dirty just looking at it. It’s perfectly fine to include sexual content in RPG games, in my opinion. Like Monsterhearts, for example. But if your game isn’t about sex at all, like D&D, then why do we need such obviously hyper-sexualized characters? We don’t.

      Honestly, I think I would have preferred it if Jon had just bluntly stated that a product has to appeal to the majority of it’s target audience to be successful. Explain that the target audience for D&D is young males, and that unfortunately means giving them lots of blood and breasts. He didn’t really give any indication that WOTC will attempt to include more character diversity in the art for D&D Next, which bugs me. As Vivian noted, all he said is “we’re asking what you want to see, but we’ll go with when makes the best business sense”. I’m not optimistic about this at all.

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    9. avatar
      June 27, 2012 at 21:09

      Okay, wow. Having read this in entirety, I’m … a bit surprised. That guy writes near nothing about the actual issue. The article is a massive, massive evasion of the topic. There certainly is much to be said about fantasy art, and sexism’s got a gray area, like near every social issue, but there are some things hard to dismiss as not sexist. And it’s not only the dress code.

      Take, for example, this: http://tinyurl.com/Frazetta-Mars

      Both characters have correct physiques. The woman’s proportions are very realistic, the breasts size especially, she even has that dreaded slight stomach bulge. Same about the guy, whose tight leopard undies show the appropriate bulge. Limbs are of the same length, and none of them is especially more dressed than the other (the guy has a floaty cape, the woman has a bra-thing, both have hats of strangeness). Can’t complain, right? Well, no. The poses make abundantly clear who is in control here. Even if both were dressed in burquahs, it’d still be sexist. Like those two: http://www.wizards.com/dnd/images/Dragons_Eye_View_5-2_2.jpg .

      Now, le’s have a look at Tisha: http://www.wizards.com/dnd/images/Dragons_Eye_View_5-2_3.jpg

      Sexy? Well, no. She is … deformed. Where should I begin. Her head is too small for the rest of her body. Her leg/body ratio is somewhere around 1,3/1. Her top must be some kind of magical item (but hey, D&D). And finally, her left leg is 30 cm longer than her lfet leg. Seriously. What is that? I’d rather have Frazetta there. At least he’s unashamed of his exploitiveness, and can do proportions.

      And there’s something that has been bugging me with fantasy art for a long time. Every female has tits, no matter the race. They can be reptiles, fishes or daemons or celestial star-spawn, they always seem to come with mammaries, because … tits apparently sell. That’s just stupid. What do reptilioid races need tits for? They’re no mammals. Or insects? Cthulhoids? If you do non-humans, you might want to consider not using human signifiers of gender. Or is fantasy art seriously supposed to cater to monster girl fetishists? I think not. I HOPE not.

      Of course, there are some problems fantasy artists have to deal with, and it’d be unfair not to adress them. that post SHOULD have adressed them, instead of being apologetical about bad drawing like Tisha.

      Firstly, nakedness. Nakedness itself is, I think, not evil and people should relax a bit about it. It’s customary for barbarians to be naked (I always wonder why female barbarians always seem to wear bra strips though, can’t be support). Honesty and conscious use is the key here, I thinkm. Naked barbarians are perfectly okay. This is an old, old, ancient trope, datig back to at least early roman times, probably a lot further. An absence of clothes as a visible clue or symbol of an absence of civilisedness is as old as civilisation and clothes themselves, I’d wager. Similarily, if nakedness somehow is a racial feature, fine with me. However, it shouldn’t be affecting only females all the time, and in all cultures illustrated. And as seen in the Frazetta piece, though, poses and composition make the sexism, not necessarily nakedness.

      Secondly, there is the problem of armour. A woman in plate mail with a helmet is a short knight. Usually, there might just be a Brienne who is 7″ tall (http://tinyurl.com/Brienne-Jaime); if she wears a helmet you have a knight with an unusually feminine voice at best. To visually signify some character is female you have to take into account female secondary sexual organs and attributes – waistline, hip/shoulder-ratio, and breasts. So long as they’re wearing a reasonably closed helmet, you have to leave realism aside for the sake of signifying your depicted character is female. I’m not talking chainmail bikini here, but form-fitted plate is pretty much a nescessity. You can, of course, do this subtly (http://tinyurl.com/GuildWars2-1), somewhat tastefully if with artistic license (http://tinyurl.com/GuildWars2-2), or … not (http://tinyurl.com/DDO-femhvy). Same goes, on a side note, for scifi settings; a woman in stormtrooper plate is just a short(ish) storm trooper.

      The third point is the audience, plain and simple. You can disagree with that being a good thing and work yourself to change the audience, but this is what art directors in fantasy games just have to work with. They’re still making products to sell, not l’art pour l’art. So, of course art in games books needs to be eye catching. Of course sex sells. And of course Jon has to balance aestetics and financial interests of his employed.

      But nobody is asking for no sexy bodies. Just to take care of somewhat realistic bodies (there is exemplary looks, and there is grotesques, like Tisha) if the publisher wants to avoid putting off women as customers. It’s not like fashion photography is likely to discourage most women from buying fashion either, even though it’s skirting the line between exgtreme proportions and way out there too. It manages to stay on the good side mostly, however. fantasy art … not so much. Why? It’s actually mostly poses. As with Frazetta and the housewife above, whether or not an image is perceived as projecting a clear power structure between a man and a woman – or even an observer and a woman – depends on pose so much more than on the degree of skin showing. I’m not saying chainmal lingerie is a good thing, but in the end, poses are, I think, the most important thing to take into account.

      The fashion image (http://www.wizards.com/dnd/images/Dragons_Eye_View_5-2_1.jpg) actually is a good example of doing an exploitive, sexified image right, I think.

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