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.
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.