Where Are Her Clothes?

Game art can enrich a roleplaying game. While browsing your friendly local game store, games will often draw you in with their cover. That said, too many times, covers look like this:

Pathfinder Cover

In the comic-book community, there's a lot of discussion surrounding the portrayal of women in comic art, and we're having a lot of similar debates with regard to roleplaying games. Impossible poses, side boob—or in some cases, side and back boob—and an underdressed female character are just some of the problems in this Wayne Reynolds cover for The Inner Sea World Guide. But it is far from the only problematic cover I can bring up.

Disclosure: I was a proofreader for Shadowrun: Attitude. I was also incredibly disappointed when the book came out, and it was because of the cover. I'm a fan of Echo Chernik, who did the art: I'd happily own most of her artwork produced to date. This cover was painful for me to see, as it shows very little of Chernik's talent or vision. In the enlarged version, you can see more of the background, in which characters are posed naturally, involved in tasks and conversation. That version would have made a stronger cover, don't you think?

Full or abridged, the problem I have is with the woman in the foreground. Her attire, her pose, her everything is aimed at the viewer. She's a sexualized object, and sadly a compelling example of something we see over and over in game art. There is a fixation on "strong female characters," and that's become shorthand for art featuring thin, white women in provocative clothing, sometimes armed, and rarely holding their weapons with any degree of familiarity.

So what's the one cover I hear shouted, by women and men, as an example of overly sexualized art?

The cover for Exalted: Savant and Sorcerer, by the artist Hyung Tae Kim. This isn't a recent release by any means, but Exalted is a game people still play. When the third edition of Exalted comes out, is the art still going to look like this?

Women of color are rare, women in reasonable armor or the game equivalent to everyday clothing are unusual, and mixed body types are practically unheard of. Art tells us a lot about game worlds—and art like this tells us that these game worlds contain highly sexualized women present for the heterosexual consumption of men. The defense that these images are for women attracted to other women is bogus. The cheesecake we're treated to on a regular basis in game art is geared for the male gaze.

Indeed, tabletop games often ignore the presence of sexual orientations beyond the garden-variety heterosexual, which makes game art a double special of sexism and heterosexist assumptions. This is unfortunately a mirror to our everyday lives.

When we play games, we often sit down at the table to have fun. To enjoy ourselves. To escape from the day to day experience of street harassment, othering and sexist daily grind. Game art that deprives us of choices, of characters who look like us, that presents women the same way we are served up for consumption, domination and control? We don't need a game to experience that. The sampling I've presented in a small slice of a widespread problem.

We need games—or at least their art—to be places where we can, to some degree, find escape. Fiction can be empowering, and inspiring. So can games. To push for a more diverse portrayal of women is not making mountains of molehills, or being "unhappy bitches who hate/are jealous of other women." Nor is it "a negative application of my energies." These are all things that have been said to my face and online, usually by men. The subtext is that asking for a diverse portrayal of women, and asking to be seen as more than an object of consumption, is abhorrent.

I'm not asking for a ban on sexy characters or skimpy clothes. I'm asking for a more varied portrayal. I am not asking for an exclusion of men, merely an inclusion of women. I am asking as a participant, and as a creator, to be heard. For my hobby to stop telling me to shut up.

by Lillian Cohen-Moore
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10 Comments Have Been Posted


Very well-said, especially the last paragraph.

History of scantily clad ladies in comic art

While comic art isn't necessarily the parent of gaming art (though I sort of have it organized that way in my head), they do influence each other. There's a great blog post by Silvia Moreno-Garcia about some of the roots of "cheesecake and beefcake" http://silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/2012/09/im-sexy/
A lot of her other blog posts are good, too. Reading your post made me think of hers.

Well said

I would like to echo the "particularly the last paragraph" kudos. But also add a pet peeve of my own related to the common reponses - those who respond "but men are portratyed in ridiculous ways too".

Oh God, how many times have I

Oh God, how many times have I heard "you're just jealous of that girl!" any time I have critisized a characters design. All I do is suggest that the girls that are physical fighters have an athletic build.

escher girls

i'd like to recommend this page here: http://eschergirls.tumblr.com/ that wants to "archive and showcase the prevalence of certain ways women are depicted in illustrated pop media, specifically how women are posed, drawn, distorted and sexualized out of context, often in ridiculous, impossible or disturbing ways that sacrifice storytelling".

really a great place for people who love comis and alike and who want to see a change.

Another vote for Escher Girls

It is hilarious as well as frequently being informative. I didn't realise how much bad art I was giving a pass to until I started reading that - not just the T&A poses, the lack of armour or spray-painted clothing, the improbable builds of characters who are supposed to be strong/athletic/teenaged but also the bad anatomy. For example: the limbs of differing size; the melty boobs; the lack of feet and hands; the spine-breaking stances; the lack of space for internal organs. Saw one or two of those art mistakes on that last cover.

Howsabout a Bechdel Test?

Thanks for an insightful analysis. I've been gaming for over thirty years, and the presence of scantily-clad sexualized females bothers me as much now as it did then.

Seriously, does anyone really make the argument that these images are in any way aimed at females? Wow.

Your points are excellent. I agree that what's needed is more variety of portrayal, and a wider sense of possibilities.

If it's okay to bring it up, it was while re-acquainting myself with the second edition Shadowrun rulebook that I came up with an alternate Bechdel Test for gaming illustrations.

The Bechdel Test is, of course, comics artist Alison Bechdel's famous rule for whether a movie is worth watching. To pass the test the movie has to have 1. at least two named female characters 2. who talk to each other 3. about something other than a man, marriage, or babies.

I confess to being irritated by the Shadowrun illustrations, which were chock full of males of all ages, sizes, and types doing all sorts of interesting things, and once in a while a picture would include a female person whose job and role was clearly "and one of them is -- a woman!" (To be fair -- perhaps? -- this book dated to the early '90s; then again, it sure does not look like things have improved.)

So I mentally invented the illustration Bechdel test. In order to pass it, the image has to have 1. at least two females 2. who are interacting with each other 3. not obviously over a man.

The second edition Shadowrun book fails on all counts. One picture has two females in it: "escorts" of two males, dressed identically (though one is a dwarf) and staring away from each other. I think there might be one other picture with two females in it, again having nothing to do with each other and hanging off the arms of men. Almost all of the other pictures are guys, guys, guys, with no more than one female, and often none at all.

Making people aware of this imagery, and nudging them towards more creative and varied visual expressions of games, is a good cause.

Bechdel test part two

On further consideration, I think I need to make it clear that an illustration should not pass the visual Bechdel test if the two women are having a catfight, or basically a fight of any kind. Their interaction ought to be on a reasonably civilized human level.

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