What do women want in their women characters? Art director and Muddy Colors columnist Lauren Panepinto addresses sexism in art and what she wants creators to think about when developing female characters. Even better, she shares redesigns of popular female characters done by female science fiction and fantasy artists.
Before we begin, I would like to lay some foundation.
First: I am a woman, and I do not speak for all women. I am taking my experience and the collective experiences of the hundreds-strong Women in Fantasy Illustration group* and trying to make this post as general as possible. But including everyone's specific experience is impossible. However, I feel very confident in saying many if not most women have experienced the issues we will be discussing.
Second: Speaking of comments, let's just say right now: I love healthy debate in the comments, and will always welcome other's stories or questions, but will not tolerate trolling, cruelty, or just general jerky behavior. There are plenty of places to go troll on the internet. Muddy Colors is not one of them, and I feel very protective of that. If you're not sure whether you should post a particular comment, maybe read this first.
Third: Make sure you understand the definition of feminism before you start debating it. Feminists want Gender Equality. That's it. That's what it means. Often I think we should ditch the feminist term because it's so loaded and start over with something like "equalist" but there's a lot of reasons not to do that, and until something better sticks, I am going to stick to the stance that I am proudly a feminist, and if you want to hear more about feminism = equality (and especially what guys can do to help equality along) check out the United Nations He for She campaign, which Emma Watson launched with a great speech you can watch here.
Ok, back to the issue at hand. It's a given that in science fiction and fantasy movies, books, comics, and games, the dominant viewpoint has historically been that of a white heterosexual male. This means that characters of alternate race or sexual orientation have been the exception to the rule, and female characters are created through the lens of what male creators and consumers want. For the entirety of my own history as a geek, I have known that I was never the target audience. Although I could find places to fit myself (Princess Leia, Teela, Cheetara, Jean Grey) the media I loved was not created for me. And the writing or physical representations that were just too over the top for me to stomach I just ignored. However, the last 10 years of geek culture has been amazing to watch. With popular culture becoming, in effect, completely merged with geek culture, the fanbase has been blown open, and has grown and changed in many ways. Some changes scare people. Some changes excite people. Sometimes the original core fanbase is actively hostile to the newcomers. I'm not here to go into all those debates. The fact of the matter is, the paddock fence of geek culture has been blown open, and we can no longer pretend women are the exception, or even the minority gender of geekdom.
This means creators need to take women into account when they portray women. Not only because I am exhausted of internet flame wars (I am), and not only because I would love to see the geek culture move towards inclusion instead of building up the fortress walls, but because embracing the huge female market is only going to translate into profit. Look at Ms. Marvel. Look at Agent Carter. This is a giant underserved market dying to throw money at you. And the truth is, you're not losing anything by opening the door to inclusion. Look at the recent success of woman-friendly redesigns and relaunches of Ms. Marvel, Batgirl, and Spiderwoman.
To the alarmists I say this. Women are not trying to "ruin your fun" — if you look at the fiercest debates, they happen at times when something is specifically being created for women or about women and then handled in a way that seems to not take enough women's points of view into account. The Newsweek cover was about sexism. Of course you should be asking women how they feel about it. The Spiderwoman variant cover was a relaunch of a woman-fronted superhero book where women were the target audience. Listen to the outrage. The message is this: "We're fighting so hard for inclusion, and then even in seeming victory, we are not being consulted, and our point of view is not being taken into account." THAT'S why we're so upset. We don't want to take over geek culture and exclude anyone. We just want a place within in we don't have to keep re-earning over and over.This is the most important take-away: Including a woman's point of view does not replace or invalidate the male point of view.
I think about this for every book cover I design. How will this be received by men? How will his be received by women? When there is a woman portrayed on the cover I am hyperaware of this. I will talk about this more in my next column, but the shorthand is, there are ways to please both genders in every depiction of a woman. A woman can be sexy, but not sexualized. A woman can be in an extremely sexy pose, but still have agency. A woman can embrace a diversity of body types. You'll even find thinking of a sexy woman as a subject instead of an object will make your art better. It will give narrative to the piece. (Forget about gender differences, you should be making sure all your characters have agency and are acting as fleshed-out, emotional subjects.)
As I said, I'm going to be discussing this at length in my next post. For now, I'm going to give you a flood of examples of women characters in fantasy art — many infamous for being depictions unwelcoming to women — that have been redesigned by the professional artists in the Women in Fantasy Illustration group. Each woman's point of view is different, and the redesigns reveal what is most important to that woman, whether it's realistic body armor, or it's making sure the woman has a narrative and agency of her own. There is no one right way to depict a woman character, and it is not as simple as "cover her up more" because, as you'll see, some of these redesigns are sexier than the original. And I have found through my own work that you CAN absolutely have a single depiction of a character that is sexy and empowering to all genders. As I said, more on that next post.Enjoy these amazing redesigns for now, and we'll talk about the issues more in my next column!
*Yes, there's a Women in Fantasy Illustration group on Facebook. If you've heard ladies talking about the "WiFi" meet up at an art con, or someone refer to it online, there is a ladies-only private group, started by Zoë Robinson. If you are a woman (however you define it) and you make fantasy art (however you define it) send me or Zoë a Facebook message and we'll add you. Sometimes guys say this isn't fair, but the truth of the matter is, women need a safe space to talk to just women. Guys are welcome to do the same. We are as inclusive as we can be, balanced with as safe as we need to be. Comics art, gaming art, illustration, concept, gallery, dimensional, fashion—all artists are welcome.
All "before" images copyright by their IP owners.
This post originally appeared on Muddy Colors, a blog run for artists by artists working mostly in scifi/fantasy illustration. It was started in 2009 by Dan Dos Santos, who is probably best known as Patricia Briggs' cover artist. This post is republished with permission.