This might be mildly NSFW.
Today we’re going to look at how women are depicted graphically in fantasy roleplaying games (as distinct from sexism or misogyny).
Let’s start with some basic assumptions.
- It would be nice to have more women playing D&D. The surveys, which you can still take, suggest that women make up only about 15-20% of the player base (though, to be fair, that’s an average of about one woman per 5-person group). Having so few women changes the flavor of the game.
- Unrealistic and hypersexual female models make many women feel uncomfortable. More on this below.
- The way women (of all species within the game) are portrayed has an effect on how people approach the game and how they view the female players. You see this most often in the form of transferred misogyny. When someone starts with the idea that “it’s just a game, so the normal rules don’t apply”, unacceptable behavior starts to creep into the out-of-game experience.
How the world sees women
Okay, guys, do me a favor and follow this link or this link. What you’re looking at is the general consensus for “plus-sized”. That’s right, the world considers these women fat. Let’s take a look at some of them that stand out:
To me, both of those women look healthy (Well, the one in the middle could do with a little less zombie makeup, but that’s a personal preference). I find this next picture fascinating:
This is a women’s magazine. According to the industry, the woman in the middle is a “traditional” model, while the one on the right is a “bustier, more athletic” model who has appeared in the swimsuit editions of Sport’s Illustrated. The woman on the left? She’s so “fat” that she’s barely employable as a model (I’m not kidding). Oh, and that little teaser up in the upper right hand corner – “Size 2, Size 12… Whatever!” You should know that the average American woman is between a size 11 and 14.
Yes, the woman on the right has a little bit of a tummy, but look at this picture of her by herself:
Now go back to the picture of the two models together. Katya Zharkova, the model on the right, is 5’10” and about 135-145 pounds. Except for being a bit tall, she’s actually average. The other model in the picture essentially has the build and bust of an adolescent.
Women are constantly being told that their bodies are wrong and that they aren’t sexy in the right way, sometimes in very subtle ways.*
How D&D presents women
Now, you might be asking, “Isn’t this a D&D blog? I get that girls are bombarded with images telling them that they need to be impossibly thin, but what does this have to do with roleplaying?” Well, one of the primary aspects of roleplaying is projection onto the character. When people build characters, they generally make them with most of the qualities they like about themselves, then add a couple of qualities they wish they had. If you watch your players closely enough, their characters will tell you a lot about the person they wish that they could be.
Now, when a woman turns to D&D to create her idealized self, what does she see? Sadly, the imagery is actually worse than that found in modeling. For one thing, take a look at Jim Hines trying to assume poses from fantasy covers. Yikes. Whereas there’s a limit to what Photoshop can do, fantasy art knows no such restriction. Google Images can barf up some weird things, but “fantasy women” shows us a fairly clear standard:
- No more than about 130 pounds, often much less.
- Gravity-defying C or D-cup breasts.
- Narrow hips (an oddity given the curves required for that bosom).
- No upper body strength to speak of.
- A perfectly flat, but not muscular, midriff.
Note how, in the picture below – which is about as good as a fantasy picture is going to get – even the Half-Orc and the Dwarf are not permitted to be stocky (the Half-Orc is done in a very She-Hulk, “I’m just a very tall supermodel” style, though at least she doesn’t have the pipestem arms).
If you want to do some extra research, I suggest Google Image searches for “D&D women” and “D&D fighter”. You should also read this article which examines the poses by gender for 4e and a bunch of MMOs.
The thing is, if a female gamer wants to look like that fantasy, she has to change herself. No amount of situps is going to give you cleavage. A male gamer, by contrast, generally only needs to improve himself. That’s a huge distinction. If you ask a woman how she would become that idealized self, it’s likely she doesn’t have a clue. For almost every woman, that dream will never be within reach. Ask a guy the same question and he need only point you to the original Conan the Barbarian. Even if he never musters up the willpower, the road is all laid out for him. It feels possible, if not probable.
Actually, think about Conan for a minute and what his life is like outside of fighting. He gets to drink and eat what he wants (as an aside, he gets to be a giant man-whore, to boot). Do you think the same could be said of the female fantasy character? If you want an excellent example of this, go look through Shelly Mazzanoble’s columns with an eye towards what she says about food and appearance (I’m not going to discuss Mazzanoble’s dreadful effect on women’s perspectives on D&D, that job was masterfully done here. If you want to take a break from reading this and read through that entire blog like I did, I won’t mind.).
At the end of the day, roleplaying is supposed to be a refuge from feeling bad about yourself.
To get back to the point, your character is your avatar and how you feel about that avatar has a profound effect on how you approach the game. If I were the art director for D&DNext, these are the guidelines I would establish:
- Yes, boobs are cool, but no more cleavage shots. They’re gratuitous and awful.
- Speaking of breasts, a little variance might be nice. We get that you’re trying to make it easy to visually distinguish that the character is female, but maybe you could use cues other than a big ‘ol rack? (Yes, I’m using the vulgar term there. The way breasts are depicted in fantasy art pisses me off.)
- DO NOT SEND IN A PICTURE OF A WOMAN IN A POSTURE THAT YOU YOURSELF CANNOT COMFORTABLY ASSUME.
- We want pictures of women doing exciting things. Standing around looking at a glowing spell is not exciting. Also, try to have the women’s level of violence equal that of the men. If the scene is about a bloody fight, there’s nothing wrong with depicting a woman about to gut her enemy.
- Pay attention to the visible BMI. No images of women (as distinct from children) with a BMI of less than 20 will be accepted. Also, preference will be given to depictions that show realistic upper arms and thighs.
- Stop baring midriffs. If a woman is wearing armor, that armor should cover exactly the same things it would on a man.
- In fact, just stop putting women in gear that would be completely ineffective. If any sort of double-sided tape would be required, don’t even bother.
- Put pants on the female figures. Stripper boots do not count.
- Women need to be portrayed in active roles, rather than just standing around.
- It’s okay for a woman to have scars, missing limbs and blemishes. It’s also okay for them to be old and have a BMI > 25.
- “Sexy healer” and “sexy spellcaster” are sometimes foods. Actually, they’re that plate laden with bacon grease and chicken gravy that no one should ever eat. We can also never do “sexy archer” ever again.
- It’s okay for women to be winning a fight. Really, it is.
- It’s also okay for them to be doing something other than defending, running or screaming.
- When a woman is wielding a sword (and it’s more than okay to depict her doing so), at least pretend to give her the upper-body strength required.
- Save the bikinis for the beach.
What would your art rules be?
* – If you don’t believe me, go back and look at the two pictures of Zharkova. In the first, they have gone to some lengths to make her more butch than the “normal” model. To begin with, the other model’s head is inclined in a submissive posture. The other model is also visibly shorter, when Zharkova (at 5’10) is about average for professional models. Zharkova’s hand is on the other model’s buttocks and she has a wistful, dreamy look on her face (in a creepy way, they almost suggest that Zharkova is molesting a child). Zharkova is not wearing makeup. This is yet another “this is how big women are” statement, which is to say that they’re probably lesbians.
The second picture is actually worse. Putting aside the uncomfortable heels, when Zharkova has to be sexy on her own, they put her in an extremely submissive and highly uncomfortable posture. It almost screams “I pretend that I don’t care that I’m a fatty, but I’ll do whatever it takes to make you like me!” a.k.a. “You can mount me if you like!” They add bright lipstick so that you know she’s aroused, then they give her more gaudy rings. The overall impression is definitely not one of empowerment.
Oh, and as a “reward” for having stuck with me this far…