Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Subtle, Sinister Side of Sexism in Speculative Stories

Six S's sequentially! Seventy supplemental... uh... points!

First of all, have a fascinating article about sexual dimorphism in the world of WoW from Wired.

Also, check out this picture from the oft-hillarious, sometimes disturbing, and rarely safe for work Boobs Don't Work That Way:

Arguing about the portrayal of men and women in fantasy (especially on the internet) is something of a hobby of mine. In fact, I've gotten a little sick of discussing this, so I'm writing this post in part so whenever this comes up I can simply post a link and say "see this - this is what I think."

First of all, I will the first, second, third, and last to admit that I appreciate fantasy chicks. The Chainmail Bikini has a place of honor in my heart, alongside the Naked Powerful Evil Queen (the Abigail loves to mock me about this one), Swords of Unusual Size, and Extremely Flash Magic.

That said, you need to watch what you're doing. Fill your story (or video game, or movie, or RPG book, or whatever) with half-naked women and you are sending an extremely powerful message: this work is intended to excite and titillate the men in the audience. Women who like women may glean some enjoyment if they can get past the discomfort of seeing their own gender blatantly and unfairly sexualized. Women (and men) who like men need not apply.

This is not a message that I intend to send with anything I create. It's also not a message I like to see in anything I consume.

"But Mark," I hear you say, "you just said that you're a fan of chainmail bikinis and wicked sorceress-queens lounging nakedly on thrones of skulls!" I hear you say it through the Internet. It's a new app I just bought, and it's awesome.


The thing is, there's nothing wrong with sexualized fiction. Mighty thews and heaving bosoms have been with us for as long as there has been writing; check out an accurate translation of the Song of Solomon if you don't believe me. The trick is to consider what message you are sending with your work. Are you excluding someone? Are you only giving eye-candy to a segment of your audience? If the answer is yes, you need to deal with it.

This is where the chart I posted at the start of this post comes in. It may be intended as a bit of tongue-in-cheek commentary, but I think it's actually useful as a guide for balanced titillation. What you need to do is this:

  1. Decide where on the X-Axis your story is going to fall. Is your work Realistic? Heroically Idealized? Sexualized? A combination of the two (for example: largely Heroically Idealized but with a few sexy bits that slip over into Sexualized or largely Realistic but with a Heroically Idealized climax scene).
  2. Keep yourself in that category for both male and female characters. Period.

I mean it with step two. That's where the magic happens. Balance between the depiction of the sexes is what sends the message "this work is for everyone to enjoy!" For every man covered in grime and sweat I want to see a woman who hasn't had a bath since she set out from Caer Amithar a fortnight ago. For every heaving bosom I want to see a mighty thew. For every levitating breast I want to see a buttock of a tautness that defies the durability of human flesh. And no fair skimping on the narration - you must describe everything with an equal degree of loving, sexy, titillating detail. If you aren't up for appealing to everyone in your audience, aim for the left side of the diagram and leave the sexy stuff to the professionals.

And by the way, you should probably take some of those examples with a grain of salt. I'm not into guys, so I'm not sure what actually qualifies as the equivalent of a heaving bosom or levitating breast. Do some research with your female-favoring friends of the male and female persuasion.

There is one more objection I hear a lot, usually from people who make more of their money in one or another artistic industry. "Mark," I hear them say (through the app), "the thing is, people who like to look at guys are used to this sort of thing and they'll buy our art anyway; people who like to look at girls (specifically, male people who like to look at girls) won't."

To this I say: grow the hell up.

Artists - quit being lazy wimps. You want to change the world with your work? Take a stand. The days of fantastic fiction being the purview of men and men alone are long gone - and good riddance to them. Don't hide behind the need to make money. I guarantee you that you can find a way to make a statement you can actually be proud of and also make a buck, if you try.

And all the girl-looking-at-male-people out there - guys, we can do better. I guarantee you that photons bouncing off words describing buff guys (or even - and I know this can be hard to believe - pictures) won't do you any harm. They don't cause eczema, hair loss, or cancer. Everybody else has had to look at what you like for centuries, and they're all fine. You'll live.

Before I go, I want to hear from you. Who does a good job of balancing appeal for those who like boys and those who like girls? What are some works of fantastic fiction that pass the Zeppelin Test?


Unknown said...

I think that Girl Genius does a good job of that.
Tanith Lee can pull it off really well if she wants to (although I have read not that much of her work). And maybe it's just me, but the Anno Dracula trilogy has both male and female characters I find incredibly sexy - even though or because they are never overly described that way. But I have such a crush on Charles Beauregard.

Abigail Hilton said...

Hey, Mark, I wrote you a pretty lengthy response yesterday. Did you delete it? I know it posted.

kindli said...

Artists have been drawing/creating unrealistic women pretty much FOREVER (sometimes in more subtle ways than others), what makes you think they're going to change now?

Not only do boobs not work that way, waists, spines and human proportions don't work that way either.

Mark said...

@ Abigail - I don't know what happened. It's really weird. I got the email, but the comment disappeared. I'll repost it for you and see what happens.

Mark said...

This post originally came from Abigail Hilton and was devoured by the dark gods of the Internets:

Great post, Mark! I couldn't have said it better.

If your goal with your blog is to get reader interaction, posts like this will work. People respond to personal things and to thoughtful discussions of personal opinions. They link that kind of stuff.

Most people don't want to be given homework or writing prompts. No one likes homework, and anyone who writes already has more ideas than they can write in their lifetime.

Also, you can assume that, for every person who posts on your blog, 10 people read without comment. That's just the law of the internet. You cannot force people to interact, but that doesn't mean they're not there.

About your post -

It's probably unnecessary to point this out, but most geeky girls that I know would not go for the "sexy" man in that picture. That guy is what geeky boys want to be, not what women find attractive. He looks like a fantasy version of the dumb jock. He doesn't look smart, funny, or subtle. He looks really boring.

But there's a reason that he gets shopped as "eye-candy" for girls. Straight men are rarely asked to empathize with those unlike them or to enjoy content not designed specifically with them in mind. This is bad for guys. It doesn't just make them boring. It also means they have fewer ways to enjoy the world. There's a lot to be gained from broadening one's empathetic vision (aside from the fact that women will probably like you better).

I do think it's genuinely difficult for many male content producers to put themselves firmly in the shoes of a straight woman or gay man, because they aren't often asked to do it. Often, it takes them a few false starts to get it right, but the effort should still be applauded.

A while back on FB, I linked an article about an attempt to create girl-friendly comics gone horribly wrong -

My favorite quote from that article:

"The woman is clearly in control of the situation and is using the willing male for her own satisfaction. This must be what nerds think feminism looks like. The scene is dressed up as female empowerment, but it’s not there for female readers. Like two straight girls making out in a bar, it.s all about pandering to male hormones. Catwoman is not trying to please the man in the comic, but she is trying to please the man holding the comic.

And that’s fine. There’s a place for that sort of thing. Our culture will always pander to straight men like it thinks they must be important – and, who knows, some day they might be. (Oh, don’t make that face.) There absolutely ought to be room in our culture for this sort of straight male wank bank codswallop.

The problem with the DC reboot is that it’s not leaving much room for anything else."

Yep. Also, as you're probably aware, women buy more books than men by a wide margin. If a person's goal is to sell lots of books, that's worth remembering.

Mark said...

@ Jedediah

Yes and yes. I haven't read the Anno Dracula, but I've read other Tanith Lee, and she's very good at the sexy. All kinds of sexy. Including the incredibly deviant ("for a year, a lion was her master..."). Girl Genius also does a great job of including eye candy for all and sundry.

@ Kindli

So? Just because it's sucked for so long doesn't mean that we can't start to do something about it.

Not that a blog post will do that. I mean, it's a blog. My point stands, though.

@ Abigail 2

I love all your comments. I would basically like to add a big giant +1 to everything you said. I know I wouldn't try to write a sexualized male character without getting input from my female wife and gay male best friends. I also think I read some of the commentaries on the DC reboot fails.

I'd also like to direct you to a private citizens totally failed effort to recreate DC characters. He basically pulled all the sexy (and the awesome, flamboyant, and in some cases, humanity) out of every character - male, female, and space alien - and declared them "safe."'

Except that I can't get to livejournal from school. So, I guess you'll have to find it for yourself :-/.

kindli said...

@Mark, by "forever" I mean literally FOREVER, some the first statues of women were the little fat mother-earth-godesses...

to be fair, boobs *can* probably do that, but they're also fairly stylized.

Mark said...

@ Kindli

Yeah, that Venus has some ta-tas on her. I've got to say, though, that ancient myths are actually a good example of a fairly balanced approach. For every Venus there's an Adonis, after all.

Alan said...

I have been thinking about this for a couple of hours. I really appreciate some of your thoughts Mark and especially Abigail's response.

I certainly find the example images of men grotesque and don't see representations in fantasy art of what I find attractive. I know there are some people who find that male ideal attractive, but I wouldn't say it's the majority. I'm surprised to recognize it's not the image we see in the mainstream magazines either and it seems a glaring reminder how the patriarchal eye's refusal to look at images of attractive men dooms the patriarchal man to have a deformed view of his own attractiveness and a deflated body image. At the same time, though, I find those extreme female images grotesque as well. While the non-sexualized, yet already at magazine levels of body distortion, images may be attractive I wonder if the majority of men are really interested in the she-hulk as an ideal. I find there to be a disconnect between desire and impressions of how one “should” feel.

The other thing this got me thinking about is the written word versus the picture. I haven’t been on top of fantasy literature for a few years, but my recollection is that while the images were always like you discuss, the literature was much more realistic and equitable. You somewhat conflate literature and digital portrayals. Is that really just?

Unknown said...

I think woman in the fantasy literature should be more clothes.Chain bikini is making woman more vurneable.And I am a girl.So I think woman in the media is exist to please man.

Anonymous said...

Please turn in your balls at the nearest feminist outpost. You have forfeited any right to them.

Also any artist worth a damn will tell where you can stick your instructions on what they can or cannot create.

Mark said...


So, because I am a man, but I have a problem with the way women are represented in fiction, I must surrender - or already have surrendered - my male vitality. I can't possibly be a real man and have these positions.

Additionally, it's obvious that I am telling artists what they must and must not do. Any critique is clearly tantamount to exerting control.


Let me set you straight, anonymous, assuming you're bothering to follow this thread any further.

First of all, my testicles remain firmly attached, where they continue to provide me with incredibly virile power. I support women's rights because this is the change that my testicles demand. I pursue feminism with all the masculine power available to me because it was what I think is right.

So there.

Secondly, I never said that artists have to do what I say. As you imply, artists are entitled to do whatever the hell they want.

But I reserve the right to judge them. I reserve the right to judge the hell out of them, and tell them that their work is sexist pandering crap. And I will do it as much as I want.

As much as artists have the right to create whatever the fuck they want, I have the right to respond however the fuck I want.

Deal with it B).

Anonymous said...

Blah blah bla, A post full of stupidity, no wonder why men are losing their capacity to actually be a man.

No, this post doesn´t make you a better man, "open minded", or else shit, this post only reflects that you're such a pussy... and i thought the queer one here was me, Pfff!