There was a lot of responses to my piece of sexism in D&D art, published last week. People responded in the comments, my inbox, and on twitter.
One of the more frequent counterpoints was that cheesecake art was a part of the history of the game and a convention of the genre, that D&D has always had the cheesecake art and underlying tone of sex. Which implies the two are one and the same, that you cannot have D&D without the thin piecrust of sexism and objectification lurking underneath. Or that by making D&D sexless you’d be removing some subtle or ineffable part of the game.
I disagree. Completely.
Condemn Not Condone
The American South had a long history of oppression and racism. Plantations and humans as property were such a large part of the culture and it was difficult to even imagine the cotton industry surviving without slavery, as the picking cotton sucked so much you needed to force people to do so. Slavery just was.
The job sucked so much that Johnny Cash sang (read: covered) a song espousing not having to done so, establishing it as the low-point and how a short life of crime culminating in death at the end of a knotted rope was preferable to having picked cotton even once. Makes it hard to picture that as the primary economy in a State without slavery. It was such a part of the culture they went to war to preserve it as a way of life, they killed 365,000 of their contrymen and sent 260,000 sons to their death.
But that does NOT make slavery acceptable, nor does it make slavery or human servitude justifiable or any less absolutely monstrous. Saying "it's part of the culture" does not make it right and is a pretty darn shoddy excuse, if even an excuse at all.
Your creepy racist grandpa spouting off things that are creepy and racist is not okay just because "that's how he was raised" or "that's how the world was when he was young." It's still creepy and racist, and by not slapping grandpa upside the head and saying "times have changed, stop living like it's 1890" you're condoning it, saying it's acceptable to be creepy and racist. If he keeps saying it you just walk away and stop listening.
Likewise, if an industry keeps objectifying women and publishing embarrassingly bad art, you just walk way and stop buying, before it gets creepy and sexist.
Is this censorship? Yes. But in the same way it's censorship not to draw black people like Jim Crow minstrels. What's considered acceptable changes over time. That's just a fact of life. You adapt and move on or you become someone’s creepy grandpa.
For example, check out this Superman video on youtube. It's one of the later episodes of the original Superman movie serieals that coined the phrase "faster than a speeding bullet" but became propaganda pieces when the war started. It was just a different time, and there was a war: you could get away with blatant, flagrant racism and caricatures.
Couple Quick Examples
Has everyone heard about this year’s E3? How it was reputedly a cavalcade of flesh as half-naked women were used to sell video games.
Treating video games and gaming like a car show is rather silly, given that over 40% of video game players are female. And even sillier given how Nintendo is currently devastating its competition by focusing on non-traditional audiences (read: non-gamers) such as families, younger children, social gatherings, seniors, and the like. The Wii is almost outselling 360s and PS3s combined and the DS eclipses even the Wii in sales. And, as the Wii is very hardware-lite, it probably has a much nicer profit margin than the 360 and PS3 systems.
Targeting men with models seems like a desperate ploy to attract attention, a frantic way to stand out in a field of superior competition. The final flailing attempt to grab someone's focus when the game itself cannot. But, with everyone doing the same thing, it falls flat and just becomes background noise.
D&D doesn’t need to do this, as its strongest competitor is an older version of itself. WotC doesn’t need to rely on tawdry images to stand out from the competition, it just needs to be better. If the edition is good, people will buy it.
And, because it topical, check out this hilarious image of Catwoman from DC comic’s New 52 line.
Stop and look for a moment. Think about the position of her body. Imagine having to pose like that. Stop and try. Unless your name is “Forrest Gump” you should not have a spine that can do that.
That’s the cover to the opcoming #0 issue of Catwoman coming out shortly, likely after the Dark Knight Rises hits theatres. If female fans of Catwoman from that movie venture into a comic store after seeing that movie, that’s the image that will confront them.
More than likely they will walk away and never buy a comic book again.\
Okay, onto actual D&D art.
Classic Art Versus New
The argument was put forth that D&D has always been sexy, and that sexist art has been a long part of the game.
Okay, so let’s look at some.
Here are some pictures from my first edition books.
Oh yeah, that just oozes sexual tension. Baggy clothing, long sleeves and hemline. It sure is emphasising the relationship between D&D and sex.
Yep, she’s naked. But she’s a mermaid. It’s more classical than cheesecake. It's very archtypal of mermaid art.
That’s about it. There’s not a lot of non-comedic art in the 1e books, and the vast majority is masculine characters. If there’s sexism present it’s the omission of females. And, with their absence, females could not be presented as sex symbols. You cannot objectify something that is not there.
There’s a little more nudity in the Monster Manual but that’s fairly appropriate: being the embodiment of seduction of men, succubi should probably be naked and cheesecake.
And now here are some pictures from my 2e books.
This is the first picture in the PHB. An adventuring party, with 2/5ths women and everyone covered. There’s a female fighter who looks like she can handle herself, and she’s in reasonable armour. No one is posing and the clothing looks realistic and functional.
And this is by Larry Elmore, who is infamous for his cheesecake art.
I love this picture personally: it’s a great shot of a low-level adventuring party celebrating and initial success. Much better than the actual cover. If WotC wants a retro-cover for inspiration for the D&D Next PHB cover they’d be hard pressed to find a better piece.
A meeting of dwarves and an elf/halfling. Not a great piece as there’s no sense of story or tone. Just people hanging around. But no implied sex.
A fallen warrior shown in a pose of respect. She has some badass armour here, and, by her tomb, was likely held in respect. There is some story here. Is she a hero? Maybe, but that helmet looks pretty evil.
And, again, not a lot of sex and the armour strikes me as reasonable.
This is how the DMG starts. There’s an obvious different culture at work here, which is fun. And while the woman is scantily dressed, it’s arguably appropriate for the culture and one of the men has a lot of exposed skin as well. My wife pointed out her mouth is suggestive, but her male companion is equally gaping and surprised.
Personally, I like the picture for the implied story at work. It’s a fun counterpart to the successful adventurers in the PHB.
Monster surprising an adventurer, turning her into a victim or damsel. This is a litte worse, but she is armed, and not unreasonably dressed (excluding the unfunctional breastplate with individual cups). And there are no tentacles. But she’s not necessarily helpless, and might be able to rescue herself still. And no overt sexuality.
This is pretty bad, one of three unfortunate pieces in the DMG. It’s arguably the worst. A female warrior with heeled boots, posing with one leg raised for no particular reason (likely making her off balance) and a tonne of exposed flesh. There’s the sexual suggestion of domination as well, but that’s more subtext or the result of the audience bringing that to the piece rather than inherent to the work.
But, as bad as this is, she’s kicked some butt: disarming and defeating an ogre thing twice her size. And she’s ripped, being very muscular and less of the standard male fantasy.
( There are a couple others my scanner didn't like, so I'm not showing them for that reasons. I think my son borked my scanner in a fit of random button pressing.
There's one with a wizard summoning, well, something, which is vaguely sexual. The male wizard is in a position of power over the tiny-sized topless female slave. But it’s not needlessly T&A or cheesecake, just kinda sleazy. And the man looks like an old letch, so it's not being painted in a positive light.
There's also one with a young, blonde bikini-clad female wizard performing some ritual on her knees Yeah... this one is pretty bad. While pretty much every male magician has been, well, Gandalf, the female equivalent is sexy and young and half-dressed. Needless and insulting. Vaguely sexual but not overly so, and lacks the implant-esque breasts of the women in most modern art. )
This is the cover of the third book in Dragonlance‘s introductory trilogy (Chronicles). This series got me into fantasy fiction but hard, and was heavily responsible for my seeking out D&D and falling in love with the game.
Tika, the female character on the cover, was added to the story because the artists at TSR wanted “a babe” to draw, rather than the entirely leather-clad cleric and armour clad elven princess. And yet... she’s not in entirely inappropriate armour, being equivalently covered with the male warrior, and her neckline is surprisingly modest. There’s quite a lot of sex in the Dragonlance books, but none of it seems like needless titillation, and most happening between chapters and during breaks. Dragonlance has its problems with its female characters (heroic females are virgins and the evil female is promiscuous) but it wasn’t needlessly sensual.
Now let’s move onto the current edition.
Alright, this is the cover of the PHB. We have two heroes not really doing anything. They just stopped in the middle of cave and posed. And the scantily clad female wizards with implants is striking a spine-shattering pose. Try this one out at home.
Yep, that there’s a reptile with breasts.
Well dwarves are busty, that sure is a lot of cleavage. Most images of dwarves have them covered in armour from chin to toes. It really stands out from other images.
This one is here as a counterpoint. They’re not all bad. She does look like she's turning her head at weird angle, so she can twist her body into a shape revealing profile, but it's really not that bad.
“I live in an enchanted wood, and I exposed my midrift because I enjoy cuts and scratches from brambles and branches.” Why the exposed navel? It’s just so needless.
While adventures and accessories have slipped in the cheesecake, the core rules were fairly tame until recently. It’s unfair to say flagrant objectification is a part of the game because it really wasn't. Women were ignored at the beginning: the game was asexual. It focused on a male audience playing male protagonists.
This isn’t to say there was nothing sexual in D&D. You get a group of geeky teenaged boys together in a basement and unleash their imaginations and sex is going to come up. Hormones be funny like that. But that’s not a part of the game, that’s something brought to the game, something seen in the game by the players. It’s a Rorschach test of the audience .
But, again, even if original D&D was rife with objectifying art and cheesecake - which it wasn't - but if it was, that does not make it acceptable now.
That age has ended, the time of cheesecake has passed. It is time for the chainkini and peek-a-boo-plate and plunging armoured necklines to get on the ship and sail off into the West, to the Undying Lands with all the other images of women and minorities that stopped being acceptable.