An Open Letter to the Creators of Sexist Fantasy and Comic Book Art

Dear Creators of Sexist Fantasy and Comic Book Art,

This is addressed to those among you drawing and painting (and sometimes sculpting) women with skimpy clothing and bad anatomy and poses no actual human would stand in.

I could try to talk to you about the problem of objectifying women, the concept of the male gaze and the detrimental effects of this kind of thing on real-life women. But other people have done that already, at great length, and it doesn’t seem to have made much of a dent. So I’m going to try an argument that might be more persuasive to you:

Your sexist art is boring.

It’s indistinguishable from all the other sexist art out there. Oh, yawn, another butt shot. Another woman attacking her enemy ass-first. Another distortion to get both T&A in the same frame. More active men and passive women; more pictures that aren’t even trying to be something other than softcore pinups. It’s gotten to the point where we have an entire taxonomy of tedium: boobflounder, centaur women, neverending pelvis, swivel waist. All your shitty, sexist art blurs together.

If you want to stand out from the crowd, there are two ways to do it. You can try to violate reality so badly I lose sanity points every time I see your art, or you can do something more interesting.

Give me a character, with actual emotion. Give me a story. Give me actual dynamic poses, not static poses gussied up to look dramatic with weird positioning and flyaway props. Make sure I can tell the women who flaunt their sexuality apart from the ones who don’t.

Does that sound hard? Gee, I’m sorry. But if you want to be good at this, you’re going to have to work for it. Learn anatomy, so that when you distort it you do so for effect, not because you don’t know how to do it right or have been brainwashed by all the other shitty sexist art around you. Learn to draw expressions other than pornface. Give your women different faces, and different bodies, too: I can ID Wendy Pini’s elves based on a half-inch silhouette in the background of a panel, which is more than I can say for most artists. Ask yourself what that picture is supposed to be doing, and if the answer is not “looking sexy for my presumed hetero male audience,” then make sure there’s something going on other than looking sexy for your presumed hetero male audience. Make the art tell a story.

Your reward, should you follow these steps, will be a larger and more diverse audience. (Larger because more diverse.) And, you know, you’ll also improve as an artist. So sharpen your pencils, charge up your tablet, and do better.

Sincerely,
An Extremely Bored Viewer

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  1. 1. 'Rora

    That you so much! I am really tired of so much fantasy art being about how much boobs and butt they can fit into a shot. I hope that if my book ever gets published that I am able to avoid this sort of stigma, because I am writing about two strong female characters who eventually fall in love. I con only image the stuff an artist like that would do to the poor girls on the cover!

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    Cover art on novels is getting better — though of course it isn’t perfect (witness Jim Hines’ various photo shoots). Comic books, though . . . ::shudder::

  3. 3. Hayley E. Lavik

    100% undersigned, with the addition of art directors who push perfectly competent artists into inserting ridiculous and exploiting poses into otherwise lovely art.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Good point, Hayley — it isn’t all on the artists. The art directors do in fact sometimes tell them to sex it up. (And, credit where credit is do, some go the other way. According to an interview I read, Pathfinder’s art directors regularly tell their people to put pants on the women and fill in the pointless boob windows.)

  5. 5. Lastyear

    I’m also tired of all the shirtless guys on the cover of paranormal romances.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    I’m not as miffed about those, because he two situations aren’t quite equivalent — but I do see your point, yes.

  7. 7. Splicer

    Shirtless guy on paranormal book cover is plain old cliched as is woman with lower back tattoo looking backwards on urban fantasy cover. The recent spate of greyscale closeups of objects meant to convey that a book appeals to the 50 Shades crowd tells me that cover “art” is nothing of the kind — it’s marketing. Can a cover be art? Certainly but that is again like any other kind of art, highly subjective. Your art is my crap and vice versa.

  8. 8. Jessica

    When planning the cover for my upcoming novel Omega Rising, I had one major request to the designer: the heroine should look like she’s about to kick your ass in a fight and not like she’s posing for a pin-in. I looked through a whole load of stock footage of girls holding guns and most were really bizarre contortions to show off her “assets” rather than looking like she could actually fire the thing and hit a target.

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    Splicer — the issue here isn’t just cliche, though; it’s also the implications of those cliches. Shirtless guy on a paranormal book cover isn’t part of a pattern where making male characters sexual is more important than making them contribute to the story, etc.

    No disagreement that cover art is a form of marketing, though. That’s exactly what it is.

    Jessica — precisely. The images are part of a much larger problem. Fortunately, there’s starting to be more pushback against the whole thing.

  10. 10. Maddog

    Why do so many Feminists consider sex to be not only evil but not admit that it sells. And so it’s humans and capitalism that you need to include into the big picture.

    I think all those Fabio Romance Novel covers are Sexist too. But I don’t give a Damn.

    I only give a crap when I keep hearing just one side of the debate.

    Enough with thinking you are the chosen enlightened one.

    If this is the worst thing you got to gripe about, then move to africa and help some poor kids who need your saving.

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    Maddog — I defy you to find any place where I, or any of the people I linked to, declare that “sex is evil.” Or, for that matter, any place where we claim to be the “chosen enlightened ones.” You might want to actually engage with the points we are making, rather than your favorite straw-man arguments.

    But your comments make it pretty clear that you haven’t actually paid attention to the debate. The sexual commodification of a man on a romance novel cover and the sexual commodification of women all over the place are not equal things, and seeing as how the consequences of the latter extend to matters like the high incidence of rape in our culture, I’d say that’s a thing worth griping about.

  12. 12. Wendi

    I really hate to disagree because I understand the offensiveness of it all, but I do. Trying to dictate your view of appropriate art is as offensive as someone forcing you to view art you find offensive, or boring. If you don’t like it, don’t read. Everyone has a right to create their own world, we aren’t required to visit them all.

  13. 13. Marie Brennan

    Wendi — Since I don’t actually have the power to dictate anything to artists (unless I’m paying them for a commission), I’m pretty sure all I’m doing here is expressing an opinion. And we are all allowed to say we find particular things boring or offensive.

  14. 14. Anonymous

    Women readers, con you give some advice to male artists on a particularly troublesome and confusing issue? On the one hand, if a male artist makes the story’s heroine attractive, he can be criticized for “sexualizing” her. On the other hand, if he downplays the heroine’s beauty (like putting them in armor, uniforms, a loose cloak, etc.), he can also face criticism for “desexualizing” her (the “man with boobs” argument). How can a male artist portray a female heroine in a way that is neither sexualized NOR desexualized? Please give specific advice; generalizations like “be balanced” aren’t terribly useful.

  15. 15. Marie Brennan

    Anonymous — I suggest you follow some of my links in this post to Jim Hines’ takes on cover art, Escher Girls’ breakdowns of comic book and video game art, etc; you can also start here, with the “Writing Women” essays I posted on this blog a while back. This is a discussion that has been going on for a long time in a great many places, so once you start looking into the subject, you’ll find more than enough reading material.

    But the very condensed answer to your question is: too much art prioritizes making a woman sexually attractive above any other concern (like strength or character); too much art assumes there is only one way for a woman to be sexually attractive; and the “man with boobs” argument is overrated, as it defines femininity in a fashion that makes sexuality the most important aspect of a woman’s identity, ergo anything which downplays her sexuality makes her “not a woman,” which is bogus. If you approach drawing women the way you would draw men — i.e. with the same diversity of image and interest in them as characters — then you’ll be fine.

    (Not saying people won’t criticize your art. No single piece of artwork pleases everybody, and this issue riles people up enough that you’ll still get haters who oppose the idea that maybe not every woman is there to be the object of their sexual fantasies. But depicting women well isn’t as hard as the yelling would lead you to believe.)

  16. 16. Mary Louise Eklund

    Yes the poses are becoming so cliched that they it’s boring. I know there’s a website about boobs don’t work that way. I think one needs to be started – spandex doesn’t a fit that way for both men and women. It seems artist think spandex is just color body paint to cover up nudes- uh no it wrinkles gathers and binds just like any fabric- happens to be more form fitting than most. So I think pointing out the cliches, gathering them together, and showing the lack of creativity will hopefully inspire real creativity – or at least inspire the oncoming group of artists to make their own mistakes.

  17. 17. Marie Brennan

    Mary — I think the “body paint” look came out of the conjunction between two factors. The first is that it simplifies matters (if you know how to draw anatomy, you’re set; you don’t have to worry about how fabric layers over that), and the second is that it allows the artist to show off the idealized body of the subject. In that latter sense, I don’t really mind it so much; what bothers me is the type of idealization so often applied to superheroines.

  18. 18. Allan

    Its boring? It sells. Enough said.

  19. 19. Marie Brennan

    Allan — It sells to some people. But how many readers/players/etc are buying those properties because this kind of art actively makes them want it? How many of them see it as neutral, not affecting their decision one way or another? How many are buying those things despite the art? And how many are actively driven away by it?

    We don’t have solid stats, but it is well-established that a great many women (and a smaller, but non-zero, number of men) straight-out dislike this stuff, and stay away from superhero comics/certain types of video games/etc as a result. By pushing this kind of aesthetic, companies are losing that audience, and it’s unclear that the audience they gain in return (the people for whom the art is a clear selling point; they wouldn’t buy it without that art) is large enough to counterbalance that loss.

  20. 20. cathy

    Cover art definitely makes a difference when I’m choosing a book. I decided a few years ago when every other fantasy book had a scowly tattooed leather clad woman on the front that I wouldn’t be buying any more of them. I don’t even read the backs to see what I’m missing. My theory is that if publishers can’t be bothered to come up with something even vaguely original then they can’t possibly have much faith in the books. The only exception to my rule is Patricia Briggs and only because I read her before the trend started. And even then I make fun of the covers. (They’re pretty, but not Mercy.)

    Overly sexed up covers get an eyeroll and a pass, and I’m including graphic novels there. I don’t mind sexy, but gratuitous fan service is annoying. (I read a lot of manga – I know all about fan service for the guys.)

    I do, however, like the comic Empowered. The character (Empowered) was born out of the artist’s frequent commissions for super hero ladies in bondage, and it’s hard to explain to people without raised eyebrows but it’s really really well done. Her super powers come from her suit, which rips very easily so she gets kidnapped a lot. She’s smart, brave and sweet which is balanced by an absolute lack of confidence in herself. Watching the character grow over 7 (I think) books has been fun and the plots range from silly to incredibly emotional. It’s very sexy but not dumbed down and the pure cheesecake parts are usually tempered by humour. I read a lot of reviews before picking it up though – usually Emp is on the cover in a tattered costume. :)

  21. 21. Marie Brennan

    Cathy — There are a lot of reasons a book can wind up with a bland cover, up to and including “the piece of art the publisher commissioned turned out so badly, they had no choice but to throw something together from stock art in an afternoon.” It doesn’t always reflect badly on the story. But I know what you mean about that sort of thing blurring together until it’s all indistinguishable.

  22. 22. Human

    Perhaps, and this is a just a thought, but perhaps you’re taking this a bit too seriously. I’d argue that art including the female form can actually have the opposite effect on people.

    The female form is beautiful to look at whether distorted, hidden, exposed, etc. For me, viewing the female form always has a certain aire of appreciation for it, a reverence if you will.

    Many people see the exposed or flaunted female form as offensive and even immoral because of the stigma imposed upon by a select few groups of people within this patriarchal overly religious society we live in.

    The world would be a much better place if people stopped taking offense to every little thing.

  23. 23. Marie Brennan

    Human — nice try, but telling women not to take offense at things which have a real detrimental consequence on their lives won’t get you very far. This is not about the “immorality” of the female body; it’s about the distortion and objectification of that body, promoting a physical ideal few women can match (but will pursue with surgery and eating disorders) when it isn’t crossing the line into Lovecraftian horror. It’s about a single ideal of beauty, rather than allowing for a range. It’s about women being sexy first and everything else after. If you troubled to follow the links and read the discussions, you might understand that better.

  24. 24. Shadowman

    …sigh…
    Here we go again. I don’t know how many articles, letters and commentaries by “angry women” about the portrayal of women in comics/media/entertainment.
    It’s always the same. SOME of the gripes are valid, but most are typicaly one sided. (wow, women in America being ONE-SIDED who’da thunk it…?) They go on for days about sexism against FEMALE characters; “the costumes are too tight!” (as if the male heroes’ aren’t” the “unrealistic proportions of the women” (as if MOST real-life men look like SUPERMAN, BATMAN, The HULK(?) or Tarzan, who wears nearly NOTHING) and the”VIOLENCE against women!” (of course ignoring that MOST violence particularly the most BRUTAL violence is directed, not so much at FEMALES but at MALE characters.)
    Proving ONCE AGAIN that American women are NOTfor equality, but INequality. (Some are MORE equal than others, eh, ladies?) If they were to complain about how BOTH genders are treated, not JUST women, not JUST men, but BOTH they might have some credibility with me, and others who have had it with the one sides “equality” in this country.
    Sorry, I know pointing out the truth makes me a monster in this politicaly “correct” culture, but, whacha gonna do?

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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