Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Clearing Up Some Misconceptions

I’ve been thinking about some of our reader comments lately, both on the blog and on Twitter, and I thought I’d try to clarify our position on some of these things. It's hard to respond to some of these in less than 140 characters :)

Artemisia is about fantastic art, but that covers a wide range of topics. “Art” was something we left fairly broad, because we wanted the opportunity to talk about all kinds of art. Whether it’s the obvious sort like fantasy illustration, book covers, concept art; or things that involve art: like movies, video games, books, conventions, etc.

“Fantastic” is also something we left fairly broad. Both Louisa and I are genre artists. She specializes more in video games and conceptual art, where I lean more heavily toward illustration and graphic art—but we both share a love for sci-fi, fantasy, even sometimes horror, genre art. We work in what we loosely call “the Industry”, which if I had to define it would be something like: those who produce genre art for money.

“From a Female Perspective” is where things get a little sticky sometimes. Obviously both Louisa and I are female. We are not ALL females. Our views are not going to be shared by all women—but we do spend a great deal of time talking to other women who work in the industry, asking questions, gathering information, and trying to draw informed conclusions.

Gender equality is something that the world has struggled with for centuries. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t believe it’s possible. Men and women are never going to see eye to eye, primarily because society won’t let us. And that’s a GOOD thing. If we thought alike all the time, if everything were perfectly balanced, I think the world would be much less interesting. Stagnant, even.

That said, we also think that there’s such a thing as too much imbalance. Right now our industry is so male dominated, it’s like sitting an elephant and a house cat on opposite ends of a balancing board. Sci-fi, fantasy, horror are produced and marketed mostly by and for men. There is a subtle but clear line of thinking that seems to say that women are only interested in fantasy if there are pretty fairies, elves and unicorns, only interested in games that involve dressing up fake people in cool clothes, only going to read fantasy if there is a heavy dose of romance in it, too. While those statements may be true of some women, some of the time, they are not true of all women, all of the time, and they certainly aren’t true for us.

We believe that it’s important to even that up a little, and the only way to do that is to get people to THINK about it. To think about why certain choices are made, and to hopefully help people realize that it might be time to start thinking a little outside the box.

For example: A few days ago ImagineFX, the magazine, started a poll so readers could vote for their favorite cover out of their first 48 issues, in preparation for the release of their 50th issue. Louisa and I have pointed it out before, and it became even more obvious once all those issues were laid out side by side on a single page. Of the 48 covers, three featured couples, two had monsters, one had a landscape, two featured masked male comic characters, and one had a single barbarian male (of the not exactly supermodel or body builder variety) staring out at the reader. The rest of those 39 issues? A single, usually scantily clad, sexualized female subject. Most of them were pin-ups; those that weren’t were of the pretty, soft, fairy tale sort of female.

We complained. ImagineFX didn’t bother to respond, but some of our readers did.

@charreed said: “I don't mind all the ladies on the cover of Imagine FX. I'm a lady and I like looking at fantastical woman :)
When it comes right down to it, neither do we, Char. I can appreciate female beauty, too. The problem that we see, however, is that the imbalance in the covers suggests that ImagineFX’s primary audience is male, and that any female readers are going to be interested in pretty fairy art. The assumption is that putting a male on the cover is somehow going to disinterest the male readers, or scare off the female readers.

@cetriya said: “I would think it more, its easier to design for females where you have to watch out not… make the males 'gay' looking”[sic]
Why do we assume that it’s okay for women to have to look at sexualized female characters with their tits and ass hanging out, posing tantalizingly… but it’s not okay for men to look at male characters posing somewhat more tastefully but just as objectified? Why do we assume that it’s HARD to draw a good-looking man without making him appear effeminate? I see guys draw tough, sexy male characters all the time. I see women do it, too.I never see those images on the cover of ImagineFX. Why not?
@charreed also said: “… unfortunately the audience is mostly dudes.... So convince more girls to buy the mag or get guys to like beef ;)”
Honestly? Of all the artists I know, the majority of the ones who subscribe to IFX on a regular basis are female. So we ARE buying the magazine. You might ask “why, when it’s so obviously marketed to men?” Because ImagineFX isn’t a gaming magazine, or one meant for guys to …er… enjoy in the privacy of their own bathrooms. ImagineFX, in theory, is for ARTISTS. It’s a trade magazine, with tips and tricks for artists—both male and female.

It might come as a surprise to many people to know that there are a LOT of women working in this field. One of our goals here at Artemisia is to find and promote those women—precisely because so few people are aware that we’re even here, and working. Even fewer seem aware of the fact that many of the women in this industry aren’t drawing pretty fairy girls in dresses. That particular market IS huge, and it’s been popularized by female artists like Linda Bergkvist, Melanie Delon, Marta Dahlig, and Benita Winkler; but there are more women who are doing awesome art that is comparable to what the guys in this field are doing.

The problem is that they are so overshadowed by the men who dominate the field that they’ve become almost a myth. Artists like Terese Nielson, Trish Mulvihill, Nicole Cardiff, Socar Myles, Anna Christenson, Jana Schirmer, Cris Griffin, Julie Dillon, Nei Ruffino, and Laurel Austin are some of our favorite artists here at Artemisia—and I’ve seen many people who assume that they are male simply because they don’t paint typical “girly” art. (Actually, small confession: until about three minutes ago I thought Julie Dillon—who goes by jdillon82 on deviantART—was male. So I’m an idiot, too.)

As women, working in this industry, it makes sense that we would be interested in magazines, art books, etc. that talk about the industry, give tips and tutorials, or are just inspiring because they show what so many of us are working on. It kind of sucks when you realize how little the creators of these magazines and books value your interest in them because you don’t happen to think with your penis.
Faerywitch said: “As for more males... Girls, when there are more girls you complain, now you have more guys and you complain!! ;) Now, seriously, again, I think it is catered to the people that spend the money.
She’s talking about Louisa’s post the other day about character design in video games, and how video games are marketed to men and ignore female players.

Yes, we do complain. And we will continue to.

It’s not really about the precise ratio of male characters versus female characters. It’s about imbalance. It’s about objectifying one, but not the other. It’s because we are here, we DO spend money on these things, and there are more of us than the industry seems to believe. We want the world to know that. We want them to stop stereotyping us, stop pigeonholing our gender, and start putting things out there that we enjoy because we are a part of this industry… whether men like it or not.

There’s a lot more to discuss here, more than I have time to go into right now. Expect some posts in the future on topics like video games and female gamers, conventions from a woman’s point of view, and what it’s like to be an objectified female AND an artist. Expect some interviews with some of the ladies I’ve mentioned here.

And expect us to hold what occasionally might seem like contradictory or conflicting opinions… we ARE women, after all. ;)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Heroes and Heroines: Assumptions in Character Design

So Jason Chan is doing a cool new series of downloadable video tutorials for Massive Black DVD. Volumes one through three are on various aspects of character concept design for games - exploring style, designing heroes and villains. I can't wait to have a chance to download the full videos (Jason's "sketches" usually look like art I'd be proud as punch to call finished pieces) but for now, we've been checking out the sneak peaks that MassiveDVD have put up on Youtube.

It's this snippet of the Heroes volume that I wanted to talk about today.

The excerpt focuses on the female character he works on in the tutorial, which is pretty cool in itself, but some of the things he talks about considering when designing a female character were...interesting. It kind of goes back to something I said in my opening post on Artemisia, about how otherwise smart and talented people can come out with some surprisingly biased comments. The video is about five minutes long, and well worth a watch because the highlight is really watching Jason sketch as he talks theory, but here are some of the quotes that struck me the most.

"The first character we did, he relates to the player because he is similar to the player in some ways. The second character relates to the player because he is what the player wishes he could be. The third character relates to the player because she is something that the player can admire."

"So, a lot of the time female characters are sexy and strong, and it's almost like trying to sell love to the player audience. You know, you want to care for this character, maybe find her attractive, but also you are playing the character so she should be strong. So it's kind of a mix between attraction and the hero badass type of character where you feel powerful."

"You can also mix the female character with the weaker character for a horror game, and instead of making her strong you can make her weak, to drive that fear. The problem with it is that there could be a disconnect for male players and male audiences, because they do not feel that they are this female character. In that instance you make it more of a voyeuristic experience where you're guiding this character or you're watching over her."

"For female audiences and female players this character represents the hero, superhero type of character we just did, you know, it's who the female audience may want to be like. You know, she's strong, she's beautiful, she can do anything."

So. A couple of things here. I actually like that Jason goes in deeper here and talks about more than just what the characters look like, because it gives me some idea of what goes into a character designer's mind and why it ends up that female characters are usually rarer, or underpowered, compared to the men. Let me run through a few of the issues I had with Jason's process for designing female characters.

One. That he automatically assumes that the player is male. He talks about female players later, and possibly in more depth in the full video, but it's clear that his primary target is a male audience and that a female character is not seen as somebody a male player can relate to, or want to be like, but an object to covet, to admire, or to protect. Jason mentions that male players may feel a disconnect when playing a female character, but does he reverse the role and consider that female players may not feel fully immersed when playing a male?

Two. That he considers physical beauty a key characteristic in designing a female character. Look at the words he uses, "sexy, beautiful, attractive". I wonder if he considers looks as much when designing the male characters? Is it just as important for them to be good looking as it is for the female?

Three. That the woman is his pick for being the weakest character, allowing players to act as rescuers or protectors. Was there any such consideration for the male character - even the one who looked like a regular guy? It's true that at a similar level of fitness and training, a man will still have a physical advantage over a woman. But put a young, everyday guy of average fitness next to a woman who works out at the gym daily, takes martial arts classes and/or has a military background and who do you think will fare better in a fight? And stand Jason's average guy in jeans next to his warrior woman - tough enough to wear heavy metal armour and carry a blade as long as her leg, but out of the two of them, she is the one who is a candidate for being a weak character?

Four. Ok, so when you're only designing three characters, there is going to be a gender imbalance (well, unless "Other" is on the menu which hey, it's fantasy right?). So having two male characters and one female isn't a big deal on its own. But I can't help feeling a little let down by the fact that you have a variety of male characters and then you have...The Female Character. Just the one, and she is supposed to be the avatar for all the women who might play that game. She can do anything, because she has to do everything!

I feel I should add that out of the eight or nine character concepts Jason has produced for this series so far, I've only seen two who are female - a hero and a villain. So when you take a bigger pool, you do get a greater imbalance of male vs female characters. Again, I feel it goes back to the assumption that most gamers are men, and so women don't need more than one or two characters to represent them, and those characters have to do all the representing. We don't get as much in the way of variety.

It's obvious that Jason puts a lot of thought into his work and considers every step of his design process carefully. I wonder how certain ideas that can feel so very flawed to one person can make perfect sense to another, so much so that he doesn't seem to think about them - it's just instinct to design a female character with this mindset and a male character with another. Maybe that's the problem with a lot of character designers out there (in game art and in illustration in general). Do some concepts and assumptions about our audiences just become so ingrained into our world view that we don't ever really stop and take a close look at whether they're still appropriate, or relevant?

What do you guys think?

Monday, August 17, 2009

"Lovely and Talented"

We’ve been a little quiet here, lately. It’s a problem that we’re working to fix. In the meantime, however, I wanted to write about something that bothered me recently. It’s a little thing. The kind of thing you probably don’t even think about, and yet once you do, you’ll catch yourself saying it and wonder why. Proof, I suppose, that sexism comes in many forms. The worst are the ones that we don’t even think about.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from someone who wanted to use my work. He promised to attribute it, and to include the phrase “by the lovely and talented Melissa Findley”. I’m aware that he meant it as a compliment, but for some reason it got me steamed. When I get angry about something, I usually try to figure out WHY it makes me angry. And once I put aside the fact that this person didn’t know me, has never seen me, had never even interacted with me, and that he meant “lovely” as a platitude (false flattery, with me, often gets you the opposite of what you want), I started to think about the phrase itself.

I’ve said it myself. I know I have. Usually about other artists I’m promoting. Also, I only say it about women.

I ran a Google search for the phrase “lovely and talented.” Turns out it’s been applied to just about every female actress, musician or artist at some point in time. It’s vary rarely been applied to a male.

“Lovely and talented.”

There are deeper implications to those words than there might seem to be on the surface. Lovely implies many things. That the person is physically beautiful is the obvious one. That they are polite, sweet, kind, nice to work with. “Lovely” can mean many things… but my question is: why do we feel the need to qualify a woman’s skills by implying something first about her looks or personality?

I suppose just saying “talented” falls flat. “The talented Louisa Gallie,” for instance, just doesn’t have the same ring. When there are a wealth of other words that could be applied along with “talented”, though, why is it so commonplace to compliment a woman on her looks and/or personality rather than her skill or intelligence or diligence?

How do we introduce men? We don’t say “the lovely and talented Jason Chan,” even if he is “lovely”. We might say “the amazing and talented” or “experienced and talented” or “young and talented” or “smart and talented” or “driven and talented” or “ dedicated and talented.” (Actually, we have said all those things. Or other people have. I ran a Google search for “and talented Jason Chan”. It’s an interesting experience. And I’m not picking on Jason. I have a lot of respect for the man.)

For women, though, “lovely and talented” seems to be the phrase of choice. Although in my searches I ran across more than a few “beautiful and talented”s as well. The “amazing and talented” type of compliment was more rarely used for women, even if those sorts of compliments were better deserved.

So, again, I have to ask: why do we do this? Is it just one of those phrases we use without thinking? I know I did. Not anymore.

If you’re a female artist, or have ever had that phrase applied to you in any way: speak up. How do you feel about it? Does it bother you? Does it just roll off your back? Or have you honestly never thought about it before?

I hadn’t thought about it. But now that I have, in regards to me, I would wish people would find another phrase. I have few illusions about myself. “Lovely” is not a word that fits me comfortably.