Sexy Sexism

It seems that conversations about what does or does not constitute sexism or exploitation (more specifically in RPG and related genre art) have been making the rounds of the blog-o-sphere lately.

Never one to avoid attempting to ride on the coat tails of what appears to be a sure thing, I decided to try and throw my own bloggy hat into the ‘lets try to talk about sexism in RPG art’ discussion. Full disclosure: I’m a hertero male, married, white and probably lead a pretty boring life by most standards. I like to draw and paint and do other stuff and do some illustration work for OSR publishers. I’m not really good at drawing sexy women posing in chainmail bikinis and similar stuff. I sometimes think that I would have better luck getting work if I was better at drawing those ‘cheesecake’ type pictures (or even ‘beefcake’ pictures), but somehow, either because I can’t or don’t want to, I just don’t draw those kinds of things. I also suspect that there are a lot of other people already hoeing that particular row, so, instead of competeing with all of the aspiring Larry Elmores of the world, it might be best just to pursue that which I’m good at (or, at least “better at” than some).

I don’t think I’m a prude, but much of what the mainstream identifies as ‘good fantasy art’ really bores me. Of course, people like Larry Elmore have had long and successful careers and I’m just a work-a-day amateur, so what do I know? But I know what I like. Take the painting by Elmore at left. It’s certainly very competently painted. The anatomy and skin has a more realistic look than anything I could do. Every hair in her yak-skin boots and fur loincloth is lovingly rendered. So why don’t I like it?

If you had asked me to describe a good painting when I was 12, I might have described a painting like Elmore’s. All the detail and the almost photographic rendering of every blade of grass looks hard to do (much like a 15 minute guitar solo sounds hard to do) and I would have just admired Elmore’s illustrator chops and his obvious discipline. And the woman is sexy and she’s looking right at me — the prospect of having a sexy woman without a shirt on look at me would have been pretty appealing at age 12. I remember being in an art class and we were taking a tour of the museum and there was one sculpture that was a series of red metal sticks welded together on the floor and then a painting by some lesser known old Dutch painter on a wall and the teacher asked me which one I liked better… and of course I said the Dutch painting. When she asked me why, I pointed at the metal sticks and said, “I could have done that. This (me pointing at the painting) looks hard to do.”

At the age of 12, however, it might of been hard for me to understand why some women wouldn’t like the Elmore picture that much. These days I would understand that view a little better; although I don’t think it’s just the ‘tits and ass’ content that pushes a painting like this into a somewhat condescending view of a woman heroine (at least not for me). It is maybe not just the nudity or even the sexuality; maybe the general sense that the woman here is just someone for us men to look at and saw, “woah, what a hot ass,” and for women to look at and say, “I wish someone would look at my ass the way people are looking at her ass.” I guess it approaches what (someone else) might have been talking about in his blog when he said that he thought that women were attracted to men that seemed competent (OK, now I can’t find it… so maybe I imagined it, or maybe someone else said it, or maybe I just can’t find it). The thing that kind of annoys me about so many of Elmore’s pictures is that the women are just standing there to be gawked at. Smarter and better read people would talk about ‘the implied male gaze’ or ‘the female body as an object of delication.’ I’m not well versed in those arguments/ideas, so I won’t do more than mention that they exist, but even with my somewhat rudimentary understanding, the ‘stupid pictures’ in rpg/genre fantasy art are currently at a kind of a “I know it when I see it” standard. Others (especially those to whom this matters a good deal more than me) probably have better informed thoughts.

The probablem I have with Elmore’s picture is that it is so utterly unimaginative and unambitious. She doesn’t look like she has a thought in her head, and, looking at the picture, all I can think of is, “Well, I’d tap that.” For a lot of people, the discussion of sexuality in genre art seems to one of taste. Perhaps the Elmore might be found ‘tasteless’ by some because the subject is (mostly) naked. I don’t like it just because I feel like all the thinking has already been done for me when I look at the picture. Elmore is saying, “Here’s a picture of a girl’s ass!” Bang. We are done.

The picture from the cover of the ‘Rogues Gallery’ by Erol Otus evokes a different feeling in me. Although it is hardly as ‘photographic’ or polished as Elmore’s airbrushed lady, the characters and the linework are quirky (in a good way). The wizard-guy in the horned hat appears to be sticking his hand down the front of the lady warrior’s shirt, so this picture is not absent ‘sexual content,’ but I don’t feel like the picture is as cheesey or brainless or as trite as Elmore’s. Perhaps because the illustration itself does not seem to take itself as seriously just on the basis of “how it was done.” Everything from the half-orc’s grass skirt and orthopaedic-looking shoes to the wizard guy copping a feel is more cartoonish and wierd/fun. Although sword-lady is sexy, I don’t feel like Otus was trying to inspire me to take the picture to the bathroom and rub one off. The “hand down her shirt” seems more of an ‘easter egg’ than anything else since unless you were looking for it, you might not notice it.

I don’t really have clear ‘rules’ for what is or is not ‘exploitative’ genre or RPG illustration art; and I don’t know if such rules would be helpful. But I think there are qualities to some illustrations that interest me more than others, and that is the aesthetic I would like to pursue. If I may express some hopes for the OSR, I hope that is the aesthetic that more of us will pursue. I tend to like some pretty strong stuff, and I love older pulp magazines (including many with S&M scenes), classical art, underground comics and the like. I’ve drawn some stuff that other people have told me is disgusting and/or disturbing… like this and this and this. I amuse myself by drawing pictures of people getting castrated or violated or their eyes gouged out. I’m not setting myself up as a beacon of decency and good taste (and I would hope you wouldn’t trust me if I tried to do that). But I do think that if fantasy art wants to be something beyond just “cheesecake,” the artists have to get more interested in things other than just drawing nice asses and tits… and the viewers have to get more ambitious in their viewing habits. I suppose you can have those things and a lot of people will beat a path to your door, but, if that’s all there is, then I am probably going to get bored. To me, given that the OSR is supposed to be all about ‘creating our own’ and ‘going crazy with it,’ boring is unforgiveable.

Speaking of which, why hasn’t anyone hired this guy to do any OSR work?

OK, when I started this I thought I had a point. Now I’m no longer sure if I did.

(edited to remove references to another blogger who said he was getting tired of being misquoted on this issue on another blog)

9 Comments on “Sexy Sexism”

  1. Risus Monkey says:

    Well said. I've debated jumping into this little discussion but I couldn't put my finger on why I felt the way I did about certain fantasy artists. You've gone a long way towards explaining my own taste.

  2. The hand down the shirt thing strikes me as just a poor attempt at “perspective”.

    I don't see anything I disagree with too strongly in the whole post, seems quite reasonable to me.

  3. Harald says:

    To clarify, when I said, “I find it amazing that what you seem to turn to,” I meant you, as in the OSR community. And I'm generalizing widely.

  4. biopunk says:

    Fantasy art doesn't want to be something beyond just “cheesecake,”. 'Art' doesn't 'want' to be anything. Only the artists and their audiences wants it to be 'something'.

    I like Elmore's art. I like 'realism'. I like girls in fur bikinis. I don't like '80's hairstyles or high-heels in illustrations of adventurers.

    I like some of Otus's work. I love black & white illustrations. I like his representations of eldritch energies and ornate armour. I don't particularly like misproportioned representations of people or creatures. I like women in sensible shoes (and sometimes thigh-high boots…)

    It is much easier for me to be attracted to Elmore's work sexually than towards Otus's cruel-looking female, in a (possibly) over-sized breastplate, because one the example's aesthetics repels me more than another.

    But I will call “bullshit” on your examples!

    There is no way you can seriously compare the two pieces in any way, except that the respective artists did some work for the same company back in the '80s.

    You are comparing apples and oranges here:

    Elmore's is expressly a “pin-up” (PG-13) available (…and is not explicitly meant as a 'fantasy' piece…) from his own website, and Otus's was part of the cover to a, widely available in book and toy shops, AD&D fantasy gaming accessory.

    One is a group composition, the other is not.

    One was done in 1979, the other in 2008.

    One was done by an artist with (at the time) no formal training, and the other, by one who did, by the time they were employed at TSR.

    Completely different examples in all respects, aside from the one I pointed out.

    In my opinion, the whole reason (most) people have a problem with the fantasy art is because it is inherently tied to other people's ideas about what is permissible and those of the artist's ability to represent that in an image.

  5. -C says:

    I've been getting back into doing some of my own art again. I have a degree in art, just never really used it for that before.

    I've been thinking a lot about these issues. I'm a fan of Elmore, though I prefer others more, I don't deny his talent.

    In interviews (in dragon iirc) he talks about his work being 'the whole picture'. i.e. everyone was drawing the hero or the monster, but always in a grey or smoky background, he was one of the first to paint and draw them in an actual environment. That picture you posted is pure cheesecake (not that there's anything wrong with that) but I think beyond 'nice ass' the point in the realism is that they inhabit an actual world like ours.

    As to the style, I'm trained in a bunch of different kind of work, and when I see what's out there (including yours) I question why I'm even drawing in the first place. Or more, why I bother to create the free OSR documents and such I create. I can draw a realistic sexy girl, just like I can draw a weird quirky one. Why am I doing this? etc.

    I'll be sure to let you know if I ever figure it out.

  6. Blair says:

    “I wanted to grab Gygax and shake him and shout”

    I had the same reaction when I e-asked him a question about Otus and his reaction was along the lines of “…I never liked Otus…not realistic enough…”

    The Castles & Crusades art practically turns my stomach; it's like Ren-Faire Mormon tight-butt cheescake or something. Counterintuitivly, that artist's cartography really floats my boat

  7. limpey says:

    Biopunk: It's fair to say I chose bad examples. But I started off wanting to talk about RPG art portraying women as passive objects of the male gaze and:
    a) the example of Elmore I chose hit that particular nail on the head
    b)The example I chose might be an extreme example, but a woman with Valerie Bertinelli's hair circa 1982 and a fur/chainmail bikini as well as no bra and boobs that defy gravity is pretty much a given in much of Elmore's work. I'll be conservative and say at least half.

    Again, as I said, the exploitation angle may be an issue, but it's not my issue.
    And while fantasy art may not want anything, by virtue of being fantasy art it can be a representation of the audiences and the artists wants. And I want something else.

  8. biopunk says:

    @limpey: Okay. Reading your previous post, I understand you don't actually like Elmore. However, the 'Brown Eyes' piece still isn't associated with any RPG product, it is only done by a guy associated a RPG product and is explicitly “pin-up”; so I don't think you hit any nail on the head unless you are going for the 'guilt by association' angle. If you are, I can't argue with that…

    At the risk of making you sound like the guy who chose the Betty and Veronica comic over the Sears catalogue, could you direct me to another Otus drawn woman who you consider “sexy”? I, quite seriously, have never heard that description, used in that context, before.

    @migellito: Elmore drew and inked the SnarfQuest strip for 6 years. If you did draw that yourself, I'm sure you would find that the face is what is going to be the most important to reproduce. It becomes 'natural' to draw “basically the same face over and over” because that is what needs to be done or you lose recognition of the characters. It is hard to break that ability after it becomes 'natural' and is also a part of what your art and style is recognized for (and why the artist gets the contracts).

    I'm right there with you on the crappy static poses, though. 😉

  9. limpey says:

    You are going to have to get over the picture I chose, OK? This blog isn't REALLY about Elmore (its about what I like and why, which sounds self centered, but, well, it is a blog), and I started off wanting to talk about 'Sexy Sexism' but halfway through I gave up and I said so… so as far as continuing to harrangue me for being unfair to Elmore you are going to have to let it go. Or don't let it go. But as far as a discussion goes, it isn't leading anywhere.

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