D&D: Sexy or Sexist?
Here I go: throwing my hat into a ring that I probably shouldn’t; this blog was inspired by the continued debates over stat limits set by biological sex and art in the D&D books.
I hesitated over this blog for a long, long time and have delayed it five or six times, to really think and rethink what I want to say. On the one hand, I’m not exactly a discriminated minority being a straight white male with no physical or mental handicaps, aside from being slightly overweight and my propensity to sit in a basement with likeminded friends rolling plastic polyhedrons while pretending to be a wizard. And while some might argue that the “overweight nerd” is an oppressed minority throughout high school, I do not think this even remotely compares.
I almost trashed this blog and left it to my betters, like Sarah Darkmagic, women fighters in reasonable armour”, go make me a sandwich (and also here). It’s also been covered on a number of podcasts, most recently 3.5 Private Sanctuary but also an old DM’s Round Table, and it came up during a Reddit “Ask me anything” with the Paizo staff.
I opted to write this because the more voices on the subject are good, and you can’t have a full prism of diversity without a pale, flabby shade of white. And because it was a change of pace from continual D&D Next discussion…
Is It Sexist?
The art blog on the D&D website (Dragon’s Eye View) wrote a piece here on whether or not certain art was “sexist”. So that’s as good a starting point as any. You need to define terms. I hit a few online resources for a definition. One. Two.Three.
And sexism is defined:
1: prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially : discrimination against women
2: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex
Okay, this is where the common mistake is made. Cheesecake (or, for men, beefcake) is, by definition, not sexist. You could make an argument that cheesecake art is fostering and limiting women to the stereotypical role as sexual objects. And it’s most certainly objectifying women. But I’m not sure that’s the exact same thing as sexism, and not in the same ballpark as limiting rights, the glass ceiling, or denial of jobs.
Cheesecake art and sexism are certainly interrelated, but not one and the same. In the same way all poodles are dogs but not all dogs are poodles. You’re not being prejudice or discriminatory to have the female warrior in a chainmail bikini, and there are no real stereotypes of social role being fostered as the presented character is fulfilling the same role (both mechanically in the game and fictionally in the narrative) as the male counterpart.
So it’s not sexist. Technically speaking. But I’m not going to stop referring to them as such.
Sexual Dimorphic Mechanics
I think it’s fair to say that on average men and woman are equal. However, some sexual dimorphism exists.
Women can be physically weaker than men, as shown by such things as Olympic weight lifting records where men not only have much higher weight range but out-perform women in similar weight ranges. And the sexual hormones in the human body have a huge effect on both biology and behaviour, so men and women simply do not think the same; the psychological changes seen in both menopause and andropause make that very apparent, as do the results of artificial hormone changes (‘roid rage for example).
Not having gender rules does make sex a non-issue, a cosmetic and non-existent part of the game. As men and women are mechanically identical, everyone might as well be playing genderless eunuchs. Gender is something every human being has, even the estimated 1% of people who identify as asexual. It’s a part of the human condition.
For example, look at Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which emphasises the differences in male magic and female magic (and thus masculinity and femininity) as a key theme and plot of the narrative. The female characters are very different from the male characters, but are no less important or strong and no less rounded, conflicted characters.
With this in mind, should the game reflect this? Such as by adding caps to ability scores or penalties or bonuses based on biological sex. Some way of emphasising gender and the diversity of humanity.
Not even as an optional rules module.
Design like that only limits player choice, forcing them to play characters or builds they’d rather not play, and implies an inequality or disparity. And adventurers, by definition, are not normal and are always exceptional. Having male characters and female character functionally equal may not be reality-real but it is narratively-real. There should be very, very few mechanics that limit a player’s ability to play what they want.
Plus it’s kinda silly and more than a little petty.
Fantasy art in general – and D&D in specific – has a long history of cheesecake art, with chainmail bikinis, maidens chained to alters, topless deities, skyclad nymphs, and the like. It’s part of the history of the game, noteworthy at a time when the game is looking backwards as much as it is looking forwards.
Removing the female fighters in peek-a-boo platemail does detract from the enjoyment of the product for a certain segment of the fanbase. While the inclusion of such art is viewed negatively, this is only by a minority of players. So, obviously, we have to keep the cheesecake. Mens like da sexy women in little clothing, and it’s part of the history of the game.
Except… sexy sexist illustrations – while not inherently detrimental to fun – are detrimental to perceptions of the game, and thus perceptions of the people who play it. (The exact same principle applies to obvious satanic imagery or graphic violence.) The game does not exist in a societal vacuum, and bears the opinions and stigmas of two generations of negative assumptions and stereotypes. As such, mature elements (such as sex, violence, drug use, etc) should be included tastefully and with extreme caution. We don’t need D&D turning into FATAL.
Additionally, at the end of the day, cheesecake art (and some mature topics) makes some people uncomfortable. The exclusion of said content does not make any people uncomfortable. Including inappropriate content would be saying that the entertainment of a certain percentage of the fanbase is more important than the comfort of another percentage of the fanbase. Even if the former is a larger percentage than the later, it is still unfair and unacceptable.
The lengths the game goes to add sex to characters is pretty astonishing. We have dragonborn with boobs. Reptilian humanoids that lay eggs with an exclusively mammalian sexual characteristic. WTF? Give the males a dewlap or something if you want to differentiate. This is less strange than the asexual shardminds who opted to both have breasts and cover them with a bikini top. WotC artists gave a rock monster cleavage!
Plus, most cheesecake art kinda silly. A large portion of the cheesecake factor of art is the poses: hips and chest thrust out, back arched, and often a leg raised as if standing on something. I think we’ve all see the Avengers poster where someone drew the male Avengers in the same kind of pose Black Widow (and other female action characters) was placed in.
This isn’t the worst offender as posters go, and is certainly one of the least silly poses I’ve seen Black Widow forced into.
It’s just one example and I’ve seen many others of male characters dressed or posed like women, and it is always incredulously silly.
Why is this accepted for women?!
My favourite example of poor design choices is the current Thundercats cartoon, a reboot of an ‘80s cartoon. When designing the characters, the creators mocked the design of Lion-O in the original, as he had an exposed midriff (hilarious in retrospect) and they purposely removed it and increased his armour. When updating Tigra, once the philosopher of the group, they dumped his colour scheme and slapped him in generic armour as well (and gave his personality a 180).But, for Cheetara, once covered from neck to toe save an exposed arm, they exposed her midriff and gave her a cleavage-revealing bikini top. The very same people who mocked Lion-O’s exposed midriff gave one to the sole female character and reduced her clothing by 30%. The
Cheesecake art pokes at my sense of realism. It’s so impractical. While it doesn’t hurt my sense of realism to have a female paladin who is just as strong as the male fighter, it just seems silly to have said pally in a chainkini or peek-a-boo-plate. Silly like the dragons with giant potbellies and the requirement that all wizards be 65 with long beards and impractical robes… only worse.
Even plate with obvious bust seems impractical as the breastplate should be a single rounded piece to withstand blows and direct strikes away from the centre of mass. An obvious bust just means a hit will be directed to the lower ribs or, in the case of a bust with individual cup, the sternum and heart. (Last-minute addition: I’ve also been told a distinct bust can direct blows to the neck and face, which is last place you want blows directed.) I find masculine armour mimicking a male chest problematic for the same reason. The Geeks and Romans stopped designing their breastplates like the Spartans’ for a reason.
Some of this goes hand-in-hand with the more exaggerated art style common in the most recent editions. The fantasy art inspired by anime, Wuxia, and video games, with form and function being more inspired by what looks cool than what works. There’s certainly a time for the Dungeon Punk aesthetic, and a little exaggeration in art in terms of armour design, weapon size, and the like. But that’s not what I would call a core assumption of the game. It’s the art equivalent of a rules module. And after two editions of pushing away from historical or high fantasy in favour of super-heroic fantasy it might be nice to tone things back. But that’s tangential to the topic at hand.
The main offender, both of exaggerated armour and impractical armour, is World of Warcraft. Some of that is technical. When playing the game zoomed out, one of the few features easily noticeable is the shoulder armour, which changes the silhouette of the characters. So making them stand out was a design decision to make the avatars distinguishable from one another. But, more on-topic, is how armour changes between male and female characters. I played a female character for a while, and quickly noticed how armour that was full armoured trousers on my friend’s character became panties and leggings on my gnome. At some point, the decision was made that all their female characters had to be sexy.
Related to the push for realistic armour and dress is a call for greater diversity. Humanity is varied and shouldn’t this be reflected in the game?
This is a little tricky for a couple reasons. Portraying real world ethnicities mean suggesting those ethnicities exist in the game, which brings along a host of issues relating to cultural stereotypes. Drawing someone with a keffiyeh, even if meant practically as a way of keeping sand away from the face, has a wealth of cultural associations and stereotypes. And if the character drawn in one was female, it could be mistaken as a hijab with all the related debates and baggage. A recent issue of Dragon drew some flak for what was perceived as a stereotypical portrayal of Oriental culture in an article on Kara-Tur. It’s hard to create a fantasy equivalent of a real culture without invoking the associated tropes or exaggerating some features.
There’s also the question of how much ethnic diversity there should be in a game based on fantasy Europe. The inclusion of the monk as a class already causes problems with the implication of an Eastern Asia analogue. It forces every campaign world to have a Southeast Asian analogue, or explain some East-meets-West contact. That toes the line of mandating the inclusion of certain nations or cultures in a DM’s homebrew world.
It’s probably worth the risks, but said risks should be known and acknowledged, while the art should be approached tastefully and cautiously.
Other diversity gets a little trickier in my mind. This would be “age” and “body type”. Adventuring strikes me as “a young person’s game”. You don’t see middle-aged overweight people on the box of Wheaties, and neither should you see them dangling from a rope in some goblin-infested abandoned mine. Well, at least at low levels. There is the clichéd grizzled fighter who seems to gets more badass proportionately to his age and/or number of scars. It’d be interesting to play a middle-aged character who took up adventuring as a mid-life crisis. But even then, those types of characters are hardly the norm and are very much the exception: there are no old orc warriors and no old rookie adventurers. While all adventurers are exceptional, the art cannot reflect every single fringe character type or unique individual.
On the other hand, wizards are regularly presented as well past middle age. It would be nice to see the female equivalent of the robed ‘n’ bearded wizard: a Matriarch figure or Professor McGonagall of sorts. (After writing that, I’m totally tempted to base my next magic user character off Maggie Smith.) But wizards are one of the few classes where the flavour supports advanced age, with magic being unlocked after years of study and practice.
But even in the above situations I can’t imagine those characters being particularly overweight; even the wizard, who is the most acceptable class to have low physical fitness, is unlikely to be overly rotund. With the exception of Lost characters, it’s hard to maintain a level of blubber when exploring a tropical island, let alone a fortnight in the underdark or exploring forgotten ruins. Dieting isn’t so much a concern as keeping all their teeth and staving off scurvy. I can imagine a retired adventurer putting on a few pounds, or the scholarly wizard who is mostly confined to their tower, but the heroes out trying to save the world from the machinations of a dark god are likely to be counting calories. No one wants to fail in saving the villiage/ kingdom/ world/ Prime Material Plane because they had seconds and a large dessert and couldn’t make a jump.
As someone ten-kilograms overweight who is hitting the gym in an attempt to shed a few, it would not be easy adventuring. Chin-ups are impossible, not only as my muscle mass is lower but because I’m trying to lift an extra 20 pounds of flab.
Here’s the rub: what about characters where sexy clothing would be appropriate?
I’m going to go with Pathfinder as my example for this. Seoni is the iconic sorcerer for that game. She’s also one of the two characters on the cover of the core rulebook. And she’s dressed like a stripper. A stripper in a steamy southern town during a heat wave in a club with terrible insulation and broken A/C. However, Seoni is a sorcerer, which is defined by not having spell components or a reliance on gear, and her class uses Charisma as its primary stat, so the argument can been made that she’s mechanically sexy.
Is it unacceptable to have any cheesecake in the game?
This is a hard question and there are a number of factors. In theory, sexy characters are valid and a part of diversity. Diversity is not about eliminating something, but increasing variety and options. For example, seeking ethnic diversity in art does not mean no white people, just white people and black and brown and all the assorted hues of humanity.
However, sexy at the sake of realism (peek-a-boo plate and chainmail bikinis) is still unacceptable: it’s adding sexy where sexy does not need to be. Likewise, sexy characters should be portrayed equally realistically, without crazy distorted poses and twisted into shapes suggesting a rubber spine and the absence of ribs. And there should still be some practicality in mind. Seoni may not need armour, but the long skirt is likely a tripping hazard, the long hair a liability and easily grabbed, and the plunging neckline cold (not to mention awkward as she’s likely to be regularly “popping out” in mid-battle).
Until art can be done properly, cheesecake should probably be avoided. Until the game can show and prove it can portray realistic & reasonable armour and poses capable of a non-yoga instructor and gender & ethnic diversity then the art should hold back on the cheesecake. Cheesecake is the dessert, and the artists have to finish the main course first and earn their treat.
Setting an Example
As mentioned earlier with the Avengers example, suggestive clothing and poses is not limited to fantasy art. It’s certainly more prevalent in fantasy art, starting from the pulp era onward, but much of the rest of Western culture is also guilty of objectify women: comic books, video games, movie posters, and magazines. It’s hard to justify changing role-playing games – still a predominantly male hobby – when magazines and catalogues aimed exclusively at women can be just as bad. They may not be painting women in spine-cracking poses, but they sure are photoshopping them beyond the realm of possibility.
Why should gaming and D&D change when the rest of the world isn’t?
Because we can. Because we can be better.
No other reason is needed. But here’s another: we should eliminate sexist art because the hobby is struggling to survive and needs to grow beyond its initial limits. It needs to be more inclusive and accepting. This goes back to my earlier blog on being a better gamer, where I argued that we need to set an example and demonstrate every single day that the stereotypes related to gaming and gamers are unfounded, both in person and online. Ever. Single. Day.
Cheesecake makes people uncomfortable. It reflects poorly on the game and the people who play. It’s unrealistic and impractical. It does not encourage people to join the hobby. It enables the objectification of women and reinforces the negative role of women solely as sexual objects. And it’s silly. That’s a long list of disadvantages when the only advantage is “mens like da sexy women in little clothing.”