Friday, March 6, 2015

Artistic freedom or overt sexism?

So recently there was a bit of a brouhaha about about an article on Gnome Stew. +Matthew Neagley noted that artwork in certain RPG products makes him uncomfortable. The usual suspects then came out in strident defense of artistic expression, including some of more notable and notorious when it comes to topics of risque art. This topic resurfaces every couple years and unfortunately, I'm about to step into the s#!t storm to provide another perspective.

The problem is that most comment posters and blog authors missed the mark when it came to the real, underlying issue.

Source: The Hawkeye Initiative

The Unexamined Life

From Matthew's perspective, he felt he was being judged for being "sleazy" or "perverted" for purchasing materials that have erotic imagery on the cover. It is a shame he didn't examine why he felt this way more closely, because the other side pedantically nit-picked apart the article related to his self-confidence or the judgement of strangers rather than explore the root cause of his unease.

This article should not have been about how Matthew felt, but why he felt that way. The article should have been about why overt sexism in RPG art creates discomfort and problems for the hobby.

Now before the Erotica Defense Brigade jumps all over me (and I know it's coming -- pun unintended), let's just examine this issue from a different perspective for a moment.

Let's hypothetically say I'm an RPG publisher and I decided to do a genre book on the Old West. On my cover, I show a graphic image of evil-looking Native Americans scalping White settlers. What would your reaction to my book be? What if it used "darky iconography" to illustrate slaves during that same time period?

While it would be within my First Amendment rights to publish the book with the offensive cover and interior art, I'd likely be pretty openly skewered on social media, blogs and reviews for what would be a pretty blatantly racist depictions. As an artist, I would be able to produce these racist depictions, but just because I am allowed this expression, does not mean I am above critique or reproach. "Freedom of Speech / Expression" does not exonerate me from societal reaction.

The overwhelming majority of people would probably say, "Even though it's your civil right to illustrate with racist art, that doesn't make it acceptable. Additionally, I do not want this game supplement to reflect poorly on our amazing hobby and scare prospective customers away from the hobby as a whole." The book would likely be protested and potentially taken down from online stores (PDF or hardcopy) due to consumer outrage.

However, if I put out an RPG product with an openly sexist portrayal, why is it that so many who would not gather behind the racist defense banner would suddenly wave the flag of artistic freedom on the side of sexism?

How is it that blatantly sexist depictions are regarded as less harmful than blatantly racist depictions in art? Sexism marginalizes 50% of the world's population and yet it is seen as somehow less serious or less harmful than racism.Why is it that people are more willing to defend sexism?

So, for those of you who came out against Matthew's article so powerfully and defended artistic freedom... Are you willing to stridently defend racist artwork as well? I'd like to have an honest conversation about this (and not a flame war or ad hominem attacks in the comments please, or I will delete them).

Also, before you respond in the defense of "artistic expression", I recommend you read io9's article about sexism in comics:

Quick Tangent

Before I move to my next point, I wanted to note something in +James Raggi's response that rings hollow to me.

James writes: "It's not because MONEY you goof. Maybe once upon a time it was. But this is the age of internet porn, and there is no picture on or in a game book that's going to sell any copies simply because titties."

James, to this I say you are either extraordinarily naive about marketing and business, or you are being disingenuous to support your position. I'm assuming you are not naive.

It's always about money.

Why is it, do you suppose, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue sells more than 1 million copies (between 10 to 15 times as many copies as a regular SI issue on the newstand)? In an age where free internet porn is ubiquitous as you say, how do you explain that a swim suit version of a magazine (with only the suggestion of nudity) outsells the regular version by an order of magnitude (with a $2 increase in cover price to boot)? How does that jive with your assertion that scantily clad women do not translate into sales?

If that were not the case, we'd see far fewer booth babes at conventions and even fewer half-dressed ladies in beer commercials.

I'm sure you are very well aware that a game book with titillating art is going to gain more attention than the same book with tamer art given that the audience majority is 13 - 55 (ish) y.o. males. Your assertion that money does not play a role in the selection of cover art is pure bologna (to put it as nicely as possible). Risque cover art is intended to appeal directly to our "lizard brain" and get us to pull out the wallet.

For someone as yourself who has published a very popular, successful OSR game, I'm pretty sure you are aware of these basic marketing tenets and I can't take your statement at face value. It rings hollow.

Money is a major component in this kind of artistic decision.

So what is artistic versus what is sexist?

The next counter point that I know will be made is "Where is the line?" I don't have all the answers and there is a lot of grey area, which is why I want to have the conversation... However, blatantly sexist portrayals are generally pretty obvious to spot.

When you look at something like the Hawkeye Initiative, sexist portrayals become even more apparent. The idea is that if you put a male hero in the same pose or clothing style as the female hero, does it look utterly ridiculous?  If so, there's a good chance it is a sexist portrayal. While the Hawkeye Initiative is about comics, its ideals can certainly apply to fantasy art as well.

Final Thoughts

It's time for RPGs to grow up. We're not pubescent boys anymore, and it's not the 1970's. As James Raggi notes in his own response, porn is everywhere. We don't need it in a hobby that is intending to attract men and women of all ages, from as young at 6 to as old as 100. It's time for all of us to say, "Sexism is as harmful as racism. We don't need women in ridiculous clothing and poses on the covers of an RPG." It doesn't serve the hobby well and just reinforces the stereotype that role playing gamers are basement-dwelling troglodytes.

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