There's More to Making Non-Sexist Art Than Not Being Sexist

If you don't want to make art that's prejudiced, then you need to take conscious, concrete steps to do so—as the game developers behind Desktop Dungeon found out.

Can you be racist or sexist without meaning to be?

Often, that question gets asked in relation to works of art—can a work be racist or sexist if its creator doesn’t mean for it to be? And lots of people want to answer "no." When it was pointed out to Ted Rall a bit back that his drawing of Obama looked like a racist caricature, for example, he responded by saying, "Anyone familiar with me and my work knows I'm not racist," and insisted that he had not intended any kind of racial slur. Which no doubt was true. But just because he didn't intend a racist caricature, does that mean that the caricature was not racist?

The folks at South African game development studio QCF Design have a post which addresses this issue in some thought-provoking ways. QCF designed Desktop Dungeons, a role-playing video game. The game started out with more male characters than female, but as it developed through its Beta version, QCF decided to try to change that. They added female characters, but more than that they worked to make sure that "the women in DD’s universe [would] be adventurers first and runway models second." They go on to say that

This adjustment [that is, creating non-stereotypical female characters) turned out to be startlingly non-trivial—you’d think that a bunch of supposedly conscious, mindful individuals would instantly be able to nail a “good female look” (bonus points for having a woman on our crew, right?), but huge swathes of our artistic language tended to be informed by sexist and one-dimensional portrayals. We regularly surprised ourselves with how much we took for granted.  

In other words, the designers intended to be non-sexist, but that intent in itself wasn't sufficient. They had to work at it. "Shorthands for the feminine kept crawling into our work when we weren’t paying attention—smooth skin, homogenised facial structures, evidence of makeup, you name it." In the end, "Portraits for some species went through several drafts just to deprogram our subconscious idea of what felt normal and right." Even at that, they admit, they didn't succeed entirely. The female goblins in the game still rely on eyelashes and lipstick for femininity—and, they add, "We also messed up pretty badly by whitewashing our cast (with the occasional blue-skinned Bloodmage, but that doesn’t really count)."

For QCF, anti-sexism wasn't just a matter of saying, “Okay, we think women are equal.” Anti-sexism was work. The iconography of video game design and the tropes of the fantasy genre pushed them towards seeing women in stereotypical ways. To get around that, to avoid falling back on default sexism, they had to take the time and effort to think things through differently and imagine better.

In terms of imagination and representation, then, the default is often prejudice. That means that if you're not paying attention, you can end up drawing a racist caricature without meaning to. But it also means that, when creators and storytellers do try to confront prejudice—as, for example, in the casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four film—many consumers see it as odd or strange or wrong.

I experienced this myself to some extent while reading Rick Riordan's novel The Lost Hero, part of his mega-popular Percy Jackson series focusing on the adventures of modern-day children of the Greek Gods. The book is for most intents and purposes a superhero adventure story, and it's unapologetic in serving up its fantasies of empowerment. It's also very up-front about making those empowerment fantasies relatable for a broad demographic.  The care with which it provides the readers with one female Cherokee protagonist and one male Mexican-American protagonist (and in the next book, one female African-American and one male Chinese-American protagonist) seems almost ostentatious, and I initially found it a little off-putting.

And yet, when you think about it, why is it odd that these superhero children of various Greek deities should be from varied ethnic backgrounds? Why is it less obvious or ostentatious for all the empowered protagonists to be white? Maybe it's not just creators who need to work to get past racism and sexism, but readers like me as well.

Like Desktop Dungeon, the Riordan books also show that, even with obvious good intentions, racism and sexism aren't easy to leave behind. It's true that Riordan includes heroes of many different backgrounds—but the central, most important heroes (Percy Jackson and Jason Grace) are white guys. Nor does Riordan avoid stereotypes. As just one example, Piper, the female lead in Lost Hero, is a daughter of Aphrodite and her power is charming people, while the two guys get more blasting, shooting, blow-things-up kinds of powers.

None of which is to say that Lost Hero or Riordan's other books are horrible. It's just to point out, again, that avoiding stereotypes or creating art that doesn't lean on prejudice in one way or another is a struggle. It's not something you stumble into just because you "don't automatically see color in people," to quote video director Jesse Lamar responding to the suggestion that his Pixies video had handled racial issues poorly. Nor can you avoid sexism simply by being "gender-blind," to quote Comics Journal publisher Gary Groth responding to the suggestion that his magazine doesn't do a good job covering comics by women or publishing criticism by women. If you don't want to make art that's prejudiced, then you need to take conscious, concrete steps to make sure your art isn't prejudiced—like QCF did.

That can be painful, not least because it means admitting that, however they're disavowed, racism and sexism remain a big part of how you (and I for that matter) think and imagine. Change is hard, but it's only impossible if you insist that you're already perfect.