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)."