A Look at "Sexism in Fantasy"

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 02 May 2012

If you haven’t read Jon Schindehette's article about Sexism in Fantasy, I suggest you go read it. I will reference it a fair bit in this post.

The portrayal of female characters in fantasy art, including how sexism affects the art process, is an important subject to me. When I read Jon’s article, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I know and am friends with many people at Wizards of the Coast. I have had chats with Jon on this subject among others. We even had him on a Tome Show episode. I write a column for the website celebrating the company. Yet the words I read on the screen left a mark.

You might ask why. For one, the “poll” set up to show that sexism isn’t well defined is a bit flawed as was the definition used. Like many academic terms, it’s easily misunderstood or misapplied. It is full of nuance. Whether or not something is sexist depends on lots of things, including context. While his test might have proved that the term is misunderstood by people in the community, it doesn’t mean we should stop trying to understand it, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable and perhaps even triggers guilt. It’s those feelings that cause some to feel that the term is “convenient, inflammatory, and polarizing,” a phrasing that itself is often used as a derailing and silencing technique.

Photography: © Zhang Jingna; Model: Natalia Bonifacci/Ford LAPhotography: © Zhang Jingna; Model: Natalia Bonifacci/Ford LASo, let’s talk about those two images quickly. One of the issues faced by women is that they are seen as being present mostly for decoration. If most images of women looked like that first image, our artwork would play into that expectation and gender-based constraint of women. Another issue is that women are often put into the role of nurturer. So while a woman in that role is not automatically sexist, if the only times we depict women are when they are in that role, that can be. Finally, a third issue is what is commonly called the virgin/whore dichotomy, something that is illustrated when the two pieces are presented together. In one, we have the nurturing woman in modest dress, devoid of most if not all sexuality. In the second, it seems that if she uncrossed her arms, we would see her breasts. That hint of sexuality that goes beyond the normal bounds of our society is part of what makes that picture exciting.

Now that we’ve addressed the “sexism poll” Jon constructed, I’d like to discuss the issues of the portrayal of women in D&D. I don’t want to limit it just to the art because to be honest, both the art and the text often amplify each other in ways we might not intend. Beauty comes up often in the article, implying that women are beautiful objects and that artists are drawn to creating that sort of art. This, to me, points out some of the problems present due to latent sexism in our society. Why isn’t an older woman considered beautiful? When it comes to female characters, why is beautiful so often correlated to cheesecake and fan service rather than compelling stories and other aspects of the character? How does the descriptions of what the artists like to create explain the relative diversity of male representations? Wait, doesn't some of his statements assume a male artist?

Also, when I and other people often discuss sexism in D&D art, we’re talking about the art as a whole, across the product and across the entire game. We’re talking about the lack of variety in age, body styles, clothing options, composition, content, and the like when it comes to female characters. We’re talking about how much more often you are to find a character with an exposed midriff or cleavage than someone above the age of 25 and why it is that so many of the images with multiple characters perhaps one or two token women in them, if any at all. If you haven’t looked at which images are chosen for the covers and the half-page vertical images for the classes (and races), I suggest taking a look. William O’Conner appears to be used for just about every class image and he, almost without fail, shows off the female character’s breasts and adds elements like garters.

People often step in at this point and ask why I’m bringing “real world” issues into the game. I’d like to turn the question around and ask why they are insisting on bringing “real world” discrimination into the game. Whether they like it or not, the game world of D&D has a world full of women over the age of 25. The Forgotten Realms is supposed to be a game world where women are equal to men. In a world with magic and healing, there’s no reason why women would have to be relegated to a subservient role in the world.

But the thing that really got me about the article is that Jon goes out of his way to talk about and even demonstrate why he believes that “sexism” is such a loaded term. Ok, fine, but if you honestly believe that, why use it to frame the entire discussion, especially one as important as the role of women in the D&D world? Why feed the trolls who believe that discussions that myself and other people have often, almost every day at times, are just some attempt at political correctness run amok.

That’s what bothered me the most about the post and what led me to feel the most betrayed. I spend many, many hours talking to people about how awesome D&D is, about how much I love being part of this community, and how to get more women to play. Then the very real feelings myself and others have about how women are presented in the game world, in both the art and text, feel dismissed because we dared to use the correct term to discuss them.

As for the circle of finger pointing, the “it’s not our fault because it’s what the customers want or what the artists turn over to us,” well, that’s the reason I started the Prismatic Art Collection. Are there limitations on what people like Jon can do? Sure. But there are many things that they could still do within the constraints.

  • Create a safe space for female fans to provide feedback. It feels so strange to me that I have to point out that many women don’t feel comfortable commenting publicly, either as comments on a post or in forums. There are many reasons for that. Give them a space to leave comments and listen to what they say.
  • For D&D Next, create a less restrictive license, even if it’s only for certain groups. I want to create D&D content that is more socially aware for the current version of the game since past versions aren’t always conducive to that sort of content. It’s also easier for the people I want to reach with it to get the newer books than the older ones and for them to get support from the community.
  • Create groups (not races) within the D&D world that hold a variety of beliefs about gender, sexuality, and the like. Then divide the characters presented in the artwork among those groups. Then the artwork and the game text will more often align with each other. Cheesecake art will be presented in a context where it makes sense instead of feeling like it’s fanservice to a presumed heterosexual male audience who wants that sort of artwork.

I think those would at least make a good start. I’ll have more to add once we get to the commissioning stage of the Prismatic Art Collection project.


I think that the D&D team at WotC is in a tough position right now and their future is very shakey. Often, organizations in such a state get more conservative and try and play it safe. That strategy is actually the opposite of what they should be doing, as it is that very conservatism that makes them lose opportunities to grow. I felt that Jon's position was an excellent demonstration of Wizards playing it safe. They don't want to do anything that will alienate their hardcore fan base (as they perceive them), because they believe that is the only thing they can count on.

It's too bad, because I think now would be a smart time for them to be pushing the envelope and taking the lead in the hobby. It's not just a question of sexism and the portrayal of women in fantasy gaming (though that is an easy win, with your suggestions at the end of your post here being a good place to start), but in general how they use design to create the aesthetic of D&D going forward.

I am going to get in trouble for this, but I take issue with you using terms like "a punch in the gut" and "betrayed". That may be how you felt, but it is a rhetorical device that brings violence and emotion into the discussion and thus begins to move the discussion away from a place of reason and negotiation. It undermines slightly what is otherwise a very practical and logical essay that WotC would do very well to read and take to heart.

We shouldn't discuss things just in terms of logic and reason. Jon did not and feelings, to be honest, are at the heart of the matter.

I agree, but talking about a punch in the gut is going too far.

Why is that too far? Really? A punch in the gut it too far? Weird.

Going after new players, pushing the envelope and taking the lead in the industry is what they thought they were doing with 4e and look what that got them... Pathfinder.

And the first thing paizo did was create Seoni. A big breasted scantily dressed sorceror. Why? Because it sells and thus she is used for most covers. Changing the consumer mind is much harder and a very big risk for a publisher in already hard selling industry. I might also go the way of cheese- and beefcake if I was trying to sell my products in the gaming industry.

It is sad but that is how the consumer world turns. The good now however is that we now have means to get the others also illustrated through projects as prismatic arts.

I have to admit that I love both my cakes (does that make me a bad person?) but I am also happy for prismatic arts for maybe I will now have a decent old female wizard instead of a 25year old with white or grey hair

"Make me a Mcgonnagal!"
I'd play her.

In fairness, there's also Seelah the black paladin in full plate, Kyra the Persian-esque cleric in knee-length chain, Lini the gnome druid in full leathers.
Even Merisiel the rogue with the, well, boob window as a restrained boob window as far as boob windows go, and Amiri the barbarian with the exposed naval is pretty scarred up and has a lot of clothes for your standard barbarian.

Not that the ratio of reasonable : cheesecake doesn't skew too far to the peek-a-boo side, but they're not all Seoni. And kudos should be given for the wide variety of human ethnicities.


Very eloquent. Intelligently expressed.

And so, so, very polite, patient, and tolerant.

I can't begin to share in your patience. If they want to cater to slobbering, entitled manbabies, that's fine. They've just made a clear statement their product is not for me.

First I really enjoyed this article. Often I get defensive because I feel my tastes are being labeled as sexism. I think the idea of having more cultural diversity in the game is excellent. I am in favor of showing the full range of humanity in art. I think creating a safe place for discussion is in the best interest of everyone. Thanks for writing from the heart.

I like many of your points above. The issue of gender in gaming is really important, and it can be hard to discuss. Your first bullet point about women not being comfortable discussing the issue is really true. It also applies to men. My Twitter feed has almost as many men regretting that they can't openly discuss the issue without fear of being jumped upon as are actually discussing the issue (and, really, once we take out retweets there is barely any discussion of the issue at all). This is a tremendous lost opportunity.

All issues we care about can be contentious. Today's #dndnext discussion has plenty of contention around how to treat feats. But, when we make the real issues that matter so difficult to discuss, and when we are so quick to fight and oppose and correct and label, then it creates an environment where no discussion can be had. Ask me or any other Hispanic about immigration...

Most experienced gamers can pick apart any article on the D&D site many different ways. I can go to town on a Dark Sun article, for example, for any number of issues (canonical completeness, selling to new players, etc.). But, aside from a recognition that the writers are almost always more talented and experienced than I am, and that I'm being a flawed and opinionated critic, I love Dark Sun. I first and foremost want to see it discussed and to invite more people into the fold. One of the things I absolutely love about 4E is that it really made Dark Sun approachable. It is shocking how many stigmas once accompanied Dark Sun (that it was for munchkins, that it was just about combat, that it was only for experienced players, that it was for killer DMs, etc.). Dark Sun used to scare away players in droves. You had to kind of find it and give it time to love it. 4E changed that.

Back in the days of AD&D the subject of depicting gender and human ethnicity was almost unapproachable. Today it is seen a lot more often. But, we haven't turned the corner on making the subject approachable. There are few people passionate about the issue that make others feel welcome to enter into the discussion. There can be that sense that no matter what a person would say, it would receive criticism. I often feel that way. I work to create fair representation in my adventures, campaigns, and blog posts, and I work to bring women into gaming as DMs, authors, colleagues, and players. But I generally try not to discuss the issue, because I feel I make no progress - especially with the most ardent supporters. (Being honest, shutting me up is usually a monumental task!)

I'm an environmentalist. It is what I studied, what I do professionally, and one of my passions. I can't think of a single time I've made progress by pointing out how someone is wrong. It is especially difficult because for me the issues are hugely important and looked at through a certain (often accurate) lens, our conversations and actions always in the wrong place. We talk about recycling when we should be taking radical actions to change our behavior. But, again, I've never found criticizing a person for the small step of recycling (or not) to help. It's the opposite. Congratulating and encouraging that repeated activity can be a step in the right direction. I think of it as slow advertising. When a friend asks me about small environmental issues I try to honor where they are coming from, congratulate them (honestly) on that step, and encourage the next one. No one, in my eyes, can pretty much do enough. There is no right in a world with so much wrong. But if I responded with that sentiment to people's questions I would turn them away and prevent progress. I find this important with everyone from students to corporate environmental officers to government officials.

It is what I really like the most about the Prismatic Art Project. That is a concrete action we can support without fear of being judged/accused/labeled. I believe in fair representation in art, and I would love for those with the most knowledge and most passion to facilitate an open dialogue of the very complex issues. I would love to see that any person could enter the discussion and get not criticism but the support that encourages making progress.

It's difficult for me to imagine that such an excellent game as D&D would actually sell less well if the art and content was not sexist. But that's so often the defense against more equal gaming - that their player base likes the sexist depicts of women and that they would NOT play it if the portrayals were NOT sexist?

That's such a baffling idea to me. The game does not, should not hinge on sexism as an important part of its content, development or marketing. It does not need to.

Also, on feelings. The rejection of feelings as an important part of the discussion is a rejection of the feminine. Logic is often set against emotion, when the two should work on concert, ESPECIALLY in discussions of social equality.

Thanks for the great article!

Great post. I hope Wizards of the Coast takes note of it. I don't think it is unreasonable to have artwork portray all ages, sexes, ethnicity, and body shapes and sizes in D&D. I don't think artists for D&D should completely eliminate beautiful people from their drawings. Then again, to have every image in D&D catering to a specific body type seems sort of one-dimensional to me and, yes, sexist. Why not throw in some more old women, overweight men, fully armored women, scarred women, and so on? What's wrong with that? For one thing, it adds more interest to the game, I think. And a truly good artist should be able to stretch boundaries and make scenes come alive with CHARACTER personalities, not just by relying strictly on base physical attraction as their schtick.

I have been playing D&D for nearly two decades, own at least core rules from all the editions, ... fan girl blather, etc. and the unwillingness of D&D to grow up and portray women as well, women has driven me away from the material. I feel like I've grown up and the material just hasn't. I mean, it's embarrassing to say I like D&D around my tabletop gamer friends. It's especially hard to stay invested in the franchise when there are so many other great games out there that directly address issues of morality, social justice and beliefs. I guess a talented GM could run a D&D game that addressed those things, but it's pretty hard to pick up the system for that purpose when all the depictions of women look like teenage spank material and all the depictions of racial minorities are... absent.

As to whether or not they need to keep the cheesecake to stay in business, there's an interesting discussion about sex in advertising on Geek Feminism Blog . I don;t have any empirical evidence to offer, but frankly, I don't see it making a difference. If you're just shelling out for the pics of scantily clad young women, you can get a lot more for cheaper.

Great response, Sarah. I was all excited when I heard about the post and in fact tweeted a link to it before I finished reading it. Big mistake; like you, I felt betrayed by it. Here was a company actually talking about sexism in their product - the flagship product of an entire genre, no less, a bastion of geek culture as a whole. What an amazing opportunity! I try to talk about sexism and feminist issues in geek culture as a whole, and here was someone in a position of influence, if not authority, on our team!

Or so I thought. They spent half the article downplaying how sexist traditional representations of women are, and the second half justifying the cheesecake style of one character.

Disappointing doesn't cover it. The more I considered this response, the more angry I became. If the professionals in the industry can't cop to the sexism that exists when they're the ones bringing it up, how are we to progress feminist discussion and evolution of nerd cultures? Why bring up the issue if your only contribution is to effectively say, "we're just doing what everyone does, don't get all feminist about it"?

Well, you've made a start. I've backed the Prismatic Art project and I'll spruik it around.

Thank you so much for writing this.

Balanced, eloquent, passionate.

Now following you on Twitter thanks to @labcoatman, and pulling your blog into my RSS feeds.

Very well put Tracy. I read Jon's article yesterday and mostly just felt disappointment. The overtone of the article seemed to be that they were looking for a safe style with which to portray women and they would stick with that. What is needed isn't for all women to be depicted as one thing or another it's, as you say, for a variety of ways of depicting BOTH genders to be used throughout the products.

I want to see lots of different ways of depicting men and women in a fantasy setting to fire up my imagination in many different ways and get into the setting of the game. Presumably news players would find this helpful too. The same thing goes for including depictions of different cultures inspired by the real world. If they could include some people of different ethnicities then that would be great, but have the artists learn about the people they are drawing. Otherwise you just end up with Token Black Guy which doesn't really inspire people. Taking a look at the wide variety of differently abled people and the possibilities for interesting and thought provoking art could also keep them in ideas for the next 5 editions of D&D.

What I want most of all is something that cannot be got by asking me 'What the hell DO you want *throw arms in air*' (which is how I'd summarise the article) and that is stuff that I don't expect. Something I don't think of when I think D&D art, something that might take me by surprise and make me think about what's happening in the picture and change my perceptions of something. If their're aiming for minimising complaints about individual pieces of art then I'm not going to get my wish in 5e but if they get their heads out of the sand and aim for minimising complaints about the collection of art as a whole then there might be some hope.

Incidentally my wishes here are why I pledged money to the Prismatic Art kickstarter and why I didn't fill in the survey that was asking what I wanted to see in the collection (surprise me). I see that has met it's initial funding goal now. Well done, I'm looking forward to seeing what gets produced for the collection.

One last thing is to note how much I object (see what I did there) to be ruled out of being a 'Beautiful Object' that's worth a artists time to paint. Jon written this to objectify women (even if he didn't realise that was what he was doing) but it's pretty insulting to men who have a beauty if you're willing to find it and it's pretty insulting to artists who are willing to find it and bring it out. I'm also pretty sure that there are a lot of women and gay men who might find the male form an interesting thing to draw/study.

Well, if he has that bad time figuring out what is sexist and what isn't sexist -- he admits that he's an old codger, right in the beginning...

...then why NOT transfer that job to someone YOUNGER and POSSIBLY woman as well?

Now there's a radical idea! A woman in charge of art direction! OMG! Will wonders ever cease?

So, yeah.

Paizo has a female art director and look at their covers

Stacy Longstreet.

She was the Art Director at WOTC for D&D 3.0 through early 4.0. Set the visual direction for 4.0.

Very well written.

I find it hard to believe that anyone, especially someone who works in the industry, can still try to talk away the seriousness of sexism in the gaming industry.

I find it especially maddening to hear the excuse 'it's what our customers want' and 'it's what our artists provide' used to justify catering to it. They certainly have control over what they accept and they have the ability to say, 'no, this isn't right' when it comes to choosing what to publish.

The DnD brand has been around too long; WotC is owned by a mega-corp with plenty of PR. They have NO excuse for continuing to ignore this problem by pretending it isn't one.

But again, as JiDeRu pointed out, Paizo has a female owner, female art director (I'm assuming that is correct), and the end result is the same.

As I wrote on another blog, it isn't an edition wars or company thing. It is an industry issue:

Paizo's cover here takes the same approach as WotC's cover here. Gee, who is the artist for those? Same very well respected artist for both companies, doing the same kind of work. And we can see some ridiculous impossible poses here... is she fighting with her posterior? The other guys aren't. And this one... thank goodness that confident guy is there to protect her. (sarcasm, etc.)

I do hear both companies responding to it. And gamers are as well. A while back there was a site that created feats and other rules around damsels in distress. When I posted about that being problematic, all I heard was agreement. Paizo and WotC are both taking the issue seriously.

Now, I do wonder about the "sex sells" bit. Most people I know in marketing have agreed with that over the years. However, I think the definition of sex and sexy evolves over time and by subject. For me, the covers I linked above aren't really sexy, and I'm not looking for sexy in those scenes. I'm looking for bad-ass. Pure, raw, awesome, bad-ass. When the woman looks vulnerable, she's not bad-ass. I mean, the cover of rulebooks should depict PCs I want to play. Very few people go for vulnerable as a PC concept.

Similarly, when the guy is too musclebound to move, he isn't bad-ass. If the dark skinned PC is the comedian or plays a minor role, it isn't bad-ass. There should be a diversity of art, because look at our PCs... we have plenty of 18 charisma PCs, but (especially in 4E) they can be nearly any role, from melee to caster to healer, etc. Yes, I do want to see a hot sorceress and a hot melee fighter... but I think we can find a way to do that so it is fair to the situation and the audience. I think in fantasy art we can move forward to have art be fair the vast majority of the time for the vast majority of the audience. I also happen to think that this is what WotC is saying.

Hey I want a halfling that wears plate mail. Just one solid picture where the body proportions of a halfling look right in armor. Do I think WoTC not providing me one in their books means that they are making a political statement about Little People. Is the choice to not solicit material for them make them guilty of other -isms. I would say no. The same could be said for the limited supply of Asian, African and other facial structures typically found in the depiction of humans. I pick a piece of art and build my character around the mental image that picture sparks. I don't just rely on art produced by WoTC. Often I can't find anything on the web not just in WoTC books. There is only so much quality art out there being made. Not every body type, age demographic and race class combination will be displayed. Art budgets arent that big. To be fair I have more art from WoTC that depicts a range then I have gotten from Elfwood nor Deviant Art. Even these fan dedicated artists aren't producing what you want. Why because that is not what is taught in art schools, and that is not how most folks view themselves when they create a fantasy version of themselves. Scars on tough looking bad arses are common but pock marked or over weight women are rare. Those that are depicted are usually in service rolls (inn keepers etc). This is a symptom of thousands of years of fairy tales and heroic stories. Only recently, the last forty years, have we begun to pile reality into tall tales thru RPGs, novels and video games. It's only been in the last ten that it has come to TV and then in only certain genres. I personally am not a fan of reality based crime shows and dramas. To be clear I didn't mean reality tv the thinly veiled exploitation and sensationalism media, second after our so called journalism. I could accept a wider variation but I am not begging for that. I am not looking for slider tech to change skin color, eye shape, weight, hair color to create a char. In other words I don't need art to be one size fits all. I just want something that gives me a creative spark and doesn't make me go meh cuz the image is badly composed or unappealing to the eye. I want linear compositions and color selections that inspire my mind far more than I want to appeal to a demographic of real world stereotypes.

I don't even know how to approach it? I mean, starting with dubious questions is...I mean, I think it is a valid approach, but the whole tone is sort of like "well, what do YOU think, do you think there might sort of maybe be some kind of double standard in gender portrayals, maybe?" Uh, yeah. Are we still arguing first principals? I feel like the article sets up a sort of "we're damned if we do, damned if we don't! So well, I guess nothin'!" attitude while simultaneously being like...at least a start on the conversation? I'm just sort of exhausted of explaining to people the basic stuff, like, hey, sexual violence is a real thing & it informs illustration. Hey, you mention damsels, notice how that word automatically connotates femininity? I...I don't even know where to start. It just makes me tired, you know?

It makes me tired sometimes as well. I'm surprised that the role of women is even put up for public debate. We've seen how well it goes when female character designs are handed over to crowd sourcing. I'm not sure why we have to continue to debate that when the purpose of art is to tell us about the world we'll be playing in, creating interesting female characters over fanservice art should win out just about every time, that when the art director of WotC implies that female characters are meant to be beautiful objects, that that might cause some fans, especially women, to feel misunderstood at best.

Well, we did get one good thing out of the article at least. I was able to use the poll from the end of it in My Sociological Research Methods class as an example of a survey that lacks validity, meaning that it's flaws don't allow it to gather any meaningful data of the type it was set up to do. So, yay?

EDIT: Also I just learned that if you accidently put a comma instead of a period in your email, it tells you that your email address is invalid. They need one of those for whomever writes their polls.


That has to be the most brilliant critique of D&D, and of an official WotC post I have EVER read. I've tried to (apparently hacking like a blind swordsman, NOT in a cool way like Zatoichi) say pretty much the same thing. Not only to Mr. Schindehette, but to many employees, and members of the 'community' the same thing.

LOL, no wonder I quit graduate school. I cannot articulate my thoughts as well as you. I do draw, paint, sculpt, and photograph however...

Something I'd say as well, replace 'sexism' with racism, and women with person of color. Not to mention the civil rights movement of the 21st century in the states: LGBT rights.

I agree wholeheartedly that D&D should NOT be an escape from these 'issues' but rather a safe forum for addressing,(embracing) them, and perhaps moving toward FIXING them for future peoples.

P.S. I loved this part:)

"While his test might have proved that the term is misunderstood by people in the community, it doesn’t mean we should stop trying to understand it, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable and perhaps even triggers guilt. It’s those feelings that cause some to feel that the term is “convenient, inflammatory, and polarizing,” a phrasing that itself is often used as a derailing and silencing technique."

Sorry, my comment wasn't so great. But, I hope this game and many like it, can change. Incedently, one of the reasons (as a 'white' male artist) I refuse to illustrate the human form is a) let viewers know that there's WAY more to earth and beyond than just our bodies. b) to avoid fights. c) I hate how people are depicted, not just in fantasy illustration, but even in much fine art...going back millenia.


Back to my beer.

In terms of older women being beautiful, you also don't often see older warrior women still being kick ass. For example, most people will know Legend by Gemell and a few might know Kell's Legend, where these older soldiers come out of retirement and despite various physical issues are still gods on the battlefield but we don't see that too often (and outside of a Wester Sankoyki which I'm horribly misspelling) I don't remember it at all. Get the blood thirsty women in there as well as the men eh?

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