Marking the Female and Artifacts of the Male Gaze

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 14 September 2012

Rook by Jared von HindmanRook by Jared von HindmanA lot of great discussion has happened since yesterday’s article
Minotaurs, Udders, and Worries of Gender Stereotyping
. It seems that two of my points about bias might have been lost a bit beneath all the other words so I’d like to talk about them here. Both of these biases individually and together reinforce the idea that the female is “The Other.” This feeling of otherness can drive away some players, particularly women who are unsure if the game is right for them. So I think it merits examining these issues a bit more.

Female as Marked

What is “marked?” Here’s a basic definition from "Marked Women, Unmarked Men" by Deborah Tannen.

The term “marked” is a staple of linguistic theory. It refers to the way language alters the base meaning of a word by adding a linguistic particle that has no meaning on its own. The unmarked form of a word carries the meaning that goes without saying -- what you think of when you're not thinking anything special.

Notice in Jon Schindehette’s article, there was no discussion of what defines a male minotaur. In fact, we rarely discuss what defines males of any race (although we might talk about average height, weight, etc) This is because we consider the male to be the default and the female to be the exception or “marked” condition.

Now at least one commenter argued that this is because there is an overlap in male characteristics, in that both minotaur and human have a penis, but there is a difference in location of the female mammary glands, and, thus, we need to discuss this. However, the issue here is that both breasts and udder on a fantasy creature could be just as easily hidden as a penis often is. There’s no reason to believe that a muscular minotaur wouldn’t be flat chested and have her breasts covered by a hairy chest. Likewise, lower body coverings could easily cover an udder and, if the minotaur tends to be naked instead, then whatever covers the penis could cover the udder as well. As a construct of the human imagination, we can create this creature however we wish. That we believe the male intimate areas would not be noticeable but the female ones would is part of this bias towards marking women.

Omniscient Breasts

Another part of our bias is focusing on the mammary glands as a way to mark femaleness. While there is a fair bit of variation due to time period and location, heterosexual males often (but not always) have a bit of a fascination with breasts. That’s one of the reasons why the “male gaze” often focuses on them as an important body part. However, this way of looking at the female body is far from universal. Kate Elliott explores this in her post, The Omniscient Breasts. Focusing on breasts as the way to distinguish a female character can easily run into this problem. In my opinion, it fetishizes them and takes them out of the context of the character as a whole.

In addition, I’d suggest that this may be one of the main reasons we end up with characters that look like they’ve had a boob job and are dressed in clothing that shows off their breasts, such as boob plate, corsets, and boob windows. I can see the thought process now: “Well, they told me they want a female character and that female characters of this race are distinguished by their breasts....If I draw the breasts too small, they might not be noticeable, so, to make sure I don’t have to redo any of my work, I better create the fantasy art outfit equivalent of big neon signs that say ‘HERE THERE BE BREASTS!’” If your intention is to cut down on artists depicting women in this fashion (and I’ve heard multiple times from multiple people that it is), perhaps telling them that breasts are the way to define a character is counter-productive.

Being Aware

The main reason I wrote yesterday's article and this one is that I think we should be aware of the biases not only that we hold but that exist in what we consume. Being aware of a bias doesn't mean that we must stamp out all occurrences of it. As Elliott discusses in her article, there are times to write a character using a "heterosexual male gaze" point of view, just as there are times we should use the "heterosexual female" or others. Rather, it's a check to make sure that we are using the one that aligns best with the story we are trying to tell. In the case of D&D Next, I'd hope that game material that discusses races and classes clings more to a gender neutral perspective than some previous editions have.


A very interesting post, thank you! I had not intellectualized the idea of characters needing to be 'marked' as female, before.

Just typing down a thought as it occurs to me; would the udders of a Minotaur be used as a way to attract mates? yes, hetero male humans like looking at breasts, but why do we assume Minotaur males do?

That's definitely one thing I'm wondering. Also, do we want the "iconic" images of a race to be based on what another gender finds attractive? If so, we need to rethink how males are portrayed because I've read a number of studies that show that human woman prefer a swimmer's build more often than the pumped up, hyper-masculinized version commonly presented.

Just given the appearance of the minotaur's primary sense receptors, it would seem to me that scent would be the primary motivator for that. Some cursory internet research seems to indicate that for real world cows, stance is of heavy importance which might translate to posture for bipeds. Either way, it seems to be the female calling the shots.

You've hit some great points in these articles, and for the most part I totally agree with you, but the more I mull the problem over in my head the more I'm left feeling snookered.
See, I want female minotaurs in the game to be big, bestial and strong but also read visually as women - it's a cool image and one that I think subverts stereotype. What I'm worried about is that if it's impossible to visually differentiate male and female minotaurs, then for the very reasons Tannen talks about, all minotaurs read as male... and then I don't get the stereotype subversion that I want to see in the game.
And that's just for minotaurs as monsters. If they are a PC race I want the players to easily identify with them (that could just be my bias towards anthropomorphising), and have choosing a male or female minotaur be equally as accessible a choice. I worry the less that female minotaurs read as female (and therefore become read as male - like the way people automatically call every dog a 'he')the less likely players will play a female minotaur character - reinforcing the whole 'only male characters can be big, ugly and strong' problem.

...but like I said, I don't disagree with your points. I'm not saying minotaurs have to have breasts to do this, but I also think that things like hide coloration and antler shape won't cut it like an anthropomorphic visual cue will.

Actually, I don't call every dog I meet a 'he.' And minotaurs are far from the only race to have strong females. For instance, orcs, half-orcs, giants, ogres, cyclops, etc should all meet the needs of 'big, ugly, and strong.' Furthermore, characters don't need obvious breasts or udders to read as female. For instance, take a look at this Pinterest board: In many of those images, the breasts are understated if not completely hidden. Yet, they still read as women.

The breasts/udder solution is a poor one because 1) it emphasizes breasts at a time when many fans are asking for them to not have as much emphasis, 2) is lazy, we should be looking at a fuller expression of what gender means (if anything) in each of those societies, and 3) feels like we are once again referring to women as their body parts instead of as whole creatures.

Sorry, what I wrote was not intended as an attack on the ideas you presented, like I said, I agree with them. In fact, I think they are important and need to be engaged with. I guess I'm just trying to work out the problem in my own mind of 'unmarking' something as the other without obliterating its identity - or - relying on lazy visual cues that reduce a gender to its body parts (I'm still grappling with Butler's somewhat related concept of 'subjection' too, so there you go).

I am in complete agreement that the fact there is an udders/breasts debate at all is a perfect example of the female being marked as other . I just didn't like some of the solutions from the animal world since I thought they may miss an opportunity for subversion (even if there are other strong races). Looks like we disagree with that last point, but I think there's enough room in the dialogue for different approaches and opinions.

BTW, your pinterest page is a great visual resource - how about throwing Martha and the Muffins and bone and calling it Women Around the World at Work - the internet needs more 80's CanCon :)

One option is to understand the bias in the writing. Instead of approaching the issue of, how do we denote that this character is female, we could have a discussion about what gender means for minotaurs and how that influences the looks of the sexes and genders of the race.

For instance, if we go with the Dragon 116 description of minotaurs (and I'd rather not personally), male minotaurs would be noticeable due to their battle scars and horns. Female members in that society are expected to be much closer to cows, their highest purpose was to produce warrior sons. I would expect that they wouldn't be overly strong or bold (although there's an argument for something akin to Sparta).

However, if we use Wyatt's suggested origin for minotaurs, that they are cultists Baphomet "rewarded" with this changed state, then things get more interesting. First, they would be magically constructed out of the bodies of many races, not just humans. What effects does their origins have on their final looks? Also, I would amp up the origin story a bit and not provide any mammary glands to the minotaur. They have to find other ways to give sustenance to their children, perhaps the blood of their fallen enemies?

Neither option is perfect but they are at least connected to the story rather than a disconnected "Tits or GTFO" setup like we currently have.

...1) it emphasizes breasts at a time when many fans are asking for them to not have as much emphasis...

That's not my experience, seems more like a few vocal people feel this way. My problem with this is you're asking a mainstream product to remove gender references from what many of us see as useful text. This is like suggesting every sign in the US must be also printed in spanish because 15% of the population can speak spanish,
just a little unnecessary, IMHO.

There's a line you lay down when you write/create something, how populist vs how 'inclusive' you're going to be. And it sucks to say this, but if D&D were marketed as a game for LGBT breastless penisless minotaurs that all lived in a harmonious town where you tell somethings sex by the flower in it's hair, well, it wouldn't be the second most popular RPG now, would it.

The great thing about these systems is you can create your own rules and world. And if you want to have your adventurers get their next quest from a mid-operation transgender sorcerer, or an androgynous town of minotaurs, well, it's pretty easy to do that. But right now we've got folks picking on an editor at Wizards for posting an article on Minotaurs in D&D, an editor who did not study Lacan, Said, Tannen, or whomever, it's just kind of gross.

This is D&D, not film school.

I've talked to many people at WotC, including the art director, as well as people at other companies. It's not a few vocal people.

I maintain that whether breasts or udders are covered, bare, large, small, androgenous, or whatever, it's still an open question. That's what was at the heart of my cmments on the last post, not whether or not they'd be noticed. If I'm making a female minotaur character, I'd like to know how her biological morphology is laid out -- not because I'm a man and I like breasts, but because someone's body is kind of an important part of their identity.

Sure, then we should be talking about penises and testicles too.

Great stuff as always.

I think part if the issue is how people think of udders. Cow udders have become these massive, bloated things impossible to hide after 12,000 of careful breeding for milk production. So if female minotaurs are packing those it would be important to know the location of their secondary sex characteristics. If they have the much more subtle udders of wild cattle it would be easier to hide underneath fur and veil.

Still... For consistency in art and portrayal they might want to know.

Ironically enough, human females are (biologically speaking) the default gender and therefore the "unmarked". In order for a baby to be born with male characteristics, it must have a functioning Y chromosome and testosterone receptors. Women with androgen insensitivity are phenotypically female despite having a Y chromosome and adequate testosterone levels, but their bodys' receptors for testosterone do not function properly, so they develop as females by default.

Perhaps D&D Next should consider the percedent set by Wookies in the Star Wars universe. Wookies don't bother to wear clothes and their secondary sexual characteristics are deemphasized. Wookies look like wookies regardless of their gender - nonwookies can't tell the difference.

You could also look at a fantasy example from LotR - both male and female dwarves have beards. In the LotR MMO, all dwarves appear "male" because the other races don't know the difference.

My old gaming group was very hung up over the 4e artwork of female dragonborn having breasts when real-life lizards have no mammary glands. It was bad enough that monsters became "races" in 4e and you couldn't take out a goblin settlement without worrying about the ethics of killing "women and children" when most of the group just wanted to kill "monsters".

I think female goblins would fight too.

For the most part I think it's kind of silly to have a discussion of why rpg stuff makes females out to be different and seperate from males, regardless of character species or game system. Here's why:

1. Why would anyone expect rpg to be any different from any other literary medium? Nobody decries a novel for having female characters in it. Depicting female characters is a selling point, probably for many female gamers. Putting chics with big breasts on the cover may not be the best way to depict them, but putting chicks with big swords on the cover might. Wouldn't that still require being able to tell that she's a girl somehow?

2. If there is a good topic for discusion here, it isn't that females are called out as being different from males, because lets face it - we are! The real issue is that some* females are disgusted by the way females are depicted, not the fact that they are depicted in the first place.

3. An rpg world does not have to be like reality. Period. However... for the suspension of disbelief that you need in the players, it must have some familiar stuff in it. Sex is an easy thing to use. In general, I'd find it more challenging to relate to an androgenous fantasy world where you can't tell males from females. That could be a good or a bad thing depending on who you are but the fact is that it's not like reality so does not contribute to suspension of disbelief.

A much better subject for discussion is how sexist some rpg stuff is. That means sexism, not mere gender depiction. In that there is clear room for improvement.


*Some females are turned on by other females and don't mind looking at them in the least. Yeah, it's homosexuality. Deal with it.

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