Before I publish the second bingo card, I want to address the, for a lack of better word, shitstorm that ensued when a lead concept artist on Bioware’s Dragon Age: Inquisition, Matt Rhodes of mattrhodesart, decided to reblog the already-growing in popularity Female Armor Bingo.
His initial comments were met with a lot of backlash, and as much as I believe there was never a nefarious intent on his side, which is confirmed by the thoughtful follow-up apology, what he said in the original post and added edit (below) was potentially problematic and one-sided.
Still, I’m most grateful that an industry professional helped to spread the word about my work and sparked a meaningful discussion concerning character design and the significant difference in perspective between male creators and female consumers.
In reference to the whole controversy, I’m reblogging below the excellent response by flutiebear who confronted Rhodes’s arguments both pre-edit and post it (below). Then, below cut I’ll add a few quotes from other reblogs that I found worth of mention. Bolding mine.
[truncated for brevity]
This is pretty amusing. The most concise collection of tropes and cliches used in female character design that I’ve seen yet.
But it also got me thinking. Tropes and cliches are like knives: if you’re naive you’ll only hurt yourself and others, avoid them entirely and you’ll be safe but limited, OR learn how and when to use them to your advantage. Ignorance and prohibition are two paths to ruin.
Looking at this chart, I honestly think there’s a good chance that throughout my career I’ll use most of these (and many more that aren’t represented here). In fact, just reading through the list gave me a few design ideas. Of course if I’m doing my job right it should ALWAYS be in service of the story and character (not at their expense).
This issue raises a small red flag for me. As an artist, the one thing I dare not do is declare: I shan’t use this or that design element as long as I live, so help me God!Edit: I’m going to expand on my thoughts here, as a response to some of the comments I’ve received. Over the past 10 years as a concept artist I’ve been able to see that the difference between a lasting design and a forgettable one is how much it respects the audience and the character. My unique position has afforded me a lot of face time with gamers and fans (and would-be-fans) and their desires echo my own: give us more character designs we can believe in. And now, as a father of two daughters I am more invested than ever in the fight for inclusivity and creating designs that inspire and invite EVERYONE to join in. Let me be perfectly clear: I firmly believe we will win that fight by attacking imbedded mentalities, not specific aesthetic choices. We should certainly treat the symptoms, but I don’t want that to distract from fighting the disease. For example, the chart mentions boob cups, helmetless armor and armor with holes with skin showing through. I’m watching through Game of Thrones again, so I think of Cersei Lannister’s armored gown with boob cups, Brienne of Tarth’s lack of helmet and the incredible design language used in the desert armor of Qarth (more holes than metal, with minimal fabric beneath). They are all done tastefully and in support of character and setting. Their respect for the characters and the audience led them to create unique and story-supporting designs despite checking 3 bingo boxes. I understand that this list was created out of a frustration that, frankly, I will likely never fully experience. I know that it’s targeting the worst, most flagrant examples of these tropes, and to that I say “swing away”. Concept artists/art directors/producers who perpetuate this insidious atmosphere should ABSOLUTELY be taken down a peg. But saying “we will never draw these specific things again” basically just gives the sexist mentality more power. At that point they own those aesthetics and they have no right to. I have to believe that there are a hundred ways to design backless armor that don’t insult or alienate half the audience. A smart designer could take back “armored gloves and feet but no armor on the midsection”. That could look really cool and imply a totally different fighting technique. I will (very likely) never design a battle thong, but some day an artist better than me will design an army of men and women in battle thongs and nipple armor, and will handle it with dignity and respect to the characters and the audience, and we’ll thank them for it.
I understand you want to respect the creative process, and I believe you when you say that you’re trying to be respectful to your fans.
But please understand that by distancing yourself from the above examples, by saying this chart is only targeting the “worst, most flagrant examples”, you’re trying to create distance between yourself and the problematic status quo rather than examining how your own actions might be unintentionally perpetuating it.
Your Game of Thrones example is actually a great example. I’d argue that Cersei’s boob cups and Brienne’s helmetlessness and Danaerys’s Qarth garb are part of the problem. You might not perceive this costume design to be as flagrant or egregious as, say, chain mail pasties, but the fact is that these costumes are designed to remind the viewer of their wearers’ femininity for no apparent practical reason. And it always seems to be the case in stories that feature women warriors! We viewers are always, always reminded that they are first and foremost women, not warriors — as if we’d forget! If reminders of sex characteristics are truly necessary to reveal character and develop story, then how come there aren’t more armors being designed with penis cups and chest hair windows? Who knows, without them, I might otherwise forget I’m looking at a man!
A far more successful case of costume design, I think, comes from Dragon Age 2. Take Aveline’s guard armor or Cassandra’s Seeker uniform. These are two great examples of armor worn by women, which do not feel the need to remind the viewer by construction: DON’T FORGET THIS IS ARMOR FOR LADIES. Instead these armors are not only practical, but also fit within universe and tell a story about the women who wear them. And somehow we the viewers still manage not to forget that women are wearing them.
What I’m saying is that sexism, objectification, these things don’t always happen in flagrancies. Every now and then you’ll see something that’ll really make you grimace, but usually it’s a million little microaggressions, most of which often fly under the radar of our otherwise respectful and enlightened male colleagues. You might not think that underboob is all that bad, or see anything wrong about metal on bare skin, no matter how impractical it is. But when it’s the only representation you see of your own gender, again and again and again, you get tired of it.
You’re right that fighting female objectification in the industry isn’t about outlawing or banning certain design choices; it’s about a commitment to a more thoughtful, respectful and inclusive aesthetic. But the use of hypotheticals — well, I’m sure someone could design practical backless armor! — only serve to redirect the conversation away from its original point: that the industry status quo is sexism and female objectification. Yes, I’m sure someone could design practical backless armor, hypothetically. But that’s not the point. The point is that you and other artists/designers like you have the power to influence change through your work, and instead of rising to that challenge, you tend to distance yourself from it, by saying “well, it’s only those other guys that are sexist, not me”.
Your work, at least on DA, speaks for itself and so I give you the benefit of the doubt, Matt. But when you make a post like your original one, where you reblog this chart and laugh at it, even joke about how you’ve gotten design ideas from it — well, it makes me wonder, you know?
And below let me highlight selected quotes from other reblogs I found meaningful. To read whole posts, click on the usernames.
This is the reason why the majority of our Dragon Age cosplay group take to crossplay. Female video game garb is unwearable, male video game garb is warm, comfortable and practical. And it’s a shame because the characters themselves are so wonderful and their clothes are often great to look at (but not to wear).
haffri (emphasis mine):
Nothing of what [Rhodes] said is nearly as important of a problem as preventing perpetuation of sexist tropes mentioned in the original post. Defending designer freedom more than fighting against blatant sexism is not a good way to go.
[…] And besides- maybe that’s the issue- this post is not about criticizing tropes and cliches, it’s about criticizing sexist tropes and cliches. That’s a completely different thing. It’s not about being unoriginal, it’s about being a misogynist.
It must be nice to not have any stake in this; to not have it impact you one way or the other when some male concept artist says “ignorance and prohibition are two paths to ruin” about underboob and armor nipple pasties. But it impacts me. You have female fans, Matt, fans who are tired of the men in charge of the depiction of women in our media claiming that it’s “in service of the story” to implement boob windows and metal bikinis and other ridiculous sexualizations of female characters. And when you express attitudes like this, especially as a response to someone else’s frustration about sexism and objectification, it reminds me of my place as an outsider, both in the fantasy genre and in video games. It reminds me that this is a boys’ club in which I am still not welcome.
syllogi (emphasis mine):
Like, when I look at that Female Armor Bingo card, I am reminded of the many times I’ve felt distinctly uncomfortable because a female character was being objectified and hypersexualized in a game, tv show or on a book cover. I remember that it made me feel like that thing was very definitely NOT being made for me, no matter how awesome that female character was supposed to be, she was first and foremost created to be sexually appealing to men. I remember how sad it was as a kid, being a comic book collector, who wanted more female heroes to look up to, but often finding the impractically sexed up costumes of female characters to be a giant clue that they were not being made for me, or any other woman.
We ask for elements of realism by making fun of idiotic tropes, and [Rhodes] say LOL look at that, I could use that right there!
[…] Sexy is not the main thing every female character should be. A person is the main thing. If you need an attribute, try greedy, bold, whimsical, bratty, or brave, but do Not send me into combat wearing a piece of armor that covers only my nipples. Do not send me to see the main religious leader of the world wearing nothing but a thong and a bikini top. Do not make me fight Demons wearing something out of a male fantasy. Think about what You’d want to walk into these situations in, and design them that way. Better yet, have an actual copy of what you’re designing made, and try walking around in it for a day- I mean anywhere.
Mr. Rhodes, please, so many of us are your fans and enjoy your work. Please understand that the reason we make charts like this is to help make this issue visible and to take the sting out of something very painful with humor. Our concerns about hypersexualization of women in design have existed since well before video games did, but it’s a medium we love. This wasn’t a chart of “things we think are silly,” it was a chart of “things we despise because they happen 99% to women only and remind us that neither we nor our opinions are welcome because we really only exist for wank fodder”. […] These tropes are used to objectify female bodies in media so often we can make a bingo card of them. This is a list of how female characters are designed in ways that male characters are almost never designed.
What [Rhodes] propose[s] doing might make that action more palatable and less insulting to a woman encountering that character, and I guess that’s nice? But BETTER would be if the costume was designed around utility and believability in the first place rather than exposing as much skin as possible and then maaaaaybe throwing in some kind of character detail on top of it to try to make it fit the story.
You know. The way the masculine armors are done.
startrekrenegades (emphasis mine):
As a man, you [Rhodes] do NOT get to decide who “takes back” or reclaims what aspects of SEXIST ARMOUR DESIGN. If women say it’s harmful, it’s your job to sit back and say, “I understand. If these are harmful design ideas, I will strive to avoid these clichés in my work, not only because they’re overdone but also because my female fans have expressed themselves and I am going to listen to them because they experience this sexism on a personal level that I do not.”
shadesofmauve (emphasis mine):
I can fully believe Rhodes meant well, and think he frequently designs very well, and I still think he put his foot in it — and yes, I’ve read the clarification he added. It ignores that the character driven art which he (and we!) want is NOT served by the above tropes the vast majority of the time; thatthis should be self-evident when you realize they’re almost never applied to men*; that immediately responding with “I’ll do these, but right!” is an affront to people who are already constantly told we are not the audience you want. Those all grate.
But what really bothers me is a phrase in his edited addition:
“I firmly believe we will win that fight by attacking imbedded mentalities, not specific aesthetic choices. We should certainly treat the symptoms, but I don’t want that to distract from fighting the disease”
That’s exactly how people dismiss these problems such that they’re never dealt with. Congratulations on passing the buck! It suggests that our visual and narrative representations aren’t important, when in fact they are one of the most important things. It’s easier to change people’s minds through story than through fact. Things that ‘creep in around the edges’ through media hit us in all sorts of ways. This isn’t distracting from fighting embedded mentalities, this is HOW you fight embedded mentalities!
blue-author (emphasis mine):
I feel like you’ve completely missed the idea inherent in a bingo card. A bingo card doesn’t say “Any of these elements are poison! Even one of them is fatal!” A bingo card makes the wry assertion that all of these elements are collectively so thick on the ground you could win a game of bingo by spotting them. You know, by filling in a row. A row. A whole row. Which means a minimum of 5 elements, but since it’s not *any* 5, a winning board’s going to have a lot more than those 5 squares covered.
THAT is the state of affairs as it stands right now, Matt. And you? You are defending it. You are defending it based on the perception of a slippery slope.
kayinnasaki (emphasis mine):
Guys have unrealistic poses and armor or whatever to emphasize how badass they are, while women have unrealistic elements to objectify them. You can apply a lot of these to male characters. Does Skyrim guy look like he’s dressed for the cold? Of course when we see a woman do this she’s in a bikini and fur boots, but that’s sorta my point. One is STILL clearly sexist, even though they are both unrealistic. There is more to it than realisim.
Armor in most fiction is costuming. The purpose of the outfit is communicate information (even if that information is just style) to the viewer.
[…] If you armor women exactly like men while referencing realistic period armor, you’re probably going to do a good job. Also there is arguably a debt to be paid here as bad ass realistic fantasy women are sorely under-represented. But again, being unrealistic isn’t sexist. The amount of realism a setting has is part of it’s aesthetic. The issue is the double standard that occurs within that aesthetic. That super hero lady ain’t wearing skin tight materials and posing like that to show you how buff and tough she is!