The Tipping Point: Girls, Geeks, Sexualization and How It Starts So Young

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This winter, I wrote a column called “The Tipping Point,” about how geek and nerd society has reached the point where so many women have become involved that even though the resistance is there, integration is inevitable, especially in comics and gaming.

The reactions some men have to this integration, especially the call for more three-dimensional characters in gaming and comics, can best be seen in the comments to “Nerds and Male Privilege” an article at Kotaku.

The article is written by a man who’s seen the pattern of rejection of valid complaints over and over, to the point where he predicted exactly what comments his subject would receive.

One of the major objections I’ve seen over and over is “well, why should women care about games or comics meant for men?” and that one is in the comments to the article as well.

There’s nothing inherently male about wanting to game or indulge in a  superhero fantasy. They both offer a chance to do something adventurous and out-of-this-world.

And I always wonder exactly when those who object think will change if the women become more three-dimensional and less prone to sexualization and being reduced to only a sex object. Would that somehow ruin the game?

Is sexualizing and marginalizing women an essential element of superheroes or gaming?

I can’t see any reason why it should be and I can’t see how making the women as fully realized characters as the men will harm these things. It’s not as if Hermione being a strong character somehow ruined Harry Potter or having Sarah Conner in the Terminator movies ruined those.

But there’s another reason this attitude of “hey, it’s just for me and you should find your other stuff” bothers me and it’s one I didn’t realize exist until recently.

It’s because this male gaze that views women more as sex objects than people filters down to the kids, even to the instruction books for children who want to draw comics. This has to change.

Recently, my twelve-year-old son has taken up drawing in a manga style and he’s putting together a web comic. He’s been going through art instruction books, both for children and adults, at a fast clip. Most of them are great and have been very helpful.

But there are some problems and he found them and pointed them out to me.

He showed me a section from Anime Mania by Christopher Hart, a book of art instruction that was shelved in the children’s section of the local library. I mention that because this is obviously an instruction book meant for older children and teens, not adults. The Barnes & Noble biography says Hart is Watson-Guptil’s top selling author. This book is obviously one many budding artists turn to for instruction. My son said the book is very helpful and information in many ways. Except one.

My son wanted to learn the right way to draw his female manga character standing.

What he found was a drawing of a women in a shower wearing a bikini. No biggie, I thought at first. He has to learn female anatomy. *Please note, I’m not objecting to female nudity or near-nudity, especially as it’s an art instruction book. That is not the problem. I say that explicitly because I can already predict responses to this article will be “uptight mom objects to nudity in art books.” No, that’s not it at all. He’s learning to draw. He needs to learn anatomy.

The problem is that the nearly nude and sexually suggestive poses exclusively feature a woman.  There were no naked or near-naked instruction panels that portrayed men in showers. Or shirtless or in a swimsuit. And neither, as my son pointed out,  were there any women seated at computer desks, like the man sitting at the computer on the page opposite the woman in the shower, to illustrate sitting.

Any art student has to learn the nude form–and this was a mild version of it. I have no problems with that.

It’s the disparity in how the woman was presented versus how the man was presented that is the problem. She was in the shower. He was doing something for his work. Already, in an instruction book for young artists, she’s becoming sexualized and he’s being seen as doing something, well, useful.

I can hear the objections already. It was just one page. There’s some great instructions elsewhere in the book that don’t make this mistake.

Overall, it’s a very good book. It even features art from Colleen Doran.

But that doesn’t mean this page wasn’t a mistake that reinforces a serious problem in the way women overall are depicted in mainstream comics and gaming.

I’ve also often heard people say of cheesecake art that the men are idealized too.

But there’s a difference between “idealized” and “sexualized.” And sometimes it gets ridiculous when all sorts of cover shots on comics that aren’t rated mature feature overly sexualized women and yet a simple cover shot of a woman breastfeeding was enough to send a well-known artist into an uproar this week.

Because obviously covers that feature sexualized women are okay but breast-feeding where little is shown? Oh noes! Think of the children! (Note: Dave Dorman has taken down the post about the comic cover without explanation so you won’t find it at the link in the Comics Alliance story linked above.)

The bottom line is that there are subtle–probably subconscious–signals to new artists that this over-sexualization is the way to draw women.

The men look idealized and powerful. The woman looks sexual.

What’s encouraging is that my son recognized it on his own and brought it to my attention, meaning that talking about with kids can make a difference.

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19 thoughts on “The Tipping Point: Girls, Geeks, Sexualization and How It Starts So Young

    1. Rebecca, I have two questions for you or for anyone else who reads this, but first let me explain something. I enjoy looking at the human form – face or body, nude or clothed, female or male (as I explained in a reply to another of your posts). Also, I do not see anything wrong, in and of itself, with enjoying looking at the human form. Now, I do not believe that the enjoyment one can get and that I get, by looking at the naked human form is necessarily sexual. So, here are my questions: what do people feel is the problem? Is it “non-sexualized” nudity or partial nudity in and of itself or is it that female characters tend not to be three dimensional? A related question is can a female or male character be drawn naked, in an attractive manner and still be presented as a three dimensional character or does nudity itself preclude a character being three dimensional?

      1. I don’t know how to edit my comments. When I wrote “three dimensional” up above I meant “multi-dimensional” in the sense of having a complex personality and having multiple driving forces behind the character’s behavior.

  1. So, I say “you” but this is probably more for your son.

    Thought 1: If you want to learn to draw manga style art, get a book that was written by/for Japanese artists. (Graphic-Sha’s “How To Draw Manga” series is a good starting point. Start with the general books.) I’ve seen Hart’s book before, and he has good basic art advice, but he draws manga by a set of rules rather than by understanding manga (see thought 4) and how manga is constructed (see thought 5).

    Thought 2: I have seen J-books that include sexualized females (for example, books on drawing couples where the men a sexualized too, “sexy sportswear,” etc.) but most of the general books on basic character drawing and composition present realistic poses. None of the hip-insanity in the top left of “standing poses” above. (Really, how many women — or men — putting on a jacket stick their hip out a full head-width?)

    Thought 3: Books on shoujo manga have a lot of normal female characters in manga style. Of course, then you have to deal with sections on drawing “cute boys.” (O_O) Shoujo art looks very different from shounen art or seinen art (or gag manga art or… you get the picture). Nevertheless, if you’re looking for good female pose and clothing references, shoujo books are full of them.

    Thought 4: Read manga and try to imitate your favorite artists. A couple of basic character drawing books to get the basic approaches and theory and lots of manga to practice against are better than a library of art books. (This also helps you learn what is “close enough” and “good enough,” important in any creative endeavor.)

    Thought 5: You may be interested in Bakuman, by Ohba (story — also wrote Death Note) and Obata (art — also drew Hikaru no Go and Death Note), a manga series about a pair of high school boys who set out to become pro manga artists. It’s a fairly simple story, but provides a lot of insight into manga production and how the manga industry works in Japan. I’ve read critics who say it’s “sexist and all about men,” so your mileage may vary. My thoughts: it’s running in Shounen Jump (so of course it’s all about male characters); the male leads both have girlfriends, and they are definitely secondary characters, but I haven’t seen a lot of hip thrusting or absence of clothing.

    Hope that’s helpful.

    1. I’ve *also* got a 12 year old asking for instruction so that he can learn to draw in the manga style–thanks so much for this information, Jm!

      Great, great post, Corrina!

    2. Thanks, Jm.

      Excellent and helpful suggestions. Our funds are limited, so we’ve been going through a lot of art books found in libraries.

      He’s familiar with both shojo and shonen manga, particularly Bleach. And a lot of anime that I won’t begin to list but he’ll give you chapter and verse on what Americans changed when they converted the programs. 🙂

      1. Corrina, I just realized that you wrote this post. I got here through a link posted by Rebecca so I though she wrote it. That is why I replied to her. So, now that I know you wrote the post I want to say that you made some good points and brought up some very interesting questions. I would very much like to read your answers to the questions I brought up in my reply to Rebecca. Thank you.

  2. I’m not an expert on manga and anime ( I like it), but something else to think about is that there’s a lot of adult oriented material out there in addition to the youth focused stuff. The sexualization of women in japanese culture is pretty common. I think that to a certain degree, this is just part of the art. That said, it’s not necessarily appropriate for a drawing book written for american youth to focus on it.

  3. Great post! I’m proud of your son for pointing it out to you, and impressed that you’ve raised him in a way that he would do that in the first place.

  4. Given your son’s age, I’m not surprised he would bring it to your attention. There’s a slim chance that he has received instruction from a male teacher. I believe he is merely parroting slogans and beliefs from his teachers.

  5. I honestly would skip anything by Christopher Hart. The art in those books isn’t even by him yet his name is on the cover.

    I would look for the “How to draw Manga” and “Manga Techniques” books as they were made by Japanese people for Japan and translated. So your going to get more of the proper techniques rather than the anime/manga same difference techniques. (No they aren’t the same at all.)

    The only problem I see in the HTDM books that there is more emphasis on drawing women than the men (they only get one book). However they show lots of action poses.

  6. By the way, while yes, quite a lot of “how to draw” books for manga “style” focus on sexualized females, this author is just poor in general.

    If you are looking for a genuine how-to book for your kids, look for an author with a Japanese name. Chris Hart has made a fortune off of really crappy publications.

    As for reasonable female character models, look for ones on specific subjects instead of general. Many offer well rounded approaches to drawing the female form!

  7. Just wanted to say how much I agree with your post. I have three small thoughts to add if I might.
    1) Please make sure that your son knows that there are lots of us men out here who agree with you and him.
    2) You comment on this being an idealised and sexualised body. I think it’s worth pointing out that it goes beyond idealisation into completely unrealistic. This is a long way away from anatomy – well into fantasy.
    3) The first thing I taught my kids when they started to look at how to draw cartoons was to note that the eyes of boys and girls don’t actually look much (or at all) different in the real world – and that they didn’t need to duplicate the doe-eyed-big-eyelashes convention to do good cartoons of female characters.

    1. My son does know most men don’t agree as well. I think his generation (and his older brother) have grown up in a very different overall environment than I did as a kid, as far as boy/girl differences.

      My son has several male artists who are favorites and his interest in drawing manga was sparked by an artist he encountered at NYCC who encouraged him. And I have a friend who’s an artist who was good enough to give him some tips to get him started.

  8. The reason women are “sexualized” is well, who wants to see a guy in the shower? Seeing a woman in the shower is INFINATELY more appealing. Even to alot of women.

  9. A little late to the proverbial party here, but you make a very valid point. My daughter has one of the Disney fairy books that are learn to draw. I never realized how scantily clad Tinker Bell is. Thankfully, she is extremely modest and I hope that carries on as she gets older. Kudos to you for being a good parent and educating your son. Obviously it is sinking in since he noticed it on his own.

    1. Jennifer, I’m glad you brought up Tinker Bell. I am not familiar with comics, but I am very interested in how fairies are depicted in art and literature, including movies. I have watched four of the Tinker Bell TV movies put out by Disney and I’m waiting for the fifth. I understand why you would say that Tinker Bell is scantily clad. However, Tink’s character is “multi-dimensional” in the sense of having a complex personality and having multiple driving forces behind her behavior. As to being “sexualized” I’m not sure if being scantily clad or even nude is being “sexualized.” I would not say that a woman who wears a mini-skirt has “sexualized” herself.
      I feel that artists in general, tend to view the naked body differently than most people do. For those artists the naked body, female or male, is a very worthwhile artistic subject. The Disney animators were and are artists. In the movie Fantasia (the first one) there are a number of cases of nudity or partial nudity. Fantasia is my all time favorite movie and I feel that the cases of nudity or partial nudity in the film fit very much into the theme of the movie.
      I enjoy beauty in movies and I feel that Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 and the Tinker Bell movies are all very beautifully done.

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