So there’s a brouhaha brewing around the Science Fiction Writers of America and accusations of blatant sexism within that organization. (Actually it’s more like a raging storm in some corners).
The controversy surrounds the 200th issue of the SFWA Bulletin, a magazine put out by the organization for its members. The controversy have been delineated elsewhere far better than I ever could possibly do it, so I’m not going to go into details. Suffice it to say, the SFWA Bulletin presented a trifecta of sexism within editorials by Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg in issue 199, their hostile defence in issue 201 and the cover art that appeared on issue 200.
It is the cover art that I am going to focus on because that’s my area of interest and expertise (such as it is).
The cover art was a piece painted by Jeff Easley. Easley is a veteran illustrator and has done a lot of work for companies like TSR who produce the Dungeons and Dragons game and other of that ilk. The cover that he painted, and I assume, was requested by editor Jean Rabe, was an image that is typical of the kind he has produced over the years. Here it is.
As you can see it depicts a woman in bikini armor posing over a dead frost giant that she has presumably just slain with the sword she is holding. I’ve covered this area of illustration before and it is pretty typical, especially on products related to the Dungeons and Dragons brand. The art is designed to attract their target customers, which is role-playing gamers who, traditionally, have been males in their teens. What better way to attract their attention than with mighty thawed barbarians, hideous monsters and women in metal bikinis.
And perhaps that was part of the problem. The SFWA bulletin is a publication that is distributed to its members. There is no need to entice anyone to purchase it, much less adolescent Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts. The SFWA prides itself on being a forward-thinking and inclusive organization. To have its newsletter wrapped in an image that is so blatantly sexist obviously did not sit well with its members.
Is the image sexist? Certainly. The armor is ridiculous and the situation so completely unrealistic as to be almost cartoonish. Is the artist sexist? I don’t know Easley but I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say probably not. He is producing art that is his bread and butter, art that is produced in a similar fashion by many of his contemporaries including artist like Larry Elmore, Keith Parkinson and Clyde Caldwell.
And that, I think, is the point. These artists produce these images to go on the covers or box lids of the publications for which they are intended and expected. Everyone knows that sex sells and most people would not get overly upset that these images appear where they usually do. It was the unexpected appearance of the art on the cover of what amounts to a trade magazine that caused much of the initial shock. The attendant perceived sexist remarks within that magazine then ignited the conflagration.
I have a great deal of sympathy for Easley and other artists who are often caught in the middle of debates like this. I’ve been there. I have produced my fair share of that kind of artwork, sometimes by choice, more often than not because someone pays me to do it. Am I perpetuating a stereotype when I do so? Yes. Am I harming anyone? I certainly hope not. Am I sexist? I don’t believe that I am. As a man who has been married to a very strong and independent woman for many years and who has helped to raise two very strong and independent daughters who will not tolerate anyone limiting their options in the world solely based on their gender, I can reasonably claim not to be. (Sexy, yes, sexist? No.)
And yet I produce and will continue to produce images that are deemed to be sexist because the market for which I work demands it.
I can say that it is getting better and it is controversies and tempest like this that help, despite the anger that they engender on both sides. Some good does come out of it. Somewhere amidst all the knee-jerk reactions and the talking points people do sit up and rethink and re-evaluate their attitudes.
Change happens slowly — too slowly for some, too quickly for others — but it does happen.
And, yes, I realize that it is somewhat ironic that this blog post about sexism in fantasy art has, in itself, perpetuated the problem by featuring illustrations of the exact sort that have come under fire. However, as my main objective here is to defend the artist, I have chosen to try to show the inherent value in the work that they produce.