Sexism and the SFWA


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.

SFWA Bulletin 200

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.


Clyde Caldwell
9000878_orig_Larry Elmore
Larry Elmore
8yw8sy_Keith Parkinson
Keith Parkinson

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.

The Tattered Giant
M. D. Jackson

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.

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  1. But M.D., are you *sure* the market demands it? I’ve never been a teen-age boy, so I really have no way to back up what I’m saying here, but shouldn’t we give today’s teen-age boys a little more credit? OK, raging hormones aside, certainly, they are capable of understanding that a woman in a chain-mail bikini on a winter world is a ridiculous notion, right? Boys can access images like that elsewhere – why should we perpetuate the ridiculousness of such images while simultaneously implying how stupid teenage boys are? You could clothe the women appropriately and still give the boys a bit of a thrill. I’m sure it’s possible. Forgive me if I say your choice to go with the norm of the industry doesn’t help to speed up the process of change, but has rather quite the opposite effect. At the same time, I’m aware that we often don’t (believe we) have a choice in the matter when our paycheck is concerned. I would challenge you to examine whether you could do your small part to implement the change in your art that you believe has taken root in your person.

  2. Hi MD – –

    I’m curious about the parameters of your marketers.

    Personally I don’t have an issue with private collections of erotic art and I don’t think that’s an individual choice…not for anyone to say. But I believe the current issue is based on the public mass marketing of graphics that impact sexual perceptions. It’s changing those perceptions that matter. But people are probably at a loss at where the appropriate form of dress for mass marketing really is. Does it stop with the bikini? Or with the Burkha?

    I don’t think there is an agreed upon concept here and unless there is, then marketers will rely on their own data. But no one seems to know where they are getting this data. We also seem to run the risk of creating another crisis with redefining our freedom of speech and rights of expression.

    I’m not saying I have a solution. I don’t and it’s going to be difficult to implement any solution. But I think we all need to look for one. I appreciate your effort at bringing this issue up and trying to face it head on. We need to generate some mature and intelligent discussion if were going to find guidelines that we can live with.

    And I think the first step is to find out how we can influence marketing decisions that demand certain products. Any thoughts? This SFWA “crisis” is actually an opportunity for the community for implement positive changes. If we keep our cool, positive things may come from this.

  3. With all due respect, I think that there is an important misstatements of fact in this piece. When Mr. Jackson states that “the SFWA Bulletin presented a trifecta of sexism within EDITORIALS by Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg in issue 199, ….(emphasis added).” he is insinuating that Resnick and Malzberg are on the editorial staff of the Bulletin and, therefore, have some responsibility for the content of the magazine other than their regular column (which, I do not believe has ever been labeled as an editorial). I do not believe that this is true. There is a big difference between an editorial, which is used to state the viewpoint of the organization, and a column, which merely presents the viewpoint of the writers of that particular piece.

    1. Mark Twain admonishes writers to “Use the right word, not its second cousin.”. The commenter rightly points out that I have used the second cousin in this case. I should have stated that they were opinion pieces and not editorial. I did not mean to imply otherwise, it was merely sloppy writing on my part.

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