Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch a documentary, called Killing Us Softly 3. This documentary, created and narrated by Jean Kilbourne, is the third in a series of films dedicated to discussing how women are portrayed in advertising and media, how advertisements affect the way society views women, and also how women view themselves.
Soon after I saw the film, Wizards of the Coast came out with a new image for the cover of the upcoming, Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook. Immediately, the image reminded me of the film, and I began remembering lines from the movie that spoke to this image. I therefore want to dedicate this entry to talking about the image on the cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook, and how it relates to Jean Kilbourne’s film.
Before I get into discussing the image itself, I want to talk a little about why I think it matters how a woman is portrayed on the cover of something like the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook. After all, it’s only one image on the cover of a single book. However, while the image may be only one example of how men and women are portrayed, it is not the only example. Rather, it is part of a larger, systemic concern that affects all areas of media, and advertising, including other products and images produced by Wizards of the Coast. It is important to keep this in mind, for while this entry primarily focuses on the artwork on the cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook, the concepts discussed here can be applied to many other images, both in Dungeons & Dragons and in the mass media in general.
The first thing I want to discuss is the purpose of the image on the cover of the Player’s Handbook, and what it does to achieve that. First, the purpose of the image, first and foremost, is to sell a product. In this case, the product is not just the Player’s Handbook, but also other roleplaying products, such as additional core rulebooks, supplements, miniatures, dice, etc.; all of which are products used to play the game. However, the image does much more than just sell products. It also sells concepts of fantasy adventure- of magical creatures descending into worlds of darkness, armed only with a bit of magic and steel to defend themselves. It sells a hobby (possibly a lifestyle), that is centered around fantasy gaming, where both men and women gather together to participate in a shared, roleplaying experience. Finally, it sells an idea of what kinds of characters normal gamers should aspire to play; how they should act, dress, and feel. In short, the image on the cover does exactly what Kilbourne says all advertising does: “Advertising tells us who we are and who we should be.”
So what does the image on the cover of the Player’s Handbook tell us about women? One of the things that it tells us is that one of the most important aspects about a woman is how she looks. As Kilbourne states “the first thing the advertisers do is surround us with the image of ideal, female beauty, so we all learn how important it is for a woman to be beautiful.” In this case, the female sorcerer is quite beautiful, according to American standards. She is tall, large breasted, tan skinned, dark haired, and has pronounced cheekbones; a perfect image of the all-American beauty. In fact, it is striking how much the image of the female sorcerer on the cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook resembles the image of the all-American beauty depicted on the cover of the September 1994 issue of Mirabella Magazine. This image, created by photographer Hiro, is not a picture of a model, but rather a compilation of features taken from six models used to create a single image. In other words, the image of the all-American beauty is an image of a woman that doesn’t actually exist.
Remaining on the subject of ideal beauty for a moment, Kilbourne states that “a body type that statistically 5% of American women have is the only one we ever see as desirable or acceptable… the models are very tall, genetically thin, although they often starve themselves anyway, broad shouldered, and usually small breasted, so when the models have large breasts, almost always they’ve had implants.” So like the image on the cover of Mirabella magazine, the tall, thin, large breasted image of the female sorcerer on the front cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook is also an image of a woman who doesn’t exist. Yet as Kilbourne points out, this image is “the only one that we ever see” as a representation of feminine beauty. We see it on the cover of the Player’s Handbook, we see it on the cover of Mirabella magazine, in fact, we see it in media and advertising virtually everywhere in our society.
As part of this image of ideal beauty, one of the attributes that is largely focused on is breasts. In fact, Kilbourne points out that breasts are used in media and advertising to sell ‘absolutely everything,’ the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook being no exception. Here, the female sorcerer has quite large breasts, the size of which are further enhanced by the leather bodice she is wearing. This focus on breast size enhancement actually ties into another cultural message frequently conveyed in media and advertising. Kilbourne states that, in American culture “[Women] are told to wear uplifting bras such as the Wonder Bra,” in order to further enhance the overall appearance of a woman’s breast size. In other words, our culture’s obsession with breasts and breast size, has caused women to always feel uncomfortable about their breasts, and to believe that there breasts are never okay the way they are.
“Nowadays,” Kilbourne continues, “[women] are supposed to have plastic surgery… Most women who have had breast implants,” Kilbourne explains, “lose sensation in their breasts, so their breasts become an object of someone else’s pleasure, rather than pleasurable in themselves. The woman literally moves from being a subject to an object.” Granted, the female sorcerer may not have had plastic surgery, but the fact that her breasts have been artificially enhanced to appear larger still conveys the message that a woman’s breasts are objects that exist primarily for either the visual or physical pleasure of someone else, and it’s this objectification of women’s bodies that is perhaps the most chilling part of Jean Kilbourne’s documentary on media and advertising. “For one thing,” she states “[objectification of women] creates the climate in which there is widespread and increasing violence against women,” and while she is careful to point out that advertisements are not the direct cause of violence against women, she does state that they are “part of a cultural climate in which women are seen as things, as objects, and certainly turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person. We see this with racism, we see it with homophobia; it’s always the same process. We think of the person as less than human and violence becomes inevitable.” So while the objectification of the female sorcerer’s body may not directly contribute to the escalation of violence towards women, it nevertheless contributes to the cultural message that women are simply objects, existing for the physical, or visual pleasure of others. Because of this, “the violence and abuse [that is directed towards women] is partly the chilling, but logical, result of this kind of objectification.”
Now this is not to say that gender stereotypes only affect women. As Kilbourne states, “a much more serious problem for men is that masculinity is so often linked with violence, with brutality, with ruthlessness.” We certainly see how this masculine-labeled quality is conveyed in the portrayal of the male dragonborn. Here, the character is portrayed as an aggressive, fearsome, and inhuman warrior, with all of the emphasis placed on his ability to engage in physical violence. Meanwhile, there is no emphasis place on other qualities, such as compassion, nurturance, empathy, or sensitivity; qualities that are typically labeled as feminine. In Kilbourne’s opinion, this polarization of masculine and feminine-labeled qualities “causes men to devalue not only women, but also all those qualities that get labeled feminine by the culture.” So while women may be victims of gender stereotypes, by labeling violence as a masculine quality, it creates a cultural environment in which not only women, but also men become the victims of violence.
There are many other issues addressed by Kilbourne in her documentary, many of which are not necessarily issues inherent in this image, but which are certainly conveyed through other images created for Dungeons & Dragons and other forms of mass media. For example, Kilbourne states that “often violence, hostility, and dominance is presented as erotic, as attractive, as appealing in ads.” While many people on the Astrid’s Parlor messageboards have noted that the male dragonborn is standing in a position that suggests he might injure the female sorcerer if he actually swings his sword, it doesn’t necessarily suggest (though it could certainly be argued) that the artist is trying to portray violence towards women as sexy, or erotic. On the other hand, the image on the back of the Forgotten Realms supplement, Champions of Valor- where a female fighter lies in a submissive, prostrate position, her lower torso slashed and nearly fully exposed- certainly contains elements that eroticize violence and hostility towards women.
Kilbourne also states that “women are acceptable only if [they’re] young, thin, white, beautiful, carefully groomed and polished, and any deviation from that ideal is met with a lot of contempt and hostility.” While the absence of dark-skinned, and/or older women from the cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook isn’t necessarily an example of such contempt, there are certainly examples of artwork that do carry this message. For example, the character from Heroes of Horror, known only as Grandmother, is an older female character, whose desire to cannibalize young children, makes her thoroughly repugnant and unsympathetic.
Meanwhile, the female drow, whose dark skin is the only trait that deviates from the media’s concept of ideal beauty, are nearly always portrayed as vicious, insane, power hungry women who have nothing but the most bitter hatred for their male counterparts. In fact, the portrayal of the drow speaks to another concept expressed by Kilbourne which is that “women of color… are often literally shown as animals, dressed in leopard skins, and animal prints.” While the drow may not be dressed in animal skins, their close association, and identification with the spider certainly conveys the same, chilling message- which is that women of color are “not fully human.”
Now of course, this isn’t to say that there are no images of strong, or sympathetic women portrayed in roleplaying games, or even that the artist who created the artwork for the cover of the Player’s Handbook hasn’t created artwork that is sensitive to women. In fact, this artist is responsible for some of the most woman-sensitive, awe-inspiring artwork ever produced for the game. For example, the female rogue portrayed in the cover artwork for the campaign supplement, Sharn: City of Towers, is a wonderful example of a strong, capable, female character, who exhibits virtually none of the negative traits typically attributed to women by the mass media.
Meanwhile, an image on the cover of one of the recent Pathfinder issues portrays a beautiful, strong, black woman, dressed in sensible armor, to be used as a player character. So while there are certainly problems with much of the artwork produced for the game, there are also examples of artwork being produced, both by this artist, and by others, which suggest a growing awareness of and sensitivity towards how women are portrayed in the mass media.
Nevertheless, while these images are certainly commendable, laudible examples of how women can, and should be portrayed by the roleplaying industry and the mass media, there are still many changes which can and should be made to the way women are portrayed. As Kilbourne states, “the changes have to be profound and global, and what they will depend upon, more than anything is an aware, active, educated public, that thinks of itself primarily as citizens, rather than primarily as consumers.” The more that we demand these kinds of positive images of women, and refuse to purchase products that contain degrading images of women, the more likely that the media will change.
“We need to get involved,” Kilbourne concludes, “in whatever way moves us to change not just the ads, but these attitudes that run so deep in our culture and that affect each one of us so deeply, whether we’re conscious of it or not.” I was moved to blog about these issues and how they relate to Dungeons & Dragons. How will you be moved to get involved?
Incidentally, if you are interested in viewing the film yourself, you can do so here.