I gave a lightning talk at Double Union a couple weeks ago. It addresses something I’ve long been frustrated with: the sorry state of “default” imagery.
The other day I was looking for a “neutral” user image. This happened.
What’s the problem with that, you ask? The astute reader will notice certain… patterns.
Okay, so none of them are women. Not great. But there are still some “neutral” ones to use, right? … right?
I have news for you: those “neutral” images do not necessarily read as neutral. [Edit: Yes, some of them do a better job of appearing neutral than others. More on that in a sec.] We do not live in a historical vacuum.
In a historical vacuum, we would not project gender onto images with no visible gender signals. But we’ve inherited, and perpetuated, the idea that a blank person is a Man. Unless you add decorations. Then you have yourself a Woman.
Damn, that’s a lot of baggage! How on earth can we force that sexist crap out of our representations of people?
[Edit: What's my recommended approach to bathroom signage, you ask? ... Oh, bathrooms. That is a very deep topic that deserves its own post. I recognize this isn't practical for all contexts, but in my dream world all bathrooms are gender-neutral and indicated with a "smiling pile of poo" emoji.]
Good news: the next time you draw a person or create a user avatar, you have an opportunity to fight the sexist patriarchal bullshit! Like many instances of patriarchy-smashing, it’s not actually that hard once you get the principles down. Here are 2 simple rules to keep you on track.
Notice that the more “realistic” you try to get, the harder it is to keep your image gender-neutral. I’m a fan of Twitter’s approach – it challenges the idea that a user picture has to be of a person to be cute and engaging.
But sometimes you don’t want to be super generic. Sometimes you want some warmth, some personality, some humanity. What then?
Before we continue, permit me a brief aside about stick people. I don’t like them. I think stick people are fussy, weird-looking, overly detailed, and hard on the eyes. Also, I blame them for this whole skirt/pants mess – they are really tough to decorate in other ways.
Tooth people are a ton of fun to decorate. They don’t have legs, so you won’t be tempted to take the skirt/pants shortcut. Unlike stick people, they’re so visually simple that your details really pop. Here’s what I was able to do with only hair and hats (and one well-placed stache).
Easy there, killer. Drawing a woman who happens to have long hair is a perfectly feminist thing to do. Designating “woman” by inserting a big pink hair bow? Not so much.
Just to review: either be truly, mindfully, geometrically neutral OR differentiate figures based on something other than hoary sexist clichés.
That’s it! Go draw some non-sexist people – and have fun while you’re at it.