July 13, 2014

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.

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What’s the problem with that, you ask? The astute reader will notice certain… patterns.

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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.

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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.

Yes, it’s 2014, many women have short hair, pants, and no makeup. We know this intellectually. But it doesn’t seem to translate into how we actually represent men and women. 20140713-171932-62372935.jpg

Here are just a few examples of this phenomenon at work. [Edit: For way, way more examples from gaming, see Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women tumblr. Thanks for the reminder, Shawna!] 

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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.

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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?

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It’s not just about skirts: don’t designate “man” with a stripey corporate neck decoration, please. And what is up with the shopping bags vs. briefcases thing? Kindly cut this the @#$k out, thanks.

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.


Instead of stick people, I use tooth people. They’re vastly better in every way. Sorry, stick people, you’ve had your turn.

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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).

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“But the long hair one looks like a lady! You’re contradicting yourself!”

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.