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Desperately seeking Druid: The over-sexualised images in D&D fantasy games

I love playing Dungeons and Dragons.  It is where I first came across the term, "Druid".  In the Forgotten Realms series, there was a Druid whose concern was in the balance, in keeping encroaching man out of the wilderness, and who could shapechange into a white hawk, summon insects to harangue enemy spellcasters, throw down lightning bolts and other such things.  I left the Druids in the realm of fantasy until much later in life, when I found out that Druidry is a reality, albeit a little different to the fantasy novel character…

I roleplay in a D&D system fairly regularly. Last night, my character died (a fighter monk) and I was now left with finding a new character. I decided to try playing a Druid type character, thinking how fun it would be to mix the fantasy and the reality.  I began to look for a suitable miniature figurine for the board, and soon became utterly depressed.

Many people have said that the gaming community consists of a male majority. Indeed, the artwork would seem to suggest that it is aimed towards the male gaze.  I began looking through page after page of fantasy artwork based on Druids and Rangers (think Aragorn from LOTR) and I started to have a real sinking feeling.  The images made me uncomfortable where before I had not been. Why?

Well, for starters I had just seen this little French movie about how it would be if the gender tables were turned, and a man spends a horrific day as a woman.  This movie contains swearing and scenes of violence. A French Film showing men what being a woman feels like.  I had also read an article in the Guardian the day before about rape culture - Rape Culture and the Damage it Does.  Looking through images of women in D&D on the internet, trying to find inspiration for my character after seeing that movie and reading that article made me sick to my stomach.

The vast majority of women in fantasy roleplay artwork are entirely sexualised for absolutely no reason.  Women who wanted to play female characters have to look at pictures in the rulebooks of scantily clad, anatomically impossible women whose sole purpose in the artwork seemed to be seducing whoever it was that was looking at them, and not the role/type of character that they portayed. The miniatures (figurines used on the board) weren't all that different. There was the occasional decent image of a fighter or a ranger who was in appropriate clothing for the job, but these were few and far between. There is a little more success with fighter/paladin types, but still the majority of female figurines were completely sexist. Here are some examples that I found:

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I thought back to the books that I read as a teenager, the fantasy books that had female paladins fighting for the good of the realms in full plate, or half-elven assassins who were the best of the best and who insisted on wearing comfortable clothing (The Deed of Paksenarrion, Elfshadow "Arilyn Moonblade" series).  The images of these women on the front cover were what I assumed female characters in a medieval fantasy system would look like.  Maybe it was the story that I was drawn to that reflected dignity in the artwork - all I can say is that I'm glad I was drawn to these books and not some others…

The books that I read were about empowering women, and women being treated equally.  I have done a few live-action roleplaying systems where women were supposed to be treated equally as well, but patriarchal overtones did indeed creep in (you can't do/be that, that's a man thing, or "not in this system you can't, because you're a woman" or the testosterone-fuelled person who shouts the loudest leads the faction and the battles).  Even though there are more and more women playing these roleplaying games, there is still a heavy overtone of sexism throughout. I know plenty of female roleplayers out there who fight that image with the type of character they play and how they look, act and react to situations within the game. Then again, there is a ton of corseted women out there whose boobs are so squished upwards they're nearly choking on them.

After seeing that film and reading the article about the rising rape culture, when I think back on my RPG days and the current images in RPG books and over the internet, I can see how it can contribute to the rape culture. Artists or writers who portray women as nothing more than sexual objects are indeed a part of rape culture. They are saying "that's what women are for - looking at, looking sexy and making me horny".  I'm not saying that women should cover up, or that they shouldn't wear corsets - heck, women should be able to wear whatever they like. What I am saying is that the over-sexualisation of the female within the media of these systems is a part of the problem. I have known full plate armour wearing female knights in live-action roleplaying systems, bucking the trend in what most people think when they think of a female fantasy character. What I am saying is that it shouldn't be bucking the trend at all; like my first forays into the medieval fantasy realm, it should be filled with female characters who are strong in themselves, in a world where women can do whatever they like - a world where there is no patriarchy or matriarchy but equality, plain and simple.

If we can't get it in this world, maybe we can find it there.  I'm not holding my breath, but in the meantime I read and reread my favourite fantasy books, enjoying the beautiful cover artwork and remembering the days when I was young and impressionable, thinking "that could be me….". I'm just so glad that I chose these books with these images, all things considered.

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The first thing that usually happens when I comment on the sexist artwork and portrayal of women in fantasy roleplaying games is "Oh, you know that's just how it is" - it is this complicitness in the game that I find so terribly frustrating - and also a little frightening. Whether you are being subject to catcalls or wolf whistles, sexual remarks and proposals in "real life", in a field of live-action roleplayers, or in a game, can we not change the culture into one where all genders are treated with honour and respect?

In the meantime, wish me luck on finding a Druid figurine that isn't in high-heeled boots and skintight leathers, with enormous boobs that would make shooting a bow impossible…

Last modified on
Author, poet, singer, dancer, blogger and activist, Joanna van der Hoeven (Autumn Song) is a Druid and Animist who honours the natural world around her and seeks to live with awareness and compassion. She has released four books, including Zen Druidry and Dancing With Nemetona.
www.joannavanderhoeven.com
https://twitter.com/JoannavanderH

Comments

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Sunday, 16 February 2014

    You're absolutely right about the contribution to the rape culture. I first saw those titillating female warriors in the '70s, on fantasy book covers and posters by Frank Frazetta and Boris. Back then it seemed like fun of the "guilty pleasure" type - I was just in my 20's, after all - and besides, the men were just as overblown and impossible. (I'm the same age as Arnold Schwarzenegger, and my fantasy was to look like Conan the Barbarian - even though I was 5' 8 1/2" and weighed 130 pounds! Obviously, that is much of the appeal of today's role-playing games.)

    I never stopped to think of what those images might mean to the future perception of women. To offer a sociological insight, when the Playboy Club was in full swing the Bunnies were considered examples of the Women's Liberation Movement - not by more insightful women like Gloria Steinem, but by many others who saw their honest display of sexuality as a bid for unashamed self-expression and empowerment. Our attitudes do change over time.

    Many people do not realize that the popular movie "700" portrays a false picture of Spartan warriors. The historical ones were completely covered in armor (NOT ¾ naked) and they fought shoulder-to-shoulder (NOT individually), with huge shields in front of them, like the Roman legions were to copy generations later. If they had pranced around in G-strings and capes, they would have been sliced up like salami on a deli counter.

    But that doesn't stop audiences from enjoying the sight of those six-pack abs - does it?

  • Joanna van der Hoeven
    Joanna van der Hoeven Wednesday, 19 February 2014

    :)

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Wednesday, 19 February 2014

    Of course I meant 300, not 700.

  • ScarletteSpider
    ScarletteSpider Tuesday, 18 February 2014

    When i'm looking for a picture to represent my character, do you have any idea how long and hard i have to look to find a female in armor that covers in a practical way? In some cases it has taken decades, in others days and weeks and months. In a couple of cases I had to log into Second Life, go and find the different pieces I wanted and put an avi together and take a picture to get what I wanted as a physrep. No woman warrior worth her salt would leave midrift, arms, legs exposed without armor, regardless of leather or plate. Here's a rule of thumb for artists: if it is practical for a man then it is just as practical for a woman. Practical can be beautiful too, that is the job of the artist, to make the practical pleasing to the eye. Attached is a case in point, I needed a picture of a character that was a modified Forest Pixie for my DemiFae/Sidhe concept monster character, showing all 3 forms, full sized (3'5") vaporous gas form, and will-o-the-wisp light form. Nothing on the internet even came close to what i needed, let alone wanted. Had to cobble together stuff from 18 different developer designers inside Second Life, and still had to modify about a 1/3rd of the pieces to get an approximation of my character Uirlis

  • Joanna van der Hoeven
    Joanna van der Hoeven Wednesday, 19 February 2014

    I know - it's so difficult to find good artistic representations that aren't sexist! Thinking about it further, I say hats off to Peter Jackson for the costuming of women in Lord of the Rings - not only beautiful and practical, but totally in tune with what I envisioned as a child reading the books!

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Wednesday, 19 February 2014

    Agreed; Jackson's heroins are not only romantic but also believable - which makes them even more appealing. Of course, that is because he used as design consultants the famous artists who had created the pictures for the orginal books. The trilogy was made with utmost respect to Tolkien's vision.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Wednesday, 19 February 2014

    Of course I meant heroines, not heroins. I almost got him falsely accused of drug trafficking!

  • ScarletteSpider
    ScarletteSpider Tuesday, 18 February 2014

    would upload the picture but it won't let me, and i cannot put it on a url since many of the items i used are the intellectual properties of the developer designers that made them would be illegal

  • J'Karrah
    J'Karrah Tuesday, 18 February 2014

    What? You don't find a chain mail brazier, leather thong, and 9 inch platform stripper heels to be appropriate female battle attire? :p

    I used to collect D&D miniatures and always painted britches and undershirts on the females, and if they were wearing heels I also shaved those suckers down to something more realistic. I have no problem with the idea of a corset on a female warrior provided the design enhanced body armor and did not overly inhibit fluid motion.

    Today, I play the Elder Scrolls series ( Marrowwind, Oblivion, and Skyrim) and have to say I am rather impressed with the way they treats female character wardrobe. If a particular set of armor is "skimpy" it's skimpy for both genders. And finding armor, mage robes, etc. that fully covers like regular clothing is standard. You can run around just a bra and panties (or just tighty-whities if your a guy) if you want, but who really wants to do that? My character, right now, is wearing a very impressive set of full plate ebony armor, enchanted with strength and health boosts.

  • Joanna van der Hoeven
    Joanna van der Hoeven Wednesday, 19 February 2014

    :)

    It's such a shame that you had to modify all the miniatures, isn't it? Elder Scrolls is quite good, but I don't do computer games much - I prefer tabletop myself. x

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