M:TG – Khans art is great… when it remembers that women exist [LONG]

Recently, I got a chance to attend a local pre-release tournament event for the latest Magic: The Gathering expansion – the Khans of Tarkir. And it was… an interesting experience. One I definitely felt was worth blogging about, in light of the fact that I do know people who are trying to get more women into playing M:TG. But also, I felt like it was time to revisit the art in this newest set and see how it breaks down, since it was my feeling that the art for Khans was “better” than art I’ve seen on previous sets.

First: my experience of the pre-release event

I’ve only attended one other pre-release event; it was for Theros last year. That event was in a game store, which was, frankly, terrible. There were 30 people crammed into the back of the store, which was insanely cramped and dimly lit. There was one other woman there, but she was on the opposite end of the room. And of the guys who were there, it was obvious that a large percentage of them were of the awkward persuasion[1].

Ugh.

But this time, we were both able to go to an event at a local university. Brightly lit classrooms, very spacious, absolutely not confining. Much better right?

Well… it was better in that I didn’t feel any of the low-level threat that I did at my first pre-release. But it was still decidedly uncomfortable walking into the room to realize that the only reason there would be another woman participating is because we came together. Said woman was a friend who has many, many more years experience playing Magic than me, but still – I would have been all alone if we hadn’t picked up the phone and been like, “hey, want to come to a pre-release with us”? And that’s really not a cool feeling.

So combine that with the fact that I was obviously there as a female S.O. to my male husband, and I felt a lot of pressure to do well, which unfortunately didn’t happen. I got very unlucky in that I didn’t have great cards to work with (the good stuff I got wasn’t in the colors I’d registered for), plus I’ll cop to making some mistakes. (It was my second ever tournament, and I’ve only been playing for a year.)

Now factor that in with the fact that I’m a very competitive person who really doesn’t enjoy losing. So my overall poor performance sucked from that standpoint, but also because by not doing well I became That Woman who only does geek things because her husband is doing them and generally sucks. (Stereotype threat is real, and it is zero fun.) And to add insult to injury, the very art on the cards reminded me that this game that I was spending money to play wasn’t for me. So overall, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth.

Which makes it too bad that there aren’t any chapters of the Lady Planeswalker Society anywhere close to where I live, because until the demographics of typical M:TG events change, I doubt I would go to another singles tournament. (I haven’t ruled out the idea of doing 2-headed Giant with my husband.) And yes, I’m fully aware that not going to Magic tournaments because there are no women is a self-reinforcing problem. I get that! But folks, Magic is an expensive hobby, and you can’t force people to spend a lot of time and money on something they don’t even enjoy “because inclusion”. I wish I had ideas on how to fix the gender imbalance, but for now all I have is a big fat shrug. (And the planeswalker my husband pulled in that tournament. Lucky bastard.)

On to the numbers

Veterans of my blog will be familiar with how I do these posts. New readers, the tl;dr is that I look at an entire set of artwork for a given game product and count figures with discernable gender as well as look at a list of set criteria: actively posed versus neutral, fully-clothed figures, and suggestively attired figures. (If you want definitions of these criteria, you can see the original article that I wrote for See Page XX that was the genesis of this blog, examining sexist trends in official game art across all areas of gaming.)

Before breaking down the numbers, my sense of the artwork from Khans of Tarkir was that it did much better than previous sets with the portrayals of women that it did have, it did worse at actually including female characters at all. (Depressingly, those impressions are pretty much borne out if you compare the numbers that I got with the numbers I gathered when I did a breakdown of the M11 core set.)

discernable gender

Only 18% of the figures for which I could discern gender were female! Yikes!

Now things do look a little more encouraging once you actually look at the number breakdown:

Detailed breakdown

Given that women comprise 18% of all figures counted, they’re actually slightly overperforming with regard to active poses. Similarly, they are overperforming when it comes to fully clothed figures, as compared to their male counterparts. And holy cats, suddenly it’s the men who are all sexay instead of the women?

Well… no. Not so much.

Bring in the caveats!

So before we get any further, it’s worth mentioning that out of all of the artwork in Khans, only THREE CHARACTERS are depicted as being both non-human and female. THREE: a female djinn depicted on Riverwheel Aerialists (remember her, because we’re coming back to her in a bit) , the naga Sidisi the Brood Tyrant, and the naga shown on Kheru Spellsnatcher (we’ll revisit her as well).

This becomes significant, because this set featured a much higher percentage of non-human sentient characters, owing to the fact that there are goblins, orcs, djinn, efreet, bird people, dog people, and nagas in addition to vanilla humans in the set’s artwork. The orcs are pretty clearly depicted as male – that one is easy. But the djinn and the efreet are much more ambiguous. I would have been totally willing to believe in them as androgynous races were it not for the lone female djinn – which makes me think that the artists were handed specs that only specified race and not gender and simply defaulted to male, because male is always the default.

As for the bird people and the dog people, an argument could be made that they should be counted as ungendered, since they’re clearly non-humanoid characters. And in general I would agree, except that M:TG artists have had no problem ridiculously gendering inappropriate things in the past by putting tits on things that should not have tits like lions or trees. (And those aren’t even the worst examples I’ve seen – just the worst examples I can remember card names for.)

Furthermore, a depressingly large number of the small number of female figures that were included were depicted as the Smurfettes in a group of otherwise all-male characters:

Smurfettes

Jeskai Ascendency

The Ascendancies (each of the five clans had an Ascendancy card) were particularly bad for this, as they each had large groups of figures, with ooooone woman and the rest dudes. It’s like someone on the art team was giving art revision notes that said “needs women” and the artists changed one figure in each drawing. Which only serves to emphasize even more what an afterthought the inclusion of women is.

Depressing.

Also important to consider is the issue of the seeming saturation of suggestively attired male figures. As I’ve blogged about before, the phenomenon of pantsless/shirtless male figures in fantasy art is something that consistently throws off the results I get when doing these counts. Very often, “primitive”, “savage”, or “bestial” characters will be drawn as either shirtless or pantsless as a shorthand for conveying either non-human or non-civilized status.

So here is an example of some of the male figures that were counted as suggestively attired:

sexy not sexy

So sure the first is a beefy guy showing a lot of pecs punching a bear(!)[2]. But we also have flying bird man with leg-wraps-instead-of-pants, and goblins with no pants, because seriously when do goblins ever wear pants[3]?

The other important thing to mention is that the consistency with which I applied this standard led to some ludicrous results. For example, all of this art was counted as containing suggestively attired male figures:

zombies

The criteria was clear – they have clearly discernable gender (or at least secondary sex characteristics consistent with gender in cis people; I’m not going to try to determine the cis-ness of zombies because that way lies madness). Plus none of them are wearing shirts or pants. So despite the fact that none of them are depicted in any way close to even resembling attractiveness, they are counted as suggestively attired. For that matter, the zombie figure on Dutiful Return is counted as suggestive, despite being called out on the card as being furniture. (I only counted it once.)

In fact, here is the only male figure I saw that I would call actually suggestive, because yum:

Jeskai Student

He’s muscular without being a ridiculous power fantasy or engaging in ridiculously cartoonish violence (ie punching a bear in the face), and his shirtlessness isn’t being used to comment on a “savage”, “bestial”, or “uncivilized” nature. He’s just a super pretty dude practicing some awesome kung fu and being super hawt.

But even then – even then – there is a clear difference in how Shirtless Kung Fu Guy is portrayed from this female naga:

Kheru-Spellsnatcher-Khans-of-Tarkir-Spoiler

I totally eyerolled when I first saw this card, because this is textbook boobs-and-butt… applied to a snake. I had to look pretty closely to verify that she does not, in fact, have boobs[4], but the artist still managed to suggest them with the angle of the straps on her chest. Also, she’s got serious snakespine, so it’s a good thing she is in fact a snake, because that’s pretty much the only way that degree of spine bend would be possible. Lastly, check out how she doesn’t have legs but the line of her belly scales, or whatever you’d call them, still implies a thigh and crotch.

[sigh]

Issues of ridiculous objectification of snake-women aside, there’s also the problem that the Kheru Spellsnatcher isn’t actually doing anything. Shirtless Kung Fu Guy is practicing some awesome kung fu, while Kheru Spellsnatcher is just like OH HAI ISN’T THIS A PRETTY LIGHT HOW U DOIN’.

Thankfully, the Kheru Spellsnatcher is the only piece of art that I whole-heartedly disapprove of. And there is art that I really, really like in this set! Certainly, this set has done a lot to address my previous complaint that fully-clothed women don’t get to be awesome, because here are a bunch of fully-clothed ladies being completely awesome.

awesome ladies

The first two images are of Narset, whom I might add is one of the mythic rares in the set and either totally rules or totally sucks depending on if it was you that pulled her or the other guy. (I’ve seen her in action and she’s just wrong, folks.) But generally, this set was great for pictures of awesome ladies doing awesome martial arts, of which I am always a fan. Particularly I am always a fan of ass-kicking-grandmothers and think this set could have used 2000% more characters like the Jeskai Elder, because ass-kicking grandmothers make anything better. The end.

There were also women getting to do ridiculously gonzo fantasy awesome things, which has definitely not been the case in previous sets:

moar awesome ladies

Check out the Tuskguard Captain being all HOW DO YOU LIKE MY SWEET-ASS RIDE BTW IT IS A MASTODON. Or the Abzan Guide being all DO NOT MESS WITH ME I CAN RIDE A GIRAFFE. And sure, the Chief of the Edge isn’t so much gonzo, but she sure looks like she’s about 2 seconds from ending a dude.

So it’s great to see art like this, because it shows that Wizards has made strides in how they portray women in the last few years. But looking at other products, like D&D – which is also produced by Wizards – it’s also clear that they could do so much better.

[1] Seriously I can’t emphasize how much I hate most game stores. They are not welcoming for many women, and often when I enter one I have dudes literally stop and stare at me.

[2] This, incidentally, is my new favorite card ever and will henceforth be referred to as “Bear Punch”

[3] The answer is never

[4] Thank god! Wizards is finally cracking down on putting breasts on reptiles!

16 thoughts on “M:TG – Khans art is great… when it remembers that women exist [LONG]

  1. I remember that once upon a time, one could make a competitive deck with no unifying theme other than “only cards depicting female characters”. I know they get a lot of shit for “worst sets ever”* but Susan Van Camp and Rebecca Guay’s artwork was what made Homelands and Alliances my favorite expansions.

    *or maybe most overpriced, overrated and unbalanced, in the latter’s case

  2. First, I’d like to say that I love your blog. Thanks!~

    I hadn’t thought about the representation numbers, but I had noticed the improvement in clothing. I was happily bewildered when I saw http://www.daarken.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Mordu-Warlord-02.jpg . Fully armoured lady and men in impractical armour? My gosh. It’s really nice to know that Wizards are making an effort. I really like the Asian setting

    On the Ankle Shanker, that goblin is actually female. I couldn’t see it until I knew, but it was nice to know. http://stevenbelledin.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/ankle-shanker.html

    I was pretty miffed that I missed the prerelease, but then I probably shouldn’t spend any more on magic until I’ve got an income. Ah well.

    • …huh! So it is! That’s actually really awesome.

      That’s funny, I spent a lot of time staring at that picture while putting this post together and totally missed that. So thanks!

      • Oops, I left the sentence unfinished. That’s what I meant though. I love that they diversified away from the stereotypes, but I guess they had to do that to create 5 factions anyway.

        1 day later my income problem is solved! Time to go draft❤

  3. I’ve only ever played MTG casually, and not for a number of years, but I never paid attention to the artwork’s inherent sexiness or sexism. Has it always been bad? Or has it had “good patches” and “rough patches?” Just curious.

    Actually, if you’ve only been playing for a year (and my last deck was purchased circa 2000) you may be the wrong person to ask! (I still have some shoeboxes full of cards that I thought my kids might want to use when they’re old enough…now I’m wondering if I need to go through them and do some “pruning”).

    • Honestly I think in the grand scheme of nerd gaming and media, MtG’s art is quite good about representation and not objectifying women, to the point that when it happens it feels unusual. Of course, mileage may vary, things can always improve, and my opinion doesn’t negate that of anyone else.

      • Don’t get me wrong, I’m impressed by how much their art has improved in the three years since I first started this blog. However, I think it’s also important to point out that D&D’s most recent edition did much, much better – and they’re both owned by the same company! I do like the new art, but I want them to do better.

        • It’s an interesting conversation, because I’ve heard people express feeling unwelcome as well as general discomfort with 5e in the wake of the consultant situation, as well as the fact that “the paragraph” feels like an attempt to deflect criticism rather than a statement of intent, and that Magic feels much more inclusive.

          • Ironically, I’ve found D&D to be much more welcoming than Magic – although I’ll admit that getting to personally have lunch with Mike Mearls and talk about this stuff is a large part of that. I know Consultancygate left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, and I’m certainly not about to blame someone who decides to pass on 5E as a result.

            But at the same time, as one of the people who has repeatedly been targeted for harassment by the controversial figures at the heart of Consultancygate, I can understand how it is that they wouldn’t know about the harassing behavior of said controversial figures. Because I, and many other people, had been pointedly silent about that harassment so as to not attract more harassment.

            In the end, I don’t think anyone is “right” or “wrong” to feel included or excluded. That’s why I focus on my personal feelings, wrt issues without a clear solution like the problem of lack of female attendees at tournaments. But at the same time, when my feelings are backed up by something quantifiable, like the lack of female artwork on Magic cards, that’s when I feel that I have standing to start calling for specific solutions – like drawing more women.

            • I agree with all of this.

              However, one thing I think that’s part of why some people feel more discomfort with D&D is because that department of Wizards is more willing to give in to the section of the fanbase that is often referred to as “grognards”, and generally those types of fans hold more regressive beliefs. The consultants in question being even considered to have opinions anyone should value in the first place is a great example of this. (BTW, I’m a fan of old and new D&D and play retroclones among the very many types of RPGs I enjoy, so I’m not someone who’s against ye olde adventuring. Some might even call me a grognard because I don’t laugh when I see a copy of Dungeon Crawl Classics)

              The Magic department on the other hand, has a great track record of ignoring those types and often doing things that aggravate them. The reprint of the fetchlands cards in Khans, for example, while generally adored by most of the players, was met with a minor hue and cry, because it tanked the prices. This has been totally ignored by Wizards, whereas the D&D department is much more willing to listen to these types of fans.

              Obviously this doesn’t have a 1 to 1 correlation between the respective groups and how they treat women and minorities, but just seeing how people who talk about how women MUST have a lower Strength score then men because REALISM are respected and courted, even if not for those exact beliefs, leads a lot of people to question just how committed to diversity can the D&D group possibly be?

    • It has always depended upon the artist. I don’t know how it is now, but nudes were not unheard of, though they tended more toward the ‘artsy’ variety rather than the comic-booky shattered spine variety. I mostly played around Ice Age, though, back when one didn’t really see MTG “Pin-ups” all over game stores. I don’t know when it happened exactly, but sometime in the mid-aughts, I noticed there was a dramatic overall shift in the art compared from the time I’d played and sets that people I went to college with were playing.

  4. The foil for Monastery Swiftspear is going for $25. I’m not sure if that means anything, but I thought you’d like to know.

  5. I get the impression that Wizards is aware of the issue, and consciously working to improve on things, but they’re dealing with a bunch of old habits that are hard to break.

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