In my last post, I wrote a detailed breakdown of the representation of women in the 5th Edition D&D core books, along with a basic analysis of what those numbers meant. However, as is the case with any numbers post that I do, it’s also important to note that numbers inevitably don’t capture the nuances of depiction that can be important to consider:
Looking at the gender ratios for both fully-covered (characters shown as being covered from neck to ankle and shoulder to wrist) and suggestively attired (characters with either portions of exposed torso or exposed portions of upper thigh) characters, the numbers collected make it appear as though depictions are pretty evenly balanced across all three books. However in all of the PHB, there were only 6 illustrations that I outright rolled my eyes of, whereas I just plain wanted to chuck half of the monster manual in the garbage for how bullshit it’s treatment of women is.
…I suspect that a large portion of the reason behind this is my decision to include ungendered figures in my counts for the first time; that is probably throwing off my results in ways I haven’t figured out how to account for yet. This in combination with the fact that how I define “suggestively attired” and “fully covered” and how consistently I apply these definitions are intended to over-correct for the difference in depiction, since my own personal bias is admittedly… pretty strong.
To be honest, in going through the images (and there are a lot of them), I would be hard-pressed to nail down a definitive reason for why the numbers appear so much more equitable than the reality. But I can at least speak to some broad trends:
But first, an aside
As mentioned last time, one of the things that struck me about the imbalanced depiction of women was that it was “best” (ie most balanced) in the PHB and “worst” in the Monster Manual, with the DMG falling squarely in the middle. But once I took some time to reflect on that, it actually wasn’t all that surprising.
Consider that the PHB is aimed at depicting characters that would make appealing avatars in a game. Since WotC is taking greater pains to not alienate women, it makes sense that the art direction would be strongest with regard to cutting down on bullshit depictions of women in the PHB. In a very real sense, the art in the PHB is a reflection of what the players can aspire to be in the context of the D&D universe, so art that only depicts women as sexy objects to be consumed by a presumed male viewer would be counterproductive to the goal of getting more women to play the game.
The DMG, however, is focused just as much as on depicting the world and opposition that the PCs will face as it is on depicting avatar characters. And the Monster Manual is used pretty much only as an aid to the GM in fleshing out antagonists the PCs will face. (There are some circumstances, say if you play a shifter druid, where the Monster Manual can be used as a player supplement, but those circumstances are comparatively rare.) Consequently, the less explicitly player-focused the book is, the worse the art seems to get.
And, obviously, that sucks! Because honestly, yes it’s nice that D&D is doing better at portraying female characters who function as player avatars. But only doing well at player-avatars is it’s own special brand of fucked up, because you’re essentially saying that women who are heroes (PCs) are special snowflakes who have somehow managed to transcend sexism and oppression by just, I don’t know, shaking off patriarchy. Which just isn’t how it fucking works.
Art Trend #1: The men are men and the women are sexy
One thing I will say for the PHB is that as irksome as I find the lack of female representation, there were only five illustrations in the PHB that I found really objectionable, and those were mostly because it was obvious that the artist in question was doing their best to thwart art notes that called for characters that weren’t gratuitously sexualized:
All of these (except the woman in the middle) were counted as suggestively attired, owing to what the artist chose to reveal, though some of these are a bit more obviously egregious than others. For instance, the woman on the far left, and the druid with the tiger? Those are obviously bullshit. Leather bustiers as armor are one of the most common of cheesecake fantasy art sins, and sexy ladies with tigers is it’s own special subspecies of fantasy art bullshit I wish would go away forever. However, looking at the others, it’s still obvious that the artists were determined to squeeze in the maximum sexiness that they felt they could get away with.
Frex, look at the contorted pose that the elven mage is twisted into – I don’t care that she’s not human, that is an unnatural degree of spine bend, for no other reason than to emphasize her… attributes. Her top is also completely strapless and I’m not sure how she’s keeping it up, since double-sided tape isn’t exactly something you can find on an item table in the DMG. Or take the ranger on the far right – the artist was clearly hoping that no one would notice that she’s not actually wearing pants. (“It’s called barkskin, so clearly she’s gotta show some skin, right?”)
Lastly, check out the druid in the middle. This is one of the clearest cases of “draw naked, add clothes with extreme reluctance” that I’ve seen in a while. What the fuck is up with that ass perspective? And that ridiculous ass-leaf is only emphasizing how we can aaalmoooost see some rear-camel-toe, rather than doing anything to actually preserve modesty. But despite being worse than the pantsless ranger on the far right in terms of degree of sexualization, she is still counted as not suggestively attired while the ranger is.
It’s also important to consider that characters counted as fully-covered were also depressingly prone to being sexualized, even when they weren’t counted as being suggestively attired. Take, for instance, these four illustrations from the DMG which all depict women counted as fully-covered.:
The half-orc on the far left is the only one counted as suggestively attired, owing to the ridiculous cleavage window (which wasn’t even well done, why are her breasts so weirdly shaped, what the hell). And yet, out of all of these women, she’s actually the least egregious because at least she’s not overly objectified or distorted, and seems to be having an actual character moment. Whereas the left-middle woman and the far-right woman are both wearing some of the most fucking ridiculous boobplate I have ever seen and are both shown in poses that I can only describe as “boob perspective”.
And while the right-middle woman isn’t wearing boobplate, the artist clearly got so wrapped up in drawing her strange armored stripper boots that he kind of forgot to pay attention to how the middle bits all go together, and then just kind of said “fuck it, I’m going to add a naked fire lady because who cares?”. So once again, despite the fact that the criteria for “fully covered” is clearly defined, sometimes images that technically fail to meet that criteria are better than the ones that do!
And of course, it’s definitely worth mentioning that even when there are male and female figures that are both meant to be sexy, the women are clearly more objectified than the men, as is the case with this illustration of an incubus and a succubus in the Monster Manual:
As a matter of fact, in all of the 5E core books, there was only one illustation of a male character that I would be willing to say was as equally sexualized as most of the sexualized women:
If even half of the male characters that were counted as suggestively attired looked like this guy, I don’t think I would have found the unequal sexualization nearly so bothersome. But unfortunately, what so many people fail to grasp (as witnessed by the fact that people commonly think that Conan is “as bad” as Red Sonja) is that simply not wearing a shirt/pants is not the same thing as being sexualized. Which brings us to…
Art Trend #2: Male figures counted as “suggestively attired” are almost never sexy; female figures almost always are
This is something that I have written about extensively on this blog in the past (you can find this point mentioned in pretty much all of my numbers posts); the prevailing trend in fantasy artwork is to use otherwise suggestive attire to make a statement about the “bestial” or “savage” nature of a culture being depicted. Because almost universally, characters shown in attire that would count as suggestive (no shirt, no pants, etc) are clearly not intended to be found sexually appealing.
There is also a tendency for “savage” characters to be depicted in hordes, which given that I am basing my figures on the numbers of distinct individual figures, throws off the numbers quite a bit. Goblins most especially tend to wreck my results, given that there’s always tons of them, and they’re never wearing any goddamn pants:
Now, I feel pretty strongly that none of the goblins in the above illustrations were intended to be viewed as sexualized. But since I realize that some people could still make an argument to the contrary, here are some even more extreme examples of male figures that were counted as suggestively attired that are really really not sexy:
All of these were figures that were counted as male, and all of these are really, really not sexy. Especially the two on the left! And yet just like the goblins, all of these are characters that counted as suggestively attired, which has the unfortunate effect of making it look as if the numbers of suggestively attired characters are close to balanced, when they’re really really not.
Of course, the worst book with regard to this trend was the Monster Manual, where any creature you might face is assumed to be male, unless it is female – and then it is sexy. Here are just a few of the my least favorite examples:
What the fuck is up with the black-armor demon’s broken spine pose? Why are the marilith and the ghost both making duckface? Why did they give A GODDAMN ROCK cleavage? Why would a drider wear midriff-exposing scale male when she’s a fucking spider? Why does the sea hag have so much goddamn sideboob?? I swear to god I couldn’t go more than about 10 or 20 pages without seeing some bullshit that reminded me of how much gaming hates women, which is just depressing.
The contrast only gets more ridiculous on the rare occasions when you have male and female depictions side-by-side (something which is surprisingly rare in the Monster Manual, but only because the Monster Manual doesn’t contain very many women at all). Take, for example, these merfolk:
With the male figure on the right, the artist clearly put a lot of thought into how this human-fish hybrid would work. There is a lot of detail put into the musculature of not just the torso as it joins with the lower half, but also the neck, shoulders, and arms. Whereas with the female figure on the left? About the only real anatomical considerations are giving this poor woman some sexay fish boobs.
However, the award for the absolute worst example of this goes hands down to the Yuan-ti:
Seriously? SERIOUSLY? What the fuck is this shit? What the hell happened that the general art directive was something along the lines of “make D&D suck less at women” and then this happened? Because the two male yuan-ti are side by side in a full page spread, and the Yuan-ti Pureblood is LITERALLY ON THE NEXT PAGE. Which is basically the visual equivalent of “OKAY BUT IF THERE’S ANY CHICKS THERE I WANT TO DOOO THEM!”
But wait! There’s more!
That’s it for larger trends, but believe me, folks, I’m just getting started. I’ve got about another 2,000 words that I want to write about some very specific fucked up things going on in the 5E Core books, but this post is long enough already. So expect more in a day or two!
 Seriously, in boobplate that extreme it would only take one reasonably-strong blow to the sternum to kill you. The purpose of armor is to DEFLECT the blow, not to channel force to the most vulnerable parts of your anatomy, for Christ’s sake.