D&D 5E Core Books: Smurfettes and Sexy Corpses

Well folks, I lied when I said that I was going to focus exclusively on specific pieces of art in today’s post, because there is one very important meta-trend that I forgot. So, since I’ve already sunk more than 3800 words into this series already, let’s just jump straight to business.

Art Trend #3: Smurfette Syndrome

In the first post in this series, I talked about representation of women in group shots and how on the face of it the core books tended to do better  remembering to represent women in those than in the single-character shots – in which women were greatly underrepresented. However, the difference in representation between group shots and single-character illustrations is greatly exaggerated by the way that I counted, because I wasn’t actually looking at gender balance of figures within a group shot. I was just counting if a group shot contained women.

And depressingly, there were a significant number of group images that only contained ONE female character:


The first image might be a little unfair, given that there are two prominently placed female hero characters getting into a serious brawl in the foreground. However, if you take a look at the rest of the figures in the bar, ALL of the patrons shown in the background are men and the only other woman is a goddamn barmaid. The far right image, however, is more typical of what I’m talking about. On the face of it, I like the design of the female thief – she’s an interesting-looking WoC who looks like she’s a pretty capable lady. However, when you look at the image as a whole, the other characters all have discernable character traits – like “bruiser” or “mastermind”, whereas the female thief’s only discernable character trait is “woman”, which just exemplifies the problem with the Smurfette approach to group shot composition. Men can be anything you can imagine while women can be pretty.

The most ridiculous example, however, is the middle image which depicts a battlefield teeming with heroes and monsters, and only contains ONE figure that is discenably female. Because apparently it is easier to conceive of a titanic battle against ogres and skeletons and other monsters than it is to imagine a world where more than one woman might be found on a battlefield.

And it’s sad, because in some regards D&D has made great strides; when it comes to illustrations that are meant to depict a party of adventurers (ie player avatars), it’s clear that a lot of thought and care is being taken to balance gender and other factors. But that same level of care obviously isn’t being applied to the world itself, and the end result is a world creepily devoid of women. (Seriously. Where are they??)

Specific Things That Are Messed Up #1: Conditions

There are lots of specific illustrations that I could rant about, but instead I’m just going to hit the lowlights, as it were. Going from least to most fucked up, we’ll start with the illustrations done for conditions, found in the PHB:


This is some of the worst “heroes are always men” bullshit that I have seen in a fucking long time. Sure it includes women, but take a look at what roles they occupy. You have a princess, a witch who is obviously not a PC, and a woman who is too scared of a monster to fight. Way to implicitly tell women that they can’t hack it as adventurers, WotC.

…please excuse me while I go punch the world in the face.

Specific Messed Up Thing #2: Vampire and Vampire Spawn

Perhaps my least favorite pair of illustrations in the Monster Manual are the illustrations for Vampire and Vampire Spawn respectively:


To be honest, when I sat down to try to explain just why this made me so angry, all I could muster was the urge to furiously bang my keyboard.

Thankfully, aggressively curating my circles means that I have some wonderfully intelligent friends on G+, and they were more than happy to point out a whole host of reasons why this was pretty fucked up. (Paraphrasing their words here):

  • The man is depicted as an aspirational monster – a monster a PC might want to become, while the woman is crazy and clearly can’t be reasoned with – the sort of monster you don’t want to become
  • The man is depicted as reasoned and intelligent while the woman is shown as bestial and insane (bitches be crazy, amirite?)
  • “He’s talking to you, she’s stalking towards you. Also note the exaggerated hip/shoulder twist, is she doing a runway strut?”
  • The man is a person. The woman is not.
  • They reinforce social power dynamics; the man is a human-looking noble, the woman is a ragged, filthy-looking peasant
  • The woman is “spawn”, and is depicted as clearly inferior to the “original”
  • Given that the “spawn” is unreasoning and feral, the woman is clearly subject to the control of the master
  • Which makes it pretty fucking gross how sexualized the woman is; if she is feral and unreasoning and subject to the whims of her “master”, the degree of sexualization also implies some pretty rapey stuff about how her “master” could use her for sex
  • Especially because when you think about the process for becoming a vampire spawn in the first place, obvious rape metaphor is obvious
  • And there’s definitely a subtext that this is what happens to women who have sex, because she couldn’t resist his sexual advances and now she is damaged goods

(Many thanks to Laura Hamilton, Paul Czege, Joanna Piancastelli, Andrew Medeiros, Mikael Andersson, Arlene Medder, Sean Nittner, Brianna Sheldon, Brand Robins, Steve Dempsey, John Stavropoulos, Josh T Jordan, and Chris Chinn for helping me out on this one.)

Specific Messed Up Thing #3: Women as nurses and sexy corpses

The set of images that most raised my ire were these images from the DMG. These are the only three images in the core books that deal with the aftermath of battle from a PC perspective (there are several of a party of PCs surveying the damage after they have obviously murdilated a bunch of dudes and/or monsters):




Looking at the image on the far left, you have a woman being cradled in the arms of a man. She’s suffered a gut wound, and there don’t seem to be any clerics or other sources of divine healing nearby, which reads to me as though she’s dying. I’ll admit that I do appreciate the way that he’s comforting her – there’s some real tenderness there which isn’t something that you often see in fantasy artwork of this nature. But given how the woman’s arms are raised and she’s clearly about to deliver some Touching Last Words That Will Imbue The Hero With Tragic Purpose To Achieve The Plot Point And Avenge The Woman He Couldn’t Save, it still leaves a bad fucking taste in my mouth.

But AT LEAST as awful as the subtext in the first image is, the woman isn’t being depicted as a SEXY CORPSE, like in the middle illustration. Yes she’s about to have (presumably) a scroll of resurrection recited over her, so she’ll get to not be dead, but look at how she’s twisted around to emphasize the sexy bits, especially that ridiculous fucking boobplate. (Which isn’t as bad as the boobplate in my previous post, but is still pretty fucking bad.) And of course, the cherry on the shit sundae is how she died by getting STABBED IN THE BOOBS.

Which. Seriously. What? NO.

First, the wound depicted would require her to have been stabbed through the sternum, which is one of the hardest points to penetrate on the human body – and with good reason. Your sternum protects some pretty important shit. Second, in order to penetrate BOTH her armor AND sternum with sufficient force to cause lethal damage, there would have to be a much bigger hole in her armor than that tiny-ass hole. I understand wanting to depict sanitized violence, but come on. It’s obvious that the artist just wanted to draw a dead lady who was dead from getting stabbed in the tits because tits.

So it isn’t so much the last image that I am angry about as the contrast between the last image and the first two. Those are some pretty fucking serious wounds that our male warrior friend is getting seen to; the chest wound especially could have been potentially very serious depending on the amount of blood lost. But don’t worry, ladies! He’ll live to fight another day. That is, after he grits his teeth and gets to be all stoic and stuff, and maybe talk a little about how being a hero is a hard job and somebody has to do it and he’d rather it be him than some kid who’s totally unprepared. And then maybe he’ll stare broodingly into the middle distance for a long while before banging that hot elf nurse chick.

I wanted this to be better

The depressing thing about writing this series of posts is that I wound up having so much material to work with. Hell, I have things in my notes that I may come back to and write about later, because it turns out there’s a surprising amount of messed up material enshrined in Forgotten Realms canon that doesn’t come across from just flipping through the books and looking at pictures. But I’d rather not beat a dead horse, so if it’s something I write about I will have to come back to it later.

And that’s not a great feeling, because frankly D&D 5E is still so much better than an awful lot of games out there! Because for all that I can point at specific pieces of art and rant about why they are messed up, at least doing better at depicting women is a priority for the D&D team and they are working on getting better at it. Which is, sadly, more than can be said for a pretty fucking huge portion of the industry.

So as much as I’ve gone on at length about things that D&D has gotten wrong, I feel it’s important to close by noting that they are moving things in the right direction and I hope that they continue to do so.

14 thoughts on “D&D 5E Core Books: Smurfettes and Sexy Corpses

  1. Now I hate to do this, but isn’t the red head decking the half-orc with a tankard a lady? Also, couldn’t you make the case that blonde figure next to them is a woman as well? The bar-fight is still heavily skewed towards male figures, but I don’t really think this image serves as an example of smurfette syndrome.

    • Yeah, given that the lady in the foreground is glassing the dark elf, it’s probably a safe assumption that everyone not a dark elf in that picture are patrons of the bar.

      Of interesting note, the “scared” image looks to be a gender-flipped homage to Liz Danforth’s MTG art for Shrink. http://magiccards.info/hl/en/70.html

    • I should really pay closer attention to what I’m reading, completely missed the sentence where you mentioned the two ladies in the foreground. You can ignore my first message there!

  2. Much as you seem to suffer doing these, I really appreciate this critical analysis. It’s valuable for me (as an obtuse dude) to get your perspective as a woman, as a gamer, and as an artist. Please keep up the good work…as much as you can stomach it.

  3. I am unconvinced by this level of analysis. In too many of the examples, my gendering of the people, or my interpretation of who was supposed to be sexy, is at odds with yours. Granted, I’m not as practiced at media analysis as you are, but in this post several times I reacted with “Eh..that’s a bit of a stretch”. I don’t have the D&D5 books and I’m not trying to defend them. There is still more in the post that I *do* agree with.

    E.g. in the middle part of the first picture (epic battle vs undead), I only see two figures that I identify as male, and one that I identify as female, and only FOUR total non-undead-skeleton figures. I’m glad that none of the skeletons are sexy corpses, and I can’t assign a gender to skeletons (maybe a specialist in human bone structure could…) That said, I don’t have the full-rez image, so maybe you can identify more of the figures in the battle with the book in hand.

    E.g.2: I don’t know who else would think the asian-elf in the death & healing picture is supposed to be sexy. I guess people automatically think female nurse = terrible halloween costume? We definitely need more diversity in the representation of healthcare workers, but this particular character doesn’t seem problematic to me. Maybe I’m just naive.

    • A lot of this stuff can be really subtle, even after having it shown to you it can take a long time for it to sink in and register. I say that as someone who glosses over these details ALL THE TIME! However, it’s important to step back from your initial reaction and really think about what you’re consuming in the art.

      Sure, the Elven healer isn’t dressed or posed sexually, and that’s really great, but the image propagates the idea that men are stoic and tough warriors while women are the gentle healers who tend to them. I’m not saying images like this shouldn’t exist, because in fantasy worlds there will be times when a man needs to be healed by a woman, that’s just the law of averages, but does the man need to be tough-ass mctougherson like he is? The female parallels shown above all have the injured figures seeming vulnerable and fragile, cause you know, they were stabbed! But not this guy, he’s a man! Men tough it out and have a seat while they’re healed. They could have just as easily shown him appearing vulnerable, forlorn and it’s a shame they didn’t.

      Like I said, I get it, when I first look at this image a see a man in need of some healing and a properly dressed woman helping him out. But there is more to it than that, you have to be aware of tropes that reinforce gender stereotypes and you need to rail against it, otherwise nothing is gonna change.

      • Yes, I agree that when you consider the three death/healing images together, the only wounded dude being uberstoic mcbraveson while wounded women are tragic or dead is representative of a greater trend. But then wunderweek seems to focus on the sexiness of the healer, which I just don’t imagine being the first thing in people’s mind when I see the figure. She certainly doesn’t have a sexy expression on her face.

        Similarly in the epic undead battle: 1/3 genderable figures being female is still just 1/3, and if that trend continues for all the pictures, then it’s a problem. But my mind focused on wundergeek calling it an image “teeming with heroes and monsters, and only contains ONE figure that is discenably female”, but also (to me) only contains TWO figures that are discernably male! Then of course I get uncomfortable because it’s really just about who I gender as what, and I know I should avoid reinforcing the gender binary in the first place…

        • I won’t speak for wundergeek, but I give her the benefit of the doubt that using “hot elf nurse chick” at the end of that sentence is to go along with the cliched tropes of stoic warriors banging their healers after being tended, not because the Elf is question is illustrated as overtly sexy. That’s just my read on it though.

          The epic battle is tricky, until I can see a high res version of it personally, I reserve judgement. I see your point though.

  4. While I agree with some of your analysis, I also think you sometimes take your analysis to the extreme side finding bias where it might only exist in the mind of the viewing.

    In the in first image, you complain that there aren’t enough women, and yet the two main characters of the piece are powerful women kicking ass. I mean, seriously? That’s still not good enough to pass your analysis? C’mon.

    Second, the undead army image has a total of THREE characters in which one might recognize the gender of the individuals, one of which is female. All of the other images are too blurry and indistinct in the piece. A woman is one of the three, and as a matter of fact, I don’t even think one can even rule out the character at the very front of the art as that character’s back is turned and the character has long hair. Could be a dwarf woman or could be a dwarf male… Not even certain the character is a dwarf, but it is hinted due to the adjacency of the other apparent dwarf characters… So I call BS on that analysis. Your own goal to seek out bias is coloring your perception to that piece.

    I also think you give a disservice to the woman in the 3rd piece when you state: “the other characters all have discernable character traits – like “bruiser” or “mastermind”, whereas the female thief’s only discernable character trait is ‘woman’.”

    I’m sorry, but I call BS again. She’s clearly the con-artist of the group, a charismatic leader, like Clooney in Oceans 11 or the A-Team’s “Face” who pulls off the disguise/con portion of a heist. Or perhaps she’s the ass-kicking, but well-dressed character in Alias or James Bond. Your own biases toward finding bias means that you are finding bias wherever you look. You state she’s “only” a woman, while ascribing other traits to the men.

    Also — “She’s suffered a gut wound, and there don’t seem to be any clerics or other sources of divine healing nearby,”

    BZZT. Here again. The D&D iconic Clerics are often Dwarf, so you are setting up a straw man to knock down here. You have no idea if the Dwarf is the healer or not, but you make a statement showing your own bias. Also, you complain that women are often shown in the nursing role, and here we are with a counter example and you claim the male is not in the nursing role in this image. Sorry, but this is BS.

    And then… “And then maybe he’ll stare broodingly into the middle distance for a long while before banging that hot elf nurse chick.”

    Wow… Just wow. Biased much? Apparently, you think that doctors and nurses behave mostly like what is seen in porn. So, the Elf is only a sex object in your mind rather than a competent healer?

    I’m not saying some D&D art still has issues with gender bias… but some of your examples show bias in your own thinking rather than bias in the art.

  5. I agree with most of your analysis, and i would like to add another. Is it not kinda, i dunno, odd to anyone else that the Gynosphinx in the Monster Manual which carries female features is CR 11, but the Androsphinx which carries male features is CR 17? As if it is more powerful by virtue of being male? just rubs me the wrong way.

  6. Ugh, I really don’t like the idea of defending 5E (I mean, it’s not 4E, but that’s not saying much), but I can’t really agree with you on the vampire spawn. So much of the way you’ve described her is how vampire spawn are supposed to be. According to the 3.0 Monster Manual (which doesn’t include a picture), they “appear just as they did in life, although their features are often hardened and feral, with a predatory look.” No matter the spawn’s sex, they’re going to be crazy, unreasonable beasts

    Now, maybe WotC could’ve reversed the sexes of the two or made them the same sex to avoid any unfortunate implications (personally, I think they’re going to be there no matter what; it’s the nature of vampires), but either way, the vampire would be the nobler of the two and the spawn more savage

    Also, I’d probably pick a peasant for the spawn, too. It just seems like such a natural choice, both for whom the vampire would feast upon and for symbolic emphasis. They’re supposed to represent parasitic aristocrats exploiting the lower classes

    I guess she might be doing a runway strut. I honestly wouldn’t have noticed without you saying anything

    • “I guess she might be doing a runway strut. I honestly wouldn’t have noticed without you saying anything”

      That’s the problem, we don’t always notice these subtle yet objectifying traits (I say as someone who experiences the exact same thing). It sucks that it’s so easy to miss but can have a lasting effect on us as we’re exposed to more and more of that crap. It’s important for art directors to be conscious of these things and work hard on avoiding the pitfalls.

      As for the vampire spawn, I truly believe if they had reversed the genders in the pictures, this is what we would have gotten instead:

      Sexy noble lady in skimpy or ridiculously tight clothing.
      Male spawn who looks rabid but fully clothed and probably super muscled.

      This isn’t a vampire issue, it’s a sexism one.

      My thoughts, take them or leave them as anyone should.

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