Looking back: comparing old and new M:TG art [MANY IMAGES]

Lately I’ve been having fun going through my collection recently and revamping old decks as well as building new ones.  Because reasons that are boring to people who don’t play Magic, a lot of this deck-building has me going through our new Khans of Tarkir stuff as well as stuff from Return to Ravnica, which is a set from two years ago.

And the thing that I’m really noticing is that Ravnica… really sucks at it’s portrayals of women. For all that Khans artwork didn’t really include women, it also (for the most part) didn’t really fail that hard. I mean, there were a couple eyeroll-worthy pieces of art, particularly the snake tits on Kheru Spellsnatcher. But Ravnica? Man. Where to start.

Which is really interesting! Because it’s not like there’s a ton of time separating the two sets. There are only two years separating Ravnica and Khans. So I thought it would be worth taking a look at Ravnica, numbers-wise, to see how M:TG has changed direction with it’s artwork in the last two years.

The Numbers

Interestingly, while Khans may have had a much lower eyeroll factor, there were also many fewer women over all:

discernable-gender

Yikes!  The percentage of female representation went down by half! Given that women in the Ravnica set were already under-represented, that’s a pretty startling decrease!

However my initial assessment of Ravnica’s art was pretty accurate. Ravnica might have had many more women, but a large majority of them were objectified pretty blatantly:

breakdown

HALF of all women in Ravnica artwork were counted as suggestively attired! As compared to Khans, where only five female characters total were counted as suggestively attired. Yikes!

Still it might be easy to look at the numbers for Ravnica and conclude that characters in Ravnica are just more suggestively attired overall. After all, looking at the breakdown of suggestively attired figures, men account for nearly half. So if there’s equal opportunity objectification going on, that’s not bad, right?

…well. No.

Caveats. Always with the caveats

Because as always, there are very stark differences between suggestively attired male figures and suggestively attired female figures. There tend to be three rough categories of suggestively attired male figures:

1. “Savage” or “bestial” characters clearly gendered as male

With art that falls into this category, the lack of clothing is always a device intended to display their lack of civilization:

Animals

All of the above images depict characters that are clearly not intended to be sexually appealing. Indeed, I’d argue that Golgari Charm is intended to be unappealing. These are just some “savage” beast-men looking to inflict some hurt on someone.

2. Dead stuff: corpses, necromancers, and corpse necromancers

All of the following figures were counted as suggestively attired:
Dead

Which is, of course, ridiculous. These figures were clearly not intended to be sexually appealing. Not unless you happen to find dessicated corpses and dudes without noses appealing, in which case I’d like to remind you that society has agreed that necrophilia is a thing that is Not Okay.

3. Goblins and weirdos

Okay, I’ll admit this is a bit of a catch-all. But seriously, check out this art:

goblins and weirdos

Goblins always throw off the numbers when it comes to counts of suggestive figures, because it’s very common for the art of goblins to include high numbers of figures. And goblins always get counted as suggestive, because they never, ever wear pants. (I mean, I’m pretty sure if it wears pants, you can’t call it a goblin.)

And then there’s the weirdos, by which I mean figures that count as suggestively attired who are not bestial, dead, necromancers, or goblin, but are clearly not meant to be sexually appealing because they’re just… so… weird. I mean, look at the Rakdos Shred Freak. I’m pretty sure that even hardcore fetishists aren’t going to look at this guy and say “oo, look at his muscle definition”.

And the Hellhole Flailer? What the hell is up with this guy? Why are his forearms the size of his biceps? Why are his biceps the size of his thighs? Why does he have a skull on his head? Or does he have a skull for a head? Anyway, whatever is going on there – it’s clear that this guy isn’t supposed to be sexually appealing. And yet that’s how he was counted, along with all of the other savage, dead, and goblin figures.

Which has a clear spoiler effect on the numbers! Because while these figures are suggestively attired, they are clearly not suggestive.

In fact, out of all of the male figures in Ravnica, I’d argue that only one counts as being maybe sorta actually suggestive – the Golgari Decoy:

Golgari decoy

I have no idea what is going on here, but this guy is rocking some pretty extreme “boobs and butt”, which is pretty weird, frankly. Is this supposed to be a satire of the usual female boobs and butt? Or is this just an anatomy fail? I really don’t know.

Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that there are a good number of female figures who were counted as fully clothed, but who are actually kind of sexualized by their frigging boobplate. Take, for example, the Ash Zealot, who I otherwise really like because she is just straight up ending a bunch of zombies in the face:

ld212_ash_uxiyudxxey

She’s so great! So, so great! …except for her bizarre boobplate. The boobs on her boobplate are actually so high that she is actually wearing a pushup boobplate, because, I don’t know, it’s hard to want to go out and brain zombies with a flaming mace if you feel insecure about your saggy tits? I guess?

And unfortunately, Ravnica had a lot of pretty egregious boobplate:

Boobplate
There are 3 or 4 more examples that didn’t fit into this picture, btw.

The first three aren’t terrible, because the art itself is actually pretty rad and is about them being awesome, not about them having boobs. The last three, however, are pretty clearly a case of the artist going “bah, why draw a woman with armor if you can’t see her tits”? Arg.

In which I belabor the point

I don’t want to look like I’m arguing that the reason for the 50% decrease in female representation between Ravnica and Khans is because they got rid of all of the bullshit female characters. Because that would imply that only 50% of Ravnica art of women is bullshit. But the reality is that non-bullshit art of women is vastly outnumbered by the totally-bullshit art.

And it comes in so many different flavors! Flavors like “sexualized spellcasting”!

spellcasters
WHY DOES SHE HAVE DUCKFACE. WHY. AND WHY DOES THIS BUG ME MORE THAN THE TOP LEFT’S BROKEN SPINE???

Or how about “the spec for this card actually has nothing to do with boobs at all, I just super like them”?

Boobs for the sake of boobs

The Oak Street Innkeeper (far right) is the only one of these where you could maaaayyybe argue for the inclusion of some boobage. (But given the extremity of that boob window, I’d argue pretty hard against that). Chorus of Might and Electrickery (top left and top middle) don’t necessarily exclude ridiculous boobage, though the fact that some pretty ridiculously sexualized women were the go-to for otherwise ambiguous art requirement says a lot, I think.

But check out the Wild Beastmaster (top right). If you look up the full artwork, the animals she’s commanding are cropped almost entirely out of frame so that we can see the totality of that boobplate trainwreck she’s wearing. Even worse are the Korozda Monitor and Slime Molding (bottom left and bottom middle). The art requirements specifically called for not sexy ladies. Giant-ass lizards are not sexy ladies. Huge slimes are not sexy ladies. And yet, in both cases, the artist was so devastated about having to draw not-sexy-ladies that sexy ladies were inserted where none was needed. This is why we can’t have nice things.

And then we have the closely related flavor of “I can’t take this art seriously because of these gratuitous breasts”:

Maybe no one will notice

I’m sure that these were all intended to be dramatic pieces of art, but you completely lost me at the ridiculous sexualization. Why would a “Keening Apparition” (top middle) be a Kirsten Dunst-lookalike at serious risk for some nip-slip? Why would a soldier wear armor that completely fails to protect her vital organs? Why would you decide to summon a giant-ass rhino in a “Horncaller’s Chant” (top right) while completely failing to wear pants? Wouldn’t you think that putting on pants before summoning spectral rhinos would be a good call?

Anyhow, we can’t forget the “I don’t even know how that clothing is supposed to work”:

Nipple straps

I have spent way too much time staring at those weirdo straps on Rites of Reaping (left) and still can’t figure out how they would do anything to prevent that vest from shifting, causing her boobs to fall right out anyway. Copious amounts of body glue? Which is also the only explanation I can muster for what the fuck is going on with Treasured Find (right). For fucks, sake, she’s a gorgon. Why would she go through such ridiculous fashion shenanigans if anyone who looks at her is just going to turn to stone anyway?

And last, but certainly not least, we have “what the actual fucking fuck”

wut

No, seriously. What the fuck. What the actual unholy fuck is going on here. Who the fuck thought that this would be a good idea? And why the fuck would an art director let these awful breasttacular trainwrecks slide? Because about three seconds after…. whatever they’re doing in that card art, this would happen:

stab wound

This card is delightfully called “stab wound”, and this is pretty much what would happen to all of these women in bullshit outfits. I have no idea if this piece was intended as satire (I suspect that it is, given the comical facial expression), and I’m reluctant to Google it lest I find out otherwise.

Concluding Thoughts

So I think we’ve pretty thoroughly disproven the notion that sexualization of men and women in Ravnica art is somehow “equal”. Which, you know, yay.

After looking at all this bullshit art, I’m left with a lot of mixed feelings about the direction that M:TG art direction has taken. On the one hand, it’s great to not have to look at bullshit art. Ravnica had a lot of super great cards with some super-bullshit art, and I have some Ravnica cards in my current decks with some pretty terrible artwork as a result.

But on the other hand, I don’t really feel that great about the “solution” to the problem of Magic artists being incapable of not treating women like shit. The only way that Magic can have NOT shitty women is to pretend that women don’t exist, period? What the ever-loving fuck is up with that? It is totally possible to have awesome, fantastical artwork that includes women and doesn’t ridiculously sexualize and objectify them. Look at D&D 5E! They pulled it off beautifully, and D&D is published by the same damn company.

So, you know, thanks for mostly not treating women like shit in the new Khans set. Now maybe we can take another small step and remember that we exist and actually do things.

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!