O Captain! My Captain! Thoughts on the Portrayal of Women in Magic Artwork

Coalition Victory
Yellow satin chaps: comfortable and breathable, to take care of that not-so-fresh-feeling when engaged in combat with Phyrexians.

For Halloween this year, in honor of my new-ish job at Red Castle Games, I decided to get my nerd on to the limit (EVERYBODY TO THE LIMIT) and dress up as [card]Captain Sisay[/card]. And I mean I went to quite a bit of time, expense and trouble: I went to a dozen different shops until I found an appropriate midriff-baring shirt and a rough approximation of the belt, and I bought a long yellow skirt that I slit up the middle and tucked into my boots. (I didn’t realize that her pants were actually more akin to yellow satin chaps with a blue and red bikini bottom underneath until I paid close attention to the artwork for her card and for Coalition Victory, and really ,OMGWTF YELLOW SATIN CHAPS AVEC BIKINI BOTTOM). I even bought a decent wig so I’d have enough hair to braid. I was super stoked, because when all was said and done, the outfit looked a lot like Sisay, and I was super excited about working during FNM and having some of the regulars recognize my outfit….

And nothing. Nada. The most popular guess for the night? Princess Jasmine. Princess motherfucking Jasmine. So I posted this Facebook  status update:

Fewer Magic nerds recognized Captain Sisay tonight than I thought. Either my costume’s not close enough, or the generic girl-with-midriff-baring-outfit-and-poofypants look is far too common in Magic, or I’m playing with a buncha punkasses who don’t know their Commanders like they oughta. Or, most likely, a little bit of everything.

And one of my Magic playing acquaintances, Marcus, saw that post and thought, huh, what’s with the nonsensical outfits a lot of female warriors sport in Magic? Aren’t they supposed to be able to, you know, fight and defend themselves appropriately? So he decided to create an informal survey and rate all the clothing for female legendary creatures on a scale of 0 (not particularly revealing), 0.5 (somewhat revealing) and 1 (really revealing, or really cleavagey).

His conclusion: 13.5 female legendary creatures out of 49 were dressed provocatively in ways that made no sense. And then I wrote this monstrously long response to that survey, and then another of my Magic acquaintances, Halim, wrote a long response back, and the issue of how Magic treats women in its artwork has been pinging at my brain non-stop since then, and that’s when I realized this thing wasn’t going to let me rest until I shared it with the Internet. So here goes, and apologies for the repetition for those of you who’ve already read what I wrote on Facebook.

First, I want to get something out of the way: this isn’t about me feeling offended—or at least, not in the usual sense that people use the word. Look, kids, I’m of the Age of the Internet. I had my eyeballs seared by Goatse and Tubgirl ten years ago. I’ve seen eels where eels do not ever belong (not to mention millipedes, and mason jars, and fishhooks, and many other things). I once said, flippantly, that I’m easy to impress but difficult to gross out, and my friends pointed out that this is, in fact, a defining point of my personality.

So if any of you reading this think that I’m offended—as in grossed out, or feel violated, or think Wizards and the artists who work for them have gone too far with teh sexx—then please rest assured that this is not the case. A lot of the artwork is gorgeous, and I in fact admire the aesthetics and skill of a lot of the artwork that I’m going to talk about. What I’m going to talk about isn’t really about individual pieces of artwork featuring women, but about the cumulative effect of thousands upon thousands pieces of artwork featuring women, and what that says about Magic as a game, Magic’s fantasy setting, and how Magic reflects what’s going on in the larger American culture.

So one of the first and most important points I made in my response to Marcus was that the worst sartorial culprits weren’t the legendary creatures. Legendary creatures are important to the Magic multiverse in general and to the particular sets in which they belong, and I think a lot more thought goes into the art and art direction. This increased significance means that by and large, legendary female creatures are more tastefully attired, even though, for example, Melira’s tube top  is completely fucking nonsensical.

Melira, Sylvok Outcats
WHAT IS HOLDING THAT TOP UP? Did the Sylvok perfect Spandex, or double-sided tape, or anti-gravity for micro-environments? Is she trying to endure the inevitability of a wardrobe malfunction? Is she a refugee from sensible clothing appropriate for a plane at war? Did the Phyrexians steal all the straps from her outfit other than the completely useless ones around her right upper arm?

No, the worst wardrobe-malfunctions-about-to-happen in the Multiverse are the non-legendary creatures. To illustrate (har har) my point: what is up with Hero of Boobhold? Even the scantily-clad [card]Mirran Crusader[/card] has some (silly, if bad-ass) armor slapped onto various important body parts. Lady Boobhold, on the other hand, looks ready to fight the Phyrexians with one pointy shoulder pad and . . . pointy fucking elbows. And a fierce asymmetrical haircut. Well, OK, and a sweet-looking horse, but still.

Pointy. Fucking. Elbows.

There’s really no Boobhold equivalent for male warriors in Magic. The closest they’ve come so far is [card]Rakish Heir[/card] in Innistrad, and have you seen what they’ve been doing with vampires since, like, Zendikar? Vampires don’t need armor, they have teeth and glamour and the best hair products in every plane, ever.

Another thing you’ll see in Magic artwork that is, as far as I know, completely missing for males: victimization of women with strong sexual overtones. The first time I saw [card]Slave of Bolas[/card], I thought “Oh hey, Roofies of Bolas!” And check out the artwork for the Divine vs. Demonic edition of [card]Demonic Tutor[/card]. My boyfriend, when he first saw it, called it the demon tentacle rape tutor because of the pose.  And it captures the feel of the artwork, especially for people who don’t follow the story line and know nothing about the Chain Veil.

Contrast this artwork with the artwork for, say, [card]Sacrifice[/card], or [card]Ad Nauseam[/card], or [card]Shred Memory[/card], or [card]Brainspoil [/card], or the M10 art for [card]Mind Control[/card].

Most telling of all are the omissions in the depictions of women. With the exception of hags, witches and goblins, ugly, old and frumpy women are largely missing from the Magic universe. I can think of plenty of grotesque humanoid females in Magic, but most of them are still sexy-looking, with small waists and prominent breasts, and this goes double for Legendary creatures.

My favorite examples are the Praetors from New Phyrexia. The male Praetors—[card]Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur[/card], [card]Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger[/card] and [card]Urabrask the Hidden[/card]— look completely inhuman. Fo’ real, now: Jin-Gitaxias looks like a what you’d get if a Xenomorph got all freaky with a bunch of mantis shrimp and Jack Skellington during a wild Vegas weekend. (To this day, they still have no idea why there was a goat in the bathtub, how it got there, and who shaved it.)

[card]Sheoldred, Whispering One[/card] and [card]Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite[/card] still look  creepy, but if you ignore the oversized Star Trek communicator badge glued to Elesh Norn’s head and the, uh, flayed skin, and Sheoldred’s arachnid body, they’re shaped like supermodels. [card]Tsabo Tavoc[/card], the original Legend-with-an-Arachnid-stapled-to-her-ass, is also pretty grotesque, but she’s a horror, and she’s pretty freaking shapely and anthropomorphic for a horror. The rule of thumb with grotesque humanoid women in Magic seems to be “make ‘em kinda sexy, but in a horrifying way, unless they’re goblins, then you make ’em funny-looking.”

Now contrast this with something like the Onslaught artwork for [card]Doomed Necromancer[/card]. If Wizards were to re-release that card with female artwork, which outcome do you think would be more likely: manic chubby lady prancing around in a graveyard—or even average, schlubby middle-aged woman, as in the Tenth Edition art—or sexy lady wielding a sexy dagger? I know what I’d put my money on. [card]Apprentice Necromancer[/card] gets to look like a corpse. [card]Coffin Queen[/card] gets to look like a Vampira knock-off.

And think about this: demons are always male; angels are (almost) always female. Why those gender lines, when in the larger culture, angels are evenly split between the genders (though Biblically, angels are genderless, with names that have been co-opted as male names)? And there are plenty of female demons.

Other than “it was an arbitrary call that Wizards gets to make,” I think it’s because angels get to look hot, and demons get to look gross. It’s much more comfortable to portray females as objects of beauty, purity and light with a heaping side dish of discreet cheesecake. Males get to play in a much broader spectrum.

And then there are the planeswalkers. Leaving aside the fact that male planeswalker subtypes outnumber female subtypes by over two to one, just look at them. We have the hot, slutty bellydancer, the pretty, sweet-faced warrior girl (who went from apple-cheeked to hatchet-faced and back to applecheeked with a side order of Brad Pitt’s jaws), the hot elf chick (yeah, did you have to be reminded that Nissa Revane exists? I did), and the hot pyromaniac who used to look like a crazy ’burner and now looks way too much like Gaga in need of a fire extinguisher.

Now check out the range for the dudes: we have leonine fursuit guy, a motherfucking dragon, a vampire pretty boy, an 80s metal reject who has literally lost his mind, a Russell Crowe wannabe, a hot black dude, a lumpy golem dude, a roid-raging bear daddy who’s now suffering from pinhead syndrome, and two cute generic-looking white boys.

What I’m saying is, male planeswalkers show a lot more variance in appearance than female planeswalkers. I’m completely positive that the next female planeswalker is going to be hot and more-or-less humanoid. I’m also willing to bet that the first non-anthropomorphic female planeswalker is going to be attractive, along the lines of a sphinx.  I don’t think we’re going to see a female planeswalker as greasy-gross as Sarkhan, or as diabolic and alien as Nicol Bolas, or as homely as Karn, any time soon.

But it’s not just the artists, or Wizards commissioning and directing certain kinds of art. Part of the problem lies with coding. When we see something that’s clearly non-human, our default assumption (with the exception of cats and some birds) is “it’s a male.” Max Barry calls it the dog and smurf problem. I tend to call all dragons “he,” with the exception of [card]Dragon Broodmother[/card], for example; ditto all but the most blobby of the horrors and oozes.

So it’s the eye of the beholder, too, and I’m not at all exempt, even if I make a conscious effort to use female and gender-neutral pronouns when I catch myself going into male-as-default mode.

Ultimately, Magic artwork, like the larger cultural context, tends to view women as relevant mostly when they’re young, attractive and shapely. Middle-aged women disappear into the woodwork, and ugly, monstrous, or inhuman-looking women are very rare. Middle-aged men aren’t exactly prevalent in the artwork, either, but they certainly have more of an impact in the artwork and the storylines (think of all the depictions of Urza, for example, or [card]Grand Arbiter Augustin IV[/card]), and monstrous-looking men and monsters that code as male are everywhere—skeletons, the vast majority of pre-Innistrad zombies, and the vast majority of horrors, just to name a few.

And I know: Wizards commissions and directs the art that they do because they’re selling a product. This is a game overwhelmingly designed by dudes, and the people who play this game are overwhelmingly dudes. Ugly or funny-looking dudes as major characters aren’t going to be a hard pill for geek males to swallow. Ugly or funny-looking ladies as major characters might actually make a significant negative economic impact. However, a substantial number of women play Magic, and that number grows every year. Our voices count, and we need to see more variety in the presentation of major female protagonists.

Above and beyond not alienating potential markets, there’s an ethical element to this, too, because I much prefer to buy product from companies who don’t subscribe to sexist, racist, transphobic or homophobic ideologies (whether or not those ideologies are textual or subtextual). Which is not to say that Wizards in general or Magic in particular does; they’re doing the best they can, and they operate in the general cultural context, and the general cultural context is sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic. Wizards get props for putting the kibosh on damsels-in-distress artwork and naked boobs. That still doesn’t mean that women are represented in the art in a balanced way.

11 responses to “O Captain! My Captain! Thoughts on the Portrayal of Women in Magic Artwork”

  1. I enjoyed this write up. I am not sure what you are going for, or even if you are looking for a change but I do have several things to say.

    First and foremost. Who wants to see ugly women? Let’s be real. Men and women are both on the same side. No one wants to see an ugly women. When people look at the art of a card it needs to be attractive. There are very few ugly human men in magic as well. It kinda seems like you are upset women aren’t portrayed ugly more often. Why? Why is that important?

    Well for the record I have an ugly female right here (http://www.cardkingdom.com/catalog/item/185610) You want another? (http://www.cardkingdom.com/catalog/item/124653) I am sure there are more but I didn’t bother to look. Horros don’t have a sex.

    I would also like to say that generally in the fantasy setting, and in the theorhetical prehistoric times. Women didn’t generally carry swords and kick ass. If anything magic is breaking boundries by printing strong female leads like Lilliana and elspeth and Jaya Ballard. Sure they look young and sexy. But who could want to play with the fat ugly girl? Nobody is the answer to that question.

        • You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

          OK, I’ll be serious, and address this comment: “Who wants to see ugly women? Let’s be real. Men and women are both on the same side. No one wants to see an ugly women.”

          For one: I don’t mind seeing ugly women (ugly as defined by you). You know why? Because I don’t mind seeing ugly men, either. I’m surrounded by ugly males/grotesque in Magic, unless you’re going to make a serious argument that, say, Sarkhan is a hot piece of ass.

          For another: Ugly is as ugly does. Hero of Boobhold? Not at all attractive to me. Chandra, the Firebrand? Bleh. Give me an Elspeth or the original Chandra artwork any day.

          So my question for you is: why the double standard regarding portrayals of women? How can you presume to speak for everybody, both men and women? Show your work.

        • More to the point: I’m not necessarily talking about ugly vs. pretty, which involves a large subjective component. I’m talking about two things: range of expression (males in Magic artwork have a wider range) and sexualization (males in Magic artwork aren’t sexualized in the same way that women are, and women are often sexualized or made to look sexy/pretty when it doesn’t really make sense). You linked to Morkrut Banshee, which actually illustrates my point: how many spirits that code as male stalk the Magic multiverse with mutilated faces but gigantic codpieces, bubblebutts and bared six-pack abs.

          (By the way: Mistmeadow Witch is, uh, a witch. Please refer to the sentence in my article that says “With the exception of hags, witches and goblins, ugly, old and frumpy women are largely missing from the Magic universe.”)

  2. I think what should also be taken into consideration here, is the fact that until recently Magic was played primarily by the male species. It shouldn’t be about ‘ugly women’ more than it should be about appealing to the majority of your target audience.

    Meliras’ tube top is silly, but at least it’s tasteful, she is a scout after all!! I see nothing wrong with this comparison, but I absolutely understand where your thought process is going.

    I enjoyed your article immensely Candy. You are quite the accomplished writer!! And here I was thinking you where just the cool chick at RC selling me foils!!

  3. I think you’re kind of grasping for straws here. Honestly, one of the main reasons why I enjoy Magic is because of the art, and one of the main reasons why I enjoy the art is because it’s not hypersexualized like the schmucks working in the comic book industry or video game industry, particularly in DC, where women do nothing but bone all f-ing day.

    Of the whole, I think Magic does a good job using art that’s respectful of women. Sure, Melira’s outfit doesn’t make a lot of sense, but then again it’s not really all that sexualized either, it looks pretty conservative from my perspective. In fact, Melira’s outfit is more conservative than Mary-ann from Giligan’s Island (no bellybutton!).

    Looking at the Planeswalkers, since that’s the most heavily marketed aspect of Magic (meaning, it should logically have the sexiest females to market), I personally think the only one that goes a bit over the top is Liliana of the Veil. There’s actually more examples of females looking utterly badass than stupidly oversexualized – like Chandra Ablaze, and the original Liliana Vess.

    Since you brought it up, doing a search for “Angel” yields mostly heavily-armored, badass-looking female warriors. I guess you could say it’s sexist that most angels are female, but that seems like a pretty heavy stretch, especially since most of the angels are not in the least bit sexualized. What I mostly found were cards like Baneslayer Angel, and you can’t get much more badass than that, or Angel of Despair (bald!), or Platinum Angel (sexless), or Akroma (dressed more for battle than for pleasing the lads). And, for non-young, non-sexy women who aren’t “hags, witches and goblins” How about Kithkin? Merfolk? Elves? All three have examples of women who are not young and sexy, (kithkin – pretty much any of them), (merfolk – Sigil Tracer, Cold-Eyed Selkie), (elves – Pendelhaven Elder, Radha, Heir to Keld). And the Praetors argument seems like an especially large stretch. How can we ignore the arachnid body when that takes up 90% of art! And Elash, while skinny like a supermodel, is pointy, jagged, and has smooth, metalic-like surfaces on her body that makes her look more inhuman than a sexy supermodel.

    I think you should flesh out the argument more when it comes to how Magic has portrayed women historically and whether or not it is changing. If it were changing more in the direction of hypersexualized females, I would be sad, but I have a feeling it is not. While Innistrad did bring us a younger, sexier Liliana, it also brought us cards like Delver of Secrets and Diregraf Ghoul, not to mention some sexy male vampires if that’s your thing.

    Could Magic add more females? Certainly! I’d welcome that. Could Magic add more badass females like Chandra Ablaze and Baneslayer Angel? Absolutely! But calling Magic sexist undermines all the examples of badass female characters that already exist in Magic.

    • There’s capital-S Sexism (traditional beer ads, the fact that women still, on the average, make less than men), and then there’s small-s sexism that’s part of the cultural context–so much so that people see it as normal, or no big deal because that’s what it’s always been. I’m arguing that Magic artwork engages mostly in small-s sexism. And at no point have I tried to argue that Magic, as a whole, hypersexualizes women in its artwork, though I do think individual cards do. My arguments are not quite that sweeping.

      I’m not arguing that the art isn’t beautiful. I’m a fan of a lot of the art, even the art that makes me roll my eyes a little ([card]Admonition Angel[/card], for example). I’m not even arguing that the art as a whole degrades women, or that the art isn’t improving as time goes on and the culture governing how we view women changes. My argument is this: Magic artwork that depicts women tends to make them pretty or sexy even in contexts when pretty and sexy don’t work, or they disproportionately do so when their male counterparts don’t tend to look pretty or sexy. And that’s small-s sexism.

      Your argument seems hinged on a few big points:

      1. “The art isn’t as degrading as the art in comic books or video games or [insert some industry in which the depiction of women is awful], so Magic art isn’t sexist.” Yeah, Magic’s better than a lot of comic books and video. It’s also a lot worse than a lot of comic books if you venture outside of superhero comics and delve into horror, mystery or indie. Hellboy, Sweet Tooth, Chew, Scott Pilgrim, Atomic Robo, Sandman–I mean, I can go on, but I think you get the point. And yeah, video games are, in general, pretty wretched when it comes to portrayal of women. That’s not exactly a high bar to clear. Essentially, I don’t buy any argument that says “But look at how much worse these guys are! We’re totally great in comparison!” It’s not only insulting to the consumers, it’s insulting to Wizards. I’m pointing these things out because they’re not smack-you-in-the-face obvious.

      To go back to Melira, for example: yeah, her outfit’s tasteful (sorta). I even conceded as much. But tasteful in what context? At a night club, sure. Is it tasteful in the context of a plane at war? And assuming that it is tasteful, in the context of a war, tasteful doesn’t count for much, does it? Practical does. I’d much rather wear sensible armor and live than die clutching my pearls. Which leads me to another point I’m trying to make: armor for women in Magic is often silly or sexy. Not that the armor for men isn’t silly, but they’re not sexualized in the same way–the equivalent would be seeing buttshots or massive codpieces in a majority of artwork featuring males. (For an example of the kind of incongruity I’m talking about, check out Kate Beaton’s hilarious take on Batman).

      2. “Look at all these counter-examples of ugly females that you missed!” To which I say: sure, I missed them. I’ll quote what I said about it: “With the exception of hags, witches and goblins, ugly, old and frumpy women are largely missing from the Magic universe.” I said largely, not completely. (I disagree with you strongly about [card]Sigil Tracer[/card], by the way–she wears a bikini, she has her back arched at a Very Particular Angle, and she doesn’t look old or hag-like at all. Check out the much larger artwork here. Were you perhaps thinking of [card]Inkfathom Witch[/card] (who is, uh, a witch and illustrates my point)? Also, [card]Cold-Eyed Selkie[/card] codes as androgynous to me, but it may just be one of those things where people tend to call cats “she” and dogs “he.”) That doesn’t change my argument, i.e., that old, unattractive and/or repulsively alien women are in much shorter supply than the male counterparts. Go ahead: count up the number of goblin women depicted on goblin cards vs. goblin males, just to go for a manageable tribe with historically ugly/comic/grotesque artwork. Then go into a tribe that’s more attractive, like elves or kithkin or merfolk, and do the math on that. (I’ll concede that the Shadowmoor/Eventide merfolk tend to look creepier than any other merfolk in any other set, both male and female–and it makes sense in the context of the story. But merfolk in general are a fairly good-looking bunch.)

      3. “The women in these depictions are grotesque in a certain way, which means they’re not sexy-looking.” To which I can only say: why portray Sheoldred or Elesh Norn with boobs and curvy antropomorphic bodies? Why not make them as inhuman and grotesque as Jin-Gitaxias or Vorinclex or Urabrask? And honestly, addressing this on an individual level is difficult, because I can see how the decisionmaking on an individual level made sense, but once we aggregate all those decisions, what we end up with is the message that female characters, by and large, don’t get to have as great a range of expression as male characters.

      4. “Some of the women look bad-ass!” Sure. I’m not disputing that at all. But that also depends on your definition of bad-ass. When I think bad-ass in the context of Magic, I think “capable of kicking all and any ass.” Look: I love Liliana. Love the shit out of her. Appreciate her artwork on all sorts of levels, up to and including the carnal. But “bad-ass”? I look at her artwork and think “dancer,” not mage, or warrior, or somebody else in the business of asskicking. Jaya Ballard is much more along the line of someone who’s sexy-looking who looks more bad-ass. You look at angel armor and think “bad-ass.” I look at angel armor and think “helloooooo, cheesecake.” It says something about the state of armor for women in Magic artwork that when I saw the original artwork for Elspeth, Knight-Errant, my first thought was “Oh, hey, this lady could actually probably fight and win in that get-up after she ditched the cloak” instead of going “Why is she in a bikini?” or “How does cleavage help with combat?” Thresholds vary depending on where you’re coming from. You’re certainly free to think that angel armor is bad-ass. I beg to differ, with a few exceptions (Jenara, Asura of War; Empyrial Archangel; some others that I don’t have the time to look up right now).

      Something that I didn’t make clear in the article that I perhaps should’ve is the critical distinction between enjoying a work, subscribing to its message, and thinking that the work was executed well. These three are not necessarily related: it’s entirely possible to find the message in, say, a book repugnant but admire the skill of its execution and to enjoy the experience of the work. I’m making that same sort of argument about Magic artwork. I love the look of a lot of Magic artwork, and I admire the skill of the artists and the vision of the card designers. I’m a lot more ambivalent about the collective message about women that I’m getting about the cards.

  4. I see your point. Most of the female characters depicted on cards are illustrated as attractive young women. And their are more aged male characters in total. However, I would argue that (of the planeswalkers and hero/good male characters) you would be hard-put to find many that you would say are unattractive.

    The image of the planeswalkers you posted sports muscular, attractive men in general. Three of which lack shirts and one sports a rather nonsensical gigantic shoulder pad armor to go with his loin cloth.

    You don’t see many male characters portrayed as the average homely, kinda chubby dude. Almost all are very muscular with an attractive face and hair. Male characters also occasionally sport a lack of real armor (usually in the form of a barbarian type individual)

    As far as the default for monsters being male, I find myself calling most nonhuman things male by default or “it” but that is not a feature of the artwork but of the individual and the culture in which this exists.

    True, women are in artwork and fantasy are, by default, attractive if not sexy. But evil is by default male.