In simple drawings where you can’t guess someone’s gender from their facial features, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern:
In all three of these drawings, women are given some extra addition to show that they are women: in XKCD, it’s hair; in the Moomin books, it is hair too, plus a flower and an item of jewelry (the ankle bracelet); in the classic toilet symbol, it’s a dress.
If you think about it though, there is no reason why the plain, unadorned characters couldn’t be women. Being unadorned doesn’t make you look especially like a man, it just makes you look like a person.
I can try to illustrate my point by switching things around. I’ll edit each image so that men have specific adornments or additions that identify them as men, and women are just unadorned, and we can assume they are women just because there is nothing there to show that they are men.
This pattern where male characters are unadorned and female characters are given female signifiers to distinguish them from the male characters is so ubiquitous that I think it’s just become normal for us to assume that a plain stick figure or whatever is male. I know that I have such a subconscious pattern. I know because I read two comics which DIDN’T happen to have this convention (both drawn by female-assigned people) and in both cases, I found myself surprised when something in the comics showed that a character I had assumed was male was not male.
One was Hyperbole And A Half. Granted, the main character of these comics IS actually drawn with gender signifiers (long hair and pink clothing) but, because the drawing style is so quirky, I didn’t get that she was a she until I’d read quite a few comics. Until then I assumed she was male, because you just assume that when a character isn’t obviously female enough.
The other was Robot Hugs. In this particular page there are a load of women and only one of them is recognisable as female outside of context (due to a ponytail); the rest are drawn in exactly the same way as the men: basically stick figures. Because of this drawing style I confused women for men in several other of these comics, simply by automatically assuming.
Why This Is Problematic
This is problematic. This pattern points to a larger pattern in our culture: men are considered the “default” kind of person, and if someone is a woman, that’s something you notice.
You can see it in our language, where we have the word “mankind” to signify all of humanity, and phrases like “Judge a man not by how he treats his friends, but by how he treats his enemies”, which supposedly count for women as well. In Spanish and many other languages, when we have a group of both men and women, we use the masculine gender suffix to refer to them all, as if “men” was another way of saying “people”. And in English in fact we often use “he” when we’re talking about someone whose gender we don’t know, rather than say “he or she” or the more controversial gender neutral pronoun “they”.
You can see it in movies and other media, where you get a group of people all with different interesting quirks and abilities, and one of them has the quirk of being a woman:
In short, being a woman is a thing, while being a man is just normal and not something you notice or comment on.
This paves the way for gender stereotypes and roles. Men are just, you know, people; but women are fickle, emotional, motherly, vain, weak, etc. Even when we consciously try to make positive ideas about women e.g. strong, career-focused*, we’re just adding on more stereotypes; we don’t have to have ideas about men, positive or negative, because men are just people and people can be anything.
*Not necessarily a positive thing but society views it as such.
An Everyday, Unremarkable Person Can’t Be A Woman
Another thing I’ve noticed is that when we make an image which is supposed to be just about a person, she can’t be a woman, because people would automatically assume that the fact she is a woman would mean something.
Take for example these two comics:
From Vegan Sidekick
From SustainableMan.org (yes, sustainable man… it’s intended in the sense of “human”).
Both of these comics required an unremarkable, generic, everyday character. So they went for men. And in case you think I’m jumping to conclusions here, imagine what would happen if we switched genders of these people. The impactfulness would be partly taken away; we’d lose this sense that the character is unremarkable or generic or everyday. Her being a woman would mean something.
Actually, in later Vegan Sidekick comics there is “Human Man and Vegan Woman”. But I think the order in which this came is significant. If we had the woman first in a standalone comic and then the man as an addition in later comics, I think people would be wondering if this is some kind of statement about women or why women are used to represent non-vegans. Women are just not unremarkable enough for us to be able to ignore the gender and focus on the character, it seems.
The Bottom Line
Most of all, I think by making men default and normal, and women something other than normal, you’re subtly saying that men are more important than women. Overt sexism isn’t politically correct in today’s society, but there are still hidden sexist messages in our conventions and the patterns in which we think and speak. This affects us subtly, subconsciously in probably more ways than any of us can imagine.
Of course, most people who draw characters in the style I explained at the beginning of this article aren’t thinking about making men more important than women. XKCD is obviously trying to promote gender equality in the above comic, in fact. Falling into this pattern doesn’t make you a bad person; it just means that you’ve been brainwashed by society like everyone else.
And in Vegan Sidekick’s and Sustainable… sigh… Man‘s comics, the answer is a little unclear for me. Should you make your default, unremarkable character a woman, just to show that women can be default and unremarkable? I guess so, but you’ll probably have to deal with some people not getting your point.
So I’m not blaming anyone. But I think if you draw comics, you can try and change these conventions, now that you are aware of them. In the case of stick figures and such, draw them without gender signifiers and surprise your readers by showing that some of them are women through context. Or if you want to make the genders of your characters visible, then use gender signifiers both for men and women. Or, if you really want to screw with people’s heads, use them only for men.
Edit: I couldn’t resist adding a link to an article by Cracked where it explains how the peace sign is actually a symbol of a man standing in despair. Why is it so obvious that those three lines symbolise a man and not a woman? Because women don’t exist apparently.