by Arnie Fenner

Awhile back Dan dos Santos got a bit of a roasting in a BBC article, not by name, but not exactly anonymously, either. There was much talk and debate among artists after the piece appeared. My first reaction was, “What?” I didn’t see Dan’s cover for Alien Diplomacy (done in collaboration with David Palumbo for DAW Books) as being offensive, but actually as rather funny. How else should I take a heroine in a little black dress kicking serious robot ass? If she had been wearing a kevlar suit and combat boots it may not have been trotted out as an example of sexist cover art by fantasy writer Jim Hines’ silly blog photo and subsequent BBC essay…but would it have as effectively portrayed the character and conveyed the flavor of the book’s content? Questions the article does not ask.

Oh sure, sexism in the arts, genre or not, is as fair a subject for debate as any, even if you’ll never be able to have a consensus when everything boils down to a matter of taste. And, sure, it’s true that throughout the history of the genre there are more than enough puerile depictions of women to keep Mr. Hines posing in his boxers until doomsday.

Similar concerns have been expressed about comics characters in the much harder-hitting—and infinitely funnier—Hawkeye Initiative website.

Putting aside the fact that artists always have and always will draw, sculpt, and paint people in all sorts of poses in all manner or dress and undress, either for commercial or gallery work, “genre covers” is a subject recently on people’s minds and a news story about it is just as valid as any other.

But unless I’m missing something, here’s the thing that bugged me about the BBC article and Hines’ cosplay: the artists get the “blame” for what appears on the books’ covers. Not the writers whose stories and descriptions lend themselves to the interpretations being decried; not the publishers, not the editors, not the art directors, not the sales reps, not the retailers, and not the consumers. All of whom dictate what the commercial artist creates and delivers. If they don’t approve, if the artist doesn’t follow direction and give them what they’re paying for, the art is never seen. If the customers don’t buy the books, other solutions are sought. And covers do sell books, much more so than the author’s name (unless your name is Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer): if you think otherwise…think again. A creative director I used to work for had a saying: “The art makes you pick it up, the words make you put it down.” Writers routinely went ballistic when he’d say it, but it was (and is) most certainly true. Cover art’s job is to attract a potential reader’s attention: after that it’s up to the story that the writer is telling to get the sale.

I guess that’s what tends to chap my ass about the BBC article and Hines’ assertions: the knee-jerk reaction to blame the messenger, i.e. the artist, for the message being crafted and sent by others. There seems to be a certain hypocrisy at work, a refusal to acknowledge that when you point a finger, there are four pointing back at yourself. (Make that THREE fingers, unless as John Picacio mentioned, your thumb is magic and can point the other way or you’re sporting an extra digit.) If Mr. Hines wants to talk about the way women have been portrayed throughout genre fiction (or examine some of the wonky views on gender, sexuality, social issues, and politics that writers have posited) that would at least provide a certain balance—but working writers tend to not criticize fellow writers if they can avoid it. They never know when they’re going to come face-to-face with an irate target at a con or SFWA banquet.

Which, again, doesn’t mean that the question of sexist genre art isn’t worth talking about. So let’s ask the questions:

1] Does contemporary fantasy & sf art routinely objectify women?

2] When does “sexy” become “sexist”? When is showing bare flesh “artistic” or “offensive”?

3] Where is the line between “harmless” and “harmful,” between “innocent” and “exploitation”? And who gets to decide where and when that line is drawn?

4] And finally…when did it become okay for reporters to get away with being sloppy with their “facts”? I ask the last question because the BBC article asserts, “The stories of Conan the Barbarian are largely credited with transforming fantasy art in the 1960s. These covers showcased muscled men and servile women, a style that artists replicated in subsequent decades.”

Uhhh. Here are all the Conan book covers from the 1960s (the Buccaneer cover was from the early 1970s). Most by Frank Frazetta, three by John Duillo. Lots of bare-assed, sweaty men, but other than Frank’s Conan the Adventurer painting…where are all the “servile” women?

Anyway…objectifying women. Sexist, exploitative covers. Discuss.