FeminismVisual Art

Rubber Spines and Bent Space

With the unlikely and inexplicable popularity of my previous foray into sexist fantasy art, I've become the recipient of rather an enormous quantity of related material from helpful readers. I was initially hesitant to jump into the topic again as it is not entirely within my area of expertise. However, I think the subject is important enough that even my clumsily pointing at gross inequity and shouting could, at the very least, encourage conversation and therefore be of some value. That, though, could be done with a few links.

The thing that actually has me writing a full post again is bewilderment. I am regularly sent images with implied question, "Why did they draw it this way? It doesn't look human and isn't physically possible!" For this I can give my expert opinion, not as an artist or objectified woman, but as a heterosexual man who fully understands why these images look this way.

Come then and let's explore the nature of the rubber-spined women of fantasy art.

To get a handle on the subject, visit the Escher Girls Tumblr feed. While I'm a bit disappointed in the name of the feed, as M.C. Escher was known for his incredible detail in anatomical drawings, the message of the site is clear: fantasy art is full of girls with inhuman anatomy in impossible poses.

Author Jim C. Hines did his own take on the subject, and it's absolutely brilliant.

Jim C. Hines Looking Sexy

Moving on. The example below is clearly meant to show off as much skin as is socially allowable on the cover of a comic book. But the complaint I keep hearing is that it shouldn't be attractive because it's not a pose that one can actually hold and she has an impossible anatomy. I'd like to give my take on why those characters and poses are appealing. A bit later, I'll talk about why it's still bad.

The Vampress Luxura, Cover by Holly G.


1: Visual Literacy

We are, as a species, very visually literate. By this I mean that we can identify and interpret images at an astonishing rate. I will attempt to demonstrate this idea with an example from the more ordinary use of the word "literate." Read the following:

What does that say?

If you're a native English speaker and relatively competent reader, you would have read "I love Paris in the Springtime" and completely failed to notice the second instance of the word "the." Surprisingly that is a sign of you being a good reader, not a poor one. Reading quickly requires you to take some things as assumed. You seek out important details and subconsciously fill in the gaps. Reading every single word individually is what children do.

On a related note I bet you can read the following:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, olny taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pcleas. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by ilstef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

The faster you read it, the clearer it becomes. And so it is with pictures, we glance at them and absorb almost everything we need to know. That first impression is all we normally get. Most images that we see will never undergo any meaningful scrutiny. Even when they do, we're still very poor at picking out the details. It's why compare-the-images games are challenging.

thanks to www.activityvillage.co.uk

In examples like that, it takes effort to notice differences. There are at least a dozen changes between the images, but I can't spot them without a concerted effort. We don't find problems with an image unless we're either trained to, or we make a concerted effort.

So that, in short, is why we don't really care why ladies in fantasy art are in impossible poses: we don't notice. That, though, doesn't really speak to the question as to why those poses would be chosen at all. In theory, it would be easier to draw images based on real models. Why change things around?


2: Supernormal Stimulus

Why is it that artists are consistently and purposefully going to extra effort to put biologically unlikely characters in physically improbable positions? Well, because it's effective.

I have heard rather a lot of women and a few men say with conviction that these images are not attractive. I will hereby declare that they are incorrect, at least partly. They are wrong, because they are attractive to me. They are attractive to all of the young men that I know who have purchased / sought out these images simply for their titillating qualities. I will concede, though, that them being attractive doesn't make good rational sense. That is because they're not appealing to a rational sense.

The poses and figures of women in things like this:

Soulfire, Volume 2, Aspen MLT Inc.

are deliberately attempting to exaggerate the sexual characteristics of the character to elicit a reaction beyond what should be possible with a real human. This effect is called supornormal stimulus. In short, it plays on what we find attractive and then extrapolates beyond what is physically possible. Apparently, you can get geese really excited about volleyballs painted like their eggs because that must be the biggest, healthiest egg that was ever laid. The same thing works for sexual characteristics. We like large perky breasts, so make them defy gravity. We like large eyes, make them too big to fit inside a skull. A narrow waist and round hips are appealing, so remove some of that lower intestine and kidneys and shave off some of that pelvic bone. An arched back is a signal of sexual readiness, so a very arched back must indicate an unprecedented level of randiness. Moreover, given the fact that we will fixate on certain details and happily ignore gaps, they can show all of these features at the same time. If you twist a body in such a way as to show off the eyes, legs, waist, hips, breasts, shoulders and butt, you can get hit all of the arousal points simultaneously.

A human being can't accomplish these things, of course. Physics and biology put some limits on these attributes so that they never get beyond a certain point. Partly because of that, we're not trained to easily recognize when they've gone beyond the "healthy, youthful" look into the "structurally unsound" area. However, artists are not bound by the constraints of reality and can therefore abuse them for market appeal.


3: Unforeseen Consequences

What's the harm in producing these images? The artists are producing something that people are buying. It excites the audience and everyone knows that it's not real. So is there a problem? I argue that there are a couple of problems.

3.1 Desensitization

As with any stimulus, too much of it and you will numb to the effect somewhat. It's like walking by a Cinnabon: If you only do it on occasion, the smell is intoxicating. If you do it regularly, you find it satisfying. If you work there, you barely notice it. So too with imagery. The first time you see something erotic, it makes your brain leak out your ears. In order to keep that level of arousal up, the stimulus needs to vary or increase. Anything less will seem bland in comparisson.

So an occasional glimpse at this sort of thing wouldn't be bad. It would be like an occasional guilty pleasure, like a fine wine or chocolate. But if you're surrounded by it, then it becomes routine. The supernormal stimulus can become the baseline.

3.2 Personal Image

Humans can't be comic book characters. However, those characters are presented as an ideal. They're more human than human, better in every way. However, unlike a well-toned athlete or the hottest kid in school, they're an impossible goal. Some people will strive to look like those cartoons and that isn't healthy.

3.3 The Feedback Loop

We are attracted to what we're used to seeing. We generally like partners who are similar to what we were raised with. Media reacts to that demand and provides it in an exaggerated state to get us interested. When we begin to expect the exaggeration, they have to push beyond that to keep our attention.  This push-pull effect can drag the expected, default image of women in impossible directions over time. Troublesome, no?


4: What Can Be Done

Not much, I suspect. Sex will continue to sell and sexier will continue to sell better. But it is worthwhile noticing when your instinctive reactions are being manipulated. Advertisers are constantly trying to find the sexiest, shiniest, most alluring way to compel you to buy their car insurance, cereal, or mouthwash.  Put some effort into scrutinizing what is presented to you, and try to reward those artists and advertisers that aren't being quite so manipulative.


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. Yep, Ryan’s gonna kill the internet again, very good write up. I read “Trust Us We’re Experts!” in 2004 and was critical of advertising…for a little while, it’s a difficult habit to foster, especially when everything is telling you not to, I’m still critical, especially of the homeopathy/medicine ads, but not as critical as I should be. Stupid science, trying to make me think.

  2. In before the network overloads and crashes again!! Another great article.

    I laughed out loud at refusing to about your butt crack. šŸ˜€ What I like best here is the acknowledgment of knowing that these images ARE attractive and understanding that they’re not necessarily good for us.

  3. *Like*

    I think I’d add 3.11 “Education”. People get “educated” (change behavior) and then expect the world to comply to the new expectations. That’s one of the biggest problems IMO with pron, and I know several people who live disgraceful marriages out of their pornographic expectations.

  4. Disgraceful? That’s a pretty nasty word to pull out. You’re going to have to define your terms better or risk having everyone with a non-heteronormative, monogomous, vanilla lifestyle judging you right back.

  5. LOL – I really mean disgraceful. But I’m not judging everybody’s lifestyle, just the ones that I personally *know* to be manipulative, demeaning, cheating, full of indiscretion, refusing to break or let go, etc…

  6. Thanks for delving into how these sorts of depictions can still be read as attractive. I have to admit, that aspect of this sort of art has always been baffling for me. As an artist myself, I just can’t see past the broken spines and chest-TARDISes.

  7. I’m sort of wondering what constitutes “a concerted effort” to notice the differences in the spot the differences example. I personally only find those difficult when there’s a memory element, with to pictures side by side the differences seem quite apparent to me. Admittedly I have some visual training in the form of a few years as an art history major, but I’m sort of wondering if you could offer some idea of a baseline of visual literacy is like. Of course that might be more for its own post rather than just a reply in a comment thread, but I am honestly curious about it.

  8. Hi.. I'm the Artist/Creator for the VampFire Cover… I did not create or draw my characters for the reasons you thought- that title dealt with family issues, child abuse and avenging it, true love, coming of age and other personal issues ….I am a Gal and Love to draw Gals…sexy strong and having adventures….my current project School Bites has 'em in all sizes shapes style and garb…I don't "Draw to an Audience" or "Draw to Draw an Audience" I draw cause I have to …it's what I do…it's my passion..so whether it was my work on Sabrina the teen age Witch or anything I've drawn…I'm blessed to be in my Bliss and from the emails and people that I've met that have enjoyed my work…I feel I've shared that with them and made them a little heaven of imagination and fantasy..I can't be a Vampire but I love Anne Rice for letting me into her imagination…So Either enjoy what an Artist offers…or switch the channel and find something you will…( and check who drew what ; ) Namasta!

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