The Artistic Problem of Male as Norm

When I remember I try to make sure to make about half of the characters I paint female and put them in similar situations and positions that I would with male characters. Women are underrepresented in movies and games and especially in powerful positions so in my own small way I’d like to contribute to changing this norm. It’s probably safe to say that I forget it a lot however, and I believe that I too have a majority of male characters in my works.

Men are the norm, and because of this you often draw characters as male without thinking.

This also leads to another problem. If I draw a character in armor or other clothing that doesn’t make the gender of the person apparent, myself and I believe most others will automatically assume that the character is a man. A character in armor will most of the time just subconsciously “feel” like a man rather than a woman, just because that’s how we’re taught to see the world, while in reality you should simply not be able to tell if it’s one or the other. The end goal is of course that gender shouldn’t be that important and that it wouldn’t matter what gender the viewer perceived my character to have, but since I want to explicitly show that women can be strong and powerful characters in the same way as male characters it’s still something that I think about.


In this image, would you assume that the character is male or female?

So in a situation like that, if I’m gonna try to affect the status quo of male as norm, I will have to go out of my way to expressly tell the viewer that the character is female but as you might see, this leads me to another stereotypical pitfall. If I want the character to appear female I will have to resort to stereotypes about women which is the opposite of my intention. To make sure that the viewer perceives my character as a woman I can work with colors or clothing that are associated with femininity or give the character long hair and prominent breasts, but the message I want to send is that female characters shouldn’t be confined to these attributes or roles.

This technique, of using female signifiers to make sure that the viewer perceives the character as a woman is often used excessively in media. In order to make sure that the character looks female and also is pretty (since women always has to be) the female character receives less space for having a deep or powerful personality. The male character need less of their attributes to focus on messaging their gender (because male is norm) and therefore often have more space for other interesting details that tell the viewer things about their person.

Even with faces, in reality there isn’t necessarily much difference between a male and female face, at least not all the time. A lot of it is stereotypes that we project on people and the fact that women are expected to wear make up. Some women have quite “masculine” facial shapes and some men have “feminine” facial shapes. Yet if I want a character to appear female I’m forced to make her face look feminine and thus enforce the notion that female faces always are feminine.

This makes the task very complicated. The way I do it now probably just means using enough of the gendered signifiers that the character probably seem to be female but not going overboard and in that way try to expand the roles that female characters can have. This can mean risking that some people will perceive the character as male anyway but I still believe it may be better than making all female characters only have a few different roles and shapes.

Just some thoughts I have while working. Thanks a lot if you read the full post and if you have any thoughts on the topic or maybe think I’m totally wrong just leave a comment. I’m happy to continue discussing the topic!

While googling I found a really good article on the topic of gender and gendered signifiers in games from someone that has taken far more time and effort than me to explain it.