Guest post: they define female prettiness as an absence of features


Originally a comment by zibble on First rule: make them insipid.

I think the problem isn’t even that they have to keep the characters pretty.  The problem is that they define female prettiness as an absence of features.

It’s like the bad-anime face.

The total lack of identifiable human features forces you to project idealized features onto their void of a face.  There are enough face-like qualities for the mind to recognize that a face is supposed to go there – but with no specific information, your brain picks all the features it likes the best.  Whereas if they tried to make a female character actually modeled off of a real female face, like Angelina Jolie, they have to deal with the fact that not everyone finds that specific face attractive.

I think that’s the core problem with objectification.  It’s not just that women are sexualized – when you watch cartoon films like Hercules or anything by Don Bluth, the men are designed to be sexualized and pretty too.  It’s just done in a radically disparate way, in which women are sexualized not according to their individual characteristics, but by having their individuality covered up.  It’s essentially the same mentality as a burqa – an attempt to define women as only being one particular set of things through a campaign to hide their actual attributes.

Comments

  1. brucegee1962 says

    Is it just me, or are the male leads in Japanese animation coming to have the same kind of blandness that female leads have always had in Western animation?

  2. M.C. Simon Milligan says

    You guys need to read Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”. Especially the chapters on what he calls the ‘picture plane’. While there is some merit in the objectification argument there’s also the comics/animation method of “iconification”. A simple, relatively featureless (more icon-like rather than realistic) face or design isn’t there just to make projecting idealized features simpler but also to make it easier for the viewer to project themselves into the character. Often in comics and animation the antagonists of a piece will be drawn more realistically, or at least more detailed and/or with more distinguishing features, while the protagonists are far more simplified in design. (The same can be said for personalities as well, especially in Anime.)

    It’s not so much that many people don’t like Angelina Jolie’s looks (although that is a bit of the issue) as the fact that such distinguishing features rule out the vast majority of young women and girls being able to identify with a character with such looks. A hint of lips could be anyone’s lips. Angelina’s lips mean only Mick Jagger and Sandy Bernhardt are going to be saying to themselves “that could be me!”

    It does make for some weak designs and characters. Without resort to the wikinets I can’t tell you a thing about the protagonists of, say, “101 Dalmations”, but I can pull Cruella DeVille out of a lineup in a flat second.

  3. says

    If this is a little too off-topic feel free to ask me to to butt out. But I’m not sure sure it is off-topic really because it actually has to do with the issue in a different way.

    I have never liked the way the word “objectify” is used in this context. It’s fundamentally misleading about what brains do with objects. We objectify everything, as in we make objects of everything and everything has features that are themselves objects. I am honestly curious about what I would see in an MRI scans of people who were and were not utter misogynists. Those people have something wired up by nurture in there either preventing them from seeing women as morally the same as them.

    What matters is how the objects are related by what passes for social and ethical prosesses. At what point is that object a person considered as equal to oneself? I know that this term has history but, it is so inconsistent with what neurobiology says about objects that I think it is misleading and it’s like a needle in my mind every time I see it. That’s my problem though.

  4. left0ver1under says

    The problem is that they define female prettiness as an absence of features.

    It’s like the bad-anime face.

    I think that’s the core problem with objectification.

    See also: artist Patrick Nagel.

  5. Bjarte Foshaug says

    This might be a good place to throw in a plug for the Hawkeye Initiative a site that parodies the ridiculously sexualized and objectified poses of female characters in superhero cartoons by drawing the male superhero Hawkeye in the same positions. If you really want to see something hilarious, check it out (or just do a Google picture search of “hawkeye initiative”).

  6. Acolyte of Sagan says

    For the perfect example of how Disney deals with characterisation, see the Family Guy episode in which Stewie and Brian visit alternative universes, one of which sees the family ‘Disneyfied’.

  7. freja says

    @6, Brony

    I have never liked the way the word “objectify” is used in this context. It’s fundamentally misleading about what brains do with objects. We objectify everything, as in we make objects of everything and everything has features that are themselves objects.

    Dehumanisation is probably a bit more accurate, but it also sounds more dramatic and damaging, so I’m not sure it’s better at getting the point across. The point, btw, isn’t that we don’t see people as objects, it’s that sometimes, this is the only thing we see, and we don’t fully register that they’re people. Here’s a paper on it, though it’s a little academic.

    I am honestly curious about what I would see in an MRI scans of people who were and were not utter misogynists. Those people have something wired up by nurture in there either preventing them from seeing women as morally the same as them.

    That kind of study has actually been done, although it was on a very small scale. Relevant quotes:

    New research shows that, in men, the brain areas associated with handling tools and the intention to perform actions light up when viewing images of women in bikinis.

    The participants, 21 heterosexual male undergraduates at Princeton, took questionnaires to determine whether they harbor “benevolent” sexism, which includes the belief that a woman’s place is in the home, or hostile sexism, a more adversarial viewpoint which includes the belief that women attempt to dominate men.

    In the men who scored highest on hostile sexism, the part of the brain associated with analyzing another person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions was inactive while viewing scantily clad women

    A supplementary study on both male and female undergraduates found that men tend to associate bikini-clad women with first-person action verbs such as I “push,” “handle” and “grab” instead of the third-person forms such as she “pushes,” “handles” and “grabs.” They associated fully clothed women, on the other hand, with the third-person forms, indicating these women were perceived as in control of their own actions. The females who took the test did not show this effect

    So basically, men literally objectify scantily clad women (think of them more as tools to be used) more than fully clothed women, but only men who’re already misogynists dehumanise the objectified women. Although this article (in addition to being awful on many other levels, such as the seemingly unconscious use of “men” vs “females” in the last quote) and many others focus a lot on how objectification of scantily clad women is an unchangeable part of male nature, I think the difference between the hostile sexists and others is the relevant part. Bikinis don’t dehumanise women, misogynists dehumanise women.

  8. MyaR says

    Brony — think about “object” in contrast to “subject”, which is the point of “objectification” as jargon. If women are objectified, they are no longer the subject, they are the object, to be acted upon, not to act themselves. So while all people are physical objects, not all people are agents. (And for agent, don’t think “secret”, think grammatical, that is, the entity who causes stuff to happen.)

    In other words, “objectification” of women means women can cause boners, and that’s about it.

  9. freemage says

    I wonder if this feeds into why I frequently find Disney villains more intriguing, especially the women. Freed from the ‘pretty = blank’ requirements, the animators have more leeway to bring personality to the character. They can scowl when angry, recoil in fear, and so on. Even those deliberately made grotesque (Ursula, Cruella) usually come out of the studio with more interesting mannerisms than their bland counterparts. Hell, look at ‘transformed Ursula’, from the Little Mermaid. You see that snarky, disdainful brow? The cool eyes? The dismissive line of her mouth? Yeah, that’s a character using almost the same model as Ariel’s–she’s just given more leeway to be an actual person.

    OTOH, I’m gonna object, slightly, to the comparison to bad anime, simply because the biggest influence on early anime was Disney. So this is where anime gets it, rather than the other way ’round.

  10. says

    @freja 13
    Those are good sources! Thanks! I’m totally fine with that sort of literature. I’m actually trying to teach neurobiology to some friends on my Brony forum for fun. We have actually had similar discussions to the “bad-anime face” with respect to the emotional impact of the MLP characters on us as fans.

    …such as the seemingly unconscious use of “men” vs “females” in the last quote) and many others focus a lot on how objectification of scantily clad women is an unchangeable part of male nature, I think the difference between the hostile sexists and others is the relevant part. Bikinis don’t dehumanise women, misogynists dehumanise women.

    That is very telling. I have seen nothing in any structural or psychological studies that indicates that nurture is not an acceptable competing hypothesis. Ignoring it is a choice among researchers. Fortunately the structural work can be appreciated independent of author opinions.

    @MyaR
    That helps actually. I’m surprised that I did not consider that angle because I help moderate a Brony fan site and have used similar arguments in reference to discussing sexual topics even though we are safe for work. I try to tell them that talking about something sexual is objective when the thing under conversation (a blow job as a recent example) is all by itself, and subjective when it is connected to another person. The subjective things are what end up titillating or otherwise more like narration that can be more likely to cause offense (though some folks still find offense at the mere mention of some textual objects).

  11. says

    @freja
    Maybe I’m just a bit dense but where are the figures of the structural data in the Fiske paper? It does not seem to have a supplement.

  12. CerberusCheerleader says

    What is an image of the anime Lucky Star doing in a post about objectification and sexualization? Aren’t you mistaken a drawing style for something that it isn’t? Couldn’t it be that they draw it like that because it is easier to draw? Like, adding features is more difficult than not adding them? And it’s not just the girls, guys are drawn in a similar fashion. One notable feature about a lot of mangas is that it’s hard to tell the guys apart from the girls because they all look like girls. And really, what is implied here? Lucky Star is all about the peculiar personalities of the girls. There is no “covering up” of individuality going on here.

  13. says

    @ CerberusCheerleader 20
    I believe you have misread the post.

    What is an image of the anime Lucky Star doing in a post about objectification and sexualization?

    This is covered when Zibble points out

    The total lack of identifiable human features forces you to project idealized features onto their void of a face. There are enough face-like qualities for the mind to recognize that a face is supposed to go there – but with no specific information, your brain picks all the features it likes the best. Whereas if they tried to make a female character actually modeled off of a real female face, like Angelina Jolie, they have to deal with the fact that not everyone finds that specific face attractive.

    This is pretty consistent with how our perception works. We unconsciously fill in things all the time. You need to respond to this.

    Aren’t you mistaken a drawing style for something that it isn’t? Couldn’t it be that they draw it like that because it is easier to draw? Like, adding features is more difficult than not adding them? And it’s not just the girls, guys are drawn in a similar fashion.

    The general phenomena is independent of it’s use with respect to male vs. female characters. Note that zibble said,

    It’s like the bad-anime face.

    Thus connecting it to something else. I will let you look for that bit.

    And really, what is implied here? Lucky Star is all about the peculiar personalities of the girls. There is no “covering up” of individuality going on here.

    This is not relevant to the topic of how characters are drawn. Note that there was no criticism of the character personalities, you are writing that into Zibble’s comment.

  14. zibble says

    *gasp!* I’ve been featured! :D I’m going to go print out this page and frame it on the wall next to my Nobel peace prize.

    @16 Freemage “Even those deliberately made grotesque (Ursula, Cruella) usually come out of the studio with more interesting mannerisms than their bland counterparts.”

    It’s interesting you bring that up, because there’s a very specific reason those characters are more interesting:

    They’re based on real people.

    Ursula is a caricature of Divine (of the John Waters movies). Cruella is based on Tallulah Bankhead.

    Artists don’t create things out of nothing. All art is based on something else – derivative shit just tends to steal from things that are popular, but great art takes from the real world. Ursula has a depth to her because she’s copying the real depth of a real person. The Disney princesses don’t, because they’re just drawing from the creator’s idea of an “ideal woman” – a person created from scratch, defined solely by lacking the qualities that society considers a flaw in women.

    “OTOH, I’m gonna object, slightly, to the comparison to bad anime, simply because the biggest influence on early anime was Disney. So this is where anime gets it, rather than the other way ’round.”

    That’s not wholly true. The anime look was really started by Osamu Tezuka, who, although he watched a lot of Disney, was much more influenced by Fleischer cartoons. The anime face is basically a cuter version of Betty Boop.

    By the 80s, Disney was very aware of Japanese animation, and they were definitely influenced by it. In fact, there’s a fair amount of evidence that The Lion King was originally a retelling of Jungle Emperor Leo (Kimba). The hallmarks of anime become obvious through the 90s – eg, Aladdin’s face. Big eyes, smooth face, features that aren’t locked in to his anatomy.

    I wanna make clear though, I wasn’t saying that Disney’s sexism is BECAUSE of anime. In both cases, I think it comes foremost society’s values – how the artist sees women, what the artist even knows about women. Bad anime is illustrative simply because Japanese art has a long history of symbolism and simple imagery, and they were able to create and refine these individuality-squelching visual symbols while American artists were begrudgingly basing their women off already idealized actresses, instead of simply relying on the mass database of visual tropes we have now.

    In both cases the problem is that the artists are NOT going out into the real world before they try to draw it. In both cases the artists are just basing their drawings off other drawings, and they just drift further and further away from anything resembling real human beings in a real world.

  15. zibble says

    @3 bruce “Is it just me, or are the male leads in Japanese animation coming to have the same kind of blandness that female leads have always had in Western animation?”
    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Japan is such a conformist culture, and in their stories, the only people that stand out in the crowd are the villains and sometimes the comic relief.

    @4 M.C. Simon Milligan
    It’s not that Scott’s wrong, it’s just more complicated than that.

    By reducing a character’s specific attributes, you make them more mass-marketable, but they lose significant depth. It’s not an objective good, it’s a trade-off between pleasing everyone and making something exceptional. It’s also not an either-or proposition, there are varying levels of generality and specificity.

    All characters need some kind of specific attribute to even be distinguishable. The issue is whether those attributes are something significant, like a particular nose or cheek formation or body size, or something superficial, like hair and eye color. It’s about what informs the design you see, no matter how abstracted.

    Also, thanks Brony for responding to this already, but I wanna add some points:

    @20 CerberusCheerleader “What is an image of the anime Lucky Star doing in a post about objectification and sexualization? Aren’t you mistaken a drawing style for something that it isn’t? Couldn’t it be that they draw it like that because it is easier to draw? Like, adding features is more difficult than not adding them?”
    -Are you saying that moe isn’t about objectification and sexualization?
    -I’m certainly not discounting the artist’s incompetence in all this, but actually:

    -Giving a character features makes them EASIER to draw. That’s what the Disney artist in the original thread was complaining about – it’s because the girls are so bland that they’re a pain in the ass to animate.

    Here’s an extreme example; remember Ren & Stimpy? They’re drawn completely differently from one scene to the next, but you can always tell it’s them, because they have strong designs. Because Ren and Stimpy both have so many specific features, you can distort them all over the place. Whereas the Lucky Star cast are barely distinguishable as it is – swap their hairstyles, or give them an unusual facial expression and they’re unrecognizable.

  16. says

    @Zibble 23
    I have to admit that “objectification and sexualization” with respect to moe seems a little off. Would not and/or sexualization be more appropriate? Maybe it’s the fandom that I am in (which yes has lots of sexualization) but from what I understand moe is centered around a collection of personality characteristics. I have seen a lot of people obsess over moe without it going sexual, though maybe it is sexual most of the time. I’m not sure about numbers but have seen anecdotes.

  17. zibble says

    Moe doesn’t refer to a genre, it literally just means obsession with cute characters. Even when it isn’t pornographic (and when I look at the LS characters, they look like they’re tailor made to be printed on otaku beds) it’s fundamentally sexual.

  18. shari says

    I did a cursory investigation of animation (ala Disney) back in 1995. Animators had to be able to draw from life stunningly well (and then, rumor had it……sell off their souls and work in an artists sweatshop……) The ability to translate ‘a look’ into animation was a job requirement. my perspective on the disney character designs for women is this:

    the initial concept art/ art direction for each film informs the character design – Up, for instance, had some really distorted, cool, character looks, that made each character immediately recognizable – movement/shapes/lines – the characters were super consistent within themselves. When I think of the art direction/character look for Tangled, Rapunzel has a very fluid and almost ‘rubbery’ range of expressions. Merida is a fave in our house for being awkward and girlish. Does the animation suffer because of blandness?

    In one of our design classes, we had to translate a photo into a “pictograph” – a black-background sillhouette of the animal we chose – we had to smooth irregularities into precise arcs, curves, and straightlines, without loosing the ‘essence’ of the picture. three horned chameleon was a struggle for me. I think the process of animation has defaulted (possibly via modelling technology) into smoother, blander faces. Think about programming the facial muscles – as the artist tweaks the image, there are some ‘canned’ responses the programs throw out, that you then have to edit further to add expression/character specific changes….and that takes us to marketing.

    The ‘doe-eyed’ disney character is practically a trademark – brand-recognition gold. Disney ‘urchin’ characters have one or two buck teeth, and exaggerated but more ‘naked’ eyes. People relate empathetically to the ‘doe-eyed’ characters, there is some serious psychology that goes into character eye-design alone! Pretty is the brand, bland is the way to get there and stay there. I’d not pin it all on talentless artists, though…..

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