Should D&D be sexist?

If you want it to be, yes.

It should also be racist, violent, malevolent, and threatening if you want it to be and it fits the tone of your campaign and maturity of the people you game with. After all, if your villains are “Evil” but all they do is wear dark clothing and look different to the Good Guy Races, isn’t that just being Racist (not to mention Gothist, if there’s such a thing) by another name?

And if you don’t want it to be, no. It’s your game, when all is said and done.

The role-playing hobby is somewhat unique in that it provides a “safe” environment in which to explore issues such as racism, sexism, slavery and other such evils that exist in the real world. We can look at such things and let our Heroic PC personas make a stand for Good where in our daily lives all too often we look the other way.

Perhaps just a little of that Heroic might just rub off too. Who knows?

Ok, so should the players be sexist? The Gamer Code of Conduct (written or unwritten) should insist that players should be polite around the table at all times, and that includes not being a jerk about the opposite sex. That’s not the same as what goes on in the Theatre of The Mind. Your Barbarian might well be leering at the Barmaid (are we still allowed to call them Tavern Wenches now? Ah crap), because he’s from a culture where Male Dominance Rules (and he’s never seen a women who washes her hair before), but that doesn’t mean the player is “being sexist”. He’s playing his character, who is. That’s a part of what role-playing is all about – being someone who isn’t you, for just a while.

Oh course, playing a Barbarian who breaks that particular stereotype is even cooler, but that’s up to the player, and I don’t think that’s a decision which should be forced upon us by Political  Correctness. I don’t know about you, but my Medieval Fantasy settings aren’t democratically elected Utopias where everyone is born equal and free regardless of race, sex, colour or creed. And nor would I want them to be.

What of D&D art? Should that be sexist?

Hmmmm. Here’s where I turn the fire hose on myself. Good thing I brought a towel.

All too often, art is labelled “sexist” because it shows a large amount of bare female flesh. To me (a white male, and therefore possessing no opinion worth a damn), that’s not sexist  at all. That’s other people being prudish, and I had hoped such Victorian values died out with…. well, with the Victorians.

That being said, I do wish that fantasy art depicted women wearing clothing that at least partially resembled their male counterparts. Women in plate armour should not wear nothing but panties from the waist down!

That’s not sexist. It’s silly.

Of course, one person’s definition of sexist might not be the same as another’s, and that’s a part of the problem. Sexism means different things to different people, in different cultures, in different places. Reconciling all of that too often legitimizes the lowest common denominator, and that’s a shame. The person with the strictest views isn’t necessarily the one who is the most right.

Sexism is demeaning. It is depowering. It is ridiculing and enforcing the stereotype that a woman is weaker than a man, and belongs in the home with the children. That’s sexist, and wrong, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate D&D art ever showing a woman in a lesser position to anyone.

The age of the Damsel in Distress is dead, and long may it Rest in Peace.

Thanks for listening.

Thanks to for Joe Schindehette opening the thorny topic of Sexism in Fantasy. I look forward to hearing your views.


16 Comments on “Should D&D be sexist?”

  1. Nice post. Perfectly said! And your distinction between in-game, role-played “sexism” and how the game is packaged and marketed to the public is a great point to bring up. Now back to the question of D&D art: Like you, I tend to agree that the only real problem I see in WOC’s fantasy art packaging of D&D products is when an artist does something “silly” like having a woman warrior in plate armor with the crucial parts of her body left unexposed simply to show off her goods.

  2. In gameworld, I present every nasty element of the real world that I experience: sexism, racism, agism, etc. But strangely enough, most of my game worlds seem to be egalitarian when it comes to the equality of the genders. They are too busy being bigoted against the local floppy elf to worry whether their sister should or should not be joining the ranger squad of the local army.

    as for sexism in the depiction of games? Its there and its not going to go away. that does not make it right though. but i doubt many games have the sexy (yeah chainmail bikinis can be sexy) depiction actually present in their game… it would just be stupid as who would want such a low AC ? they don’t have a real place other than to titillate but if they are there, then there should be equal amount of skin for men and women.

    but i will say, there is nothing sexier to me than the stereotypical female ranger in snug fitting completely covered doeskin gear.

  3. One of the questions I struggle with is whether the game should push the ideal scenario. The ideal scenario is one of equal representation, where looks aren’t the biggest factor, where everyone can fit in, etc. That conflicts with one of the things we do when we play – we pick a PC that is better than us. Better includes more attractive. Better includes giving us what we wish we had – even vicariously through ridiculous armor. This conflict is intriguing. I want my daughter to look at the next D&D book and for both of us to like it. But, honestly, if I look at art that sticks in my mind from the AD&D Monster Manual… succubus is up at the top of the list. And, that desire is in fact perfect for the succubus – it is her schtick. But, that succubus drawing might really offend someone.

    So, I don’t know. I want art that progresses things. I want Hispanics. I want properly armored women. I want real poses and breast sizes. And I also want incredible muscles and beautiful legs and fantasy and sexy. I want a new young Asian female player to feel welcome as she pages through the book, that’s for sure. So, maybe it is something about how the book works on the whole, and the context. The artists need some vision – they should know that primarily we want fair representation. But, they should also feel they can push things one way or another. I suspect that if everyone is conscious of the issues and has a vision, the end result will speak to these various and conflicting factors well enough. We will move forward and be better for it.

    1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in several points. For one thing, the unfortunate truth is that you can’t please everyone… and yet in so many situations, we are expected to do just that.

      For another thing, when you are addressing the question about whether the fantasy world should be perfect, I think it also depends on the style of roleplay that each person has. Some people will look at RP as a chance to be someone perfect within a perfect world – to get away from reality for a while. Other people will look at RP from more of a writer’s standpoint, and will try to dig into the characterization of their PCs, even going so far as to testing how far their characters can bend before they break. I, personally, am of the latter – I love having an NPC or other PC who is an antagonist, because it puts my character in conflict and tension, which creats excitement. But that’s not what some people want.

    2. Agree entirely. Better diversity in artwork would be a wonderful thing. I would love to see dark-skinned Halflings, Asian dwarves and Hispanic elves. as well as a whole range of different styles for armour, clothing and weapons. Reflect the cultural diversity in the world with open arms, then expand in the to the realms of the fantastic.

      Should some of those clothes and armour be on the skimpy side? Sure, if it fits the culture and environment. If it’s not culturally appropriate though, stick some pants on the women! :)

  4. This is a topic that has been gradually bubbling to the surface among video games as well. That might seem off topic, but I think it’s connected. Let me explain.

    I play World of Warcraft, and recently there was an issue with a new NPC judging female PCs by their beauty and judging male PCs by how strong they look. Some women took offense to this differentiation, while other people said it gave the NPC personality. In the end, Blizzard changed the dialogue, but they were definitely caught between two differing opinions and could never have pleased everyone.

    What interests me is the question that I keep coming back to about whether those NPCs should be allowed to be sexist. I agree with you that just because a character (especially an NPC) is sexist, doesn’t mean their player (or GM – or even game designer) is. It’s a challenge and a point around which characters are supposed to RP. However, many people oppose such IC sexism, especially when it is an NPC, because they see it as being “officially sanctumed” by the gaming company. Even those who don’t belief that could make the argument that there are young, impressionable players who may not recognize the distinction between what an NPC says or does and what is right or ethical.

    I suppose on one hand, perhaps that is why the dilemma is different in a video game vs a D&D game – when one is playing D&D, you have more control over the maturity of your players. On the other hand, shouldn’t you also be able to say that it is the parents – not the video game companies – who are responsible for the education of their children?

    I don’t know, but I do think it’s an interesting conversation, and one that I’ve not had the courage to mention to my fellow women gamers. It is certainly the case that sexism in video games is becoming a big issue and, right or wrong, many women (and men) are looking to the video game industries to lead the way and to be a good example for all of their players.

    1. There’s certainly an overlap between perceptions of computer games and pencil-and-paper role-playing games, and that’s something which is bound to increase as the differentiation between the two is becoming increasingly blurred. Your comment is definitely on-topic :)

      As you say, scripted computer games to have a limitation in that their responses are canned and have no way of knowing how the player will respond to a line which some may see as offensive. Role-playing games are different in that the GM isn’t limited in the same way. That’s something which makes RPGs unique and special in the world of entertainment. It’s their Unique Selling Point, and it’s not pointed out anywhere near often enough.

      When it comes to published RPG adventure games where they may be (to a much lesser extent) scripted dialog, perhaps they should contain warnings as to the expected maturity of the players. Oh, I dunno.

      No easy answer to this one, but a great discussion topic :)

  5. I started to add this to my reply to Alphastream, but it kind of went on a tangent. Nevertheless, it is a point I think worth being heard, so here it is:

    One thing I’ve learned from interacting with a variety of other female gamers is that different things will offend different people, but no one has the right to tell someone else that they have no reason to be offended. There are many times when something that seems perfectly normal to me has offended other women and I might not understand the sensitivity that they have towards the topic – but if I dig deep enough, I will probably find that it has something to do with their own RL experiences. The more a woman has experienced extreme sexism in her real life, the more offended she’ll be by it in a fantasy situation.

    So, should you push the envelope? Try to nudge people outside their comfort zone? Or should you use your creativity to lead the way to a perfect world? I guess the answer can vary by circumstance, but the point that seems to hit home with me is that if, by my own logic above, women are more likely to be offended by sexism if they have experienced a great deal of sexism in RL, then the very fact that sexism in fantasy *does* still offend women needs to be a constant reminder to us that sexism is still a very big reality in our culture (whether we see it or not) and cannot be disregarded. When sexism in fantasy ceases to be offensive to women, then we’ll know that we’ve reached a milestone in how we treat women in the real world. If anything, that’s the message that I have to take away from the whole thing.

    1. “When sexism in fantasy ceases to be offensive to women, then we’ll know that we’ve reached a milestone in how we treat women in the real world.”

      This. 100% this.

    2. I started to copy the very same sentence that Greywulf re-quoted. Fantastic. Yeah, that’s really it.

      One other question: if the art for D&D Next offended very few women or people of different ethnicity, would it be less cool? I think a while back it would have been the case. But I see a lot of great fantasy art these days that seems to accomplish all goals of equality/fairness and still being awesome. I think it should be possible, with only few exceptions.

      1. It’s great they are showing an awareness of the issue regarding sexism in fantasy art, and I hope that ends up being reflected in the finished products. Give me images of ethnically diverse strong, sexy, confident women (and men!), and give them sensible practical armour to wear.

        Hopefully that’s not too much to ask.

        1. So says the person that dresses up V5 in Michael 5 fantasy outfits that bares the chest, and therefore their chest.

          However, I think it’s perfectly wonderful if a woman is complimented for her beauty, especially while they are adventuring. Adventuring is a dirty business — clothes get dirty, hair gets dirty, everyone smells like skunks. I think a woman being complimented for the way God made her is a wonderful thing after following the men out of the house and off the pedestal.

          Of course, back when men were men and women were women; the women did some of the dirty work foraging for food while the men went out and did the hunting.

          1. I dunno, I guess I have a slightly different perspective because, well, in WoW, we have a running joke that on female PCs, the less skin a piece of armor covers, the more AC it has. You’ll notice that the cloth armor is usually robes that covers head to toe, while the warriors wear plate bikinis. And the leather and mail armor fill the spectrum in between.

            So for me it’s not just the art issue, and it’s certainly not a question of whether I’d like my hair to remain nicely styled after hours of combat (yes please!). It really just does come down to the silliness of being a warrior tank facing up against a 3-story-tall fire breathing dragon and taking damage that would 1-shot just about anyone else in the raid without even blinking, all while wearing… a plate bikini.

  6. I think you’re correct in that it boils down to the maturity of your players and their comfort level with the subject matter. My players are older and we’ve played together for years, so I have a good idea where they fall on both parts.

    Now for something I’d run at something like a con, where I don’t know the players, I’d tend to play it safe with the subject matter.

    To be fair my campaigns still have damsels in distress. And dudes in distress. They’re plot device NPCs. If a farmer’s daughter gets kidnapped and needs the PCs to rescue her, I don’t think that’s sexist, it’s part of the genre.

  7. D&D is already pretty racist considering that only humans can be good as well as evil. All the other races always have to split into good and evil subraces that are usually color-coded for the adventuring hero’s convenience…

    And models in chainmail bikinis are ridiculuous – but so male hulks with hands twice as big as their heads and at least 1 ton of armor (with the ginormous shoulder pads blocking his vision). Even fantasy needs a little bit of common sense.

  8. By in large I think sexism should be minimized in most games (as should racism or any intolerance). But I agree RPGs can be great media to explore these topics and this can work as long as (a) no one is being a dick, (b) the players are the tolerant ones and the sexist traits are used to build animosity with adversaries, and (c) all involved feel comfortable to say when a line has been crossed.

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