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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Cheesecake Fantasy and Other Good Causes

October 24th, 2012 at 12:10

Fantasy, as a genre, is often embarrassing. I like to tell myself that it’s not as bad as it used to be, in the days when Gor novels were sold unironically, and almost every book cover had some kind of gross, bizarre representation of the “female” form in chainmail/fur bikinis, regardless of the contents of the book itself. (Worse of course was when the books did reflect the art, but for every awful sexist fantasy novel you could almost guarantee the cover would be twice as bad)

And you know, fantasy art hasn’t left behind that old fashioned, male-gazey tradition any more than comics has, though I think you can certainly argue that fantasy art has generally improved in this area across the board, while comics have steadily got worse over the last several decades.

Still, I know plenty of women readers who wouldn’t touch “fantasy” with a bargepole, though they might have enjoyed books like Harry Potter, Twilight and the Hunger Games very much. Why is the genre tag still too blatant and embarrassing for these readers to contemplate? I suspect it’s very much because of things like this Charity Pin Up Calendar, and the art style it represents: Women as Sex Objects.

Yep, there’s nothing like a big old banner which says, hey you, female reader of fantasy? The genre actually is not for you. Look at all this male gaze, marking its territory.

I have no objection to sexy/sexual art, and I can even appreciate the retro value of cheesecake calendars. As a relic of the past. But seriously, now? Twelve very successful and iconic authors of our genre (or their estates) have okayed a sexist dinosaur of a project, in the name of charity. Well, that’s all right then, right? IF IT’S FOR CHARITY.

Personally it makes me wish I was one of those authors who provides a whacking great disclaimer that no, I don’t write fantasy, I write real books. Because fantasy, SOMETIMES YOU EMBARRASS ME.

The awful thing is, it could have been cute and funny. It could have been great. They’ve almost got the hang of putting together a project that doesn’t make me cringe and remember everything bad and embarrassing about my genre’s long history of degrading women. Female authors have been included, after all. And some of the art is quite good. I quite like the idea of a gender-switched Pratchett Wizard, for example, though I bet that Paul Kidby could have done it a) better and b) with greater political awareness of what he was doing. But…

Where are the male bodies, put on display? That’s what would have made this a truly contemporary, fun experience. Pose a few iconic male bodies just as provocatively, and devote an equal number of months to their images as to women. Not in a separate calendar, but alternated with the female images. Is there any reason why they couldn’t have done that, no matter how many people it might have made a little uncomfortable?

After all, it would have been for charity.

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28 Responses to “Cheesecake Fantasy and Other Good Causes”

  1. Katharine Says:

    And that’s why I didn’t buy the calendar. I simply wouldn’t want to display this anywhere, even if I adore the writers and want to support the charity. The artwork simply doesn’t appeal to me, which is sad.

  2. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    I really don’t know how they got to this stage without someone saying – hang on a second…

    That and on the pictures I can see I am not immediately seeing the likeness. For a project like this I think you are better hamming it up and I don’t think Moyes work does it enough (ie the pictures are too good).

    I’d shell out money for Jim Hines in a Chainmail bikini striking an impossible pose… a) its funny and b) it’s making a point.

  3. Glenda Larke Says:

    As a woman writer who had her female swordswoman drawn in leather that hardly covered her butt when she was a tough street fighter who’d led a tough life, who dressed appropriately for her tough job, I don’t appreciate a calendar like this at all.

    Glenda

  4. Kirstie Says:

    I have no desire for that calendar, whereas if the images were the actual/re-imagined cover art for some of those authors (the ones I’m familiar with at least) I might have. Such a shame.
    I concur with ‘Sean the Blogonaut’ above. Were there NO women involved with the process who could have stood up and said “Hey, we’re going to alienate a percentage of likely purchasers here.”. Or as you suggested, a calendar alternating male pin-ups with the female (though I can see that deterring some men unfortunately).

  5. Mary Says:

    I’m strangely fond of the calendar.

    Your post does make the assumption that only men can look at women’s bodies with anything like admiration.

  6. Daniel Abraham Says:

    I’m a little uncomfortable commenting on this, but I’m going to make the effort all the same. I find the questions of sex, ethics, and objectification to be something of a minefield, and I don’t mean to cause offense.

    Do I understand correctly that you feel the sexual objectification of women is more acceptable when it is accompanied by the sexual objectification of men? Because that kind of sounds like sexual objectification is cool, as long as it’s even-handed, and that’s an argument that surprises me.

  7. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    So were they supposed to by renderings of the authors themselves or just characters from their books?

    For myself I am somewhat unsure of what they are really trying to say with the calendar and if they are not really trying to say anything, but just having some fun then well I think context is important ie the history of fantasy art etc.

  8. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    @Daniel,

    I think perhaps having men included or male figures might have underlined a deeper understanding, it might have been a nudge and a wink suggesting that the creators were playing around with the concept of a pinup as a retro concept.

    You see for me at the moment the calendar seems to be firmly directed at the male viewer. Having men sexually objectified I think may indicate some awareness on the part of the creators, that they are aware of the trend and I think that for me is what is lacking here a clear signal that they are aware.

  9. Daniel Abraham Says:

    Sean: Cool. So I’m hearing you say that the issue is less what’s on the page, but the intentions behind it. Sexual objectification of folks (men or women) can be fun, playful, and ethical so long as the people doing it understand what they’re doing and do it somehow differently as a result? Am I understanding what you meant?

  10. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    And finally before the migraine really kicks in…

    I don’t see sexual objectification in and of itself a problem, I think we all participate in it, I think it’s part of being human. The problem occurs I think when that is the only avenue (or the major avenue) for the presentation of women in fantasy literature and art. A trend that this calendar seems to perpetuate.

  11. Daniel Abraham Says:

    Thanks for the clarification, and sympathies on the migraine.

  12. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    @Daniel

    Managed to answer your question in my next comment unintentionally. :)

    Like you I am wary of putting forth too strong a comment precisely because I fond it a minefield. But I will stop posting now to give others a chance and I really should lie down, thinking is making my brain hurt.

    The migraine comment wasn’t snark either I think this is a good healthy discussion- very crunchy.

  13. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    LOl going now :)

  14. Dragonfallen 5 Says:

    I agree with every point in this essay by someone who used to make (and posed for) charity pin-up calendars. She stopped, and encourages other people to stop too. Well, I don’t agree with the point about no one using them any more. I still use a paper calendar, so I make my own each year using photographs of landscapes.

    @Daniel Abraham: it doesn’t fully address your question, but the second numbered point in the essay I linked is that “Adding a calendar of men did not balance out the calendar of women”.

    I’m not even seeing an attempt to be “ironically post-sexist” here. Not that I endorse that, either. All too often, it amounts to “I’ll ridicule the objectification of women … by ridiculing some objectified women“. I’ve seen a lot of writing this year about the hazards of both ironic sexism and ironic racism.

    I also find this particular calendar off-putting because the connections to the written works seem tenuous. If you want a “Discworld” picture, pay Paul Kidby to draw it. If he doesn’t want to do that, don’t include one.

  15. tansyrr Says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments so far, and for keeping it all civil!

    Mary, you make a good point and I certainly never intended to suggest through my discussion of the male gaze that there wouldn’t be women who liked or admired the art of these calendars.

    Like Sean, I think that some sexual objectification in art is reasonable, but it becomes supremely uncomfortable for me when it is a one way street. Nothing wrong with ladies looking hot, and gentlemen & ladies liking to look at those hot ladies. But there is such a deep and problematic history of the portrayal of women in fantasy art, and it’s hard to see how a calendar like this does anything but perpetuate that tradition.

    Daniel, it’s hard to add anything to what Sean said in response to your questions – he did a great job! Personally I think that an equal opportunity pin up calendar would subvert the sexist tradition just as much as the marvellous old ladies who inspired the Calendar Girls movie did – because it would suggest a greater awareness of the weight of social history around pin up calendars, and also because it means that women would get to share the joke instead of being the butt of the joke.

    & it’s important to remember, I think, that adding geeky content doesn’t automatically make something less problematic or open to criticism from a gender/sexism perspective. It’s a girlie calendar – it’s not exactly news that they are sexist.

  16. tansyrr Says:

    Dragonfallen 5, thank you so much for that link! It is a great, well written article that addresses a lot of the problems with the whole ‘sexy calendar’ issue in the first place.

    Especially this: “pin-up calendars added to an existing environment in which women were seen first as sexual objects and maybe if they’re lucky they’d later be seen as human beings with thoughts and desires of their own.”

    PS: I use a paper calendar too, and have great fun choosing one each year – plenty of art, history & travel images out there in calendar form. I tend to avoid those of fantasy art because they’re usually every bit as horrid gender-wise as the one currently under discussion though I make exceptions for Arthur Rackham and yes, Paul Kidby.

    Choosing art that comes into our house also means thinking about the possible effect it could have on my daughters and their sense of self-worth. The entire history of Art is going to press down around them at some point, telling them that the most important contribution they can make to art is to be looked at, while being as sexy as possible. My job is to give them weapons to combat that idea (ladies, pick up your paint brushes!), not to promote it.

  17. J. Andrews Says:

    Your LJ crossposting says I can comment there, but when I try to comment there it says it was marked as spam because of the account settings and that replies are disabled.

    I was trying to ask if you’d seen NK Jemisin’s post(s) on the subject:
    http://nkjemisin.com/2012/10/oree-pinup-style/

  18. N. K. Jemisin Says:

    Hi Tansy,

    As a participant in this calendar — my own image is now posted on my website as a preview, beware NSFW nudity — I figured I’d weigh in with my own perspective. I had the same misgivings as you before I got on board with the project, which is why I pretty much only agreed to participate if my entry could subvert the traditional pinup in some way. Frankly I took a lot of convincing — multiple conversations with Pat Rothfuss and Lee Moyer (the artist), during which Pat sent me a copy of last year’s calendar so I could decide how I felt about the artist’s style and eye. My initial thought was to push for a “male” character (Nahadoth, who might have been depicted in gender-ambiguous or female form), but after discussion I decided I was equally happy with including Oree, because there aren’t enough images of black women or disabled women out there in fantasy. But what also intrigued me was the fact that Moyer seemed willing to change the traditional pinup positioning for my image as well. Oree’s only concession to the male gaze is her nudity, and for her, that’s incidental. She’s not looking back at the viewer; she’s not lying around doing nothing but looking sexy; she’s not positioned in some awkward, unnatural pose in order to emphasize her cleavage or make her butt stick out. She’s working on something she’s passionate about and good at, and the viewer can go hang. I like the image because, to me, it gets across that there’s more than one way for a woman to be sexy.

    Which is what it really came down to, for me. I’m an artist’s daughter, so I have a lot of respect for art traditions… and they’re all sexist, when you get right down to it. Art reflects the society that creates it, and our (pretty much any native Anglophone) society is swimming in sexist (and ableist and racist and…) paradigms. There’s different ways to fight that, IMO. One is to refuse to participate in something that overtly perpetuates society’s bigotry, and I totally respect that as a choice you would make. Another is to participate, but critique that bigotry by directly addressing the parts of the tradition that are wrong. I’ve done the former, and I do the latter all the time in my writing — God knows writing epic fantasy means playing in some seriously bigotry-polluted waters. I think both strategies can be effective.

  19. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) Says:

    The only thing I have to say, and have to contribute, is that I feel guilty about liking the calendar. It feels like something I shouldn’t like, but yet, I live alone, and could hang it up. I wouldn’t be embarassed by it. But is it BadWrong for me to like it? I’m conflicted. I haven’t (pre)-ordered it mainly because of that guilt and conflict inside of me.

  20. neth Says:

    This is a very interesting discussion. First, I haven’t really been interested in pin-up type calendars since I was 14 years old (quite a while ago now). And as a parent with a young daugher, the objectivication of women in this society is a very scary thing for me, especially considering how it will affect her as she grows into womanhood. And on top of that, a ‘fantasy’ pin-up calendar really sends a pretty terrible (and horribly stereotyped) message about fantasy/nerdom/geekdom that I fund extremely unfortunate.

    So, I was surprised to see Jemisin’s involvement. And I am very pleased to see her comment here. The image from her writing is very tasteful and at least somewhat subversive of the pin-up mentality (though not obviously so). I’d like to see all the other images in the calendar. I agree with the thoughts above that if this calendar was truly trying to be subversive in anyway it would at least contain male images and hell, this is fantasy, I’d like to see some sort of unexpected magical creature in a hilariously unexpected pose. Or perhaps a calendar of Jime Hines attempting urban fantasy cover poses. Or Rothfuss since this is his bag.

    But as it stands, with the little I can see, this calendar sends way too many ‘wrong’ messages, not enough ‘right’ messages, and really misses an opportunity as far as I’m concerned.

    Of course, even if were totally subversive, I doubt I’d buy a copy, so my opinion may not really matter in terms of the money-raising for a good cause aspect of the calendar. I’ll just donate my money to the Worldbuilder charity the usual way.

  21. tansyrr Says:

    J. Andrews I’m so sorry you couldn’t comment! I had to severely restrict my commenting options on the Livejournal because I was receiving so much spam on old posts, it was that or deleting the whole thing for my peace of mind. Glad you found your way here, and I really appreciate that link.

    Nora, thanks for sharing your feelings too. I have to say, the piece of art you display in your blog post is gorgeous and you’re absolutely right that there isn’t anything that feels ‘pin-up’ about it. if the pieces that have done the rounds as full examples of the work in the calendar had been along those lines, I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid about the project. But of course it’s all about context, and the sample images & cover of the calendar tell a different story.

    I see now why you participated and I really appreciate your reasons behind it. I am glad your character isn’t being portrayed in a degrading way – the only reason I didn’t comment on the apparent racial diversity of the subjects is because I couldn’t tell from the thumbnails whether the images themselves were going to be dreadful or not.

    Paul, I can’t tell you whether something is ‘BadWrong’ or not! That’s up to you. My post was never intended to shame those who enjoyed the calendar, more to point out that enjoying it is not a universal experience. As Nora notes, all art traditions are sexist. Seriously, they are. I’m an artist’s daughter too, and that was the first lesson I learned. [and Being a Fan of Problematic Things comes with the SF/fantasy territory http://www.socialjusticeleague.net/2011/09/how-to-be-a-fan-of-problematic-things/

    If you decide you would like the own the calendar – and given Nora’s justification and example of her page, it looks like the politics of the situation are more complex than I initially thought – then do be careful where you display it. Girlie calendars have a history of providing background harassment for women in the workplace, for example.

    Neth, thanks for your comment. I think you’re right. I certainly feel a sense of relief upon understanding Nora’s involvement in the project but I don’t feel that one page depicting women in an empowering way necessarily makes the calendar itself a better idea. And yes, more humour would have helped it a great deal. I’d have liked to see Nanny Ogg representing the Discworld, for example… but I suspect that would have gone against the point of the project which was, after all, to provide sexy fantasy images of women.

    I do think there is a market for a calendar of Jim Hines attempting urban fantasy poses, absolutely. As long as some of the funds were diverted to his chiropractor’s bill if necessary…

  22. Polenth Says:

    There is a difference between being sexy and being sexually objectified. I currently have a Doctor Who calendar, and some of the characters are attractive. But they’re not posed in ways that suggest their only role is to be sexy. Their primary role is to be characters in a science fiction show.

    And that’s what bothers me with the calendar, because it’s reducing the characters to sexiness only, and turning their broader roles into a novelty costume.

    Oree’s image does actually show her doing something other than posing, but it’s telling that wasn’t one of the images chosen to showcase and promote the calendar.

  23. J. Andrews Says:

    I haven’t seen the promotional posts about this, but I’d imagine Oree wasn’t chosen for those because fewer people would recognize her image or her name. Even though the art is gorgeous.

  24. matthew Says:

    Regardless of intent, a calendar of women as sexual objects perpetuates the idea that a woman’s worth is first and foremost related to her body. Even tongue in cheek ironic pin-ups are primarily engaged in this logic due to the immediacy and the privileging of the image over the printed word (in our society of spectacle, per Debord).

    Also, and this is a controversial opinion, but even charitable acts should be espied with a wary gaze (no pun intended). Are the authors engaging in this for altruistic means or for an increase in social/cultural capital? Any charity organized like a corporate entity should be immediately suspect as corporatism is fundamentally conservative.

  25. Galactic Suburbia 71 « Randomly Yours, Alex Says:

    [...] Fantasy Pin-Up Calendar Thing The Calendar itself Tansy’s post – when fantasy art embarrasses us all Skepchick asks us to Please Stop Making Calendars NK Jemisin on her involvement in the [...]

  26. Sam Kelly Says:

    Oh, dear, what a horrible project.

    I do like the Oree picture, but frankly I’d like it much more if she had some clothes on.

    Ooh, there’s an idea… a calendar with sensibly clothed women of fantasy doing awesome things.

  27. Cel West Says:

    Oh dear. There are erotic images that at least play with the gaze, that afford the character some agency, that have women as more than simply unselfawarely performing for men, or, more creepily, being watched while naked without being aware of it. Sadly, none of these images linked here are that thing.

  28. Cel West Says:

    Oh dear. There are erotic images that at least play with the gaze, that afford the character some agency, that have women as more than simply unselfawarely performing for men, or, more creepily, being watched while naked without being aware of it. Sadly, none of these images linked here are that thing.

    Oh, fantasy. One day you’ll treat women like human beings. One day.

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