Do contemporary artists draw unrealistic or non-average looking persons? Yes. Has any artistic style or period ever drawn something that looked realistic AND average? I doubt it.
For the purposes of this blog post, “artists” means those that paint, draw, and design characters for popular media. Movies, comic book, video games, or even some ads are what interest me. Therefore, fictional people, not real models. Think Lara Croft, not Angelina Jolie.
Now, from time to time, especially in our supercharged cultural climate, this or that cultural product is attacked for representing unrealistic or non-average body types. Of course, it’s odd that someone would want average representations of non-average people (most of them are heroes, adventurers, athletes, etc) but these moral panics don’t always make much sense.
The usual culprit is the female body since nobody seems to care if you represent the male body in extremely stylized and exaggerated versions. According to the wise opinion of intellectuals who are always right no matter what they say, that’s because the ideal male body is some sort of power symbol, while the ideal female body is oppressive. Although there is a tinny grain of truth to that in the sense that for a woman genetics matters a bit more than for a man if they want to attain an ideal body, I’ll ignore the obvious self-hatred that such an argument implies.
The first thing that should be said is that (and I hope nobody will find this too offensive) the artists that work doing this sort of stuff are not precisely Renaissance material. OK, there are some that are really good, but we are not talking about classically-trained atelier artists. Second, media representation in video games, comic books and so on is extremely stylized, and it’s not directly based on real human types or models.
Anime and manga are obvious examples since sometimes the only thing that distinguishes character A from B is some prop, weird hair, dress, or a similar characteristic. Also, age progression seems to stall at 20 years-old, and then suddenly drops at 90 or something like that. Western comic book characters also follow a narrow path, and many characters end up looking the same. The general ugliness, imperfections and little details of the human body are missing from those artistic styles.
I mention these two things because, otherwise, you may not understand the “problem” of media representation. The point I’m trying to make is that becoming a comic book artist doesn’t require the same amount of skill than a professional and classically trained artist. That’s important because while the later paints and draws by imitating nature (a real model, with all its imperfections,) the former usually follow a canon, a somewhat easy-to-remember style. Therefore, all those “misrepresentations” of the human (female) form will have to be explained in the light of those two caveats.
Having said that, I will quote something I read in a book, an art book written for his students by an art teacher:
This sub-conscious image plays strange pranks with the drawing. Sometimes the student substitutes his own features and physical proportions for those of the model, or may be the features of the previous sitter appear on the drawing.
Students’ figure drawings often betray to an amusing extent the type they fancy in the opposite sex, while equally common is the inability to portray an alien racial type. The usual Italian model is transformed into a square-profiled Englishman. When one looks for it, “the English look” on students’ drawings of foreign models is quite ludicrous. The physiognomy of even an allied race like the Dutch is absolutely differentiated from that of the English type.
The student has to teach himself to get, as it were, outside his own personality, in which a young person is often impregnably entrenched, and subordinate himself to his model. He has to set himself free from these subconscious, anthropomorphic fetters already alluded to.
Allen W. Seaby, Drawing for Art Students and Illustrators (1921) page 11 & 12
That was written in 1921 but it’s relevant today. For practical purposes, I think I can say the skill of many of our popular culture artists (almost all of them “young persons”) is similar to that of Seaby’s students. And do you see what happens when the students tried to draw the female form or people from other “races”? Remember, they had a model, and they still messed it up. They (1) inserted their own physical features, (2) they exaggerated the female model towards what they fancied, and (3) showed an inability to draw the foreign “alien racial types.”
To prove that he was not teaching a bunch of kids from remedial class here is one of his student’s many sketches:
Translated to our coarse contemporary language, “the type they fancy in the opposite sex” would probably be “big boobs” (and beautiful faces, more than the original model anyway.) Also, note that they failed at drawing people from other races even thought the model was in front of them all the time. And by other races, he didn’t mean black people or Chinese, but an Italian instead of an English. Imagine the errors they would have committed if they had tried drawing a Congolese midget.
So, why do artists draw unrealistic body types and do not represent racial minorities? The first “problem” occurs because (1) in fact, it’s easier and a greater pleasure to draw a beautiful body. Try drawing the naked form of someone ugly and fat and you’ll see what I mean. As I mentioned in another post, give a man something to draw, and he will draw women with unrealistic curves, which are usually easier anyway. And (2) because their genre is constricted by its own stylistic choices and limitations.
Note that I have not tried to explain why they draw superheroines with super breasts appealing to some sort of in-world explanation. I’m just saying they do that because it’s simpler, funnier, and easier. Once you know how to do it, you can churn dozens of supergirls in no time (they all look more or less the same) and the comic book industry is, well, an industry, and it usually needs quantity over quality.
And what about racial minorities? Well, assuming the artist has a choice in the matter, it should not surprise that most artists choose not to draw “minorities.” And the reason is simple: because it’s hard. Unconsciously we usually try not to do that which is difficult, and then we rationalize that decision. The same with your imagination. You can imagine a Somali superhero, but the artist, while staring at the blank page, will realize a problem: he may create a monstrosity, and nobody wants to draw that, especially if it’s someone from a racial minority. Therefore, in an instant, your brain changes its opinion and says “who cares, I’ll draw another white middle-aged dude with a massive, square jaw. I know how to do that and race doesn’t matter anyway, right?” Well, it may not matter for a classical liberal or a sane person, but it does for contemporary moral crusaders.
Remember that I said pop culture artists follow styles. That matters more than you may think, and if you believe I’m exaggerating try drawing from your imagination a comic book character of Mongolian, Eskimo, or South American (Indian) origin. Note that the character has to follow the stylistic patterns of your genre but ALSO that it should represent people from those uncommon ethnicities without looking like extraterrestrials or freaks of nature.
It’s difficult, isn’t it? Of course it is, you have never done it before and we all may be the same inside, but our outer appearance certainly isn’t. Ironically, the current craze about the lack of minority representation may have been partially attributable to the somewhat unconscious desire of artist not to offend them by drawing a new version of Tintin’s Congolese people
But what about women? Figures like this have to be the consequence of objectifying women ( note that they always use the plural, as in “the whole category of women,”) right? Well, someone certainly seems to have a leg fetish.
Also, note that the Chinese dude looks like a stereotype, but the Chinese lady with humongous legs doesn’t. Anyway, that has to be an unrealistic body type, right? I mean, that’s clearly a distorted human body that.. oh, wait.
In any event, do you objectify your sister or mother when you malegaze a swimsuit model or that women I just posted? I doubt it. Could it possibly be that the human brain can compartmentalize what it experiences and understands that a woman (and a fictional one) doesn’t represent all of them in all contexts and for all reasons, and even less for the ideologically-laden reasons the cultural critic made up? Could it be that artists just draw what they see every day, what’s easier, and what they find aesthetically pleasing?