Agency vs Objectification, aka “How to Draw Sexy Women without Being a F—ing Creep”

Heads up that there are some very NSFW images later on in this tutorial — there’ll be a warning before those, but this is a warning for that warning.

 

Hey folks, remember the boob tutorial?

How could you forget, really.

This tutorial is a far more expansive take on a topic I started years ago, but this time we’re going to be talking specifically about agency and objectification, and how both pertain to art.

Or, as I fondly call it, “How to Draw Sexy Women and Not Be a F—ing Creeper.”

For those who’ve subscribed to my Patreon (www.patreon.com/meghanhetrick), over the last few weeks we’ve been breaking down a single image to show how it was made.

This one! Hi, Nyx!

So far we’ve discussed things like balance, composition, expression, that sort of stuff.  We haven’t yet touched upon the fact that she’s totally nude, and yet that’s pretty much the least important thing about the piece.  Even her crudely drawn feet are more important than the fact that her boobs and bush are on full display here.  Why is that?

Because they’re natural to the figure.

By that, I mean that I don’t have her sticking her ass out, or her chest forward, to put more emphasis on those body parts.  This is simply a woman standing there who happens to be nude.  There is no hypersexualization of her genitalia, no spots directly leading the “male gaze” TO her genitalia.  They are just part of the figure.

To drive that point home, here’s the same character, but in much more sexualized poses.

And all three together, to show it better:

Here’s where we start getting into the meat of the topic:

The figure on the left? That’s a woman with agency.  The remaining two figures?  Those are objectified and sexualized figures.

WTF am I talking about?  Well, I could spout out the Webster’s definition of both, but I’m going to put them into layman’s terms as I understand them (also, for the sake of clarity, I’m just going to use “women” here, but this also applies to men as well).

AGENCY refers to a woman’s ability to CHOOSE.  If she wants to dress sexy, that’s her choice.  If she wants to be naked, that’s also her choice, just as are her choices to kiss, tease, date, or fuck anyone she wants.  It’s HER choice, it’s her RIGHT.  When a woman is an active, willing participant in a situation, that also means it’s her choice, which means it’s her agency.

When you start taking those choices away, and start making an image about what YOU want, that’s the beginning of objectification, which has a very, VERY quick drop into oversexualization and victimization.  You no longer see the woman as a whole being, but as an object put there for your pleasure, innocent or otherwise.

Here’s a sad little secret: all art pertaining to a beautiful figure has some objectifying aspect to it.  Why?  Because we are programmed to see certain things as beautiful, and because we tend to draw things that we personally find beautiful, we tend to emphasize those things, which results in objectification, even on the most innocent of levels.  It’s the nature of the beast, and it has, and always be a part of art.

To prove my point, all the following pieces are considered “classical art.”  These are pieces held by art critiques as being paragons of classical beauty, yet, by today’s standards, every single one of these could be considered as objectifying women in some way.

A lot of that has to do with the current socio-political environment right now, and as much as I want to avoid discussing that, it unfortunately has to be done with the context of this lesson.

We have almost universally lost the ability to see and appreciate things that fall outside our spectrum of things we’re comfortable with, and we view those things as “wrong” when they do.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a nude female form.  Nothing.  Literally every person on this planet alive or dead came out of a woman’s genitalia, and yet there’s a level of shame that women are programmed to feel about discussing or trying to control what happens in regards to their genitalia.  Both men *and* women are to blame for this, and there’s a huuuuuuuuuge amount of side information that we can go into, but we’re not.  Just remember that when you take away a women’s control, her right to choose, you take away her agency.

Which loops us right back to the point of this whole thing, and where I’m likely going to piss off a few folks out there in Internetland:

You can’t argue for a women’s right to wear whatever she wants, and then pitch a bitch when a scantily clad character shows up in a comic.  You are literally fighting against the same thing you’re fighting for, and you’re going to exhaust yourself.

HOWEVER, you absolutely can, and should, pitch a bitch when that character is hypersexualized and objectified, such as when the ENTIRE point of a piece isn’t to show how bad ass of a character she is, but rather, look how nice that ass looks in that scale-mail thong.  And gravity-defying boobs (the guide is right at the top of this lesson, in case you forgot), but hey, here’s a wicked sword covered in blood, so she’s obviously a Strong Female Character, right?  I can’t objectify her when she’s so able to kick my ass, right?

Wrong.

Are they well drawn images?  Yes.  The skill is undeniable, even if the anatomy is a bit broken (we’ll cover that whole back twisty thing in a short bit).  They are, in fact, beautifully drawn images.  The composition is solid, the lines direct you where you want them to…. it just so happens that those lines are to her boobs and her ass, and NOT the sword or her expression.

When culturally sexualized anatomy becomes the entire point of your piece, then guess what?  You’ve objectified the woman.  It’s no longer about her agency, it’s about what’s going to titillated you and get added to your spank bank.

Personally, I have zero problems with Red Sonja, or her costume.  None.  It’s all about how she’s drawn.

I literally had to dust this off for this guide.

That’s an older piece of mine.  She’s still wearing the scalemail bikini, but her costume is pretty much the last thing of importance on here.  What comes first?  Her brazenness charging into battle against undead zombie things, on her horse.

Before anyone calls me out, I will admit without hesitation that I’ve done sexualized art on occasion — but it’s always only ever been with characters that blatantly use their sexuality as power WITHIN CANON.  Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Black Cat, Goblin Queen, Emma Frost: all of these characters are well-known to use their sexuality to their advantage, so it’s not beyond the bounds of “realism” (I’m fully aware of the irony of talking about realism in the same space as superheroes).  Also, I know real women who play up their own sexuality, because it makes them feel good.  It’s THEIR choice to do so.  If they want to do it to please a guy, guess what, that’s also THEIR CHOICE.

Where that line starts to get exceptionally blurry is when you start emphasizing the sexuality of the character, while downplaying their participation in how they’re viewed.  This downplay can be by changing the expression of the character from one of actively looking at the viewer to one suggestive of innocence, fear, or uncertainty, to something as simple as lighting and coloring.

Get ready for a whole lot of Greg Horn, folks.

The above example IS anatomically correct and kudos need to be given for how proper the knees are, because those things are a bitch to draw (I have my opinions on how that anatomical correctness was achieved, but I’ll save that for if I ever relaunch my anatomy tumblr or if I ever do a tutorial on how to lightbox).

Take note that the only spots that actively stand out color wise on this piece are the ones covering her boobs and her crotch, with a bit of exception given to the sword, the rim lighting on her right (our left) side, and a bit in the pasted-in spider’s eyes.  Her face, her hair, her boots, the spider, the floor, everything else is a variation of red.  What this does is IMMEDIATELY draw your eye to her boobs and her crotch, allowing you to totally bypass her face.  Notice how she also has the hooded eyes, pouted lips “sexy” expression, in a scene that should seriously be up one of those “three seconds later” blogs that are filled with people doing really stupid things and then karma kicking them in the ass for being so stupid.

It’s a well-known fact that sex sells, and I don’t fault anyone for wanting to play that up with costume.  Where the dividing line is, as I touched on before, is the woman’s participation in how she’s viewed, in combination with composition, body positioning, lighting, and the other bits that make art ART.

Comic art, as a whole, has a problem with depicting women without oversexualizing them to the point of obscenity.  A quick google search can show you that.

Cliff’s Notes for no-no’s!

I’m not sure when the turn happened, but it’s my opinion that the ease of access to porn in the modern age has absolutely skewed our ideas on sex and sexuality.  I’m not saying that porn is bad, but when your entire idea of the perfect woman is a fantasy built around getting a dude off as quick as possible, that’s going to lead to some problems, in all situations.

So if sex sells, and women are not supposed to be objectified, what do we do?

Well, the first thing is to take a look where we’ve come from, starting first with the precursor to modern comic book pinups, the so-called “Golden Age of Pinups.”  These images are innocent by today’s standards, but at their time, they were meant to excite men in much the same way that Pornhub does today.

Compared to more modern examples, this art is tame to the point of being cute.  Keep in mind the times that these were painted, typically the 1940s and 1950s.  Women were supposed to maintain a level of propriety, and being “ladylike” still, which was another way to describe being subjugated.  There are a lot of bondage elements in art from this era, usually implied, but if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see it.  As beautiful as these pieces are, there is absolutely still a distinct level of “male gaze” in them, but it’s a level that I, personally, am comfortable with, because these women weren’t victims (especially if you go dig up the reference photos they were painted from).  They’re still actively participating with the viewer, which denotes a level of agency.  A subtle level, but it’s starting to show up.  These were the women men were secretly fantasizing about, even if societal constraints wouldn’t let their wives and daughters behave as such.  You always want what you can’t have.

It wasn’t until the sexual revolution of the 1960s when we started to get images like these:

Take particular note of the expressions of the women.  They are looking directly at the viewer, nude or almost nude, and damn near daring the viewer to find objection with their actions.  Robert McGinnis is a master at the “femme fatale,” and I personally feel that if anyone wants to study how to draw powerful yet sexual women, he’s an excellent one to study.  Yes, I’m aware of the irony that he’s the most well-known James Bond artist, which is pretty much the bastion of machismo in modern culture, but in McGinnis’ other works, the women are typically just as powerful, if not more, than the men.

A huge, huge, massive, huge part in the difference between the two eras of art is with body language, which we covered here (my Patreon supporters can access it.  If you’re not a supporter, just click the Patreon button to your left /shamelessplug).  

The only free teaser you’ll get 😉

The figures from the 40s and 50s are, by and large, much softer and feminine in composition, meaning there are a lot more rounded and curved forms, versus the typically more masculine straight lines.  Contrast that with the damn near angular figures from McGinnis, and you can start to really see the difference.

Now, how can we take those ideas and relay them into working with comic book characters?

Well, we first need to make sure your figures have a solid center of gravity.

I lied. This is from the first tutorial I posted.

Anytime you have a figure that strays outside of being balanced, they look weak, because an unbalanced thing is weak.  If you want a character, especially a woman, to appear strong, she needs to be balanced and not like she’s going to tip over if you sneeze on her.  She can have the biggest set of boobs on the planet, but as long as she’s grounded, she’ll still appear strong.

Let’s take a look at the stereotypical broken back pose, found aaaaalll over comics.

The images in the upper left are what we usually see when folks try to draw “sexy.”  The problem is this: if she’s supposed to be a fighter character, standing like that is absolutely impractical, because she is inherently off-balance, which helps to make her appear weak.  It’s a man’s IDEA of a power pose for a woman, but in actuality it’s a submissive position, because her boobs and ass are jutted out, just to get the sex appeal across, at the expense of her being in an actual position of strength.

The images on the lower right are the same concept, but tweaked so that the woman would actually be strong.  The silhouette is almost identical, so the visual lines are the same so that “sexy” can still be conveyed.  However, her feet are under her and supporting her weight, and her ability to move isn’t compromised in the slightest.

Is it comfortable to stand that way?  No, it’s not, but it IS anatomically possible, and it IS still a stereotypical “sexy” pose.  It’s just the difference between agency and objectification, or oversexualization.

Next up: the ass shot.


Honestly, it’s the same problems and fixes as the one above.  In the “typical” pose, she’s jutting her butt out to create a more sexualized posterior.  It again leaves her in a position of weakness, relative to her ability to move.

In the “fix,” her legs are under her body and her weight is evenly distributed along the line of balance.  To get the same effect as the above, arch the upper body and shoulders back a bit, which creates a stronger curve along the small of the back, which can help emphasize the buttocks. 

This is where knowledge of anatomy and how the body works comes in.  If a woman is in shape, her body will NATURALLY create the curves needed, there’s no need to emphasize parts that are going to already be emphasized just by the state of them being pert and muscular.  Make sense?

How about the “boobs and butt in the same shot” pose that people like to rag on?  Well, that pose is ABSOLUTELY possible, especially if you have an athletic woman who regularly works out.  Why?  Because it’s all flexibility.  If I can do it as a flabby artist, then I guarantee an Olympic level athlete like superheroes are drawn to be can.  Seriously.

— EDIT, because I forgot to put it in:
There’s another “Boobs and Butt” pose that tends to get a lot of unnecessary flack, and that’s the “flying” pose.

The thing is, this looks sexualized, but it’s actually correct.  When moving through air (look at divers for example), you want to have the lowest amount of wind resistance possible.  However, when you lift your head, your back naturally curves as well, which creates the illusion of “boobs and butt” at certain angles, since breasts rest on the rib cage and create protrusions to the form.

Okay, edit over —-

Body language is one part of the problem, but i firmly believe that the most important part is the expression. Heads up that there are two very much NSFW GIFs coming up, but they’re intrinsic to the point I’m trying to make.

This is from my third tutorial. I’m shameless.

I’ve noticed a trend recently with some artists where they draw ultra sexy, super objectified women, with expressions that can only be described as innocence, trepidation, or fear. 

To be as blunt as possible, if you draw a sexualized and/or objectified woman, with an expression of innocence, trepidation, or fear, you’re part of the problem.

Sexualizing innocence is not sexy.
Sexualizing trepidation is not sexy.
Sexualizing fear is not sexy.

Let me make it even simpler:

CONSENT IS SEXY

NON-CONSENT IS NOT SEXY.

Not to women at least.

Why?  Because in each of those situations a woman’s agency has been removed, and that’s the least of the problems.

Innocence has connotations of being childlike.  Sexualizing kids is abhorrently wrong. I hope I don’t need to explain more than that.

Trepidation, or uncertainty means that the woman doesn’t know what she wants.  It’s not up to you to change her mind, and if you force that decision upon her, you are removing her right to decide what’s best for her, and that’s in the same realm as rape.

Fear is related to trepidation, but is the more extreme extent of it.  If a woman is fearful of you, and you’re continuing to continue on your path of ogling her, that is again in the same realm as rape.  You are willfully ignoring a woman’s mental state for your own entertainment. It’s also abuse.  Abuse is not sexy. I wrote a whole thing about it, specifically Joker and Harley, I’m not going to go into it again.

For the pedantic folks that want to cry, but BDSM is sexy but it’s abuse!  No, it’s not.  Play is between two consenting and trusting adults, and as soon as one revokes either, it stops.  If it doesn’t, IT’S ABUSE. 

Let’s throw in two images to illustrate the point, and I’ll discuss after.

BOTH of these are a degree objectification of women, because, like I said about 3,000 words ago, all figure art is subject to some form of objectification.  They are BOTH also sexualized, because they are nude forms and this is America where Nudity is Bad, with a focus on the woman’s genitalia.  There is, however, a way to draw objectified and sexualized women, WHILE still maintaining their agency.

As you’ll see in the GIFs below, it’s all about the expression:

SHOCKED, ANGRY, and SCARED: you’re not supposed to be there.  You’re an unwelcome viewer, and by continuing to view her for your own pleasure, you have objectified her and no longer see her as a person.

HAPPY, and SULTRY: You are welcome to be in her presence, while she’s in this very vulnerable state.  This implies consent, and that is sexy.

Number two, with a bit more detail: 

The first set of images is what I see the most often when presented with what folks consider “erotic art.”  They want a subdued woman, showing uncertainty at what’s presented before her (usually a grossly exaggerated penis).  Submissiveness is heavily implied, as is subjugation, and frankly, if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re gross.  You are removing her right to refuse, and getting off on her inability to escape the situation.

To reiterate, BDSM submissiveness is NOT the same as it takes place between two consenting adults.  

The second set of images is what I know most women consider erotic.  The woman is spread open for whomever, and her expression is one of willingness.  This is CONSENT, and consent is sexy. Rape is not.

Let’s take a quick look at two images I find particularly offensive, and briefly discuss why.

The woman is tied up and is literally burning to death, and yet our focus is on her lace panties, and her corset.  It reads as “I know you’re being murdered, sweetie, but could you just hold on one minute while I knock one out one last time before you’re a husk?  Thanks doll.”  

And then there’s this one:

This piece sends me into a rage every time I see the damn thing.  Never mind the horrific anatomy, you have Batman looming over a very prone Catwoman THAT HE ENTRAPPED WITH A POORLY DISGUISED SEMEN ANALOG.  Fucking seriously.  I really shouldn’t need to explain all the different ways that this is disgusting, so i won’t, since it should be clear by now as to what’s going on here.  

Both of these pieces were done with a woman’s agency and safety taking a total backseat to the guy’s titillation.  It’s gross.

I don’t want it to sound like I have an issue with porn or erotic art, as long as the woman maintains her agency (just take a quick stroll through my Inktober pieces I did for my Patreon folks, and that becomes readily apparent).  And really, that’s what the absolute most important thing is about all of it.  Don’t victimize her, don’t abuse her.  It’s pretty simple, really.

The costume really isn’t the point in most of this art, either.  You can have a character like the Goblin Queen, who has one of the more revealing costumes out there, and yet still draw her in a way where her costume is secondary to the piece, and actually helps serve to enhance the power she has.

In that example, she’s damn near naked, but because her skin tone and background are so similar, it’s actually her hair, and thereby her face that grab your attention first, followed by the shape of the costume and goblins.  The fact that she’s wearing one of the more impractical costumes in comics is irrelevant.

Same goes for Ivy here.

Not one fuck was given.

Again her skin tone and background are similar enough that they compliment each other, so her hair and the greenery actually becomes more important.  Her nudity is a bit more on display than with the Goblin Queen’s, but she’s also looking directly at the viewer as if to dare them to say something.

Here’s one of Emma Frost, one of the most blatantly oversexualized characters in comics.  Her boobs are on display here because of her costume, and yes, she forgot her actual pants, but her wielding the crop, and it being a line directing your eye back to her face is a way to wield power and agency.

For further examples, I suggest looking at Frank Frazetta, especially if you want to figure out how to draw nude women without being ridiculously offensive.  He does tend to place a strong emphasis on women’s asses, but his women are also, by and large, fighters.  There are obviously a few exceptions, but overall, you wouldn’t want to mess with them.

Another fantastic one: Brom.

And representing the ladies, we have Fiona Staples

Becky Cloonan

Bilquis Evely

and the notorious Bettie Page, if you want to play the erotic art line.

Hopefully this helped some folks out and shed some light on different aspects of this extremely difficult topic.  For my Patreon folks, please feel free to leave comments.  To the other folks, there’s a link to the side you can use for feedback, or hit me up on FB/twitter/whatever and I’ll reply as I can.

If this interested you, and you’d like to see the other tutorials, sign up at my Patreon for past and future lessons, as well as all artwork I finish after January 1st, coz I’ll be moving to a primarily Patreon based system for all that stuff.

Thank you!

-M

 

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