Stick Figures

(This article was originally posted on Feminist Borg.)

You may have seen this comic that was floating around Tumblr a few months ago.  I haven’t been able to locate the original source; if you know it, please comment and I’ll add it.

tumblr_mjvxsy3CY71raoqhso1_500

Lots of people have addressed the message already, so I’d like to talk, not about the text, but about the art.  The medium is the message; what is this medium — a stick figure comic — saying?

Stick-figure comics have become popular in the webcomic era for two main reasons: First, they allow just about anyone to make a comic, regardless of their artistic talent, and second, their featureless appearance make them popular as “everyman” characters.

The stick figure, as commonly used, is indeed a generic character who could stand in for anyone.  But it’s also a man.  A generic figure with no visible characteristics is assumed to be male.  In order to be interpreted as female, a character must be differentiated with some feature, most often long hair.  Thus, in this comic, the female character has a ponytail, but the male character doesn’t have any special gender signifiers (say, a baseball cap or bow tie) because he doesn’t need them.  The artist knows that a plain stick figure will be interpreted as male.

The “everyman” stick figure is also white.  As demonstrated in this comic, the plain white circle head represents a Caucasian person; when the comic needs a non-white person, that person gets a different skin tone, but the white character remains plain white.  The associations of plain white = Caucasian are so strong that color webcomics sometimes leave their characters’ skin white with gray shading.

Have a look at some other comics with stick-figure or simplified art and observe how gender and race are expressed.

In each of these comics, the character with the plain circle head is male, while the female character is invariably given some kind of hair.  Many of them also give the man a plain stick or rectangle body, but give the woman a more defined body with breasts or a skirt.  And several give the woman lipstick or eyelashes, just in case there was any ambiguity left.

Nonwhite characters are mostly left out of comics entirely, but when they do appear, it’s with a signifier such as skin color or hair.  Meanwhile, there are several examples of color comics that leave the characters’ skin white.  (Order of the Stick is the exception on both counts, giving its characters various hairstyles and skin tones.)

So the stick figure is a generic character, but it’s also part of of one specific demographic.  It’s demonstrating the cultural idea that a “regular” person is a white man, and anyone of a different race or gender is an aberration.  The gag-a-day comics, with the exceptions of XKCD and Doghouse Diaries, further reinforce this idea by using white-man stick figures for all their jokes except those that specifically require a female or nonwhite character.

Returning to the original comic, we can shed some light on the questions it poses.  One generic white-male stick figure making a disparaging comment to another generic white-male stick figure doesn’t carry much of a connotation, nor does a female or nonwhite character making a mean remark to a generic white-male figure who is supposed to represent anyone.  But if you first single someone out as different from “normal” people and then make a disparaging mark about zir: That definitely carries a connotation.

I’m not going to tell webcomic creators to stay away from stick figures, but it’s important to think about the message your character-design choices send.  Even something that seems neutral, like a stick figure, can work to reinforce our culture’s harmful ideas about who is normal and who is abnormal.

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Posted on December 1, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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