I was motivated to write this blog after a few recent conversations I’ve had with older illustrators who don’t always seem to see eye-to-eye with me on how to create sensitive illustrations. One illustrator showed me a sample illustration that was blatantly offensive (an unflattering barnyard animal representing a religious minority) while another seemed bemused at having received feedback from a client that his illustration representing native americans was inappropriate. Though I’m not worried I might accidentally create an offensive drawing, I have thought about how to respond in these situations, and about how I would like Green Comma to operate. This post is about being aware.
Though it should be obvious how to be a respectful person, often we’re operating on auto-pilot. Why not take a minute to stop and consider what responsibilities we have as illustrators. Of course large corporations like Disney have guidelines (mostly about violence and sex) but in terms of openness and diversity they are hardly a model of what’s possible.
Recently I had an interesting conversation with another illustrator. He was describing a commission he’d had to draw some dancing cows for Disney. When he submitted the draft he’d been told, wait a minute, they couldn’t have udders(!). I laughed out loud! …But then another illustrator chimed in: “Oh yeah, used to be you could have someone sucking on the udders, hanging from them…” I suddenly realized I was the only woman in this conversation, and wondered if there might be something more interesting at stake in the udder brouhaha.
Later, curiosity led me down an Internet rabbit hole researching Clarabelle cow and early pre-code Disney cartoons (In the original 1930s cartoons, Clarabelle had a massive, droopy udder for much comic effect. Hayes code later required, ridiculously, that she wear a skirt.). I suddenly realized what now seems obvious, that cows are stand-ins for women, and that if there had been more women drawing cows in early Disney cartoons, they would probably look a lot different.
Here are a few guidelines Green Comma follows:
- Listen to Feedback If someone gives you feedback, listen and try to understand, then use the information to be better.
- Draw Reality Don’t draw symbols, draw what’s actually there. I came across this article from the LA Times about the 2009 animated film “Up” and thought the following quote explained it clearly. When creating the main character the director, who was white, was thankful to have feedback from storyboard artist Pete Sohn, who was Korean American. Says the director, “I was worried that the way I was drawing the shape of [the character’s] eyes might be falling into a potentially offensive stereotype. Pete said, ‘Korean eyes are shaped differently than Caucasian eyes: Just draw what’s there — that’s truth.'”
- Get the Right Reference Images Drawing reality will require having the right reference. When I illustrated Same Sun Here, by Neela Vaswani and Silas House, one of the illustrations was a self-portrait of Meena, a young girl from India, whose family immigrated to New York City. Neela provided me with pictures of girls she thought Meena might look like, and I gave her a few different illustrations to choose from before we settled on the final version.
And to take it one step further:
Counteract Stereotypes If there is a CEO in an illustration, try not to make it of an older white male, and etc. (someone recently brought this book, Sex is a Funny word, to my attention, and at some point I’d like to look at it more carefully to see how it approaches representing all types of experience).
Following is a recent pastel I created of a cow. I started it before deciding to write this blog post, but now I see that it fits here. For a while (since becoming a mother), I’ve been working on a series of nursing animals, but I hadn’t yet done a cow. As I looked online through photo after photo of dazed bovine, this one of a cow with these massive horns spoke to me. She’s a whole and complete cow (not just an udder). Get near her calves and maybe she’ll gore you. And this is how a cow looks through my eyes, as a woman who has nursed twins. Thanks for listening.
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