Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Stereotypes in Character Design

Hey guys, no new art to show just yet. Had to take it a bit slower this weekend due to my wrist acting up, but new stuff is coming, including a cool collaborative project I think you'll like.

Over at the Story-games.com forum, a few people criticised my illustration of Jabba the Hutt as being a racist Asian stereotype. As much as I hate to admit it, they're right. Like a lot of art criticisms, it's something I didn't notice myself, but once it was pointed out it seems so obvious, and now it's all I can see every time I look at it.

Now, I obviously never intended it to be a racist stereotype. Like I say in that thread, my intention wasn't to depict Jabba as an exotic, foreign villain based on Asian stereotypes, it was to depict him as a villain that flaunts his wealth by dressing himself and his palace with exotic, foreign items. Unfortunately, I missed the mark and ended up with Ming the Merciless as a slug. My intentions weren't racist, but intentions are largely irrelevant when it comes to illustration. The art should communicate everything you meant it to, and not require excuses.

This is an important lesson for any artist, writer or designer. When one is working, it's easy to focus too hard on how nice a piece looks and lose sight of what exactly it's communicating. You have to be critical of your work on all levels. Sure, that Fu Manchu mustache may look cool and totally make him look like a catfish, but it also carries other connotations that the artist needs to be aware of.

So consider my Jabba illustration a work in progress. I was already unhappy with it for other reasons, and in light of this I think it would be a good idea to redo it sometime. But later, after I've done some new designs.

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Oh yeah, I've also received a lot of people expressing interest in buying prints of my work. I'm currently looking into getting prints of some of my art for sale, but I don't think the Steampunk Star Wars series will be included in that. You know, copyright issues and all.

Talk to you guys again soon!

28 comments:

Adam said...

I wouldn't apologize. Even Lucas was accused of stereotyping some of his characters (Gungans = Rastafarians, Neimoidians = Oriental). What are the odds that a character illustration remotely resembles 1/5 of the Earth's population? My opinion - keep true to your vision and don't change a thing.

Jonathan Walton said...

Hey Eric. As the guy who originally brought up the racial stereotyping issue on StoryGames, I wanted to say that you handled our criticism (even though that thread went south fast) very professionally and earned back more cred than you lost from that picture. Thanks for being cool about it.

Project Director said...

While it may be a stereotype, I don't know that it equals racist. If Asian features and characteristics need to be removed from all concept art, does this mean that all concept creatures are Caucasian? I think it would something approaching racism to sanitize our cultural references down to zero. Was Ming the Merciless a racist character? No. Recycling him as a critter is homage... not racism.

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clock said...

I dont see stereotypes as racist either. Looking through that forum bothered me. theres an immense generalization of "OMG! Asian Traits! Im Offended!"
They keep saying that no matter what the artist intended its the artists fault if im offended. What the hell is that? it shows a greater lack of character to be offended at a stereotype than to depict a stereotype.

HaloJonesFan said...

Here's another point. Racist portrayals of Asians are a fundamental part of Steampunk. What's Steampunk based on? Victorian England. What did Victorian England think of Asians? Nothing good, that's for damn sure. So I would argue that having the Evil Mastermind be Oriental is entirely in keeping with the Steampunk genre. It is not a suggestion that Asians are fat, oily slugs.

keith said...

i would really love to see your artwork obtain new jobs for you. i hear that the sci-fi channel is making a mini-series based on neil stephensons' "diamond age". have you looked into applying as a conceptual artists? you would be perfect for that.

C. Augusto Valdés said...

Racist in Steampunk Context? Fundamental!!!! The Original Jabba The Hutt IS a racial caricature of a Middle-Eastern overweight crime lord, he treats his slavegirls dancers as disposable tissue paper. He even smokes from a turkish pipe.
I, for one, welcome your portrayal as accurate and dismiss your apologies. Be risqué!
I would love to see the jawas as mexican junkdealing bandidos. (I am mexican, I wouldn't have a problem with it)

Finn said...

Isnt art was suppossed to challenge, and break boundries anyway?

Dont draw thinking of what others might think effectively stifling your already infamous, if not compelling, creative juices.

Create for you. You are the artist. You are the art.

Loquax said...

Awesome Job! I am a big fan of your artwork. Part of the charm of the steampunk genre is in how it adapts a 19th century world view and expands it into sci-fi. Part of the basic makeup of the 19th century mind was xenophobic and racist. There are "proper people" and the great unwashed. Don't let critics bother ya!

TredHed said...

O.o
I have to agree with everyone here so far.....
Racist? Ummm....NO. I dont see a single reason this is racist. He is vaguely asian...so what? When you think of a human crime lord in modern day earth...who do you think of? Mostly italian mafia types....does that make you racist? I dont think it does....heck...I'M part italian and I think of such crime lords as italian, doesnt make me racist. SciFi crimelord/warlord? Ming the Merciless and Jabba the Hutt are the first things in my head. Combine the two and you have your pic. Dont apologize because someone is offended....too many people are too sensitive and play the "I'm offended by this such'n'such" card. Just keep going with what your doing and keep pushing your art. Awesome work...keep it up!

Doug Brown said...

As long as you don't depict an Irish person as drunk and violent, you won't offend me. But if you happen to do Luke O'Skywalker as an intoxicated, impetuous mick who fights his way through life, well, I'll probably end up drinking a fifth of Jameson and punching your face in.

Slainte!

earle said...

Racist stereotypes are a necessary part of the steampunk genre, IMO, at least as far as the pulp aspect of Star Wars goes.

Maria said...

I'd have to agree with most people that commented, a pipe and a mustache does not racism make.

You're making a series of pictures with the intent of representing a particular genre. The pictures are going to have to carry with them the vices of that genre at times if they're to remain true to it.

Ralph said...

Curse you, now I have visions of Jawas in sombreros, doing the mexican hat dance.....

S.L. Shirley said...

Great art! Very evocative of the new angle yet true to the inspiration.

I have only two things to add to the racism discussion:

1 ) Why do I never hear outcry like this when Nazis are portrayed as Germans?

2 ) As an Irish-American myself, I'm going to give Earle the benefit of the doubt and assume that was a joke. I for one find the stereotype annoying. However, while I don't fit it I respect that it is a classic trope of many genres. If it wasn't a joke, well... Nah. Not my place.

W Alexander said...

Considering that Doug basically says "If you draw a stereotype of an angry, drunken mick, I'm going to get angry and drunk!" I can fairly guarentee his statement was meant in jest.

And I'll have to add my weight to the advice of everyone else here: Art - be it drawn or written - should be be about pleasing others; unless that is your entire goal and character.

One should never bow under pressure from the vocal minority. It is a common practice in this country to only voice our opinion when we are objecting to something - doubtless you've had many more visitors who were quite taken with your work but didn't feel compelled to leave a compliment.

Draw it the way you like, if you start allowing self-consciousness and uncertainty to effect how you work, you will quickly lose interest in it.

(Me, I was wondering why Chewie was a dog, but took it in stride)

Glenn said...

Keep up the great work.
What you made was not racist.

What you did was not that. You made some great art that evoked the feelings you intended to evoke. You wanted a grand villian that is a slave to his desires and his appetites. You achieved that. Though he posessed some Asian features, it wasn't racist.

What would have been racist was if you had an arrow pointing at Jabba with the words "All Chinese are fat and evil". You did not do that.


W Alexander:

Art is not about pleasing others. That is what prostitution is.

Art is about expressing yourself.

W Alexander said...

Hmm ... that's what my comment above should have said .. "Art - be it drawn or written - should not be about pleasing others" The remaining content of my post should have revealed that as a typo.

Charles Oines said...

I wouldn't worry about it. Some people actively look for reasons to be offended, and inventing racism where it isn't is a pretty easy way to do that.

The Imugi said...

Speaking as an Asian, I actually didn't find your Jabba design to be offensive! And the very fact that you'd own up to criticism/worry about stereotyping earns you major points! I think you could probably keep Jabba just as he is. :)

Oh, and a Steampunk Star Wars is probably the coolest idea ever. Keep up the awesome work!

The Imugi said...

Speaking as an Asian, I didn't find the Jabba illustration to be offensive at all! And the very fact that you'd own up to this definitely alleviates you of any guilt!

btw, a Steampunk version of Star Wars is such an awesome idea! Keep up the great work!

Dylan said...

Well, there were asian crime lords who behaved as Jabba did. They typically preyed on other people from their own ethnic group. Just as there were white crime lords who did the same. So what, are you going to put him in a mafioso outfit and give him a Tommy Gun? Please, just fix the real problems you had with it, it would be a shame to destroy such a cool piece or art.

By these standards, Your Lord Vader is racist against Germans. :-P

Phasma Felis said...

Huh. I saw your Jabba as an spot-on parody of the Yellow Peril pulp stereotype. I thought it was intentional and entirely appropriate. Different strokes, I guess. :)

Paige said...

My husband sent me a link to your fantastic art, and when I saw the Jabba piece I was impressed that you made the choices you did. As many have said before me, it is thoroughly in keeping with the Victorian era. I thought it showed a depth of knowledge of both the subject and the style. I look forward to following your career.

Pól said...

Orientalism was an important part of the Victorian era, and there was a growing interest in the art, history, artefacts, and mysteries of Asia.
Add to that the fact that Star Wars is based heavily on Asian Stereotypes - the young swordsman, zen swordsmanship, his elderly tutor, the honourable bandit, Vader's and the Stormtroopers' samurai-esque helmets, the evil emperor, Luke Skywalker's original costume.
Other than that, I agree with 'the imugi'. Drawing on the existing archetypes isn't necessarily a bad thing, and admitting and realizing that you're doing it, AND rejecting any 'inherent' racism pretty much puts the stamp on it.
Don't beat yourself up over it.

Slashor said...

Steampunk comes in two major forms.

First you have the one with the Victorian or pulp mindset. That's Eric's work here. Sky Captain. And League of Extraordinary Gentleman's first 2 volumes. I highly recommend the companion books, Heroes & Monsters and A Blazing World, if you're curious about this subject.

Then you have the sort that reflects more of the creator's ideology. It's the diverse sub crew of Disney's Atlantis who don't quite match the time period. (Sorry, but I kinda doubt Ford would've hired a Latina mechanic to help build the Model T assembly line) It's the world of Fullmetal Alchemist where science never took over from alchemy. It's the Victorian-ish Oxford of the Golden Compass. And it's also the sort of world with a strong Victorian feel that evolved to, say, allow gay marriage in order to stop a subversive subculture. Or simply has that aesthetic but not the rigid society that would forbid it or ignore the issue altogether.

Mv Efv Somkv said...

Wow, might as well hang a "whites only" sign on the genre...