This is the first instalment of Mon-Wed-Fri, which in a completely logical fashion will update on Sundays. A lot of the time, I’ll be reviewing and deconstructing individual storylines or entries in a webcomic, but today I’d like to look at one of the pitfalls that can come with work in a specific type of webcomics medium- the stick figure comic.
Let’s get it out there early- the big problem with stick figure comics is that they’re about guys. If you can, draw a stick figure on a nearby piece of paper. You don’t have to change anything to make that figure male, but you want to make the figure female, you can either go for drawing long hair on the figure, or drawing stereotypical female clothing, which would mean you’d have to draw clothing on all your stick figures for consistency. So why is this the case, when we know full well that many men have long hair, and many women have short hair?
The problem comes, in large part, from the idea of the “default human”. When we’re shown a figure as ambiguous as a stick figure, we imagine a man- usually a straight, white, able-bodied, cis man. This is because, as a society, we’ve framed every other form of human existence as a deviation from this “default human” figure. Think of how often, in the news, straight, white, able-bodied, cis male politicians are referred to as white, for example. Their race rarely comes up in an examination of their politics, unless their work is in an explicitly race-related area. Their able-bodied status won’t be brought up as affecting their feelings about welfare payments; the fact that they’re male won’t come up when they talk about the budget. Their sexuality and gender identity won’t be held up as an explanation for the way they vote on immigration. But if a human being dares to transgress one of these boundaries- dares to be black, or, disabled, or gay, or trans, or even female, then this difference- this deviation from the human “norm”- will be used to try and explain everything about them.
So how does this relate to stick figure comics? We’ve all internalised the idea of the default human. It means that when we look at a stick figure, the vast majority of us will see a “default human”- especially, we see a man. http://xkcd.com/790/ shows a perfect example- the two female characters in the strip have had detail added to show their deviation from the expected stick figure character of the white male. While xkcd is not explicitly feminist, it certainly has some feminist sensibilities, yet it’s unconsciously reinforcing this idea of the default human over and over.
So what can be done to combat this? One idea is to add a small level of detail to every character, thereby individualizing all the characters and ensuring there’s no basic stick figure in the strip to act as the default human. One could also go the other way, and instead remove all deviations from the basic stick figure, but that can cause problems identifying characters, especially in longer comics. A third way- and not one I’ve seen done before- is to frame a different human type as the basic stick figure type. Imagine if a stick figure comic gave all the males a shoulder bar, and left the female stick figures with their arms attached directly to their bodies. I don’t think I’ve seen it done anywhere, but it’d certainly be interesting to see!
Finally, it’s important to note that this problem isn’t a problem about drawing with stick figures- these deceptively simple little sketches can be used to make excellent comics. It’s a problem because of the attitudes and expectations we, the readers, can’t help but bring to the table; when someone draws a basic human, we expect a white guy. The best way to combat this is to make fewer representations of straight white able-bodied cis men, and stop sticking them in tv shows, comics and books to try and appeal to everyone. They really don’t. As consumers of media, we can vote with our daily dollar- support a book or a webcomic that represents more than just this little sliver of society. The idea of the “default human” is poisonous when compared to the diverse mosaic of human life; let’s demand to see it represented in all its glory.
If you want to see this phenomenon in action, the best places to go are www.xkcd.com and www.chainsawsuit.com, both of which are excellent reads as well as displaying male as the default figure. Also check out www.picturesforsadchildren.com, which tends to show a simplistic style with a deviation from the norm to identify each character (not all the time, though) so long as you can put up with a webcomic that is deeply, and sometimes hilariously, bleak. You can also check out cyanide and happiness at www.explosm.com, but bear in mind it is a long way away from being a safe or feminist space.
Alexander “Nines” Patterson