Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Racial Facial

During my time at the college paper, one of my jobs was editing the opinion page, which featured a roster of columns about “campus life,” whatever that means. Foremost among these — if not it terms of quality than at least in terms of controversy — was the sex column, the Wednesday Hump. I considered it a necessary evil. When written well, it educated while also firing off a few good jokes. More often, however, it was smut for smut’s sake. And save for the one male writer, every Humper would attempt to write the authoritative how-to on giving a blow job. This always bugged me, because someone who’s never received one has about as much business writing about giving one as they would, say, peeing at a urinal or choosing a jock strap.

That being said, the Wednesday Hump has its virtues, and one of them seems to be use as a source for sex-related Wikipedia entries. One that I edited, for example, is included on Wikipedia’s “walk of shame” entry as a recommended further reading. And just this week, I learned that a columnist from another year gets mentioned in the entry for “Facial” — that is, not the thing rich ladies pay to have done for them at day spas, but the other kind, the sexual kind, the kind that only a certain kind of lady would pay to have done to her, and even then only at a certain kind of establishment.

So now I’m going to link to this particular Wikipedia page, but I should tell you now that though it is, in fact, an educational article — between 1.5 and 5 milliliters! who knew? — the illustrations are totally NOT SAFE FOR WORK. However, they’re also the subject of this post, so click at your own risk.

I can understand that Wikipedia pages on sex acts could benefit from visual aids, and that illustrations might seem less titillating than photographs. But I have a problem with the images currently featured on Wikipedia’s entry on “facial (sex act).” See, the nature of this thing is complicated in that it isn’t necessarily desired on the part of the recipient. If that’s someone’s cup of tea (or cup of whatever), fine, but it could be an unexpected and unwanted denouement to a consensual sex act. The article states as much, namechecking everyone from Dr. Ruth to Dan Savage to a certain Daily Nexus columnist on the pluses and minuses of the facial. And the illustrations also reflect this duality.

But consider this: You’re tasked with drawing the art to accompany an encyclopedic entry on this particular sex act. What race do you make the participants? I feel like the easy solution would be to abstract the figures so they don’t look like any person in particular, but that’s not what the artist who submitted these illustrations did. In the piece showing a mutually appreciated facial, the man is white, while the woman — who’s smiling and wiping her eye, as if she’s just enjoyed a hilarious anecdote — could be Caucasian or Asian or Latina. In the piece showing the degrading facial, the man has dark skin and the woman is a Caucasian brunette. And is she crying? Yes! I think she — no, wait, those aren’t tears. But she’s clearly not happy about the punchline to her evening’s activities. Now, speaking racially, isn’t this all a little, ahem, loaded?

Yes, I’m putting more thought into these illustrations that most would — or at least more of this particular kind of thought — but as an editor and as someone who enjoys the noble idea of an educational text being as unbiased as possible, I have to wonder about what logic went into the choices that created this art, in a whole “Who Chooses the Details?” sort of way. And on the article’s discussion page, a lot of Wikipedia editors agree. But isn’t it strange that a person, setting out to make something they think is beneficial and educational, could accidentally create art that others could so easily criticize as being racist? Isn’t it strange how blind someone could be to what’s obvious to everybody else?

4 comments:

  1. "But isn’t it strange that a person, setting out to make something they think is beneficial and educational, could accidentally create art that others could so easily criticize as being racist?"

    No, because in this world, if you create art and there are people in it, then it's a guarantee that someone will find an opportunity to criticize it based on the race of those people.

    "Isn’t it strange how blind someone could be to what’s obvious to everybody else?"

    Isn't it strange how it only takes 0.001% to create the impression that "everybody else" is outraged?

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  2. For a good while, it was a non-issue for the Nexus artists since artwork was printed in black and white/grayscale. Even when we had full color capability online, the criticisms usually fell to the writer's content rather than the art accompanying the subject matter.

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  3. Hobbs: I understand what you're saying. And I think people could pick out a point on which they could accuse most creative efforts of some sort of racism, if they were really looking for a point. However, not all these people would be wrong. Furthermore, I really think the artist here opening herself up to the criticism in a way most creative types usually don't. And she could have avoided it if she simply thought ahead and anticipated how people might question the decisions being made. I'm not saying she's racist. I'm saying she's shortsighted.

    Batalla: That makes sense. But tell me -- as an artist illustrating a text in a way that supports and enhances it for the widest possible audience, wouldn't it be a better decision, generally speaking, to make the figures relatable to the highest possible number of people? Like, wouldn't abstracting the figures as much as possible prevent people from reading too much into the artist's intent? Here, the gendering is unavoidable, at least to an extent, but making the figures look racial seems needless.

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  4. I tend to whitewash my characters characters and make them sexy. The complaints I received weren't directed at the whitewashing, but rather the sexism of objectifying the female figure. Plus, I don't draw in a particularly realistic portrait style. The audience can still interpret the character into whatever race they see fit.

    But when it comes to the race issue, it was actually a political column about radical Muslims that had this type of situation. One editor, let's call him Daniel H., no that's too obvious, let's call him D. Haier, thought the straightforward artwork accompanying an already inflammatory column was too much. The original artist left for the night, so I had to redraw the images into something more metaphorical.

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