Stickman Jack.

Originally published on Monster’s Blog.
spokesmonster blog header

I’ve got a funny job. For the last two weeks I’ve been doing nothing but drawing cartoon monsters. I’ve spent entire days with my feet up on my desk, pad and paper in my lap, doodling snail ladies and lizard rappers. For the longest time I had no idea where this was taking me. Maybe I was using the doodling as an excuse to avoid doing more productive work. But all these monsters will be going into the next Spokesmonster video, so I figure I haven’t been totally wasting my time.

I just did a tally of my completed monsters. I’m up to eighteen now. (Many of these are just drawings that will be flashed onscreen for a moment or two, but some of them have been broken down for limb movements and facial expressions.) Here’s the thing: I’d like there to be roughly as many girl monsters as there are boy monsters. But I’m already out of whack. I’ve got twelve boy monsters, only six girl monsters.

Why is it so much easier to come up with male characters than female characters? I’m not the only animator with this deficiency. Look at the old Disney or Warner Brothers cartoons. Disney had Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck, but they were stuck in minor supporting roles. Warner Brothers had Bugs Bunny in a dress – that’s about it. The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park all have girls in them, but I’d reckon there are ten male characters for every female one.

Why aren’t animators more interested in drawing female characters? Perhaps they’re limited by a sense of decorum. You needn’t have seen too many episodes of the Simpsons to summon up examples of Homer being dropped from great heights, having heavy weights dropped on him, or losing his pants. Those things just don’t happen to Marge or Lisa. If the definition of comedy is inflicting pain or physical humiliation on your characters, and if our culture is uncomfortable with seeing women brutalized in those ways, that’s a powerful disincentive to drawing female cartoons. Why use Daisy Duck if we can’t clunk her over the head for laffs? We’ll just use Donald instead.

But I wonder if the gender disparity doesn’t derive from something more fundamental. Look at the design of the male and female icons on bathroom doors. The male icon is a simple stick figure. The female icon is a stick figure with a dress. Boiled down to their most basic forms, the woman requires more lines to draw than the man.

male and female bathroom icons

I’ve noticed in my own drawing that it takes longer to design a female character than it does a male character. With a girl monster I have to worry about hips and boobs and hair and making sure the facial features look feminine – I don’t mean attractive, I just mean that you want your girl monster to actually look like a girl. The cheap way to do this is to give her lipstick and long eyelashes. Or you can be a bit more subtle in the shaping of the jaw and the placement of the eyes, so that makeup is unnecessary. Either way, it takes a little extra work. And I’m a fundamentally lazy guy.

With a boy monster, you just hack out your basic human figure and you’re done – it’s a boy.

For some reason, by default, cartoons come out male.

Why is this? Obviously, there’s a long and complicated history behind the iconography of maleness and femaleness, and much of that history occurred back when women weren’t in a position to complain about what the men were painting on bathroom doors. But those bathroom icons reflect something other than centuries of sexism. Maybe stick figures are assumed to be male for a reason: the basic male shape really is composed of simple straight lines, while the basic female shape is made up of more complicated curves. Maybe it’s not just sexism that skews my monsters male by a ratio of two to one, but physiology.

If my speculation is correct, the pro-male bias appears at the very earliest stage of the creative process – the stage where the cartoonist, chair leaned back, feet on desk, idly doodles on a scratchpad. If every doodle starts as a male, then of course the cartoonist will wind up with a gallery of male characters.

Maybe I’m making an assumption, though. When women doodle, do their doodles come out female?


1 Response to “Stickman Jack.”

  1. 1 Jessica June 12, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Hi Michael, thanks for your thoughtful post about the underrepresentation of female cartoon characters. It’s important to bring these issues to light and to talk about them! You bring up many interesting points. I wonder if one of the reasons male figures seem ‘easier’ to draw is because the default human is considered male – that is, the default human (or stick figure) is assumed to be male unless indicated otherwise, and so we add additional things to the ‘default’ in order to make them female.

    However, consider for a moment if we lived in a world where the default human was assumed to be female rather than male. Then it’s possible that the more simple stick figure would be taken as female (as the default). So then we would have to add things to make it appear male, such as muscles or short hair or an upside-down triangle shape for the body. Then, the male character would be more difficult to draw than the female character.

    So I’m not convinced it is something fundamental about the actual physicality of women and men that makes it easier to draw men. I think it’s something fundamental about our assumptions of who is considered the default human being and who is considered a deviation from that norm, i.e., a special case of the human condition. The norm will always be easier to draw because deviations from that norm will always require the norm as the starting point, and additions or subtractions from that norm to indicate the deviation.

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking post!

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker