You may have caught my recent article about hyper-sexualized illustrated alphabets, specifically alphabets made from women’s bodies, something I come across a lot online every day. In it I question the way these sexualized depictions of women are being used to create letterforms, an action that I find, more often than not, problematic. If text is an object to be read, what exactly are we saying when we use a woman’s naked body to create the shape of the letterforms?
The article was written as a stand-alone opinion piece, and it felt important to simply have my voice in it—not the voices of the designers whose work I referenced—because part of my point was that despite a designer’s good intentions, the public’s reaction to their work is out of their control once it leaves the studio. There are other factors to consider, too, like the way we consume an image and the associations we bring to it.
The article sparked quite a debate, so we decided to follow up with the designers in question. I spoke with illustrators Malika Favre, Jade Schulz, and Paul Pateman (a.k.a Pâté on Toast), all of whom I referred to in my piece, as well as AIGA’s Diversity & Inclusion resident, Obed Figueroa, and AIGA’s director of strategic initiatives, Aidan O’Connor, who first raised the need for sensitivity and discussion when our editorial director Perrin Drumm shared one of Jade Schulz’s Video Vixen letters on the @AIGAdesign Instagram feed.
Tell me about the context behind your alphabet series. Malika in your case Alphabunnies; Paul, your Sex and Disability A-Z; and Jade, your Video Vixens Dropcaps.
Malika Favre: The Alphabunnies were created as a personal project. The idea came as I was drawing them and realizing that some of my characters already looked like letters. Back then, I was fascinated by the Egyptian representations of gods and created a series of women with animal heads. Why women? Because the female body is a thing of beauty. Why bunnies? To reflect the cheeky and playful personality of the letterforms I created, in the same way the Egyptian gods were associated with animals.
Drawing sexy women has always been something I love doing. Most of the erotic work out there is drawn by men, and I knew very early on that I wanted to share my own approach to sex: playful, fun, and cheeky. I find it empowering as a woman myself and certainly not offensive.
I actually find it amazing that people can be shocked by a little black triangle, two little dots, and a lot of negative space. It goes to show that there is more power in what you hide than what you actually show. To me, this sums up what female sensuality is about.
Paul Pateman: The intention behind my alphabet was to celebrate the loves and lusts of disabled people in Britain today. The A-Z of sex and disability takes a raunchy and light-hearted approach to debunking the myth that disabled people don’t have fulfilling sex lives or relationships, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Jade Schulz: I made my Video Vixen letters serendipitously out of fun and curiosity. I love pop culture in general, but one of the things I’m fascinated by is the visuals of hip hop culture, especially male rapper videos where video vixen girls function as two-dimensional, sexy accessories. I wanted to pull them out of the background and give them their own space. I also wanted to explore and celebrate female shapes and non-caucasian features, which typically have a token presence in mass visual culture.
Obed and Aidan, what made you initially uncomfortable about Perrin sharing an image from Jade Schulz’s Video Vixens series?
Obed Figueroa: My initial reaction to the imagery was how it depicted these women in an exotic, sexualized manner. I was especially concerned about how African American women might perceive these images due to the context of their experiences and historical context specific to the U.S., which include dehumanization, discrimination, and oppression.
My concern with this series is that it plays into a particular entrenched stereotypical depiction hypersexualizing women of color.
Aidan O’Connor: It’s important for me to clarify that I was not immediately concerned with the work itself (being unfamiliar with the designer, the context, etc.), but rather that we, on behalf of AIGA, might share one of these images without situating it properly, without acknowledging implications or inviting discussion.
As Obed says, this alphabet is specifically representing women of color, which complicates the analysis beyond similar projects based on women’s bodies generally. I’m absolutely not an expert here, but regarding Video Vixens in particular, in the last few years there have been more visible and heated discussions around issues of appropriation, exploitation, agency, hypersexalization—conversations too complex to unpack here, but which definitely came to mind when I saw the first image.
Perrin Drumm: Content is king, but context is key might be my new editorial mantra. We’ve learned a lot in recent months about the manner in which we share images, and we’re improving our process all the time. For example, while social media remains one of the best ways for us to share a designer’s work quickly and widely, the limited word count in social posts simply doesn’t allow for enough space to establish the context around a complicated image. That doesn’t mean we’ll stop sharing, it just means we have to get a little more clever about how we do it.
Returning to the themes of my initial article, I expressed concern about bending over-sexualized depictions of the female body into letterforms because, in many cases, it turns the body into a fetishized, textural object. Do you agree?
Figueroa: Yes, I do agree and it is particularly concerning for groups that have an oppressive and discriminatory history, which includes women and especially women of color.
Favre: There is a fine line between over-sexualizing something and creating something that is sexy. Bending the female body can go either way, I agree; it can empower as much as it can stigmatize. I just feel that the particular examples you picked make your case feel more like conservatism than feminism. And you’re probably just as much a conservative as I am a misogynist.
Schulz: The body has been fetishized long before I arrived and will continue to be used because I think we’re captivated by the shapes on a primitive level. Personally, I’m interested in representation and race as a power construct and questioning the social values that are reflected in visual communication.
Regarding the over-sexualization of the female, who defines that and by what standard? I’m more interested in bringing these questions to the surface than answering them directly.
Pateman: Our culture is over-sexualized, and maybe you could argue that these letterforms are a symptom of that. But to be honest I’ve never looked at it in that way, when I look at Malika’s alphabets what I see is a beautifully crafted idea, where no human forms are cheated or contorted. I see beauty in the craft and execution of it.
As graphic designers and illustrators, you shape the images that surround us every day and that represent us. Do you feel that you have a responsibility to challenge and subvert the problematic stereotypes that have become entrenched in visual culture?
Favre: Of course we do. But no one can do that every single day of their creative lives. Most changes are imperceptible and happen organically over time. My Kama Sutra alphabet, which you praised in your article (and which in fact did empower a lot of women out there) would never have existed if it weren’t for the Alphabunnies.
As long as your intentions are in the right place and that you don’t take the easy road, you are fulfilling your responsibility as a creative.
Pateman: I get tired of the generic, bland beauty images that you see in advertising. But it works, you know, that’s why they do it. Speaking from experience, it is incredibly hard to make a client go for quirky over stereotypically beautiful, because quirky is a risk and stereotypical beauty is backed by evidence. So maybe the burden lies with the clients, art directors, or commissioning editors. Maybe they have to be braver.
Schulz: I think about this issue all the time and it’s one of the reasons that I made these letters. I’m conscious of the fact that I made the women have shape and color, and that it’s difficult to pinpoint race or ethnic background. I also knew that there might be some issues if the girls were extra voluptuous. I could have made them more svelte, like runway models because that’s more acceptable. So then I question, why does having extra flesh make the bodies more sexualized than if they had a smaller butt, for instance?
O’Connor: As with so many things, especially from the perspective of gender equality, diversity, and inclusion, “it’s complicated.” What one designer or viewer may see as celebratory or empowering, another might see as inappropriate, demeaning, even oppressive—and vice-versa. That’s not to limit what designers can or should do, just to say it should be part of our consideration as we process and share content.
Context is key. Especially with more personal and experimental projects, it’s always illuminating to know who the designer is, where they’re coming from, and what their message is.
However, given the influence designers play in visual culture, intention doesn’t necessarily trump impact.
There is such a long and layered tradition of artists and designers incorporating women’s bodies into their visual language. Whether driven by professional “responsibility” or personal compulsion, the most interesting projects to me are those addressing or subverting the expected, stereotypical images and applications—especially as more women are now in the creative driver’s seat. Opening up the conversation is important, and I’m so glad to see designers voices here.
Now I’m thinking of the alphabet of issues I’d love to see creative responses to: A for authenticity to Z for zeitgeist?