Recently at the AIGA office, we were visually taken in by Jade Schulz’s Dropcap Video Vixen alphabet illustrations, but the series provoked a small debate amongst staffers. They’re beautifully drawn and the characters are expressive, lively, and full of personality, but the over-sexualized shapes contorted into letterforms literally objectify the body. As much as we champion new typography, the way these figures of women have been rendered perpetuates stereotypes in a dangerous way—and we have a fundamental problem with that.
There’s a definite trend at the moment in illustrated and photographic alphabets made from women’s bodies. The results are often aesthetically interesting, but the illustrators and designers don’t always seem to think about the context in which these images are created and shared. What are you actually suggesting when you twist a torso or squeeze a shapely thigh to form the arc of a letter?
The genre of typography has its roots in the early and mid 20th century, when the Art Deco-era artist and designer Romain de Tirtoff, better known by his pseudonym Erté, would often illustrate elaborate, jewel-clad figures for the covers of magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and Ladies’ Home Journal. His drawings explored the relationship between the female body, graphic design, and fashion, themes he went back to for his iconic book of prints from his alphabet series, a collection of images of letters fabricated almost entirely out of the female body.
Roland Barthes wrote the introduction to a collection of Erté’s work, noting that the designer’s silhouettes were “an essentially graphic product [that] makes the human body a potential letter [that] demands to be read.” By combining the graphic qualities of a letter with the sensuous contours of a body, Erté’s alphabet interpreted the body of a woman as an object shaped by language. Barthes saw it as a commentary on how the female body was a fetishized, textual object, one that had become determined by language and was there to be “read.”
The clothes of the women in Erté’s drawings meld into their skin—uniting gender and sex in a way that feels inextricably bound. Sexualized accessories like stilettos, lipstick, and garter belts are contorted around flesh to fit into the lines and curves of a given letterform. The three elements—female attire, a woman’s body, and language as evoked by each drop cap—are graphically fixed together. In a way, these letters distill the three core components of a fashion glossy into one striking sign.
As Maggie Nelson’s beautiful nonfiction book Argonauts has recently explored, language can create rigid categories of “he” and “she,” whereas the real experience of gender might actually be more flexible. Imagery like Erté’s also explores how language—both the written and visual language of fashion magazines—fixes and proscribes.
Scroll through any design blog or Tumblr today and you’ll see lots of alphabets made using women’s body parts. Obviously, different alphabets by different designers have been created for different purposes and suggest different things, so it’s important to consider each separately. For example, in 2010 artist Erik Foss cut up a series of ’70s pin-up girl magazines and arranged them into a “sexybet” he called “Word.” Was this a post-Dadaist homage to Barthes’ interpretation and Erté’s message, or an aesthetically arresting way to create prints that people could buy in their own initials and hang up in bachelor pads? To be fair, the prints could be interpreted either way—I find them intriguing because they allude to the notion of a pornographic language that has become part of the status quo, specifically the way we’re often encouraged to “read” women’s bodies.
M/M(Paris)’s 2001 “A – Z of Beauty” for V Magazine could be considered a follow up to Erté’s visual commentary. It, too, directly links fashion models with text and the way magazines have devised a language centered around the female body. The studio cut away at 26 photographs of famous models in order to create each letterform, using shadows and existing lines within the photos as the basis of each shape. D, for example, was for Sophie Dahl. The outcome is disconcerting but striking—directly communicating the way that what we see as beautiful is a language in itself, with its own rules, restrictions, and mythology.
In 1940, Vogue’s swimsuit issue also designed a special masthead with letterforms made from diving women. The result doesn’t make the same statement as M/M (Paris)’s alphabet—its too tidy and safe, and more a playful, simple visual pun. These letters are also different because the women themselves form the shapes of letters—there’s some agency involved.
When these alphabets are purely an aesthetic fetishization of the body, I find them problematic because of their perpetuation of stereotypes. It’s when they’re used to make a commentary on an issue that they become interesting.
Mailka Favre is a favorite contemporary illustrator of mine, and one who has also become known for her illustrated, body-based alphabets. Her Kama Sutra alphabet wasn’t only beautifully executed, but it imaginative, ingenious, and surprising, too. I’m less keen on her earlier Alphabunnies series, which simply perpetuates the stereotype that Playboy has managed to entrench so deeply into our culture. Still, I don’t ready Favre’s series as a commentary on Playboy’s “read” of women’s bodies; each letter is too cute and fun to be really subversive.
A few months back, when designer and illustrator Pâté created his “Sex & Disability” alphabet, he also used women’s body parts to form letter shapes, but because the way they’re depicted is a clear break from prevailing stereotypes, I find the alphabet much more compelling than “Alphabunnies” or “Video Vixens.”
Using letterforms to rebel against the status quo is much more of a radical act because it implies that we should rebel against those same norms in language itself. And since language and letters define so much of the way we view the world, integrating the visually marginalized and under-represented into an alphabet is a fresh, innovative statement. When designers create letterforms using stereotypical, over-sexualized depictions of women, it not only normalizes this stereotype, but it implies that it’s as fixed as language is. We’re not exploring the fluid, in-between areas, we’re simply re-asserting the problematic ones.
If designers and illustrators are going to make alphabets with women’s bodies, why not use it as an opportunity to do something new and interesting, like, say, reassess gender norms and the sexual status quo? Even Playboy got tired of its own image, for heaven’s sake! If your message isn’t new or interesting, at the very least don’t reinforce the Dark Ages of sexual stereotypes.