How It Works

Thank you, XKCD, for being so very, very right. This is exactly how ‘it’ works.

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50 Responses to How It Works

  1. Pingback: individuals as status representatives « mmm, brains!

  2. 2
    Sailorman says:

    Damn, you beat me to it. I opened xkcd and my very next click was over to here to tell you about that one ;)

  3. 3
    Myca says:

    *grin* I was out at a gaming con until . . . . eeee . . . 4 AM, so yeah. I was most certainly today’s early bird.

    —Myca

  4. 4
    Ampersand says:

    Wow, that’s just perfect.

  5. 5
    Mandolin says:

    I appreciate the cartoon, but I find it a bit dimmed by the fact that a cartoon on the subject of how women are othered employs a drawing style that others women. I know this is a problem with the simplistic stick figures, and I’m not sure how he would have gottne around it, but I feel the irony.

  6. 6
    BananaDanna says:

    What do you mean, Mandolin? Is it because putting womanly curves on a stick figure makes it… well, not a stick figure?

  7. 7
    Mandolin says:

    No. It’s because default stick figure is here (and usually) unmarked and therefore considered male. How do you make a girl? Take default stick figure, and mark by adding hair.

  8. 8
    signthelist says:

    The default is ALWAYS male.

    I always heard that girls were “usually” not as good at math at boys and I always said, “That isn’t true! I just happen to not be good at math, but it isn’t because I’m girl, it’s just because I’m not good at math.” Then I read a couple years ago that math is typically difficult for most people — it’s just that females are more likely to give up when the math gets difficult because instead of thinking “Math is hard for everybody!” we think “Math is hard for me!” Even though I automatically rejected “girls just aren’t good at math,” I would get discouraged really quickly when I couldn’t understand something. Plus, the students answering the questions and getting it right usually were the boys.

  9. 9
    Eliza says:

    At least he didn’t add a dress.

  10. 10
    Joe says:

    Madolin, how would you do it in the revers? If female were the default assumption how would you signal male on a stick figure?

  11. 11
    Robert says:

    The rightmost unmarked figure in the first panel is identified contextually as male, and the rightmost figure in the second panel is identified contextually as female. The leftmost figure is, however, ambiguous as to gender. And either of the “gendered” figures could be visually ambiguous in other frames or contexts, if they were not being identified for the viewer by nonvisual cues.

    Why assume ambiguity to be male? Perhaps it is ambiguity.

  12. 12
    DSimon says:

    Robert, that seems circular to me. Unless the viewer can initially tell how the figures are gendered, the joke doesn’t make sense in the first place. Also, the ambiguous figures look exactly like the male-contexted figure.

  13. 13
    Michele says:

    Well, no. The figure on the left has to be male, or else his comments don’t make a lot of sense. I’m also bothered by the stick figure dilemma, but it’s a difficult one to remedy. Maybe if the males had short hair? It would still use short hair/long hair cliches, but at least they would both be equally marked. I love the comic in any case!

  14. 14
    Ampersand says:

    I don’t think that the drawing style others women; I think the culture others women — in the form of making men the default — and the approach stick-figure cartoonists have to take reflects this.

    XKCD’s drawing style is so simple that I don’t see any way for the cartoonist to avoid this. A more complex and detailed stick-figure style (like Matt Feazell’s) could avoid this problem, by consciously choosing to have every character be gender-marked; for instance, all adult male characters could have stubble or facial hair, or male haircuts, or male-pattern baldness, or neckties. (etc.)

  15. 15
    Mandolin says:

    Explain to me how the drawing style doesn’t other women as a product of the culture’s othering of women.

  16. 16
    Ampersand says:

    The difference between “the drawing style reflects the way our culture others women” and “the drawing style others women as a product of the culture’s othering of women” is semantic, or so it seems to me. Unless I’m misunderstanding what you’re saying, I agree with it.

    I do think there’s a distinction I’m getting at which my formulation makes it easier to see. I think this cartoon others women as a byproduct of the cultural assumption that an unmarked human figure is male. To my mind, the primary thing at fault is the culture the cartoonist is working in, and the cartoonist’s approach is only secondarily at fault.

    In contrast, there are cartoonists who pretty much “other women” by drawing women as if they were an alien species (Rob Liefeld is only the most famous example). There are plenty of cartoonists who use “male as default” when they are, in fact, using a style that is more than complex enough to support a more nuanced view of depicting gender.

    I’d say the XKCD cartoonist is using a minimalist style which reflects how the culture others women, whereas Rob Liefeld is simply drawing in a way that others women (and would be “othering” no matter what the culture), because as someone who thinks about comics a lot I find it a useful distinction to be able to make.

  17. 17
    Mandolin says:

    “I’d say the XKCD cartoonist is using a minimalist style which reflects how the culture others women”

    Right. That’s why I wrote “I know this is a problem with the simplistic stick figures, and I’m not sure how he would have gotten around it, but I feel the irony.” So, I think we’re going to have to agree to agree.

  18. 18
    Ampersand says:

    Why assume ambiguity to be male? Perhaps it is ambiguity.

    As a cartoonist, you have to draw with an awareness of how readers will interpret your drawings. The sad fact is, 99% of readers will interpret a plain, unembellished stick-figure as male, unless there are elements of the comic telling the reader otherwise.

  19. 19
    Ampersand says:

    This discussion reminds me of Scott McCloud’s seminal book of comics theory, Understanding Comics. On page 45, in a discussion of how less detailed drawings can also be more iconic, he introduces this image (which he repeats a bunch of times that chapter):

    mccloud_stickfigure_man.png

    In the conclusion to the book he visually echos that image with this panel:

    mccloud_stickfigure_woman.png

    Two things that struck me about this:

    1) Most readers will assume that both these characters are white — even though neither of them have to be, and the male figure in particular could easily be non-white.

    2) McCloud felt he had to use a pony-tail on the female stickfigure.

  20. 20
    Ampersand says:

    So, I think we’re going to have to agree to agree.

    Noooooooooooooooo!

  21. 21
    StefanU says:

    Maybe the female stick figure should have breasts instead of hair.

  22. 22
    Vk says:

    Madolin, how would you do it in the revers? If female were the default assumption how would you signal male on a stick figure?

    Add a stick cock? Add facial hair?

  23. 23
    StefanU says:

    A cock is easy to hide under cloths, unlike the breasts.The characters in the cartoon are supposed to be clothed.
    The facial hair, if you make it visible enough, suggests a man who hasn’t shaved that day, which is not common in an academic environment.

  24. 24
    Daran says:

    The default is ALWAYS male.

    No it isn’t.

  25. 25
    Kira says:

    I tend to interpret stick figures in a gender-neutral way unless there’s a reason not to– i.e. explicit feminine markers which make the “default” figure male. I have a friend who draws XKCD-style cartoons, and I think most of her neutral figures are actually female, which may explain my perspective.

    That said, oh good lord was that cartoon my life in both math and science! (Not to derail things back onto the topic) ;0) And signthelist, what you say reflects my experience very well– I actually was really good at both math and science, but when I screwed up I interpreted it as “I’m not good at this” whereas guys who had an equally hard time read it as, “this is hard”.

    I think that teachers and professors giving help tended to take different tones in response: boys needing help got “here’s how you do this”, while girls (probably because of our tendency to blame ourselves for failure to understand immediately) were encouraged by way of “you can do this! Believe in yourself!” Which is a compassionate response, but inadvertently reenforces the idea that it has to do with our individual capacity, and not the fact that multivariable calculus is hard for everybody at first.

    “Believe in yourself” tends to give the impression that the odds are against you, and to personalize and magnify the issue, when in reality, it’s just a cursed math problem.

  26. 26
    Myca says:

    I think that the point Mandolin raises is generally correct, but:

    1) When the XKCD dude draws comics that involve two male stick figures, he’ll often apply some sort of single, easily identifiable characteristic to one of them as a way of differentiating. I’ve seen him do this often with a porkpie hat or stubble. That’s not to say that he doesn’t treat male as the default, just that ‘single easily identifiable characteristic for differentiation’ is his modus operandi.

    2) He does make a point of including female characters in situations where their femaleness is not ‘the point.’ That is, if a group of folks are standing around discussing something, some of them will be female, which is nice.

    —Myca

  27. 27
    Ampersand says:

    I tend to interpret stick figures in a gender-neutral way unless there’s a reason not to– i.e. explicit feminine markers which make the “default” figure male.

    I hear what you’re saying. But would it be possible to do the same thing in reverse? That is, could someone draw a stick-figure cartoon in which there were unmarked characters and characters marked as male (porkpie hats and stubble), and expect that most readers will seamlessly assume that the unmarked figures are female? I think it wouldn’t be seamless; you’d have to include clues in the script to force most readers to make that leap.

    I think there could be a really interesting series of stick-figure comics questioning gender and “default” assumptions.

  28. 28
    Jay says:

    Well, no. The figure on the left has to be male, or else his comments don’t make a lot of sense.

    Not necessarily, women can internalize sexism this way, so the left figure doesn’t necessarily have to be male. They may believe that they’re the “exception”, so to speak, so even if they believe that they themselves are good that other women aren’t.

    1) Most readers will assume that both these characters are white — even though neither of them have to be, and the male figure in particular could easily be non-white.

    That’s probably true, but has more to do with the context we place it in – North Americans believe that manga is full of white people, even with heavy Japanese cultural context and Japanese names, simply because they believe “unmarked = white”. Other people may see it differently.

    (On the flip side, minority creators may feel pressured to make their main characters white and/or male because of this normalization.)

  29. 29
    Kira says:

    Ampersand, I think you’re absolutely right, and I think that it’s not unique to stick-figure art: we can conceive of a category “neutral/probably masculine” but not “neutral/probably feminine”. Even “neutral/probably doesn’t matter which” is a stretch.

    Kind of like when you use a generic “he” people don’t seem to mind, but use a generic “she” and it’s an abnormality and people get confused…

  30. 30
    Dianne says:

    I think that teachers and professors giving help tended to take different tones in response: boys needing help got “here’s how you do this”, while girls (probably because of our tendency to blame ourselves for failure to understand immediately) were encouraged by way of “you can do this! Believe in yourself!” Which is a compassionate response, but inadvertently reenforces the idea that it has to do with our individual capacity

    I think that the “believe in yourself” thing is meant as a compassionate, encouraging reply, but it comes off as somewhat victim blaming: Not only did you fail to understand calculus or abstract algebra or whatever, but you failed because you didn’t “believe in yourself” enough.

  31. 31
    Silenced is Foo says:

    In the subject of assumptions: blackboard or whiteboard?

  32. 32
    Kira says:

    Heh. Exactly, Dianne.

  33. 33
    Myca says:

    I’m not saying that we should all read today’s XKCD because it applies to us, I’m just sayin’ . . .

    ;->

    —Myca

  34. 34
    Ampersand says:

    Holy shit, that cartoon is my life from 1999 to mid-2007!

  35. 35
    Dianne says:

    I’m fond of this one too. Partly because I wish I knew how to make an auto-targeting kilowatt laser. Not that I’d do it or anything…

  36. 36
    Dianne says:

    McCloud felt he had to use a pony-tail on the female stickfigure.

    Or even that he felt that he could use a pony-tail on a female stick figure. I know more men with pony-tails than women and my first reaction to one is that it’s a marker for a guy who wants to say that he’s unconventional.

  37. 37
    RonF says:

    That’s probably true, but has more to do with the context we place it in – North Americans believe that manga is full of white people, even with heavy Japanese cultural context and Japanese names, simply because they believe “unmarked = white”.

    Not that I’m a huge consumer of manga, but wouldn’t part of that be because the body types, especially the facial structures, are very non-Japanese? Correct me if I’m wrong – perhaps I’m confusing it with some other art form – but doesn’t manga always show the characters with exaggeratedly Western-style eyes?

  38. 38
    RonF says:

    Now what fun is an auto-targeting kilowatt laser to get rid of squirrels off of the bird feeders? My brother and my dad each employ a low-tech air rifle. It’s a lot greener (much less power used in constructing and operating it), and it improves eye-hand coordination.

  39. 39
    Ampersand says:

    Manga doesn’t “always” show the characters any particular way — there are hundreds of thousands of different manga artists working in heaven-knows-how-many different styles.

    That nit-pick aside, I do know what you’re talking about — the “big-eye” style common to a lot of manga and anime.

    The thing is, that’s not actually “western-style.” It’s cartoony, with no realistic resemblance to either “western” or Asian eye structures. I don’t see it as Asian eye structures because my internal “default” isn’t set that way, but I’ve been told by many people who would know that Japanese readers, unless there’s a context telling them otherwise, read these characters as looking like their own culture’s defaults.

  40. 40
    Daran says:

    Holy shit, that cartoon is my life from 1999 to mid-2007!

    What happened mid-2007?

  41. 41
    Ampersand says:

    I resolved to spend a lot less time on blogs, including “Alas,” and a lot more time drawing comics. This is a resolution I’ve made several times before, unsuccessfully, but this time it has stuck; I’m doing a terrible job of blogging (I hardly ever post substantively anymore), but I’ve been making a lot of progress with Hereville.

    It’s very frequent that I run into something that I really, really want to blog an argument against, and I end up reciting my new mantra to myself: “I’m a cartoonist, not a blogger; I’m a cartoonist, not a blogger; I’m a…” Sometimes I actually do recite this aloud, which I imagine would be pretty funny-sounding if anyone else were in the room to hear. :-)

  42. 42
    Robert says:

    What happened mid-2007?

    He realized that HE was the one on the Internet who was wrong.

  43. 43
    Stefan says:

    “I don’t see it as Asian eye structures because my internal “default” isn’t set that way, but I’ve been told by many people who would know that Japanese readers, unless there’s a context telling them otherwise, read these characters as looking like their own culture’s defaults.”

    This is interesting.But still, I’ve seen a lot of japanese anime feturing blond characters that were supposed to be Japanese people;it made me wonder.

  44. 44
    Ampersand says:

    I’ve seen plenty of anime with purple or green haired people, too. (Here’s a brief essay about anime hair color.)

    Superman, for decades, was drawn with black-and-blue hair, which everyone took as code for “black hair with blue highlights” — even though black hair doesn’t actually have blue highlights, unless you’re shining a bright blue light on it. But we accept that Superman’s hair isn’t “really” blue.

  45. 45
    Jake Squid says:

    But we accept that Superman’s hair isn’t “really” blue.

    And here I was thinking that Superman was an old lady all this time.

  46. 46
    Sailorman says:

    Seeing as Superman is a different species, that might have something to do with it ;) though iirc Batman’s hair was also drawn like that, and (unlike supes) he’s human.

  47. 47
    mythago says:

    What’s particularly sad about the cartoon are the comments in the xkcd blog about it.

  48. 48
    RonF says:

    I couldn’t find the comment thread for that comic.

  49. 49
    sylphhead says:

    Not that I’m a huge consumer of manga, but wouldn’t part of that be because the body types, especially the facial structures, are very non-Japanese?

    They’re also very non-human. The rest is open to each person’s interpretation.

    And what can I say, I’m curious. I get facial structure (sort of), but what constitutes a Japanese body type?

  50. 50
    mythago says:

    Ron – at the top left of the home page click on Forums, then Individual XKCD Comic Threads. I think this is the correct link: http://forums.xkcd.com/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=18590