Gender question for animal illustrations


  • SVS OG

    I'm working on a possible illustration for the September contest (possible in that I don't know if I'll actually submit it) and the main characters in my illustration are rabbits. The prompt is "Everyone was shocked to see her show up to school with ___” which implies the main character needs to be female but female and male rabbits look the same. I wasn't going to put clothes on them but even thinking about it took me down a rabbit hole (so to speak) in terms of gender stereotypes. If I put her in a dress or put ribbons in her hair, doesn't that contribute to the implication that girls wear frilly things and boys don't? (I personally hardly ever wear dresses.) I remember a conversation on a past thread in which someone suggested that you can differentiate between boys and girls somewhat through anatomical nuances but that's not true in rabbits.

    On the other hand, if I leave the rabbits unadorned our cultural biases are so subconscious that I suspect that everyone will see all of the characters as male even though, being rabbits, they could all be female.

    Have you ever encountered this kind of situation? Do you worry about it? Have you come up with solutions? I'm curious about how others handle it, if at all.



  • What about the body and snout? I mean male is more stronly build and the female slender and cuter? I would not do Accessory. Maybe also colors, the calmer nice color ligter color for female and darker stronger color for male?


  • Pro

    @demotlj I usually put eyelashes on girls and none on guys - whether it's humans or animals. Works well for me, and it's not as fraught with dated cultural implication as pink frilly accessories. However here I'd ask another question: is it necessary to the telling of the story that we can tell if the rabbit is male or female? Some people will think of it as male, some will think of it as female. The prompt will help us assume correctly but even if we don't, our experience is the same. Even for young human children I don't find it usually crucial to be able to know right away if it's a boy or a girl. Leaving that up for the reader to decide is perfectly fine in many situations.



  • I think it will be totally fine with a gender neutral character for this contest. When there is a character with gender neural look under this prompt, I will just assume it is "her" by default. If the image appears in other context without the prompt, then I will think it is a rabbit, rather than thinking about genders. I normally do not think about gender if the character is an animal, unless the story mentions or emphasises the gender.



  • I think keeping it gender neutral is totally valid. Especially since you clearly have an issue with stereotyping genders in your illustrations, this is another level of what your art is saying, you deliberately chose to solve this particular issue by not creating visual stereotypes. If anyone asks “is this a girl or a boy?” Your answer would be “that’s not the point so it doesnt matter”

    Another thing you can do is dress the bunnies up in school uniforms, another level of sending a message about gender stereotypes. School uniforms contribute to oppression! Or something like that.

    That actually sounds like a fun piece.. a student burning her school uniform... hmm


  • SVS OG

    @demotlj i personally don’t give this much of a thought. It’s just too debilitating if you think about it too much. I say illustrate what your story needs. If your story calls for a girl in a frilly dress, draw a frilly dress. There’s nothing wrong in dressing in girly clothes. Even in real life, one’s clothes does not dictate who they are. The person wearing the clothes dictate who they are! A girl can wear a frilly, poofy pink dress and still be a badass. In storytelling, this is called as subversion. Do what’s best for the story. You can embrace these stereotypes and even play around with them but don’t let them limit you.



  • @Nyrryl-Cadiz i get that solution and thats a totally legit way to go about it. I think @demotlj is trying to find a solution they’re going to be happier with. Drawings often represent the artists points of views and their thoughts so they want to communicate these things in a way that solves both the perception of gender and also the prompt. It’s fun to think about, push the boundaries sorta thing.



  • Interesting topic! I have a personal example of this as a consumer of children's books. The Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems are pretty dang popular. I'd read one to my daughter every once in a while whenever we spotted them at the library over a span of many months, maybe even years? All that time I assumed Piggie was a boy, because as far as I had noticed, Piggie's gender was never mentioned, even in pronouns and she looks pretty gender neutral. Then they used a "she" or "her" when referring to Piggie and I declared I thought Piggie was a boy the whole time, my husband agreed, and my daughter way like "No mom and dad, Piggie's always been s girl, duh".

    I wonder if the upcoming generations of kids are as affected by cultural biases toward gender as some of us adults are? My 7 and 3 year old don't seem to have that bias as deeply ingrained at this point in their lives. They tend to go the opposite way. This could be due to age, or our household environment, or the larger culture, who knows.

    I think it's fine to represent characters as gender neutral. I think it's fine to represent them in their stereotypical norms. What I think is most important, is that all types of kids are represented. People whether male or female fall on a wide scale of what we consider masculine and feminine. It's ok to show this range. If you personally want to make it one of your values to represent less stereotypical "girly" girls, go for it! It will definitely serve that demographic and is a valid choice.


  • SVS OG

    As I read your responses, I realize that there are really two different questions -- the first is how do you indicate gender in non-stereotypical ways when it is necessary to indicate gender, and the second is how non-gendered characters are "read" by the reader. I suspect that @TessaW may be very right that gender bias is something that develops with age and/or culture and I will be interested to see if the next generation doesn't have that bias. (I know for example that all of the children growing up in my church automatically use the pronoun "she" when referring to ministers because that's what I am.)

    I asked the question because the prompt definitely indicates the main character is a girl but as @xin-li said, that also means that the viewer will assume the main character in the illustration is a girl so I don't need to indicate it.

    I was also thinking that there may be times, however, when I might want to indicate the gender in order to challenge cultural assumptions which, though they might be changing are still there, such as showing female scientists, male elementary school teachers etc. I like @NessIllustration technique of the eyelashes because that seems the least stereotypical.

    Thanks for the help.



  • @demotlj yeah, how you’re influenced throughout your life creates those biases.

    We as illustators are influencers so we can either conform to already existing biases, or break them. Figuring out how to break them is a greater challenge and I think often times we conform because of the difficulty and time constraints.



  • I do think about gender within a story, especially after becoming a mom myself. I paid much more attension to how the gender stereotypes have been portrayed in stories. I believe us visual storytellers have a role in shaping the culture itself. So I do feel a sense of responsibility. But that does not mean girls can not have frilly dress, or pink tea sets - uniformed rules seldomly work when dealing with culture issues. It is the spirit/attitude of the character that matters more than what she/he wear or look. I think drawing female scientists, and male elementary school teachers is a good starting point.



  • @demotlj first off, thank you for bringing this up! I love when there are gender neutral characters in the illustrations as it allows the reader to come to their own conclusions. If I have to draw differences I usually imply more square shapes for a male and more rounded shapes for female when it comes to animals. Also I might distinguish by size or slight difference in color.

    On the other side, I am a mom of 3 kids and one of my daughters has always hated frills, dresses, and the expectation that she's supposed to be clean and pretty. Seeing illustrations always showing girls in dresses or bows has been frustrating for her to such an extent that she prefers animal illustrations where she can ignore gender as much as possible. She also has specifically complained that there aren't as many girl characters in tracking mud in with their hiking boots, slaying dragons or looking up any type of bug other than ladybug or butterfly. Since books are where she goes for validation, while she waits for the other kids in her class to grow out of the unicorn and rainbow phase, I am constantly searching for books with similarly fierce and independently spirited girls either in story or illustration. She has even made up her own illustrations for books where she liked the story but didn't agree with small details (Hogwarts having skirts as part of its uniform was particularly disappointing).

    I'm only beginning with illustration (still on year 1 and getting my drawing skills up to where I want them), but it is a very interesting point to consider. Thank you for bringing it to focus!


  • SVS OG

    @charitymunoz I am right there with your daughter! I'm 61 and have spent my life looking for female heroines that I could identify with. Your daughter's comment about muddy boots made me laugh because I live in the country, love to work and be outside in all kinds of weather, and I have lots of muddy boots, muddy coats, and muddy you name it! Why should boys get all the fun? 🙂



  • I think using the eyelashes to designate females is something that works.

    Just thought I'd throw it out there, though that many boys & men have beautiful, long, dark lashes. We just perceive it as a female trait, since so many women paint their lashes with mascara and draw attention to their eyes with make-up (and sometimes posturing 😉 ).



  • @Miriam Am i the only one that has seen more men with longer darker lashes than women?


  • SVS OG

    @Miriam @Aleksey Argghhh! I thought I had solved the dilemma by choosing to use longer eyelashes and now you've thrown me back into my indecision 🙂 Actually, in the case of the illustration I'm doing that made me raise the question, I've decided not to show gender at all, and in the future I guess I'll just have to decide on a case to case basis.



  • @demotlj yay! I like this solution


  • Pro

    @Miriam I know right! This is a funny one for me. I've long done very realistic paintings in the past and painted eyelashes on the men - because duh they have the, too. But in more simplified drawing it definitely looks like a female trait. It's interesting! In the end when you're drawing something you use the tools that give the effect you want, whether it's anatomically realistic or not!


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