Imagine this: You go to a swank hotel, and you’re totally digging the fantastic amenities—state-of-the-art fitness center, Olympic-sized pool, fabulous brunch buffet, jacuzzi tub in the room—until you discover that (surprise!) you’ve been treated to something that wasn't advertised in the brochure: bed bugs. Ugh. You know the feeling: you went for one thing, but came home with something completely different. And now you have to burn all your clothes and throw away your luggage because yuck. And the only thing you remember about that hotel—the only thing you will ever remember about that hotel—is the bed bugs.
Well, I had an experience like that when I attended a recent two-hour workshop on children’s book illustration. I didn’t come home covered in red, itchy bumps, but I definitely went for one thing and sadly came home with something I hadn't asked for.
Here’s how it happened.
At a recent writing conference, I attended a workshop that was billed as a “two-hour crash course in art school.” Awesome! I thought. That’s about as much time as I have to devote to art school at the moment.
The lecture delivered on much of what it promised: I learned about hue, saturation, value, and temperature. I learned about composition and the basic four-color palette. I learned about the all-important "first read" of an illustration. The lecturer was knowledgeable and organized. He clearly knew his stuff.
But…here come the bed bugs.
About five minutes into the lecture, I noticed that the first four names that the artist/lecturer referenced (and presented as illustrators to study) were men. My recent involvement with The KidLitWomen project had sharpened my awareness of this imbalance in our industry: male illustrators receive a disproportionate amount of attention, dollars, and awards in the world of children’s literature. Women illustrators (and particularly illustrators who are women of color) have a hard time getting noticed at all, let alone walking away with the big awards.
Getting noticed matters in this business.
A thought occurred to me: It would be interesting to see how the male/female imbalance might play out in this one two-hour session. I started jotting down every name that the lecturer mentioned. Many were children’s book artists, but others were filmmakers, art critics, fine artists, designers, and others. These were the people that the lecturer held up as models to the audience. His message was, These are the people I have learned from in my extensive (and expensive!) art school education, and these are the people you should learn from, too.
Over the course of the two-hour lecture, 26 names were referenced in total; 25 of them were men. The only woman who was referenced at all during the two hours was mentioned in the last ten minutes and only in passing. I don’t even remember what was said about her, the reference was so brief. Her name was spoken once by the lecturer, and none of her work was shown on the screen. Male references: 96%. Female references: 4%.
Being referenced leads to getting noticed, which matters in this business.
And (here’s the bed bug part) while the content of the lecture was valuable, the only thing I will ever remember about that lecture is that women were practically shut out. There could be no denying it. I had the stats staring me in the face.
During and after the lecture, I was hyper-aware of the unspoken message that was delivered that day. But I’m sure that many people in the audience (who were overwhelmingly women) walked away absorbing the message unconsciously, which of course is the most powerful way to take in a belief. The belief being: the best of the best in children’s book illustration are men. The belief being: If you’re a woman illustrator, your work is second-rate. The belief being: In the world of children’s book illustration, men matter and women do not. They’re barely worth mentioning. They hardly exist.
So the people in the audience (to repeat, mostly women) went home without knowing that they’d been infested with bed bugs. And they brought those bugs into their own houses and into the intimacy of their own beds (which I will liken to their subconscious minds), and those bugs are going to cause all kinds of harm. And then, like the worst infestations, they will spread. Women thinking, I don’t deserve to be noticed. I don’t deserve to win awards. I don’t deserve as much money as my male counterparts. And right now, I just want to shout: It’s not true! It’s just the damn bugs you brought home with you!
I would guess that the lecturer doesn’t realize that he references only men. I could be wrong, but it wouldn't amaze me if his response to seeing the list from my notebook would be one of genuine surprise. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is unaware; that is, he isn’t purposefully, mindfully, intentionally excluding women.
But that’s the worst part of this experience. The really yucky bed-buggy part. He went to an elite art school. He studied. He learned. He graduated with distinction. He was consciously taught by the best of the best. And what he came away with after four years and $200,000—the knowledge he absorbed down to his cellular level—is that male artists matter and female artists hardly exist at all.
Because these are the names (look at them again in my notebook) that are presented over and over as the canon of children’s book illustration. These are the artists and thinkers that today’s art students study and emulate and learn to value and revere. And this male-created art is the well that all artists drink from. And then that artistic sensibility is absorbed and is expressed in the work of today’s illustrators (male and female). And then, that male sensibility is passed on to the next generation of art students who want to make children’s book art. And we all drink from this well—art directors and editors and librarians and teachers and writers and reviewers and parents and readers. The curated importance of the male perspective flows through all of us: from centuries ago through to the present and then on into the future.
And until we all, male and female, consciously and purposefully and mindfully and intentionally audit our own immediate responses and take the time to consciously and purposefully and mindfully and intentionally correct the imbalance that we can see when we total up and examine the names we reference, the gender imbalance that hurts all of us will persist.
The presenter gave much to his audience during his two-hour lecture. He owed us more. He owed us the care and concern to review his lecture through the lens of gender equity so that he could teach without doing harm. If he had chosen (and it is a choice) to be more self-aware, he could have taught us about illustration technique without giving us a bad case of bed bugs.
Here are a few more articles/radio shows about why we need to audit our own content to promote gender equity:
“On Point: Tackling the Gender Imbalance in News Media,” NPR, May 24, 2018.
“I Analyzed a Year of My Reporting for Gender Bias (Again),” by Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic, February 17, 2016.
“Introducing Sourcelist: Promoting Diversity in Technology Policy,” by Susan Hennessey, The Brookings Institution, May 14, 2018.
“I’m Not Quoting Enough Women,” by David Leonhardt, The New York Times, May 13, 2018.