The term sexual dimorphism refers to differences between males and females of the same species. Some animals are highly sexually dimorphic. Male elephant seals outweigh females by more than 2,500 pounds; peacocks put on a color show that peahens couldn’t mimic in their wildest dreams; and a male anglerfish’s whole life involves finding a female, latching on, and dissolving until there’s nothing left but his testicles (yes, really).
On the spectrum of very high to very low dimorphism, humans are on the low end. We’re just not that kind of species. Remove the gendered clothing styles, make up, and hair differences and we’d look more alike than we think we do.
Because we’re invested in men and women being different, however, we tend to be pleased by exaggerated portrayals of human sexual dimorphism (for example, in Tangled). Game designer-in-training Andrea Rubenstein has shown us that we extend this ideal to non-human fantasy as well. She points to a striking dimorphism (mimicking Western ideals) in World of Warcraft creatures:
Annalee Newitz at Wired writes:
[Rubenstein] points out that these female bodies embody the “feminine ideal” of the supermodel, which seems a rather out-of-place aesthetic in a world of monsters. Supermodelly Taurens wouldn’t be so odd if gamers had the choice to make their girl creatures big and muscley, but they don’t. Even if you wanted to have a female troll with tusks, you couldn’t. Which seems especially bizarre given that this game is supposed to be all about fantasy, and turning yourself into whatever you want to be.
It appears that the supermodel-like females weren’t part of the original design of the game. Instead, the Alpha version included a lot less dimorphism, among the Taurens and the Trolls for example:
Newitz says that the female figures were changed in response to player feedback:
Apparently there were many complaints about the women of both races being “ugly” and so the developers changed them into their current incarnations.
The dimorphism in WoW is a great example of how gender difference is, in part, an ideology. It’s a desire that we impose onto the world, not reality in itself. We make even our fantasy selves conform to it. Interestingly, when people stray from affirming the ideology, they can face pressure to align themselves with its defenders. It appears that this is exactly what happened in WoW.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
mimimur — July 14, 2012
This is one of those things that I think are easier to see in text, since we're so used to thinking of images like this as normal. The Bizare Sexual Dimorphism page on Tvtropes (found here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BizarreSexualDimorphism) have a long list on the differences between genders in the races.
For example: "The Draenei males are huge and bulky, with large, ridged tails, forehead plates, and catfish whiskers. Their kinswomen are lithe and willowy (they're almost the same height as the boys, but would appear to weigh perhaps half as much, if that) with short, thin tails and prominent horns. They also have catfish-like tendrils, but theirs sprout from behind the ears instead of on the face"
WG — July 14, 2012
It doesn't appear that any of those characters are depicting humans, but moreso fictitional beings. Who is to say that fictitional beings must have the same relative lack of dimorphism as humans?
Mordicai — July 14, 2012
It would be interesting if there WAS sexual dimorphism-- males have a mane, but females are bigger, or something-- but this "faux" dimorphism, where males look like fantasy creatures but females look like sexualized versions of that creature? Is no fun.
Anna — July 14, 2012
"Remove the gendered clothing styles, make up, and hair differences and we’d look more alike than we think we do."
This is a vague statement. Humans may be on the low end of the scale, but our sexual dimorphism is still about sex differences, not gender. What does looking "more alike than we think we do" mean?
Kategoulden — July 14, 2012
in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, males and females of all of the nine races basically look the same
Pinkorchid5830 — July 14, 2012
"Apparently there were many complaints about the women of both races being 'ugly'"
This statement is what really gets me. God forbid a character that is coded as "female" appears ugly in anyway shape or form. Its especially harsh in the mainstream arena, like people's eyes in general are entitled to see beautiful women. Women are tasked with the social duty of "beauty" and appearing beautiful when in a public sphere and any deviation from that is tantamount to some crime or something...geez, can't an avatar in a game not follow that scheme. Can't women in society just be physically unattractive for a little bit without catching the ire of onlookers who should be minding their own business anyway.
Casey — July 14, 2012
Just throwing this out there, tauren chicks are actually a bit shorter than tauren dudes.
but fair point! you should mention something about the great deal of ingame art that depicts sexy chicks or maybe something on the weird way that height comments on how powerful an individual is in universe (king varian, for example, is the tallest and largest human alive, partly to assist players trying to click him when off to murder him temporarily for an acheivement and partly because height really is indicative of, if not actual power, importance to plot) and that for no real good reason the strongest individuals of a race tend to be up to 1.5 times as large as others of that race.
I know I gave varian as an example, but for the human faction height isn't as badly exaggerated as it is for say, the merfolk faction.
JsePrometheus — July 14, 2012
Sexual dimorphism makes great sense in the game. Just as the game feature elves which are like humans but leaner, trolls are like humans but stronger and where the physical implications of gender is more dramatic. I'd be far more worried about games which have widely dimorphic portrayals of actual humans.
Vadim McNab — July 14, 2012
But gender difference is real, and people embrace these differences willingly, even gladly (I know women who love being girly and men who like being manly). You can glibly dismiss the makeup, the clothes et al, but we are different.
guest — July 14, 2012
Gender difference is how most people find mates. You have to perform it ALL THE TIME. Use it or lose it.
Liz Bloodbath — July 14, 2012
What's even more interesting to me is that they also adjusted parts that have nothing to do with beauty. If you want to make a troll more beautiful, reducing the tusks is a no brainer. But why are the ears smaller as well? Same thing with the Tauren horns and the Draenai head tentacles. Is it an intentional decision to make them look more 'passive' and thus 'feminine' or did they think that it would be distracting from the overall 'beautification' attempt?
The Tauren changes are particularly weird. Does anyone really find the new cow-woman sexy? If you want to play as a sexy woman... why are you choosing the cow race?
Incidentally, it's worth mentioning what happened with the Blood-elf males in this article. On debut, they were noticeably less muscular than the other male humanoids. Apparently, a lot of male players thought they looked too feminine and 'gay' and demanded that they be changed and Blizzard caved to the pressure. So, it's not just the females being gender policed.
Wouldn't want any gayness in your magical game full of colorful fairy dragons.
Michael — July 15, 2012
Along the same topic, here's an interview that includes two women who are concept artists describing how they worked on creating sexual dimorphism for a playable race in the upcoming MMO Guild Wars 2. It's a very interesting insight.
Robert Rawson — July 15, 2012
Tom Megginson — July 15, 2012
These creatures are imaginary, so they conjure up stereotypes. If you choose to see them as human (as the players who wanted to sexually fantasize about the female creatures clearly did) then it makes sense to use what is perceived as a typical human dimorphism (which is small). If the players want to see them as more "beastly" humanoids, then a larger sexual size difference typical of gorillas makes sense in the imagination.
Sexual dimorphism is not a social construct. It is biology. But it becomes complicated in humans because we are quite variable in size, from population to population, and intercontinental migration has blurred the lines between what were once more stable groups. Our average sexual dimorphism is still an important indicator of our ancestors' sexual habits — and in my opinion is a completely natural assumption when people imagine the physical idea of human male and female.
And I write this as a 5'7" man...
bitty — July 15, 2012
WoW is a *playground* of stuff SocImages could cover. The most prominent thing to me, when I was playing (and was almost enough in itself to make me quit) was the blatant cultural appropriation. The trolls have a stereotypical Jamaican culture/speech, the Taurens Native American, the Draenei are Russian, I think? It was just really, really weird to me that the makers would choose "other"-type races in the game to be paired up with "other"-type cultures and races from the real world. It was unsettling.
Fiona in Alberta — July 15, 2012
Very relevant article in Canada's Globe & Mail newspaper a few days ago, on misogyny in gaming: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/womans-call-to-end-video-game-misogyny-sparks-vicious-online-attacks/article4405585/
Yrro Simyarin — July 16, 2012
I'd be curious to see the images repeated with your average NFL linebacker and average female soccer player, and see some comparison measures taken. The Tauren and Orc females, at least, do *not* have supermodel's bodies - the orc female looks like a toned athlete. The tauren is far too curvy to be shown in most (US anyway) magazines.
I guess, personally I have a picture on my wall of my male orc warlock standing next to my wife's female orc warrior. The scale difference at first glance seems to be only slightly exaggerated compared to our wedding photo next to it.
decius — July 16, 2012
Sexual dimorphism in fantasy is typically far less than in reality. For example, Taureen cows have horns.
RexSchrader — July 16, 2012
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moionfire — August 19, 2012
Shocked that no one has mentioned that all of the "women" are lighter skinned!! Gendered colorism never ends.
Stealth Avenue — January 9, 2013
I remember when troll ladies looked like trolls. Those were good times. I also wonder why the %&#^ tauren females have breasts on their chests. I mean, seriously. Wtf, Blizz.
Mary_garou — March 14, 2013
No tusks on female trolls? Odd...my female troll has them.
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stilladyj — October 3, 2013
The female troll is way better - she's so punk!
A. — April 2, 2015
It seems like the sexual dimorphism in World of Warcraft is an exaggerated male fantasy. It's an attempt to make females look weak (and presumably, as such, "attractive"). Then the devs at WoW hypersexualize only the female characters in the game in various ways while not sexualizing the males in any way remotely close to it. WoW is most definitely a "boy's trip" and always has been.
What's interesting to me is that women, particularly very young women, who play WoW seem to need to have an attractive, non-monstrous avatar, like they can't even play a game with an ugly, unattractive character, for fear of something. You see these women (the ones who need sexual dimorphism in avatars to feel beautiful and attractive in real life) on the forums slamming feminists and reassuring everyone that they are not man-haters.
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Rosalie Kitchen — June 21, 2016
See I don't get all angry and super feminist about this. Instead I start wondering what sort of pressures led to the differences in sexes.
For example trolls being changed makes more sense, if you look at their progeny, the elves.
And Draenei are a special mention all on their own. The males and females are both rather attractive. But they are most definitely not human, though still mammals or mammal like. But it seems quite obvious that the main sexual feature of a female Dreanei, to a male, is not her breasts. But likely her horns, larger ones being a sign of sexual fitness. Just like a large head-plate is likely a sign of a male's sexual fitness. If you note females don't have noticeable head-plates and males don't have noticeable horns. To me looking at them, they really feel alien and it gets my curiosity flowing.
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