The drawing is not the model: gender identity in life-drawing

Life-drawing from November 2022, pastel on black paper.

Life-drawing from November 2022, pastel on black paper. Model’s pronouns: they/them.

I’ve been talking to my regular life-models about gender, particularly with the models who use they/them pronouns (who may be non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, or something else) and whether the model’s pronouns should be noted on the descriptive text accompanying the drawing.

These discussions were prompted by the fact that people can sometimes respond on social media to a life-drawing I’ve posted with a well-intentioned comment such as I love the way you have drawn the muscles on his/her back.

It’s a positive comment, it’s appreciative of the artwork, and it is not intended to be in any way disrespectful of the model, but — without any fault on the commenter’s part (because I have not provided the relevant information) — they have misgendered the model.

I should note that in art school, my experience was that tutors didn’t use pronouns when talking about your drawing, instead formulating the sentence as I love the way you have drawn the muscles on the back.

I think this is very much a learned behaviour at art schools and I’ve always presumed that it was formulated to identify the difference between the model (who has pronouns) and the drawing (which is just marks on a piece of paper and so doesn’t have a gender) - basically paraphrasing the axiom the map is not the territory as the drawing is not the model.

I don’t think it’s in any way reasonable to expect a random social media user to have to familiarise themselves with an art school level of semantics/semiotics before leaving a short comment of praise (or criticism) about a drawing on Instagram/Twitter/Threads/etc.

Hence the idea of just explicitly stating the model’s pronouns in the accompanying text: people (apart from deliberately malicious actors) are now fairly used to seeing a person’s pronouns being noted, and knowing that they should use them accordingly.

The feedback from life-models I work with so far has been mixed, with some models supporting the idea of explicitly noting their pronouns in the accompanying text, but others not so keen on the idea (the negative feedback is primarily based around the idea that, having been provided with the model’s pronouns then any subsequent misgendering by a user in a comment is deliberate and more hurtful).

So the simplest solution is that I’m only going to note the model’s pronouns where the individual model has told me that this is what they want, which is what I’ll be doing from this point on. This will also apply to cisgendered models who identify — and appear to others — as their assigned birth gender.