It’s tough creating anything that is to be consumed by others. Whether that is a painting you make, or software you write, or a sandwich cut into the shape of something to make it more palatable to your kid, the beauty of it is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Anything you make is subject to be criticized, loved, or hated by someone out there.

The other day there was a big todo about a photo of a raw chicken on the NY Times food section. They wrote about it in their Lens blog, just in case people didn’t have enough places to comment on it. Granted, most of the people offended by the photo were anti-meat and it was more about the unnecessary killing of the chicken rather than the composition of the photo, still there were people who took offense to the overt sexual nature of the photograph. Misogynistic? Exploitation of women and animals? I don’t think people understood that it was an illustration of the article, which talked about peoples’ passion for eating chicken skin. Even so, I couldn’t see how anyone could find a picture of a raw chicken so offensive.

Person offended by green blob artOf course, I often don’t see all the sides of how other people interpret things, especially my own work. Recently I was approached at work to do an illustration for a new internal web column about etiquette in the information age. The columnist happened to be a woman, and I used a photo of her seated at a desk with hands clasped as the model for the drawing. The only criticism I had of the drawing myself was that it didn’t look much like the columnist. Still, I sent it in and it was used on that week’s column. It wasn’t until a month later when the next column came out that I received a note about some feedback from people asking for some changes to be made because the image that represented the column was misinterpreted as “a secretary behind her desk” and was a “throw back to the 50s”.

It’s always hard for me to believe how differently people react to the same things. If I am a woman and I am not offended by this picture, how could other women be offended? Granted, it wasn’t the picture alone, but also the title of the column (which used a mashup of two words and ended it with a feminine suffix) that put up red flags for women. Women who spent the better part of the past 50 years battling the gender wage gap, or inequality in college admissions, or making sure people don’t use the words “actress” or “stewardess”, but rather “actor” and “flight attendant”. But…”a secretary behind her desk”? Is that really an image that is hard for people to bear nowadays?

Are we to now stop using pictures of women in kitchens? Women in classrooms? Women in nurse outfits? Women are everywhere, and they can be anything nowadays. A woman sitting at a desk could mean she is an executive. A lawyer. An accountant. A school principal. A secretary. So what if she is a secretary (ahem, administrative assistant!)? There is nothing wrong with that. It seems to me that people who believe that a drawing of a woman at a desk means she is a secretary really have more issues internally than just being offended by the drawing. If we can’t get past these little things ourselves and we ask people to tiptoe around these issues, how would we get past them? We can’t ignore the past struggle that women have gone through. But we can’t also forget that there are still women who today are in the roles that were big in the 50s (like Mrs. Cleaver!), and to disregard them is doing the same thing that people did to all women back then. Being a woman and an engineer (or any other previously male-dominated career role) doesn’t mean you’re a hero or are even that special. I think once we start believing that, maybe we’ll finally get past all of the gender issues in corporate America.

In the end, I did completely redo the illustration, which I’m much happier with now anyway. So maybe this was all a good thing.