One of my first hobbies, outside of Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) like EverQuest, was pixel art. Or, “dolling”, specifically, when I first opened MS Paint for a reason other than to doodle.
“Dolling” is a digital art which involves taking a “base” or a digitally drawn body (usually human) and drawing clothes, hair and other features on it.
Dollers, as they’re called, use anything from MS Paint to Photoshop, either manipulating pixels by hand or using tools like Dodge or Burn.
Dolls or “dollz” are often posted and shared on websites or forums with friends. The dolling community is overwhelmingly made up of women, usually either in their pre-teens to teens or women in their 30s-40s. Male dollers are few and far between, but usually celebrated and welcomed.
Dolling communities aren’t just about art. Many see their hobby as a means to bond and make friends. During my time dolling, I had “sisters” that I exchanged dolls with, I “adopted” other people’s dolls (with permission of course) to put on my own website, I credited artists for the bases I used, and I built a long link list of other sites I supported and who supported me. I frequented a forum and had great friendships with many people.
I benefitted tremendously from the community. While my artistic skills didn’t necessarily improve, the dolling forums provided something akin to a family to me. Being bullied all day at school and surviving abusive situations, fellow dollers gave me the community that I needed. And, even after I moved to California, it helped me continue to bond with the friends who introduced me to dolling from miles away.
But then something shifted. My attitude towards my art got a bit more serious. I joined a new forum and started shifting more toward pixel art communities and away from dolling. And that’s when things changed.
Moving into pixel art
Dolling can technically be a form of pixel art, if you don’t use Photoshop tools, but most pixel artists would consider dolling more of a collaboration. Pixel art started in the days when games and computers were more basic and colour restrictions meant you had to build scenes and images with a limited palette. Instead of making 2D dolls, pixel artists usually make gaming scenes, sprites, and more 3D forms, don’t use bases and may use only use a palette as a challenge.
The pixel art forums I joined emphasised artistic improvement over community bonding and most of the population were men spanning a wide variety of ages, from teenagers to older men who were heavily involved in early gaming artistry.
Even though games have changed and now millions of colours can be used, pixel artists still focus on using as little colour as possible to make realistic forms. And the artistry within pixel art with limited palettes can be jaw dropping. I became enthralled and enthusiastic about the challenge and inspired by the talent around me. Being more of a geek, I also fitted into the cultural atmosphere of pixel art forums along with men who liked MMORPGs, gaming, horror films and many of the other things I enjoyed.
Over time, I began to feel more artistically “ethical” than dollers who relied on tools and bases. And while my art did improve, my attitude didn’t. I became dogmatic about artistic improvement and my own internalised misogyny made me turn my back on the dolling community and its emphasis on kindness and femininity and sharing with a sneer. That was girl stuff, after all.
Merging the two communities
While I was gone, the dolling community bloomed. My forum disbanded but new ones popped up.
My attempts to rejoin the dolling community didn’t go well. I’d become so engrossed in critiquing art, dollers often took my well-intentioned feedback badly. And I was so hardheaded in the idea that I’d done something good for them, I refused to respect their perspective. In fact, it was an insult that they dared to do art that they didn’t take seriously enough.
I’ve always been a headstrong person, and I don’t tend to back down during debates. I found other people who were just as headstrong in the dolling community, like So-lou from Australia who had a similar reputation for straight talking. Together we established a forum called Pixel Inc where we wanted to turn dollers into pixel artists.
We advertised it to both dolling and pixel art communities and we demanded, before joining, that users prove they could and would be willing to give feedback about art. We prioritised improvement over everything. And it worked for a while: we had a decent member base. But I didn’t get strong enough critique there as I did in the pixel art communities, and eventually we shut it down.
I do sometimes wonder if being seen as “one of the guys” in the pixel art community felt in some way “neutral” to me at the time, more so than I what I perceived as the hyper-femininity of the dolling world. Maybe some part of me resented that and wanted to step away from it. But something would remind me that even though I may have felt like “one of the guys”, I was definitely not.
I had spent a good while trying to perfect an avatar of my face, even animating it so it blinked. After I’d finished it and started using it, a member of the forum decided to Photoshop his avatar “humping” mine. It was submitted to the gallery connected to the forum and approved by the moderators.
To have my art taken like that and edited by someone, let alone to simulate sex, was infuriating to me. Looking back, I think I was also sickened by it as a sexual assault survivor. It wasn’t just that someone took my art and changed it. It was that someone took my art, violated it, and the fact that I hadn’t said it was okay was part of the hilarious joke. I pointed out that if it was such a funny joke, why not do it to another guy? His response was that he wasn’t gay — so clearly, part of the joke was non-consensual sex. And everyone found the idea hilarious. It was approved by the moderators so he could use it as his forum avatar, and I had to see it on every post or comment he made.
Barely anyone in my supposedly strongly-knit pixel family seemed to care. I went from feeling like a valued member of the community to a spoilsport who couldn’t take a joke. And while I did stick around for a little while after, it stopped feeling like a family.
I later joined a spin-off forum that another member had created. There we talked less about art and more about current events — and then politics. That shoved the wedge even further. I ended up in a lot of arguments about LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and similar issues. It became obvious that I wasn’t just rare in the community as a non-man, but rare as a queer person too. And my hardheadedness meant that I refused, even with people that I’d known for years, to back down from their ignorance.
Eventually I was stalked and harassed by a male member of that forum. He sent me a series of messages that he’d supposedly received from members of the community that said I was a “bitch” and a “waste of space.” I told the moderators, but again, no one seemed to care. No one seemed bothered that I’d blocked this guy on Facebook and Messenger and he created new accounts to continue sending me messages until I just signed out. None of the administrators wanted to ban him or take any action against him.
On top of that, the community had a “spell” you could use to change someone’s profile, meant to be used between friends for fun. Someone, probably the guy who was harassing me, got the spell and changed my profile to denigrate and humiliate me. Instantly, I felt like I was at school again, where my name was carved on the bathroom walls. I complained to the admins and they reluctantly removed the spell, but seemed angry that I’d bothered them, just like the teachers I’d complained to at school. Even when I told them a member of the community was harassing me, I didn’t feel like anyone really cared or made any effort to make me feel safe and welcome in the community. I couldn’t delete my account, but I left. That site is no longer active.
Both of these incidents took away the fire I had to keep going in pixel art and in the community. I’ll say one thing for dollers. No one ever tried to mess with my art and turn sexual violation into a “joke”.
Being seen as female in geek culture
I see my departure from male dominated geek spaces as inevitable. Knowing myself as agender now, and with my personal politics maturing, I don’t think I would fit in. I know that the fact I felt included in the first place has a lot to do with many privileges I have. Many of the friends I had during that time, I’ve found I can no longer relate to. Still, my love for pixel art remains.
The challenge of creating something complex with so few colours is still something I love. Although now I focus more on writing than art, every once in a while I miss pushing pixels. But for me, half of the fun of pixel art is pushing myself to improve. With no one to give me feedback, it’s not as fun. And it’s just not worth the risk to be in the communities where I could get that feedback.
Even more, I regret my inability to respect and appreciate the dolling community while I was part of it. I’m frustrated that the misogyny that I’d learned made me so antagonistic towards the emphasis on kindness the dolling community had. And now that I understand, respect, and love femininity, I miss my dolling sisters.
Today, I don’t get that involved in geeky things. As someone who is read as female, my existence is noticed and commented upon when I enter geek spaces. I went to one event locally, entered and won a MarioKart championship, which was fun. But every time I got up to play MarioKart against someone, the man on the microphone would point out that I was a girl or say my name, “Lola,” in a way that emphasised my difference. As an agender person, this constant misgendering just isn’t ideal.
I’m still as geeky as ever, but I know what aspects of geek culture to take part in and what not to. I’ve thankfully found geeks that have more in common with me: gaymers and POC nerds, those people who don’t fit into the mainstream geek culture, and find myself feeling the community that I had in the dolling community, minus the art, along with them.
But if people want to know why mainstream geek culture is so overwhelmingly male, it’s because of this. You might think you’re “one of the guys,” but they don’t.