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French Girls App: A New Way to be Racist on the Internet?

For no less than three months, I was communicating with my closest friends and family members almost exclusively by playing Draw Something with them on my iPhone.

That charming little app doesn’t allow you to actually say much of anything to the people you’re playing with — after all, it was designed as a pictionaryesque drawing game, not a tool for correspondence — but by sending little sketches back and forth, trying to get each other to correctly guess a particular word through amateur illustration, my fellow drawers and I were sharing in something playful and intimate. Because we were using the language of doodles, it often felt as if the most childlike part me were speaking directly to the most childlike part of them. Draw Something facilitated neither small talk nor deep discussion, but it fostered a real sense of connectedness. 

Over time, the simple drawing app become cumbersome with the addition of fancy new features. It felt increasingly calculated, contrived, and clunky. Eventually everyone I was playing with lost interest in the game, and so did I.

Then last week I learned about a new drawing app, and I was thrilled: French Girls

French Girls is basically the slightly creepy uncle of Draw Something. The concept is this: you snap a picture of yourself and send it off into the ether, and the idea is that people — that is, random strangers on the internet — will create a drawing of you based on the photo. Meanwhile, you check out the strangers’ photos and try your best to draw them with the very basic tools the app provides.

The app is purposefully minimal; there are no words at all, just very simple icons to prompt you through the few options. The most elaborate (and adorable) part of the app is the pull-down-to-refresh animation, featuring a cartoonish Titanic colliding with an iceberg, a reference to the film scene from which the app takes its name. You can’t upload a previously existing photo, you can’t look for a specific person to play with. You present yourself as you are, and you either draw or pass on the stranger’s photo offered to you. Sink or swim. 

Like Draw Something, French Girls hints at the idea that drawing can be a form of connection, something innocent and universal, a form that most everybody can participate in and derive some joy from. And yes, just like the scene in the movie, the game is charged with the possibility that something scandalous is about to happen.  

Will French Girls take off like Draw Something did?

Some people think so, but I have my doubts. Because it has no community features at all, it ends up feeling perpetually creepy. Everyone is always a stranger. There’s also the problem of time. You can post a picture and it might be hours or days before you get a drawing. This means you can’t sit there and try the app out with friends at a bar, which I’m pretty sure is the only way anyone ever learns about new apps. You’ve got to try it out alone and wait and see what happens, wait and see if you end up with something worth, say, sharing on Facebook after the fact. Posting the evidence of such a self-absorbed (and just, you know, weird) act involves owning up to a certain degree of narcissism that not everyone is comfortable sharing, not even on Facebook. But the bigger problem is that because of the rigid anonymity of the app, people will do what people do all over the internet when they think no one knows who they are: they will find ways to prove that they are racist jerks.

Consider the following evidence, gathered by perusing the mugshots available on the French Girls website. (Yes this is all freely accessible, and yes this contributes to the creep factor). 

If you happen to be a cute white guy (like, ahem, most of the guys at APPEK who developed the app), you can post something likes this:

fg1.png

And get back something like this:

or this:

Fun, right?

Of course, it is the internet, and people can’t draw, so you’ve got to be prepared for not-quite-flattering portraits. And you’ve got to be prepared for just-plain-weird. 

This kid, for example

fg4.png

might come back as 

or she might end up as:

 

In all its charm and wit, the French Girls artist pool may see fit to editorialize. Sometimes subtle commentary takes the form of casual creative play, as when a bundled-up subject like this

was represented:

fg8.png

 

The editorializing can take on a certain moral flavor, as when a smoker

becomes

or simply:

 

This artistic compulsion to present not just a likeness, but a commentary on the way people are living their lives, touches on the same deep issues of identity and representation that portraitists have wrestled with for centuries. 

Some people look at this guy

and see

While another artist may feel called to illustrate what they perceive to be a deeper truth:

There’s plenty of room for imagination and interpretation. After all, it’s art. Right? One man’s

is another man’s

And another man’s

 

The great thing about art is that it can show you not just the world, but the world as it is seen and experienced by another human being. The danger there, of course, is that some people see the world in troubling ways — ways that are, for example, vaguely (and sometimes not so vaguely) and unintentionally (and sometimes not so unintentionally) racist. 

In my admittedly quick and unscientific study of the French Girls gallery, this sad fact was striking, particularly when it came to the way users attempted to represent individuals who appeared to be Asian. 

When drawing this guy

one user came up with

while another produced

I told you. it isn’t necessarily subtle.

This young lady

also had it spelled out for her, in a way that I gather was intended to be endearing

 

You might notice the choice of colors here. French Girls provides a pretty extensive palette of skin tone colors, but users like to go boldly for the yellow. I’ll assume, dear reader, that even without showing you the original photos, you’ll understand that the individuals drawn here are not, in actuality, yellow.

Remember, these are amateur artists, so sometimes the color doesn’t end up quite where you’d expect

And sometimes the artist just decides to draw a ninja instead.

 

Racism is about more than just color of course, and French Girls makes that apparent, too. Resourceful users have found ways to express plenty of other kinds of stereotypes. 

This guy, for example,

became 

And this guy

turned into

Another user, mixing up his racism and his homophobia, represented the gentleman above as:

fg33.png

It brings back memories of the infamous “Gay or Asian?” spread in Details magazine, doesn’t it? It’s always charming when people get their bigotries all tangled up.

Despite their limited drawing skills, each of these artists has found a way to make one thing pretty clear: that when looking at these photos, the thing that they perceived over and above any other feature was the race of the person in the photograph.

Good grief. Come on, internet. Get it together.

Look, it’s not a problem if a drawing of a person reflects their race, but if it looks like their race is the only thing the artist noticed, the only thing they wanted to communicate in their portrait, well then we’ve got a little issue.

I’m not saying we can’t have any fun. Don’t worry folks, there are plenty of ways to draw crappy and unflattering portraits of white people and non-white people without being racist. 

This poor girl didn’t end up with a very charming likeness

but I wouldn’t call the result racist.

(Not that I’m sure what to call it).

The same goes for this fella:

See? It can be done!

fg37.png

 

In an interview, one of the creators of French Girls is quoted as saying,

"The beauty of this app is that you really only ever get two types of responses:  (1) a really beautiful, artistic rendering of yourself from a highly talented artist that you’ll want to frame to make your mom cry, or (2), a drawing so pathetically feeble that you’ll want to post it to Facebook for your friends to laugh at, and your mom to see and cry.  So I guess when I think about it, this app is all about finding ways to make your mom cry.  Is that bad?"

Well. I don’t know. But I think it might be bad if your mom is crying because she sees drawing type number 3, the type you didn’t really want to think about, the type that reminds us that, in addition to not being able to draw very well, people on the internet are still kinda racist. 

(Update July 2015: This commentary was written back in 2013 when French Girls was a very new app with a super minimalist UI. The developers have since expanded the app to include options allowing the community to flag inappropriate posts. Nevertheless, the problem continues.