Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cover Trends in YA Fiction: Why the Obsession with an Elegant Death?

In honor of Halloween (sort of), and of our recent cover conversation, I want to talk this week about a ghastly, gruesome, and growing trend in YA book covers. What trend is that, you might ask?

This is where I say something I didn't ever expect to say in one of these blog posts: trigger warning.

Because the trend is dead girls.
Dead girls in water, dead girls in bathtubs, dead girls in forests, dead girls in pretty dresses. Girls who might be dead, or might just look dead. Dead girls in so many pretty dresses.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love a lot of these covers. Several of the covers pictured above are among the most eye-catching designs I’ve seen in the last year. But it seems like we just can’t get enough of these images, and it’s not just contemporary readers. More than 150 years ago, Edgar Allan Poe argued for the elegance of dead women:
“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death — was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious — “When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”
Poe felt that every story should end with the death of a beautiful woman (you may have noticed he was pretty good at following his own rule). And he wasn't even the first; the paintings of many Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite artists reflect the same fascination as those teen book covers:

Even so many years later, the worlds of advertising, pop culture, and fashion have embraced this ideal, churning out image after image of lovely dead ladies:

However long its history, this isn’t a trend that I particularly enjoy—and especially not when it's embraced by women and girls as this trend seems to be. It’s been well-documented* that the media depicts violence against women and glamorizes abuse, rape, murder, and suicide as positive so long as the victim can be sexualized in death. Beyond just desensitizing viewers or making truly horrific acts seem banal through overexposure, images that glamorize violence against women help to dehumanize women and girls. It’s a double-whammy; not only are the women in the photos objectified because, as lifeless characters, they become bodies rather than people, but they are also reduced to their sexualized parts. As Marina DelVecchio explains in just one of many articles about the subject, the dead girl in media “is merely a body, a vacant, empty, vessel intended to contain the needs of others—preferably men—and her body, which is the most desired aspect of her existence, perfect, lithe, smooth and hair-free, is open for interpretation and domination.” Seeing women dehumanized again and again makes it easier for those who are violent against women to justify their actions—and, indeed, to carry out violence against them.

As we learned from my last post, the fact that the above book covers have been successful—the fact that the first impression they offer drives potential readers to explore more, impacting overall sales in a positive way—says something fundamental about the tastes of their target audience. So I can’t help wondering about the larger implications of these images, especially as part of a larger media culture that glorifies a great variety of disturbing images of women.

For months I’ve mentally classified these images among those that I find disturbing and frustrating in the fashion and media industries. But, now that I sit down to write this post, I’m not sure if that’s really what’s going on in the above book covers. Most of the images aren’t blatantly violent or overtly sexual. It might be more appropriate to call them glamorized—they seem less the product of overt “male gaze”**, and more the product of teenage girls’ morbidity. Rather than presenting the idea that violated and dominated women are sexy, these images present the idea that it is beautiful and dramatic and—as Poe would have argued—poetic to be dead.

Now, there’s something about that idea that resonates strongly with teenage girls. Anyone who has worked with teenage girls will know that many have an astonishing taste for that which is melodramatic, desolate, and downright morbid. Parents, maybe you don’t want to hear this, but an extraordinary number of teenage girls are fascinated by the thought of their own deaths. Even if they don’t (and I hope they don’t) actually take part in self-destructive or suicidal acts, most of them think about it at least once. Many think about it a lot. At fifteen my friends and I reveled in images of fallen angels, girls in coffins, and beautiful women dying in the arms of their lovers. We wrote stories about girls like us dying, falling prey to madness, or being found by a boyfriend or a best friend already too close to death to be saved. We adored moments in film and TV like Eponine’s dying lament, “A Little Fall of Rain,” in Les Miserables: a tragic scene in which Marius (who has rejected Eponine’s love—oh, she is such a perfect teen girl character!) holds Eponine in his arms and sings to her as she dies from a bullet wound.

The glamorized images of death that teen girls seem so attracted to could, then, be a reflection of the sadness and morbidity that seems inherent at that age. Perhaps their appeal is in the fact that they validate and make beautiful the very dark thoughts that girls have, and which they have few opportunities to express. Maybe they provide a sense of catharsis, allowing teens to explore the dark things they imagine doing without actually having to participate in self-destructive acts.

But teenage boys suffer just as much from depression and thoughts of self-harm as teenage girls do, and yet I’m hard-pressed to find a YA book cover in which a boy is depicted as beautifully dead or dying. The closest I can come is Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush. But it should be noted that the target audience for Hush, Hush is also female, and a comparison of the model’s powerful physique and active pose to the above girls’ placid, passive death poses suggests that these girls are internalizing very distinct and separate messages about ideal maleness and femaleness in death.

So, after a whole lot of thought, it comes down to this: I believe that this book cover trend—and the larger obsession of teenage girls with the concept of beautiful death—is at least in part the product of internalized misogyny. Girls, I’d argue, are taught from their infancy that their bodies are the most important thing they have to offer. But, at the same time, they are taught by a misogynistic media that their bodies are objects that have little worth, and that even allow or invite violence. And I believe that girls internalize that dehumanization very strongly—not using it to justify or excuse violence against women, but rather experiencing it as a call to action. A beautiful death becomes an understandable—and, for all intents and purposes, an encouraged—goal. It isn’t any wonder that teenage girls romanticize their own deaths. We practically ask them to.

I really want to say about this trend what I did about the normalization of self-destructive behavior in YA novels and the glorification of abusive relationships in Twilight. But, in all honesty, I’m having a hard time convincing myself that this is a thought pattern girls will wholly outgrow. To do so would require the adult world to reinforce the opposite idea: that women’s deaths are not beautiful, that women’s bodies are not objects, and that women are more than just the sum of their parts. And, as you can see above, the world of media for adults doesn’t contradict what we see in book covers for girls; it expands upon it and makes it a hundred times worse.

What’s more, it’s important that we see that the girls who internalize these ideals are living people, not just the passive victims we see depicted on those covers. As they learn to view the female body as both a sexual ideal and an invitation to violence, they begin taking an active role in helping it spread by reflecting it in their lifestyles, their values, and their art. That’s one of the reasons I cringe listening to “Love the Way you Lie” by Eminem and Rihanna; it’s not just Eminem’s graphic description of domestic abuse, but also Rihanna’s wholehearted compliance in and even propagandizing attitude towards abuse that makes the song tragic:
Just gonna stand there and watch me burn.
Well, that's alright because I like the way it hurts.

I don’t fault YA publishers or the covers above for this trend. As I said, I see those covers and the demand from which they stem as the product of, not the force behind, internalized misogyny. But, looking at them as a reflection of teenage girls’ psyches, I’m saddened by what I see and left feeling helpless in the face of forces that seem unstoppable. In the apt and succinct words of my good friend Jenny, “I know that we have to trust teenage girls to cope and persevere and come out of this fight kicking, but honestly I'd rather make all this shit go away.” This time around, I pretty much agree.

*See also this post on the fashion industry, and this one on fashion and advertising, and this one on music videos. And that's just from a quick search.
**For an explanation of the male gaze, try this article.

If you find this subject as depressing as I do, and are starting to feel like one of the teenage girls these covers are intended for, here's a video of an adorable kitten. You're welcome.

Edit: Just found this mini-rant on a similar subject by Allison at Reading Everywhere. Check it out! Even more disturbing images!


  1. Great article, Rachel! So well thought-out and written. I don't know much about YA fiction, but I was just thinking a little while ago about the movie The Apartment, which won best picture in 1960. What bothered me about it was that it's a comedy, but the main female character tries to kill herself over a man. This seems to be a recurring theme in Billy Wilder's movies and a very disturbing theme at that. Makes you realize how widespread this kind of thinking is and that it's been going on for generations, like you said going back to Poe. Ugh.

  2. Hi, Rachel. I think girls are under so much stress that they need the fantasy of letting go to balance their hyper-controlled realities. I'm guessing that the fantasy has less to do with death and more to do with hormones, that the idea of losing control has more to do with a desire for trust than a willingness to be abused.

    I do think this is a mirror of what's going on in girls' lives, but it's a fun house mirror. We're seeing a reaction to a problem rather than the problem itself.

  3. I love this post. Really I do. I am positive you've probably seen the Killing Us Softly documentary where it talks all about women's bodies in the media and how violence is portrayed as sexy and it desensitizes us to the violence.

    And that's sad, that we live in a world where no one bats an eyelash or is disturbed by a dead girl on a cover.

  4. Okay, I needed the kitten video. Cute!

    Something I've noticed: at least in my house, media from Asia doesn't seem to have these kinds of problems. I'm basing this mostly on a collection of Hayao Myazaki films and the Korean drama The Great Queen SeonDeok, but they both feature a number of strong women who don't just act like men in dresses. I didn't realize it until reading essays like this, because these shows don't come across as "just for women."

  5. Thanks, Amanda! Film is certainly your area of expertise and not mine, but I'm not surprised the trend crops up there. It still seems to. If I had a dollar for every noble woman who dies dramatically to save a man's life or to give the film a sense of poetic justice... ::sigh::

  6. Johanna, you make some interesting points. It's interesting to think of the dark thoughts girls have as a desire to give up control, and it does make some sense. But I do think there's an element of performance in everything teens do that isn't accounted for there, and I'm convinced there's more to this trend than hormones. Statistically more teenage girls than teenage boys suffer from depression, but my experience was certainly that almost every teenager has a very dark side. And yet the boys I knew as a teen who were depressed were drawn to images of knives, guns, spikes, demons, ogres, and so on. They migrated towards aggressive and violent icons (though, truly, these friends of mine were and are gentle and wonderful people) while my female friends and I migrated towards images of victims. I think it says something vital about the way we internalize and respond to unhappiness.

  7. April, I actually haven't yet seen Killing Us Softly all the way through, but I adored the trailer and it's on my Netflix queue. Eventually I'll have a TV again and will watch it!

    A friend was telling me about a study in which both men and women were gathered to watch two film clips and studied for their reactions. Both genders watched a scene from a murder film in which a woman is brutally killed, and none of them flinched. Then both groups watched a clip of a man being kicked between the legs, and both men and women cringed equally. Not that I'm for kicking guys between the legs, but really, what does that say about how desensitized we are to the really serious things?

  8. M.K., I'm intrigued that you haven't found this in Asian media. Most of the avid Otaku I know tell me that gender politics in Asia are still very messy business, and I've definitely seen my fair share of really disturbing treatment of female characters in anime. But I've also seen some good stuff -- and it's good to know that more is out there! I'd be curious to hear your recommendations.

  9. random poster here, just to say you have a very disturbing (and depressingly valid) point here.

    Also, anime recs for strong female characters (both physically strong and strong-as-a-character)
    Twelve Kingdoms. She starts out a wuss, but goes through some serious character development and it doesn't fall into the fluffy-anime style visual-gags.
    And pretty much anything by Miyazaki.

  10. Okay, I've been stalking your blog lately (did I mention I'm an editorial intern now‽ Did I mention I've totally been stealing everything you and Your People have said about applying to Schtuff?), so it's 'bout time we said something. Part of the reason, methinks, that dead young men never appear on book covers is because of how we conceive of a "beautiful death" for a young man—in war. What's that Homer quote, something about it being seemly for a young man to lie bloody and mangled by the bronze spear? Teenage and young adult men aren't "supposed" to drown like Ophilia, or otherwise die by tragic suicide; they should give their last full measure of devotion actively, in service of some higher cause, displaying their manly courage as they're killed in a meaningful way. In this light, pretty much any novel with a battle scene on the cover has men dying Manfully, no?

    This, of course, seems to raise all sorts of other questions—why is it that women are supposed to go quietly, dying passively, why men get to meet death actively? That may be the even more disturbing/objectifying thing; a woman is tragic when she's a physical corpse, a man when displaying the valor of his spirit at the very last.

  11. Thanks for the film suggestions--! love Miyazaki!

    And Phill, totally valid point, and very near what I was getting at in my slight tangent on Hush, Hush. I definitely think that double-standard exists both in our contemporary world and in the imaginary worlds of fiction and fine art. I'm hard-pressed, though, to think of a single YA cover that depicts a battlefield scene. A part of that is likely because publishers hesitate to depict graphic violence on their covers, but I also think that voyeurism is less permissible and indeed encouraged when it comes to male death as opposed to female death. Perhaps both are subjects to be idealized, but it seems only one is subjected to intense probing and constant looking.

  12. In answer to the question in the post title, I was going to say, just ask Poe. Then as I read the post, I remembered that you took Madison's class too... ;)

  13. Haha, yup, I did! Though I took it with Mary, because Madison was on leave at that point. Oh, Poe.

  14. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  15. This is a fantastic post. I can't believe this hadn't even occurred to me before... but I guess it makes sense, considering how I grew up with these sorts of images. Thank you for the new perspective.

  16. I thought of Poe right away too. You've really said it here. Thanks for this very, very thoughtful post.

  17. Thanks, Becky and Gail! Becky, it intrigues me that you say you grew up with those images -- shows the trend really has staying power.

  18. My sister (who is 12) loves "Love the Way You Lie." It never ceases to disturb me when she sings it.

    Being a teenage girl, these covers never really bothered me until you pointed all of this stuff out (and now I'm a bit disturbed). For me it was always just like you said: "Ooh, dramatic! Poetic! Pretty dresses! WANT THE DRESSES!" (Okay, that's an exaggeration, but you get it.)

    And all of this bearing in mind that I don't think I've actually enjoyed a single one of those books.

  19. What a fabulous post! It always makes me happy to see smart women (and men) thinking critically about issues like this.

  20. Finally getting a chance to comment-- I am blown away by this post. Seriously, it's the post I wish I could have written! I barely scratched the surface of this topic, and really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this troubling trend. The bits about the male gaze vs teenage girls glamorizing death are so insightful. I feel like you've got a dissertation in the making here! So awesome.

    And kudos for finding a cover that depicts a male in a vulnerable position! I came up blank on that. Few and far between, that's for sure...

  21. Thank you for this fascinating post. I think you are so right, too much YA presents death as a desirable state, encapsulated by these covers. I'll share this as widely as possible.

  22. I've nothing to add - but I so agree. I haven't seen this expressed so clearly before. Thanks.

  23. Brilliant post. I tend to rant a lot on what I see as negative trends in YA covers (either their banality or their insistent focus on photosopped models as subjects), but I must admit that this one went over my head. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  24. This is an excellent post. Thank you so much for articulating this so very well.

  25. This is an interesting post, but I think you may be missing a possible archetypal answer.

    In fairy tales, the heroine often undergoes death (Snow White) sleep (sleeping beauty) or some other transformation (Swan Lake). In order for the heroine to leave her childhood behind, there often needs to be a symbolic death. It can be innocuous, such as Rapunzel cutting off her hair, or something more literal (Snow White again).

    Heroes, of course, do this, too. Gandalf in Mordor comes to mind, but I just saw The Return of the King on TV.

    Just a thought.

  26. I found this via Keren (see commenter above). Much food for thought, and I too will disseminate it widely. Thank you.

  27. Interesting post and interesting comments. I think the thing that disturbs me most about the covers is the passivity. Phill's point about the difference between female (passive) and male (active) deaths in fiction is sadly true.

  28. there's an Australian short film (made in the mid 80s, I think) called So Pale, about a young woman who is in love with the idea of a romantic death. she envies a female friend who has cancer (obviously not when she sees what that's really like) and tries to wish herself into having tuberculosis or cancer too.

  29. Maybe the danger comes if teens are only reading this kind of fiction. My teen loves the Hush Hush series (though I'm not sure that anyone actually dies in it) but it's balanced by watching far too many Jennifer Anniston rom-coms (which surely should come with a warning of their own about Happy Ever After endings) and the odd Lara Croft film. Does that count as balanced reading/viewing?

  30. Very interesting observations - i think it connects to 'Sleeping Beauty' legend - attractive to both sexes - Females are attracted to the idea that you can sleep through all the crap and come out when your true love wakens you and males, well the idea of a a beautiful placid woman only alive in your presence is a nice safe prospect ... we shouldn't subscribe to it but we always will - that picture of Ophelia has always been a favourite of mine.

  31. This is an amazing piece about a disturbing trend I've noticed too but never been able to articular about why it bugs me. :\

    I'd add another theory to this, which is a dead girl's corpse is perfect. It's not going to get old, or get fat, or eat too much, or sleep with too many people, or the wrong people, or cheat, or be gossipy, or sinful, or the million other things society demonizes about women and our passions, desires and appetites. To be the perfect woman, you have to be dead.

  32. This is truly disturbing. I can MAYBE see the appeal in books for adults, but certainly not for young adults. Having just written my first children's book, I can't imagine presenting the young population with a frightful image, making a mark on their mind before they even open the book.

  33. Brilliant and fascinating post - but perhaps we're all missing something of a point here - and that's the way our culture views death per se. We are taught to fear it, and so it gets put on some kind of "pedestal" either as a concept of fascination or loathing - and here we have our covers and Edgar Allan Poe's "morbid" endings. Perhaps if we had a more realistic view of death (it being a fundamental part of life which will come to us all at some point and is neither fascinating nor fearful, but simply "is") we'd have far less of an issue with it and likewise neither would teens. Frankly, I think the exploration of death, handled correctly, is possibly more healthy than we're given to realise. Accepting it for what it is would certainly rid all of us of both the fear and the fascination.

  34. Great post--really makes me think. The romanticizing of the death of young females has been on my mind lately because of the very popular song, "If I Die Young," which I find disturbing.

  35. I have an iron in this fire, obvs, given that my book is one of them with headless! dead! girl! on the cover (which in my case is accurately indicative of the subject matter; the book actively engages with death and self-harm), but I wanted to say that I think you're spot-on about the glamorization of death and beauty in YA paranormal covers. (Wallace Stevens was the poet who said "death is the mother of beauty" I believe.) I'm so glad you're opening the discussion in a way that isn't condemning of the books (or authors) themselves, given the recent hate-on for "the dangers of dark YA" in the media. It's so important to talk about these things from the perspective of cultural narratives and dominant discourses instead of blaming individuals.

    Interestingly, I've been told they're re-jacketing the Blood Magic paperback, partly out of a desire to move AWAY from this trend.

    And finally, I can think of a few YA covers with girls + battlefields/action on them: a few Tamora Pierce novels, EONA by Alison Goodman, and even GRACELING by Kristen Cashore, though it's not explicitly battlefield. They're all epic fantasy, though.

  36. None of these girls really look dead to me. i wonder what that says about me.

  37. To me, the reason why no one is disturbed by these images is because the girls are not actually dead. They are models who appear dead but then get up and walk away at the end of the shoot. If a publisher used an ACTUAL dead girl, then I would be disturbed and worried about the exploitive nature of it, but when I know it's just a picture of an alive girl pretending to be dead, why should I be disturbed?

    Like Tessa pointed out above, the other reason there are dead girls on these covers is because it relates to the story somehow. Publishers aren't just tossing dead girls on covers just to be "edgy" or for no reason. These stories do deal with death in some way and so it makes sense to show a dead girl on the cover. I honestly don't see the problem with this, or how it's bad when it has to do with the story.

  38. Really well-thought-out post with some very interesting conclusions. But I did want to comment on your point about the male-to-female ratio of YA books which feature art of a "beautifully," dramatically dead or dying character. While it's true there's a dearth of the dramatically-posed deceased male character on YA book covers (particularly in comparison to female characters), I'd like to point out that there's another medium that is filled with such artwork: comic books.

    While it's true that teens are not the main target audience of comic books at this point, teens of both genders do read them. And there's dozens of pieces of artwork -- many quite iconic -- that feature male characters in the role of dramatically-dying dead guy:

    Be it Batman:


    Captain America:


    I will totally give you that male comic book characters get to die much more blood-splattered than the female YA book characters generally get to do; the "beauty" behind the drama of their death is almost always coupled with violence. But there's still a plethora of Eponine-worthy dramatic shots of male characters dying dramatically in the arms of friends or lovers, in dozens of comic books, which maybe is evidence that the trend does go both ways. At least sometimes.

  39. Fascinating post. I wonder if the teenage fascination with death aligns with their awakening sexuality? In French 'La petite mort' or 'the little death' refers to orgasm.

  40. Thank you for a fascinating and well-thought-out post. I'm rabid passionate about this subject and in case you want more fun evidence in advertising, check out

  41. Great article!

    A few years ago I swore I'd stop reading books about dead girls in Australian country towns (a creepy trend here), and it cut down my reading pile considerably.

    But it's not just YA, as many have already mentioned. My friends and I call the spate of crime shows on TV "Crimes Against Vaginas", because nearly every episode seems to involve a dead young woman (often a prostitute). I started to watch The Mentalist on a friend's recommendation, and the first three (totally standalone) episodes centred around the murder of three beautiful teenagers - two of them murdered because they were have a sexual relationship with a (much) older man. I will not be watching any more.

  42. I love this post. I haven't had time to read all the comments, but I think that, for me as a teen, fantasies of death were sometimes related to the fact that I felt voiceless. Dying seemed like it would give my life significance and give voice to the thoughts others didn't hear. Not that I actually wanted to die, but I craved the kind of solemnity and attention death brings.

    In retrospect, it's pretty discouraging that I felt that way.

  43. @ZurEnArrhBatgal - Ever heard of women in refrigerators?

  44. I was interested in the comment above about death as a transitional state in the fairytale narrative. I still think there is a troubling trend there - Snow White and Sleeping Beauty 'die' and are reborn through being loved as beauty objects - they awake to marriage. Even Rapunzel's 'death' in removing her hair is a transition towards marriage. If anything in fairytale narrative when a woman dies it is the autonomous self who dies, the rebirth is marriage and a dissolving of self into (an arguably more powerful) other, not a reinstatement of that self. I guess I am someone who doesn't think that being a princess is particularly empowering.

    I think death appears a lot in all fiction because story is something that is driven by lack or loss - interesting things don't generally happen to someone who has everything they want and never loses anything. I don't think there is any shame or *danger will robinson flailing arms* in writing about death or that teenage fascination with it or even its aesthetic appeal. But I do think as writers and publishers and commentators we have to be careful about the way we depict girls in relation to their bodies and their sense of identity and self worth. So stopping to look at covers such as these and ask ourselves what they might be trying to tell us is an important thing to do. Thank you.

  45. @DK -- Yeah, I'm a big fan Simone fan and am very familiar with "women in refrigerators." The portrayal of female characters in comic books often drives me insane, and I appreciate it when people try to draw attention to the problems. WIR is one such awesome attention-drawler. :)

  46. Actually, on comic books, there's actually a disturbing trend of women who die or are defeated being sexually posed -_- I've noted several examples on my tumblr:

  47. Thank you for this long, insightful and enlightening post. I didn't even notice this trend until you pointed it out.

    You know what though? I just took a look at a few other titles, and it's really alarming. Some of the paperback editions of existing books for dark YA (which I love), or more recent sequals of earlier books in a series, are getting the Dead Girl treatment where their predecessors didn't.

    I wrote up a response post on my blog here:

  48. I agree with you to an extent - when I see those 'beautiful' 'poetic' images of the dead (or comatose) girls on book covers, I don't see it as an implication of objectification. I think what these covers represent is that there is much more to it than a body. There is much more to death, and that it isn't the end, it isn't all there is.
    What I don't think you really talked about was the subject matter of the books - they have supernatural elements which I think allow us to read deeper into the complexity and life and death. Paranormal, fantastical and supernatural premises I think tend to breed the notion that there is more to dying than just the end of a life - maybe even life after death or whatever goes on in the book.

    Your post was a very fleshed out analysis of book covers, but it is also a case of judging a book by its cover - or to be more exact, judging an audience by the bookcover.
    There is more to it than the surface elements discussed.

  49. I just wanted to add that I think people missed my point by bringing comic books into the discussion. I'm not trying to say that comic books are the great equalizer of gender portrayal, because they are often the worst offenders: women are often portrayed in quite sexist fashion both in terms of artwork and characterization.

    My point was only that comic books are a medium in which teen male readers could be provided with images of dramatically-posed dead male characters, in the sacrificial-drama pose of a character like Eponine in Les Mis. The portrayal of female characters is problematic to be sure, but in terms of my main point I wasn't really referring so much to that.

  50. Thank you for drawing this to my attention. As I'm working toward becoming a published novelist, I'm definitely going to need to be aware of this.

    I'm so glad to know I'm not the only one that resents the media's trend to objectify women and their bodies. It's one of my pet peeves.

    I hope this trend of "damsel in death" does not last long. Chances are, though, even if it does, it will recur again and again, since young women do have a fascination with morbidity. (I'm one of them myself, though I don't fancy dead people adorning books.) I'm put in mind of a scene in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility movie, in which Marianne longs to be like Juliet or Guinivere, and when her mother points out they met pathetic ends, Marianne responds, "To die for love? What could be more glorious!"

  51. Why not be dead? It's how you get a guy. It's the romance. The beauty is in the lily white girl who graces the feet of her vampiric (insert other strange character) lover. A good thing? Or just a trend? Probably a trend, but oftentimes trends lead to accepted perceptions of what is right and okay. This is how we explore what is acceptable.

    There is still a plethora of taboo that is not touched upon in YA, and for that I am thankful.
    However, I am no saint. In my stories I explore real-life problems that teenagers have had - and still do. Such as drinking. Theft. Cancer. Is it a trend to explore such things? No, because reality in the end is what happens to us, and identifying with something real is what we are all looking for, whether we are teenagers or adults.

  52. Could it be that the dead girl on the cover of the books appeal to teens because it represents a state of physical arrest? These dead girls in pretty dresses aren't growing, they aren't changing. The image is of a perfect, pale and pretty girl, one who doesn't have to worry about armpit hair, cramps, zits, college, jobs, PMS or becoming her mother. Being dead is great not because they hate their teenage girlish bodies --it's because our culture is youth obsessed. Being dead is great because it means you get to stay young. That's why vampire books are romances, and zombie books tend to be horror stories. Because getting old and rotting is something to fear.

  53. Excellent post, Rachel. Thank you!
    I have no idea why these images are so appealing to the target audience. They are even appealing to the older audiences that read YA.
    Another thing I have noticed is the amount of teenage girls adorning red dresses on YA covers. Now what does that mean in terms of death, love, and whatever else you associate with the colour red.
    I'm going to send this to a couple of friends who have books with dead-looking girls on them, and see what they have to say. It's a fascinating debate to say the least.

  54. Such an excellent point. It reminds me of the popular song, "If I Die Young." It's a pretty song, it's popular, and I worried that some might take it to heart. Let's hope not.

  55. Great post! I'm a teen myself and... well... I can't exactly contradict what you said because it's... true. Kinda.

    The thing is that I feel like people nowadays--normal people--are extremely easy to be influenced. The goal of everyone is pretty much to just fit in, yet to "fit in" their own definition is to expose their body parts in a way to attract attention. I'm not, proudly, one of those people. I find that when people dismiss others as "weird" it in fact is their way of denying their own desire to fit in and what they are willing to do to achieve that goal. I used to want to be popular, but now I've realized just how futile and useless that thought is. I think the thing with the "beautiful deaths" is that these people (and sometimes, me, too) find comfort because it makes them seem more "normal". Basically to categorize things as "normal" has taken on a completely different direction and nuance.

    So, yeah. I agree with you.

  56. I definitely think there is a disturbing trend of misogyny in the media that continues to this day.

    However, I do think the YA book covers stem more from the "teen sense of morbidity" that you discussed. I work in a bookstore, and I would say that, once you get into the 13+ fiction, far more of the books are targeted at girls. I'm not sure why this is. However, I would also note that the ones not targeted at girls tend to have much more simplistic covers, often not featuring people at all. For example, some of the biggest series enjoyed by boys and girls alike - Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Power of Six -- they all have covers with symbols rather than people.

    So it's less about the male gaze -- but it is interesting to consider why these covers are appealing to girls, and what effect they may have.

  57. I can't believe I only just found this post (and your blog) Rachel-- well written, smart, right on. I might add also that dead young women are also frozen in time - always beautiful, always youthful, always sexualize-able (and, as you say, available to the sexualized [hetero, male] gaze). These women will never age, never wrinkle, never become mothers or teachers - they are frozen in time and space.
    Also, although we can gaze upon them, they are literally and figuratively UNABLE TO GAZE BACK. There is no room for resistance, self definition, anger, etc. from a dead girl - there is no space to catch the gawker in their gawking (I see you!) but rather, the dead female body opens itself up to the eternally unchallenged gaze.

    1. Wow. This is spot-on, thank you for adding this comment to the discussion.

      Yes, I'm late to the party. Fantastic article, I'll have to share this one.

  58. Never really thought about that before. I'll be looking out for those covers - and if someone else is ever in charge of my cover designs (i.e. if I don't decide to go indie), I'll veto anything similar. Although, my main character dies. Hmm.

    On a sidenote, one of those covers - Fracture, by Megan Miranda - that's a really good book. I really enjoyed it. I had the proof copy, though, so it didn't look like that. And she does die. She just doesn't stay dead.