Wednesday, December 7, 2011

YA Cover (and Cultural) Trends: Turning the Discussion Over to You!

Writer and Publisher Friends, do you know you are the BEST at commenting? I hope the ongoing discussion of the sad, sorry state of women in our cultural consciousness isn’t driving anyone else to drink. (Are you feeling down? Do you need a hug? Here, here is an adorable malamute puppy for your sanity-restoring pleasure—but my flatmates and I call first puppy-hugging dibs.)

The discussions on my last two posts have been so well-informed and genuinely insightful that today I want to turn the spotlight over to you. The following are some of the comments and responses that made me stop and reconsider my position, that followed me away from my computer and onto the train or into the office or to my feminist lunch hour with Regina (hopefully a new tradition?), or that added something to the conversation that I couldn’t have added on my own.

Seanan McGuire wrote an interesting post on her own blog that, in part, provides a response to the common “But the cover reflects something that happens in the book” argument:
I've read several of these books. Putting a wilted waif in a beautiful bower on the cover is the equivalent of putting a wilted waif in a beautiful bower on the cover of Sparrow Hill Road. Yeah, Rose is long dead when the series starts, but why is that the image we need to focus on? Why is that the moment that sells the book?
I feel Seanan put her finger on the exact reason that I’m complaining about dead girls on book covers, and not about girls dying in books (though who knows, tomorrow is another day). The books I posted are far more varied in their themes and subject matter than their covers reflect, and the common visual ground chosen to represent and sell these books tells me something about the culture that created them—about the images we find worthy of our attention and gaze. What do you think? Are the cover images really the right moments of the book to be illustrated?

In both the comments on my original post and in her own forum post here, Ami Angelwings brought up another heartbreaking conclusion that can be drawn from the interest of girls in images that suggest their own deaths:
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 talk back, or the million other things society demonizes about women and our passions, desires and appetites. We're just beautiful and nothing more, just like a woman should be. To be the perfect woman, you have to be dead.
She shares her experience as someone who has recovered from anorexia, but who used to struggle not only to reach a certain beauty ideal, but who rarely forgot that, once reached, that sense of perfection would only have to be maintained. Certainly that exact experience isn’t universal to all girls, but do you think it’s something that teenage girls in particular might be able to relate to?

Along a similar line of thought, an anonymous commenter chalked these covers up to our cultural fear of aging:
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.
Put in those terms, I can certainly see how this source of fascination could be more universal to girls, and particularly relevant to girls during their teen years. What are your thoughts? Does this change how you feel about the trend, or convince you that the fascination with death is more a part of growing up than a product of our culture? Or does it seem like even more of a product of our culture when you look at the trend this way?

Interestingly, the vast majority of the authors whose book covers appeared in my post said that they had never thought of their cover model as dead. Building on that, Aimee Carter tweeted, “I see life (or the fight for it, which fascinates me) in most of those covers,” and Holly Black weighed in with the opinion that the internal tension created by the questions these covers ask—either “is the girl dead?” or “will she survive?”—holds the viewer’s attention and makes the covers successful. What do you think? Do the girls on those book covers look dead? Does it matter, if the initial impression the viewer gets is one of death, or at least passivity?

CuddleBug looks at what would seem to be the antithesis of the dead girl cover—the butt-kicking heroine cover—and finds a surprisingly similar trend of passivity. She calls it "waif-fu": the cover image that suggests an active heroine but, through skimpy clothing and a supermodel pose clearly designed to show off more than her biceps (in fact, what biceps? That might make her look less slender!). Looking at the slew of covers CuddleBug features, it's hard to convince oneself that the audience they cater to is free of male gaze. And though I prefer a living, albeit sexualized, girl to a dead one, it's hard to see these as better role models for teens. As CuddleBug says:
Our options for female role models would appear to be either beautiful and passive young women posing around doing nothing in a pretty dress, or a beautiful ass-kicker who looks like she should be a supermodel. Who also, may I add, is not doing anything.

In this case, I don't think what causes young women to be attracted to these images is as much internalized misogyny as internalized ideals of beauty. Of course, one could argue that it's six of one and a half dozen of the other, but an excellent commenter on my last post did point out that there's a difference between misogyny and antifeminism. In any case, though, it does allow me to talk not just about these images, but also about a character trope that crops up frequently, especially in speculative fiction: the BAMF. Most sci-fi especially seems to feature at least one character that writers or directors can point to and say "Don't look at me, I put a strong woman in my work!" These characters are powerful, yes, and pretty evidently in possession of lady-parts, which is clear from their skimpy dress. But these characters are powerful solely in a way that's considered masculine. And while there are many women in the real world who kick butt and take names like its their job, the existence of those character types as the only strong female in a particular story world implies that there is no other way to be a strong woman—which simply isn't true. What do you think? And, is this a trend that extends to YA, or do you think it exists mostly in the world of adult books right now?

For Zoƫ Marriott, the fairy tale trope implied by a number of these images carries with it an even darker implication than what we explored in last week's post. To explain, she goes back to the origins of the Snow White and Sleeping Beauty stories, which existed long before the Brothers Grimm prettied them up:
What really happens is that a travelling prince, in the course of his adventures, comes across an apparently sleeping young woman who is unable to defend herself, and rapes her. Then he goes on his merry way. About nine months later, the girl gives birth to a child, and this experience (not surprisingly) finally wakes her from her slumber. And then (the part which always makes me feel the most squinky) the girl is so grateful for having finally escaped the curse that she goes after the travelling prince, thanks him very much for his random sexual assault, and ends up getting married to him.

This represents a fairly strong and very dark male fantasy - that of the unresisting victim. A girl who can't fight or struggle because she is incapacitated. A girl who, although unable to offer any kind of consent to sexual activity, of course actually wants it. A girl who will even thank you for it later on.
And that's an even more powerful and heartbreaking concept than what I originally tackled in my post about dead girls on covers and internalized misogyny. If these covers both imply and idealize not just death, but also rape... what does that say about our culture?

Glitter and Gore looks at horror, a genre in which you might expect to see a lot of dead girl covers, and finds traces of the dead-girl trend in re-releases of some of her favorites. What’s more, she sees an overwhelming trend towards passivity in the girls pictured:
What confuses me most is that, judging by the few of these books I have read, the heroines inside their pages are NOT submissive. They're tough, resourceful, and intelligent. Sometimes selfish or a little naive, but for the most part, they aren't at all like the images in these covers would make them out to be. But the covers are what entice people to read books, or should be. They are taking strong young women and turning them into prettified zombies.
Rae Carson tweeted something similar: “I wonder if it's a subset of a larger trend of passive female protags on covers? So many look simply vacant & beautiful.” Is that the more applicable trend here? Certainly that does open it up to include even more images we typically see in the media. It even ties in with the fairy tale tropes we talked about last week.

And finally, in response to my discussion of the fairy tale trope in last week’s post, Katherine Langrish came to the defense of fairy tales:
I'd just like to add that the fairytales most often cited in these comments - Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, with their obviously passive heroines, are not necessarily at all typical of fairytales in general, many of which have extremely vigorous and adventurous heroines: Molly Whuppie, the Master-Maid, Lady Mary and the heroine of 'Fitcher's Bird', both of whom see off the Bluebeard figures in their respective tales, and the intrepid heroine of 'East of the Sun, West of the Moon' who rescues the Prince. The fact that our best known fairytales are those with passive heroines is not a reflection upon fairytale as a genre, but upon anthology choices and rewritings made - often - in the early 20th century and perpetuated ever since.
I’m so glad she brought this up, first because I’d be insane to totally write off fairy tales as a genre, and as an absolutely vital part of the history of storytelling, and secondly because it brings up a ridiculously important point that I’ve only be tangentially addressing in my posts. That point is that the stories we choose to share, versus those we choose to silence or at least omit from our discussions, go a long way in reflecting or shaping the culture that we get to live in. The choice of which stories to anthologize—made again and again favoring stories with passive female protagonists—tells us a lot about the subconscious agenda of those making the choices. The choice to anthologize or retell the story of Snow White rather than the story of Molly Whuppie (much like the choice to illustrate the deal-girl scene of a book rather than any other) both reflects and shapes the culture to which it is told. And it’s a culture in which the stories of adventurous heroines aren’t told that allows passivity in women to be idealized in the first place.

Share your thoughts!


  1.!/LouisaHRReidDecember 7, 2011 at 1:00 PM

    Thanks for the really interesting post.

    Poe wrote that: 'the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world" and I think that so many years on this still seems to ring true. Scary.

    You're right when you comment on the fetishisation of female beauty, particularly when inert and silenced, as a noticebale trend. It's worrying that this has extended to young girls, although it's been a source of fascination for the media for some time - look at the prurient response to the corpses of Monroe and Princess Diana.
    I think that we need to actively challenge this. My debut novel (not a plug - but I'm bringing it in!) features a heroine with Treacher Collins Syndrome (which involves the facial features being malformed in the womb)and hopefully my front cover will be of interest here. More heroines who aren't stereotypically "perfect" need to come out from whereever they're hiding and feature in all their unique and individual glory on YA covers!

  2.!/LouisaHRReidDecember 7, 2011 at 1:01 PM

    wherever! sorry - failed to preview.

  3.!/LouisaHRReidDecember 7, 2011 at 2:06 PM

    I have just read all your other very interesting posts and am ashamed by my own unoriginality!

  4. In a way, I kind of think you're reaching. Young girls often feel overwhelmed by the experience of growing up, hormones, mood swings, work. It's not about sex, it's about being overwhelmed, which is why I think a lot of teenage girls talk about suicide. Growing up is a journey much like the Hero's journey, with ups and downs and overcoming obstacles that seem insurmountable. The dead girl in a floating dress image appeals to young girls because of two aspects, the first aspect of just wanting to 'sleep' or even 'drop dead' from exhaustion and confusion of growing up, and the second aspect 'to be saved.' Notice the strong imagery of drowning. The idea that these girls are waiting to be saved 'by a man' or 'by a prince' is, I think, projection from people based on their own concepts or even insecurities. Some girls, indeed, might think salvation comes from a man, but some girls might just pick it up for a story about salvation period, even if salvation comes at their own hands by learning how to save themselves and survive. When women in their late twenties onwards choose to depict these images as being sexualized or as pandering to the patriarchy, I can't help but feel they're projecting the insecurities of their own generations or their own belief systems into what is an image meant to cater to its readers imagination. I can't help but feel that there is no message it's trying to set, rather, it's trying to trigger the creation of a message by its reader. It's marketing brilliance because it's vague, and it'll reflect whatever the viewer wants it to reflect. To some people, what they want it to reflect is negative.

    I'm going to guess that I am younger than you, but no longer a teenager, and I've always had a fondness for Ophelia type images. As strongly as some people choose to see them as images of victimization, I see them as that part of the Hero's Journey wherein the Hero 'dies' or the 'Approach to Inmost cave' where everything seems absolutely bleak and helpless and the hero must pull together her or his resources to save themselves and overcome the bad guy. The image of the drowning or collapsed girl in a beautiful dress resonates to me, it's a feeling of struggle and fight and that moment where it seems all is lost. The beautiful dress kind of strikes me as how the entire journey, the journey of growth, is a beautiful one, a step between being a young girl and being a woman. The dress shows the protagonist is halfway there, the 'death' shows there's still struggle the protagonist has to overcome. The story doesn't lie there, the story, and the appeal to me, is how the hero overcomes the burden and the exhaustion to defeat the bad guy (literal or metaphorical.) She is dying, dead, or drowning, how did she get there? How is she going to get out of it? What can be done?

  5. (continued)

    Sorry if I sound accusatory, but there's been a strong trend in places like Tumblr among Gen Xish women trying to tell what women should be offended by because it offends them. If it offends you, that's interesting and tell us why it offends you. But please, don't brush it up to a conspiracy on behalf of the marketing patriarchy to victimize women. If you feel victimized by a cover that depicts a woman in a way you don't like, that's you and your perceptions and that's okay. I, and I'm sure many women like me, disagree with those perceptions and have one of our own. Would it be any more feminist if, instead of appealing to one group of girls who like seeing pretty flowy things, the market caters to a different group of girls who prefer seeing a hyper fit angry looking woman with a steampunk sword? What I see as pretty and flowy you may see as weak and victimized. What you see as tough and strong I may see as trying too hard and pandering to daydreams of aggression and characters whose acts come free of consequence. That trends just as hard, and as strongly as it may appeal to some, it's not appealing to someone else (I particularly developed an aversion after seventeen thousand "Urban Fantasy" novels used that same cover and that same exact character in the same plot just with a different name. Strong girl, skimpy outfit (which panders less to the male gaze and more to a woman's power fantasy of being both strong and sexy and there is nothing wrong with that,) weapon of somekind, maybe some blood on her face and an angry expression. I feel I can already tell you the plot is going to involve the character trying to be witty and tough and all the other character's are terrified or awed by her incredible intellect and searing words and there's probably a love triangle that is made into a conflict because for some odd reason the character has to choose between being in love and being tough because apparently the two are mutually exclusive,) How is one better than the other? If something offends you it doesn't imply that people are out there trying to exploit everyone of your gender.

    Do you see what I mean about perception, though? I didn't mean to go on a hate tirade about Urban Fantasy covers but do you see how what one woman perceives as strong, another woman can perceive as insecure? Just as confident as some may be that a woman with a weapon may signify strength, some may see it as insecurity and a woman who has to cater to aggression to feel strong. And just as confident as some may be that the image of a girl dying is an oppressive image meant to victimize women, others feel it just turns childish insecurities and the down points of growing up into an image.

  6. As a middle grade writer, what I find so fascinating about this discussion is that the strong, resourceful girl main character is pretty much a staple in middle grade. What happens between 11 and 13 is, well, puberty. Which as many a scientific study has shown, changes everything. I do agree with the anonymous writer above, though, that the adolescent feeling of being overwhelmed, of drowning, of yearning for something (or someone) to save them is pretty universal.