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 Zoë 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.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?
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.
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!