In the comments on my cover trends post, Suelder called my attention to her own fascinating reading of these images:
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).
That’s an excellent point, but, regardless, I don’t believe that that interpretation negates my point about the internalized misogyny that these cover images suggest. If anything, I’d argue that an archetypal reading only adds complexity to the problem.
The fairy tale death archetype, in and of itself, is steeped in some troubling implications. Another commenter, Penni Russon, said it wonderfully:
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.In truth, the “transformation” undergone by Snow White and Sleeping Beauty can as easily be viewed as a transfer of ownership from the domination of a wicked stepmother to the (albeit more benign, but still ruling) leadership of a prince and husband. That message is no more empowering for young women than the call to action to leave a beautiful corpse. And the obsessive “Disney-Princessing” of American culture is all the proof we need that the fairy tale archetype is idealized and internalized by many a young girl.
What’s more, I don’t actually think the myths implied by the fairy-tale-death archetype are all that different from those implied by the concept of the beautiful dead girl.
Another super-smart commenter on Kristin Nelson’s post in response to mine over at Pub Rants, Lucy V Morgan noted that fairy tales actually provide some of our earliest and most culturally ingrained examples of the beautiful or poetical deaths we see in art and on book covers:
If anything, both within the text and on the covers, many of these girls entered a Sleeping Beauty/Snow White-style near-death (ie they don't actually die in the book). SB and SW are probably some of the earliest examples of this beautiful "death" Rachel Stark talks about--Snow White was even put on "exhibition" in a glass case. Both girls were woken by their Princes.
So we meet these YA cover girls in the near-death before their Princes arrive (which is usually the case for the story), the implication being that the girl is not truly alive until she meets her "Prince". She is just on exhibition...
In fairy tales like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the Prince is usually moved to kiss the heroine by the beauty of her corpse—or rather, by the desirable qualities he projects onto her lifeless form. Sound familiar? If you recall Marina DelVecchio’s description of the dead women depicted in media as “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,” it might. Like the poetically dead girls of the book covers I called out, the fairy-tale heroine is the perfect blank canvas for a prince’s desire.
And just as the few men and boys who do appear dying on book covers tend to be depicted in an active, heroic pose, the men who undergo this death-as-rebirth archetype in literature tend to be much more active participants in their own transformations. To use the example that Suelder cited, Gandalf falls to his death in order to defeat the Balrog in the Mines of Moria, but he returns to a future that is drastically different from the futures of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. He returns as an independent agent, devoid of any of his prior doubts, possessed with a purpose, and not only powerful but also in complete control of his abilities. This, I’d argue, is an appropriate metaphor for the transformation from child to adult—so why is it that so few of the women who experience the fairy-tale-death archetype do so in this way?
The concept of death as a means of growth and rebirth is a powerful one in Western culture, and it seems particularly appropriate in literature for young adults, who are constantly shedding one version of themselves in favor of another, more experienced and mature self. Indeed, I agree with the many commenters who argued that death has an important place in YA. As writers, as readers, and as viewers, we shouldn’t shy away from images and stories of death. But, even as we recognize the transformative power of death—its nature as a doorway, as my roommate Victoria Schwab elegantly describes it—it’s important to examine how the nature of that transformation reflects and shapes our expectations surrounding gender.
Thanks again for all the great comments and the incredible discussion. More thoughts soon! In the meantime, tell me what you think of fairy tales. Is there a way to make the fairy-tale-death archetype a good thing? And on another note, how do you view death in stories? In YA in particular?