Thursday, December 1, 2011

YA Cover Trends and the Fairy Tale Archetype

There were so many fascinating comments on my post about the dead-girl trend in YA book cover design that I hardly know where to begin addressing them. But as I ambled over to the coffee shop where I write these posts, something about the sight of winter branches and the feel of warm air that lies of springtime turned my thoughts to fairy tales, and from fairy tales back to this discussion.

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?


  1. As a YA author, I'm not interested in making archetypes/tropes/whatever into GOOD things, or bad things for that matter. I'm interested in making them COMPLICATED things. (And that's exactly what you're doing in this post which is why I love it.)

    Growing up is about learning about how blurred the lines between "good" and "bad" can be, and I think that's one reason fairy tales are still so popular, esp in YA - because they appear so rigidly good/evil, but they offer us such a great template for saying "ok, but what was that really about? what were the choices there? how is this relevant now?"

    And death in YA = universal. Everybody experiences death, literally and metaphorically, and as you grow up, you have to come to terms with that. You can't be an adult without facing it somehow, without understanding how it affects you and those you love.

  2. I think that while fairy tales have some incredibly misogynist qualities, we have to make room for them as feminists. Fairy tales remain popular, they're not going away. Fairy tale reboots are too common to be called a "trend" in literature, they are more a staple. Obviously, despite their flaws, there is an appeal in the fantasy of them that we need to accept. Can we label people as anti-feminist because they dream of pretty dresses and Prince Charmings?

    What I think is important is to keep shifting the fairy tale, nudging it slightly into a better narrative, one where it goes from an outdated morality tale to a story with fuller formed characters. I think a lot of YA is doing that really well now, though it can swing the other way "the uber feminist princess."

    And while I agree that the "death" of childhood to marriage archetype is upsetting, it is not new nor located centrally in fairy tales. In many stories, attaining the love interest is the central conflict/climax of the story. Again, there is nothing wrong with that, but we need to continue to contextualize it as a choice instead of a surrender.

  3. Excellent post with which I completely agree!

  4. Marian, I don't think it's fair to say that puffy dresses and princess fantasies are entirely unfeminist but there is a distinct lack of balance and it is in the lack of balance that problems arise.

    There are plenty of men out there who only care about fashion and want to be a Prince of sorts but they're not usually deified by the media. Often they're "fops" or weak characters in books and movies. Yet this is displayed as a perfectly acceptable way of being for a woman.

    I don't think we should get rid of fairytales because they're an historical look into our culture but I do think we need to start balancing them out with more than just a girl needing to be rescued.

  5. This post, and the preceding discussion, is definitely interesting. But to argue it as misogynist, as though it were the antithesis to feminism, is misleading.
    Misogyny implies a hatred of women. Feminism is a philosophy of equal rights. Feminists don't always hate males. Conversely, those who subscribe to the traditional role of “woman” (to identify herself through her husband) don't always hate women. Many even are women (this is a growing trend in our current western society, btw, to cling to that traditional/biblical assignment).

    I think Poe was on to something. From the earliest of stories, wasn’t the most alluring that which told the love story? Traditionally those stories involved men loving women. And even today, there is nothing more tragic than a love story involving death.

    But I think we’re giving most writers too much credit for shaping society. It is much more likely that we simply try to capture its shape in the art of our words. Who among us starts a story because we want to influence or perpetuate a social construct? I’d argue the social construct generally comes first. It is ingrained in the writer as the result of his/her nurturing/nature. The stories that unfold are then a result of the stories and experiences that shape us. I don’t think Perrault or the Brothers Grim was ever trying to perpetuate a typical female role, as much as they were telling (or retelling as the case may be) the stories of their time in the hopes of finding an audience.

  6. Off on a bit of a diversionary track but:

    'I don’t think Perrault or the Brothers Grim was ever trying to perpetuate a typical female role, as much as they were telling (or retelling as the case may be) the stories of their time in the hopes of finding an audience.'

    I'd argue that Perrault, Hans Christian and the Grim boys (man I want that to be a band, or a gang in a Brenna Yovanoff story) were possibly both relecting society because they were looking for an audience and because they were a part of that society. Maybe they weren't actively looking to perpetuate unvaried female roles as a form of oppression, but they were all taking active part in a society which valued women in a certain way. So, yes they were reflecting the society around them, but they weren't sat apart from that society and their actions did keep reinforcing common ideas about women (simply by not creating a space for any opposing ideas). I've no doubt that the social construct comes first and stories are shaped by writers experiences, but I do think that the continued creation of an unvaried narrative also shapes society, or at least prevents it from reshaping itself.

  7. What's interesting to me about the fairy tale argument is that while it perpetuates misogynistic ideals, fairy tales are also traditionally the territory of women storytellers. As memory serves, Perrault's primary audience was comprised of women. And folk tales are usually passed along in the home, from women or nursemaids to children (and other women).

    The fact that so many women have feature roles in fairytales is indicative of the beginning of a cultural shift. For example, look at how little "air time" women characters get in Greek literature, compared to fairytales. I see a definite progressive movement.

    ...Sorry if this makes no's 3AM and I may be a bit more braindead than I should be while commenting on such a thought-provoking topic.

  8. Or, let's take this as a call for radical retellings. I've read two retellings of fairy tales with female heroines this year that I found very interesting and empowering: Anne Ursu's lovely Breadcrumbs, and Anna Sheehan's A Long, Long, Sleep. Retellings of The Snow Queen and Sleeping Beauty, respectively. A Long, Long Sleep's MC "awakens" emotionally, psychologically, into a powerful female adulthood.

    What a great discussion this has been, BTW.

  9. I think death is a very important aspect in stories, whether the person who dies comes back to life or remains dead. If it's the MC who dies, I think that death would be a symbol of letting go, moving on, or rebirth. And if it's a supporting character who dies, I think it moves a long the story by presenting the MC with a problem. Sad thing to think about, but very nice post!

  10. However, I'd just like to add that tha 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.

  11. Oh I just love this post! The comparison between the death and rebirth cycle for males and females in traditional stories gives me much to think about when crafting my own work.

    Victoria Schwab is your roommate?!? That apartment has way to much mojo ::faints::

  12. Buffy! Buffy dies not once, but twice. Her first death is a bit damsel-in-distress-y, like the fairytale trope, but her second return to life is incredibly dark.

  13. I have no problem with the motif of death - I write about it a lot myself, characters who come into contact with their mirror-dead selves or who travel through something of an underworld in order to retrieve what they have lost. Death is significant and Oedipal, which is pretty much how I would describe YA fiction. I think the project of YA is about voice - giving voices to characters who otherwise recede into archetype from the distancing third person of the fairytale narrator. So I am for it.

    But the static beautiful dead girl covers still bug me.

  14. Also this is fascinating. Thank you.