If you’re in any way involved in the YA publishing world, you’ve probably heard a lot about Maureen Johnson’s #coverflip challenge by now. In fact, thanks to the Huffington Post’s coverage, even if you’re not involved in YA publishing you may have heard of it. (Less clear is how you found yourself on my humble blog, but I’m glad you did! Hello! Have a cookie!)
I’ve been following the conversation about coverflipping since its start, but haven’t joined in because my feelings have been very mixed, and they needed a bit of time to percolate. After a lot of thought, I can say that while I’m excited about the idea of coverflipping as a way to spur conversation about a really important subject, I’m also extremely frustrated with the general tenor of the conversation. Overall, I think the point—and thus the conversation we so desperately need to be having—has largely been missed. And I don't feel like this is the first time this topic has been approached and then derailed—in fact, this just keeps happening when we try to have productive conversations about gender in publishing.
I believe that, as a whole, our society lacks the tools to have a productive conversation about gender, and my frustration stems not from Maureen Johnson's idea or from any individuals' responses, but rather from the overall conversation, which I see as highlighting that lack of tools. And I hope that this post can at least give us an idea of how we can begin to approach this topic productively and move forward from it with purpose. None of this is intended to be a personal attack against Maureen Johnson, who gives her own ideas about how to move forward here, or against any of the participants in the coverflip experiment.
So, here goes…
First, the only way to have a productive conversation about coverflipping is to be clear about what conversation we’re actually having. When we talk about covers as a reflection of prejudice in the book world, we all need to be on the same page about why we are starting the conversation there. It's useful to talk about covers because, if the publisher has achieved their intent in designing it, then a book's cover is a very clear indicator of what groups of people the publisher (rightly or wrongly) perceives as its audience. There are tons of other indicators of the perceived audience for any given book, including its marketing plan (where ads for the book appear, for instance, and what they look like and say), the cover and flap copy (everything from word choice to which plot events the editor chooses to highlight in writing flap copy), and the publicity campaign (the cities an author tours in and the publications their book is pitched to can say a lot about a publisher’s assumptions about the book’s audience, though of course it’s also worth noting that the stores’ and publications’ assumptions about their customers also plays a huge role here).
We talk about the cover rather than those other indicators because it is the easiest thing to get a quick read on, it is the most visible of the signs, it stays visible and often unchanged for the life of the book, and it can most easily be categorized and compared to other covers without intense linguistic and statistical analysis. But when we focus a conversation on a visual snapshot of the larger topic, much of the complexity of the issue is often lost, and we need to remember that books aren't gendered in the cover department alone. Asking why designers keep creating gendered covers is unfair to designers (many of whom, my colleagues among them, actively try to disassemble gendered stereotypes in their work) because it places blame on them for decisions that are often made long before the book ever comes to them to be designed. But, more than that, it misses the point, which is that many creators and moderators of content make assumptions about books’ intended audiences unfairly, and often based on gender.
The author’s gender isn’t the only thing that determines publishers’ perceptions about a given book’s audience, but I do believe that it plays a role. In order to understand that role, however, we need to be clear about when and in what way it plays a role. I think our conversation loses focus when we try to compare totally different books from completely separate genres and focusing on different subject matter. That’s not to say that I don’t think a discussion of how genre literature becomes gendered and why, and which genres are valued and esteemed over others and the part that gender plays in that valuation, is worthwhile. But I think the coverflip project is really only an effective tool if we use it to examine and discuss how books featuring very similar themes, written with the same style and skill, are often perceived differently due to the gender of those books’ authors.
It’s useful, for instance, to look at two authors of the same category, genre, and caliber (perhaps John Green and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, for instance), for evidence of how, though they might write about the same themes, like first experiences of love and rejection, a teen’s dawning awareness of their own mortality, and learning how to have meaningful friendships and relationships, their gender might play a role in who they are perceived to be writing for. I can’t speak for Maureen Johnson, but I think that her original intent was to highlight the fact that men can write about largely internal struggles and relationships between friends and they will be tagged as literary, universal, and “for all readers,” whereas women who write about the same things are often assumed to be writing about their own, lady-specific interests, and they get tagged as "chick lit" and considered to be writing only for other women. There is nothing wrong with fiction written for women, but there is something very wrong with the author's gender being what determines that a work of fiction is solely for women. When an author's gender determines a publisher’s perception of a book’s audience, that is prejudice.
I think a few of the coverflip responses did an excellent job of grasping and illustrating what those differing perceptions would look like. Hannah's coverflip for Jack Kerouac's On the Road, for instance, suggests to me the way in which Kerouac's literary journey could have been reinterpreted through the lens of gender bias as a carefree road trip or a set of summer flings:
However, I felt that the vast majority of the coverflips I saw didn’t capture the intricacies of the issue, but rather reinforced exactly what I see as the problem: binary thinking and stereotyped assumptions about what is masculine and what is feminine. When we put blood, guns, and chains on a the male version of a coverflipped jacket for a book that has nothing to do with violence, we are not only misrepresenting the way in which gender bias is usually carried out, but we are also perpetuating the harmful idea that violence, anger, and toxic masculinity are things that are of men, by men, and for men. When we put flowers, kissing, and frills on the female version of a coverflipped jacket that has nothing to do with romance, flowers, and fashion, we are not only making a parody of the gender bias from which many authors suffer, but we are also perpetuating the harmful idea that love, friendship, and frivolity are things that are of women, by women, and for women. The coverflip examples that arbitrarily assigned objects and images from gendered categories in order to create a coverflipped look told me less about publishers’ biases in determining a book’s audience, and more about the coverflip creators’ internalized biases and assumptions about gender and what constitutes “maleness” and “femaleness.”
And if we want anything to change in the way books are interpreted, jacketed, marketed, and read—if we want to even the playing field for authors and readers of all genders and make the publishing world a more fair and equal place—we need to disassemble binary thinking and gendered stereotypes altogether. We need to be sure to recognize and celebrate the gray areas between and within categories that we think of as opposites. And, moreover, we need to stop ourselves from assigning a greater than/less than value system to the binary categories we have created.
Which leads me to the fact that, more often than not, the covers that I saw being arbitrarily assigned stereotyped imagery, and the covers that I most often saw being ridiculed as frivolous or slammed for being part of the problem, were the feminine interpretations of books actually written by men. Instead of a discussion of our gendered assumptions about books and readers, the conversation turned quickly into a vilification of all things that are considered feminine.
Among the calls to action spurred by the coverflip discussion, I heard countless voices asking publishers to create more “gender-neutral” covers, whether to encourage boys to read books featuring strong female characters (an argument I strongly disagree with; how about teaching our boys that there's no shame in female or feminine things?), to prove to female authors that we truly value them and their work, to once and for all end stereotyping based on authors’ genders, and so on and so on. I can get on board with some of those reasons, but my problem with that call to action is that, again and again, I saw the objects and images associated with the dominant class being accepted as universal, whereas the objects and images associated with the less dominant class were defamed for being gendered.
Can you actually define gender-neutral? To do so, we’d have to have a clear definition of both sides of the gender binary, and then we’d have to find the middle ground in between. The thing about living in a world in which one half of a false binary is valued over the other half is that the valued half becomes dominant, and its dominance makes it invisible. The dominant class or category is defined not based on its own characteristics, but based on its not being the other class. Most covers that were assigned to male authors were defined as being for men simply by virtue of their not being specifically for women. And, importantly, these were also the covers that were most often defined as good, universal, gender-neutral, and ideal for all readers.
I feel that when we talk about wanting gender-neutral covers, we’re not talking about wanting covers that are equally devoid of masculine and feminine stereotypes, because we don’t have a strong grasp of what masculine stereotypes are. Instead, we’re talking about wanting covers with fewer things tagging them as feminine. We are accepting the dominant class as the default and arguing to have more of it, instead of questioning the dominant class and dismantling its universal hold on our psyches.
Eliminating feminine covers is not a good option. It takes away the options that many people of all genders prefer. As many publishers have pointed out, it would take some of their bestselling covers off the shelves. And, most importantly, eliminating or vilifying feminine covers, and allowing readers, male or otherwise, to write off images and storylines that are considered too "girly" helps to perpetuate biases that hurt not only women, but also anyone who deviates from gender norms or embraces femininity in any way. Hating things that are considered feminine devalues women and contributes to sexism (because, no matter how hard a woman works, she is seen as the very definition of femininity and is considered less valuable than a man, inherently). Hating femininity also contributes to homophobia, particularly towards gay men, who are often ridiculed for feminine behavior and interests. Hatred of femininity contributes to trans*phobia and the oppression of people who don’t identify with the gender binary (both because it insists that people who are biologically female are defined by their biology as feminine, and therefore have less value no matter how many stereotypically masculine traits they adopt or portray, and because it allows people to ridicule those who are biologically male for embracing their identities as women and adopting feminine traits). And hatred of femininity devalues many qualities, beliefs, and objects which should have value for people of any and all genders but are often scorned for their perceived “girliness,” like empathy, compassion, the ability to negotiate and make peace, and so on. Devaluing the feminine and those who embrace it is not the answer to sexism; it is a part of it.
And, all of that aside, the argument about whether we like or don't like "feminine" or "masculine" things is actually just a distraction from the real conversation and the changes we need to enact in our publishing and consuming methods. What we need to do is stop arbitrarily categorizing things—be they flowers or plot points or writing styles—into categories attached to gender and biological sex. We need to recognize that there is nothing inherently male or female about any color, object, character, subject, or style. And then we need to start treating that whole spectrum of colors, objects, characters, subjects, and styles as a grab bag we can select from at will and mix and match from with abandon.
The solution isn't for all feminine covers to be abolished; it's for as many male authors to have feminine covers as female authors. It's for as many men to enjoy and seek out covers we currently see as feminine as women do. Even better, it's for every author to get the cover that best represents their book, its subject matter, and the interests of people who will most likely enjoy it—and for our assumptions about who will enjoy a book to stop being influenced by gender and biological sex, both of the author and of readers.
“Wow, Rachel,” you might be thinking right now, “you sure have a lot of feelings about coverflipping!” Well, hold on to your butts, because I’m about to get to the part of the coverflip conversation that I find the most frustrating of all.
The main reason I am frustrated by this conversation is that nothing is changing. And nothing is changing because no one is taking responsibility for the problem.
Whose responsibility is it to stop our gendered assumptions about what books are for what readers and what books and covers have value?
Editors and publishers need to stop mentally categorizing books as “girl books” or “boy books” and tailoring their choices of what manuscripts to acquire, their suggestions in edits, and their choices in copy writing and positioning towards specific and stereotyped genders. Marketers like myself need to resist the temptation to use the perceived gender of a book’s audience to decide where and how to market the book. Cover designers need to question what stereotypes they may fall back on when designing covers to reach a specific audience, and question and subvert gendered stereotypes when necessary. Sales reps need to be open to nontraditional cover choices and use their selling skills to help win buyers over to non-gendered cover decisions. Buyers at major chain retailers and independent bookstores need to be willing to take risks on covers that are different from what they’ve seen many of their customers purchase, and trust that changing the look of books in certain sections might also change the demographics or increase the number of customers who flock to those sections. Readers need to challenge their own assumptions about the content and quality of books based on those books’ covers, and support the types of covers and books they enjoy with their buying dollars, which will encourage publishers to give them more of what they want.
Yes, many people within this chain are currently doing it wrong. But pointing fingers and denying any responsibility is simply a way to run circles around the actual problem. The actual problem is SEXISM. Misogyny. Not perpetuated by one person or corporation, but a facet of every single aspect of our lives. Yes, dear reader, even yours.
Why is it easier to focus on which covers we like and want to buy than it is to talk about the overall, insidious mis-categorization of books and authors on the basis of sexist ideals? Because owning up to the fact that we have all internalized problematic beliefs and are playing an active role in perpetuating them is hard. Because it puts the responsibility on all of us to unlearn those problematic beliefs and behaviors.
Damn, you know, I get that it's hard. I'll grant you that is really hard. But we can’t change anything if we keep pointing out how others have internalized sexist beliefs without also owning up to how we’ve done the same. So I'll go first, okay?
I am sexist. I don't want to be sexist, but I am, and in my thoughts, assumptions, preferences, and behaviors I contribute to the oppression of women and femininity in small ways every single day. Why? Because our culture and our world is sexist. Because oppressive beliefs are everywhere, stated as fact, used to sell products and ideas, and woven into the very fabric of our society, and despite my attempts to question and resist them, I can't escape them. I am also racist, homophobic, ableist, sizeist, ageist, trans*phobic, classist, and more (no, the fact that I am female and queer does not make me immune to sexism and homophobia—oppressing ourselves is a part of being oppressed). I don't want to be any of those things, which is why I am actively working to educate myself, to become conscious of my bad behaviors, and to unlearn my problematic beliefs. But because I have, willingly or not, internalized the oppressive messages that run rampant in this society, I am all of those things.*
I don't wake up in the morning and think, "Man, today is sure a great day for oppressing people!" And neither, I'm certain, do you. But you consume the same toxic messages that I do, so now may be a good time to take a look at what you like and value, and how you express that, and see if those values reflect any internalized sexism. Chances are, they do in at least a few ways. And acknowledging and working to change that is the only way to begin a productive conversation about gender bias in the media, including in books.
So that’s what I encourage you to do today: sit down and think about what you believe to be good, and attractive, and literary, and valuable. Think about what you consider to be masculine and feminine. And then try to figure out why you think that, and try to challenge yourself on it. Decide for yourself what is for you. Decide for yourself what has value. And go support that in whatever aspect of the publishing industry you participate in. Meanwhile, support others in their choices so that they, too, can be empowered to define themselves as individuals whose values and interests are not determined by their gender or biological sex. And subvert the hell out of any stereotype you see.
Because it’s only through every single one of us doing that, in every single corner of the industry we inhabit, that anything is ever going to change.
*For a super, super good article elaborating on this subject and wonderfully explaining what I mean by it, follow this link to Queer Guess Code.