I’ve talked about how ya book covers don’t portray fat girls on them. I’ve talked about girls under water as a cover trend (and I could add even more to the list now). I’ve also talked about the use of windswept hair on covers, too (this one I could add tons of books to, too). If you haven’t read Rachel Stark’s post about the trend of elegant death, which ties into the girls underwater trend, I suggest diving into it. There’s also a great post over at Ellen Oh’s blog about why the sad white girls in pretty dresses cover trend needs to stop.
In thinking about these covers and thinking a lot more about the notion of gendering books, I’ve really found myself finding fault with a lot of ya covers. More specifically, the ones marketed to teen girls. Aside from the fact so many of these covers look exactly the same, they tell us a lot about the female body and what it can or should do.
Think about it for a second. We’ve moved from using illustrations to using stock photos for the bulk of ya covers. This means we’re selling an image on a book now, hoping that readers will pick up a story based on the image on the front. We want it to be attractive and we want it to entice people. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that purpose and on the surface, there’s nothing wrong with making that cover as attractive as possible. The problem emerges, though, when we step back and actually look at what messages we’re sending within the images. Part of why many believe books are gendered — why some books are for boys and some are for girls — is because of the images and what they’re doing or saying. Even if the story itself doesn’t have a message about the female body within it, readers, especially teen girls who are already bombarded with a sickening number of messages about their bodies thanks to every other media they encounter, the cover is telling them something. It’s further offering up beliefs about the ideal image. It’s not just teen girls getting and internalizing the messages though; teen males are, too. They’re seeing books as gendered and they’re also internalizing those messages, which only continues the cycle. We sell the female body on book covers in a way we don’t on male book covers.
Much of this isn’t new territory in terms of trends or messages, but that’s maybe what I find most troubling. Aside from the problems of these covers not being unique or interesting or memorable (which as I’ve mentioned before is a disservice to both the author who has written a distinct book and to the reader who deserves to know that the book isn’t the same as every other one out there), these are only further selling messages that are troubling. Further widening the gap and notion that there are “girl” books and there are “boy” books.
I’ve dug out a ton of interesting cover trends emerging this year in ya fiction and they’re all worth spending a little time thinking about. Some say a lot more than others, but they all have some sort of message within them about the value, power, role, and meaning of the female body.
Girls are submissive
In each of these covers, we have a girl either curled up or sprawled on the ground. Their body language speaks to their submissiveness, their weakness. In the first two, the girls are not balled up, and while it could come off as a moment of power and ownership of their bodies, it doesn’t. The way that their hair falls behind them and the way their dresses hang loosely detract from that ownership because they’re made to look needy. Like they need help or protection. Moreover, the expression and gaze in the image suggest a powerlessness (in the case of the first image) and, more troubling, a “come hither” look in the second image. The second cover reads so sexual to me, and it’s not in an empowering way; it’s instead very need-driven. Sure the cover fits with the fairy tale elements to the story, but the blatant appearance of need sends a message, however subtle, about the need to be demure to be attractive and gain attention. The third cover is maybe the most problematic for me in that it’s not only the girl on the ground, but she’s giving up completely, via her expression and her arms.
In the following three covers, the girls have their faces buried or partially obscured from view. They’re hiding themselves from the world, making themselves small and invisible.
To make the message about submissiveness and weakness more obvious, in all of the covers, the girls are all dressed in highly feminized dresses and skirts. For me, these covers drive home a statement about how girls should and shouldn’t feel. The traditional female attire, the skirt and the dress, is put in play with girls who are physically broken and aching. That their faces are hidden, either partially or fully, suggests that ladies shouldn’t feel things that aren’t pleasant because it’ll break them. The other message I pull from these covers is that of a need for rescue and protection. Where the second cover offers the sexualized version, the fourth cover romanticizes it via the expression on her face, and the third cover has a girl simply giving up and giving in.
I don’t necessarily think that having a girl lying on the ground is a problem in and of itself on a cover. It’s the manner in which it’s depicted in each of these that bothers me, since it necessarily equates the feminine with the weak, the demure, the needy. The body in each of these covers becomes the message. Because if you look at those and look at the cover below — also a girl on the ground — there is a marked difference in the message.
Bodies are to judge
When I started rounding these images together, my first thought was there were far fewer headless bodies this year than in years past, but it’s still a pretty sizable number. This trend bothers me because it’s nothing but a show of bodies in one capacity or another — and since it’s the female body, it becomes the object of judgment, whether good or bad. There are no faces or expressions to give insight into what the inner workings of the girl being rendered. She is literally a body to look at and nothing more. While this works in terms of the fact it allows readers to picture what the girl would look like visually for themselves, the problem is the message of the headless body, period.
The bulk of these covers feature the female body in decidedly feminine clothing. The images are all of female bodies in form-fitting dresses, which play into our beliefs about the female ideal, both in terms of shape and size, but also in terms of dress. If you haven’t read Charlotte Cooper’s fantastic essay on the notion of the “headless fatties,” take a few minutes and do so. Even though all of the girls in the images above are thin, the idea the content of the book is being sold through the image of the idealized body on the front is troubling. Not only are these covers further suggesting that bodies sell products, but they’re furthering the idea that there is an ideal body and that ideal body is what makes something (in this case, a story) appealing. The girl attached to the body doesn’t matter.
Although I don’t think the covers below excuse the problems of the headless body all together, the fact they feature girls dressed more like an average teen girl make them more stand out. I like both of these because while they are bodies, they’re girls who are in the midst of some sort of activity, suggesting they’re more than simply their bodies (the one cooks! the other one plays sports!). These are girls who do things, rather than are things in and of themselves.
Girls are made of parts
This trend isn’t as prominent as it was in the past, but it’s still out there. To be fair, some of these are simply set up this way because of their design (Reunited, for example, has the map to obscure anything but the girls’ legs). Regardless, what all of these covers have in common is they home in on one particular feminine body part. There are legs in more than one image, and they’re perfect legs. There are lips. There’s the long neck and cleavage. The clavicle. These are all representative of ideals but more than that, they’re delicate. In some cases, they’re breakable parts and in others, they’re parts meant to be protected (check out the expression and the hand in The Academie). These girls aren’t fully imagined, but rather, they’re composed of their parts, and thus, we have a similar problem with the representation as we do when we have a headless body. My biggest problem with these particular covers, though, is less the delicacy and feminization of certain body parts, but instead, that they’re all identical, mix-and-match parts. Like they could belong to any female and not one specifically. It makes these girls all the same.
The last one I’ve talked about before and even though it’s not a cover out this year (it came out last year as a repackaging), it illustrates my point so well I can’t not talk about it. The combination of individual body parts on each of the individual covers that then make up a very thin, very disturbing image of a female when put together really bothers me. This may be the most problematic cover choice I’ve seen in YA fiction. Not only is the girl completely objectified here, both by her parts and her whole, but she is made of nothing solid. She will disappear!
Only from the backside
Other people have noticed this trend this year, right? The photo of the girl from the backside usually is of her full body. The thing worth noting in these images is that most are wearing the same tell-tale dresses from the headless bodies. Not all of them are, though, which is refreshing. Those who are not in dresses, though, almost all have their butts in the image, and it draws our attention for one reason or another (the very short shorts or the very fitted jeans with a paintbrush poking out of it or the katana just inches away or the bikini bottoms). Our eyes are drawn right to that body part, even in the bulk of the dress images, as we see the dresses either form-fitted or flowing away from there. While I could go on about the meaning behind that, what’s more problematic for me in these images is that every single one features a girl with long, flowy hair. That’s another idealized female trait, and we have no shortage of it here. There’s little to no diversity at all in length or style or even color.
Notice, too, the bulk of these girls are holding themselves tight and closing themselves off. Their hands lay at their sides. They’re not exploring or thinking. They’re simply existing. So many of them have interesting things going on around them, but they themselves are anything but interesting. They’re so stock that they’re simply part of the scenery, part of the story, rather than the story itself. Girls are the props here, not the actors.
Lucky for us, these aren’t the only backs of girls covers this year. There are more!
These two feature not only the hair (and the second features the form-caressing dress), but both of these also give us angel wings. Perfection.
All four of these covers feature the back of a girl, but this time she’s at least looking over her shoulder. The first is somewhat coy. The second two show a girl exhibiting some sort of fear or fright. The last one is a much tougher girl. But all four of them feature the self-same long, flowy hair. Even when there is an opportunity for a kickass girl in the last cover, she’s stuffed into a tight, form-fitting dress. Where she could escape the company, instead, she’s tossed right in with it. This isn’t to say that a kick ass, powerhouse of a girl can’t wear a dress and still be strong, but when she’s out of the same fabric as everyone else wearing a pretty dress with long hair, she loses her power by association. By simply being flooded out by all of these other images of what a girl looks like.
Why can’t more backs of girls give us this?
In the first cover, notice there’s not long flowy hair! The girl has a hat on. She’s wearing a long coat and not a dress. She’s engaging and welcoming her world. In the second, the girl is welcoming us into her world. These are markedly different than the other covers above, even though they employ such similar styles. The messages are a entirely different and much, much less problematic. As for the last cover, I can’t quite tell whether or not her hair is short or just pulled back, but it’s DIFFERENT. It shows variety in form and styling, and I appreciate that.
This is only the tip of the iceberg as far as covers featuring girls that are troubling to me. There are numerous other instances of girls cowering, of girls with their eyes cover or obscured, of girls who are wrapped in the protective grip of their male counterparts. Each of these covers on their own are not problematic — in fact, many of the covers I’ve talked about are ones that I like or I find appealing and would pick up. But taken as a whole, there’s a problem worth talking about. We’re giving readers, particularly female readers, certain images. We’re selling books and stories with images that are telling us entirely different stories.
Please note that there are no fat girls on covers so far this year. We’re still fixated on an idealized body, which is thin and toned. We’re also not getting covers that feature people who may not have every part of their body or may not have long, silky hair, or who may not have perfect skin or pouty lips or delicate, “feminine” features. There’s little to no variation on that whatsoever. Looking through what we’re getting on YA covers, the ideal is the thin girl, wearing a well-fitting dress, who has curves and long, flowing hair. I’m not sure if that represents many of those in the target readership for these books. More than that, though, it’s instilling the notion of perfection not just for girls, but we’re giving it to boys, too. Not only are they picking up on the cues, however subtle or not, about what a female should look like, they’re also picking up the message that these books aren’t meant for them. The contents are for girls.
If covers continue to offer the same thing and offer the same troubling images of the female body, we’re going to continue teaching the notion that one size fits all and that there is one ideal. We’re going to continue teaching the notion that Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss wasn’t right because she was “too fat.” We’re going to continue to teach that females can only be one Thing or they’re nothing (that Thing being perfect, of course). We’re going to continue judging ourselves and others against some false standard of beauty. As much as books aren’t the “mainstream media,” and as much as they aren’t tabloids or television or magazines, they’re still reaching a sizable portion of the population. And YA books, aimed at a particularly impressionable audience, are selling these same problematic notions of gender and of the role and purpose and use of the female body.
Know what YA could offer more of and challenge all of these messages with? Covers like this:
Talk about flipping gender norms on their head. We have a girl who can wear a dress, shoot a bow, be an average size, exist as the force in her scene (rather than as the background), have confidence in her mission, and look fierce as hell.
Here are a few others I think are taking things in the right direction. I do not in any way believe all girls need to look fierce or powerful on a cover because that would be limiting what girls can and cannot feel or look like. But I DO like when I see it because it is rare, and I think the first cover not only nails strong, but she is also dressed like your average teen girl (you know, minus the sickle, which she is owning, rather than having it own her). The second cover gives us a face but it’s so shadowed it’s hard to distinguish what the face looks like, leaving a lot to the reader’s imagination. And while I’m making a huge assumption it’s even a girl, there’s the possibility it’s not. Ambiguity is not a bad thing! The third cover features a girl in a dress, but look how she’s engaging in her world. She’s not a prop. She’s the actor. The fourth cover features a girl who has a great expression on her face, but more than that, she’s weak and vulnerable without being submissive. She’s small, but she’s not diminished. The last cover, offers us a girl with a great expression with her eyes. I love, too, that her hair is pulled back from her face so we can actually see the expression.
What these covers all do is make the person a person, rather than an object. Rather than something to be assessed and judged against some standard. These girls are owning their stories, their bodies, their worlds, rather than having us do it for them. The covers, despite not being diverse in the sense that they portray girls of differing shapes and colors, ARE diverse in that they offer us girls who aren’t of the mix and match variety. Who can’t be substituted for one another in any other covers. We get girls who can be strong as hell in a stress and who can have fun in a dress. We’re not sizing up their bodies. We’re instead exploring the whole of them as individual people.
That is what makes a book appealing.