Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gender and YA Book Covers

Some time ago, I watched a documentary called The Codes of Gender about the portrayal of women in advertising and popular culture. I know, of course, that women are objectified all the time in commercial imagery, but it was interesting to see some of the underlying tropes that are more subtle. The film is based on the work of sociologist Erving Goffman from the late '70s.

Many examples of this phenomenon can be found. There's an excellent collection at Essentially, women are, more often than men, shown:

  • in positions that are off-balance or precarious.
  • gazing distractedly away from the viewer.
  • passively receiving action, rather than taking an active role.
  • lying down.
  • in jeopardy or threatened in some way.
This all serves to reinforce the idea that women are weak and subservient, and must be protected by men. In fact, that endangered is the same as sexy.

Once I saw the documentary, I couldn't stop seeing these images: on billboards, magazine covers, and countless other places. What really disturbed me, though, was that I started seeing them on book covers in the YA fiction section of the library.

Here are some examples. I didn't seek these out, by the way. These are just covers that I noticed in the course of my regular work over a period of several weeks.

Here we see a woman (presumably Audrey) shown with her head thrown back and to the side and her body twisted uncomfortably.  This also demonstrates another trend in commercial imagery, showing women lost in emotion.  Often this is hysterical laughter.  Again, it presents women as out of control and unprepared.
Notice how the male figure presses down on the female, placing her in a helpless position.  Her back is bent almost painfully.  If this were a photograph rather than a painting, she would need to be supported to keep from falling over.
Here the woman's legs are unnaturally splayed, and she's seated precariously on a tilted skateboard.  Another common trope demonstrated here is the headless body.  Quite often women are represented only as bodies or body parts, divorced from personhood and easier to objectify.  One way to test our reactions to these images is to imagine a man in the same position.  What would your reactions be?
All we see are the backs of this woman's legs and the serpent.  She is apparently naked and completely at the mercy of the elements.
This cover shows multiple tropes.  The woman is clearly endangered, distracted, and off-balance, and the background image is of a disembodied bare shoulder.
A queen should be capable, active, competent, and in control.  The woman on this cover appears to have none of those qualities.  She looks at the viewer, but her eyes are unfocused.  Again, her body is twisted and tilted, her head in an unnatural position.  She looks as if she could fall over at the slightest provocation.
It can be helpful to see images of males to note the contrast.  Here, the man is aggressively active.  His naked torso is muscled and strong.  His gaze is directed off-camera, but is purposeful.  Here is a person who can handle himself in any situation.  Whereas the woman on the cover of Poison Ink is running away, he is clearly running toward.
These are just a few examples. I found many more. Granted, there are covers like Behind The Mountains that do a much better job at portraying women than those above, but I had to search for quite a while to find one. I think it's worth asking publishers what they are selling, here. What is the role of young women that they are promoting?

Take a look at your library shelves.  What do you find?