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?


Durable Goods said...

I agree with your thesis in general, but I find your comments about Audrey, Wait! to be a bit of a stretch. Being in the throes of emotion could be looked about as being empowered to show strong emotion, especially the type of "rock star" emotion I glean from this cover.

Kat Werner said...

I also think the Audrey Wait! cover shows a girl more in an aggressive pose, even (in my idea) rallying against the song that has been written about her, making her own noise against it instead of being a victim.

Karl said...

Interesting. Sounds like I need to read Audrey, Wait. :-)

I have to admit that I haven't read any of these books. For most, I didn't even read the flap copy. I'm reacting solely to the covers as images.

Paula said...

And Karl, therein lies the problem. I think your whole post is a stretch. Audrey is rocking out, which clearly reflects the plot. The Garden girl looks as if she's standing strong, despite the snake. The girl on the skateboard's pose is spot-on, a typical middle schoolers curb-sitting posture.

Cover photos sell teen lit. Intriguing, tantalizing covers make a big difference. the guy-in-motion cover reminds me of the cover for Margaret Peterson Haddix's Running Out of Time, featuring a young woman.

And although the Danticat cover is lovely, let me play devil's advocate and say that it looks very Georgia O'Keeffe.

Anonymous said...

I met a popular teen author at the ALA conference last year. She said she does not like to have her female character's heads on the cover of her books. This is because she likes to give the readers of her books the chance to create the character's appearence for themselves. Or- imagine themselves in the situation the character is in.

Cathi said...

I also agree with your thesis in general, but not reading the book blurbs undermines it. Elsie Aidinoff's THE GARDEN is the Garden of Eden. The bare legs belong to Eve, who certainly is unclothed, and her relationship with the Serpent is tantalizingly suggested here. Indeed Eve is standing strong; she has it all over Adam in this fascinating reimagining of the first woman and man. God himself isn't so impressive either! The cover is a fitting lure into the book.

Your thesis would benefit from discussion with teen readers themselves. Combine ads from magazines and movies with an array of YA book covers and ask them what they think about attitudes and who's weak or strong, BEFORE you offer your thesis for their consideration. I'd love to hear the results.

Madigan McGillicuddy said...

What an interesting idea! Kid lit reviewers have been decrying the beheaded photo cover that is currently popular for a while now. You have about 8 covers highlighted here -- I'd like to see more, in order to show an overwhelming amount of evidence. I'm sure they're out there!

The Librarian Chick said...

Irony, you clever thing. Posting an ad for "Dating wealthy women" from next to an article about images of women in media is just too delicious.

Karl said...

Oh, dear. Sorry about the ad. I have no control over what they place on the page.

Madigan, I actually had a lot more covers selected, but didn't want to make the post too long. FWIW, here are some covers that portray women in a way that seems better to me. Of course, this is all my opinion. Feel free to disagree! (actually, all of the It Girl novels have great covers, IMO)

...and, Paula, what's wrong with Georgia O'Keeffe!? :-)

Ashley said...

Well, as a teen librarian who also works at an all girl summer camp, here are my thoughts...

Audrey, Wait!: This book is about a boyfriend who made a hit song about her after they broke up. I always assumed this cover was her dancing, similar to what Durable Goods and Kat Werner said.

I Wanna Be Your Shoebox: Looks like all of the teens hanging out around the library after school. Not sure what's so unnatural about it.

The others I'm not as familiar with, but I don't find them offensive in any way. It makes perfect sense to me that they would not include faces on cover photos. Everyone's version of a character looks different, and forcing one face on them limits personal interpretation of the characters.

I don't understand how you could even try to come up with an underlying theory or statement without reading the books. I think it's interesting that the covers you like are often on books that do far more objectifying than the books you criticize. In my opinion, the content of the It Girl, Gossip Girl, Clique type books has great potential to give a skewed perspective of gender roles. After all, should all teen girls be portrayed as rich, spoiled, backstabbers? I guess I would have a lot more respect for this idea if you were actually familiar with the literature.

Ashley said...

I just realized how "ranty" my comment sounded, sorry about that. I tend to get as bothered by people making generalizations about gender, particularly when it involves teens. I work with enough of them to know that the vast majority of them are smart enough to make their own decisions about their roles in society. I would rather empower girls to think about images thrown about them, analyze them, and come to their own conclusions, rather than tell them what they all mean.

Liberality said...

You make a good point but a lot of people will resist this with all their might. How can they be manipulated by the media?--oh they are much too smart for that!!! Except, that is the media's JOB, and the media is damn good at it. Great post!