Baby Got Back: An Epidemic of Gendered Book Covers

by Amy LaCount

Since childhood, we’ve been taught over and over again – don’t judge a book by its cover – but this seemingly golden maxim is getting harder to follow. 

Earlier this month, we reported on the unyielding gendering of book covers. The trend is particularly persistent in young adult fiction, where “regular” books are marketed towards both genders, and then there are the books for girls: unabashedly decorated in frills, lace, and pink. 

And accordingly, boys don’t read “girly” books, whereas girls often read across gender lines. This is because masculinity is normalized, while femininity is often the second choice – for both men and women. Why is this gendering and subsequent devaluing of femininity so prevalent in publishing?

Last year, there was general public outcry over a 50th anniversary cover for Sylvia Plath’s illustrious The Bell Jar (which, if you haven’t gotten around to reading it, please do; it’s just heartbreakingly exquisite and perfect) showing a woman coquettishly touching up her makeup – but not much has changed.

Recently, there’s been an epidemic of book covers showing women’s backs and nothing else. Women turned away and exposing their shoulders, women looking downwards and showing their napes, women walking away into the sunset while touching their hair … it almost sounds like a joke meme, like Women Laughing Alone With Salad – but in fact, they are the covers of bestselling novels. 

We get it: Justin Timberlake brought SexyBack in 2006, but what gives? What is this phenomenon of the faceless woman fronting fiction these days?

This proclivity for the female back cover extends beyond fiction for youth, or anything that might be described as “chick-lit.” John Irving’s In One Person shows a woman clasping (or, gasp: unclasping maybe!) her bra. Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth is illustrated with a woman clad in a dress, walking on a lonely road.

The NYT speculates that the woman’s back is “the largest swath of the body that can be exposed without setting off the censors,” a body part that can be depicted without obvious objectification but still signifies the erotic. So – they can’t put boobs on the cover, but the back is the next best thing?

Art director of publishing house Little, Brown & Company Juliana Lee says she often instructs designers not to show the woman’s face: “A little bit of mystery allows the reader to use their imagination.” Schama of The New Republic understands Lee’s reasoning: “omitting individualizing details spares jacket designers from the charge that they haven’t rendered characters faithfully,” she writes, which is definitely accurate. Perhaps, “the ubiquitous book-cover back suggests to potential readers that the book is about bodies and the forces contained therein, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

But what kind of bodies are we talking about here? The only kind of female back I see on these covers are white and skinny as hell, with long, feminine hair. Where are the women of color? Where are any other women of different shapes and sizes? Where is this alleged mystery provided by the book jacket that allows me to access anything beyond a variation on a theme of conventionally attractive, skinny, white, female protagonist?

This kind of advertising can be dangerous – by encouraging readers to imagine the characters’ appearances however they please, publishers may be participating in some implicit discrimination. Remember the barrage of racist hatred after Rue was cast in The Hunger Games? “Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the innocent blonde girl you picture,” wrote a Twitter user. “I thought she should be white,” wrote another fan. This kind of appalling bigotry could possibly be avoided if publishers were willing to diversify their images, letting audiences know that they shouldn’t only be picturing white female characters in their imaginations. 

So, I’m sorry to oppose such an old, wise idiom – but I’m afraid I’ll have to keep judging books by their covers unless they start becoming more inclusive, gender neutral, and diverse.

What are your thoughts? What kind of images do you want to see on book covers? 

Source: New York Times

Photos via, Hunger Games Wiki, Amazon, Google Images

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