Cover Story

Hello again, dear readers. I’ll be posting my review of The Lovely Bones movie adaptation ASAP and I’ll have a guest review of The Great Gatsby later this week. Yay for scathing but visually interesting indictments of the American dream. Anyway, as you may know, the role of gender in publishing and the media in general is a great interest of mine, as touched on in several previous posts. So, when I encountered Maureen Johnson’s call to arms, I felt obligated to share.

As much as we may say otherwise, people judge books by their covers. Thus, a cover affects whether a book is purchased or read and who purchases/reads it. This is a problem, as books by female authors tend to get the Vogue-esque fluff treatment when it comes to covers, relegating them to niche markets (“chick lit”) and keeping them from being taken seriously. So, Maureen Johnson called on people to gender flip famous covers and the results are both hilarious and depressing.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/07/coverflip-maureen-johnson_n_3231935.html

This challenge inspired another list of the most bizarrely irrelevant or inappropriate covers ever made. Despite being real covers, many of these are more ridiculous than the fake ones in Johnson’s challenge.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/10/incongruous-book-covers

That Herland cover… I think my facepalm just facepalmed.

In addition to a heaping helping of sexism, this list also brings up the disturbing trend of “white washing” covers of books with non-white or mixed race characters. For example, here’s the cover of Celia Rees’s Sorceress from back when I read it:

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And here’s the cover for the paperback edition:

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Notice anything? The main character of Sorceress is a Native American girl named Agnes who is the descendant of Mary, the main character in the prequel, Witch Child. While plenty of Native Americans have light skin and light eyes, Agnes’s story is all about isolation, her inability to fit in when she’s always cast as “other”, being caught between two cultures, and people constantly assuming she’s hispanic or being upset when she doesn’t fit their stereotype of what a Native American should be like. So… yeah. A little awkward. Perhaps it’s supposed to be Mary on the cover instead, as the text alternates between their stories, but Mary should be much older in this book and I do believe she had lighter hair.

Then there’s the frustrating attempts of books to cash in on trends like Twilight, resulting in classics like Wuthering Heights and Romeo & Juliet getting Twilight-esque covers and their authors rolling in their respective graves. What’s strangest about this is that the Romeo & Juliet one is quite thick. It is just not that long of a play. What’s taking up all that space?

Then, while in my local bookstore, lamenting that the YA section has become the Teen Paranormal Romance section, I came across new editions of Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet. The Alanna books have seen many covers in their day, some generic Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery covers; some more the stuff of historical romance; some trying to appeal to the readers of darker, grittier fantasy. However, emphasizing Alanna’s cascading red locks is one thing, the most recent cover of the third book, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, is a whole different issue.

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Yep. That’s Alanna in a modern V-neck shirt with dyed fake red hair and a slathering of eye make-up. You can even tell she’s wearing a modern bra. WTF? This series takes place in a secondary world medieval setting and this particular book is set in a vast desert with nary a department store in sight.

Alanna’s also flanked by two very modern-looking men who I’m assuming are Prince Jonathan and George Cooper. While there is a love triangle in the book, the larger focus is on Alanna’s status as a female knight and an unmarried woman as she struggles to find her place and defy gender roles in the patriarchal cultures of both Tortall and the Bahzir tribes. She isn’t torn between a prince and an outlaw. She rejects Prince Jonathan’s marriage proposal because he is presumptive and sexist. When he rejects her, she is upset by a cruel jab at her gender expression not because she lost some irreplaceable man at the center of her life. When she winds up with George, it’s because he is better able to accept her for who she is, recognizing her as both feminine and strong, instead of treating her like one of the boys unless they’re having sex, as Prince Jonathan did.

However, Alanna still goes on to do her own thing and save the kingdom in the fourth book and even takes another lover before ending up with George. To reduce these iconic works of feminist fantasy that a generation of fantasy writers and readers grew up on to a mere teen romance book with a fantasy setting is not only insulting, it’s absurd. Aragorn had two love interests, should they make a cover of The Two Towers where he’s in a scarf and hipster glasses, flanked by two modern female models?

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About boundandgaggedbooks

Shannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.

6 responses to “Cover Story”

  1. Alison Lo Fraser says :

    Okay, now I just want to dig out my Tamora Pierce books and re-read them all.

  2. hwerme says :

    What follows is the knee-jerk reaction I had while reading this post. It is not coherent. It is not thoughtful. It is rage.

    WHO WOULD DARE CHANGE THE COVER OF SORCERESS?! THE COVERS FOR SORCERESS AND WITCH CHILD WERE CUSTOM MADE AND DESCRIBED *IN DETAIL* IN THE BOOKS THEMSELVES! AGNES EVEN SPENDS ABOUT 3 PARAGRAPHS MONOLOGUING ON THE PERFECTNESS OF THE COVER OF WITCH CHILD! What, is the fact that the photographer captured some hint of a soul in those pictures the freakin’ problem here? GAH!

    I am now really tempted to get my paws on those books again, but I also don’t think I can handle the fit of depression it would bring on. You can only watch a character lose everything so many times, ya’ know?

    • boundandgaggedbooks says :

      Sorceress was particularly tragic. Why the daughter? WHY?

      • hwerme says :

        I remember feeling like it was Christmas when I discovered the sequel to Witch Child existed, and then I finally got to read it and it was one of the saddest things I had ever seen.

        I was reading it when I was out west with my family bicycling across the continental divide and the weight of the bags we kept on our bikes was crucial to keep down. As I read Sorceress my parents tried REALLY hard to convince me to take off the hardcover and then rip out the pages as I read each night. DID. NOT. HAPPEN.

      • boundandgaggedbooks says :

        Eek! Your valiant preservation efforts are appreciated! Apparently, Witch Child and Sorceress were supposed to be one book, but the multi-generational family saga could not be contained in a single volume so they divided it into two.

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