Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Societal Norms and Maureen Johnson's "Coverflip" Challenge

You know back in the old days when manly things were good/strong/smart things, and all those things women did were...not quite as good/strong/smart? That's still a thing.

Maureen Johnson is a Young Adult (YA) writer who's books often involve supernatural monsters, brutal murders, dysfunctional relationships, and other unpleasant things. Despite her themes, her book covers most often feature a combination of pretty girls, sassy poses, pastel backgrounds and cutesy fonts. In a word, they're girly.

She recently tweeted: I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, 'Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. - signed, A Guy"

Afterwards, she put forth a challenge to her almost 80,000 followers: redesign the cover of a popular book based on how a marketing team would envision it if the author were of the opposite gender. The results were a fascinating look into how society interprets "masculine" and "feminine". I found the re-imagining of Lord of the Flies especially hilarious. It shows a tiny plastic piglet held in cupped hands, reminiscent of the now-iconic Twilight cover.

Although I don't write YA, as a female fantasy writer, I have to put up with similar nonsense. There's a lot of overlap between the SFF and gamer community, of which I'm also a part. A shockingly large percentage of the fanbase still treats their hobby/interest like a sort of boy's club that girls wouldn't understand, and even if they did, they aren't allowed anyway. Like other male-dominated professions, female gamers and authors have to work twice as hard to prove they're as good as the men, and when it's time to divvy out the accolades they still get half the recognition they deserve.

Since this is an issue that's getting more attention as time goes on, I try to be optimistic about my own future as a published author. It's hard. Decades after the feminist movement, I see how far we still have to go, and I worry.

My protagonists are considered the Other by 99% of the people they meet, whether it's because of their race, their skin color, their culture, or their abilities; however, even though they are a decided minority, and their background isn't at all Euro-centric, at the end of the day they are still fairly attractive white people.

I have nightmares of covers depicting Elestyne lying prone in a White Dress Not Appearing In This Novel that's torn in all the right places, while a barechested Kortesh saves her from the other pit fighters with the brazen might of his penis sword. Also, both of them are now blonde.

This isn't the 80's, so I doubt the sexism would be that in-your-face. It's 2013. We're more likely get the split screen view, with Elestyne on one side staring at the reader, empty-eyed with her lips slightly parted - the signature Mysterious Sex Kitten expression, but it's not objectification because look, she's got a penis sword! You can't objectify someone with a penis sword. (Curse this Freudian keyboard.) Meanwhile, on the other side, Kortesh is glaring broodily as the lighting effects emphasize every chiseled feature, so the reader knows that he's hardened by his experiences with the cruel, cruel world. Get it, ladies? Hardened.

All this absurdity, and my characters are still better off than if they were non-white. They are likely to befall the same fate as Ged, the protagonist of Ursula Le Guin's groundbreaking A Wizard of Earthsea. Ged has yet to have an actual brown person portray his character in an audio-visual adaptation of his story, and most of the many editions of the novel have a pasty white dude on the cover.

Society whitewashes things for the same reason they sort books, toys, professions, and everything else under the sun into "boy" and "girl" categories. They're all trying to appeal to the widest audience possible. They want the highest sales potential. They keep it up because it's proven to be a smart, safe marketing decision, but the backlash is becoming more and more difficult for them to ignore.

Sexism doesn't hurt girls who want to play sports as much as it used to. For that I am grateful. We still need to do something about the boys who feel like they can't read a book because there's pink on it, and the girls who look down their nose at "chick lit" because they're too smart for that shallow fluff. Maybe, in my lifetime, we'll progress to the point where we stop separating books into "general fiction" and "women's fiction", as if 50% of the population and 80% of the readership still need a special place just for them. We could put books written by non-white, non-Europeans all over the bookstore, instead of sticking them in the "international" section where fewer people will find them.

In some exterior, superficial way, most people in the world are different from us. That time when men were men, women were women, and everyone who looked/spoke/dressed/believed differently from us were separated by thousands of miles of land and sea? It never existed. We tried to write our history to make it seem that way, but the blinders are coming off.

Slowly but surely, we're realizing that being ignorant of the Other and limiting their representation so we can convince ourselves that our tribe is the only one we need to understand is a pretty jerky thing to do. We're learning that when we limit others, we limit ourselves.


  1. I read somewhere that J. K. Rowling appears as J. K. on the covers so that boys wouldn't be turned off by reading a book with a male protagonist that was written by a woman. Let me know if you do the research to verify this.

  2. That is indeed true. Here's a (very) short interview where the question is posed to her.


    I don't think my first name really screams gritty, adult fantasy, which is why why I'm using initials. Ideally, my target audience would be secure enough in themselves that they wouldn't go, "Eww, cooties!", but I confess it did cross my mind. ;)