sexism in literature

Hark! The Headless Hero!

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As far as I’m concerned, the torso-only cover image serves two purposes. First, it absolves the designer from matching the model’s identifying features to any descriptors within the book. This can be a plus, as some readers (*coughyourstrulycoughcough*) don’t like their mental imagery of characters to get muddled up by a photograph or illustration. The torso-only approach, along with the cute-feet-in-cute-shoes variation, can set the tone of the book while leaving the reader free to imagine faces as they please.

This approach highlights extravagant clothing and accessories. It can invoke a sense of mystery and intrigue, depending on the pose, the lighting, the color palette, etc. “Who is this attractive person? If only you could see their face! Read within to learn more!”

Because, let’s be honest, these types of covers never have “unattractive” body-types on them.

Which brings us to the second purpose: the torso-only cover objectifies. It’s Person-as-Object in visual form.

Often, there’s no character representation on that cover. It’s not even really a model. It’s just a body, a physical object displayed for your ogling pleasure. There’s no human expression, no depth of soul conveyed in this type of imagery. It’s a piece of meat. You might as well put a horse flank in its place.

And, in this instance, the men get shorter shrift. A faceless female model acts as an avatar for the reader: “Step into this body and experience her life!” Rarely does the torso-only man on a cover fill that role. Instead, shirtless chests and six-pack abs advertise salacious details within. You can’t see the guy’s face? So what? He’s an object, the promise of a story that will titillate and arouse. He doesn’t need a face.

And you certainly don’t need to see it.

Because, to this cover, you’re an object too. The reader is an animal acting on primal instinct, forking out money for that promise of fleeting sensual fulfillment.

Kind of depressing when it’s put in those terms.

Picture, though, this style of cover used with non-idealistic body types: a fat man in a wife-beater; a granny in her nightgown; a war-torn amputee. Picture the cute-feet cover style with the calloused feet of a tribal nomad instead. Suddenly, the cover becomes compelling.

In their essence these body-parts covers create a visual synecdoche: the part represents the whole. The idealistic images, so overdone these days, might reduce their subject to a trite cliché, but that doesn’t mean the style has no merit whatsoever.

And really, I shouldn’t complain. After all, the headless beefcake on the cover gives his message loud and clear: “Kate, you don’t want to read what’s between these pages.”

Much better to be forewarned than broadsided mid-story. And for that, I thank you, Shirtless Torso.

 

This Book Has Got You Covered

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If you’ve ever wondered what a stick figure looks like from behind, wonder no more.

I don’t really know what Average is complaining about. With cover trends nowadays, the female protagonist is lucky even to make an appearance. Romance covers in particular are trending toward the beefy-man-dominates-the-spread aesthetic, but the marginalization of women in visual media isn’t exclusive to that particular genre.

It’s almost laughable how often women are portrayed in wistful, submissive, vulnerable states on book covers. Usually, those who do have a “powerful” pose are back-facing, looking over their shoulder at the audience, or else pointedly focusing their intensity off to one side—so as not to confront the reader directly.

Because, you know, that would be bad.

Compare that to the dynamic, aggressive, authoritative stances that men usually take, and the meta-narrative gets pretty depressing. But sexism in the visual arts is nothing new.

And for the romance genre at least, it makes sense to minimize the woman on the cover. She’s not a real character. She’s an avatar for the reader to imprint upon, and the best way to establish that imprint is to ignore her facial features and identifying attributes. Is she blonde or brunette? We can’t tell, because she’s standing in the shadows. Any tattoos? Probably not, but the man can have as many as he wants. That’s hot.

(Do I need to add a sarcasm tag to that last sentence? You know my voice well enough by now, right?)

I suppose we’re meant to live through every protagonist of every book we read. For whatever reason, I’ve always kept a firm fourth wall between myself and any fictional characters. I might love them, but I don’t want to be them. I never claimed Mr. Darcy or Mr. Rochester or any of the dozens of other uncontested literary heartthrobs that so easily climb atop a reader’s idealistic pedestal. Darcy belonged to Elizabeth, Rochester belonged to Jane, and me inserting myself into those equations would have ruined everything.

(Now, whether I wanted to find someone akin to Darcy, Rochester, et al. is another story. But such men don’t exist beyond the pages of literature, because they’re the fantasies of what women want men to be rather than true records of humanity. And we can chalk up my disappointment on that count as yet another reason I’ll die alone.)

When the models on a book cover don’t match the character descriptions within the book, I get annoyed. When they’re too obscured to provide any reference for me at all, doubly so. But of course, I don’t even like people on book covers. I’d much rather get my visual cues from the written words within.

And I realize I’m probably in the minority.

Even so, the passive portrayal of women on book covers is something I lament. Show me a woman of intelligence, bravery, steadiness, intensity, and I will gravitate toward that book. I’m tired of reading about passive doormats who are led around from one calamity to the next as they’re acted upon by both the hero and the villain of the story. I certainly don’t want that aesthetic reflected on the cover.

A Heroine’s Lament

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Let’s talk about sexism in literature, shall we?

*cracks open ginormous Can O’Worms*

When was the last time we had a series about a brave, courageous heroine facing a juggernaut of a villain? …that wasn’t in the “Thriller” category? …and where the heroine was not referred to as “gutsy” or “feisty” in any of the promotional copy/interviews?

(As an aside, I’m not really sure why the Thriller genre allows for women to take leading roles against heinous bad guys, but I suspect that it makes for higher drama, of the “Ooh, look! She’s part of the more delicate sex, so her chances of success are even lower than if she were a man” variety. Which is sexist. But I’ll give the genre kudos for letting women take the lead anyway.)

Now, for those series that do have a brave, courageous heroine facing a juggernaut of a villain, cross out all the stories that play some romantic pairing or love triangle as just as important a conflict.

Hmm.

Sadly, I’m drawing a blank here.

There’s an unspoken line between what’s okay for heroines versus heroes. Heroines, for example, do not get a story that starts when they’re 11 years old and progresses through the next seven years of their life, to culminate in them defeating a genocidal maniac. But seriously, how cool would something like Hattie Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone have been? (And yes, I’m using the British “Philosopher’s Stone,” because we all know that American publishers would have gone back and said, “Hey, we’re changing the name of the book… and your heroine’s a dude now because that sells better.” I’m at least giving the British ones the benefit of the doubt. /cynicism)

Far from the elusive 11-years-old starting point, most of the “strong heroine” books I can think of start with a heroine in the 14- to 16-years-old range. And we all know why.

“Oooooooh! Who’s her love interest?”

When I think “Bildungsromans with girls,” I think of Anne of Green GablesPollyanna, and other such fare. Domestic plots, easily won-over “villains,” muted love possibilities that will grow through sequels as the heroine gets old enough to be paired off, and so forth. These are wonderful books, but they’re also very tame.

Where’s the adventure for a female protagonist? Are there fantasy Bildungsromans that feature girls? Yes, they exist. They maybe don’t get as much attention as boy-as-main-character books do, and there are often some weird dynamics that wouldn’t necessarily work if genders were swapped. Like girls growing up to marry centuries-old fairy-types. (Boys growing up to marry centuries-old fairy-types kind of gets the side-eye from society, don’cha know? But I cringe a little when either gender marries a centuries-old fairy-type, to be honest. Can you imagine the culture shock in that marriage?)

This is a conundrum I’m still kind of muddling through. I have a rule that if someone sees a gap in the spectrum of literature, it’s that someone’s responsibility to fill it. This allows me to fob off other people’s writing projects—(what’s with the whole, “Oh, you’re a writer? I have a book idea that you should write for me” mentality in some people, anyway?)—but at the same time, looking at all the projects on my plate, I’m not so sure I can take up this banner at the moment.

(Which means, of course, that I’m already fiddling around with it in the back of my head.)

I’m at least happy to start the conversation. What values do we place on our heroines vs. our heroes? What restrictions? And why do we do it?

“Why” is the most important question of all. It always points to truth, if you dig deep enough.

(Thank you, Socrates.)