Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Wednesday Words: Coverflips and Cover Ups

Gender politics: they're hardly new. Many of us are raised with the idea that there are "girl things" and "boy things." Of course as we grow up, many of us come to realize that the world - especially the world of gender - is hardly so simple.

But identifying that there is a problem and doing something about it are two very different things. Now I've written about the nature of book covers, especially in YA, before, and you can see that post here. Long story short, I'm getting bored because to me, they're all starting to look the same.

We say don't judge a book by it's cover, but we do. Earlier this week, Maureen Johnson posed the question a little differently than I did last year because she threw in the gender card. Let's face it: books written by men often get different cover art than books written by women, further emphasizing this idea of a Girl Thing and a Boy Thing. I mean, there's a reason so many women authors go by their initials instead of their first names when they publish to hide their gender - J.K. Rowling is a modern example of a woman who was told boys wouldn't read stories written by Joanne.

So Maureen's challenge was this: coverflip. Take a book and pretend that the author was the opposite gender of what the actually are. The content of the story is exactly the same, but how might the cover change? This grew into such a big project that Huffington Post actually got in on the action, articles were posted (along with some of what they felt were the best examples), and this spread like wildfire. I'll admit that I did a cover, just to try it. What I didn't expect was to see it in the Huffington Post slideshow.

Original Hardcover 1999
I took on Neil Gaiman's Stardust, a fairy and action tale for adults. The original cover is more literal: it showcases the wall and the falling star that get the story started. The cover for the following year's mass market paperback looks more like a diary. This is actually pretty plain except for the small shooting star on the cover. It's more understated, but there's still a sense of something in store if you're daring enough to enter. This, I feel, is a more common trend with books written by men - they trust that readers will dig a little, trust a little, dare a little.

And then there's the cover I submitted, imagining that this tale was not written by Neil, but instead by "Nellie Gaiman." So often with books written by women, I find that if there is any sort of romantic element to the story, that's often what is played up so girls will read it. Because we girls all love love all the time and couldn't possibly care about flying pirate ships and epic sword fights, right? No, bring on the romance angle, so I did. I came up with this:

Now I'll admit it - I probably wouldn't pick up this book right away. Maybe if someone told me about it before, I'd pick it up and base my judgment on the blurb (which is what I usually do - since I think about covers so much, I've grown to ignore them and make my reading selections blurb-based). This only shows a very, very small part of the story in the grand scheme of things, but so often with cover art for women's books,it's the part that is played up the most.

Is this always the case? No. I actually had a hard time picking a book to try this project on because looking through my own bookshelves, I feel that many of novels I own do a good job being neutral (or really, just honestly true to the story within). Is there anything we can do about it? As a teacher, librarian, and reviewer, I feel like all I can do is continue to urge people to look past the title and cover, reminding them to consider content above all. Thankfully, many of the students at my high school are already pretty good at this, with plenty of boys reading Cinder by Marissa Meyer openly, even with a giant red high heel on the cover. But not everyone is so open minded, and projects like this make people look up, though, and open their eyes to the gender stereotypes at play on our book covers.

Comments welcome, and, as always, happy reading.

Huffington Post Article
Maureen Johnson's HP Blog on the Gender Coverup

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