I recently found a fascinating article about Maureen Johnson’s Twitter project examining what would happen to book covers if the authors were the opposite gender or genderqueer [NOTE: Link redacted because Huffington Post does not pay writers]. People all over the Twitterverse participated and it’s easy to tell from the photo set that non-male authors and non-male stories tend to get cartoonish book covers or covers depicting a nicely photoshopped (typically white) female. I think this project is a great way to open up people’s understandings of gender targeting and encourage critical thinking about how publishers want to attract or detract us from certain stories. I would add to all of this that I know of several exceptions to this trend. The Hunger Games immediately comes to mind. The Hunger Games is written by a woman and none of the covers are overtly feminine. Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson is another. Still, the article and the project point to a trend that most of us don’t realize: we are all less likely to pick up a book with a feminine cover lest we become associated with teenage fangirls or middle-aged housewives. This is especially a problem for male readers since they’re trained from birth to avoid any association with femininity. Despite the fact that we’re all told not to judge a book by its cover, we all do, and to take it a step further, we feel that others will judge us if they see us with a book whose cover doesn’t match what they expect of our gender or perceived gender.
The larger problem here is the view that anything feminine is of lesser quality and is associated with negative qualities including, but not limited to, manipulation, sin, cattiness, air-headedness, and frailty. This is why we need stories like Sailor Moon that embrace femininity as a source of power. This is also why we need to stop telling ourselves and the world around us that activities, clothes, books, games, TV shows, and movies define gender. They don’t. The cover of a book you’re reading shouldn’t threaten your gender identity or give you the feeling that what you’re reading will somehow be less intriguing, less poignant, and not as brilliantly crafted.
I don’t think we need to call for the end of feminine book covers so that stories by women will be taken seriously. What I believe truly needs to happen is that we have to unlearn the association of femininity with a lack in quality, and we have to work toward a world where something as simple as a book cover doesn’t threaten the way someone understands their gender.