Cover Art – So Where’s The Problem?

As some of you might have noticed, I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the past year talking about sexism in cover poses. Specifically, trying to point out how women are so often dressed and posed in ways that emphasize their sexuality over all else. Some of the poses are physically painful or even impossible. Others are simply impractical. And while men are certainly objectified on book covers as well, it’s not in the same way. The poses generally don’t sacrifice power or agency for the sake of sexuality.

Now, not everyone agrees that this is even an issue. I’ve been accused of being a faminist shithead, of selling out my gender, and was told this is the liberal equivalent of the War on Christmas. All of which, quite frankly, I find pretty damn hilarious. But for those of us who do see this as a real problem, the next question is what to do about it. And to answer that question, I think we need to take a better look at how these covers get perpetuated.

Artists are the easiest target for blame. “Cover art is bad because artists are bad, and they should feel bad!” Voila, problem solved. Let’s go cure cancer next!

Yeah, not so much. We talked about this a bit at ConFusion during the group pose cover reveal panel. I’m pulling part of what follows from my wonderfully wise panelists. When we look at cover art, we have to consider:

  • Writers – if an author writes sexist crap and the artist faithfully depicts the story, where does the fault lie?
  • Editors – editors often get input into which scene will be used for the cover. Did they have to pick the shower-assassination scene?
  • Art directors – these are the folks directing the artists.
  • Artists – sometimes the problem is with the artists. They have some choice and control in how they portray women, and what they choose to emphasize or deemphasize. (Anecdotally, I’m told the artist for Piers Anthony’s The Color of Her Panties did his best to minimize the panties part of the image while staying within the guidelines of what he had been instructed to create. I can’t swear this story is true, but I like it.)
  • Booksellers – publishers want to sell books, so if the booksellers ask for a certain style of cover, publishers will probably give them what they want. This becomes even more significant when you have a few huge chains with a lot of market power.
  • Readers – if y’all buy a bunch of semi-clad boob-and-butt books while ignoring the sensibly clad ass-kicking heroines, then that’s what you’ll keep getting.
  • Society in general – yeah, that’s right. It’s SOCIETY’S fault for perpetuating all of this sexist crap, and teaching us to accept it as normal.

My goal here isn’t to announce that EVERYBODY SUCKS, but to point out that this problem is woven through every layer of the publishing process, as well as society as a whole. Trying to change that problem will require work from a lot of different circles. For example, I firmly believe we as writers need to be more aware of our own prejudices and assumptions. And while it’s true that we have very little control over our covers, “very little” isn’t the same as none. We may not be able to change anything, but we can at least talk to our editors and let them know when we’re not happy with a cover, or that we’re worried it might alienate some of our potential audience.

I’ve heard readers say they don’t want to punish an author for a cover they don’t like, so they buy the book anyway, and doesn’t that just reinforce the problem? Speaking as an author, thank you for buying our stuff anyway! But you can also shoot an email to the publisher asking why character X, who’s a strong, werewolf-slaying heroine, looks like a pipecleaner with a pair of water balloons stuck to her chest.

And you know what? Sometimes, sexualization is appropriate for the story. Lena Greenwood is a very sexual character, and I’m totally comfortable with her midriff-baring look on the cover of Codex Born. It would be utterly wrong to see Talia from my princess books in that same kind of outfit, though. I don’t think anyone’s saying that women can never be shown as sexual; it’s more that they seem to always have to be sexual, and it has to be a fairly narrow kind of sexuality. And that portrayal usually happens at the cost of their power, strength, agency, or just realism. (Seanan McGuire had a great post on this, talking about her book Discount Armageddon.)

So how do we fix this problem? We keep talking about it. We recognize that it’s a multi-layered problem that’s been evolving for a very long time. We don’t settle for simplistic answers. We speak out about the bad covers and the good ones, the covers that show strong, competent women who may or may not be sexualized, but if so, it’s not done at the expense of that strength.

I have been amazed and gratified at all of the discussion the cover poses have generated. I sincerely hope it will continue.