Critiquing the Princess Covers
I got a question over the weekend from someone who had been reading my blog, and was checking out the cover art for Stepsister Scheme. She wanted to know how I reconciled my rather strong feminist views with the often sexualized poses used in these covers. (This is my paraphrase of the question, for purposes of running with it in this post.)
There are so many ways to answer that question. The simplest is to fall back on “I’m just the author, and I have no control over the covers.” Only that’s a really weak response, and not entirely accurate in my case. I do have some input … not a lot, but some.
With Stepsister, I asked for Talia’s pose to be changed, and for her skin tone to be darkened. In Snow Queen … actually, I had exactly the same requests for that one. With Mermaid, Snow was originally the one in the rigging, with Talia reclined on the rail. I asked to have that swapped around. Red Hood was a little different, due to deadlines and having to get a backup artist. In that case, my input was limited to changing the palate of their outfits to get rid of all the pink.
Snow Queen is officially my favorite cover, in no small part because we’re getting away from the posed look of the characters. This is another thing I discussed with my editor. Those odd corsets aside, I like the emotion and the dynamic feel of this cover. (A part of me wants to write more princess books just to see what future covers might look like.)
Another thing I consider is that the sexualized pose isn’t necessarily inappropriate for Snow White. Snow is openly flirtatious and sexual, and while I never envisioned her with the lipstick & nail polish look she got in Stepsister, I can also see her striking those poses, either deliberately or in play.
I should point out that it’s possible I’m rationalizing some things. These are my books, and I’m damn proud of them. I don’t hold to the idea that my books are my babies, but there are paralells … like the way people don’t like to see or acknowledge flaws in our children.
I have mixed feelings about Danielle. I look at Mermaid and think yes, I she’s the kind of person who could enjoy just relaxing on the rail (if not for being seasick all the time, but that would be a nasty cover). At the same time– Well, one of my suggestions for Snow Queen was to show her summoning some of her animal buddies. To show her acting, if that makes sense? (Editor liked the idea, but the image was already pretty full.)
There’s a lot I like about the covers. Danielle’s outfit for Stepsister, and Snow’s for Mermaid. A lot of the detail work, like the crossguard of Danielle’s sword, the belt and pouches Snow wears in Mermaid, Talia’s weaponry in Snow Queen. Likewise, there are things I’d change if I could. Danielle doesn’t need to be so skinny, especially since book two is after she’s recently given birth. Talia would not be showing cleavage. (Snow, absolutely. Talia, no.)
No cover is going to be perfect, and usually when I talk about my cover art, I try to focus on the positive. A lot of people have loved these covers, but I’ve also heard feedback from people who disliked the way the protags were posed, and that’s valid too.
How do I reconcile it all? I guess by asking for what changes I can get, focusing on the positive when it’s done, and hoping each cover will be good enough to convince most potential readers to pick up the books and give them a shot.
Thoughts and discussion are welcome, as always.
February 28, 2011 @ 12:58 pm
Maybe we could expand that out further, and ask what constitutes an overly sexualized cover?
I’ve not really thought of any of your covers as being sexualized – probably due to the lack of chainmail bikinis – but that could be due to my own acculturation. That is, I think I’m saying “They’re not that sexualized”, but due to cultural blinders, I could unintentionally be saying “They’re not sexualized compared to what I normally see.”
Two very different statements.
I guess I’m wondering if there’s any way we can tell where the “inappropriate” line is. Talia in a bikini? Clearly inappropriate. Snow’s portrayal? Well… I don’t know.
Jim C. Hines
February 28, 2011 @ 1:30 pm
A few other things that have come up include the body types (rather idealized) and the clothing (mostly skintight).
I don’t know that there’s a clear right answer. I’d recommend checking out the LJ discussion, where there are commenters who sound fairly baffled at the idea that these covers are sexualized, and others who are equally baffled that anyone can’t see it.
One thing that clarified a bit for me — try standing in the same poses as the characters and see how that feels. (Though even here, I’ve had some people say that the poses felt perfectly natural to them. They definitely didn’t for me … but then, I’m a guy.)
February 28, 2011 @ 2:26 pm
I like your covers, though I will admit I was a bit amused when you went after Realms of Fantasy for their mermaid cover. The covers convey what the series is about: confident, kick-ass, good-looking princesses, and also convey that it is a humorous fantasy, though not obviously as farcical as your Jig series. Yours is layered humor and the last cover does move towards that (perhaps you’ll come back to the series some day.) Yes, it is a comics art approach with a nod toward Charlie’s Angels, but that again shows that there are humorous layers and action layers and probably did seem necessary to DAW to attract male readers, although it’s not. But the women are not, it is to be noted, scantily clad (okay, so in two of them Talia shows a hint of cleavage.) Nor are they really in provocative poses. If you had muscled guys in roughly the same poses, their chests bare, you probably would not have anyone freaking out. But women, no matter how primly they may be displayed on a cover, are prone to be viewed as “sexual” images. Perhaps that will change one day when we all grow up.
What actually distresses me far more is to hear that you had to keep telling them to darken Talia’s skin tone. While it might be understandable on the first one, since it wasn’t maybe as clear, it should have been a non-issue after that. There is a strong streak of racial prejudice regarding cover art going on in publishing, clearly, a sort of that’s what the customers want crap that seems to be coming from powerful people in the major book chains. It’s getting better, thanks to vigorous screaming from authors and fans, but DAW needs to do better. It can have all the sexy women it wants on covers, as far as I’m concerned, as long as they are black and brown and Asian when they should be.
As for what’s in your books, the portrayals of women are nuanced and complex — and funny. You’ve done a great job.
Jim C. Hines
February 28, 2011 @ 2:34 pm
With Realms, I was criticizing their response to the issue as much as the cover itself. I wouldn’t say it was an awful cover, but I didn’t think it was a great choice for the relaunch, either. The way they reacted when people complained about it, however … that’s what triggered my own post and commentary.
“What actually distresses me far more is to hear that you had to keep telling them to darken Talia’s skin tone.”
I understand that it’s a year between books, and the artist probably forgets a lot of the details. But yeah, I wish that had stopped being an issue by the end.
February 28, 2011 @ 2:50 pm
I have to say The Mermaid’s Madness is, by far, my favourite cover. Red Hood’s Revenge is my least favourite (I feel it looks a little plain and perhaps a little forced) and The Snow Queen’s Shadow is the most different one – Not necessarily a bad thing, but it does seem a little like the black sheep of the lot. My only problem with The Stepsister Scheme’s cover is Danielle’s left leg seems a bit wonky :p
I find the covers to be pretty representative of the books and the ‘styles’ of the characters. I can’t see Talia looking any different, I can’t see Snow being any different, nor Danielle. To be honest, I’d never even noticed Talia’s cleavage on Mermaid’s Madness as no attention is really drawn to it.
As for Snow, I think she is kinda sexed up on them, but that’s who she is – It’s how you’ve written her (Or how she’s written herself). Even the Disney princesses are somewhat sexualised, with their ‘ideal’ figures and so forth, so why would it be so wrong or out of place for your covers to be slightly sexualised? It’s incredibly common in book covers for it to happen, and by my reckoning, yours are some of the least ‘sexualised’ covers out there.
If people think those are sexualised, take them to the Dark Fantasy section 😉
Jim C. Hines
February 28, 2011 @ 2:54 pm
With Red Hood’s Revenge, Mel Grant stepped in and had to mimic another artist’s style for that cover, so I’m much more forgiving on that one. All in all, I think he did a great job making it recognizably part of the same series, which was my biggest concern.
February 28, 2011 @ 7:44 pm
Yes, totally understood that — their response was ridiculous. The cover itself I actually didn’t mind, but then I love all fantasy art.