Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Problem with Girly Covers

I recently read this article on The Guardian about how girly book covers are harming YA readers.   I know covers are all about marketing, and a lot of YA novels do appeal more to teenage girls than boys, so targeting them specifically isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  But the girl in the pretty dress cover really repels most boys.

The article has a brilliant quote by brilliant author Libba Bray (loved her Great and Terrible Beauty series).
Not exactly a gender neutral cover,
but I like it.

But, as American YA author Libba Bray points out, books have no gender – titles for young adults, she argues, should have gender neutral covers. ‘We have to move the needle,’ she says. ‘If you categorize books as for boys or for girls, the message is that boys don’t need to be concerned about the female experience. And vice versa.’”

As a girl, I’ve read countless books about the “boy” experience, and actually found it fairly similar to my own girl experiences.  And I’m not alone.  Girls are far more willing to read “boy” books than boys are willing to read “girl” books (tried to find some statistical data on this, but everyone seems to agree with this idea even if there is no hard data).   This is not surprising since society has always marginalized anything that is traditionally “feminine”  because clearly the human race could’ve survived just fine without anyone raising those babies as long as men kept doing their important manly things, or at least that is how history shows it. 

I do think that boys should be reading books about the female experience, so that they may discover as I did, that we are really not that different.  There are important books like Speak, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Little Women, and Pride and Prejudice that really give insights into female issues past and present.  But I’m not really sure that all YA novels should have gender neutral cover. 

The most important thing a cover should do is signify what kind of story is being told, so that those who want to read the story will be attracted to it.  My sister is a high school librarian and has a unique insight into what books attract YA readers.  Of course I’ve picked her brain on the subject, and she says that girls do check out more books than boys, and they seem to be more drawn to the covers with pretty girls in prom dresses.  So these covers do work (or at least it seems from this very small sampling).  These girls want to read certain types of stories (usually paranormal romance), and these gendered covers are promising those stories.

I think the problem comes when these gendered covers are given to books just because they were written by female authors and had a female protagonist whether or not the cover actually fits the story being told.  Not every story written by a woman promises the story that these “girly” covers promise.

For example : 

Here is an interesting link about this cover.

Even though I haven’t read The Bell Jar, I’m pretty sure Sylvia Plath didn’t write chick lit.

And another:

Way too much pink for my tastes.

This one I have read, and I almost didn’t because it does look like chick lit in fantasy land.  Really it is a great second world fantasy story (with a more urban fantasy feel) that just happens to have a pretty awesome and very capable heroine.   A more gender neutral cover would better represent the story and not turn off potential male readers.

I know these examples aren’t YA because I really couldn’t think of any YA examples although I’m sure there are plenty.  But this problem of gendering covers just because the author is female goes well beyond YA.  There are many more examples out there, but I think this awesome link says it all.

Well those are my thoughts.  What do you think?  Are girly covers hurting YA readers?  Are gendered covers just another way to marginalize female writers and make it okay for men to ignore us?  Or are they just an effective way to find their intended audiences?



  1. As a mother of a high school boy, I yearn for the covers of the books I love to be more gender neutral. The books that I'd love to have him read (I'm thinking Tamora Pierce at the moment) usually feature strong female characters on the cover, but he'd be more likely to give it a try if they had swords on the cover, or something like that. I love these links, and this post. Thanks!

    1. Yeah, I think that is exactly the problem. If a book has a female author and a female MC, they usually get specifically marketed to girls even when the book would appeal equally to boys.

      If Harry Potter had been a female protagonist but the basic story had remained the same, would it have been given in girly cover? Clearly boys and girls loved that story, but if the MC had been a girl would many boys automatically not read it? Would the publishing industry specifically targeted girl readers?

      It is a problem when society tells boys that shouldn't want to read about girls.

  2. I have this issue with both my boys and my girl - judging a book by it's cover.

    But, I was surprised at my own reaction/split second judgement to the cover remakes at the link you posted. Some books that I really liked, I wouldn't give second glance to with a different cover.

    Very interesting post!

    1. I felt that way too. I so much preferred some of the girly covers over the supposedly gender neutral ones. I loved the girly remake of Clockwork Orange, and I much preferred the original girly covers of the Throne of Glass or Before I Fall. I thought those were awesome covers. But I also preferred the original Game of Thrones, The Absolute True Diary of a Part Time Indian, and Stardust to the girly ones. I'm not sure there is any clear pattern here.

      Covers are tough. I think the bottom line is to make sure the cover reflects the story being told so that it can find it's audience.

  3. I loved Cover Flip. My issue is that I love a girlie cover. I love sparkles and pretty dresses, and swirly fonts. I love a good love story, and when a cover sells that, then awesome. Like I prefered The girl version of "the Absolute True Diary of a Part Time Indian", and Sedaris "Me Talk Pretty One Day" In fact, I'd probably be more likely to pick up the girly version of Game of Thrones than the original, which feels very intimidating.

    Because Marketing works. I've been trained to pick up the kind of books I love by the image on the cover.

    I think the real issue, is that girly books don't get the respect that they deserve. It's partly the packaging, but partly the "women authors" dichotomy. Men are Authors, but women are Lady Authors, like we're a sub-genre. I think the covers are just a symptom of that.

    I read a quote recently by Gena Davis, that says basically, that "We're taught this truth that women will watch a movie about men, but men won't watch a movie about women."

    I think that says a lot about society. We're teaching men that women aren't interesting, or that we shouldn't consider their opinions, or viewpoint. From the time they are babies we are teaching them that boys build and are heroes, and girls are pretty and must be saved. The gender-ized covers are MUCH worse the younger the child. We teach them from the second they're born, that girls like pink and sparkles, and love stories, and boys like planes, trains, automobiles, super heroes, and different stories. Girls can like superheroes too, but until boys are taught that they can like princesses, or the color pink, or sparkles, (and that's not going to happen anytime soon for the whole of society at large) they're not going to pick up those kind of stories.

    And we use that same marketing tools to tell people what books and movies to enjoy as grown ups.

    And it works. It sells books.

    It's not going to change.

    More books for me, I guess. :)

    1. I completely agree with everything you said. I love a lot of the girly covers out there. They make me want to read the book, but I don't think female writer should always be given a girly cover because sometimes those girl writers aren't writing those kind of books.

      But I do think it should be okay for boys to like pink and sparkles and barbie dolls. I've seen my daughter teased at school for liking boy things and told that she can't play with boy toys, but it would be so much worse if she was a boy and liked girl things. And that is not fair.

      Female things are not inferior, and boys and girls/men and woman should be able to like whatever they like.

  4. Speaking as the fantasy-loving, middle-aged man I am, I'd give that third book a shot with very little hesitation. It depicts enough visual elements that I like. The other two? Sorry, but not a chance unless I was proofing for a friend. (I probably wouldn't even be able to give a decent critique.)


Got an opinion? Use it! Remember... be silly, be honest, and be nice/proofread.