Never Gender a Book by its Cover

Book covers are gendered spaces.  Not only authors names (one reason I’ve always been fond of using first initials rather than first names), but the colors, designs, scripts, and more are deeply gendered symbols.  Author Maureen Johnson tweeted about getting a lot of comments from men saying that they’d love to read her books, but require a “non-girly cover” to do so.  Johnson’s book covers have some pretty characteristic “feminine” features, from the women depicted on them, to the script used for the titles, to the colors, and more (see below for a sample).

Johnson 1

Johnson challenged her readers to craft masculine covers for books with feminine covers and feminine covers for books with masculine covers.  She called the project “Coverflip,” and it spawned quite a bit of support (check out the #coverflip hashtag for more on the story in Huffington Post here).  Johnson wrote about it in this way:

Imagine that book was written by an author of the OPPOSITE GENDER. Or a genderqueer author. Imagine all the things you think of when you think GIRL book or BOY book or GENDERLESS book (do they EXIST?). And I’m not saying that these categorizations are RIGHT—but make no mistake, they’re there… Now, as a mental exercise, imagine [the author is a different gender]. The book has the same exact topic. Does the cover look like this? (here)

tumblr_mme5n7AKhH1r1tusjo1_500slide_296089_2421810_freeThe call produced a stream of submissions.  To the right and left are two of Johnson’s books flipped.

The fact is, we do judge books by their covers.  Cover art matters.  So too does the gender of the author, the author’s name, the title, and more.  Covers are one way publishers can communicate to potential readers “what kind of book” a particular book is and who the intended audience might be.  I like to imagine people coming across #coverflip and thinking, “Well I’d never read that book… Buuuuutttttt… I’d read it with that cover.”

SedarisIt’s a problem, and it seems to be more of a problem for boys and men than for women (and more for women authors than for men).  Johnson explains it this way:

OliverSo, we’re thinking about boys and girls and what they read. The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything…  Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate — as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family-style SUVs. We can go anywhere, through anything, on any old literary fuel you put in us.  Largely because we have little choice in the matter. (here)

While girls and women seem able to transgress gendered reading boundaries, Johnson suggests boys and men are much less likely to do so.

In Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature, Janice Radway challenged the notion that texts are interpreted by readers uncritically.  Early explanations for why people bought books focused primarily on the content of those books.  reading-the-romanceThus—in “Soft-Porn Culture,” a short essay published in 1980—Ann Douglas suggested that the rise in popularity of romance novels (with fiercely patriarchal characters, themes, and plots) is evidence of a backlash against feminism.  Women’s consumption of romance novels—Douglas suggested—illustrated that they were supporting misogyny and re-buying into a patriarchal culture.

But we buy books for reasons far beyond content, and our decisions to buy are persuaded by things like cover art, other authors’ blurbs on the back, where a particular book was published, and more.  It’s the same way I buy wine – a good label sells me every time (and many wine labels are gendered too).

Radway was deeply suspicious of such a straightforward conclusion and sought to assess Douglas’ claim (and others like it) by studying more than just the content of such texts, but how audiences actually interacted with and made meaning out of them.  Contrary to Douglas’ interpretation of the popularity of the romance, Radway argued that women exhibit a great deal of agency (imagine that) when they read romance novels.  Serving simultaneously as symbolic escapes from their everyday grind as well as offering new cultural scripts for readers, Radway suggested the women read romance novels not to support or reinstate patriarchy, but to navigate it. Radway puts it this way:

Romance reading… is a strategy with a double purpose.  As an activity, it so engages their attention that it enables them to deny their physical presence in an environment [the home] associated with responsibilities that are acutely felt and occasionally experienced as too onerous to bear.  Reading, in this sense, connotes a free space where they fell liberated from the need to perform duties that they otherwise willingly accept as their own.  At the same time… they escape figuratively into a fairy tale where a heroine’s similar needs are adequately met. (here).

The women Radway interviewed don’t sound like the cultural dopes Douglas seems to have imagined reading “that trash.”  In some sense, trashy cover art—at least for some of the women Radway interviewed—might have helped to disguise the ways romance novels are used by the audiences reading them.

Solely looking at cover art is deeply misleading and likely guides many readers away from certain books—for fear that their literary interests will be interpreted as gender transgressions (I guess).  So, Johnson’s challenge is deeply felt.  I love the project, and thinking about how changing the cover (and gender of the author’s first name) might do more than change the audience of the book.  It might actually transform the experience of reading the book.  Indeed, Johnson argues that books by men and women are interpreted differently by publishers based on the gender of the author.

A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simple more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it. (here)

AlexiePerhaps we need to have potential publishers read manuscripts without knowledge of the author’s gender (and possibly race, class background, education, etc.).  And perhaps these same features should hold for decisions regarding cover art.  Blind auditions for symphony orchestras brought about a dramatic increase in women deemed worthy (here).  Despite the fact that judges assessing the musical abilities of men and women did not perceive a bias in their judgement of men and women auditioning, research has shown that implicit biases worked in male musicians favor.  Auditions are blind now taking place behind a curtain so that performers can only be heard, but not seen.  And this subtle change has been associated with an incredible increase in women joining symphony orchestras at the most elite levels.

Could something similar happen in publishing?  Would the books publishing companies push the most change?  It seems likely that–if nothing else–the covers would.  And while this might seem like a small change (if Johnson’s experience of receiving fan mail from men who seem to guiltily consume her books in private) my suspicion is that it could have a much larger impact than we might initially suspect.


Thanks to Tara Tober and Steven Alderson for bringing this story to my attention.

2 thoughts on “Never Gender a Book by its Cover

  1. Pingback: The metaphors of mass consumerism | Scenes of Eating

  2. Pingback: Book Covers as Gendered Spaces - FAUX REAL THO

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