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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.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 40 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:08 pm (UTC)
I managed to get my latest cover changed. I'm quite pleased with the result:


Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:17 pm (UTC)
Any chance you'd be willing to share what it was you got changed, and how you went about doing so?
(no subject) - beth_bernobich - Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:16 pm (UTC)
I have been complemented for the cover to "Pirates of Mars" because it shows two fully-clad women.

Ironically, I had *nothing* to do with that decision. My editor got Ron Miller to do the cover and Ron did his own thing.
Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:19 pm (UTC)
I don't think most people have any idea just how little input or control authors tend to have over their cover art.
Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:17 pm (UTC)

I'm really pleased with the cover Candlemark & Gleam did for Hickey: fully-clothed girl! At a desk! Looking smart, or at least plagued by finals!

Hilariously and tangentially, my romance cover art has gone, from the first novel to the latest: girl with exposed back--> clinch pose where guy has unbuttoned shirt-->clinch pose where guy has no shirt-->shirtless bekilted guy with prominent sword.

The art department is very skilled, and I'm quite pleased with things, but I find the progression deeply amusing.
Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:27 pm (UTC)
That's this cover, yes? I like it. And maybe I'm still overtired from the con, but something about the demonic hickey makes me giggle.
(no subject) - funwithrage - Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - CandlemarkGleam - Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - CandlemarkGleam - Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 22nd, 2013 04:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - CandlemarkGleam - Jan. 22nd, 2013 04:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 22nd, 2013 11:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - CandlemarkGleam - Jan. 23rd, 2013 01:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:33 pm (UTC)
The only one of those books you have covers of in your post that I've read (sorry!) is Rule 34, which is awful for reasons other than pose. Yeah, that's really what a police inspector in 2020s Scotland is going to look like.
Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:36 pm (UTC)
What do you mean? That's what the police here in Michigan look like now!
(no subject) - nelc - Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 22nd, 2013 03:58 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this! I always love your discussions of women in cover art, not least because they're nuanced. It IS appropriate for some characters to be depicted as sexy, when it suits them, but it's also a positive thing to have the option for a woman to be shown as strong and interesting for reasons that have nothing to do with her boobs.

It's one of the reasons I'm so incredibly pleased with the cover art Eleni Tsami did for The Other Half of the Sky, a forthcoming women-in-sci-fi anthology.

The Book Smugglers have a cover post and comments from the artist (http://thebooksmugglers.com/2013/01/a-smugglerific-cover-other-half-of-the-sky-edited-by-athena-andreadis.html).
Jan. 22nd, 2013 05:12 pm (UTC)
Chain of command
Great explanation of all the stages involved in cover design choices, Jim! Thankfully I got exactly the cover design I asked for on my latest novel "The Merchant of Dreams" (I gave my editor a detailed brief, and he was very happy to go with it), but then we had to go with quite a dark version of the image which obscures the female character's face because, apparently, the book buyers at the big chains don't like covers that show faces clearly - hence, presumably, all the headless torso covers in UF (though mine is epic/historical fantasy)...

So yeah, even when you and your publisher do your best, you don't always get exactly what you want because someone further along the line vetoes your ideas for totally bizarre reasons of their own! *sigh*
Jan. 22nd, 2013 11:54 pm (UTC)
Re: Chain of command
FWIW, I love the cover on The Merchant of Dreams. It might have been even cooler with more light, but I still think it looks pretty darn sweet.
Jan. 22nd, 2013 06:08 pm (UTC)
I loved Seanan McGuire's post about this, the one you linked, because the one argument people will throw at me over this topic that's *guaranteed* to raise my hackles is "What, so we can't have attractive women on covers now? Being beautiful is wrong for a woman? Everyone has to be covered in a mumu and ugly and fat to appease the PC police?" which (in addition to being so full of grossness and fat-phobia that I have difficulty forming a coherent response) so completely misses the point that they'd need a telescope just to catch a glimpse of it!

I saw a post about this topic in comics once that put it really well. I wish I could find it and just link it because she's more eloquent than I am. But the gist was, there is no one binding thing that ties together all superheros in mainstream comics. Some are smart, some are fast, some are strong, some are attractive, some are tall, some are rich, and the same for villains. But if you want to be a woman in comic books, good or evil, you *have* to be conventionally attractive before anything else. And once you have that, *then* you can be smart or strong or fast or attractive or rich. And *that* is the problem.

*Blinks at her tl;dr and goes into mourning for Amanda Waller*
Jan. 22nd, 2013 11:52 pm (UTC)
I don't know the original comics post phrased it, but I think your paraphrase here is excellent.
Jan. 22nd, 2013 07:19 pm (UTC)
I realize this is a personal bias, but part of the problem is the use of overly literal cover images adhering to genre expectations which are decades old and were kind of cheesy even when Barlow and Hildebrandt were at their peak.

Less literal covers can be formulaic and contain sexist imagery as well, the issue of The Gaze is inherent to human figures especially within the standard cover formulas. Again, it's my own bias - of the covers depicted above Who Fears Death seems best - but maybe part of the problem is market assumptions behind such covers. They strike me as very conservative, akin to the reluctance of hollywood studios to use posters which don't include the stars face and body, and maybe this impacts the content.

Edited at 2013-01-22 07:27 pm (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 22nd, 2013 11:50 pm (UTC)
I don't think that strain is limited to any one particular field...

Though I don't know enough to say if it's better or worse in the illustration world. But what you're saying makes a lot of sense. If you grow up steeped in that kind of thing, it's much more likely to seep into your own work.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 22nd, 2013 09:46 pm (UTC)
I’ve been accused... of selling out my gender...

Whoever made this accusation is selling out his species.
Jan. 23rd, 2013 03:10 pm (UTC)
One that recently leaped out from the shelves at me as a positive example: Three Parts Dead. I can't speak for the book, since I haven't read it yet, but I plan to--and I would never have even glanced at the blurb if the woman on the cover (intense, fully clothed, and casually posed) hadn't grabbed my eye.
Jan. 23rd, 2013 03:21 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - nenya_kanadka - Jan. 29th, 2013 01:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 23rd, 2013 04:48 pm (UTC)
Of the books you show here, I read A Local Habitation, Crown Duel, and Thre Princess Curse - all of which give you a good idea of what to expect in the book.

Covers with T&A don't.
Jan. 23rd, 2013 07:54 pm (UTC)
I read an article about your cover poses and had to come right over and check out your blog. So refreshing to have a man talk about this. I have book that's coming out in summer and I haven't seen the cover yet. It will be amusing to see if and how my female characters are portrayed on the cover.

Edited at 2013-01-23 07:55 pm (UTC)
Jan. 23rd, 2013 11:28 pm (UTC)
Congrats! What's the title of the book?

Sending good-cover vibes your way!
(no subject) - jmfilipowicz - Jan. 24th, 2013 01:51 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 23rd, 2013 11:12 pm (UTC)
I've already decided that if I finally get a novel contract, my only specific request for cover art will be, "Don't give me something Jim Hines would use to pose for charity."
Jan. 23rd, 2013 11:17 pm (UTC)
A Jim clause. I like it! :-)
Jan. 27th, 2013 07:14 am (UTC)
I think that we should also commend the covers that do it right. I saw one today at work I'd like to point out. Technically, it's not scifi; it's fiction. But the cover pose is fairly realistic. Deathlands: Nemesis by Axler.
Jan. 27th, 2013 04:55 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes. That one gets a lot of things right.
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