Posted on November 29, 2016
They say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, but everybody does. In fact, that’s what book covers are for: to give you an idea about what’s inside so you can decide whether you want to read it. I certainly do this, and there are some styles of book cover that I tend to avoid. For example, I don’t love crime, so a cover with a silhouetted man, a long road and the author’s name bigger than the title will tend to put me off. The same goes for romance: curly writing, tropical beaches and women jumping joyfully will make me pass right on by.
But there’s something more interesting than my personal judgements about the two examples I’ve just given. They’re not just token examples of their particular genres, they’re also each strongly associated with a particular gender. With the Lee Child book you get a typically masculine tough, solitary cityscape that reflects our tough, solitary protagonist, and a plane flying (crashing?) at the top. The Emily Barr book, in contrast, is ultra-feminine, with pink writing, a lovely beach and a tastefully beautiful woman celebrating how much she likes the sun. Each of these books is selling a particular gender ‘ideal’; they’re each suggesting that ‘men like this’ or ‘women like this’.
So would a gendered book cover like these be enough to put someone off reading something that appears to be targeted at a different gender? Writer Maureen Johnson thinks so. In 2013 she tweeted:
This tweet inspired a fascinating article in the Huffington Post, in which Johnson talked about the barrage of judgement that is levelled more often at books written by women than men, and how many people assume that boys don’t like reading about girls (which does a huge disservice to both boys and girls). It also led to a pretty interesting experiment, in which readers reimagined the covers of their favourite books as if they were written by people of the opposite gender. Here are a few of my favourites.
This debate ties into another idea: that certain covers make us take some books ‘seriously’ and others less so. Just think of the controversial Bell Jar cover that caused outrage because it seemed to market a serious piece of literature as chick lit. An interesting debate that says less about serious literature and more about what we really think of female romances.
All of this goes to show that many book covers don’t just represent the contents of the writing inside – they also represent the type of person who might like to read it. From a marketing perspective this might have made sense at one time, but in a world where gender stereotypes are being increasingly challenged, these assumptions about readers come across as simplistic and quite patronising.
The debate around gendered book covers is far from over and I can’t imagine they’ll be going away any time soon, but my question is: should they? Are these covers an overly generalised marketing ploy or are they reinforcers of unhelpful stereotypes? I suspect the truth is not as simple as an either/or, but it’s interesting to stop once in a while and ponder what makes us pick up a book and, perhaps more importantly, what makes us reject one.
What are your thoughts on this? Let me know with a comment down below!