Yes, I know I’ve said before that one shouldn’t use “female” as a noun; don’t worry, I’m doing it on purpose and in an ironic way. You’ll see why in a minute, but first check out this page, brought to me by StumbleUpon: Reusable Cover Art.
Scroll through the whole thing. Yes, really, the whole thing! It’s OK if you start skimming a little, I did too; I just want you to see how many there are.
Okay, done? Great.
At first I found this site interested from the perspective of a graphic designer. I thought it was fascinating seeing how different people came up with such different (or such identical!) covers by working from the same images. How fascinating, I thought, that cropping and color balance can convey such different moods!
But then I noticed a couple other things. For one, these pictures were almost exclusively of women. I originally chalked that up to the fact that a lot of them are very old paintings (public domain!) and the “classics” in art tend to do a lot of lady-ogling. (Hence the need for the Guerilla Girls.) But that’s not true of all of them. And there’s something else going on, too.
Let’s take a look at those lovely titles!
First, woman-as-property, with the bonus that a woman’s identity is defined solely by the man she belongs to:
- So-and-so’s daughter: 5
- So-and-so’s wife: 2
Then, how about some hot and spicy virgin/whore dichotomy?
- Saints and ladies: 6
- FILTHY WHORES, uh, “courtesans” and other sexy times: 9
- Mary Magdalene: 3
Minimizing women’s personhood by referring to them by nothing but their job title:
- “Courtesans” etc: 4
- Maids and slaves: 2
- Queens: 1
- Other employment: 0
Other random statistics:
- References to love: 3
- References to stars: 3
- Dudes pictured: 14
- Ladies pictured: 83
- Ladies pictured with their boobs totally showing: 6
- Dudes with their nipples totally showing: 2
This is out of a total of 90 books, so that those 9 books about “courtesans” make up 10% of all the books featured. And those are just the ones that tell you up-front that they’re about ladies having sex to get stuff (probably quite important stuff– like shelter– but still, you know, not totally consensual.) Looking at these covers, I’d bet you that about 75% of these spend a lot of time talking about ladies and sex (possibly for stuff, at least indirectly). (A note about my use of the word “courtesan”– I think it is a totally ridiculous word that sugar-coats sex work to make it seem glamorous and fun and not at all ever unpleasant like prostitution. I don’t distinguish between prostitution that happened in the past and prostitution that’s happening now, hence the scare quotes.)
What does all this tell us? I mean, not a lot. It’s a pretty random group of books. I just sort of found it on the internet. If we wanted to talk about current trends or something, I’d go out to Barnes & Noble, photograph all the books they have on their main “these books are awesome!” display, and pick them apart. (Note to self: go to Barnes & Noble, and see what they have on display…). It would be Bad Science to suggest that these totally random books somehow Prove Something.
But I do think they’re interesting, especially the way that there seems to be some kind of “agreement” that a certain image shows a Certain Kind of Woman. Like, clearly THIS woman is a wife:
And THIS woman is a “courtesan”:
And THIS woman is a daughter (or a murder victim, funny how well those go together):
Take a look at that far-left one again, actually. Tom Wasp gets his whole name, first and last, but the woman– who is apparently important enough to be on the cover!– is just a generic “stunner”? This is really a classic case of a woman being “central” but still not important or self-determined the way a man would be. It’s the concept I tried to show with the current header image: the woman is in the center of the composition, so many people would say that there’s nothing to argue with, feminism-wise, but she’s being physically supported by the men around her and (due to my intentional cropping) she has no face, giving her less personality than the men around her and even than the camel. So it is here, and with many murder mysteries with female victims: sure the plot has a woman in the middle of it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s feminist-friendly. Often it means the opposite.
But getting back to the book covers, I wanted to think about how we define women into these categories based on their images. I think it has to do with how much body they’re showing, how much face they’re showing, and how the image is centered. I’m not sure quite how all the aspects go together, though. I’d like to take some of the images and see if I could get any of them to look like a wife in one instance, daughter in another, and “courtesan” in a third. A couple of these novels have already gotten started:
Josephine Bonaparte isn’t looking too wifely in the first one… until you compare it to the second. Something about the way they zoom in on her body, crop out her face, and take her name out of the title… this is definitely something I’m going to want to look into more methodically.