If you’ve spent much time in bookstores or libraries and any time at all near Young Adult fiction during the past few years, you will no doubt have noticed the three recent trends in cover art: inanimate objects given a soft glow, partial faces, and for the point of this editorial, girls in ball gowns. Seeing all of these copycat style covers is irritating—they don’t do proper service to the books they’re representing if they look exactly the same as all the other books out there. In fact, for this purpose I don’t even care whether the content of the book is any good. What bothers me the most about these covers featuring girls in ball gowns is that these characters don’t seem to be doing…anything.
It took me awhile to figure out why these covers are problematic, largely because it has nothing to do with composition—some of these covers are absolutely beautiful pieces of photography and artwork (and some are terrible). The problem I see is representation. These girl is the fashion that she is wearing: the dress often takes up far more space than she does, and is the focus of the image. Cover poses vary: she may have her back to the camera so that her face is hidden, or she may have her face cut off at the top of the cover, or her face may be shielded by her hair, or her face may be placed in the upper right or left corner with the outfit taking up the central portion of the image. These variations all amount to one thing: the girls in these images aren’t shown to be active characters that are going to be doing anything very easily. With all that fabric, how could they?
When 22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence went to accept her best actress Oscar last week, she tripped over her dress as she walked up the stairs to the stage. I found this rather interesting, given that in her most famous role as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games series, she plays a character who, like the girls on the covers of many trendy YA novels, is dressed up and objectified for an audience. Notably the Hunger Games books, which criticize excess and objectification, don’t follow the cover trend of putting the girl in a dress on the cover even though it could be justified in terms of theme. Of course, at the post-Oscar press conference, a reporter asked Lawrence what happened when she tripped and Lawrence returned the question with a glorious piece of snark telling the reporter to just look at what she was wearing “I tried to walk up stairs in this dress,” she said, evidently impatient with a line of questioning that focussed more on the fall and the process of getting ready than on her accomplishment. In fact, in videos from that press conference, I couldn’t find a single clip of a reporter asking Lawrence anything about her role in the movie for which she won the best actress award.
If we take this scenario with Lawrence at the Oscars and translate it to these book covers that feature heroines in massive dresses just like Lawrence’s, I’m struck by this further notion that these are characters who likely can’t climb a set of stairs without tripping.
Why does this matter?
We’re fed images every day and we’re taught to criticize some more than others. Magazines regularly come under fire for ads and photo shoots featuring anorexic-thin models, sexism, and racism. We criticize billboards, television shows, and movies. Book covers do receive some criticism, but I think not enough. Reading is a more intimate experience. Unless the book in question is a top-of-the-charts best-seller, we’re not all looking at the same image and the same story at the same time like we are with television and movies. And, while this case involves books for teenage girls, we have to look at how we’re all being represented by this particular media. It should also be noted that the authors of most books have little to no input on the cover that represents their story.
An arguement can be made that this is entirely about fantasy—that reading is an escape and this is what girls want to escape to. However, the proliferation of these covers is so extensive that this moves beyond one version of fictional fantasy for teenage girls (and the many older women who also read these books). These representations have become the norm, and books with inactive female protagonists are expected to, and do, sell. It doesn’t take much brainpower to realize that this is fallout from the Twilight vision of what it means to be a female protagonist.
When it’s seen as okay to portray young women as helpless and without agency on the covers of some of the most popular books for teenagers, what does that say about the culture that is producing these images and the values that we place on girls? This is appearance over action, ability, and participation and it’s beauty over personality and character.