You, Me, and Maureen Johnson’s Cover-Flip Project

I hope everyone remembers a little while back when Maureen Johnson first announced her Coverflip challenge.  Johnson had pointed out that “if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality. Because it’s “girly,” which is somehow inherently different and easier on the palate. 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” (source: HuffPost).  I’ve been meaning to write about this, and I know I’m a little late in getting around to it…but trust me, I still have plenty to say.

First, because Johnson is right: “girly” books ARE considered to be of lower quality.  “Chick lit” is frequently derided as a genre, and “girly” books are usually treated as light and fluffy, never literary.  When female authors’ books get marketed in this way, it says that the work done by female authors is not as serious, and it lacks the same merit as works by male authors.  What this says, in reality, is that the stories told by women are not as valuable as the stories told by men.

But that’s just scratching the surface of the real problem here.

An example from Johnson’s Coverflip Challenge

The REAL problem with packaging the works of female authors in a particularly girly way is that it sends a message to potential readers that this is for a certain TYPE of reader, namely feminine women.  This is because other demographics, such as men and women who don’t necessarily identify with traditional, classic femininity, are turned off by the pastel colors and curly fonts.  Many potential readers may not identify with what the packaging suggests the story contains, and even though we’re taught not to judge a book by its cover, the reality is that this sends a distinct message to readers about whether this is something they would even want to pick up.

But let’s pause for a second to talk about why “girly” books are so devalued in the first place, since it’s one of my pet peeves.  Every time someone gets on my case about “chick lit”, I just want to scream for a moment.  The problem is that these stories aren’t devalued because they’re poorly written or lack well-developed plots or interesting characters; they’re not appreciated because they’re about women, especially teenage girls.  This reflects a societal devaluation of this demographic, and that needs to change.  Young women can’t be written off as a side act to what men really have going on: teenage girls and their slightly older counterparts are people experiencing delicate challenges and frustrating coming-of-age moments and heartbreaking tragedies and their stories deserve to be told.  And letting people write them off because we package them with pink covers and swirly titles is just silly.

On top of that, readers may feel embarrassed carrying around something that is so obviously “girly”.  Boys in particular may not be comfortable grabbing something that looks to be clearly intended for girls.  Because as we know from previous discussions of toys, although society accepts girls playing with “boy” toys-~-like Legos and action figures-~-people are less accepting of boys playing with “girl” toys-~-like dolls or toy kitchens.  The result is that boys tend not to read books packaged in such away, because the marketing has indicated that these books are Not For Them.

This has two main results.  First, it means that boys and men tend not to read stories TOLD BY women, and second, it means that boys and men tend not to read stories ABOUT women.  I have so many problems with this.  FIRST, boys already grow up being told not to idolize women.  Women, for young men, are supposed to fall into two categories: family, and fantasy.  It’s no big deal that my friend Kathryn has a giant cutout of Obama in her apartment, but if a boy had a poster of Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi on his wall, it would be treated as strange.  Young men aren’t taught to idolize women.  This gets reinforced when they’re also shown that they shouldn’t connect with women’s stories, and that’s exactly what happens when young men derive from the way in which books by women are packaged that these stories are not meant for them.  This in turn means that while young women grow up reading things from the perspective of men, young men don’t necessarily grow up reading things from the perspective of women, something that might actually help to improve communication and reinforce the value of different experiences.  There are plenty of stories by women, about both men and women, that men could well connect with, that they are losing out on because of this marketing.

Even if you don’t buy that, I think it’s worth pointing out that just as media influences how we think about and discuss prominent social themes, literature reflects and reinforces those same things.  Young women are exposed to ideas about friendship and love and success through books the same way they are exposed to them through movies or television, and having both (or all) genders access that same reservoir of ideas means that people are exposed to differing ways of talking about things.

At the end of the day, I think this just reinforces the idea that that which is feminine is bad, and ought be eschewed by men, while that which is masculine is good, and should be embraced by all.  When we make that mentality ubiquitious, we reinforce dangerous gender dynamics that make the fight for equality that much harder.

And even if you only bought half of this post, I’ll leave you with this last point: there are many books by women that are worth reading, and it’s a shame that so many people are missing out just because the publishing industry is telling them that these books are not as good, those books are not as serious, those books are just sort of fluffy space-savers on your shelf…because they know that sometimes, we all really do judge a book by its cover.

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~ by Randi Saunders on July 15, 2013.

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