Pub Rants

Disturbing YA Cover Trend?

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STATUS: I am well and I’m very apologetic for not being able to blog regularly this fall. I have a feeling I’ll know what my New Year’s Resolution will be….

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? WHEN YOU’VE GOT TROUBLE by Liz Longley

As a sophomore in college back in 1987, I’ll never forget the impact of seeing STILL KILLING US SOFTLY: ADVERTISING’S IMAGE OF WOMEN, a documentary by Jean Kilbourne.

I remember sitting there in my seat, stunned, mouth open, as Kilbourne analyzed example after example of ads that demeaned, sexualized, or minimized women by images used in advertising. She also pointed out the level of violence often depicted towards women in every day kinds of ads for fashion, perfume, food, you name it. Until that moment (despite thinking I had adequate critical analysis skills), I had never connected the dots. And after, I never saw an advertisement, a movie, or the world for that matter, in quite the same way.

And folks, this isn’t limited to the 80s (as evident by Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly 4 which released in 2010). Today, models on Glamour and Vogue can easily have an inch or two airbrushed off their thighs so what everyday women are seeing in the cover picture is a level of body perfection that is literally not achievable naturally.

So last week when I was reading a blog article on YA cover trends by Rachel Stark on Trac Changes, it’s no wonder I had a moment of deja vu. She explores the obsession with elegance and death in young adult covers. She posits that the popularity of such covers might reflect teenage girls’ morbidity and that the images on the covers she spotlights, to paraphrase, present the idea that it is beautiful, dramatic and poetic to be dead. And the fact that these covers are popular with teen girls is a product of what she dubs “internalized misogyny.”

This is definitely an article worth reading and discussing.

And I’m rather happy to report that NLA does not have any young adult titles with dead girls on the covers. A small triumph I’m sure…

Now we do have covers with girls looking pensive and beautiful, girls kissing a boy or holding hands with a boy, and a girl dancing in fire (to name a few). But they are all happily alive.


21 Responses

  1. Debra Lynn Lazar said:

    So glad you’re back – I’ve missed your wonderful posts! I agree re: YA covers. There is nothing poetic about female teenagers dying.

    Btw, I’ll be back in your neck of the woods in a couple of days for Thanksgiving w/the family. Hope there’s enough snow in Breck for my kids to go snowboarding. 😉

  2. Annalise Green said:

    It’s an interesting article to be sure, and while she makes a ton of valid points that we should be discussing, I also kind of felt like a bunch of those covers…didn’t look like dead girls to me. The Unbecoming of Mara Dryer looks active to me, like she’s dancing closer with a guy underwater, Imaginary Girls also strikes me as active (the way the knee is bent, looks like she’s swimming), Fracture and The Goddess Test didn’t strike me as dead so much as they’re lying down, but maybe I’m being obtuse, I dunno.

    There’s definitely a motif of water, too, that should be explored. Do girls feel like they’re drowning, I wonder?

  3. Yvonne Osborne said:

    Thank you for bringing this up and writing about it. I was recently in Snowbound Books, a small but vibrant independent bookstore in Marquette, Michigan and in the YA section I noticed a lot of that, a lot of paranormal, death and dying.

  4. Anne R. Allen said:

    I’m glad to see you, too. The average life of a blog is said to be three years–in which case yours might be allowed to go on to its Great Reward–but you still have things to teach us. Thanks for the link. Fascinating. And I share Ebony’s concern with the ubiquitous headless-woman cover. That’s been bothering me for a while.

  5. Anonymous said:

    I thought I’d give my opinion from a Teen’s point of view:

    The writer of that post on Cover Trends makes very valid points about how beautiful dead girls are a trend nowadays and even long before that, but as a teen when I see those covers I don’t think of dead girls. Honestly, I don’t even think about death at all. Most of those pictures were of people floating/underneath water and it makes me think of drowning, not death. And if you think about it drowning could symbolize many things. The one book that really did look like the girl was dead was a book about zombies….But aren’t zombies supposed to be dead? I guess YA covers have more so to do with what creatures the story is based on. Zombies, Vampires, etc. are dead. Thus–dead girls.

    When it all comes down to it, it’s the content of the book that decides what it’s really going to be about. If I read a story of a girl dying and her death is portrayed as a beautiful happy thing, well, that would freak me out. But I’d only know that by reading the book, not necessarily by looking at the cover. I’ve read a lot of those books and death wasn’t a huge theme in most of them. The creepy bathroom one looks like a horror book. But then if the genre is horror then you can kind of suspect that kind of cover for it; not just for a YA novel but for anything. There’s nothing really elegant about it.

  6. Kristan said:

    Totally understand where you’re coming from. Not sure I think it’s an intentional message from publishers or cover designers or YA lit… but I agree that, even as an accidental message, it’s something to be aware of and combat.

    I love the comments from Annalise and our anonymous teen, too.

  7. M said:

    Speaking as a YA reader and a young adult, I agree 100% with Annalise and anonymous. Several of the girls on those covers do not look dead, including The Unquiet, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, and especially The Goddess Test (the cover model’s eyes are open, and her cheeks are pink. In what world does that equal dead?).

    The article has many valid points, and I agree with you, Kristin. There are a lot of things wrong with society today and how women are portrayed in it. But the article would be better served by using examples that fit rather than ones that immediately allow the reader to disagree, undermining its important point.

  8. bettielee said:

    Always glad to see you back Kristen.

    I think part of the point might be lost: the girls may not be dead… but they look dead. When we see something, we see it with more than our conscious mind, and that’s what the ins and outs of marketing and advertising are all about. I think it’s something authors and artists ought to keep an eye on. What do you want what you are selling to say about you? And about what you are willing to have your book represent by its cover?

  9. Anonymous said:

    I think it’s great that you’re looking at how publishers are trying to appeal to teenage girls, and how hurtful it can be to teenage girls to have those types of negative images shoved in their faces. Publishers are corporate entities that seem willing to do anything to make money, including assaulting their readership with unhealthy body images, etc.

    But I also find it interesting that, on both the dark covers, and amongst your own happy covers, there isn’t a single cover that is even remotely appealing to teenage boys.

  10. tlmorganfield said:

    Wow, timely, for me anyway. The last couple of weeks, my 12yr old daughter has been painting what she calls “sexy lip-cuts” on herself with Halloween make-up. She apparently heard this term in an interview with Emma Watson about the final Harry Potter movie, and since she idolizes Emma Watson, she’s all over this. Her wording has disturbed me and I couldn’t quite articulate why, but now I see it completely. I think it’s time to explain to her that lip-cuts aren’t sexy because you get them because someone has brutalized you. *shakes head*

  11. Julie Daines said:

    At last! Thank you for addressing this disturbing trend. I was thinking I was only one noticing that all the covers recently glamorize death. This was a great post.

  12. Danielle said:

    I like anonymous 5:54’s point. We tend to focus solely on how things are geared toward women and what it means to girls. But what about boys? The body images advertisements make seem attractive are just as harmful to boys as they are to girls.

    And how YA books tend to depict boys as being “princes” or putting them on such a high pedestal that it’s nearly impossible to attain. How is the boy reading the YA book going to be the most attractive yet unavailable/understanding yet overly protective/whatever like they are “supposed” to be.

    This isn’t to say I disagree with any of your points. I’m just making one of my own.

  13. Reece said:

    I haven’t read the article you referenced (yet—I’m going there right away), but I really appreciate this post. Images are powerful, and it disturbs me the way they are used in YA literature. It’s good to know others not only notice the problem, but resist contributing to it. Thanks.

  14. Lucy said:

    Just glancing at the block of covers in the article, what strikes me is the Ophelia-like impression. Better than half of them could probably fit into a scene from Hamlet. If that says anything. ??

  15. Ezra Zampa said:

    I appreciated anon’s comment regarding the lack of appeal to young men. I’m in my 20’s now, and male, and I used to be an avid YA reader (still am if the premise interests me or someone I know wrote it). Fortunately I was in the minority of teenage boys who manage to translate from these covers the themes that will captivate them.

    When I see a discussion like this, I’m reminded a bit of the issue of teen smoking. There are a lot of teens who start smoking due to peer pressure. Others, because they think it’s cool. That gets all the press. But it’s always been funny to me how few people/studies acknowledge one massive reason, though in adults it’s taken for granted: many do it to relieve stress.

    In this case, I see a different interpretation based on the covers that used to appeal to me, and still do. Whether young people think about it or not, they are drawn to stories for the same reason as adults: conflict. The only difference is that where in adult publications mature themes are taken for granted, in YA it’s not always the case.

    If there’s one thing I find universal in teenagers I knew and know, it’s that they hate to be patronized. The trend of YA toward the dark, or even the macabre, is pretty clear, and to me that indicates not so much a fixation on angst and death so much as a desire among young people for themes that speak to them on a more mature level. I suspect any cover that conveys themes adults would find uncomfortable to discuss with young people would garner just as much appeal.

    The covers in question reflect this. The sight of death advertises how far the conflict in the book is willing to go. The fact that it tends to be young girls is the result of marketing knowing how to appeal more personally to their demographic.

    Like Danielle, I do see that your points are quite valid. I share this one because it was the situation that applied to me.

  16. Lucy V Morgan said:

    If these girls are actually meant to be dead on the covers–it’s debatable for some–then two things strike me:

    1) They are a response to the “couple shot.” These girls were not rescued by heroes, as so many heroines tend to be (although this may still occur in the text). That is a powerful statement, and for me, a feminist one. Whether to refuse to submit and be rescued is to face death; whether that refusal is the most elegant thing a girl can do these days…I don’t know.

    2) If anything, both within the text and on the covers, many of these girls entered a Sleeping Beauty/Snow White-style near-death (ie they don’t actually die in the book). SB and SW are probably some of the earliest examples of this beautiful “death” Rachel Stark talks about–Snow White was even put on “exhibition” in a glass case. Both girls were woken by their Princes.

    So we meet these YA cover girls in the near-death before their Princes arrive (which is usually the case for the story), the implication being that the girl is not truly alive until she meets her “Prince”. She is just on exhibition, usually at the hands of a jealous older woman (like SW’s wicked stepmother). Whether you think men are responsible for this structure, or whether the natural competitivity of women has played its part (because women go “hunting” for mates just like men do) will determine how misogynistic this interpretation is.

  17. CNHolmberg said:

    Makes me think of Beauty Redefined ( I read a very interesting article there where they compared a magazine from the beginning of the 20th century with one today, and how the actress portrayed as “beautiful” in the earlier magazine was 100 pounds heavier than today’s Kate Moss.

    It’s kind of sad.

    And I tend to like your covers 😉 No worries there.

  18. Nicole said:

    A truly interesting article and idea, to be sure, but I have to echo some of the things that other comments have said – are these girls actually dead?

    Looking at them (and I work in a bookstore too, so I see these teen covers all the time and then some), I’ve never thought that many of these girls were dead. Some of them, perhaps, but others I think they are either unconscious in some way. These tend to be toward fae stories or other supernatural styles where that sort of fairy tale sleep is notable. Or in the case of several water covers, coming up for air. I think, actually, a lot of the water covers are more representative of what’s going on on the book and the characters rather than dead girls floating around.

    Consider what’s inside the book too. Are the girls on the cover main characters? If so, as far as I know, they don’t die. And if they do, they often transform into something else (vampire, fae queen, etc.). I may be totally off base, but after years of walking past all these books, not often did death come into my mind when looking at them.

    Maybe I’m just too upbeat to see it that way?

  19. Anonymous said:

    I think it’s really ironic how often death is portrayed as elegant or beautiful in the media. The only reason these corpses manage to look elegant is that they’re not real corpses–they’re living models/actors just pretending. In my experience, dead bodies almost always have an awkward look to them. During rigor mortis, they’re also very stiff, as opposed to the soft, limp look you usually see in these “just pretending” images. Said images also frequently ignore the concept of deathly pallor. And since drowning seems to be a popular theme, I’ll also point out that bodies that have been in the water for any length of time can get pretty hideous-looking, due to swelling, being chewed on by fish, and so forth. Oh, and most vampire stories drastically underestimate the amount of blood that would be involved if you really bit someone on the neck (assuming you hit a jugular or carotid, which is kinda the point of biting someone on the neck). And…well, never mind. That’s probably enough gruesomeness to make my point, which is that real death is really not that pretty. It’s not necessarily gross or even sad in all cases, but I don’t think it’s ever elegant or beautiful.