Today saw the unveiling of the cover for the upcoming book by feminist website Vagenda,
headed by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter. The website has not been without criticism from many feminists who have questioned their very narrow definition of feminism, rejection of intersectionality and embrace of the media tools they claim to oppose. The book cover, with the subheading “A zero tolerance guide to the media”, probably won’t help their case either.
The cover is extremely sexualised, for starters, focusing solely on the genital area of a slim, airbrushed, naked white woman who is faceless and without identity. She has been reduced to her genitalia, something the media does constantly and something Vagenda claims to be against. What really stood out about this cover for me was the torn out section, presumably made up of women’s magazines, the favoured target of Vagenda. The area has been ripped, shredded to fit the shape of the pubic area. The violent implications going on there are pretty horrifying – what does that stylistic choice say to a potential reader? Honestly, that cover made me feel a touch of panic. It’s a direct example of using the master’s tools while claiming you reject them.
The publishers made a serious mess up here (and that’s not even mentioning the blurb which includes the insidious phrase “real women”) but it’s not the first time a feminist book has received this kind of point missing treatment. Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls, which sought to discuss “the return of sexism” (as if it ever went away), was given this particularly disturbing image as a cover. If the point was to grab shock headlines, it accomplished it with gusto. Putting aside the content of both books for a moment, the question of marketing comes to the forefront. Obviously, the intended audience is primarily women, usually aged between 18 and 35, who are interested in feminism. They don’t exactly need a sexed up cover to entice them to purchase a book that’s supposed to be taking a stand against unnecessary sexualisation of women. They say sex sells, but what really sells is the objectified bodies of women, and in both instances here the woman is without a name, without a basic identity, and reduced to her airbrushed genitalia. It’s gross, it’s insulting and it misses so many points that I’m surprised it hasn’t flown off the planet.
Women in publishing do seem to get the short straw when it comes to the marketing of their work, or certainly books about women. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a favourite topic of ours on Bibliodaze, has been turned into that which Humbert Humbert claims she is countless times over the decades, and nowhere is this more immediately evident than in the numerous covers the book has received. Some range from the uncomfortably suggestive to the downright pornographic (serious warning before you click here). The most famous images of the story tend to come from both film adaptations, the most notable example being the lollipop sucking one, but even the more abstract images are focused almost exclusively on sex and suggesting it. A quick reminder that the book is about a paedophile who preys on a 12 year old girl.
Discussing the profitability of sexualising girls and women brings us to conclude that not only are stories by and for women worth nothing but their sexual potential, but that it’s more worthwhile to market to men based solely on sex, something that’s insulting to all genders. It all ties back to the assumptions about the stories of men and the stories of women, both fiction and non-fiction. One is seen as exclusively for women, the other is lauded as a universal tale. When a story is seen as being only for women, publishers assume that it need only be marketed to them and done so in the simplest, most condescending of ways. That usually means pictures of pretty straight white people kissing, pretty skinny white girls in various poses, and pastels. Lots of pastels. One author, Polly Courtney, was so annoyed by this double standard that she split with her publisher when they tried to categorise her work as explicitly “chick lit” with these kinds of covers. Even feminist books aren’t exempt from this mess. That’s not to say pink or pastels are bad. There’s nothing wrong with pink and being a woman who likes it. The issue is when pink is all we’re presented with. From the toyshop to the bookshop, pink is for girls and women, no more and no less.
It’s clear that publishers are stuck in an archaic assumption that gender is so easily divided by the kind of stereotypes we’ve been fighting for generations, but will anything be done about it? When it comes to the cover of Vagenda, one can help but feel that maybe we need to go back to square one.