This, too, is a feminist act

29 May

(Content notes for rape and rape culture, gendered violence, all sorts of fun examples of patriarchy at its worst. Yeah, sorry. Hopefully I’ll have a lighter, fluffier post soon, but first allow me to talk about why the light-and-fluffy posts matter…)

“What happened to your blog?” my mother asks me. “I used to enjoy reading it.”
“Really?” I say. “I thought it would be too feminist for your tastes.”
“I didn’t think it was feminist,” she replies. “Well, I suppose there was that one post about that woman in Texas….

For the record, “that woman in Texas” would be gubernatorial candidate and filibustering hero Wendy Davis. She definitely qualifies for the title “Feminist Icon”, and the post I wrote about her centred around the need for safe, legal, accessible abortion. This is, to state the blindingly obvious, something of a major feminist issue. We’re talking about a situation where women’s lives hang in the balance.

But you know what? Something doesn’t have to be a literal manner of life or death before it becomes a feminist issue. It just has to involve a situation wherein some people have more unearned privilege than others. When we’re talking about issues that can cause death and debilitation – things like unsafe abortions, or domestic violence, or FGM – that privilege disparity is not only vital to address, it also tends to be a lot simpler to spot. It’s easy to find someone who agrees that these things are terrible and should be stopped. It’s somewhat harder to find this agreement when talking about the context in which these things occur.

Because these horrors do not exist in a vacuum. Nor is there a dichotomy between the “real” feminist issues like these, and “distractions” like examining gender sterotyping in videogames, or picking apart the problematic messages in a well-known book series, or pointing out how rape jokes permeate our culture, because these things are not distractions at all. They’re important parts of the picture.* The jokes which are the tip of the rape culture iceberg, normalising an act of horrendous brutality and twisting our perceptions of it until it’s seen as just a bit of fun, a crime so easily dismissed with boys-will-be-boys and she-wanted-it-really arguments. Easy even to erase the victim entirely, her pain irrelevant in comparison with the perpetrator’s gratification: take the ex-coworker of mine whose response to news of a potential rape was not “was she okay?” but “was she hot?” The games that reinforce the idea of women as trophies to be won. The character design choices that present “female” as a complete personality, as though that’s all there is to a woman. As though we’re all interchangeable – an attitude I’ve sadly encountered in real life, where the flaws of Stereotypical Woman are assumed to be flaws shared by all womankind. All women are bossy, so their requests should be treated as onerous.** Women never say what they mean, so when she tells you to stop, she really wants you to carry on.*** Women are irrational and need a nice logical man (or several) to make their decisions for them. Like a room full of men voting on a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Like a woman’s male partner demanding that he be allowed to control her finances, her clothing, how and with whom she spends her time… and be allowed to dole out punishment if she disobeys.

I’m not saying that any one sexist comment, or story, or game, directly causes rape or violence against women or anything like that. But they are both symptoms and reinforcers of the culture in which these things occur. Even if they seem harmless in isolation: the reality is that nothing exists in isolation, and we need to look at the bigger picture. No single drop of water causes the devastating flood, but they all play a part.

So when I talk about pink covers with headless girls on them, I’m talking about one example of a much wider system that pressurises people of all genders to stay within their rigidly-defined Gender Boxes. When I talk about hunting for protagonists outside the “straight white male” demographic, I’m talking about one example of a culture in which the experiences of straight white men are seen as more worthy of attention and accolades. When I talk about the team behind Doctor Who casting yet another white man as their title character, I’m talking about one example of a world that affords fewer opportunities to women and people of colour. All of these add up to the necessary-and-sufficient condition for “feminist issue” which I mentioned above: an imbalance of unearned privilege.**** And when I point out this imbalance, or go up to publishing industry professionals and question the segregation of “girl books”, or make sure my brother has access to stories of people less privileged than him, those are feminist acts.

So let me be entirely clear on what I’m doing here. I’m talking about matters of disparity. I’m talking about action taken to redress these matters. These things might not always be of the same magnitude as the obvious “big feminist issues”, but that doesn’t change the fact that they exist on the same spectrum. So yes, this blog is feminist. And I’m proud of that fact.


* And the content creators I just linked to all have my deepest respect. If I can grow up to be half as awesome as these women, I’ll be very satisfied.

** Happened to me several times. The example that most sticks out in my memory was probably a work situation in which a male co-worker asked me to make him some tea, then accused me of being “bossy” when I pointed out that I was in the middle of an important task and he was capable of making it himself.

*** Also happened to me, although it could have been much worse. He listened to “stop” the second time (and expressed surprise when I realised I actually meant it). I’m aware there are men out there who don’t. I was lucky.

**** You may note that I don’t say anything about this imbalance necessarily aligning with gender, and that several of my examples include race as a factor, while the posts I’ve linked to also touch on weight, disability status and sexuality, to name a few. Once again, examining the wider picture is important here: the disadvantages affecting women do not exist in isolation from those affecting other groups, a fact which becomes particularly obvious when you consider that these other groups also contain women. Therefore, now and always, My Feminism Will Be Intersectional Or It Will Be Bullshit.


Thoughts on the Twelfth Doctor

4 Aug

(Ware! Doctor Who spoilers ahead!)

So the makers of Doctor Who have announced who’ll be playing the Twelfth Doctor. There’s been a lot of lead-up to this, and a lot of speculation about who it might be. Since the series has established on-screen that regeneration can change a Time Lord’s skin colour or even their gender*, the pool of possible actors for the next Doctor was a lot larger than it would be for many roles. There’s even examples of a Time Lord being able to control their regeneration and choose a specific appearance, which may be the appearance of someone they’ve previously met – meaning an actor who’d already had a major role in Doctor Who would still theoretically be able to play the Doctor. It could have been anyone.

So I’m a little disappointed (albeit not particularly surprised) that after all the hype about how it might finally be time for the Doctor to be played by someone other than a white guy, they’ve chosen… yet another white guy. For the twelfth time. (Well, technically for the thirteenth). Nothing against the guy they’ve chosen – I’m not familiar with his work, but I’m sure he’s a great actor who’ll do a wonderful job with the role, and I do like the fact that he’s apparently a longstanding fan of the series. But I’ve talked before on this blog about how problematic it is for the vast majority of protagonists to be white guys, as though nobody else deserves the role of “hero”. This isn’t the 1960s any more, and there are plenty of talented people out there who are non-white and/or female, fans of the show, and more than capable of being an excellent Doctor. Why not give the role to one of them?**

Steven Moffat, executive producer of Doctor Who, was kind enough to address the “why not a woman?” question during the show in which the next Doctor’s identity was announced. No wait, just kidding, he didn’t address it at all. Instead he made a joke about how he “thinks it’s time the Queen was played by a man”. Because obviously there’s no difference between a real person with an established gender and a fictional character with an established ability to change gender! More gallingly still, he made this joke literally fifteen seconds after reminding the audience of this established ability to change gender. So not only does he seem to consider the “why not a woman?” question unworthy of an answer, he also seems to believe that his audience aren’t paying any attention.

(Incidentally, Stephen Hawking’s contribution – yes, they had Stephen Hawking on the show, a fact which I found totally awesome – was “it would make a change if the next Doctor was a woman with a male assistant”, accompanied by a great little smile. You tell them, Hawking.)

One argument I’ve heard is that having a female Doctor would “change the dynamic of the show too much”. This argument makes little sense to me, as the dynamic of the show already changes whenever the actor does. Every incarnation of the Doctor has a different personality and style from previous Doctors, but once we’ve watched them step out of the TARDIS and save the planet a couple of times, we’re perfectly willing to accept them as the Doctor. Why should it be any different with a woman? We may tend to have slightly different proportions, but we have the same range of possible personalities. We’re not a different species.

Another argument is that a female Doctor would “have to be a lesbian”, and that the writers don’t want to include that. Which is an odd assumption to make, because the writers have shown themselves perfectly willing to include lesbians elsewhere in the show. But say they didn’t want to write a lesbian Doctor. They wouldn’t have to. The most recent episode felt like a clear farewell to River Song, the Doctor’s wife, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we never saw her character again. Many of the previous Doctors have been apparently asexual. And let’s face it, the Doctor’s sexuality and love life are among the least interesting facets of their character. It’s a kids’ show about an alien who saves the universe; we don’t need to know who they want to kiss.

I haven’t seen or heard any arguments about why the Doctor has to be white, presumably because such arguments would be obviously horribly racist. And yet apparently 23% of people still consider the Doctor’s whiteness to be important. I strongly hope that the makers of Doctor Who aren’t among them, but I’d like to see more evidence, and today’s announcement hasn’t given me any.


* Indeed, the last time the Doctor regenerated, he briefly thought he had regenerated as “a girl”. So the series hasn’t just established that gender-changing-on-regeneration happens for a few rare Time Lords: it’s established that it’s a possibility for the Doctor.

** In addition to not getting the role, these people weren’t even given a chance at the role – there was no audition held. Instead, the writers picked someone they liked and asked them to be the Doctor. Given that the last Doctor was played, and played well, by a previously-unknown actor, I feel like they’ve risked missing out on some great potential talent by taking this approach. Plus it’s an approach that exacerbates the white-male-protagonist problem, because the majority of actors who the writers already know to make good protagonists will be white males, because see above about how we have a white-male-protagonist problem. It’s perpetuating a vicious cycle.

Wendy Davis is my new hero

1 Jul

(I’d intended to blog about this earlier, right after the filibuster, but I’ve been rather busy lately. However, the stuff I’m going to talk about is still important, and will continue to be important, so I may as well say it now. Content note: “pro-life” bullshit, miscarriage, preventable death)

Last week, lawmakers in Texas tried to enact a bill that both angers and terrifies me. Most Texans do not support the bill in question, but this is apparently irrelevant to the people who supposedly represent those Texans. This bill, SB-5, would introduce a whole raft of restrictions to abortion access. New rules on the requirements a facility must meet to perform abortions would force nearly 90% of Texas abortion clinics to close, meaning many women would have to travel hundreds of miles to access abortion care. The bill would limit access to “abortion-inducing drugs”: note that many anti-choicers consider the morning-after pill to fall into this category (in defiance of the scientific fact that this is not how it works), so it’s possible that this could also make it harder to get hold of emergency contraception. And it would outright ban all abortions beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy, again based on bad science.

Now, abuse of science does have tendency to make me angry, but it’s only a small part of what angers me about SB-5. What makes me angrier by far is the fact that the 20 week ban provides no exceptions for rape. That it gives no exceptions for women who would otherwise face permanent disability, unless it can be proven that the women’s lives are in danger. That it would criminalise desperate women in dire circumstances, and that, when combined with the restrictions on abortion facilities, it would make abortion nigh-impossible for any woman to obtain.

What terrifies me is the fact that when I say, “abortion would be nigh-impossible to obtain”, I’m really only talking about the kind of abortion that’s safe and legal. The other kind, the unregulated and dangerous kind, will still be there. And desperate women, with no other options in sight, will turn to this as their last remaining hope. Some of them will die because of it.

There are other women who will die, too. Women who want children, but whose pregnancies go wrong. Take the case of Savita Halappanavar. When she begged doctors to terminate her pregnancy, it wasn’t because she didn’t want the baby. It was because she had already lost the baby she wanted, and now she was miscarrying and in pain. But her fetus, while non-viable at that point, still had a heartbeat. Since abortion is illegal in Ireland, doctors refused to remove the fetus until the heartbeat stopped. They waited several days; days in which Mrs Halappanavar’s cervix remained dilated. From an infection risk standpoint, this is equivalent to an open head wound. Mrs Halappanavar developed septicaemia and died. Had doctors been allowed to remove Mrs Halappanavar’s fetus when she arrived at the hospital, she likely would have lived. Ireland’s abortion laws theoretically allow exceptions when the mother’s life is in danger, but as far as I understand, Savita Halappanavar’s life was not in danger at that time of initial arrival. Her life only became endangered when the inaction of doctors allowed her to contract a potentially fatal infection. So exceptions “only if the woman’s life is in danger” just aren’t good enough. They don’t provide a sufficient safety net.

Under abortion bans, a woman trying to become pregnant is not safe. Pregnancy is always risky, but an abortion ban makes those risks so much larger. If her wanted pregnancy turns lethal, she might find that her doctors are unwilling or unable to help.

Under abortion  bans, a woman trying to avoid pregnancy is not safe. No method of contraception is 100% effective (not even abstinence, since deciding to abstain does not provide magical protection against rape). If she does become pregnant, she has one of two choices: risk her life on an unsafe abortion, or be forced by her government to carry and birth a child against her will. (Which, again, could result in lethal complications for which she cannot get help. And this is supposed to be “pro-life” how?)

Under abortion bans, no fertile uterus-owner is safe. Whatever we do, we cannot win.

Which is why Wendy Davis is my new hero. Last week, she stood up in the Texas senate, ready to filibuster this horrific bill into oblivion. She did this knowing that she might face repercussions: her office was firebombed last year shortly after she participated in a Planned Parenthood rally; her response was, “It’s a sad but true fact of public service that we have to feel concerned sometimes for our personal safety. But we can’t let that stop us.” So she didn’t let it stop her. She stood, and she spoke against the bill for nearly 11 solid hours. The rules of filibustering meant that she could not stray from the subject of the bill during that time. She also was not permitted to eat, drink, take bathroom breaks, sit down, or even lean on her desk for support. What she did was a massive feat of endurance and dedication.

She’d initially planned an even larger feat: her intention was to go for 13 hours, but she was forced to stop by her opponents after 11. And at this point in the evening, it became clear that Wendy Davis wasn’t the only hero in the Texas senate. Because her allies continued to stall the vote on the bill: asking questions, raising points of order, making speeches of their own. At quarter to midnight, the public gallery joined in: when they erupted in cheers over a remark made by Senator Leticia Van de Putte, the noise level in the senate became too high for senators to take the vote that would have moved the bill forward. This vote did eventually occur, but not until after midnight: too late to be valid. Too late for the bill to come into law. So everyone in that chamber who stopped it: they’re my heroes. And everyone outside the chamber who contributed their stories – public testimony read by Wendy Davis as part of her filibuster, a powerful demonstration of just what the bill would mean to the lives of women – they’re my heroes too. Each one of them played a part in making it happen.

But apparently that wasn’t enough. Because almost immediately, Governor Perry announced another special session for the Texas Legislature. This session will include SB-5, and will last for 30 days: far too long for a filibuster to prevent this a second time. It started today.

I don’t know what happens now. Everyone who tried to stop the bill last week was a hero, and I hate to feel as though their heroism was for nothing, but it looks like the bill won’t be stopped. And yet. And yet. Now there are people watching. Wendy Davis’s filibuster seems to have provided a symbol, a rallying point, or something, for all the people who want things to change. And the fight isn’t over yet. Dear Texas: please don’t stop the heroics.

Giving the gift of worlds

16 Jun

After my last blog post, I got talking with my mother about the gendering of books and the pressures on boys to avoid “girl things”. See, I have a little brother. Well, actually I have multiple little brothers, so we’ll call this one Brother 3. Brother 3’s in his first year of secondary school at the moment – 11 years old. He used to proudly read books branded as girly, because he enjoyed them. He proudly did all sorts of stereotypically-feminine things, like being the only boy in his school’s dance club, and I was glad to see him choosing his interests on the basis of what made him happy, rather than on the basis of what society told him boys should be interested in.

He doesn’t read so much any more. Some of this may be down to having other distractions (computers, game consoles, a phone), but some of it may be down to the fact that as he gets older, he’s feeling more pressure to conform to expectations of what boys “should” be like. Mum claims that he’s now “worried that he’ll be laughed at for reading certain books”, something which wouldn’t have bothered him a few years ago. Essentially this is yet another example of how gendered books are bad for everyone: they pigeonhole girls while shutting boys out.

So, what would happen if other people couldn’t see the covers? Obviously this wouldn’t fix all the problems with the gendered-books phenomenon: part of the issue is that people really are unwilling to buy books that are marketed as Not For Them. But I suspect another part is simply unwillingness to be seen with a book marked as not for your group: there can be pretty serious social consequences to non-conformity, and a decent read isn’t necessarily worth these consequences.

This, I think, is one of the great things about the rise of ebooks in recent years. Using an e-reader removes others’ ability to see and judge what you’re reading. It might give you the freedom to read something that you’d otherwise avoid out of social unacceptability. Of course, this doesn’t just apply if you’re a boy who wants to read female-authored books: it also improves freedom of reading for LGBT folk who aren’t yet out of the closet, or kids in certain religious environments who want to learn about evolution, or those in anti-religious environments who want to learn about religion, or anyone who’s ever been made to feel ashamed for their interests or identity.

And freedom of reading doesn’t just give you a better choice of entertainment media. It opens up worlds. Non-fiction opens up the world we live in, teaching us more about our surroundings. Fiction opens countless others. It lets you climb inside the head of somebody else and see the universe through their eyes for a while. If the character in question resembles you, it can make you feel less isolated. If they don’t, you gain understanding and empathy for people whose experiences of life are entirely different from your own.

I want my brother to have access to those worlds; as many of them as he possibly can. So, for his 12th birthday, I’m buying him a Kindle. I’m removing one of the social barriers to experiencing those worlds by making it harder for others to judge his books – and, ultimately, him – by their covers. But that’s not all I’m going to do. Before I give him the Kindle, I’m going to load it up with as many books as my present-buying budget will stretch to. I’m going to give the worlds to him.

Credit where credit is due: this idea is not my own. It comes from the brilliant Ana Mardoll, whose stealth-support approach to her niece’s coming out was to give said niece ebooks with incidental gay characters for Christmas. However, my reasons are slightly different from Ana’s. For one thing, Brother 3 hasn’t come out. Balance of probability says that he’s straight. He’s also male and white. It is not exactly hard to find fictional characters who share these attributes; they make up the vast majority of protagonists. So he doesn’t really need me to give him worlds that resemble his own: he’s got access to plenty of those already.

But you see the bit a couple of paragraphs up about characters that don’t resemble you, and how they can teach empathy? I think that’s a very important function of fiction. It’s part of the reason why boys should be reading books with female protagonists; why white people should be reading with protagonists of colour; why able-bodied people should be reading books with disabled protagonists; and so on. We should all be reading protagonists who differ from us in some of the many ways society treats as significant, but this particularly applies to people like Brother 3. He’s a straight white guy (to the best of my knowledge): the lowest difficulty setting there is. He’s also able-bodied, intelligent, and comes from a well-off family who love and support him. In other words, he’s hugely privileged in his life circumstances. And when life is set up to be that easy for you, a lot of the time, you don’t even notice.* Which can lead to you being kind of an ass – or something much worse – towards people whose lives aren’t set up so favourably, because you simply don’t understand the ways in which the world is different for them.

An excellent way to combat this phenomenon is to enter the worlds of the less privileged: read their stories and listen to their voices. But so many of the stories out there don’t let you do that. They focus on the straight white guys, endlessly propagating the myth that this uniquely privileged position is somehow the “normal” way to be, or at least the way that all heroes are. When was the last time you read a book with a non-white protagonist? A non-straight protagonist? Or, when did you last find such a protagonist in a story focused around something other than their skin colour/sexuality? Because so often, if a book does have a “minority” protagonist, it’s an Issue Book that’s almost entirely about the character’s minority status. And while having some Issue Books is a good thing, because the issues represented therein are real and affect real people, it’s massively problematic when these books become the only representation of minorities. When you find minority characters only in Issue Books, it makes it look as though simply being a hero isn’t available to Those People. Read enough books where all the complex, interesting people are straight white guys and you might just start to believe that real life works the same way.

So that’s what I want to counteract with my brother. I want to give him stories where the protagonists are dissimilar to him in some way. I want him to come to love and respect those protagonists. I know that he’s already started to do this: for example, he recently read and enjoyed the Hunger Games (which is, incidentally, an excellent example of a non-Issue Book with a minority protagonist: Katniss Everdeen is a great female character, but the story isn’t about her gender, it’s about a hero who just happens to be a woman). But I also know that one series isn’t enough, particularly in a world that’s so diverse. Yet it can be hard to find decent fiction with protagonists who don’t fit the standard privileged mould. And it does need to be decent, engaging fiction, or the whole point of the exercise fails: the reader gives up, possibly taking away the assumption that minority protagonists don’t have interesting stories.

So I’m going to end this post with a plea for recommendations. I’m looking for books that (a) have minority protagonists**, and (b) will appeal to a soon-to-be 12 year old boy who enjoys large helpings of action and/or comedy in his fiction. Whose worlds should I show him first?


* And yes, I am aware that this applies to me as well as to Brother 3.

** For the purposes of this statement, I’m counting “female” as a minority despite the fact that we make up roughly 50% of the world’s population. We’re still a numerical minority from a protagonist standpoint, and in the real world, sexism means that we’re often (mis)treated in ways similar to those experienced by numerical minorities.

In which I meet Maureen Johnson and talk about book gendering

9 Jun

My Wednesday evening consisted of an impromptu trip to the Cheltenham Science Festival, after YA Author and Tweeter Extraordinaire Maureen Johnson announced that she was giving away a spare panel ticket. The panel was on the question “Do you judge a book by its cover?”, thus neatly combining two things I adore: science and books!

For Maureen-followers, an obligatory description of Maureen Johnson being just as strange in real life as she is on the internet must follow. I met her in the queue for the event, and she instantly started grilling me on whether I wanted a drink or some cake, insisting that I looked “in need of cake” and as though I “might be about to die”. I reassured her that I was fine and not, to my knowledge, dying, so she went off to get a drink for herself while I tweeted about the bizarre experience, because obviously Twitter is the only sensible response to Maureen. Once she got back, I turned the weirdness tables on her by claiming that I’d have to kill her if I told her about my job, and warning her to watch out for poison in her newly-acquired drink. She unfazedly assured me that she was “very difficult to kill”, then we were herded into the panel and entered Serious Mode.

The panellists were pretty interesting: the creative director of a major publishing house, the CEO of Waterstone’s*, and a neuroscientist who studies decision making. I suspect Maureen was more interested in the publishing industry types, while I was there mainly for the science, but there was one point on which we were united. We wanted to hear them talk about how gender affects covers.

Maureen’s written before about the ways that books by women get pigeonholed, and I seriously suggest you give it a read. Her “coverflip” experiment, where people took popular books, switched the author’s gender, and redesigned the cover “appropriately”, is a good visual example of what she’s talking about. And she’s far from the only one raising such concerns: Jacqueline Wilson, for instance, has some excellent thoughts on the subject and why she doesn’t want her books to be covered in pink.**

Eventually, near the end of the panel, the moderator brought up Jacqueline Wilson’s comments, and asked the panel if they thought “gendering” of covers existed, and if so, how it affected our judgement of books. The neuroscientist, who had the microphone at the time, replied that she hadn’t done any research into that area and therefore couldn’t possibly say. Which is fine: I respect someone who admits when they can’t give an informed answer far more than I respect someone who ploughs ahead with a completely uninformed answer. But there were 2 publishing industry professionals on that panel who might’ve been able to answer the question, and somehow the moderator kind of… glossed over them. It was a rather disappointing resolution to the question we’d been anticipating for so long.

The panel concluded with us being shown 6 possible cover designs for a new book, and asked to vote on our favourite. The book in question was an Austen remix: described to us as Pride and Prejudice seen through the eyes of the servants. It was written by a woman – two women if we’re counting Jane Austen, although her name doesn’t appear on the cover. The cover that won the audience vote showed an old-fashioned handheld mirror, with the back of a woman’s head reflected in it. I thought it was an interesting design, capturing the book’s idea of familiar characters seen from a new angle. Then they revealed the cover the publishing house had actually chosen. And I should add a disclaimer at this point – the fact that the actual cover wasn’t the winner of the audience vote (although it did come a close second), and that it wasn’t to my taste, doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad cover. These people are professionals and presumably know more about what makes a good cover than I, or most of the panel audience, do. But it did strike me that the cover they’d chosen was by far the pinkest of the six options. Which brings us right back to the unanswered question about gendering.

So when, during the roving-microphone audience Q-and-A portion of the panel, Maureen turned to me and said, “you should get the microphone and get our question back”, it was obvious what she was talking about. It took me a while to agree, because I am generally awkward and ineloquent in public speaking situations, but on the other hand, I did really want them to answer that question. So eventually I held my hand up, I got hold of the microphone… and then the moderator announced that we’d had enough questions and that the panel was over.

Were we going to let it stop there? Of course not! We’d been told the panellists would be at the “Talking Point” afterwards, where we could catch up and ask further questions. So we followed (after a brief delay in which another audience member waylaid us and told Maureen off for using her phone throughout the panel – because, of course, Maureen was livetweeting. Protip: if something bothers you that much, maybe you shouldn’t wait until afterwards to let the other person know it’s bothering you). Eventually I got in front of the publishing house’s creative director, whereupon the following conversation ensued. Please note that this is all paraphrased from my probably-poor memory.

Me: “You mentioned, in the panel, the problem of book covers that don’t reflect a book’s content. Going back to the question about gender that was asked, how often do you think a book cover reflects the author’s gender more than the book’s content, and what impact do you think that has on sales?”

Her: “What do you mean, covers reflecting the author’s gender? Give me an example.”

I find the “what do you mean?” rather strange, since one of the examples she’d used earlier in the panel involved a case where they initially designed a book cover “to have wide appeal”, and when the book didn’t sell as well as they expected, redesigned it “to target the female audience”. Clearly gendered covers are something she already knows about. But okay, if she wanted an example, I had one ready to give her – straight out of the works of my companion for the evening.

Me: “Well, for instance, all the headless girl covers on young adult books by female authors.”

Her: “But that makes it easier for people to identify with the main character, because we’re not showing any distinctive physical features.”

Okay, two points to make here. First of all: a headless body is not devoid of distinctive physical features. Your headless girl is still visibly thin, white, and apparently able-bodied. These things are not default states of being! A thin, white, able-bodied woman does not somehow become a blank canvas with which any woman can identify just because you’ve cropped out her face. So no, you are showing “distinctive physical features”, and claiming that you’re not just reinforces all sorts of problematic assumptions about what’s “normal” versus what’s “distinctive” in a person’s body. However, those problematic assumptions were not what I came to talk about. Nor did I come to talk about why headless girls are used on covers. I came to talk about the fact that they’re used disproportionately on covers of books written by women. So the second point to make is this: a defence of headless girls on covers is an answer to a completely different question from the one I was asking. Time to get back on track.

Me: “But a more abstract cover wouldn’t show distinctive physical features either. Look at John Green’s covers, for example – like, his first book has a cover with an extinguished candle. Why is it books by women that get the headless girl treatment? It seems like those books are being labelled, by their covers, as being girly books that only girls can read.”

Other audience member: “But those books are targeted at women because men don’t buy them!”

Really? You’re telling me that most men would hesitate to buy books with pink, headless-girled, clearly-intended-to-be-feminine covers? Well yes, that is part of the problem. Culture tells men that they’re somehow lesser if they have any association with female-coded things: suddenly worthy of bullying, ridicule, and the questioning of their sexuality. So a feminine cover clearly sends a “this is not for men” signal. If you market something as only intended for women, and the resulting product is predominantly bought by women, that does not prove your marketing strategy was the right one. That’s like me choosing to advertise something entirely in Scottish cities, then claiming there’s no point extending the advertising campaign to England because our retail stats show that only Scots are interested in the product.

Besides which, “men don’t buy them” isn’t even true.

Me: “Actually, the first headless-girl book I ever bought was recommended to me by a male friend. He told me ‘it’s a good book; ignore the terrible cover’, so I did.”

Despite all the deterrents, all the signs and pieces of cultural conditioning that tell men, “this book is not for you”, there are still men out there who are buying and reading books by female authors. Just think how many more such men there might be if the covers and culture weren’t doing so much to push them away.



* My favourite chain of bookshops. I have a loyalty card.

** I do find it strange that Jacqueline Wilson tends to get such “light and fluffy” covers while dealing with such weighty issues. When I was in school, I loved her books. My favourite had a storyline revolving around children acting as carers for a mentally ill parent, and included some pretty dark stuff. This was its cover.