Why are "Feminist" Book Cover Designs Still So Sexist?
Women are demanding change from politics, from workplaces, from brands, and from men post-#MeToo, but what about book cover design? The majority of readers in developed countries are women, yet the sexist term “chick lit” is still prevalent.
A recent analysis on gender disparities in reading in the U.S. found “liking and excelling at reading is a feminine trait.” In the 2010s, feminist categories such as “domestic noir,” feminist dystopian, and feminist non-fiction novels topped bestseller and recommended book lists, yet their covers rarely win best in design.
Design tropes reinforce stereotypes of the women found within these pages; either unreliable, weak, intense, bossy, bleeding, or dead—and mostly white. As compared to their adult counterparts, feminist children’s book covers reveal what we hope for our collective futures—equity, intersectionality, and empowerment.
Publishers have increased market share for books aimed to influence the next generation of advocates, and their cover designs reinforce intersectional feminism. Characters are visualized with different races, nationalities, disabilities, ages, sexual orientations, classes, and gender identities. Women and girls are seen in confident, active poses—arms crossed, fists raised, backs straight. Gender neutral iconography includes stars, dots, and lines, while florals, often interpreted as feminine symbols, are minimal. If depicted, the flora is drawn as sturdy and bold, rather than as delicate flowers. Colors are not sweet or pastel, but instead earthy, historic, or attention-grabbing. The equal representation of both “genders” of typography is a theme for these covers, like in Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. The cover uses a stereotypically “feminine” calligraphic style, but balances it with a “masculine” bold weight and texture to feel strong and powerful. Despite the strength of these cover designs as a collection, some adult feminist works lack the same progress in design.
“Domestic noir” is a popular adult genre, where the term itself is inconsiderate of women. Often featured as “beach reads,” these books can be seen as disposable in the larger scope of contemporary fiction despite their impressive sales. The attitude towards the genre reinforces the women writing, depicted in, and reading these books are disposable too. Women characters are depicted as voids, lacking identity through silhouette, or are disrupted through cropping or overlaid type. These visuals should suggest she could be any woman or she could be you, but the stylization cannot obscure these are clearly white women. Often the protagonists are white, middle/upper class, and in heterosexual relationships in the genre, but Caucasian women are not the only ones dealing with domestic issues. Of course, authors develop their characters, but according to designer Peter Mendelsund, a brilliant cover design finds “that unique textual detail that…can support the metaphoric weight of the entire book.” In these stories rife with psychological suspense, it seems impossible there are no “textural details” for the designer to draw from beyond the woman herself.
Themes of mental health are often in “domestic noir,”making the narrator, a woman, unreliable, even if she may not be. Female “hysteria” can be traced to 1900 BC, and today, right-wingers use terms like “a bunch of crybabies”to describe women. Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water references the most famous hysterical woman, Ophelia. The romanticism of water, drowning, and blurred imagery are devices reminiscent of Millais’ famous depiction of her suicide to suggest instability and violence in many of these covers. Into the Water also references the historical drowning of women (by men) for being “witches,” which is in the narrative of the novel.
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is arguably the most popular title in this category. The cover does feature Ophelia-like hair disappearing out of the frame, but the cover’s strength is the implied motion. Unlike the static backlit women in the other covers, where their lack of identity feels forced upon them, the facelessness on the cover of Gone Girl is the character’s own decision.
A lack of identity is also important to feminist dystopian novels, but with a focus on the body. Hands, wombs, and vulvas are all visual subject matter. The color red becomes central to many designs, as it represents strength, danger, power, passion, love, and blood (cisgender women’s weakness) simultaneously. These covers come closer to the feminist children’s books, like the abstracted vulva in Red Clocks isn’t soft, but rather sharp and angular, while the handprint featured on The Power is genderless and without racial identifiers.
A pioneer in the category, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—published in 1985 during the Reagan administration—has had a resurgence in popularity during another cycle of “Make America Great Again.” The first edition cover design depicts white characters, but the symbolism of the red cloaks and white hats act as an equalizer and a unifier for women living within the terrifying alternate reality. This cover inspired costumes for both the Hulu series and protestors alike in the late 2010s, a nod to its design strength.
As these dystopian worlds seem to resonate closely with our current world, feminist non-fiction keeps us anchored in reality. Their covers use similar design devices as the “no-nonsense, masculine swagger” books like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson: bold typography, large author’s name, and a simple background. The title of the book and the author’s name are visually equivalent, reinforcing that Roxannes, Rebeccas, and Lindys are capable of having an opinion, just like men. While the color of male bravado must be hunter orange, feminist nonfiction aims to be bold, but the use of calm colors or academic serif typography makes sure they come off as polite and academic, not bossy or bitchy.
In 2018 women are leading the charge, so why are book designers choosing the path of least resistance? Visual themes in feminist book categories reinforce harmful stereotypes of women. Designers, writers, and publishers must find empathy with their most loyal readers—women—to accurately represent their desires and needs in the present. Borrowing visuals from our children—those imbued with intersectionality, confidence, hope—might be our path forward.
Words by Meaghan Barry, Partner and Designer, Unsold Studio