Recently the Young Adult author Maureen Johnson launched this amazing challenge on her Tumblr. The challenge was called “Coverflip” and it centered on messages she sometimes gets from young men that say, roughly, “please change the cover of your book so that I can read it.” Now, firstly, these young men are laboring under the delusion that they are only “allowed” to read books that have “manly” covers. This is patently untrue and no one is making them avoid these books. But just the fact that they clued in on something as specific as the book’s cover suggests that there is an endemic gendering of book covers that’s taking place.
Maureen Johnson’s “Coverflip” challenge was to see if her followers could change up covers of her books and some classic books to “fit” the other gender’s marketing stereotype. She wrote a really amazing article on The Huffington Post in which she said many brilliant things, one of which I will quote here.
So, we’re thinking about boys and girls and what they read. The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We’re like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads. Bring it on. There is nothing we cannot handle.
Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate — as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family-style SUVs. We can go anywhere, through anything, on any old literary fuel you put in us.
Largely because we have little choice in the matter.
I have seen this gender disconnect in many areas of life, not only books. People tend to assume that women can very easily dress like men, read about men, and consume media created for men. But could men do those same things and be accepted by society? Goodness gracious, no! Why, though? Why can these gender stereotypes flip one way, but not the other? In addition, Johnson notes that so-called “girly” covers are often equated with stories that are “trashy” or “fluff.” This is very often not true about the words past those covers, so why are publishers saddling books by female authors with covers that will give them an incorrect reputation?
Accompanying Johnson’s article is a slideshow of responses that she received to her “Coverflip” challenge. The results are really amazing. The flip of Game of Thrones, for instance, is particularly striking. Would a boy want to pick up a book with that new, “girly” cover on it? Probably not. And yet the content inside is exactly the same as the edition with the covers we already know. In example after example, the font has been changed, the colors have been altered, and the main image has been switched to something more traditionally female. As you scroll through them, do the altered covers change your perception of what the book might be about? That’s not surprising since covers are the first impression we get about new books while browsing bookstores. Though we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, we very often do. In the cases of many female Young Adult authors, then, their books are presenting a false first impression because of their gendered book cover.
I’m not really sure what the result of all of this should be, but it has made me realize just how divided the literary world is along gender lines. What do you guys think about this? What’s up with specifically gendered book covers? Why can’t boys pick up books with girls on the cover? And what does this all mean for society and gender at large? Share your thoughts in the comments!
— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan