Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cover(ing) Sexuality and Female Worth

Covers. Sad to say, but they are often what first draw us to novels in the first place. Many a time, it’s not a plot summary that wins me over to read a book. . .but a cover. Pretty covers hide bad books, and bad covers hide great books. After a while, it just becomes a guessing game as to what you’re going to get -- a bit like closing your eyes and digging your hand into a box of chocolates.

Before I lead you astray and make you think this post is going to be about pretty covers hiding bad books, it isn’t. Rather, this post is about one cover. . .or, actually, the undertones and messages one cover is sending out like one big blaring subliminal message.

This is the new cover for Andrea Cremer’s Wolfsbane (Philomel, July 2011), the sequel to her debut novel Nightshade. Now, you may look at it and see a girl looking ready to shift into a wolf and howl at the moon. I, however, do not. Instead, I see a girl crouched on a rock in a suggestive pose, come-hither eyes blazing at the onlooker. If the cover were a scene in a book, I would say that a boy with lust flaring off of him would be striding towards that girl, ready to do bad things to her under the light of a full moon.

At first, I thought I was just being too critical or analytical, looking for meaning in the image that really wasn’t there. But, when I raised the red flag and showed my fellow Goodreaders and Book Lantern bloggers the cover, many of them reacted the same way I did, saying that the cover seemed to be trying to be an urban fantasy cover. Well, that’s all fine and dandy. . .but urban fantasy is commonly read by adults. This book is for teenagers.

Now, Nightshade and I are no strangers to each other. I read the book in ARC format back in July 2010 and found it to be a very readable commercial work with intriguing characters and an interesting take on werewolf mythology. The main issue I had with the story, however, was the common formula of a virgin heroine and two boys, human Shay and fellow wolf Ren, vying for her attention and adoration.

Just like the calla lily for which she was named, the heroine Calla is pure white as the driven snow -- but, over the course of Nightshade’s 452 pages, she has a bit of a sexual awakening as a push-and-pull game ignites between Calla and her two suitors, both of whom never fail to thrust themselves at her and pin her to walls and all that he-man mumbo-jumbo. Shay kisses her. Ren kisses her. Shay makes out with her. Ren gropes her. Back and forth. The book doesn’t hide that it is very sexual in nature -- but neither do many other paranormal YA books that try to get under the radar by promoting ‘chaste romances’ with ‘feminist heroines.’

Feminism. That word’s thrown around a lot in the YA world these days, isn’t it? One must begin to wonder if it is beginning to lose its meaning. Would supposedly feminist characters really let sexual desires control their decisions and thought processes? Would they degrade themselves to be wanted for their sexual appeal above all? My point is this: Are women to be deemed valuable by their sexual worth alone? Is a heroine’s virginity the final prize that one of the two boys must win?

It certainly seems as though recent YA books are throwing around these themes and messages, unknowingly or not. Just look at Twilight. The main crux of the last two books is that Bella must get laid by Edward. That is her choice and one of the main reasons for which she chooses vampirehood over a human lifetime. Her sole ambition in life is to be Edward’s; that’s it. Look at Evermore. What’s the main kink in the plot? Ever has never ‘sealed the deal’ with Damen in any of her past lives, and she’s ‘the one that got away’ every time. Thus, he follows her life after life, hoping that each lifetime will be the one where he finally has her.

Is that why these books are popular? Because, in every single one, the girl is the one that must be gotten, claimed, and used for her sexual worth? Well, now, that’s an interesting message to send to teenage girls. I don’t care if the heroine is willing and begging all book long to be taken to bed for a fade to black moment. My issue is that these are stories targeted at young women who, without any help from literature or other examples, could go out and find their own bad boys to treat them wrongly as only objects to be possessed. They don’t need cues and hints from literature that should be teaching them better, that men and women should stand as equals both inside the bedroom and outside of it.

But most young adult literature doesn’t tout this tenet. All of them claim that they do, but few of them show males and females in equal lights. Girls are either virgins or sluts. Boys are either virgins or man-whores. Right. Real life doesn’t work that way with such stark black and white contrasts. Real life is full of the ambiguous grays.

Another issue with sexuality in YA is that many heroines don’t deny the advances towards them -- rather, they welcome it -- but then many of them turn around and call any other female character who is making out with a guy or having sex a slut or a whore. Well, now. Is the sexed-up behavior that these heroines engage in somehow better because there is love attached? Is that how their sexual power is so much more acceptable? And is that how Zoey Redbird of The House of Night gets away with her non-sexcapades too? By calling it her right as her sexual power?

Yeah, I’m not buying it either.

In truth, I can’t say I’m an advocate for censorship when it comes to sexuality in YA. While I do sometimes think that sexuality is oftentimes mishandled or written into young adult stories irresponsibly, I would much rather teen girls learn from books than firsthand experience. Books are like the glass through which parts of the world can be seen but not touched. If a teenage girl finds out more about sex through a book rather than through a teenage boy’s clumsy touch -- well, I know what I think the better alternative is.

But YA isn’t at that point yet where sex among teenage characters is handled well. Like real life, YA offers a clumsy experience that is awkward, embarrassing, and sometimes a bit mortifying -- but teen readers who don’t know any better think it’s the real deal. They should want what is in those books. That is what real love and sexual desire should be like -- teetering somewhere on the spectrum of abuse, lust, possession, sexual harassment, rape, sex, stalking, and violence. Are those really the kinds of messages that should be given to teenage minds?

Authors and publishers, please be more responsible. You have teen readers out there, ones who are looking for alternatives to Hollywood answers and cheap thrills. Don’t just give them the fantasy experience where boys cater to girls and their evey whim and where girls are prizes to be won and trophies to display. That is not real life, and it is a disservice to any teenager to make it seem as though that is even a good option. Girls shouldn’t want to be objects at all: they should want to be seen and loved for who they are and not what they can offer in the bedroom. Do more for them than that.

Give them stories that make them hope and dream but also realize that love isn’t as simple as affection, intimacy, and sex. Real love is so much more complicated but so much more fulfilling.

Give them covers that aren’t right up there with magazine covers and pin-ups with femme fatales on spotlight front and center. Real girls will never be just an image emblazoned on a cover, giving lusty eyes to the viewer in a way that says ‘Take me, please.’ They are so much more, and they deserve so much more.

Show them and make them believe it too.

(For more of an in-depth discussion on the external images of YA, check out "YA's Image Problem" by Sean Wills of The Interrobangs.)


  1. Not having read this book, I have mixed feelings here, but they were partially guided by your own phrasing: ready to do bad things to her under a full moon.

    Basic tenet of feminism: sex, if a girl wants it, isn't bad. Which of course you also suggest later. But still, it sounds like you'd prefer a world where sex is de-emphasized in favor of other experiences and the reasoning there isn't quite clear to me. It seems like it would be better to wish the objectification was reduced or at least consciously addressed in the story?

    I did wonder, on that particular cover design, if they were going for some cross-over appeal? I suspect the split in readership age between YA and UF isn't as clear-cut as the genre definitions would suggest. Obviously many adults read YA and when I was a YA I adored books targeted at adults. The overlap between the two is something I want to address in my own blog if I ever get enough material to get it off the ground.

    I actually think it would be awesome if a new genre of books emerged, wherein the protagonists were allowed to range between say 16 and 26. It would be cool to see some series that start at 15 or 16 and then follow a character as she grows and passes various boundaries and milestones. Like Harry Potter but starting as YA instead of MG.

  2. Hey guys, thanks for the link! But my name is actually Sean Wills, not Sean Willis - no second i!

    I'm only letting you know because everybody accidentally calls me Sean Willis. At this point I should probably just change my name =_=

    Anyway, I'm loving the blog so far!

  3. @Chrysoula: There is a recently emerged genre called new adult for 18-22. I won't discuss the rest of your comment because it's Jillian's post, not mine. However, I do see your point.

    @Sean: Sorry about that. I could have sworn it was Willis not Wills. I'll change that.

  4. Chrysoula - I would say sex should be de-emphasized to some extent in YA. I don't like when teenagers are portrayed in YA as being so ruled by their hormones (both male and female characters, sadly, are often shed in this light) because I feel that demeans them and makes them appear weak counterparts to the real-life teenagers who can be so much more multiple-faceted than some adults usually think. Perhaps de-emphasis of sex would lead to stronger characters?

    The problem I have with objectification is that many heroines don't grow beyond being an object to the love interest. Many of them don't mind that, at the end of the day, all they have to show for their stories is that they are in the arms of their beloved and that's where they will stay for the rest of their lives/for all eternity. Yes, they may have made the choice to be there and all that -- but shouldn't there be more to their characters than "Oh, I get to stay with my true love and live happily ever after!" What about goals, ambitions, aspirations, and personal growth?

    These stories make it seem that all that matters to a woman's worth is whether the woman has a man by her side and whether she gets to keep him. That's a dangerous message to send to any female since personal worth isn't determined by another person: it's determined by what you feel and see inside yourself.

    (And that turned into another rambling rant since I have so many issues with YA.)

    I would love it if there were a genre between young adult and adult since (hopefully) it would be just the genre to tackle some more complicated issues and present them in more responsible ways. (And I'd love to follow a character from late teens to early twenties! Those are often the formulating years, after all. . .)

    Sean - I apologize for the error as well!

    Tatiana - Thank you! (Honestly, the idea would not have been planted if not for your suggestion!)

  5. There's no help for it. Somebody has to write an awesome book with fleshed-out characters and character growth that sells millions of copies and starts out as YA, not MG.

    Then, everybody will try to cash in with realistic characters!

  6. Wonderful post. I loved this in particular: "Books are like the glass through which parts of the world can be seen but not touched."

    If YA authors are painting a false picture on the glass, it can change a teenager's idea of what she is supposed to see when she looks at it.

  7. Hey,

    I visited this blog from Persnickety Snark, and I just wanted to tell you that this. blog. is. amazing. All you ladies have written well-articulated and stupendously awesome posts and I wanted to thank you for it :) This is now one of my new favourite blogs, I love the topics you guys aren't afraid to talk about, and the opinions you express are backed up well.

    Anyways, regarding this post.. I'll start by saying yes, what is with the cover? That pose by the girl screams Adult urban fantasy, not YA paranormal (imho) and I personally feel it's not sending the right message. And I'm a teen girl and I think to be perfectly honest, I'd be embarassed carrying around a book with a cover like that.

    Then onto your points of feminism, I think there's been so much 'usage' of the term that the term's definitely become blurred. Many para YA claim to have feminist heroines but I just see girls throwing themselves at hot boys and I'm here thinking, "where's your self respect?" I think you're definitely right, authors and pubs should be aware of what type of tone and (i hate to say) 'message' that are in books targeted at teens. Or, they can just not misrepresent a book and tell it like it is (aka, wolf girl lusts after boys)


  8. This is a very good post, Jillian.
    Such truth...

    It's actually quite sad that this post even had to be written, but I'm glad you did. You did the topic justice and explained your reasoning cleary and with support.

    Awesome job, Pactmate. It is a very thought-provoking piece.

  9. I like the original cover art for this title, not only is the sexuality less overt - (not that sexuality is a bad thing, but because I appreciate nuance, both in literature and visual art) but it's also more in keeping with the cover of the first book in the series. I like series covers that MATCH (I'm just nerdy like that!). So is this blogger:

  10. Great post, Jillian! I most enjoy your thoughts on female sexuality as something both forbidden and prized in YA.

    I am curious if there are any characters in YA who could be considered sex positive. Being sex+ myself, I would like reading about feminist, female main characters who have healthy, open views on sex and relationships.