"Sure, ok, but you should take a look at romance novels, where men are the ones looking ridiculous and sexed up."
Well, there's a bit of truth to that. We've all seen countless romance novels with bare male chests emblazoned across the cover. Sometimes he has a head, sometimes he's just abs and a pair of moobs. For bonus points, he's wearing a shirt, but it's inexplicably unbuttoned and flapping in the breeze along with his hair.
But you know what? Just as often, the covers feature a woman, her dress half a breath away from falling off her. And the most popular of all are the clinch covers, where you've got a couple in outdated clothes clinging to each other in improbable ways. It's a standard of romance, and in fact is often the first thing people think of when they think of romance novels. And it's incredibly, incredibly gendered.
Which of course could only mean one thing. New photoshoot!
This time, though, I'd need help. I can't do clinch poses by myself, so I recruited the husband to stand in Fabio's place, and the brother to be our photographer. Allow me to introduce you to my production crew:
That's the husband, the cat, and the brother, respectively. Some were more helpful than others. Some had to be continuously chased out from behind the backdrop.
I hit the local thrift stores, looking all over for a suitably lurid former prom or bridesmaid dress for this. Just about everything I found was slinky and strappy, though, which would obviously not work for this. So instead of a hideous and historically inaccurate dress, you get a corset instead. It's almost as good. Fortunately, we had plenty of shirts to leave unbuttoned.
Finding clinch covers wasn't hard. Head into the romance section of any store and you can't sneeze without hitting half a dozen of them. I did try to find a bit of variety (there are historical, contemporary, and paranormal here), and for the most part, these are all recent covers of books currently in print. With one or two exceptions, because how could I not include at least one Fabio cover if I was doing a post on clinches?
Man of My Dreams, Johanna Lindsey, 1992
This has got to be one of my favourite clinches of all time. The husband decided against removing his pants for this one, although it should be known he's not nearly as... hirsute.
Honestly, though, look at the dynamics here. Man in dominant position, standing behind her with a firm grip of, uh, some sort. Her position is about as passive as it's possible to be. And her legs might be inexplicably broken, but that's neither here nor there. Note when we switch the gender roles, me standing in the male pose doesn't look strange, but you have to wonder what exactly it is the husband's doing. Passive role in a clich: not flattering for men or women.
And no, I wasn't going to blog naked pictures of myself. I thought I'd spare you the horror. No comment as to whether I can grow hair like Fabio or not.
Something else interesting we noted about the clinch covers: a lot of the time, the woman looks terrified.
Captured, Beverly Jenkins, 2009
I'm not going to claim we're perpetuating rape culture here, but it's something to consider. Why do so many clinches involve the man pulling the woman towards him, seemingly against her will? Certainly a number of the "Old School" romances of the 70s and 80s involved rape or at least forced seduction, but you have to look pretty hard to find anything like that now. One of the best things romance novels have done for women is to provide depictions of women who are happy and active in their own sex lives, who know what they want and aren't afraid to ask for it. Except in the cover art, of course.
Seriously, look at the difference in body language between the "man" pose and the "woman" pose. One is powerful. One is trying to be demure and declaring "I don't want to be here."
How about something a little more overt in its implications?
Once a Ferrara Wife, Sarah Morgan, 2012
Certainly the Harlequin Presents line brands itself with domineering alpha males and the women beneath them (often in more ways than one... *coughcough*). Her twisty spine does not say "I am totally in for this." It says "please stop unzipping my dress." Her shoulders? Pushing away from him. She's got one leg out to take a step away, if she can get out of his pushy grasp. The gender-flipped version looks bizarre because I'm not tall enough (even in heels, and yes, I'm wearing heels in the gender-flipped version) to look like I could pose a physical threat. And being demure to the point of passivity is not something taught to most men, so even when it's what he's going for, the husband isn't nearly... limp enough.
Look, it says something when the gender-flipped version doesn't just look ridiculous, it ceases to work.
Sunrise with a Notorious Lord, Alexandra Hawkins, 2012
Yup, his shirt is open and coming off one shoulder (but only one). Her dress is dangerously low cut and also coming off one shoulder, so I think as far as exposed skin, they're pretty even. She's even got a little leg going on there. I'm not sure if he's trying to use her to cover up his bare chest (really, he should try just doing up the buttons), but he must have grabbed her with some force in order to stop her progress. I mean, the way her dress is billowing behind her, she must have been moving at a pretty good clip.
There are no smiles on any of these faces. Nobody seems to be enjoying their contact, which only serves to make it look more... well, distressing. Once again, man in dominant position, woman looking passive. He's got a grip on her arm and seems to be sniffing her hair, which is more creepy than romantic.
Skypirate, Justine Davis, 1995
Ok, I'll admit I love the facial expressions on this one. He's staring blankly into the distance, and she's wondering how long he's been made of plastic and why she didn't notice that fact before now. The thing is, though, she almost looks like she's been pasted into the cover art as an afterthought. He might not know how to wear a shirt, but he's standing strong and proud, weapon in hand. He doesn't even look like he's aware someone else is there with him, let alone right there touching him.
And her? She's barely in the frame. She's positioned so she can't even stand up without leaning on him for support, taking shelter under the deep cleft of his powerful pectorals. Why can't she be standing strong beside him, as his equal?
First Drop of Crimson, Jeaniene Frost, 2010
In this one, at least the woman is being actively passive, offering herself. And how sad is it that this is a step up? The, uh, intense-looking grip vampire dude has on her shoulder certainly implies a power position over her, though. Also, why are lady vampires never portrayed like this? Lady vampires don't get to be dangerous and bite necks on book covers. They get to contort their spines most unnaturally instead. I demand more creepy over-the-shoulder looks for women. Active instead of passive, please.
No Rest for the Wicked, Kresley Cole, 2006
And that's not it. She looks more like she was just shot in the back than like she's enjoying herself. Again, he might have no shirt, but he's no more unclothed than she is, and he's strong, dominant, natural. She's... well, the opposite of all those. Her spine is in a half-circle, bent in the opposite direction a human spine is meant to go. She can't even stand up without her man helping her, which doesn't bode well for her to be able to do things like, say, feed herself or put clothes on. It should be noted my eighteen-month-old can do these things, so we're really not saying much for the competence of our heroine here.
The gender-flipped version only serves to highlight the ridiculousness. The husband just looks goofy swooning like that, and he wishes it to be known posing like that really hurts. However, I actually look less stupid in the male pose than in the female one, and not just because corsets don't easily bend that way. Strong, dominant, and natural looks good on everyone, not just men. Honest.
A Midsummer Night's Sin, Kasey Michaels, 2011
I can't decide if "woman as furniture" is a step up or a step down from "woman as food source." You could argue there's a certain sort of intimacy about this kind of cuddling, but he looks more like he's lazy or perhaps wounded than seeking cuddles. Even leaning back against her he maintains the dominant position in the image. His eyes meet the viewer, while hers are demurely downcast. His pants and skin contrast with the reds of the cover, while her dress blends into the background. She gently touches him with something like concern, and he doesn't seem to be paying her any attention. These are purposeful touches, things intended to keep her in the background of the image. She's not his equal by any stretch of the imagination here.
I actually like the genderflipped version of this better than the original. With the size difference between us, the husband looks like he's in an actively supporting role. If he were looking at the camera instead of putting on his "downcast heroine" face, this could have been a pretty effective couples image. Nobody's being overshadowed or blending into the background! Eerie concept.
One Dance with a Duke, Tessa Dare, 2010
Why do so many of these covers look so rapey? Honestly, you can have an alpha male without making him look like he's about to molest someone against her will. This is less sexy and more "stop breathing on my face." When we flipped positions, I said, "Honey, I have never seen the inside of your ear this closely before. Obviously romance novels are bringing us closer together."
And yes, of course romance novels can do that. But, uh, I'm not sure the ear thing counts. It's not exactly his sexiest part.
My Lord and Spymaster, Joanna Bourne, 2008
I love this book, but I have always hated this cover. Our very pro-active heroine is standing there uselessly, lacking even the energy to put her dress back on. She can't even conjure more than mild alarm that the most enormous hand known to man seems to have decided her spine is its new home.
You'll note that even though there's a pretty considerable size difference between the two of us, the husband's hand does not cover nearly as much of my back as the enormous hand on the cover model's back. And the possessive hand just looks ridiculous on a man's back. Sure, ok, he's actually wearing his shirt instead of letting it fall off him, but I can't think that would make it look less ridiculous.
Wedding at King's Convenience, Maureen Child, 2009
Comparatively, this one isn't as bad. With the lack of rape overtones, it's almost sweet, but check out the genderflipped version. Oh hey, look, gender dynamics are still at work here! Like the other covers, he's standing straight and upright, pulling her into him. They're not really meeting in the middle, are they?
Romance novels are very much dominated by women. Women write it, women read it, women buy it. Most women buy the books in spite of the clinch covers; they're not considered a draw. And yes, they've become a shorthand for romance novels, perhaps enough so that they'll never be able to leave completely. But why are we still using pictures that look like the heroine is ineffectually trying to escape the hero's grasp? The vast majority of the covers here were published in the past five years. These are current covers, not vintage horrors. The body language hasn't changed from the clinches of the 1970s, even though the content of the novels have.
The implications of the cover art here is problematic for many reasons. Romance as a genre already gets a lot of sneering, and I think a lot of that has to do with the covers. After all, how can these books be about anything other than rapetastic sex? And in a genre catered almost exclusively to women, books that offer surprising ways for a woman to empower herself, you read the book, feel good, and then close the thing... and see yet another depiction of the "proper" way to be a lady. Sexy, demure, defenseless. Strong and confident is the realm of men, you know, and we can't have a woman that would challenge him, at least not on the outside of the book. You're better off to just stand there and let your badly fitted dress slide off your body. Putting it back on would require action, you know, and that is just not passive enough.
Do men get objectified through romance novel covers? Yes. Do they have it worse than the women on the covers? No, they absolutely do not. Not even close.