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08 February 2012 @ 11:03 pm
Gender and Book Covers: the romance novel edition  
About a month ago, I did a post about gender and cover art in the urban fantasy genre. I'm not sure it's something I can sum up in just a few words, but someone on twitter rightfully commented that my choice of language covered it all: men are in stances, women are in poses. Men are portrayed as strong, confident, and competent. Women are sexy.

"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 And the most popular of all are the clinch covers, where you've got a couple in outdated clothes clinging to each other in improbable ways.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.
Nathreee: Candid Opinionsnathreee on February 9th, 2012 08:14 am (UTC)
To sum up: powerful poses look good on anyone, male or female. Passive looking away-poses however look ridiculous, on men and on women.

I do think it merits mentioning that this is not a comment on the artists. This is just a trend and the only way artists will be able to break loose from this trend, is if the publishers let them.
Anna_ocelott_ on February 9th, 2012 03:58 pm (UTC)
Yes, artists work on spec. I don't really intend these posts to be aimed at someone in specific, but I think the subject is important and something that merits thought.
sue_bursztynskisue_bursztynski on February 9th, 2012 11:36 am (UTC)
And the publishers won't. ;-)

I'm a reader and writer of YA fiction and there's a lot of discussion on YA book blogs about the absurdity of the Gothic covers with a girl in long formal gown in a brooding landscape, whether the heroine was actually in this landscape or not, never mind in a long gown. So I think both your posts are a hoot, I laughed out loud - kudos to you and your other half for doing this! :-) I have put a link to this page from my book blog, The Great Raven. I'd love to share it with my readers. Well done!
Anna_ocelott_ on February 9th, 2012 04:00 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed them.
Hedgehog the Ineffable_sparkli_ on February 9th, 2012 01:34 pm (UTC)
These are hilarious! I love the genderflipped versions.
Anna_ocelott_ on February 9th, 2012 04:01 pm (UTC)
I think the Captured one is my favourite, with the husband in a cleaveage-baring shirt.
janicujanicu on February 9th, 2012 02:39 pm (UTC)
Oh my goodness. The pictures just kept coming!! I have to come back and reread what you said because.. eyes.. drifting towards the pictures and your expressions in them! :D Awesome post.
Anna_ocelott_ on February 9th, 2012 04:02 pm (UTC)
We really do have too much fun doing these photoshoots.
garnigalgarnigal on February 9th, 2012 03:52 pm (UTC)
Now that I'm thinking about it, my favourite romance author, Amanda Quick, uses an object or a landscape on the front cover now. I guess that's one way of getting around publisher expectation.

Also, it's interesting how this bleeds over into real life. At a family photoshoot, I was photographed from above while I sat on the ground looking up. Yes I was facing the camera, but it's still a fairly submissive pose. My brother, on the other hand, was photographed standing, even leaning from the same level. The argument of course, was that being photographed from above was 'flattering'. Apparently, he didn't care if my brother looked good?
Anna_ocelott_ on February 9th, 2012 04:05 pm (UTC)
It's amazing how many places you'll see this sort of gendered expectation.
SB Sarah WendellSmartBitches on February 9th, 2012 04:53 pm (UTC)
Yes and No
I agree and disagree. Likely this comment will be too long! Oh boy.

The covers you've featured: absolutely. They are gendered and feature a defined and noticeable power differential between the male and female, highlighted even more by your (freaking brilliant) role reversal. Harlequin novels, for example, particularly Presents novels, highlight that power differential because it does play a role in the books: the hero is almost always worldly and experienced, the heroine is innocent - and thus the art reflects that power imbalance.

What's interesting to me is the difference between the US and UK covers for the same book. Here's a Sarah Morgan book that was a Presents in the US and a Modern Heat novel for Mills & Boon. Check out the difference:


I personally prefer the UK cover - I prefer most of the UK Modern Heat covers to the US versions for the Harlequin Presents line. But Presents and the branding and the art are selling a specific set of tropes, and the art reflects that.

Here's another of my favorite examples of covers changing for US/UK markets. Check the second one down: His for the Taking in the US, Driving Him Wild in the UK:


(Also, I loved that book - the heroine is a NYC taxi driver!)

Again, power differential and portrayal of heroine participation is rebalanced and utterly inconsistent between the US and UK versions. I have no idea why the US audience gets the more gendered, imbalanced power cover art - I prefer the UK art, but I am presuming that the US version sells better in the US (more on that in a minute).

In historical romance as well, the clinch cover is still very popular, but it is giving way to other trends.

First, you'd asked for Heroine-Biting-Hero covers. No problem! Here's two that I found quickly. I know there are more:


That top stock image for the Eden book has been used multiple times, too. 0_o

Moreover, the clinch cover is giving way to the female-singular cover which focus on the heroine in context. Such as:



And if there are clinches, many portray the heroine as an active participant. There's a height differential at times - but not always.



That second one I LOVE. LOVE that cover.
SB Sarah WendellSmartBitches on February 9th, 2012 04:54 pm (UTC)
Would you believe my comment was TOO LONG? I am shocked, I tell you. So shocked I'm falling out of my ballgown.


Finally, one thing I learned researching "Beyond Heaving Bosoms" was that covers back in the day (80s/90s) were originally meant to appeal to male book buyers who decided which titles to stock at bookstores, grocery stores, drug stores, etc. So clinches sold, ergo there were more of them. Big boobs (editor Kate Duffy and author Nora Roberts have called them "nursing mother covers") were popular for buyers. Big hair was romantic, ergo heroines had ridiculous hair. This one is my favorite example of WTFHAIR:


So male gaze had a big role in determining what romance looked like. Thus female book readers could identify at a moment's notice What Was a Romance because it had all the cover markers and signals - clinch, O-Face, dress half off, shirt unbuttoned still tucked in, dominant male pose, etc. And those continued to sell as well. I think that the clinch cover sells because readers know without a doubt that the book within is a romance, even if the cover art bears no resemblance to the contents within.

But because there are fewer book buyers (there used to be so many, now there might be a handful because there are fewer physical stores stocking a lot of romances) and because the romance reading audience of (mostly) women is changing, the cover trends are changing, too.

Further, readers are very frank about how the covers bother them. Some readers adore them, think the hot chestular dude and the woman with eight feet of never-tangled hair is gorgeous. Other readers, myself included, aren't as fond of the clinch. Many readers talk about how the covers are embarrassing or troublesome to us. There are definitely books I could not have read at my desk without getting a phone call from HR.

So, TL, DR (click the links even if you skipped to the end of this comment! Some of those covers are awesome fun!)

I agree that some romance covers are gendered, and I love how your role reversal revealed so much about the power differential.

But I don't think all romance covers are gendered in that way, and that the trend in romance cover art is moving away from the power-differential clinch pose. THANK GOD. More covers are female-centered or male-centered, and feature the heroine in an active role, particularly if the pose is seductive or undressing in nature!
Anna_ocelott_ on February 9th, 2012 07:22 pm (UTC)
You're right, of course, on all counts. I almost didn't include any category romance for the reason you cited, that at least those ones are indicative of the contents of the books. In the end, though, I decided to err on the side of variety.

I didn't include any covers that featured only the hero or only the heroine. I figured that's a whole different post, more of a compare and contrast sort of thing. Although I may have already covered enough of that territory with urban fantasy covers doing a strictly romance version might be redundant at this point.

That Cynthia Eden cover is fantastic.

I know covers are often geared more to book buyers than readers, but I don't think that excuses anything. Sexism is still sexism.

I very much hope we're moving away from the power dynamics I've shown here. These books might be recent releases, but the gendered roles depicted on the covers are at least 50 years out of date.
Re: MORE! - SmartBitches on February 9th, 2012 08:50 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Sean CummingsSean Cummings on February 10th, 2012 12:59 pm (UTC)
Excellent post and again, you and your hubs are braver than I could ever hope to be.

On the subject of whether or not men can be objectified by these covers, I'd say no. I don't know a lot of men where sexual objectification of their gender is top of mind. They're more interested in food, beer and Hockey Night in Canada.
Anna_ocelott_ on February 11th, 2012 04:47 pm (UTC)
Heh. I did tell the husband he could wear a t-shirt under his useless romance novel unbuttoned shirt if it made him more comfortable. I believe his exact words were "meh."
Calico Reactioncalico_reaction on February 10th, 2012 09:08 pm (UTC)
Oh, how fun! You look like you're having WAAAY too good a time in the Jeaniene Frost cover (at least, the one where YOU get to be the vamp!)
Anna_ocelott_ on February 11th, 2012 04:50 pm (UTC)
None of us could stop giggling all night. There were a number of shots we had to take over again because it was too obvious we were cracking up.
(no subject) - calico_reaction on February 12th, 2012 12:36 am (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonymous) on February 11th, 2012 03:30 am (UTC)
Followed a link from SBTB over here, and so glad I did. This (and your previous post) are awesome! I've noticed the 'rapey'- or, in a more benign context, 'dude you've got really bad breath'- covers, but I've never thought about the gender differences in less overt covers. I will definitely be thinking about it in the future.
The UF post, and info in the coments, were also really interesting. I've never thought about how impossible some of those poses are.
Wardrobe differences are far more obvious, but drive me just as nuts. Contrast Harry Dresden in the full trench coat with Mercy Thompson in the belly shirt and the boobs? She's a mechanic for gods sake. There are just some places you DON'T want to get oil. And the tramp stamp/crop top fad? Where did that even come from? When I see it I don't think seriously kick-ass, I think seriously trashy.
Anna_ocelott_ on February 11th, 2012 04:56 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the people behind these book covers don't seem to have realized you can be sexy without showing a lot of skin or posing like a pin-up.
(Anonymous) on February 11th, 2012 02:20 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
I actually had a Kindle Fire until some of the guys at work got hold of it and saw some of the covers on the romance books - and I've been catching hell ever since! (I'm one of two females in an office of 18) Switched to a Kindle touch and a BIG part of the reason I LOVE an e-Reader is because people see me reading and CAN NOT see the covers on the books! I hope the publishers & artists see your post and take note! Thanks to you and your husband for doing the pics (and your brother! and the cat?)
Anna: cats_ocelott_ on February 11th, 2012 05:06 pm (UTC)
Re: Thank you!
Yes, people come to very specific judgements when they see covers like these, and it's not usually a good thing. And the cat appreciates your acknowledgement of her contributions (which mostly involved hiding behind our backdrop and doing her best to get between the camera and the romance novel pose).
sheff_dogs on February 11th, 2012 08:04 pm (UTC)
Lots of laughing out loud here, thank you.
Anna_ocelott_ on February 12th, 2012 10:26 am (UTC)
Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it.
soleiltropiquessoleiltropiques on February 13th, 2012 06:43 pm (UTC)

Your post (as well as your previous one on urban fantasy book covers) was highly interesting and quite humorous. Thank you for posting this.

I hope it is all right, but I linked to both your posts in my journal (I'll admit I added a bit of spontaneous personal commentary on the topic of romance novels). :-D :-D

Here is the URL: http://soleiltropiques.livejournal.com/2012/02/13/
Anna_ocelott_ on February 13th, 2012 07:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Kudos!!
I don't mind at all. Thank you!
(Anonymous) on February 14th, 2012 08:04 am (UTC)
Thank You!
Hilarious! And may I just say, your husband, wearing his blouse off the shoulders? Hot.
Anna_ocelott_ on February 14th, 2012 08:06 am (UTC)
Re: Thank You!
What's really hot is that he was willing to go along with any of this at all!
Carol Slapillus on February 14th, 2012 09:24 pm (UTC)
You know, there's a reason why the romance covers I find most attractive don't have people on them....
Anna_ocelott_ on February 14th, 2012 11:33 pm (UTC)
Is it because Fabio's hairy legs fuel your nightmares?
(no subject) - soleiltropiques on February 20th, 2012 10:36 pm (UTC) (Expand)