Today, McMini was invited to a tenpin bowling party and I went along. As we stood watching the kids bowl I was chatting to the Birthday-ee’s mum and we got talking about the portrayal of women in the media and how difficult it was to find books to read. Run with me, I’ll get to the point but the background makes sense, I promise.
It turns out that, as a teenager, she, like me, discovered fashion magazines. I enjoyed many aspects of them, as in, I loved clothes and fashion, but we agreed that both of us found them a bit depressing because the women in them were always the top 1% of beautiful and yet presented by the magazines as the norm. And because of that, we both found that though we loved clothes, and fashion, buying the actual magazines was a slightly depressing experience which left us wondering why we didn’t look like the glossy women on all the pages, whether we should, whether the fact we didn’t was normal, and whether finding out about clothes and fashion was worth all that shit; all that angst that we didn’t conform to the magazines’ idea of ‘the norm’ which wasn’t normal at all. As a teenager, I was pragmatic enough to decide that life was too short to feel shitty about myself. So I stopped buying them. So did my friend. For each of us, meeting another person who felt this way was a first.
As a kid, at school, my study walls were plastered with pictures of animals and stunning views clipped from the pages of National Geographic. The only people on there were the Beatles. Most other study walls in that school were covered with pictures of the kind of women my peers aspired to being; fashion models who were miles prettier than any of us … because well not necessarily because they were but because … Photoshop. And mostly, when they stuck them on the wall, that’s all my peers knew about these women. That they were pretty. And they thought that’s all you needed to be. Pretty. And I’m not 100% certain that magazines, adverts, book covers, or anything else that reinforces this view is a great idea. Because if you self actualise through your looks, you’ll never know who you really are, and when they start to fade it will do your head in.
You see, I’m older now, there’s a lot of spare M T where the bump was when I was gestating McMini and it has forgotten to spring back. I still have an hourglass figure but it goes further out and less far in. I need a lot more whalebone to keep my boobs in a place where they used to sit quite happily without artificial help. I often lose them under my arm pits at night and yes, dropping a couple of dress sizes would be convenient because it would make clothes easier to buy. And yes, some mornings, dressing myself feels like trying to find the most interesting and artful method to drape camouflage netting over a Zeppelin. But I’m OK with that because I may be a bit of a twat, a lot of a twat to be honest, but I am nearly fifty now and I’ve learned to like me, on the whole, and what I look like is just puff.
So, what worries me about all this body idealisation is that I can’t help wondering if the reason I’m content with my greying hair and ageing looks is because I was pragmatic enough, as a kid, not to buy into this women should be beautiful and look decorative shit; to avoid fashion mags and the idealisation of physical beauty for its own sake. And what happens to the folks who did? As their looks fade, are they hanging on by their perfectly manicured fingernails, surgically nipping, tucking and enhancing themselves until they finally wake up one morning, look at themselves in the mirror and think, who the fuck is this? Is the loss of their looks like the loss of their personality for them? Is that what’s wrong with us today? Is that why the current POTUS would rather walk about looking like an oompah loompah with a brillo pad on his head than admit that he’s knocking on a bit and going bald? Fair play if he wants to but …
A few years ago, I read an article which cited a study into male eating disorders, needless to say I can’t find it now but, basically, the posit was that male eating disorders were growing. The article claimed the rise of eating disorders and poor body image in men was directly proportional to the increased portrayal of perfect six pack wearing chaps in lad mags. I admit I found it kind of strange, at the time, that there was more for me to ogle in a copy of Loaded than there was in Cosmopolitan, but I’m drifting off subject.
What my conversation, today, revealed was that I am not alone. That, there is another person who thinks that, self image-wise, fashion magazines are full of bollocks that makes us feel shit about ourselves, and therefore best read with the cynical goggles set to maximum, or, if that doesn’t cut the mustard and they still make us feel shit, not at all.
So we went from this to a conversation about book covers. Friend went on to say that she also hated book covers with people on, found them hugely off putting because:
- They’re always unrealistically attractive.
- Most of us want to imagine the protagonists for ourselves and if the image doesn’t match what’s in our head it will be annoying and possibly off putting as we read the book.
- Most women have trouble identifying with some pert, impossibly thin, scantily dressed, six foot teenaged girl model so it puts them off buying the book because they think they will not identify with the protagonists.
- It’s fucking sexist for heaven’s sake. Enough of the bowling ball bums in leather onesies or chain mail bikinis. It was shit the first time in the 1970s and guess what? Yep, it’s still shit.
- Same for the guys, but at least if it’s a ripped torso the head is usually cut off, because otherwise we can’t imagine our perfect man’s head on top. Well that isn’t a pleasant thought is it really? But it’s the truth and at least, on the upside, we’re not, by implication, telling blokes how their faces should look.
Or as my friend put it.
‘I won’t buy a book if I don’t like the cover and if it’s sexist or objectifies women then no, I won’t like it. In fact that’s the main thing that put me off reading sci-fi and fantasy books when I was young. Also, why would I be interested in reading about someone I cannot realistically identify with? If the cover shows a skimpily dressed size zero model, I’ll assume it’s erotica, or that these are characters I will have no sympathy with and I’ll move on. Where is the logic in cutting off half your readers?’
This is why almost all the scifi and fantasy I enjoyed as a kid, short of a few titles, was stuff I saw on TV. There might have been scantily dressed ladies involved but the big difference is that they were never pitched as the reason to watch.
So, that’s two of us, then, standing alone among the sheep. That’s how it feels, anyway. At times like this I feel my fellow authors are bastards and my fellow humanity comprised of pliant idiots but that’s just hormones messing with my donkey.
Obviously, that isn’t how it is but oh how glad I am that, finally – probably thanks to some severe tweaking of the algorithm by Amazon, I am, occasionally, able to find fantasy book without a really off putting picture on the front of some young woman, who’s way more attractive than me, and far younger, pouting grumpily at me the way the girls who bullied me at school used to do, or a muscly torso, neither of which will encourage me to pick up a book. Maybe that’s why the main readership of my books turns out to be older, wiser men and ladies between 45 and 50. Perhaps I’m not the only one who feels the way I do about the images of humans that surround us.
There are so many ways to make a book look interesting. Fine, I know I’m on very shaky ground critiquing covers with the ones I have which I, personally, love but which, I appreciate, are an acquired taste. Also there has to be a grain of truth in the idea that having people on stuff sells, and my psychometric profile is rare: something like 6% of humanity – or was it 4% – so I’m unlikely to ‘get’ what the rest of the herd loves but guess what? Of the three books I have on instafreebie, this crappy home made cover is the one that gets the most downloads when I do a promo. Crappy home made cover, 6,000 words as opposed to 103,000 or 80,000 respectively. Hmm. Go figure.
Runner up for instafreebie downloads is this one, even though, from the point of view of appealing to American readers, I might as well have called it ‘Escape From B-Movie C**t’ since they seem to view the word ‘hell’ as about the same level. Null points for research there! MTM slaps own hand.
So basically, I, the very very murky looking pot, am about to accuse a kettle trend of blackness. But the fact is, I would prefer to avoid contributing to the deluge of images of ‘perfection’ which, I think, cause damage to young women and men and cause mid-life suffering to the pretty ones who come idolise their looks above all else as a result. So I will not knowingly put attractive models on the front of my books, unless it’s really obviously a joke.
So, back to sexist book stuff.
Here’s an advert that made me think, eeeeesh.
So, it’s a great design, the colours are fab, the idea is great, and even though the actual cover of the book (bottom left hand corner) is fine. Even if it looks more like the cover of an issue of Cosmo than the cover of a book it’s a cool image.
However, back to the surrounding advert. There are some things about this advert that make my skin crawl. I feel really guilty about only picking the one I’m displaying here, because it is a very skilful drawing and it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into it and the author is extremely professional and talented. But I think there’s a judgement error here.
First up, it’s quite a sexual image. There’s a LOT of flesh on display and there is also a hint of nipple, but our skimpily dressed elfin lady has the body of a teenager, a young teenager, and I think that’s why I find this image disturbing. Which side of the age of consent is she? I’m wondering. And the answer I’m coming up with is, the wrong side. OK, look, getting a bit basic here, but if she had any pubes they’d show at the bottom of that v in her trousers, so now I’m thinking please let them be waxed as opposed to not there yet. And worse, if you look at her, her features are kind of simplified, so not only does she have the body of a 12 year old and NO pubes, but she has the face of a child which is really freaky. I am absolutely certain that wasn’t how it was intended, indeed, I’d lay bets that’s a truly excellent book, but I just can’t bring myself to read it, because of the way that ad comes over. Am I the only one who thinks this is creepy, a bit paedo-tastic, and somewhat demeaning to women?
It is becoming a parent that has made me see the world differently. Or I am just turning into a massive prude. I probably need to lighten up. After all, t’was ever thus; catsuits, or the lack thereof, perky nipples and bottoms like two bowling balls in a sack have always been ten a penny on sci-fi and fantasy book covers.
But listen peps, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing, or that we have to carry on with that shit now many of us are in charge of artistic direction, ourselves. Three examples of buttock clenching cheesiness in the modern vein, though drawn with consummate skill, can be found under discussion here. I’ve included one of them here.
All three of the ones on the page linked, and this first one especially, would get a ‘not on your fucking life’ vote from me despite the artistic skill of the drawing – although on the poll in the article, many women really liked this image. At least it’s a lot clearer that this woman is not a minor.
Talking about cheese, if you want a good chuckle, there is a selection of amusingly dreadful sci-fi and fantasy book covers on display here – and yes those are the kinds of things I was trying to take the piss out of with B-Movie Hell.
So what’s to do? Nothing really, I can’t stop over-excitable folks from drawing shag-worthy fantasy vixens and I should probably be saying, ‘she can dress the way she likes even if the sword is a really cheesy metaphor for a schlong.’ Likewise, I can’t stop people thinking that a bitchy-looking pouty girl on the cover will sell books. Especially when it appears that they do, indeed, sell books.
And to women.
Heaven only knows.
And will I?