This Blog Originally appeared on Lip Magazine:
As an aspiring Lady Writer (or as feminist writer, Inga Muscio, provocatively calls herself, a ‘Word C*nt’), I was intrigued by author, Maureen Johnson’s Twitter project for her followers to ‘Redesign book covers by Literary Dudes, imagining they have been reclassified as by and for women.’ Johnson’s project, ‘Coverflip,’ shows us how there is a socially constructed perception of lower quality of books written by and for women in mainstream Western culture and this is predominantly established through the gendered framing of a book’s cover.
It is almost comical just how effective Coverflip is in demonstrating the “girl-ification” of adult women’s novels regardless of their actual style and plot. By redesigning the covers of typically masculine crime, thriller and action novels, using pastel colours, romantic airbrushed images and squiggley font, the first impression of the novel’s content and quality dramatically changes. My personal favourite was the redesigned Game of Thrones cover that makes it look like a kids’ adventure tale, full of magic, friendship and wonder.
Speaking of magic, J.K Rowling, a lady writer, decided to go with the gender-neutral initials rather than her first name in fear that if a woman’s name was plastered all across her books, young boys would think theHarry Potter series were “girl books” (the horror!) deterring them from reading the novels. She’s now one of the most successful authors of all time, ever. Would she have got to that point had she remained Joanne? Rowling is just one in a long line of writers who have masked their identity as women behind pseudonyms or acronyms to ensure the success of their work. The Bronte sisters. “George Elliot.” “Miles Franklin.” All indications of how gender (read: femininity) just gets in the way of being a great artist and writer.
The Coverflip project not only shows how women’s literature has been perceived of as having less cultural value, but it also demonstrates how men are disadvantaged by the gendering of book covers too. We unfortunately live in a culture were great social stigma is placed on men and boys if they were to appear in public, perhaps on a train, with a lovely pink copy of Pride and Prejudice. However, no one would bat and eyelid if they saw a woman reading The Iliad. Earlier this year, Penguin released its usually orange classics (you know the ones, they’re toted by every hipster from Fitzroy to Portland,) in pink to support the McGrath Foundation. However, it was only the typically feminine books that where included in this release.The Communist Manifesto was not included. Nor was Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Yet Jane Eyre, A Room of One’s Own and Pride and Prejudice were pretty in pink. This indicates how books “For Men” are constructed as gender-neutral, whereas books “For Women” are exclusively for women and women only, regardless of the importance and universality of their themes, messages and ideas.
I once discussed Jane Eyre with a hegemonic “Literary Bloke,” as Johnson would say, and his view was that ‘you’ve kinda got to be a chick to get into that love stuff, ya know?’ No, I don’t know. Men fall in love and feel emotions as much and in as complex ways as women do. It is an age-old, stale stereotype to always associate romance with women and femininity. Moreover, women are forced to identify with male protagonists all the time in their reading of The Great Canon of English Literature and we seem to get on fine, so why shouldn’t men be able to appreciate and identify with Kathy’s undying love for Heathcliff?
This feminization of romance as a genre also becomes a problem for women writers who have written works that are not even romantic, however because they are women, this is the way they are presented and sold. The best example of this is the recent 50th anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which angered some (myself included) in its reduction of a valuable and powerful work of literature to what appears to be a fluffy, romantic and substance-less chick-lit giggle.
I had a similar reaction to a recent edition of Erica Jong’s Fear Of Flying,
which depicts a pretty cartoon woman blowing a dandelion fairy with glossy lips, which has no relevance to the plot or themes whatsoever. This is not to say that “chick-lit” is not of value, just that there is a clear, gendered discrepancy in how men’s and women’s experiences and subjectivities are presented and valued in mainstream literature, where women’s voices are positioned as whimsical and chatty, if heard at all.