May 9, 2013

Pink unicorns and pastel bling: Maureen Johnson calls out gendered covers



When author Maureen Johnson tweeted on Tuesday, “I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, ‘Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. – signed, A Guy’,” she issued a follow-up challenge. “Also: PROJECT! Redesign covers by Literary Dudes. Imagine they have been reclassified as by and for women.” The “coverflip” responses that emerged are worth a gander.

Johnson discussed the problem of stereotypically “girly” packaging on The Huffington Post:

…If you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality. Because it’s ‘girly,’ which is somehow inherently different and easier on the palate. A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simple more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.

Let’s pretend ‘girly’ packaging does appeal to the vast majority of women. In that case, all books would look like this. Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom really would feature a little heart on its cover. Despite those emails from wistful male readers in Johnson’s inbox, women are the ones buying and reading books. Women are the market for books, or at least for fiction.

Years ago, Ian McEwan proclaimed in The Guardian, “Reading groups, readings, breakdowns of book sales all tell the same story: when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”

Why do men get the serious covers? Why do they escape the “girly” treatment? Not just because society takes men more seriously or because men won’t read books with fluffy covers—though that’s part of it. Rather, women don’t give a fuck about “girly” covers. We don’t pick up a book because pink unicorns frolic on the front. If we did, I promise you: even Philip Roth novels would feature some pastel bling.


Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.