Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Beautiful Dead Girls

Recently on her blog 'Trac Changes’, Rachel Stark highlighted a disturbing and worrying trend in teen/YA book covers in which female characters were depicted as dying, beautifully and tragically. Her post “Cover Trends in YA Fiction: Why the Obsession with an Elegant Death?” discussed why the imagery of dead girls has become so popular in teen/YA lit. She considers that these images are “less the product of an overt “male gaze”, and more the product of teenage girls’ morbidity...anyone who has worked with teenage girls will know that many have an astonishing taste for that which is melodramatic, desolate and downright morbid.” Rachel Stark explores the idea that, at least in part, this fascination is a product of the internalised misogyny of teenage girls. You can read the whole post here - .

This post comes in the same week as the trailer for the film The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins hits the airwaves. If you haven’t read the series, Katniss Everdeen is the main character and she has gripped the imagination and emotions of thousands upon thousands of people, from pre-teens, young teens, older teens, young adults and adults, and she is also one of the strongest heroines to have emerged in recent years. Yes, there is lots of violence in the books, a love triangle, a terrifying dystopian world, but at the centre of it is a captivating heroine who refuses to die.
The book covers for the Hunger Games Trilogy do not figure a beautifully elegant dead girl. Yet the books are best sellers and they have captured the imaginations of girls and boys alike.

The covers of YA books are typically designed by publishers’ in-house designers, who usually first read the book to capture the mood and the story and who will then discuss the design with authors. But editors, and importantly, the sales and marketing department, have a huge say in book cover design.

Personally I believe that the design of book covers is largely in the hands of the publishers rather than stemming from a demand from teenage girls. I do buy Rachel Stark’s line that there is a strong undercurrent and receptiveness towards images of “beautiful morbidity” amongst teenage girls. But I’m not prepared to believe that this receptiveness has grown explosively. I think it’s down, as usual, to the sales and marketing department’s tendency to hunt in packs and to copy the latest fad. Perhaps too some authors get less of a say in the look of their cover than others.

But to whoever decided that beautiful dead girls on covers sell books and to those who continue to endorse the trend, isn’t it about time for a trend change?


Penny Dolan said...

Good questions, Savita, especially when all the covers are collected together like this. The image of perfect, lone and untouchable or unreachable beauty, of withdrawing into one's self (or one's death) so that life can't get to you or hurt has a hypnotic magic but is too easy and answer.

Can't help wondering if the in-house discussion continues: "Hey, if they look like babes, the boys might even read the books too!" Or so some might think.

The pushing of the gender divide is a worrying thing. Thanks for the link to Rachel's blog, by the way.

Dan Holloway said...

It's a dificult subject, and one I think we have to get to grips with the full history of before we can begin to unpick it - I think Rachel's blog does an excellent job of giving a sweep of some of the background (the first thing the opening of this post made me think was Ophelia, and then, of course, fairy tales like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty). I'd be interested to delve further into this, in particular to see how images of glamorised teenage girls relate to religious iconography of the "beautiful dead Christ" - especially in the Renaissance the crucified Christ is an incredibly beautiful figure artistically, and one of the key symbols in his portrayal is his androgyny. Couple that with significant figures like Teresa of Avila, and the identification of anchorite deprivation with the suffering of Christ and a very complex picture of gender/beauty/suffering and transcendence through the point of death/ecstasy emerges. I have a feeling that to even begin to understand the way these images work today, even for audiences who've never heard of the anecedents, one has to do some work untangling all of that. At the very least, we need to be constantly aware of (and sympathetic to) the shifting boundaries that always complicate the distinction between absolute self-oblation and absolute self-assertion, and the constantly shifting psychological quicksand that marks that border

Abi Burlingham said...

There do seem to be trends in book cover illustrations don't there? These images do seem to be a recurrent theme, and one I am slightly bored of. I, like you, suspect that it has more to do with marketing departments than the authors. If only more publishers would go out on a limb and produce something that baulks the trends.

Savita Kalhan said...

These covers are just a very small sample of what's out there, and I do think it's a worrying trend that shows no sign of change. Meg Cabot's book, Abandon, has another cover which closely resembles the other four, so I guess the image does sell books. I wonder how these books would sell with different covers...

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Savita I apologise for an early posting.