Headless Women: An Uncomfortable Trend in Young Adult Historicals

It’s a running joke on the review site Goodreads that historical novel covers have a notorious tendency to feature women, usually in a state of undress, whose heads have been cropped out. This is especially unfortunate when it’s a novel about one of the wives of Henry VIII, and chances are statistically high that it will be. More seriously, the trend has come under fire from feminist critics because of its objectification of the female body – the woman on the cover is literally faceless, and often stripped down to a corset in order to titillate the potential reader. On a practical note, it’s often the case that the cover designer is trying to disguise a stock image by cropping out the model’s head, or ensuring her face is otherwise out of focus.

In today’s post, I intend to contrast two different approaches to YA historical covers. Both series star young female protagonists, and have a distinctly feminist bent in the text. The first, the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray, nevertheless falls prey to this trend. The series is set during the Victorian era, which gives the designer all the excuse they need to show a female character in a corset or low-cut dress.

A Great and Terrible Beauty, original 2006 cover, demonstrating the use of the rule of thirds.

A Great and Terrible Beauty, original 2006 cover, demonstrating the use of the rule of thirds.

The Sweet Far Thing, original 2009 cover.

The Sweet Far Thing, original 2009 cover.

All right, let’s be charitable. Presumably they intend to evoke the corset as a symbol of women’s oppression during the period – this would be relevant to the trilogy’s major theme. On the other hand, the placement of the title and author’s name in the cases of A Great and Terrible Beauty and The Sweet Far Thing draw the eye inexorably to the model’s backside, somewhat undercutting the message. We can see that the rule of thirds has framed it neatly in the bottom middle section in the case of the former, and it’s placed close to a point of intersection in latter. Points of intersection are places in a cover design where the designer puts important text and images. Still more irritating is the use of the golden ratio in the cover for Rebel Angels, where the eye is drawn to the large text of the title directly superimposed over the model’s breasts.

Rebel Angels, original 2007 cover.

Rebel Angels, original 2007 cover.

Given the ubiquity of this design for historical novels, it seems refreshing that Elizabeth Wein’s Young Pilots series has so far escaped it. Instead of cropping out the model’s face or showing her from behind, the Young Pilots series has made a point of showing women’s faces. This begins to humanise the protagonists even before the book is read. This time the designer has chosen to use the rule of thirds to evoke retro photographs and the colourful advertising of the period.

Codename Verity, 2015 edition.

Codename Verity, 2015 edition.

With the cover of Code Name Verity, for example, the use of bright colour in the title splash draws the buyer in immediately, and only on closer inspection do we note the mesh of the chain-link fence in front of the model’s face and the planes against a darkened sky. The diamond-shaped gap in the fence frames the model’s eye, so that attention is drawn to her staring at the reader.

Rose Under Fire, 2015 edition.

Rose Under Fire, 2015 edition.

The other two books in the series follow the same pattern, attracting the buyer’s attention with a splash of bright colour and drawing them further in with the protagonists’ faces and the hints at darker elements in the story (the barbed wire in the design of Rose Under Fire; the plane in Black Dove, White Raven).

Black Dove, White Raven, original 2015 cover.

Black Dove, White Raven, original 2015 cover.

Overall, the designs for the Young Pilots series are much more attractive: their use of colour enhances the covers by the contrast with the more muted top and bottom sections. In comparison, the covers for the Gemma Doyle trilogy, while successfully evoking the Victorian period, have a much duller use of colour and are much less visually piquant.

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