The OF Blog: Y.T.s, Beauty, and Covers

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Y.T.s, Beauty, and Covers

Interesting reaction at Neth Space to an article on Bookspot Central on the "best looking women" on SF/F book covers. While Ken's reaction is more to the presumption of sexism being involvement (all those cheesecake-type poses), my own reaction was to notice a uniformity there. All those skinny white gringas, with nary a cover devoted to a woman of another ethnic group.

The US (the world's largest English-language publishing market) has an ethnic breakdown of roughly 66% of the population being non-Latino Caucasians, 14.8% Latinos of any racial identification, 13.4% being African or African-American descent, and the rest being Asian, Native American, Pacific Islanders, and other racial/ethnic groups. Within each of those groups and between them as well, there are varying standards of what constitutes "beauty." While one shouldn't expect a 1:1 correlation between ethnic group preferences and mass cultural products (such as said SF/F book covers), the complete lack of coverage to these other beauty standards is "interesting," to say the least. Perhaps if one squints enough and imagines some of the darker-haired brunettes are Latina, there might be a representation of the country's second-largest socio-ethnic group, but unless one does that, it's pretty much a traditional country club setting - whites only.

I have received the majority of the books whose covers were depicted in that Bookspot Central link and while I tend to just roll my eyes at the poses depicted, it is again "interesting" that in the 200+ titles I received last year, that I cannot recall a single image containing a woman of a different ethnicity than Caucasian on the cover. Not a single one. Is the market that heavily skewed towards Caucasians that Y.T. is the default ethnicity? That certain Caucasian standards of beauty are so dominant in the SF/F readership/publishing that whenever any of the other 1/3 of the US's ethnic groups is portrayed on a SF/F cover (or perhaps on any color) that it is "exotic" in perhaps a kindred sense to how freak show performers were viewed?

Nice timing on this, as I had a student ask me today if I would be having the students doing anything for Black History Month next month. I told her that I'll have to work around the curriculum on that one, as there are certain "standards" I have to cover in rapid-fire fashion (I'm expected to cover the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migration of the 1910s-1920s, the emergence of blues and jazz as musical forms in only a week, or else I'll be "behind" when it comes to covering the "important" material), but that I personally value discussions of the history of ethnicity and gender relations enough that I probably will develop an enrichment lesson that would include some presentations in February and March (time permitting, alas) for Black History and Women's History Months. For far too long, ethnic minorities and women were shunted aside in the history textbooks being utilized in elementary, middle, and high schools. I can't help but wonder if something similar is happening within the SF/F field, or if this cover art thing is an anomaly.

Update: The article linked to above has been pulled. I was going to comment over at the original article's site this morning, but since I cannot do that there, I'll just note that although the topic of that article didn't thrill or upset me (I got the humor behind it and understood it wasn't Damon's - the article writer - intent to write anything but a humorous post), my reaction was based almost solely on the covers themselves and not what he had written. It is something that had been percolating (like strong coffee, I guess!) in my mind for a while and that article just brought it to mind. I do have a post or two planned for this weekend to further explore this topic, but in the meantime, I would hope that none reading this would take my comments as a judgment on anyone involved in it. I prefer to see it as a discussion/learning opportunity and not as a cause to castigate anyone. So...who's up for a discussion of how beauty has evolved over time?


Jay said...


I'd be interested in an observation from somebody who goes to a lot of Sf/F related cons on a breakdown of the ethnic background of the participants.

The sole purpose of a cover is to sell books. Somebody has obviously decided that putting a certain type of female on a cover sales more books than another. This probably speaks on the depiction inside, and author's choice of protagonist (one would hope the cover girl correlates) more than publisher choice. There would be a problem if the protagonist was African American but depicted as white on the cover.

It's definitely something that affects all media but it does seem print cover may be lagging behind even television and film.

Larry Nolen said...

Jay, I would be interested in hearing that as well (perhaps Cheryl will read this and weigh in?). Good point about the various media, as often it appears that advertising/marketing targets selected parts of a population (like the often-cited 18-34 demographic). Perhaps that's the case here. Even if it is, though, it seems to relegate significant parts of the population to the sidelines and I am uncomfortable with that when I think of it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Larry I put up a follow up comment that probably ads fuel to the fire of what you are trying to get across.

Anonymous said...

There would be a problem if the protagonist was African American but depicted as white on the cover.

There are several notable examples of this in SF. Off the top of my head Take Back Plenty by Colin Greenland but I know there are others.

K.C. Shaw said...

I don't think that this list is really representative of SF/F as a whole, cover-wise. The women featured on the covers are all skinny white girls, sure, but they were all chosen by one person. Presumably that's just the kind of woman he likes.

But as a larger issue I think you're right. SF/F seems to default to white and the covers reflect that. Worse, epic fantasy in particular is really bad about good guys = white skin, bad guys = dark skin (often portrayed as monstrous creatures like orcs). It's bothered me for a while. Urban fantasy seems to be getting away from that a little, at least. One of the best covers I've seen in a long time is for Patricia Briggs's book Bone Crossed (coming out in a few weeks), and the main character's father is Blackfoot, I think it was. But in the picture, yeah, she just looks white. It's good artwork, though.

Elena said...

I've only been to one Con. It was in central Texas which has a high Hispanic population, so you'd think.... But the people there were pretty monochromatic.

I actually thought the post was did not offend me the way it did neth. The covers I found funniest were the urban fantasy covers with the sexy lady since most of those books seem to be geared AT WOMEN. So is it an effort to trick guys into buying the books? Or to give women a "fantasy self" to project onto? Hm. That might actually be disturbing, now that i think about it.

After about 4 months they started to all look the same, though. Not sure if this is more indicative of his choices or just the cover art in that style (of being mostly focused on a woman) all kind of looking the same. But certainly not a diverse group. Good on you for calling that out.

Elena said...

PS - it seems like you're in a position (or at least a better position than most of us) to judge whether foreign SFF covers have the same trend when it comes to how the characters are depicted. Plus it seems like a fair number of non-US residents check in here. I was just thinking it would be interesting to see how non-western covers compare in terms of racial "diversity."

Eileen said...

That was one thing that occurred to me during the Lilith Saintcrow controversy awhile back (sorry to bring that up again). She was whining and complaining about how feminist urban fantasy was, and that was why it was disrespected, etc, etc. . . And yet I had the overwhelming urge to ask her why every UF heroine seemed to be a skinny white girl? Especially since that exclusionary standard of Western beauty has been found to be harmful to women who do not and cannot meet its standards?

But I've also wondered, in general, about the representation of minorities in sci-fi/fantasy. Just from my rather shallow experience with the genres (other than Star Trek, which is very diverse), they do seem very racially monochromatic, which has always struck me as odd. If you could do some more writing on this, that would be great.

Larry Nolen said...

I love how this post has generated some good discussion and ideas for a much larger post (likely tomorrow). I'll try to address the points raised there (and introduce a few more, as I do have a few more points to make, some of which will involve academic interests, alas).

As for that Briggs book, I coincidentally received that in the mail today. I squinted at the cover a bit and (being that I'm of 1/8 Cherokee/Chickasaw ancestry, I'm sensitive at times to this) one could argue that the cover artist tried with the hair color and the cheekbones and nose, but that it isn't going to be conclusive if one looks for it and certainly one wouldn't think "half Native American" just by glancing at the cover. More food for thought...

paperbackwriter said...

Sorry, had to comment. My husband's sister, who is half Native American, looks enough like Daniel Dos Santos's depiction of Mercy (on all of the covers)to have posed for them. It is absolutely amazing. But, no, she isn't obviously Indian.

I do agree with you about the ethnic white-wash. I know that David Weber has said that if he knew how difficult artists would find it to reliably depict an oriental face, he'd have made Honor Harrington to be of some other race. When Streetlethal came out in the mid 80's early 90's, the guy on the cover was white -- even though the protagonist was black. (Streetlethal was Steven Barnes first and very good book). But it is getting better. L A Banks's covers show a black woman (as they should).
Patty Briggs

Larry Nolen said...


Thanks for responding! When I glanced closely at the cover, yes I could see where it would fit the character, based on what I have heard, but it is rather telling that so many of us are conditioned to see in such 50/50 cases the character being Caucasian, no?

Didn't know that about the Weber book, although I did know about the Barnes and Banks situations. Ursula Le Guin famously had to deal with that issue when they made that mini-series very loosely based on Earthsea and Ged was portrayed by a white actor. Sad, huh?

Anonymous said...

Following up Martin's comment:

Another example of covers 'whitening' a POC protagonist is Laurie Marks' _Fire Logic_.

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