ONTD Political

The battle against sexist sci-fi and fantasy book covers

11:35 pm - 01/17/2013
Science fiction and fantasy novels routinely portray scantily clad woman on their covers - a device that draws the heterosexual male eye but may turn away women readers. Lynsea Garrison finds one fantasy author aiming to zap gender stereotypes.

Jim Hines straddles the remnants of a defeated alien species (a table), and clasps a pistol (a toy gun) as he triumphantly raises a cyborg's head (a toaster). Sometimes he fights battles alongside his romantic interest (a large teddy bear).

But no matter the mission, Hines shows some flesh. Just because he is waging a war, it does not mean he cannot be alluring at the same time, right?

Hines, a fantasy author, is posing like some of the female characters on science fiction and fantasy book covers he says objectify women.

He gets into character by twisting his body into the same contorted positions as the female characters on the books.

"The way women are portrayed is just so ridiculous, so often, you just stop seeing it," Hines says.

"I think posing has made people see it again - you see how ridiculous it is when a 38-year-old fantasy writer is doing it."

Since he started in January 2012, Hines' poses have become the most popular posts on his blog. So he launched a new series in December to raise money to fight Aicardi syndrome, a genetic disorder that mostly affects girls.

The series has drawn more than 100,000 people to Hines' website and raised $15,405 (£9,623) for the cause.

The project is one of the latest expressions of a growing conversation about the portrayal of women in science fiction and fantasy cover art.

Tracy Hurley co-founded Prismatic Art Collection, a directory of artists who draw more diverse depictions of men and women in fantasy art, particularly for role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.

"Women are so often portrayed assuming that a stereotypical hetero male is going to be the person looking at the cover," says Hurley.

"Male characters [are] powerful and strong, and women's sexuality will be emphasised. And why is that a problem? It's constraining for both men and women."

Many science fiction and fantasy readers are disappointed to encounter everyday sexism in a medium that is supposed to offer an escape.

Covers frequently exhibit women's bodies with revealing clothing unsuitable for combat, and fans argue that sexualising female characters sends a message to readers that women are sex objects.

Hurley says her goal is not to ban attractive women from book covers but to encourage publishers to include a wider variety of female characters.

"I worry about girls who don't see a character who looks like them and feel that science fiction and fantasy aren't for them," she says.

Part of the challenge is that women have long been portrayed on book covers in the same manner - thin, white and conventionally attractive.

The stories of Conan the Barbarian are largely credited with transforming fantasy art in the 1960s. These covers showcased muscled men and servile women, a style that artists replicated in subsequent decades.

When Irene Gallo began working in the publishing industry in the 1990s, publishers were moving away from the women emblematic of the Conan covers.

"Our sales people were saying that we want sexy women on covers, but we want them to be in active roles," says Gallo, now creative director of Tor Books.

Covers are improving, but strong women in chainmail bikinis and tight clothing regularly appear in comics and subgenres such as urban fantasy and paranormal romance.

While these women are supposed to be fighters, critics say they are drawn in a way that renders them powerless.

"People think that if you give the girl a gun, suddenly she's a strong woman," said Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a fantasy writer.

"But maybe she's still a sex object. We forget that the pose, the cropping, the way it's painted [all] tell a story. So if you have one element that says strength - like a gun - but everything else doesn't follow that, that's not the narrative you think you have."

Gallo thinks part of the problem is that male artists greatly outnumber female artists in the industry.

"You go to art school, and it's 50-50," Gallo said. "But professionally, it's overwhelmingly male.

"This is an unfortunate fact of the industry. These artists grew up with comics and gaming, so it's easy to perpetuate these things without thinking them through."

Marketing strategies may also be responsible for sexist covers. But the mantra that sex sells may not be accurate.

According to 2012 data from publishing industry analysts Codex Group, less overtly explicit covers in fact have a wider appeal among general readers.

Codex Chief Executive Officer Peter Hildick-Smith remains puzzled why science fiction and fantasy publishers sell sexualised covers.

"My guess is that it has simply evolved as category convention, allowing book buyers to instantly know that a given books is in one of their preferred categories," he said.

Hines, author of such titles as Libriomancer, The Mermaid's Madness and Goblin Quest, says many in the science fiction and fantasy community have not had to think about harmful messaging or sexism.

While momentum is building, Hines does not think the industry is at a tipping point yet. And that means readers will likely see covers he says objectify women for a while.

Hines is just trying to make sure his covers aren't among them.

"My next book has a woman on the cover," Hines says.

"And I told my publisher: 'if you put her into one of these spine-contorted poses, the entire internet is going to make fun of you.'"


Source has one of Jim Hines' parody pictures
halfshellvenus 18th-Jan-2013 07:42 am (UTC)
This is just so awesome, both as a statement and as a wonderful use of satire.

I feel something similar to this affront to women when I try to watch Game of Thrones. Fascinating idea, great cast, but god-- the degradation of the female actresses in it, the soft core porn... it's just an assault on female viewers. And it really pisses me off, because there's the expectation that the male audience will really go for it and the female audience will put up with it the way they always do. :(

Jim Hines, you're my toaster-slinging nerfgun-toting hero. :)
bleakwinters 18th-Jan-2013 11:37 am (UTC)
The thing is, in the books it's not nearly this sexualised. The level of sexual violence and objectification in GoT is absolutely astounding. Oh, sure, the books are problematic and GRRM gets some shit wildly wrong, but the show is just disgusting and ham-handed.
timbershiver 18th-Jan-2013 01:56 pm (UTC)
I knew GoT was going to get it wrong as soon as Jaime had Ceresi bent over, pounding her from behind. That's NOT how it happened :(
maladaptive 18th-Jan-2013 02:23 pm (UTC)
I find the show a lot less problematic because at least the rape isn't happening to 13-year-old girls and the show can't linger over tender description of 13-year-old breasts.

Actually the show has less rape, too. They couldn't show [redacted]'s rape so tortured her instead, because the actress is underage. The show's also been way more sympathetic to several characters, like Cersei-- what GRRM did to her is actually part of why I won't read the books anymore. If you wanna talk stupid and ham-handed....

Edited because I can't spoiler-text properly.

Edited at 2013-01-18 02:26 pm (UTC)
bleakwinters 18th-Jan-2013 02:30 pm (UTC)
So the sexual violence against the two prostitutes (which never occurs in the book) is somehow less problematic? Yes, GRRM spends far too much time lingering on descriptions of Daenerys in the books, but the rape in S1 is arguably more problematic than her first night with Drogo. I say arguably, because he does rape her through coercion and I found their relationship and its glorifications disgusting.

I'm not sure where you got [redacted]'s rape from, because she isn't raped in the books. She's tortured and humiliated, and one point nearly gets raped by a mob, but she isn't raped at all in the series.

For me, the show completely strips Cersei of her political agency, which is one thing I adore about her. I'm not so fond of GRRM's treatment of her in the latest novel, but I always found her engaging, charismatic and a lot more interesting as a character than Tyrion or Jaime.
usnbfs 18th-Jan-2013 02:56 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately the books are also a lot more rapey. Sure, it's war, but it doesn't need to be mentioned on every second page. At least the show doesn't do that, but instead they have almost every woman naked and/or degraded half the time (which seems to be the norm for "adult" fantasy tv shows or historical fiction). Sexualised violence is so hot!
halfshellvenus 18th-Jan-2013 05:01 pm (UTC)
Thank you! That's the thing I have no way of knowing. I'd heard that the horse-people were cast and depictued in a racist way after the author went to a great deal of trouble to make that a complete and interesting culture (not necessarily of the race assumed in casting).

But god, the grotesque sexual exploitation of the women in the show is just appalling. Naked women everywhere, even when they shouldn't be naked, and boobs all over the landscape-- how is this fair to the actresses? And 2x02, with the simulated porn, just really pushed me over the edge.

Argh. There's a lot that's interesting in the show and that I want to see, but my disgust-meter at the way women are treated is through the roof. :(

So, do you think the books are manageable, then? I'd thought about reading them, but the written equivalent of what I'm seeing on the show is sometimes worse than actually seeing it. :(
possiblyevil 18th-Jan-2013 02:44 pm (UTC)

I tried watching Game of Thrones but a few episodes in, I found it too gross to go on. HBO shows and I just do not get along, I should seriously stop trying with them. Finally got Dance of Dragons, though! We'll see if it holds up after my long break to read a bazillion Naomi Novik, Robin Hobb, Tamora Pierce, and Seanan McGuire books. :P
halfshellvenus 18th-Jan-2013 06:01 pm (UTC)
I made it through "Oz" and enjoyed it (the writing was incredible), but then, the setting dodges any sexploitation of women.

I find myself cringing, either from the sexual degradation or the gore, multiple times during each episode of Game of Thrones. :(

I love Peter Dinklage in this series, but maybe not enough to put up with the background crap. And it pisses me off that HBO puts in the position of having to choose.
beuk 18th-Jan-2013 09:30 pm (UTC)
I've just read through two Robin Hobb trilogies and I just started the last Naomi Novik. I was thinking earlier this week that I've read way more fantasy in the last year (Jim Butcher's series (pl) included as well) than in the previous five years or so.

Can I just say that Novik's overuse of semicolons drives me up that wall. Two on one page? Two within the same paragraph?? Wow, they're a legitimate form of punctuation, but still.
jadehunter 19th-Jan-2013 05:07 am (UTC)
Late comment, but I will forever love Tamora Pierce simply for the Song of the Lioness Quartet and how Alanna's relationships played out. I first read them when I was younger, and it baffled me how A/G could be endgame when he never really did anything like fight for her. Then I re-read the series in college and it was like this magical epiphany, like being visited by a freaking unicorn or something, that A/G worked as endgame because he did do something, he did the best thing he could possibly do: he let her go and helped her live her life and hoped she'd choose him in the end.

Like, holy shit.
usnbfs 18th-Jan-2013 02:58 pm (UTC)
I don't think that the female audience is expected to "put up with it", I think it's more like we're supposed to enjoy it as well.
halfshellvenus 18th-Jan-2013 06:15 pm (UTC)
I think you're right-- the level of awareness of "Oh, women probably find this gross" as opposed to "Boobies! Awesome boobies!" is probably not even there.
odette_river 18th-Jan-2013 05:48 pm (UTC)
There is a reason that I literally only pay attention the the Cersei+Sansa scenes.
halfshellvenus 18th-Jan-2013 06:27 pm (UTC)
I don't care much for Cersei (though is seems everyone else around here does), and since both of them intersect with Joffrey (whom I want to smack every time I see him), those aren't the main draw for me either. They just ratchet up my blood pressure.

I loved Ned. I can't resist Tyrian or Arya. I also very much like whoever the counselor to Danerys is. But yeah, there is a lot of Huh? or Yuck! going on. :(
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