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
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.
maladaptive 18th-Jan-2013 03:26 pm (UTC)
GRRM said he prefers the scene with Dany in the show because the book scene was "unrealistically romantic." Which ticked me off because I actually sort-of liked that scene-- it was a pleasant surprise given what I was expecting. And to hear him call it out as unrealistic just made me want to hurl because I thought it was supposed to be a commentary on the barbarism of Westeros vs. those they consider barbarians. But nope, GRRM just messed up, apparently.

And you're right, [redacted]'s almost raped but isn't (idk why it sticks in my memory like it does since it was off-camera, but I always felt stupidly protective of Sansa because the narrative felt really harsh toward her for being a normal girl playing an effed up system). IIRC the two prostitutes were raped to show the sexual violence of this scene instead of threatening the 16-year-old actress. edit: or seeing your comment below I am misremembering because my brain turns off during the sexual violence scenes and I mostly remember them via later blog discussions.

idk the show just gives me less squidgy feelings than the book did, though I'm sure counting up the incidents would bring out a similar tally.

To me the show gives Cersei a lot more agency, because the books get there-- almost, and it infuriates me that it's like "Cersei is awesome oh by the way, we can't be having that, can we?" And then it strips her of it by punishing her (all queens are craaaaazy! Except the nubile 13 - 15-year-old! I haven't read the books in years or Dance at all but are any of the adult female rulers in their right minds?) But you get to see a lot more of Cersei being awesome in the show, it felt to me. I think that's a matter of personal opinion though, since the books always felt like they were excoriating someone who I thought should have been awesome, in hindsight, and I was like "why are you asking me to cheer for her downfall, book?" Who knows how the show will play that out, though.

Edited at 2013-01-18 03:33 pm (UTC)
bleakwinters 18th-Jan-2013 03:40 pm (UTC)
Ew GRRM. Just ew. I didn't see that bit, and I'm side-eyeing the fuck out of him now. Like, it's not enough that the whole thing with the Thirteen and her bared breast is played up for titillation like whoa, now he's saying they did it better in the show? I liked parts of the Dothraki narrative, like you, the whole "what is barbaric" question, and to see him retract that and say "rape is totes cool, my initial idea was wrong :D" is just... ugh.

See, thing is, they could show Joffrey's monstrous nature in so many more ways. In the book, he strips her in front of the court, and threatens to kill her because Robb's captured Jaime. In the show, they can't show her nude because she's underage, so she gets to keep the front of her clothes on. The mob attack isn't nearly as prolonged as in the show and I swear to Cthulhu you could see they wanted us to cheer for something to happen to Sansa. (and yeah, they've been stalking her Twitter and Instagram and just ugh). I have a lot of Sansa feels, especially the more I re-read the series.

I will admit, I stopped midway through S2, so I didn't see the Blackwater episode, for example. I'll get to it before S3, but the butchering of Catelyn and Sansa's characters, and playing up characters like Arya while completely missing the point of their narratives (ie: we're not supposed to cheer for "badass" soldier child Arya, ffs, also she and Sansa have parallel narratives regarding identity, and its loss and manipulation and they're two sides of the same coin, deconstructing The Maiden in the Tower and the Child Soldier tropes), so I don't know how they portrayed Cersei in what I feel is one of the pivotal scenes of ACoK. I agree that I can't see how I should cheer for her downfall, and how the female rulers are basically crazy (Cersei), put aside by their sons (Catelyn) or manipulated (Sansa, and Margaery to a lesser extent). I hope they do her justice, because Lena Headey is a fantastic actress and she's really breathed life into Cersei.
maladaptive 18th-Jan-2013 03:49 pm (UTC)
to see him retract that and say "rape is totes cool, my initial idea was wrong :D" is just... ugh.

I can never decide of GRRM is just gross or deeply attuned to the grossness of men, and stuff like that is why. I can see his point, sorta-- why would a guy who just bought a child-bride bother with, idk, asking for permission? (Because he's not a monster?)

I'm gonna go with "both."

I think part of the reason I like the women so much in the show is because the actresses are incredible. I knew, academically, that I should cheer for Sansa but she annoyed me too, in the books; I'd be tearing my hair out even as I went "she's doing it exactly right with the tools she's been given!" But in the show it's a lot easier to see her as strong in her own right, I guess? And like, I did think "good" at Cersei's downfall and then thought back on it and went "dafuq!? That's awful!" GRRM is really good at leading me by the nose in the heat of the moment, so the book leaves m conflicted in ways the show doesn't, because rarely do I watch the show and think back on it and realize that it's made me think the wrong thing. Its narrative feels like it matches up better and the bad things that happen are simply bad.

Though that could also be because it doesn't cross my mind that those scenes are supposed to be titillating. Most of the sex scenes have been super gross and I find them gross or jarring (especially the brothel scenes) and then I'm surprised to realize they weren't supposed to be. So there's that.
circumambulate 19th-Jan-2013 12:30 am (UTC)
I've read, though I can't positively attribute it, that GRRMs goal with all the rape and torture in GoT was to be a foil to other fantasy books that white-wash and glorify fuedal societies when they were in reality overwhelmingly callous and brutal, and sexual violence was a primary weapon of war.

Still, yeah, even as a dude I had to finally take a big break from reading the books because it just becomes sack, rape, torture, sack, rape, torture, rise, repeat. I'm still pretty ambivalent about them in general, certainly never recommend them to anyone.
usnbfs 18th-Jan-2013 03:27 pm (UTC)
I'm just now realizing something. I'm actually wondering "which rape", "which sexual violence", "which torture and humiliation of a woman"? There are so many scenes you could be talking about, far too many.
bleakwinters TW: Rape18th-Jan-2013 03:31 pm (UTC)
We were talking about Sansa's attempted rape in the books. To me, the show lingered way too fucking much on it, and it's disgusting and gross and the actress (who is amazing) got threats IRL for playing Sansa and told "she deserves it" and how Sansa should basically be raped for being "annoying".

The sexual violence refers to the scenes with Ros and the other prostitute, and Joffrey, supposedly used to portray how fucked up he is, which erm, there are other ways and it makes me super fucking uncomfortable and it's triggering as fuck. I agree with your point, and I think it's gross how we're supposed to watch this and put up with it or god forbid, enjoy it.
maladaptive Re: TW: Rape18th-Jan-2013 03:35 pm (UTC)
People have been saying Sansa should be raped for being annoying long before the show came out, but omfg telling the actress!? D: She's so amazing (and non-amazing people don't deserve that shit either).
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. :(
bleakwinters 19th-Jan-2013 01:50 am (UTC)
It depends largely on how you feel reading about brutal, graphic violence and sexual assault. At times, they are very well written, with some incredible characters (especially women) taking centre stage. It deconstructs some fantasy tropes, and with a few exceptions, there are no true good or bad characters, like in say Lord of the Rings.

That being said, he is not immune to racism or misogyny. There are virtually no trans* characters in the books. There is a lot of violence, and rape, and misery. There were times I had to put the books away because I couldn't bear the misery in quite such large quantities. The books are an emotional roller coaster.

It's all up to you. I like fantasy and I like seeing women in prominent positions of power (though again, he still writes a very patriarchal society). If you can, borrow A Game of Thrones from the library/a friend, and see how you get on. Some people hate the fact that the chapters are written from different points of view, but I personally enjoyed the subjectivity inherent in that writing style.
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