Tag Archives: feminism

Judging a cover by its book

Earlier this year, I started reading Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms trilogy. Each book is narrated by one of three sisters. I enjoyed The Mark of the Tala and The Tears of the Rose, and I finally have time to read The Talon of the Hawk, told by oldest sister Ursula. Seen through the eyes of her sisters, Princess Ursula has become my favorite character, so I’ve been looking forward to reading “her” book. Ursula is 30 years old, and in addition to being a mature adult, she’s not model-pretty either:

  • “I suppose I’m lucky not to be the oldest and least beautiful. Ursula, however, is our father’s heir and couldn’t care a whit for things such as prettiness.” (Andi, The Mark of the Tala, p.1)
  • “Ursula looked fine, too—make no mistake. Her ladies wouldn’t allow otherwise. She cleaned up well when she went to the trouble. But Ursula’s beauty is in the clear, firm lines of her jaw, the sharp eyes that miss nothing, her incisive intelligence.” (The Mark of the Tala, p.3)
  • “The eldest and heir to the High Throne of the Twelve Kingdoms, she looked more gaunt than ever. In the past, some might have called her passably attractive, in her hard-edged way, but not at this moment.” (Amelia, The Tears of the Rose, p.2)

Until I’ve read the book, I won’t know how Ursula describes herself, but according to the plot summary, Ursula is “a girl grudgingly honed to leadership, not beauty, to bear the sword and honor of the king.” After two books and that plot summary, I picture Ursula as a woman in her early thirties, thin but muscular, fairly ordinary overall in attractiveness, with a few strong features such as her eyes and her jawline, and who’s not inclined to fuss over her appearance unless her ladies (or her father) demand it.

Then I saw the cover:

Book cover: The Talon of the Hawk

I’m annoyed at myself for not hating it. If I’d seen this before reading the first two novels, I’d be interested in at least reading the plot summary to this one, which is what cover art is for. My reaction is exactly why publishers design covers like this. But this Ursula doesn’t look like someone who appears at formal court functions wearing her sword over her dress so that her men will see her as a soldier before they see her as a woman.

Now when the protagonist really is beautiful, I have no arguments with a cover that reflects that. Consider Ursula’s sister Amelia:

“The youngest, breathtakingly beautiful. They called her Glorianna’s avatar when she was born and started composing sonnets to her by the time she turned twelve. Hair the color of sunrise, eyes like twilight, skin like moonbeams.” (The Mark of the Tala, p.2)

And here’s what the publisher came up with:

Book cover: The Tears of the Rose

In The Tears of the Rose, Amelia is 20 years old. Her youth (really, her immaturity) and beauty are an important part of her story, and the cover art for The Tears of the Rose works well with that. But the cover art on The Talon of the Hawk makes it so that Amelia and Ursula look equally gorgeous and close in age, not ten years apart.

This is giving me cognitive dissonance. It’s like the author is saying Here’s my story about a woman who’s a competent, average-looking adult while the cover is saying Buy this book about a young, beautiful, sexy warrior princess. I’m not great at visualizing, and now when I read the book, no matter how many times Kennedy describes Ursula as average-looking and probably wearing something practical for battle, the image of a pretty woman in a studded tube top is what’s going to pop into my head. Come on, even Amelia’s gown has spaghetti straps!

This is a fairly dismal trend in publishing. Jane Ellsworth’s major problem in Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is that although she’s intelligent and magically gifted, she’s considered too plain to attract a husband. The cover depicts an ethereal young woman who would probably have no trouble getting married in Kowal’s alternative England. The original American cover for Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, a book about an African-American girl, featured a photo of a white girl. (After protest, the cover was changed.) But it’s demoralizing to realize that fantasy fiction about women older than 25 is deemed unlikely to sell unless it’s disguised. Being well over 25 myself, I’ve been looking for books with older heroines. Perhaps I could find them in general fiction or women’s fiction, but my favorite genre is fantasy. I had been thinking that maybe they just didn’t exist. Now I’m wondering if those books are out there—good!—but hidden behind deceptive covers. And how will I find them if that’s the case?

A television birthday

Much as I wish otherwise, Once Upon a Time is not great television. It holds my interest by being a reworking of fairy tales, and it’s a good program to knit to because I can ignore it when the knitting gets tricky without losing track of the plot. But I wish to give credit when appropriate. In this evening’s episode when Snow (or Mary Margaret, whatever we’re supposed to call her) opened her birthday present, she did so by ripping the gift wrap off, just like we do in real life. This may be the first time I’ve seen a present opened normally on TV. Usually a TV birthday present comes in a box with a separately-wrapped lid that can be opened and reopened as many times as needed until the scene is successfully completed. So congratulations to Once Upon a Time for daring to have a “realistically-wrapped” present!

More seriously: it’s clear that Snow doesn’t like birthday celebrations, not even anything as simple as Charming (or David, whatever we’re supposed to call him) making breakfast for her. We learn in this episode that her mother died on her birthday, so her discomfort is understandable. But when he asked her about it, I was thinking, Because regardless of what the culture was like in the Enchanted Forest, you now live in a society where no woman is supposed to admit to any birthday after her 29th. Heck, it probably wasn’t much better back home—we’ve hardly seen any characters there older than 30-something, and most of the ones we have seen were evil. And sure, Snow has ended up about the same age as her daughter, which most women here can’t manage (darn lack of magic!), but do you really need to ask why she’s not ecstatic that it’s her birthday?

Maybe I need to start knitting to programs that inspire no thinking whatsoever. 🙂

Book musings: Team Human

Books are rarely read in vacuums. I read Team Human right after The Lord of the Rings, and deliberately chose it for the contrast. I’d just read a humongous tome: Team Human promised a quick read. The Lord of the Rings takes place in a mythical time in a land reminiscent of northern and western Europe; Team Human is set in modern Maine. The Lord of the Rings is fairly serious throughout, with a few exceptions like Bilbo’s birthday party. I expected Team Human to be gently humorous (cover blurb: “Friends don’t let friends date vampires”), which it was, with a few exceptions which would be spoilers if I revealed them. And yes, after 1100+ pages of almost no female characters, I was more than ready for a change on that front as well. Basically, Team Human looked like a parody of the Twilight novels, and I was expecting little more. So when I realized that my little bit of escapist reading was also feminist, I was delighted. Which was certainly in high contrast to The Lord of the Rings, although I hadn’t actively been looking for that difference.

cover of Team Human

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan

Mel Duan has three close friends: Cathy, Anna, and Ty. At the start of their senior year, Cathy falls for Francis, the new vampire student at their high school. Francis’ vampirism is no secret: vampires live openly in New Whitby, Maine. They contribute to the local economy as a tourist attraction, have their own police force, and the town accommodates them with volunteer blood banks and smoked-glass windows in all public buildings. Still, knowing that some of the citizens view other citizens as dinner is bound to create a few tensions, and Mel is horrified to watch Cathy and Francis’ romance develop. Meanwhile, she’s also trying to help Anna, whose father ran off with a female vampire the previous summer. It would be fair to say that Mel doesn’t have the highest opinion of vampires.

Sure, I liked the tone of Team Human—the authors do a fine job of mixing humor with the serious elements of the story. But what really impressed me about the book was that it didn’t treat friendship lightly. Way too often, friendships in novels seem to be there as filler. If the central character has friends, they exist to give the protagonist someone to talk to until the romantic interest comes along, and then perhaps to add a little conflict to the story. Those friends tend to be let go as the central romance gets underway. Here, romance tests friendship, but friendship is really what drives the story. The question isn’t Are Cathy and Francis truly in love? or Will Cathy choose vampirism? but Will Mel and Cathy still be friends by the end of the story?. (Actually, given that this is a vampire novel, it’s not unreasonable to also ask Will everyone still be alive by the end of the story?—at least the ones who were alive to begin with.)

Also, as you can tell from the book cover, Mel isn’t white. Odd though this may sound, I was glad to see that this wasn’t crucial to the plot. See, the last two fantasy novels I read that had characters of Chinese descent, their being Chinese was why they were in the story in the first place (their novels involved specifically Chinese magic). The fantasy element in Team Human is vampires, basic Dracula-style vampires, and to a much lesser extent, zombies. These are not special vampires out of Chinese folklore and Mel doesn’t need to know Chinese to deal with them, which is just as well since she doesn’t speak the language. If the authors had chosen to make Mel white, it would pretty much be the same story.* By not going on autopilot and inserting a white girl here, the authors have put into practice some of those ideals that I’d like to see in books, that I understand that other people would like to see in books, but which so rarely are in books.

Publishers have worried that easy access to ebooks in libraries might diminish their sales. Having read my library’s copy of Team Human, I’m giving serious consideration to buying a copy for myself.  Yes, dear publishers, the key is to produce books that are good enough to want to keep!

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*Although there is some irony that would vanish if Mel were white. At one point, she speculates that Francis pays more attention to Cathy and Anna (white) than to her and Ty (Chinese-American, African-American)—which doesn’t stop her from expressing several prejudices of her own against vampires.

Tangled

[As with any discussion of a movie or book, there’s always the possibility that something I say might be considered a spoiler.]

I saw Tangled, Disney’s take on “Rapunzel,” a few days ago.  As it turns out, birthdays and aging help move the plot along, so it was entirely appropriate that I saw this movie on my birthday. It was the best kind of children’s movie: one that an adult can enjoy, and I noticed that I wasn’t the only woman in the audience unaccompanied by children. I didn’t see a male of any age in the audience. That’s not surprising, given the movie, but really, they’re missing out on something. And the movie got a PG rating. Wow. I didn’t know the Disney princess movies were allowed to get anything stronger than a G, although I think the end of the film was just fine the way it was and would’ve been insipid if it had been softened to G standards.

I suppose it’s the mark of a good film that you keep thinking about it after you’ve left the theatre. In my case, thinking about a film often leads to me analyzing it to the point of sounding like I hated seeing it. Not true. In the days after I saw Avatar, there was so little there beyond the (absolutely gorgeous) surface that there was nothing for me to think about at all. I thought Tangled was doing well in the beauty department as well. Oh sure, Rapunzel herself is pretty, but it’s other things, like how the flowers looked in her hair or the rough surface of the cast iron skillet or the sight of all the lanterns rising over the water, that left me thinking maybe I’ll buy this when it comes out on DVD. But anyway, as the days pass, a few points have come to mind about the film, probably none of which Disney intended me to think of.

The Penal Code

It’s a good thing Rapunzel went out, had her adventure, and learned a little about the nastier side of life. She’ll need that experience when she becomes queen years from now. After all, as we can infer from the film, this kingdom has a death penalty for theft and no guaranteed right to a trial, fair or otherwise. Presumably Flynn will be working to modify those laws. I know, I know—for drama’s sake, you need a threat to Flynn that children can understand instantly, and the prospect of a trial followed by several years of imprisonment is a little hard to convey symbolically. Nor can you have a hero who’s committed the sorts of crimes that often receive the death penalty: who wants to see Rapunzel fall in love with a murderer? Now despite the lack of constitutional protection, all the subjects appear reasonably happy and healthy, and the king and queen seem quite nice and not like power-crazed despots. But if Gothel had survived to see Rapunzel’s return to the kingdom, what would the penalty have been for kidnapping the heir apparent? Probably something that would’ve cost the film that PG rating.

Under Mother’s (and Father’s) Watchful Eye

Oddly, even though she was confined to a tower for the better part of eighteen years, Rapunzel may have been freer there than after she returned home. For whatever reason, it sounds like Gothel gave her a fairly well-rounded education and didn’t really care how she spent her days as long as it didn’t damage her hair and she didn’t leave the tower. Yet everything I’ve ever read suggests that the life of a princess is terribly constrained. She’d probably get to continue painting—and I’m guessing she won’t miss the housework—but what if she enjoyed cooking? And no more wild adventures! Only days after she’s laid eyes on a man and she’s fallen in love with one who happens to be on a ream’s worth of wanted posters . . . yes, that’ll reassure her parents no end. Gothel locked Rapunzel in a tower because she didn’t want to lose her personal fountain of youth, but after having lost their child for years, what are the chances that the king and queen will ever let her out of the castle without an armed guard ?

The Aging Dilemma

Admittedly, if you’ve just spent an entire film using the fear of aging as the villain’s primary motivation, then you probably want to depict aging as a scary thing. But would it have been so bad to make the queen look old enough to be her mother rather than her older sister? Yes, a delicate streak of white in her hair would probably have been too much to ask, although I think it could have worked as something to show that the queen—the good mother—wasn’t insanely terrified of what clearly pushed Gothel—the bad mother—over the edge. I suppose my seeing this on my birthday didn’t help matters. I figure the queen might be semi-close to me in age. I assure you, I do not look that young. Honestly, they didn’t have to make her look like a fairy godmother (what passes for a positive view of feminine aging in a Disney movie), just not like she was in her twenties.

Progress, yes, but . . .

[While I don’t think what I’m about to say contains major spoilers, if you haven’t seen Monsters vs. Aliens and you’re planning to, you might not want to read further. Do come back when you’ve seen it, though.]

I went to see Monsters vs. Aliens this morning. Understand, I didn’t go in expecting anything more than cheery animated action for 1½ hours, and that’s mostly what I got–in 3D, even. Unfortunately for my peace of mind, my mindless escapism has triggered observations and thoughts.

Now I admit to feeling a bit grumpy as the movie started. I’d just sat through a whole passel of previews. Some were intriguing, some weren’t (no way am I going to Land of the Lost, but Up has potential). One thing they had in common, though, was that they were about men and/or boys. If there was a woman in the movie, she was the love interest or a sidekick. Also, there was just one woman per movie. I’d seen one preview of Monsters vs. Aliens, enough to know that there was going to be one woman and a bunch of guys–and the fact that the woman was fifty feet tall and the guys weren’t human wasn’t really changing the situation. I probably wouldn’t have let this get to me except that I’m reading The Feminine Mystique right now, and I’m sensitized to these things.

But after a while, between the explosions and witty comments and things apparently flying out of the screen onto the audience, it finally sank in that Susan, the fifty-foot-tall woman, was the star of the show. The guys were the sidekicks. It was Susan who saved the day, Susan who figured out her fiancé wasn’t worth the effort, Susan who came to wonderful conclusions about how capable she was. Betty Friedan probably would’ve been ecstatic about this film, even if she wasn’t into sf.

And that’s the problem. The Feminine Mystique was first published in 1963, forty-six years ago. It shouldn’t be this relevant today, damn it. I should be able to take it for granted. I shouldn’t be stunned by seeing its themes in an sf film and marvelling at how rare that is. I’m thrilled that they were there, yes, but Monsters vs. Aliens isn’t likely to be a classic seen through the ages. Will other movies pick up on this? In all genres? When?

Oh, and Susan was the only main female character. Sigh.