Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Girlwashing Pt. 1: Or, look at that pretty dress on the cover

First up, don't forget the cover contest.  I'm posting entries as I receive them on the Facebook page!

I don't advise you to google that term unless you want to see a whole lot of videos of car washes.  Girlwashing is a term that I coined with the help of the lovely and talented Kalen O'Donnell.  Basically it encompasses that dreaded topic that gets brought up again and again when talking YA lit: is it girl-centric?  Are there enough stories for boys?  Are girls with pretty dresses on covers turning off male readers?  Are we GIRLWASHING YA?

And if we are, is it a bad thing?

I intended to write this post last week and then I realized it wasn't one post, it was a couple of them.  Maybe 3 or 12.  I'm not really sure.  You see, I have a lot to say on this topic.  But today, I'm focusing on covers.

We wait for them.  We drool over them.  We devote entire posts to their beautyousness.  And I will be the first to admit that when I see a cover with a girl in a pretty dress on the cover, it catches my eye.  But then inevitably, Kalen and I have this conversation:

Me: Did you see the cover for Must Have New Book of April?

Kalen: Yeah.

Me: What did you think?

Kalen: It's really pretty.

Me:  I agree.  I thought it was _____ (insert steampunk, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, other though).

Kalen: Yeah, it is.  Apparently there isn't a shortage of ballgowns though.

Then Kalen will inevitably read the book before I get to it, because he is unencumbered by minions, and I'll ask:

Does she wear that dress in the book?

Kalen: No, she spends most of her time in rags in a basement caught in a nuclear winter.

Me: Huh.  Well, it's a pretty dress.

Does this conversation sound familiar to anyone else?  I'm not saying it's a bad thing.  I'm actually pretty neutral on the topic of covers and girlwashing.  But I am not the norm.  It seems like most bloggers/readers/writers/editors/agents have definite opinions on the topic of girlwashing.  I see Waiting on Wednesday after Waiting on Wednesday post filled with girl in pretty dresses covers.  Then I watch debate after debate via twitter about how all these pretty covers are alienating boys.

I have to pause to say something that I will come back to later on: If a picture of a girl in a dress causes a boy not to pick up a book or makes him scared to be seen reading it, we have much bigger problems than pretty covers, people.

Back to the topic at hand, girlwashing seems rampant when you walk through the YA section and check out the covers.  Are publishers trying to girlwash YA?  Are we marking YA as girl territory?  And when did books become so gender-centric anyway?  What think you, dear readers?

I have so much more to say on this topic, but I want to let the idea percolate with you for a bit.  Next I think we shall talk about male v. female sections of the bookstore and where YA stands (be prepared for me to put on my WGST hat!).

And please click that little comment button and tell me what you think!


  1. I read between one and two books per week, mainly crime fiction but am reading more diverse fiction/non fiction of late. I have a first degree in contempory literature gained in my mid 30's. A book cover, to me, should express the 'feel/mood' of the content. A cover showing a 'pretty dress' just because it is a nice image, with no relevance to the content, would be like putting a review on the back cover relating to a different genre book i.e. misleading and of no practical use. Perhaps book covers should conform to advertising standards and not mislead the purchaser, it's a thought.

  2. I don't mind it if it is relevant to the story. However, I definitely don't want it for my book. My agent hasn't sold my book yet(we go out on submission soon) and if it does sell that is one thing I'm pretty adamant about. I would want a gender-neutral book cover, preferably a cover with no people on it at all!

  3. I'd have to agree with Mindy. I would want a gender neutral cover for my novel. Although it's a romance, it has lots of adventure and my male betas have enjoyed it. I wouldn't want the cover to deter any potential readers. Teenagers in general are very conscious of what their peers think of them. Some boys will get razzed by his friends for reading a book they assume is "girly" simply because of the "girly" cover.

  4. There are a TON of girls depicted on YA covers. I'm not sure if that accurately reflects the majority of readers, the kind of readers publishers want to attract or just another nod to the whole "pretty-girls-always sell" marketing philosophy.

    In addition to them dominating covers, there also seems to be strong tendency to make them look dead or nearly so. Rachel Stark pointed that out on her blog:

  5. Melissa Brady KingFebruary 9, 2012 at 3:34 AM

    I agree with the above readers who want the cover to reflect the mood of the book. A pretty image might catch my attention but it just makes me angry when I realize it has nada to do with what's inside. I also read a lot of historical, and I can't stand when the cover model's image looks like a 2012 cover of Glamour magazine. Good post!

  6. This is an incredibly interesting discussion. I read pretty widely, and I've noticed the 'girlwashing' trend in YA covers lately (awesome term) and I do make assumptions about those books. I often assume that book isn't for me (and I'm a girl.) Book covers sometimes pander to the lowest common denominator - after all, the cover is a marketing tool - so even if the story is about strength and resilience and survival, even if the girl in the book lives 100 miles from the nearest ballroom, the prom dress makes an appearance. I don't know what the answer is, though, to get boys reading these books, books that really are gender neutral, because the reader is becoming used to seeing these pretty covers and associating them with the kinds of stories they've already read. So the trend self propagates. There's another aspect to cover art and that is how the book looks to peers. When a boy is choosing a book that his friends will see him read, which will he choose? A book with a girl in a gown on the cover or a non fiction book about sports or music? Sometimes the image is unfortunately stronger than the content.
    phew - sorry for the long rant!

  7. Well, I will warn those of you in the submission trenches, that you know how they say you get little input on your cover? Yeah, that's true. Now I've had friends who got asked what their favorite covers looked like and I've seen people fight for a different cover, but generally at the expense of a friendly relationship with the publisher. In my case, I was sent some ideas, I responded with feedback, but I was told which one would be my cover and that was that. I'll be very interested to see what you all think of it. I don't think it's girlwashed.

    That said, I do think there are certain houses that trend toward girlwashing, which is something to keep in mind if you wind up at auction and it's something that really matters to you.

    Of course, it could be worse, we could all get stuck with covers from the 70s and 80s O_O

  8. I'm wondering if The Hunger Games would have had as high of gender crossover if they'd put Katniss on the cover in a dress instead of having the awesome symbol thing on the cover. I kind of doubt it.

  9. My brother says he avoids books with girls on the cover because he's doesn't want to pick up a romance title by mistake. If someone screens the book for him, or vouches it's just a regular story, then he has no problem with girls on the cover.