The Cooties of Girly Books

Yesterday on Huffington Post, there was a feature article about author Maureen Johnson calling for an end to gendered book covers, along with several examples of woman-ified book covers and, I guess, their gender neutral counterparts. From what I understand, some guy friend of hers complained about the girly covers of her books, so there is a discussion of “girl books” and “boy books” and the stupidity of such a thing.

You know, because books are for everyone.

Here’s the thing: in calling for an end to the feminine cover or the chick-lit cover, it seems like we’re saying that the feminine is bad on principle. We’re also saying, it seems, that the non-feminine book cover is gender neutral. In looking at the book covers in the HuffPo piece, I have to wonder if they’re gender neutral, or if they’re masculine, but we’re pretending they’re gender neutral. Or, I suppose, redefining gender neutral as masculine. And we’re also defining normative femininity.

Am I reading a lot into this? Maybe. But it does matter. Do the book covers for Johnson’s Little Blue Envelope series perform gender in a certain way? Sure. No question. Smiling girl, pretty in a very tan, wholesome, and typical way–thin, long hair, manicured nails, etc. And if you look at the feminized book covers as part of the coverflip, women are defined with curlique fonts, lipstick, emotional photography, flowers, and soft covers.

I don’t see myself in those covers. My teenage self wouldn’t have seen herself in those covers.

Does it matter? I’ve read a few of Johnson’s books despite the feminized covers. I haven’t yet caught cooties from them. So what’s the deal with a guy who can’t read a book with a girly book cover? My first thought isn’t, “Oh, we need to retire the chick lit-esque book covers.” It’s, “Gee, that guy needs to have a little more confidence in his masculinity.” You generally don’t see women making a big deal out of reading something with a masculine cover, whatever that might look like.

Do I wish publishers wouldn’t gender books with their cover choices? Yes, absolutely. And yet I think we needs to explore the semiotics of gender performance, too, and ask what’s wrong with guys who have such problems with the feminine. Maybe it’s not related at all, but my brain keeps going to this Jezebel article about the purity myth. Boners may not be the boss of me as a woman, yet neither is the vagina.