There’s a lot of talk going around about book marketing (especially YA) and how to make books appealing to a wide audience. The consensus, as far as I can see, is that books “for boys” (meaning, not explicitly “for girls”) can have whatever they want on the cover — explosions, dragons, heroes, swords — but books “for girls” should not have anything distinctly feminine — “girly” colour schemes, pictures of women.
The argument is not that YA book covers with anorexic models on them may be a bad idea for girls as well, or that a lot of covers with people on them just look sort of tacky, regardless of sex. The argument is that covers with girls on them will chase away the boys. Whereas no one ever says anything about male fantasy novels where the women always have enormous breasts and armour that wouldn’t protect against a safety pin, never mind a sword.
Leaving aside the notion that boys are overlooked as an advertising demographic, which is a debate in itself, it is true that boys are stigmatized for reading “girly” books much more than girls are for reading “boyish” ones. This also holds true for clothes — very few people try to argue that women shouldn’t wear pants, but how many men do you see wearing skirts and not getting heckled — and films — try being a straight man alone in a chick flick theatre and having your buddies find out.
This naturally leads to the argument that society punishes boys much more harshly for liking things in the female demographic, so female-oriented media must tailor itself away from being overtly “feminine” to avoid unnecessary narrowing of the market. The reverse problem doesn’t exist, because society doesn’t stigmatize girls who like boys’ things as much.
I’ve had this argument a few times now, and couldn’t put my finger on why it sat so badly with me. I think I’ve finally figured it out.
The problem is that the social stigma is not actually against guys who like girly stuff, nor is it in favour of girls who like guys’ stuff. The stigma is against anything perceived as “for girls”, regardless of who likes it.
Girls are allowed to like guys’ stuff because it’s the superior product. Being a girl who likes guys’ things means you have taste, and you’re somehow cooler and more forward-thinking and more stereotype-decrying than those girls who like chick flicks or read books about women who can’t get a boyfriend and love shopping.
Guys, on the other hand, are criticized for liking girl stuff (books, movies, clothes) because “girl stuff” is decidedly inferior. Likewise, girls who like girly things get dismissed both by men and by certain schools of feminists — including me, for years, until I realized what I was doing.
“Guy stuff” is not actually guy stuff, people argue, but can be enjoyed by anyone — the idea that a woman can’t love a movie about cars and explosions is generally accepted to be untrue. “Guy stuff” transcends gender. But “girl stuff” is just for girly-girls and gay men, so straight guys — and girls who want people to take them seriously — should stay away.
“Girly” media is the lesser product — that is, until it acquires enough of a male fan base to “legitimize” it and remove its “femaleness” (like Star Trek, or The Hunger Games). The reverse is also true — despite the overwhelming number of insanely successful male chefs, cooking is still seen as “girly”, so it gets dismissed.
The problem is not that boys get made fun of for reading things about or “for” girls; the problem is that things about or “for” girls are seen as something that a boy should be made fun of for liking. The problem is not that boys are embarrassed to read something with a girl on the cover; the problem is that society tells boys they should be embarrassed.
The solution to the perceived marketing problem is not to remove women from the cover of books with female leads so they can sell. It’s not to re-market Rapunzel as “Tangled”, to make it more about Flynn Rider, to splash him on all the promo materials and have him, not Rapunzel, narrate the trailer, because boys won’t watch “princess movies”.
The solution is to stop supporting a culture where books and movies have to disguise their female leads in order to sell. Telling boys — and girls! — they should be ashamed to read something with a girl on the cover is not the way to do this.
A friend here in Japan pointed out that it must be a cultural thing, because books and manga in Japan are littered with “girly”-looking covers and boys have no problem reading those. The “boys won’t read something with girls on it” is an artificial construct. If Japan — an intensely gender-segregated society in many ways — can get over that in marketing, and realize that books with girls sell just as well as books with giant robots, then why can’t we?