Micro-aggression, sexism, and cover art: some thoughts.
But here's the thing.
When I go to the bookstore, half-naked women greet me in literally every section except for cozy mysteries. There are elegant half-naked women on action novels, waiting to be ravaged. There are misty, wistful half-naked women on YA novels, ready to embark on romantic adventures, probably while drowning. There are lots of half-naked women on science fiction and fantasy, many of them happy to show me their posteriors. And this doesn't even touch on the comic book store, where there are so many half-naked women that I barely even notice them anymore. Once I stopped expecting puberty to give me a figure like Dazzler or Illyana Rasputin, I just tuned all the thrusting hips and pointy boobs out, like the white noise that they were.
I don't actually know very many women who go "Oh, oh, I gotta get me a book with a naked chick on the cover." I do know a lot of women who are uncomfortable with those naked chicks, and who try to avoid reading books with naked chicks on them in public. I had a few people get angry on my behalf when the cover of Discount Armageddon was released, before they realized that I had petitioned for that image, and that it was an intentional send-up of certain cheesecake conventions. And without speaking for any other authors, I am the only one I know of who actually said to her publisher, "Hey, you know what would be awesome? If my smart, strong, savvy, heavily-armed protagonist was in a miniskirt." (DAW took this in stride, by the way, which was hysterical when you consider that my one cover request for the Toby books was "Can she be wearing clothes?")
I also don't know many, if any, women who defend the often exaggerated and impossible anatomy that shows up on these covers. In fact, women tend to decry it, and when I have heard defense, it's mostly come from men. These are very general statements, and I know that: I am not trying to imply that all men love plastic spines and thighs the length of torsos. Jim Hines, for example, has done some excellent deconstruction of these covers, recreating them in the physical world (as much as he can) to demonstrate just how ludicrous they are. And if you think I'm exaggerating, I invite you to Google the phrase "Escher girls," and see how incredibly much oversexualized, anatomically questionable art makes it onto the cover of books and comics.
So it seems likely that the intended audience for the half-naked women is largely male. Okay. As a bisexual woman, I like looking at pretty girls, and I don't see anything wrong with men liking to look at pretty girls. When I sit on the train, I should see dozens of men reading books with half-naked women on them, right? Because they're trained to the male gaze, so they should attract it, right?
The single most common critique I received of the cover for Discount Armageddon was from male readers saying they could not read the physical book in public. And while I think anyone should be able to read anything they want to without feeling ashamed, this critique does raise a question about who the half-naked women are actually for, if guys don't want to be associated with them.
I was recently involved in an online "cover battle," where people voted for their favorite cover of 2012. It was super-fun, and I made it to the finals, where the cover of Discount Armageddon was rightfully defeated by the cover of Chuck Wendig's fantastic Blackbirds (which you should read if you haven't already). Except maybe I'm exaggerating a little when I say that it was super-fun, because for me, the fun started dying when people started leaving nasty comments about my cover.
"Wow, so garbage made in Poser consisting of a scantily clad woman in thigh-highs is winning over that beautiful piece of art on the Wendig book."
"WHY IS DISCOUNT ARMAGEDDON WINNING? D: When did we start liking slutty girls in miniskirts holding guns and swords, Dragonites? WHEN?"
Even some of the site text was faintly shaming, with comments like "because of our male readership massively voting for the sexy cheerleader chick" when trying to deduce why my (fantastic, thank you Aly) cover was still in the running. (The site text was updated after Chuck stated that my cover was still in the fight because it was a damn fine urban fantasy cover. The text was, in fact, updated to quote Chuck directly. I love Chuck.)
But let me tell you, shit like that? Harshes my squee real fucking fast. Thanks for the assumption that a girl in a miniskirt must be slutty, commenter! Thanks for calling it garbage, other commenter! Thanks for making me feel like I don't get to be a real author because I wrote a book where the main character can accurately be depicted by the cover image I asked for and received.
Riddle me this, o world. If women mostly don't ask for half-naked girls on book covers, if most book covers seem geared to the male gaze, whether rightly or wrongly, then why is it men stepping up to call those covers garbage, and to call the women who grace them slutty? Why is my cover getting slut-shamed by someone who doesn't know the girl in that picture, doesn't know who she is or why that image is an accurate one? It's like the art is awesome as long as it's on a closet door, but if you're asked to like it in public, it's time to throw out a few micro-aggressions to keep people from thinking you're "that kind" of person.
I want every book to have an accurate cover. If I open a book with a half-naked girl on it, I want that half-naked girl to be inside. I want to read those books while proudly proclaiming to anyone who sees them in my hands, "I have a book with a half-naked woman in it." I want everyone reading everything, and I don't want any more of this "these are the covers that sell, so these are the covers you'll get, but no one's ever going to admit to liking them." And part of this is going to be dialing back the crappy anatomy and the questionable sexuality. If the characters keep their clothes on in the text, they should do it on the cover, too. If the characters get naked, they should still be painted or photoshopped to look like people, not plastic nightmares with eleven-inch waists (unless they're wasps or something).
And let's stop slut-shaming fictional characters based on a single picture. It's not fair to the books, it's not fair to the authors, and it's not fair to the readers who might be waiting to fall in love with them.
We should be better than this.