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The Downside of the Sexy Urban Fantasy Cover

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

My first leap into the world of adult urban fantasy was Patricia Briggs’ Moon Called, the first novel in the Mercy Thompson series.  A kick-ass heroine?  Supernatural creatures?  Action and character development?  I was hooked.

I instantly started recommending the book to other people; I even wrote about it here on CC2K.  But I always felt the need to warn people about the cover.  Although Mercy is a low-key, jeans-and-tee kind of woman, the cover doesn’t depict her as such.  Instead, the cover model is all cleavage and sleeve tattoos—in my mind, totally the antithesis of the Mercy you see in the book.

Don’t get me wrong: the cover art for the Mercy books is always beautiful.  (I’m particularly fond of the Bone Crossed cover, the fourth in the series.)  And obviously it must have worked: having never read an urban fantasy before, something motivated me to pick up Moon Called.  (I think it was the tattoos.  I have an affinity for cool body art.)  But as a woman, it always bothered me to see her character so blatantly sexualized on the cover.  Maybe it wouldn’t have, if Mercy was that kind of character herself.  But instead, she’s a woman trying to make her way in a male-dominated career, and trying to maintain her identity and independence in a world of more powerful supernatural creatures.  The “sexy mechanic” image on the covers is total anathema to everything Mercy’s character represents.

And it’s a common theme in urban fantasy novels.  I can’t tell you how many urban fantasy covers I’ve come across where the cover model looks like a dominatrix at an S&M club, when the character written in the book is nothing like that.  (And on a related subject, why is it that so many urban fantasy covers feature heroines in revealing leather clothing?  I mean, I get that leather might give you more protection in a fight than, let’s say, polyester, but wouldn’t it limit your mobility?  Besides, the amount of exposed skin on these ensembles seems like a huge vulnerability.)

(Want to see more?  Check out this post from author Jim C. Hines “remaking” popular urban fantasy covers.  It proves my point, and it’s also hysterical.)

Before I go any farther, I’d like to say that I get the romance genre has been doing this for a long time; not much has changed since the days of the Fabio covers.  Even now, you can’t walk through the romance section at Barnes & Noble without seeing at least a dozen perfectly sculpted, shirtless male torsos—often with no heads. And while I don’t approve of this either, I can understand it a little bit better from a marketing perspective.  The primary consumers of romance novels are women.  But the primary consumer of urban fantasy novels—especially those with female protagonists—are also women.  Oogling a picture of a scantily clad male I can understand.  But why would a heterosexual female want to buy a book with a picture of a scantily clad, overly sexualized female on the cover?

I also get that book covers are going to feature attractive cover models no matter what.  The purpose of book covers is to sell books, and attractive people are going to sell more than unattractive ones.  But as women, we’re already bombarded with so many sexualized images and unattainable beauty ideals—in magazines, on television, even passing by a Victoria’s Secret at the mall.   Urban fantasy novels have been, for me, a space where I can retreat, where the female characters are as strong and independent as the male ones—not always easy to find, even in the world of books.

Rather than negate the messages of these books, I’d rather see cover art that reinforces it: strong, independent women who can take care of themselves, without exploiting their sexuality.

Author: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

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