Faceless women unite

9 July 2013

0623-Schama-articleLargeWhat a clever insight Chloë Schama makes in her recent NYT Book Review essay, “Show Some Spine”: faceless women are ubiquitous on book covers these days, and they’re not just limited to so-called chick lit. When they are not figured from behind on covers such as these, women appear as headless on many book covers, Schama notes.

What are we to make of this? is it a celebration of how beautiful a woman’s back can be? a nonspecific gesture to female content? a subtle indication that the book will talk about sex and bodies? Schama asks good questions, most of which focus on whether the covers are “more inadvertent than pernicious.” 

She does not articulate, however, how this kind of image might be pernicious. I’m less concerned with any specific cover than the mass of these faceless women.

Look, for example, at all those calico dresses being worn by faceless women on covers.

The long hair, which faceless women usually like to pull up.

The natural settings: beaches, hilltops, water.

Apparently we prefer our generic faceless women to be as unthreatening as possible, kindly turning away from us to shield us from their thoughts and emotions. Only then will a female image draw us in to the text of a book.

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3 Responses to “Faceless women unite”

  1. Servetus Says:

    you know about the phenomenon of the headless fatty, no?

  2. Becky Says:

    Looks like a fad to me. Probably brought about by lazy book jacket artists and frugal book publishers. I didn’t get the impression it had any underlying meaning. Am I missing something?

    • Didion Says:

      I believe that widespread trends like this are always worthy of comment. Is it a conspiracy? Of course not. But cultural critics find memes, trends, patterns in all manner of media and use it as fodder for discussion. For me, all the more reason to comment in that it’s one more site in which women’s bodies are used to sell media.

      I agree with you, Becky, that this may be the lazy book jacket artist’s way to cover a book. But there are lots of lazy ways to get a cover on. It’s worth asking why this particular kind of image — the faceless woman — and why it seems to appeal to those lazy artists.

      Some of my favorite serious academic writing has similarly focused on previously unnoticed memes or trends (and has done a far more serious job of unpacking them); cultural studies is full of examples. I would be nowhere with Geertz.

      I also know that sometimes treatments like these can appear unimportant to some readers (not you, Becky, but another reader who posted a particularly vicious ad hominem attack on me). But just think about Jessica Valenti’s terrific piece on “Sad White Babies with Mean Feminist Mommies,” which displayed and unpacked the visuals surrounding the “You can’t have it all” thread in various media. Visuals matter. They have meaning.


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