When I began soliciting artists interesting in creating the covers for At The Walls Of Galbrieth and The First Decree, I asked the artists for a rendering of Mhari, an elfe (politically correct term for female elf in Odessiya) who would become the first teacher of my protagonist, Seanchai.
I explained that she was old but vibrant, tough but wise, and I waited for the examples. Every one of the four artists produced sexy, buxom female warriors. I realize that sex sells – I considered moving to T-Mobile because of the woman in the advert not her motorbike, helicopter or the beautiful color purple (okay I am partial to motorbikes and purple, but lets stay on topic…) – but these are YA books.
Hines produced a series of great photos in which he poses in similar positions to scantily-clad women on book covers. Mr. Hines wasn’t against showing some skin himself.
“The way women are portrayed is just so ridiculous, so often, you just stop seeing it,” Hines says. “I think posing has made people see it again – you see how ridiculous it is when a 38-year-old fantasy writer is doing it.”
Hines began posting his poses at the beginning of 2012 and they quickly became the most visited. This gave him the idea to create a series to raise money for research to help fight Aicardi Syndrome, a genetic disorder, and he has raised over $15,000 to date.
The issue of depicting women in fantasy art in a sexual way is nothing new and, in fact, quite rampant in role playing games like D&D. Tracey Hurley, co-founder of Prismatic Art Collection, has commented: “Women are so often portrayed assuming that a stereotypical hetero male is going to be the person looking at the cover, … Male characters [are] powerful and strong, and women’s sexuality will be emphasised. And why is that a problem? It’s constraining for both men and women.”
I find this really depressing. I guess I expected something different from a genre free of stereotypical constraints because it creates its own reality. This is all the more disappointing when dealing with Young Adult literature because of the target audience. I wonder whether a scantily-dressed, thin, and cleavage-heavy woman might also be a turn-off for young women, conscious of their own body-type. Add to this that most of the women portrayed are white and I am left wondering if this explains why less teenage women read fantasy. I also think it explains the success of The Hunger Games, though the promo photos for the movie also follow the concept.
It is not enough to just thrust a sword in her hand or dress her in a chain mail bikini to project strong images of women, nor is the cover of the book enough to reinforce strong, positive female values.
While my protagonist is a male, I made sure to add strong female characters, who are indispensable to his quest. I believe I showed them as more than equal warriors, each with her own special character. I needed prodding with this, I admit, and even changed Seanchai’s teacher from a man to a woman. Interestingly, it opened up a number of exciting avenues.
Authors are powerful influencers in the community, and even more so when writing for a Young Adult market. But power comes with responsibility and we have a role to play in shaping the next generation of thinkers, leaders, and innovators.
Even though many of us write about different worlds and kingdoms, let’s help make this world a better place.
Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. The First Decree is due out in March 2013.