Thursday, August 25, 2011

Whipping Girl FAQ: the necklace issue

originally posted on LJ 11-24-07
Whipping Girl FAQ: the necklace issue

So a couple of people have asked me about the cover of my book Whipping Girl (which is pasted at the bottom of this post) – specifically the fact that the woman in the photo is putting on a necklace. Their concern stems from the fact that in the book I critique how media depictions of trans women often show them putting on feminine clothing and accessories. I make the case that the media relies on our societal assumption that femininity itself is artificial and contrived in order to portray trans women’s femaleness as inherently “fake.”

So if the media depicts trans women in the act of putting on feminine accoutrement in order to emphasize our supposed fakeness, why would I do the same with my book cover?

Well, the first thing that needs to be said is that while book covers should reflect the content of the book, they are also (from the publisher’s perspective) a major part of how the book gets marketed. In fact, most book contracts for first time authors are set up so that the publisher – and the publisher alone – gets to choose the book cover (as well as the title). I personally know several writers who were not particularly thrilled with the title or cover chosen for their book, but there was nothing they could do about it.

Thankfully, I asked Seal for veto rights for the cover, which they gave me. We had conversations about what I definitely did *not* want. Most trans-themed books have one of two covers: the dreaded half-man/half-woman image or the hyperfeminine figure in high heels, dress and make-up. Both of these images go against the main themes of the book: that trans women *are* women and that femininity can be natural for those who gravitate toward it on their own accord. This second point raised a dilemma for us, because we wanted the cover to evoke femininity without playing into the idea that femininity is artificial or merely performance. I am not a visual person and I honestly had no good idea how to convey that, so I left it up to them.

Seal hired someone to work on the cover based on our guidelines. They came up with three different versions. One was dreadful, one was kind of neat but not a good match for the book, and the third was the one we went with. What I liked most about that cover was the fact that you don’t ever see the woman’s face. There’s this double bind with images of trans women where if the woman in question has masculine features, it plays into the idea that we are “really men,” but if she looks unquestionably feminine, then people often mystify her (wondering what medical procedures made such a change possible) or sexualize her (wanting to hear about her sexual motives or exploits). I felt that the fact that you can’t see the woman’s face might make the viewer more aware of the expectations and assumptions they have about trans women. This was perfect as the book discusses the ways in which trans women are regularly perceived and stereotyped in our culture.

The other thing that both Seal and I liked about the cover was that the image conveyed femininity without seeming overly contrived. The woman looks feminine, but doesn’t seem to be putting on a costume or an act for someone else. I immediately noticed that she was putting on a necklace and that sort of bothered me (for the reasons stated above), but it wasn’t super-high-femme or anything. It didn’t look “fake” to me. While it wasn’t optimal, overall what I liked about the cover outweighed the necklace issue. Seal was happy with it too, and since I didn’t have any better ideas, we went with it.

Interestingly, just before my book came out, two other trans-themed books came out that depict MTF spectrum folks putting on feminine accessories: Helen Boyd’s book She's Not the Man I Married (which depicts Betty putting on earrings) and Transparent (which depicts someone putting on eyeliner). Both books are very respectful of trans people and experiences and I highly doubt the covers were done that way to purposely show trans people as fake. I think it is more of an unconscious thing where book publishers recognize that imagery as compelling without recognizing how it can undermine trans identities.


[note: If you appreciate this essay and want to see more like it, please check out my Patreon page]

1 comment:

  1. Just found your site when I entered a inquiry for your book. Based on the short synopsis here I look forward to reading it after I get my order shipped. Much of what you refer to I have experienced to some degree. I truly hope your book lessens the misconceptions out there to some degree. The fact of my being a military veteran of over 20 years I suspect had a strong impact on my experiences. I am a transgender woman so a lot of what you write about I experienced but could never make it as clear as what your book promises to do.