Competence is hot

By now everybody and their brother has probably seen the post by (SF Novelists’ own) Jim Hines, wherein he attempts to pose like the women on the covers of some fantasy novels. The results are suitably absurd — not because there’s anything wrong with Jim, but because there’s something wrong with the covers. He caused himself actual physical pain, trying to replicate some of those poses.

Ah, you say, but Jim Hines is a writer, a class of people known for their sedentary lifestyle. Those heroines are probably all in fantastic shape, the better to kick supernatural ass.

Okay, I’ll see your counter-argument, and raise you a link I meant to post before Jim beat me to it. :-P A fabulous lady on Tumblr made her own pair of posts on the topic, complaining about the ridiculous contortions of women in superhero comics. That lady? Is a highly-trained martial artist and contortionist. (No, really. There are pictures to prove it. I’m “thirteen years of ballet training” flexible, but some of the pics of her make me wince.)

And she says these poses are stupid.

Sure, comic books are way worse than we are over here with our fantasy novel covers. (Like that’s anything to be proud of.) But it’s all part and parcel of the same thing, which is the notion that depictions of women must put T&A on display.

We can come up with all kinds of specious justifications for it. Leather is practical! Wonder Woman can’t have her mobility restricted by pants! Gameplay requires that Elizabeth stand out somehow! (Apparently “somehow” = “breasts.”) What it boils down to, though, is the knee-jerk habit we have in our society, of using women’s bodies to market things. Books, comic books, video games, movies, cars, Axe body spray, anything and everything. Because women are sexy, and sex sells.

Here’s the thing. You get people claiming that giving Elizabeth blatant cleavage in Bioshock Infinite “broadens its appeal” — and that’s a quote from the article criticizing the decision. Even the guy who’s on my side unthinkingly parrots the party line, that everybody likes boobs. But I don’t find that kind of thing hot, and not just because I’m a straight woman.

What do I find hot? Competence.

Contrast the tumblr Escher Girls (WARNING: pics there often not safe for work, or sanity) with Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor. As far as I’m concerned, the latter wins, hands-down. Or take a look at blogger Anna’s response to Jim’s post, where she contrasts the poses of men and women on book covers. There’s just no competition. One set says “competence and strength;” the other does not. One attracts me to the people depicted; the other drives me away.

What puzzles me is the fact that these urban fantasy covers are almost always on books written by female authors, for a largely female readership. Romance, which is comparable in terms of authorship and readership, doesn’t look like that; they do have a percentage of scantily-clad women, badly-posed on the covers, but they also have all the beefcake you could want and more. I understand the message of those covers: imagine you look like this, and a guy who looks like that wants you more than anything in the world. But the urban fantasy? Imagine yourself contorted in this uncomfortable position, holding a sword like you don’t know what to do with it. That isn’t a message that draws me in.

Do these covers actually appeal to women? It seems like they must, or publishers wouldn’t use them . . . but I’m not sure it’s that simple. At this point, they definitely work in terms of advertising “this book is an urban fantasy!,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean the underlying appeal is very strong. Possibly it’s a move designed to attract male readers, who otherwise might not pick the book up. I don’t actually know. I just know it doesn’t work for me, at all. I was pretty happy with the original cover for my first novel — she’s (almost) fully clothed, standing in a reasonable position, and holding that sword like she knows how to use it — but I love the cover for the reissue. The way she’s staring straight at you speaks of confidence and determination. And that will get my attention any day.

I meant for this post to go on and talk about competence some more, but I’ve already rambled on for quite a while, so we’ll call it quits for now and come back to this next month. I leave you with this post by an actual armorer, discussing how to do female armor wrong, and how to do it right. He, too, thinks the ridiculous crap isn’t nearly as sexy as more reasonable alternatives.

If only more artists and game designers agreed.

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  1. 1. Kathryn Scannell

    I think you may be missing a variable here, at least in the case of book covers – budget. As soon as you start having a cover with a photo base, rather than painted, particularly if it came from a smaller publisher, you may well be looking at something based on photos from a royalty-free stock photo site. For that matter, maybe the big guys are doing that now too – my direct experience doesn’t include them yet, so I don’t know.

    Once you get into using stock photos, you’re suddenly at the mercy of what poses the photographers chose to use for photos they’re putting up for sale on spec, and what your budget will cover. The photographer hopes to sell to multiple venues, so they pick lowest-common-denominator poses.

    I went through the process of picking photos for use in creating cover art for a free-read I’m going to offer, and it was a huge education. I was happy with the final result, but I’ve just about sworn off ever using people on a cover again. You can find one that has the right looks for the character, but the poses are all wrong. Or the pose is great, but the model is all wrong. Or they both work, but there’s no model release, so you can’t show the model’s face. At that point something close to looking right starts to be very attractive.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    While stock art definitely gets used, I don’t think it can be blamed for this pattern among major publishers (who are my primary targets when I talk about this kind of thing). For one thing, the publishers do sometimes arrange actual photo shoots for the cover; I can’t say how often that occurs, but I know it does happen. For another, lit-fic publishers also sometimes use stock art, and yet they manage to find all kinds of material that isn’t Women With Bare Midriffs In Uncomfortable Positions.

    At this point, WWBMIUP is the near-universal sign for urban fantasy, which means it’s now a cycle that feeds on itself. (I have no doubt that stock-art photographers are more likely to take these shots now, because they know there’s another distinct market for them.) But I don’t think it got started because it was all the publishers could find. And either way, I’m not a fan of it continuing.

  3. 3. Linda Adams

    The only explanation I can think of for the urban fantasy covers is that they’re to draw the male readers. I can’t see why women would want to buy a book based on them, other than the style identifying the type. I liked the early UF covers; despise the earlier ones.

    Competence isn’t just in the covers, though. It seems to be an attitude towards women, and unfortunately, the women writers are often the worst culprits. I also read a lot of thrillers, and it’s very hard to find a story with a competent woman. Woman protagonist, yes; competent — well, it makes me wonder whether the problem is the writer or the publisher, or both. The last book I read had a female protagonist and her male sidekick running from bad guys with guns. They run into the bathrooms, and sidekick thinks, “Let’s go into the women’s room. They won’t look there.” I kid you not — she spends the next several pages screeching at him about men in the ladies room. Later scenes had her doing really dumb things to put the pair in danger, and I finally had to put the book because she was so stupid.

  4. 4. Eric C.

    I wrote about Mr. Hines’s post on my website. It’s a bit too long for the comment window, but here’s the link:

    tldr; the poses likely do not attract readers, and as they become more ridiculous, they attract fewer readers.

  5. 5. Peter Last

    I looked at both websites that you had links to and I totally agree with you. I think that you’re wrong when you say that reasonable armor is “hotter” by use of the word “hot” but I definitely think that women in realistic armor and poses look better.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    Linda — Tune in next month, when I talk about what the characters actually do. :-) (It was supposed to be part of this post, but the visual end of the discussion went on long enough on its own.)

    Eric — Part of me agrees with you. Another part, though, says that any argument predicated on “publishers’ sales and marketing departments don’t know what they’re doing” is probably wrong. UF has sold in enormous quantities over the last five years or so, a lot of it to women; we can’t say what would have happened with a different cover style, but this one must be working in some fashion, or the subgenre would not have taken off so well. I just wish I understood what about it works for people. Is it just the appeal of seeing a woman as the focal, or often only, person on the cover? Maybe.

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Peter — sorry, got your comment out of the queue after responding to the others. I am being a little tongue-in-cheek when I say “hotter,” but not entirely; the final link in my post talks about how “unwrapped Christmas presents aren’t exciting,” and I do agree with that. Furthermore, some of these images — the comic-book stuff more than the book covers, because it’s drawn, and can therefore violate anatomical reality much more — just cross the line straight into creepy, which I don’t find hot at all.

    Mileage does, of course, vary.

  8. 8. Quara

    Someone did a similar thing (well, with ink and paper, at least) in response to the Avengers artwork that showed the lone female character in the typical ridiculous pose, and all the men in actual fighting stances. So someone reversed it with hilarious results. You can see it here:

    Interestingly it seems to have gotten a response, as all the rest of the promo art for Avengers features Black Widow in a reasonable pose.

  9. 9. Sam Graham

    Original for the above link by Quara:


    Absolutely they know what they’re doing, it’s the same thing that drives sales of magazines, simplistically put:

    If you want a magazine to sell well to men, you take any opportunity you can to fill it with semi-naked women; they will buy it because they aspire to have one of those women.

    If you want a magazine to sell well to women, you take any opportunity you can to fill it with semi-naked… women; they will buy it because they aspire to be one of those women.

    The same goes for advertising any product unfortunately, but magazines is the clearest example of it.

    And no, it doesn’t appeal to all men, or all women. If it doesn’t appeal to you though, you’ve already demonstrated that you’re more critical in your decision making and thus likely to be less easily influenced by marketing spend: chasing your interests is going to get less bang per marketing buck.

    It’s pure lowest-common denominator appeal, in every sense of the term.


  1. link: Competence is Hot | barb rude's blog
  2. SF Tidbits for 1/17/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog
  3. Competence is hot, part two at SF Novelists

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.



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