I asked a psychologist why "Drowning in a Dress" and "Butterfly in a Jar" are used to sell books to women.
This post originally appeared on VICE Australia
The other day I was in Big W, trying to buy a book for my mum, when I noticed something odd in the book section. Save for an few minor tweaks, every single "women's book" seemed to have almost exactly the same cover.
On display were lots of "Woman Wearing a Ridiculously Large and Frilly Dress." There were also quite a few "Woman Wearing a Ridiculously Large and Frilly Dress While Swimming," "Woman With Windy Hair," and "Empty Swing in a Sad Garden." But my favourite had to be "Butterfly in a Jar."
What did these strange motifs mean? I wanted to understand what corner of the female psyche publishers are ruthlessly exploiting to sell books to my mum, and other women. So I called up a psychologist, but not just any old psychologist. Sydney-based psychologist Emma Fitz-Gerald also has a degree in creative writing.
VICE: First off, tell me why publishers are buying so heavily into the notion that women only want to read about dresses.
Emma Fitz-Gerald: Well you're not looking at the highest end of society. You are looking at what are considered sort of trashy, cheap novels, so you're going to get your Herald Sun kind of plodge mainstream. It's not nuanced.
So let's be clear, what's your opinion on these covers?
These are an excellent and stupid set of covers.
What's going on with the butterflies in jars?
It looks like an incredibly heavy-handed metaphor to me, and I'm a bit upset that it's used so consistently across so many covers. I am guessing that what they're going for is something about the fragility of life—being trapped in this jar. There are elements of cruelty to it as well, because someone's obviously put the butterfly in the jar, and has the power to let them out, but doesn't.
The butterfly is like the flower of insects. It's an easy way to say, This is a very beautiful thing. Putting a butterfly in a jar when all it wants to do is fly is a bit, you know, like putting a bird in a cage. It's a beautiful thing, denied freedom.
What about these big dress ones? These look more like romance novels to me.
Yeah, this is more classic romance. The women on these covers all look like somebody who'd get pursued by men. I mean there's one who is literally running away, so I don't know how nice that is... But their faces are inviting, their body language is generally inviting. You can look at that and think, yes I am comfortable with the romance that's going to occur in this novel.
So the vibe is more positive than the butterflies?
There's something uplifting in these photos. I don't think you'd call it empowering, but the images are comfortably leaning towards feminine. Also these dresses seem quite old, which takes it back to when men were men, and women were women. It's a bit easier to write in that time period when you're trying to write for the mainstream.
I think the darker ones, like those first three, would be targeted at an older woman who's had the marriage and had the relationship. The ones with the bigger dresses can be marketed at anybody who hasn't even been in a relationship yet. It's a bland cover, but it's comfortable.
What about women flailing underwater?
I think it's drawing pretty heavily on Shakespeare's Ophelia, and all that iconography that goes around her. [These ones seem] like there's a romance gone too far... the love is so intense and these women are drowning in it, or they've gone mad from love.
I don't know what's appealing about these covers though. Like who looks at this and thinks "I want the one with the drowning girl!"?
Some of them look like they're moving up, so they're "coming out" of the water. The one that's the bottom middle and she's coming up out of the water, like it looks like she's pushing her way up to get into the air. It's also called Poseidon, and the Poseidon Adventure was a boat that sank, so I don't know what's going on there.
What about these ones—these chicks are radicals, surely?
The first thing I thought was they're all models and rock stars, because they're the ones always standing in wind. There's something about hair being caught in wind that makes them seem kind of wild. They're still beautiful but there's this edge to them, they don't care if their hair is out of place and that makes them cool. It's like Beyonce always walking around with the wind pushing in front of her, so I quite like these covers.
Why are all these book covers so similar, is there some sort of psychological appeal for women in particular?
I think you'd get the same kind of uniformity if you looked at the covers of James Bond novels too. You get predictability because the inside is fairly predictable as well. The outside of a James Bond novel might have a picture of Bond, and there's probably going to be a gun, there's probably going to be a woman. These motifs tell the reader that you'll get exactly what you're expecting.
[It's the] same on Mills & Boon novels as well. They want to draw the reader in but the reader is already going to buy the book. So they're not necessarily looking at the cover thinking, "Oh, I wonder what this one's about?" All they're going to get in terms of differentiation is: this one's got a cowboy in it, that one's got a business man.
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