A plague of women’s backs


I read an interesting article in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review by Chloë Schama, in which she writes, “A plague of women’s backs is upon us in the book cover world.” Indeed, they are: just have a look at the array of covers shown in the article as examples. Schama details some possible reasons for this trend, but there is so much more to be said about it.

This may seem like a bit of a leap, but I view the “plague of women’s backs” on book covers as an indicator of something larger and something we seem to be unable to shake off when it comes to how we represent women’s bodies within our culture: as empty, anonymous, generalised, passive, vacant vessels; as objects. I don’t see much difference, for example, between this book covers trend and the ongoing fascination with the dead female body in fashion. Vice’s insensitive ‘suicide’ editorial featuring fashion models as dead female authors is only the latest of what is a continual trend, if not fetish, in the fashion world: the fixation with the corpse-like female body, languishing in a pale, deathly sickliness, that is marketed as ‘ethereal’ femininity. I acknowledge the appeal of this aesthetic (hey, I often enjoy it too), but there’s always a little voice in the back of my head that reminds me that it still amounts to idealising women and their bodies when they are emptied of meaning and life: that is, when they are turned into anonymous objects lacking an individual identity and a will of their own.

So back to women’s backs and their faceless anonymity. If you think about it, this is also a type of ‘murder’. In our love of the anonymously ‘mysterious’ woman whose face you can’t see, in our fascination with the curves of her back displayed for our voyeur’s gaze, and in our appreciation of women’s bodies as inherently passive, we are essentially perpetuating a cult of female self-less-ness that began centuries before modern book cover design and fashion editorials.

Another manifestation of the empty and passive female body is of course the ever-romantic idea of woman-as-muse. Although I know many women (and men) find the idea of a muse highly romantic, I agree with Angela Carter’s famous assertion that calling yourself a muse or a goddess is simply flattering yourself into submission. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the female muse was a particularly alluring symbol in art, and she became aligned with this ghostly, deathly aesthetic of ‘ethereal’ femininity that is still so popular today. But just as importantly, she highlighted how women were really ‘valued’: as beings whose function it is to please, inspire, support, care for and serve others, all under the beautiful guise of anonymous female flesh. The ideal woman was, essentially, a blank canvas: empty.

So this trend is not really anything new. But it is something that remains disturbing and appealing at the same time. It shows us, perhaps too uncomfortably, how we really like women within our culture: as passive things lacking in selves. There is aesthetic pleasure in these book covers, just as there is visual pleasure (and artistry) in many fashion editorials. But I can’t help feeling this pleasure comes at a cost when it stands on the backs of women (quite literally in this example). Schama notes that “these books offer only skin, which is all surface.” I would add they also offer women who are only hollow surface. That should make us feel uncomfortable, right?

P.S. I’ve chosen a famous ‘back’ image for this post, but of a man: Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). I guess the tone of this image contrasts with the tone of the many covers featuring women’s backs. He is master of all he surveys, she is waiting for meaning to be imparted to her by the external force of somebody else’s “imagination” (like a perfect muse); he is a symbol of Romantic individuality and will, she is a symbol of “mystery”.