?

Log in

No account? Create an account
Whitewashed books? - Zer Netmouse
March 26th, 2009
03:16 pm

[Link]

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Whitewashed books?
At Millenicon I went over Larry Smith's bookseller table, looking for books by or about people of color. I didn't pull every book out and look at it, just scanned spines and the new book covers on top of the table. The Mystery of Grace, by Charles de Lint, caught my eye because it was pretty, but I was looking for POC, and the character on that cover looked white to me, so I moved on. When I got home, the book was waiting in my mailbox, so I opened it and started reading.

The main character is not white. She is described as being brown. (At least half Mexican though not all her lineage is given in detail).

As far as I can tell, the majority of named, principle characters in this book are either of Mexican descent (brown), or black, or native american. (How they are depicted in the text is a whole other topic, which I won't get into here).

Furthermore, Grace does not have frilly pretty ivy tattoos, she has audacious tattoos of things like portraits of people and saints, and phrases from hotrodding; working on old hotrods is her livelyhood. The book specifically states that she's not into flowery tatoos.

The cover is so wrong with regard to the tatoos, Brian suggested maybe Tor just pulled an illustration they already had and put it on the cover. I don't know. I doubt it.

Earlier at Millenicon I also had a conversation with Jim Hines about this sort of thing. Jim has a principal character in The Stepsister Scheme who is not white, but on the cover illustration that's not illustrated dramatically enough for it to necessarily be obvious, though it is supported by her clothing. He commented that he wonders if he should have pushed harder about that, because the character's color really should be darker.

Then today oyceter posted about the extreme whitewashing of Angel's Blood, by Nalini Singh (the main character is half-Moroccan and should have "dark gold" skin, but the white hair is canon). I find myself wondering if there are other examples I've never noticed or come across, and what they are.

With regard to Grace part of the problem, of course, is that there's no single archetype of "Mexican woman", and while I am frustrated that the woman on the cover doesn't look like, say, my sister-in-law, who lives in Arizona and is of Mexican descent, there are probably at least mixed-race Mexican women she could be an (idealized) portrait of. But still, given that range, there's a choice. Go with something ambiguous, or make her skin brown and her features Mexican (rounder nose... hmm... the difference is hard to describe. Like... um, like this or this). What she looks like, to me, is slightly Spanish. It's not strange for this to seem acceptable, since thanks to Hollywood we often see spanish actresses (see Paz Vega) play mexican characters. One of our most acclaimed Mexican Actresses, Dolores del Rio, in fact came directly from a family of Spanish Basque descent, though she was born in Mexico. And then our sense of what Spanish women look like even gets defrayed as they are played by people like Catherine Zeta Jones, who is Welsh. So what bothers me there is not just a skin-color thing, it's a features thing. Proportions.

And now, if I could really draw, I would start organizing workshops at sf cons about how to draw characters of different racial backgrounds and mixes. I might do that anyway. I just have to study it myself first, or find some artists to support it.

(20 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments
 
[User Picture]
From:dd_b
Date:March 26th, 2009 07:56 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I've heard a number of comments about "white-washed" characters on covers before this; I'm afraid it's quite common.
[User Picture]
From:netmouse
Date:March 27th, 2009 03:26 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I can believe that... I'm hoping people can tip me off as too specific examples. Do you know any?
[User Picture]
From:dd_b
Date:March 27th, 2009 05:33 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Sorry, I don't remember examples. I don't expect much of covers, and don't pay much attention to descriptions in books, so I'm not a very useful resource for this.
[User Picture]
From:matt_arnold
Date:March 26th, 2009 07:59 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I'm interested. I might attend such a workshop.
[User Picture]
From:netmouse
Date:March 26th, 2009 08:04 pm (UTC)
(Link)
How finished is the Penguicon program? I might be able to pull some reference images and/or life models in time to have a small workshop there. Of course, you'll probably be too busy to attend one there... you're not going to Anticipation, are you? (I'm also going to wiscon, but they are no longer accepting program suggestions)
[User Picture]
From:matt_arnold
Date:March 26th, 2009 08:29 pm (UTC)
(Link)
The deadline is this weekend, so I don't expect that there would be time. If you think you can finish arrangements by then, you can try. :)

I don't expect to be able to go to Anticipation.
[User Picture]
From:jimhines
Date:March 26th, 2009 08:07 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I did tell my editor that Talia should be darker, though I'm not sure whether that feedback reached the artist. But I had also asked if the author could model her after my daughter. My little girl isn't white, but she's not as dark-skinned as Talia, so I suspect I may have undercut myself on that one.
[User Picture]
From:netmouse
Date:March 26th, 2009 08:13 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Thanks for commenting. I've edited the entry to say "pushed harder" instead of "pushed back", because now that I think about it again, I think that's how you put it before.
[User Picture]
From:sageautumn
Date:March 27th, 2009 01:21 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Readers do notice, for what it's worth. I flipped to the front cover and tried to figure out who was who as you described them. And while I did figure it out--except for the blonde, it was more from clothing and such.

And... horridly I can't remember which one, but I think it was Talia... I also expected one of them to be more curvy/sturdy... ...and for Snow to be a touch more busty. (Though I can see not wanting to fall into the busty/comicbook mold.)
[User Picture]
From:jimhines
Date:March 27th, 2009 03:04 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Physically, I think he did a little better with Talia on the cover for Mermaid's Madness. Her arm and shoulder in particular look more muscular than on the first book.

As for Snow ... yep. I think my comment to the editor was that I REALLY didn't want a "Chain mail bikini babes" cover, but if Snow was showing some cleavage, that would probably be appropriate for her character :-)
[User Picture]
From:skylarker
Date:March 26th, 2009 08:40 pm (UTC)
(Link)
The woman on the cover of "The Mystery of Grace," has features I can see as Mexican, but my first impression is 'Mexican vampire' - the pallor looks deathly.
[User Picture]
From:elizilla
Date:March 26th, 2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Not to take away from your focus here, but book covers and movies also "thinwash" and "youthwash" the characters. Especially the female ones. When was the last time you saw a book cover that included a woman who looked like she was older than her teens and not yet a crone? And even the grandmothers are thin.

You and I don't exist in that artwork either. We're invisible between the ages of 20 and 70. And pretty is the rent you pay, for occupying a space marked female. At least in that world, if not everywhere in this one.

In the world of marketing, women are women, and minorities are black or latino or whatever. If the character on the cover is any shade of brown, it means that's what the story is about, and that there's nothing there for anyone who isn't part of that demographic group. And if the character is female, she better be decorative on the cover, because if she isn't, then the book is only for feminists and you won't sell copies to men or non-feminists. If you want to sell a story about an engineer or a soldier, cover art that shows them as brown or female will drown out the soldier vibe or the engineer vibe.

The part of the book marketing world that caters to a more aware audience, has been sidestepping this by not including any pictures of people on the book covers. If a book is aimed at the "Great American Novel" category and hopes to be reviewed as such, then they'll put a landscape on the cover, or abstract art, or a still life. That way they can avoid looking lame for failing to acknowledge diversity, without getting the marketing kiss of death by showing a brown face or an "unattractive" woman.


Edited at 2009-03-26 08:52 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:earthenwood
Date:March 26th, 2009 09:31 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I read this with interest, having been married to an illustrator in the sci-fi fantasy genre, and seeing the process. My ex husband did not do many cover illustrations, but he did work with publishing companies and on projects of this nature.

Your last two paragraphs seem to imply that perhaps the illustrators are not familiar with how to draw characters of different racial backgrounds because of these examples of "whitewashing" that you have mentioned. I am sure that is true in some cases, but I think, having seen the process of how the illustrator often gets the information, that it is not really the case.

I think for the most part, the illustrator has to deal with the art director, and not with the author directly. I know that my Ex was thrilled when he was able to speak directly to an author, to show sketches, and to try to match up what the author had in mind for a character or scene. But that was a rarity. Also, the illustrator might not have the time/interest/ or even the opportunity to read the text that he is illustrating... it might not be available to him. He must simply work on the imagery based on the art director's description, which could be just a couple of sentences.

Working with art directors can be frustrating for illustrators, as they try to create a rich visual image based on a few words. And those few words may not come from the author and may be incomplete for what is needed for a proper depiction of the text, unfortunately.

I have heard many frustrated illustrators talk about the descriptions given that are more focused on the scene or the action, and after sketches come in for approval, some major detail needs to be altered, like the race, size or even the sex of the character. My ex had almost finished a piece for a book when the AD told him that one of his characters needed to be entirely changed to a female (a female alien, but still a big change, lol). Sometimes it seems like the old telephone game, where the idea travels through so many people, that when it gets to the end of the line, its a totally different thing entirely. And sometimes it gets published that way, if there is enough bureaucracy and not enough checking.

I think having art workshops at Cons is a great idea, and i love the idea of having art workshops celebrating the diversity in humanity! But I just wanted to make a note here that the blame for the "whitewashing" of book covers is not often likely to be placed in the hands of the illustrators.
[User Picture]
From:netmouse
Date:March 27th, 2009 03:30 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I was mainly thinking of it as a way for fen to get more comfortable with the appearances of people with different races, and also how to draw them. --How do you draw a nose on a dark black face and still get across that the character has dark skin? what color are people, really? If I want to make an Asian character who is not just generically asian but rather Korean or Japanese or vietnamese, what are the differences? What do the people of the West Indies look like?

Basically that sort of thing.

Re: Art directors: YES. But just because the system sucks and caters to major book buyers and not to readers doesn't mean we just have to throw up our hands and give up. Book buyers and art directors are people too. :)
[User Picture]
From:kreie
Date:March 27th, 2009 01:23 am (UTC)
(Link)
Earthsea is also a good example - the characters are NOT white. I'm told that the movie cast white people, and the covers for Earthsea that I've seen have white people.
[User Picture]
From:netmouse
Date:March 27th, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I understand they're doing the same thing for the Avatar movie.
[User Picture]
From:apostle_of_eris
Date:March 27th, 2009 04:57 pm (UTC)
(Link)
You're at an intersection of two issues here. You were coming from the PoC side, but if a group of authors ever get to talking about how their books were covered, get out of the line of fire!
The publishing industry has holy shibboleths about what on a cover sells books.
[User Picture]
From:dd_b
Date:March 27th, 2009 05:36 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Which were formed when mostly what was important is what the guy in the magazine delivery truck would put in the wire racks, yes. That's quite clearly not what's important now, since that part of the distribution system has been pretty much completely destroyed.
[User Picture]
From:elizilla
Date:March 27th, 2009 07:05 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I used to have two coworkers who wrote romance novels. One day at lunch they were telling us about the cover art. Apparently in the romance genre there's a whole coded subtext there. What the characters wear, how ripped the bodices are, who is touching who and how, it's all a precise code that conveys exactly how steamy the book is, and what kind of steamy.

How much of this exists in SF?

(One of my coworkers was black, and wrote romance novels for a black audience. She was considered fairly groundbreaking. I wonder if there were any differences in how this code applied to her cover art? I don't recall her saying anything about it.)
[User Picture]
From:dreamshark
Date:March 27th, 2009 11:15 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I always thought the canonical example was Octavia Butler. I remember hearing that one publisher went so far as to make one of her non-white characters bright BLUE - anything to avoid having a black person on the cover. I couldn't find any reference to that in a quick Google search, however, so perhaps it's apocryphal.

Netmouse on the web Powered by LiveJournal.com