YA is for Girls!: Gendered Marketing in YA Literature

| Monday, December 23, 2013

Not too long ago, there was a post circulating on Tumblr (surprise!) that was rehashing the argument that YA is heavily marketed toward the female population and how that's harmful to boys and male authors, blah blah blah, we've all heard it before. The argument keeps coming up, despite the fact that it's been repeatedly dismantled.

Every time this argument resurfaces, it almost always references the talking point that YA books just look too damn girly. Girls in dresses, cursive fonts, pastels and pinks, etc. Although this isn't entirely true (recent cover trends vary widely), this time I started thinking about things from a marketing perspective. The reality is that there is a whole lot of feminization on the covers of YA novels. It's something I wanted to explore.

Around this same time, I came across two very interesting articles about how video games became a male-gendered product (long, but SO worth the read) and a breakdown of how gender-targeted marketing happens and why marketers have long avoided marketing certain products to girls and women despite their obvious interest. Here's some bonus reading on a recent interview with Paul Dini in which he discussed the cancellation of superhero cartoons because too many girls were watching the shows. Yes, really.

These articles got me thinking about how this applies to YA books. Although I think this gendered marketing in YA is less of an issue at present (cover trends have come a long way since the Twilight Boom), the perception of YA being largely "for girls" has not gone away. Also, while I do think cover trends have evolved significantly, I don't want to discount that there most definitely is a certain kind of femininity being sold on YA covers.

First, I'd like to discuss two points brought up in the marketing article linked above:

  1. Once a demographic is selected, marketers use established tropes to "put down" people perceived as outside the market -- in the case of the article, men are given the spotlight while women are pushed into background/subservient positions. See also: this product is for "cool" people, not nerds.
  2. Once a male-gendered market has been established, if marketers decide to target a female market, they do so by relying on stereotypical gendered tropes -- taking the "boy" product and slapping pink packaging on it.

Tying into both the gendered marketing of video games AND this feminization of a "male" product, here's a video on the Ms. Male Character trope. That entire series is fantastic, by the way.

Okay, fine: how does this all tie into the YA section? Well. Let's take everything we just learned from all of the aforementioned articles and apply it to YA.

Many people cite Harry Potter as the formative series that kicked off the YA boom as we know it today. I do think that many children grew up (and grew with) the characters of Harry Potter, leaving many teens and young adults ready to find the next series. A middle grade series written about a young man, originally targeted toward young men, that became a huge runaway success across age and gender lines. Then -- and here's the important part -- came Twilight. The book saw a similar level of runaway success, but found its market primarily in girls and women.

This, in my opinion, is where the split happened. Teen fiction, which was a thriving but quiet section of the bookstore, suddenly turned into Girl Books. YA fiction became synonymous with Twilight and dozens of other paranormal romances. When The Hunger Games began to gain traction, it was often reduced to the "romance" between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, despite that romance actually taking up fairly little of the series. Much in the same way Romance and Women's Fiction get kicked into their own sections, YA became the section you sneered at if you were too cool, too clever, or too sophisticated for something so girlish and pedestrian.

But this is a post about marketing, and marketing took this perception and ran with it. Much in the same way Nintendo held a small summit and determined boys were just more interested in video games, the YA book market showed that women and girls were the ones buying the most books. The covers began to morph into the stereotypical YA cover we think of today, with a pretty white waif in a dress looking passively into the distance. If a book had even a whiff of romance about it, the cover gave the impression of sexiness, relationships, and drama. Even one of the most well-known and beloved YA fantasy series featuring a female protagonist -- a series that is known for being multi-faceted and full of adventure -- received a rebranding that made it look like any ol' book with a love triangle.

What effect did this packaging have? The effect of reestablishing YA books as feminized. Using familiar, well-worn gender tropes to say "these books are targeted to girls." Very specific types of girls, too -- girls who are thin, white, cisgender, and heterosexual. It's selling the most widely accepted version of what femininity is supposed to look like according to dominant societal pressure, and it's doing it by using the very same basic tactics we see in the little girls' toy aisle. Pink, pastel, princess, passive, safe. A feminized version of the stuff you'd find in the boy's section. Or, in the case of a bookstore, the SFF section.

I like to think that this tactic is changing -- recent cover trends shows as much. There's more experimentation, more variety, different approaches. The current market is still far behind for all its postulating about diversity, but it's working on it. Even so, the perception after only a few short years is that YA books are still feminized, still for girls, still nothing a teenage boy would ever be caught dead reading.

So, let's talk about the boys. We saw in the linked articles above that there's often a concentrated effort on the part of marketers to exclude people from participating in the products. So, could it be argued that boys were intentionally excluded from the YA book market, at least initially?

Yes and no.

It is true that many book marketers made a specific choice to package books to appeal to a female market. No argument from me there. By making this choice, they understood they were excluding most of the male market. However, we need to understand the much larger social context that goes behind this decision.

All of the statistics show a reading decline in adolescent men. This isn't because of girly YA books -- this is because they aren't picking up books, period. As a marketer, while I don't agree with it on an intellectual level, on a capitalist level, I understand why it would make sense to market YA novels to girls and women. They are the purchasers. But does this have the same implication as targeting video games or comic book movies to men and boys?

No, it doesn't. Here's where the social context comes in. Male-gendered marketing seeks to devalue women and raise up men in a way that makes the product desirable in the context of patriarchy, which says men are superior to women. It takes an entire product -- video games -- and makes them "for men" by applying patriarchal tropes, such as the product making you stronger, cooler, or more sexually desirable to women. It largely eliminates women in positions of power or equality from the packaging. It says this product was made for men and is used by men, and women who use it are outliers or fakers. If they decide to throw women a bone, they'll release a pink version. All of this despite that fact that statistics show almost half of gamers are women.

In the case of YA book marketing, it's still in line with patriarchy. It's selling a very narrow, very intentional ideal of femininity. The feminized covers still portray girls in passive positions, and if a boy is shown on the cover, he's typically shown in a position of equality or even superiority. Notice this example, where the boy on the cover is in a matching position to his female counterpart and is displaying a more aggressive stance, as opposed to the poster for Mallrats, which is an intentional mimicry/mockery of comic books where the women are literally passive and clinging to their men. YA marketing is dedicated to a single section of the bookstore, as opposed to marketing that says, flat-out, "books are for women." The product doesn't seek to raise girls above boys, and it still plays on feminized tropes -- girls prefer pink, cursive, and pretty dresses.

The context is much bigger than "boys can't read YA books because they'll get beat up for reading girl books." It must take into account that boys are picked on for reading almost ANYTHING, let alone something with a "girly" cover. Of course, we mustn't forget that girls are also picked on and slandered for liking anything too "girly," from makeup to Twilight. This is a giant cocktail of systemic patriarchy that dictates that reading is a passive activity, and passive activities are feminine, and femininity is a bad thing, especially for a boy. It is still a very serious problem that boys (or their parents) seem unable to read from a female perspective because it's just "too hard" to view the world through a lens that isn't their own.

This post isn't intended to crap on marketers. I'm a marketer, so I understand how the game is played. Relying on existing tropes gives you the bottom line you need to keep your job. It sucks, but it's the facts. Nonetheless, it is absolutely vital to keep the criticism of those tropes alive, and to buck them when you can.

This also isn't commentary on the content of YA novels; it's commentary on their packaging. I'm not advocating a complete packaging change or removal of girls from the covers of books with female protagonists. Girls deserve to see themselves on the covers of books, and boys shouldn't fear ridicule for reading a book with a girl on the cover. It's an issue that won't be solved in a day, but one to work toward.

So, in conclusion, the question remains: the chicken or the egg? Is YA literature feminized because of its packaging, or does the packaging reflect its perceived femininity? I think it's probably a combination. What do you think?


{ K Kenig } at: December 23, 2013 at 8:50 AM said...

One of the reasons I love YA lit - particularly dystopia - is because it tends to have strong female characters, but I'm often put off on reading these books because of the covers. I'm reading Crossed right now - the second book in the Matched series, and I originally passed it by because of the covers. How could this woman be a hero, in her little bubble, I thought, until I'd read a review of the series by a friend. In a way I think their feminization of the covers can backfire, at least with readers like me who aren't looking for princessy books :)

That said, there are a couple of new lines coming out from publishers that focus on YA books for boys (a friend of mine from my writers group is on contract for one), though the themes seem mostly sports-oriented, which should cross both genders, not be focused on boys-only. I don't know if our society, the way it is, can wrap it's collective mind around marketing to both genders at once, which makes me sad.

{ Andrew Leon } at: December 23, 2013 at 10:56 AM said...

I don't have time for a lengthy comment at the moment, but I what I know is that when I was kid, the YA section at the bookstore was ALL about girls. I mean, the only books in it were teen romance novels (like Sweet Valley High or whatever the name of that it (although I'm not actually sure if that series, specifically, goes all the way back to my teenhood)). I never looked for books in that section. From that perspective, the YA section is much more diverse now, and you can find books in it that were previously only stocked in the SFF section (like Narnia and Wrinkle in Time).
Harry Potter did change the landscape of YA. It made it a "thing," and, while Twilight may have sent YA books back a step (for lack of a better way of putting it), as a category, it's still way ahead of where it was in the 80s.

{ Susan Francino } at: December 23, 2013 at 11:38 AM said...

You mentioned the general decline in boys reading--I'd like to add that part of that problem is that our schools are now set up in a way that is more stimulating to girls than it is to boys. When boys start to read in early elementary school, the books used in the curriculum are more often than not geared toward girls. Another example: Boys tend to thrive on competition, but that element is de-emphasized in classrooms, especially when you compare the intense competitive atmosphere of something like a traditional British boys' school, where they used to seat students in order of how well they were performing. I think the roots of this issue are just as concerning as what you're talking about with the marketing. (Especially, I might add, as someone who writes YA that is not specifically for girls... O_O )

{ Old Kitty } at: December 23, 2013 at 11:53 AM said...

Oh it is so depressing when the simple joy of reading becomes gender-ised! Good grief - a book is a book, a story is a story - words are words! I blame the profit god (yes he is very masculine! LOL!) who dictate things and the institutionalised machines who follow him and dazzle the rest of humanity with powerful propaganda! Bleagh!!

On a different note - just thought I'd wish you and yours a peaceful and calm Christmas and New Year! Take care

{ Librarian_101 } at: January 2, 2014 at 11:53 AM said...

This is such a tricky discussion only because part of me feels like yes, YA *marketing* has seen an uptick in genderizing. The books have, to some degree. I know that there a ton more "romance" YA novels out there now than there used to be, but there are also a bunch more great adventure, horror, and realistic novels as well. When I get teens who come in and want books, they almost always just want books. The boys don't typically care if the protagonist is a female; I had a young man who loved Graceling and didn't care one bit that it was a girl riding around saving everyone.

At the same time, I also want to argue that maybe we need to start demanding that publishers take note of the audiences and who they are marketing too, but maybe that's asking too much. I know it's also asking too much to just have great books for my teens and not let the visual end of things impact readership so much.

I will, however, take issue with you using Commander Shepard as your video games appeal to guys only image - female Commander Shepard is so much more badass than her male counterpart (plus her interactions with crew members are much more entertaining and meaningful - same dialogue for both genders, but the voice actor is ten times better). And I can say this, having played all the games several times and knowing that there is a HUGE female fan base for the Mass Effect games. But that's just my inner fan needing her two cents :)

{ E.Maree } at: January 20, 2014 at 8:01 AM said...

SUCH a good post, as always, Steph!

{ Anjin San } at: May 10, 2015 at 10:10 AM said...


I'm Anjin, the writer of the "Marketers fear the female geek" piece. Thanks for sharing.

I always dig seeing people expand on ideas from that article and discussing them in other contexts. I learned a lot.


{ aliya seen } at: June 8, 2016 at 8:02 AM said...

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