I guess we’re going to talk about girls with swords today! You may have seen the Bad Take of the Week floating around Book Twitter:

I have the time and the spoons today, so I’m going to try to dig into the complete mess that is this post, because I think it’s more than just a bad take. It’s indicitive of some deep problems in publishing.

It’s a flimsy article. No evidence, just a nonsensical argument that the trend is too much. So at first, I chalked this up to lazy outrage-bait. Nobody has ever lost clicks by pointing to something popular and calling it overused and anti-feminist.

But I think we have a bigger problem here. This article is so incoherently obtuse that it doesn’t justify its own existence. Basically, this can’t be the writer’s real problem.

Let’s look at the article itself. Even in a short post, strikingly little of the article is about the author’s problems with this trend. Most of the post is devoted to explaining why sword-wielding girl knights have been important to the author, even though she’s not generally a fan of action scenes.

In addition to Wonder Woman and Eowyn, Bluemle cites four examples of weapon-wielding YA heroines she’s read and loved. (I would be remiss in not pointing out that these characters, introduced in 1983, 1990, 2008, and 2003 respectively, are also all white, conventionally attractive, able-bodied young women in European-inspired fantasies, but we’ll get back to that later.)

Bluemle clearly understands that sword-wielding girls in YA lit are 1) fun to read and 2) can be important representation. We end up with only a couple sentences explaining what her problem is:

“I think what gives me pause is that, increasingly, we seem to be equating power and strength with weapons, battle, and conquest—which feels a little like giving in to centuries-old male visions of strength and power—power over, strength that requires someone else to fall—rather than celebrating the creative and constructive versions of those qualities, and what they look like in actual women…. It’s just that, in a society already plagued by devastatingly real violence, I find myself yearning for new definitions of what “badass” looks like.”

So what, exactly, are Bluemle’s reservations with girls with weapons on covers? They suggest a violent and dominant (and therefore, inherently masculine) version of power at odds with “creative and constructive” power of “actual women.”

Yikes. So let’s unpack that. This objection only makes sense if you, in the year of our lord 2019, believe:

->Proficiency in combat is the domain of men
->By now, we have “moved beyond” visions of power that involve violence
->Imagery of a girl with a weapon inherently equates strength with conquest (in a way that imagery of a boy with a weapon does not)
->”Actual women” are creative and collaborative, not combative
->Real-world violence means we should have less violence in books
->We don’t have room for different kinds of heroines and different ideas about power

The article wants to simultaneously claim that Katniss and Alanna and Wonder Woman were needed representation… but at some point in the past year or so, we passed the cutoff point where no further representation is needed. Which is bananas coming from a publishing professional in the teen market, where new readers arrive every year–to say nothing of the fact that someone who makes a living in publishing should probably know 1) different books are, you know, different 2) not everybody can identify with Katniss the same way, for pretty obvious reasons.

It’s a completely incoherent argument. Her issue (where are the collaborative, non-violent heroines) has absolutely nothing to do with her observation (there seem to be a lot of girls with weapons on covers lately). It’s a complete nonsequiter.

You want new, diverse “definitions of what badass looks like?” Great! So do I! You could conceivably write an article arguing for more representation of what you think badass could be. In fact, I’d love to read those articles. But they wouldn’t start with a bunch of covers representing something completely different. You don’t prove an absence of X by citing a bunch of examples of Y. You have to start by looking for what you want to see.

Because if you take even a passing glance, it’s obvious that YA is exploding with visions of badass female characters, knife-wielding or not.

Just look at this year. Want a fantasy heroine that resists oppression through community, communication, and love? Try Girls of Paper and Fire. Want a vision of female power that’s about leadership, not violence? Bam. Descendant of the Crane. Want the violence, but have a specific problem with weapons? Wicked Saints is right there.

Or, if you really don’t want to be reading stories with violent plays for power… why are you looking in fantasy? Non-violent fantasies exist, sure, but warfare and domination are motifs of the genre for core thematic reasons. Look somewhere else! Try YA contemporary. We’ve had plenty of badass, strong, creative heroines this year that never pick up a weapon. Try Love from A to Z, or On the Come Up, or With the Fire on High.

At this point, I’m not really trying to refute the argument. I’m trying to show that the argument doesn’t stand up to even the slightest scrutiny. This take would be a dumb tweet–it has no business being an actual post from a person in a gatekeeping position in publishing.

Because this argument about a limited vision of power… that’s not really the writer’s problem, is it? Because she was very clear that she liked Katniss and Alanna and Wonder Woman.

The article isn’t a literary or artistic argument about covers and the imagery of weapons. It’s about Bluemle’s emotional reaction to seeing those covers. Her statement is this: This is enough. We have too many girls with weapons on covers. I’m uncomfortable with it and I’m not sure exactly why, but it feels overdone and unfeminist.

Up until this point, I’m confident that what I’ve written is a reasonable reading of the text. I don’t want to go too far in theorizing about the author’s unstated views, but the article has lead many readers to the same interpretation. Look, I don’t know this person, but from this articl alone, I think it’s pretty clear that this is about race.

Bad take covers

Because look at the covers. Not all of them are fantasy. Not all of them even feature weapons on the cover at all. But a lot of them feature characters of color and the names of authors of cover.

Look at the post again. Look at the lineup of covers chosen for the sharing image. It makes it very hard to swallow that the bookseller’s problem is with the “new crop” in particular.

Complaints about trends tend to come exactly when POC participation in that trend reaches a critical mass… and it’s hard to ignore the timing here.

Book Twitter had been doing its thing with the article this morning, so instead of theorizing about the writer’s motivations, I’m going to share a few great threads by authors and bloggers and other publishing thinkers that delve into the issues here.

Tochi Onyebuchi (who wrote one of the books referenced) breaks down the article’s logical incoherence:

Patrice Caldwell wrote an excellent thread that covered many problems with the article (and what it means for publishing):

Katherine Locke actually digs into a possible reason for the cover trend:

LL McKinney took the chance to hype some weapon-wielding non-white characters hitting shelves soon:

Zoraida Cordova has some great insight into what a grown-up version of the article might have talked about:

Cit Callahan points out the hypocrisy:

So anyway… I will be collecting all the sassy tweets and pictures of authors of color holding knives that come across my timeline today, because they bring me great joy.

8 thoughts on “Girls With Swords (and Other Things We Don’t Want on Book Covers)”

  1. Wow, great post! Very thoughtful. Personally, I am also getting tired of the “badass female lead”, and would like to see more versions of what a badass is, especially in fantasy. Just because war is a typical fantasy trope doesn’t mean it should or has to be. Some of my favorite fantasies (albeit, not YA) aren’t about war at all. But I think you make several great points about how it can be a metaphor, presenting what you WOULD like to see, etc. all being more useful ways to start a conversation than just complaining.

    1. Thanks so much!
      Great point about the limits of that trope. I often find myself more drawn to female characters who wield power in other ways.

  2. Ah, this is a really great post! I had somehow missed this whole kerfuffle, but the points you make are very good and quite important. Thanks for taking the time to speak up about this!

  3. What a fantastic post. Thank you so much for writing this. I was laughing out loud when you wrote “This take would be a dumb tweet–it has no business being an actual post from a person in a gatekeeping position in publishing” because EXACTLY.

    I effing LOVE a good cover of girls with weapons. I’ve been a big reader of fantasy since very young, and I had such a hard time finding a female character I actually liked and identified with (I love martial arts and sword fighting). Getting to know more badass female characters made me so happy. I would have been a really happy child and teen if there were this many books with fighter girls (especially Arab and Latina, like me).

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