Why Princesses Need Chiropractors

Jim Hines used humor effectively to make a point about book cover art in a post where he photographed himself imitating the poses of female characters on fantasy book covers, with notes on how difficult or painful he found each one.

Hines argues that paintings showing women in physically unrealistic stances are less effective at marketing stories:

My sense is that most of these covers are supposed to convey strong, sexy heroines, but these are not poses that suggest strength. You can’t fight from these stances. I could barely even walk.

Rose Fox of Genreville found his ideas persuasive enough to recommend extending Hines’ argument to a rule:

It’s easy to think that because men look absurd in “women’s poses”, women would look absurd in “men’s poses”. Instead, these comparisons make it clear that there are absurd poses and reasonable poses, and we need to ditch the absurd ones altogether and use the reasonable ones for everyone.

The examples Hines analyzes are pretty mild – none of that 1930s brass brassiere stuff, just some women wielding swords and some others in confident poses. And nobody’s objecting to putting images of women on book covers per se, although I sense a tension between Hines’ avowed focus on marketing, and Fox’s call for a new orthodoxy requiring all cover poses to be “reasonable,” which seems to have a different political center of gravity.  

Hines’ choices to advance his case inventively, and to write in a lightly mocking tone, are more helpful in luring an audience. While he delivers more than one layer of meaning, if his goal is to change an artist’s future work it may suffice to plant the simple idea that unrealistic poses make bad art.

Of course, Hines will be up against art history, which teaches that it’s not true that unrealistic poses make for bad art. Sometimes they make for highly-regarded art. Consider two examples, one by the French sculptor Rodin, the other by an unknown Olmec artist:

Bacchus in the Vat by Rodin

Acrobat by an Olmec sculptor

Is Hines’ primary concern whether artwork helps sell books? Then military realism does not trump everything else. Anything that makes commercial art successful cannot be indicted out of hand. Physically demanding, acrobatic poses may be eyecatching for their implicit difficulty, or for their resonance with famous images in the reader’s experience. If the cover engages a prospective buyer’s attention, hasn’t it done its work?

Postscript 1: One of Hines’ targets is the artwork on the cover of John Ringo’s Queen of Wands. Upon seeing this, my first question wasn’t whether the pose was physically awkward, but why a book named after a Tarot card features art more appropriate to the Two of Swords? Why doesn’t that undermine the cover’s effectiveness as a marketing tool? Because as little as I know about Tarot, most people know even less? Thus I am forced to raise the question of whether complaints from people with specialized knowledge – like whether a particular stance is good for swordfighting — come from such a trivial slice of the audience that they have no effect on sales at all?

Postscript 2: If military realism really does trump everything else – wasn’t the most realistic use of the sword in combat illustrated in the first Indiana Jones movie? That is, don’t bring a knife to a gun fight? Ergo, there should never be a blade on a book cover.

[Thanks to Andrew Porter for the story.]

7 thoughts on “Why Princesses Need Chiropractors

  1. Normally I’d have been surprised to hear that women were being depicted in unrealistic poses on fiction novel covers and, had I seen Hines’ depictions, I’d probably have been even more shocked – except –
    Frederick’s regularly sends me their catalog.
    Talk about needing chiropracty!

  2. Next we’ll have to write about women realistically on the insides of magazines and books too. At some point the literary process will be complete — fictional women and real women will be identical. Since it will be just as easy to look over a breakfast table and see what a real woman is like, the need to read about them will dwindle away and fiction will no longer be necessary.

    I know we’re all eagerly waiting for the day to come!

  3. In 1978, on my first rip to L.A. as a journalist, I interviewed Stephen Cannell, the famous television producer about a new series set in Chicago. When I pointed out a factual error in his premise about the licensing of private detectives, he smiled and said “Hey, Kid. We’re not making a documentary. It’s entertainment.” Words to live by. He also told me that ninety percent of the audience didn’t know, and of those remaining, ninety percent didn’t care. An old friend of mine recently pointed out that I had failed to use the apostrophe in “Colt’s Revolver” in “The Queen of Washington” which was the usage of the period I wrote about. I used “Colt Revolver” which is a common mistake today. Okay. Duly noted and we’ll fix in a future printing or release. But it doesn’t keep me awake at night, worrying about it. I have a passion for accuracy, but there is such a thing a wrechted excess, too. Sometimes you just have to get the book out.

  4. On Monday nights I read and help interpret fechtbuecher (historical fencing manuals). There can be some pretty ridiculous postures there as they capture one moment of a sequence in the illustration. I’ve also recognized a portrayal of an executioner with a sword in a MS as an accurate portrayal of a longsword position. However, as you said, the fechtbuecher illustrators have a different purpose than my friends who do cover art. And many ridiculous female poses are non-martial: it’s all about showing off the usu. exaggerated female form.

  5. It’s not only women who are drawn with an unusual sexuality — on a copy of the comics fanzine The Rocket’s Blast/Comicollector, I saw a cover illustration of Conan holding his sword, with blood dripping from the tip, at an angle which would cause Sigmund Freud to rise up out of his grave.

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