So Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse series have new covers, at least in the US (the UK has a different publisher and I’ve seen no word on whether our covers will also change). According to the publisher, the change was made to show Kestrel as “as bad*** as she is”.
It’s true Kestrel is a badass. She’s a social butterfly, a skilled pianist, a brilliant strategist, and she protects herself in a vicious, militaristic society by outfoxing her opponents and manipulating conversations. She’s a compelling, thoughtful, flawed, clever, vulnerable, passionate young woman, a three-dimensional character who displays resilience and intelligence.
However, Kestrel is not a sword-wielding warrior woman, much as her father, a general, would like her to be. It is made blatantly clear that her strength lies not in physical prowess but in her quick-thinking and her compassion. While her friends and family consider the slaves’ rebellion monstrous, Kestrel sympathises with their aims; after all, her people stole their country, their homes and their freedom. She could never defeat her peers in armed combat, but she holds steadfast to her own morals, torn between loyalty to her friends and family and her beliefs.
Changing the covers to reflect Kestrel’s badassery, then, reflects a very narrow definition of badassery and, by extension, strength and by so doing tries to force Kestrel into the Strong Female Character™ mould. It feeds into this notion that there is one type of acceptable female character in fiction: the woman who embodies male-coded traits like stoicism and physical prowess. Some women are like that, and they have a right to see themselves represented in fiction, but so too do the women and girls who faint at the sight of blood or who are more skilled with words than weapons. Rhiannon Thomas has an excellent post on this phenomenon, in which stereotypically feminine traits are downplayed and female characters are only acceptable when they’re stereotypically masculine. It’s an insidious kind of sexism, one that accepts women as men’s equals, but only if they mould themselves to masculine expectations and norms. It’s the same kind of sexism that sees girls accepted as tomboys and boys bullied for playing with dolls, because of the underlying belief that the masculine is better than the feminine.
The publisher’s decision to change the covers, then, is not an innocent redesign. While the intention may have been to symbolically represent Kestrel’s skills as a military strategist, it did not occur in a vacuum, but within a cultural context where women like Kestrel are not accepted just as themselves, but must be more like the woman portrayed on the new covers. It perpetuates a narrow perception of what constitutes strength, particularly in a female character. More than any aesthetic consideration, like how my books won’t match on my shelf, that is the problem I have with the new covers. While the original covers are not a perfect rendition (the dresses are not as described in the books), they’re representative of Kestrel as a person and they do not shy away from femininity. The new covers, on the other hand, boil her down to a dismissive stereotype and, contrary to the publisher’s claims, do not represent her badassery in the slightest.