Close-up on a book cover: “Unspeakable Things”, by Laurie Penny

Unspeakable Things is a book about feminism. It denounces gender oppression, patriarchal rule, and heteronormativity, among other things. It is therefore interesting that its back cover should look like this:

Back cover of Unspeakable Things

Note how it is patriarchal approval that serves as promotion tool here. Two middle-aged (rich, white, cis, hetero) guys, and three long established male institutions[1]? I couldn’t have come up with a better lineup to embody the patriarchy if I had tried.

Platitudes about book covers set aside, there is no doubt that they serve as advertisements. The front gets your attention, and the back sums up content. The front encourages you to turn the book over, so the back can seal the deal. In the case of this parperback edition, you get a female feminist (Caitlin Moran) drawing you in, but when you get to the meat of the book, the serious stuff, you get the opinion of a bunch of older dudes. There might be a woman to catch your eye, but it is with men you do business. Sounds strangely familiar.

Of course, there is no reason why men shouldn’t be allowed to give their opinion on the book, especially since Laurie Penny devotes a chapter to the effects of gender expectations on men. Nor are the individual men quoted here not qualified for the job – Irvine Welsh and Joss Whedon have proven themselves as both writers and feminists.  But relying on patriarchal hegemony to promote a book that advocates gender revolution is a bit rich. Or cynically appropriate, I can’t decide. Maybe sadly vindicating.

There’s also this quote from the Financial Times, pointing to the negative effects of gender oppression… on men. Seriously? Yes, we’ve established that they surfer from it too, especially if they’re not white, hetero, and/or cis, but they’re also the group that holds the most privilege. Using their experience to promote a book that is mainly about female disenfranchisement looks strangely like an effort to bring the conversation back to them. Compassion my ass.

And what’s with this use of the word “bisexual”? Concluding a list of contentious adjectives, designed to inflate the word “troublemaker”. It presents bisexuality as controversial in and of itself, when Unspeakable Things seeks to expand our limited definitions of love and sex. There’s always the possibility that the author used the term ironically, ie, aimed to mock the scandalous connotations of the word by using it in that context; I would still disapprove. I’d argue that “bisexual” is a term that needs to be freed of its overtones, and that the best way to do this is to use it as neutrally as possible.

Anyway. This looks to me like the kind of lazy effort that brought you every single “African” cover ever made. That’s the danger of advertising: because it needs to be catchy, it runs the risk of relying on established structures and mental shortcuts, not matter what it’s promoting.

I do not get commission off the affiliate link in this entry.

[1] The Guardian got its first female editor in June 2015. The Times and Financial Times have never had a female editor. Even if you’re not aware of this, patriarchal hegemony and a basic knowledge of history encourages you to view these established and respected institutions as male; in turn, without the name of the individual reviewers quoted here, you have to assume they also represent a male standpoint, regardless of their actual gender or position.

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2 thoughts on “Close-up on a book cover: “Unspeakable Things”, by Laurie Penny

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