Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cover Fail: Across the Universe

Cover showing two faces about to kiss
ARC cover
Across the Universe by Beth Revis is a new book in the young adult, science fiction, romance genre.  The male lead is a POC (person of color) and the female lead is a pale-skinned redhead.  I haven't read it yet, but The Interrobangs have an in-depth analysis of the text and the cover.  The Book Smugglers also report and have an interesting conversation going on in the comments.  What you need to know is that the original, ARC cover shows two faces in silhouette about to kiss.  The new, published cover has used the same image, but photoshopped the male model to look clearly different; to look more White.  In other words, whitewashing.

A different cover showing two faces about to kiss
Published cover
The male lead is a member of a fictional race called monoethnic.  Phoebe, the author of The Interrobangs article, has a long list of quotes from the book describing his appearance, but given descriptions like creamy dark skin, high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes, it's very clear that he isn't Caucasian.  She also tracked down the original photo used in the cover, which shows the cover model as an obvious POC with an afro.

If it was just two faces in silhouette, if I'd never seen the ARC cover, I'd probably roll my eyes that they'd resorted to a cop-out to avoid showing an interracial couple on the cover of an interracial romance.  I mean, race is the whole point of the story and they can't even put it on the cover?  But having seen the original cover, having seen the stock photo, there's no doubt in my mind that they deliberately photoshopped him to look more White.

Direct comparison of the faces

Multiple comments on these blogs and on Twitter have said the model was just fat and ugly and the photoshopping was done to make him look prettier.  Yes!  That's the point!  The fact that when these commenters look at the silhouette of a POC and think "ugly", and look at the silhouette of a White person and think "pretty", that is why whitewashing is wrong.  That is cultural programming at its most fundamental level. 

When you look around every day and see nothing but Whites on TV, on posters, on book covers; when the few POC you do see have paler than average skin and Whiter than average features; when even a celebrity as huge as Beyonce with her 16 Grammies has her skin and facial features digitally altered by Loreal; you start to believe that White is beautiful; everything else is ugly.  So before you start saying that full lips and round foreheads are "unattractive", stop and take a moment to think critically about why you believe that.

Comparison of Beyonce with whitewashed advertisement

And before you start saying "it's not a big deal" or "don't cry wolf over the little stuff", remember that whitewashing is a cumulative effect.  A wall is made of hundreds of bricks; an avalanche is made up of thousands of pebbles.  The little stuff isn't a big deal in isolation, but nothing happens in isolation.  And remember what it proves when random internet denizens think of POC features as "ugly" and White features as "pretty" - it proves that whitewashing works.


  1. Thank you so much for getting to the bottom of why those "he's just ugly!" responses bothered me.

    Also, you're blogging on the Bechdel Test? And Whitewashing in spec fic? And posting awesome reviews? Totally following your blog.

  2. Phoebe, I think those comments were an excellent example of how otherwise non-racist people (I assume) can say racist things without knowing it. And yeah, as an equalist (feminist, humanist, whatever you want to call it), even my reviews and discussions that aren't explictly about equalism are informed by my worldview.

    Rifferaff, thank you. =)

  3. To me, the ARC cover image of him looks a bit... fat rather than ethnic, tbh.

  4. When I look at the side by side comparisons, I see racial indicators such as cheekbones and brow lines being altered.

    You're not the first person to say it's just fat, ComaCalm. But I believe if our society had more images of different kinds of people around, an un-photoshopped image wouldn't make people think "fat". I mean, when you think about it, what does it say about our society that we don't like looking at people the way they really are? That we feel the need to "fix" them with photoshop?


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