Under the covers: The racial gap in romance

Graphic by Nina Potischman

Abs so sculpted they belong in an art museum. Luscious, flowing-with-the-breeze, heartthrob hair. Heaving bosoms in low-cut, lace dresses.

I’ve been reading a lot of romance novels recently. Somehow, I’ve managed to get away with writing a senior thesis about them, which means I’ve seen cover after cover with all of the titillating details described above.

I understand that these covers are meant to help the books sell. When readers are bombarded with options in their local bookstore, or, more likely, scrolling through thousands of titles on their smartphones, a seductive cover becomes the book’s siren call.

The romance genre especially plays into readers’ fantasies, with everything from billionaire businessmen in red rooms (i.e. the tamest way to summarize “Fifty Shades of Grey”) to time-travel with muscly Scotsmen in kilts (“Outlander”).

Books call to me precisely because of this fantasy element. I watch a movie when I want all of the visual elements laid bare. It’s in books where I get teased, where the author gives me just enough to suck me in, but then leaves me to fill in the gaps. So when I know exactly what the characters look like thanks to the cover, I miss out on part of that imaginative process.

It’s like when I read a book, and then see the movie adaptation, and the actors they cast don’t fit how I imagined them all. Having a cover tell me what the characters look like can often be a mini-version of that bad movie adaptation. It strips me of the ability to fit the book into my own fantasy.

As a former shy girl who once read romance books as a stand-in for real-life romantic relationships, I also developed some pretty unrealistic expectations from them. With book covers portraying the same beauty standards over and over again, I felt isolated when I didn’t see those same ideals in myself.

This isn’t to say the covers don’t have their differences — some models have six-packs, others eight-packs. Some wear cowboy boots (and not much else), others have fangs. But there’s one physical attribute that seems to unite the ones I’ve come across thus far.

All the covers that feature characters are white. Like, alabaster, bone-licked clean, Snow White white.

This is a problem that goes beyond the constraints it places on my imagination. And it hasn’t gotten better. In fact, a study done by Ripped Bodice, a bookstore that exclusively sells romance novels, shows it actually got worse in 2017.

In 2016, 7.8 percent of books published by leading romance publishers were written by authors of color. That number dropped to 6.2 percent in 2017. The homogeneity of romance cover art is a reflection of this lack of diversity among published writers.

The race of the authors and the race of the characters are not necessarily always correlated. In other words, the lack of authors of color doesn’t necessarily mean there are no characters of color. But as the Ripped Bodice points out, “If every creator is white, the default is a white lens.”

Take, for example, the use of AAL (African American Language) by Kathryn Stockett, a white author, in “The Help.” The Association of Black Women Historians stated that it “misrepresent[s] African American speech and culture.” Linguists who study AAL have since pointed out that Stockett misuses grammatical constructions within the dialect.

The romance genre is oversaturated with white authors and white characters. The industry certainly doesn’t need more white authors writing characters of color, either. “The Help” highlights this problematic part of publishing, which has historically led to the often stereotypical, racist depiction of people of color.

The New York Times apptly points out the irony in all of this. The romance genre has such incredible diversity in terms of subgenre — and none when it comes to the characters and authors themselves, even though college-educated black women are the most likely demographic to buy books, according to a Pew Research study.

Thankfully, there are movements focused on changing the white face of romance.

“We Need Diverse Books” is a non-profit dedicated to diversifying children’s literature, but it has started to spread into adult literature and genres as well. Kensington, an independent publisher, has “forged a chain uncommon in mainstream publishing: an unbroken line of black women, from the novel’s protagonist, via the author, to the editor, to the art director who created the cover art (featuring a black woman).”

So, my dear romance publishers, please stop telling me what the characters look like. You’re kind of ruining my fantasy, here. But if you absolutely, absolutely must, it’s high time to recognize that whiteness should not have a monopoly on romance.

Samantha Resnick is a linguistics major at Pomona College. She likes reading words, and sometimes, she likes writing them, too.

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