Discussion: Why Girls in Dresses Matter

why-girls-in-dresses-matter

A lot has happened in the bookish community the past few days, and it’s inspired me to write a discussion post that I think is about something very important: girls in dresses. You might be thinking, Why are girls in dresses so important, Alex? Well, I’m glad you asked. Just be prepared, this might be a very long post.

So, in case you have not been in the blogsphere for a few days, there’s been an uproar about a cover change for a very popular series. A series that is one of my personal favorites. The Winner’s Trilogy has had a cover change, just in time for the 3rd book. This in itself would cause quite an uproar–we book people like our covers to match, after all–but the actual content of the covers is what really has bloggers up in arms.

Here are the original covers, side by side with their new cover counterparts.

 
 
 

A lot of people have noted the striking similarity between the new covers and the ones for the Throne of Glass series. They’re very similar. In fact, the pose on the new cover of The Winner’s Curse is almost identical to the post on the cover of Sarah J. Maas’ Crown on Midnight. It’s bad enough that they’ve decided to change the cover for the last book in the series, and they look like another wildly popular book series, but that’s not why I’m writing this post.

I’m writing this post because of the message this cover change sends people: girls in dresses can’t be “badass.”

Fierce Reads said this in a now deleted tweet (screenshot credit to Nicola): IMG_4648

This is the biggest problem I have with this cover change. Fierce Reads’ reasoning for redesigning the covers is because they wanted Kestrel to look more “badass.” And in doing that, they’ve sent a pretty clear message: a girl can’t be “badass” in a dress. That, to me, is heartbreaking and enraging at the same time.

Let’s look at Kestrel as a character. I love her so much, I even invited her to Thanksgiving dinner with other fictional characters. Kestrel is wickedly cunning and intelligent; she knows how to navigate politics and get what she wants. A very important part of her character in the first and second book is the fact that she does not want to be a soldier like her father wants her to be.  She hates that. Kestrel enjoys wearing dresses, and they do not make her any less “badass.” I love Kestrel because of who she is, and she’s definitely badass. She was part of a rebellion, she saved more people than I can count, and she dared to defy her country. I don’t know about you, but she’s one amazing lady.

But then Fierce Reads makes a statement saying that Kestrel can’t be badass, so long as she’s wearing a dress? That is not okay. Because while it’s changing Kestrel’s character entirely with these new covers, it’s also saying that girls can only be badass so long as they look like the stereotypical “warrior” with shiny weapons and fierce expressions. Kestrel is badass and then some when she wears her dresses.

There are other ladies in dresses that are absolutely and every bit as badass as Kestrel. The most obvious example–and perhaps the most important is Celaena Sardothien from the Throne of Glass series. Celaena Sardothien is an assassin, yes, but what I love best about her is that she’s a girly assassin. She loves dresses, and sweets and books. Part of her is a deadly trained killer, but the other part of her is a girl who loves wearing dresses. This is even reflected in the Throne of Glass book covers–the front shows the assassin side of Celaena, and the back shows her fierce dress. Here are some examples:

  
Celaena Sardothien is definitely a badass, yes, but she’s a badass who wears dresses. She’s deadly with a weapon, yes, but she’s also got incredible intelligence and strength–strength that is laid bare especially in the third book, Heir of Fire. The dresses add to her character, and show that she’s more than the stereotypical warrior girl trope. Celaena Sardothien proves that characters don’t have to be girly or deadly–they can be both. This message is so incredibly important for the teenagers the book is aimed at.

Another example of a girl who is just as badass with a dress is Lilac LaRoux from The Starbound Trilogy. She’s a high society girl who seems like a complete airhead, but turns out to be incredibly smart and caring, and extremely gifted when it comes to technical stuff. She can rewire pods and secure servers in the trilogy, all while the other characters–including the males–sit back, stunned. Because they can’t believe that the girl with a dress can do these things, but she can. She doesn’t have to forfeit the technical side of her for her girly side; she can be both at once.

Shahrzad from The Wrath and the Dawn is every bit as fierce and badass as the rest of these ladies, even though she doesn’t know how to use a weapon. Shazi sacrifices herself to save countless other girls from a “monster,” all because he killed her best friend. She goes into a situation, knowing she might very well die, but holds her head high and fights hard for her survival. She navigates politics incredibly well for a girl who is thrust into her position, and you know what she wears while doing it? Dresses. Beautiful, girly clothing that doesn’t take away from her courage and bravery, and only makes her more “badass.”

Mara Dyer from The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer also wears a dress on her cover, and this girl is absolutely badass. She is able to hurt people just by thinking about it. She’s an anti-hero (one of my favorites), and yet, even a girl who should be a killer wears a dress on her cover. There’s this very important scene in the second book, The Evolution of Mara Dyer that involves her wearing a dress, and you know what? It doesn’t take away from her character at all–it doesn’t make her less dangerous, or less smart, or less “badass.” She’s still Mara Dyer, and I dare anyone to say that she isn’t badass.

The problem with this whole situation is that there are so little girls in YA who actually wear dresses on covers and still have a strong character. Kestrel was one of the best examples of this; she’s badass and she wears dresses, and I think that’s an incredibly important message for girls. But now the covers have changed, and Kestrel is now just another “warrior” girl who looks one-dimensional and doesn’t at all reflect the girl that I know she is. By doing this, Fierce Reads has stripped away part of her character and said this message to every girl who sees the cover: You cannot be girly and badass at the same time.

Girls in dresses matter so much to YA fiction. They’re the characters that tell girls that they don’t have to choose one side of themselves. You can be whoever you want to be. You don’t have to fit into a box with a label of “warrior girl” or “girly girl.” You can be both, and up until The Winner’s Trilogy cover redesign, that’s what Kestrel, Celaena, Shazi, Lilac and Mara all showed girls. That 1) girls wearing dresses can sell in YA, and 2) they’re just as important and complex as girls who don’t like to wear dresses and carry weapons.

It’s very important to write all kinds of female characters. Write female characters who kick butt and have trust issues. Write female characters who cry at the little things. Write female characters who love books, and who sacrifice themselves for the people they love, and who are complete assholes to everyone around them. Write female characters who are badass. Write female characters who wear dresses. Or better yet, write female characters who have all of this. Because strong female characters don’t have to be the typical definition of “badass.” They can be the girls who wear dresses, or cry at the slightest thing, or who cower under the covers during scary movies (like me). Female characters like that show teenage girls like me–and even adults–that we’re just as valid and strong as the girl who knows how to use a sword.

Kestrel Trajan may not be the girl who can best you in a sword fight, but she’d beat you any day on a discussion about politics. She’s smart and she’s cunning and she’s every bit as important to me as Celaena Sardothien is, and her dresses only make her love her more. She’s so much more than the typical “warrior” the new covers show her as. Because while she is a warrior, she’d never wear those clothes, or use those weapons.

The Krestel Trajan I know and love will always be the girl with beautiful, flouncy dresses and incredible intelligence. That is the Kestrel that was on the original covers, and that is the strong female character I will always love and defend until I die.

Girls in dresses matter every bit as much as the girls who use weapons, and I love them all equally. In order for people to take characters like Kestrel seriously, publishers cannot tweet things like Fierce Reads did and redesign covers to send a message that girly girls can’t be badass. Because that couldn’t be less true.

Protect all female characters, but protect girls in dresses the most, because they are strong and badass and they matter.

Who are your favorite female characters who wear dresses? What did you think of this discussion? Let me know in the comments!

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32 thoughts on “Discussion: Why Girls in Dresses Matter

  1. thedaydreamingbookworm says:

    *claps hand* This was a GREAT discussion post (but all of your discussions are great)! So on point and you are so right. Being a badass doesn’t mean you have to be ready to use your fist, the brain is powerful tool as well. I think they made a bad call with these cover changes and their reasoning does not suffice.

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    • Alex @ Fiery Reads says:

      Thanks Ari! 🙂 Their reasoning for changing the covers was really crappy, imo, but they have “re-revealed” the cover and said they’re bringing back the red dress for the hardcover…but they didn’t really address their rude and hurtful comments :/

      Like

  2. Marianne @ Boricuan Bookworms says:

    ALL THE YES! I wish I could give you a standing ovation because that’s what this post deserves. Ypu definitely CAN kick ass in a dress. Fierce Reads really didn’t think this through.

    I haven’t read The Winner’s Curse, but I definitely got mad when I saw they changed the covers. I own the first book with the old cover and I really liked it. I liked how it looked mostly feminine but then you see Kestrel is actually holding a dagger (or knife? I’m bad at weapon terminology). Anyways, yeah, I know the Throne of Glass series has succesful covers, but why copy them? I don’t want to have a lot of Throne of Glass lookalikes on my shelf. Geez.

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    • Alex @ Fiery Reads says:

      Thank you! That’s why I originally liked the titles too! I saw the dress and I thought “ooh, pretty!” but when I got closer I saw the dagger and I was like “oh yeah, I’ve DEFINITELY got to read this!” It’s just proof that dresses can attract readers too 🙂

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  3. Ardis says:

    Wow, this was a great post and it had me opening a GR screen to jot down all the names of the great examples you gave of badass girls in dresses. You made some great points about perceptions. Thank you!

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  4. Bec the Halls (@bectineus) says:

    ALL OF THE APPLAUSE FOR THIS POST! 100000% agree with everything you say. There is more than one way to be badass, thank you very much.

    You’ve listed all my favourite girls in dresses in this post! The only one I can’t entirely agree with is Wrath of the Dawn BUT that’s only because I haven’t read the book yet!

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  5. Cait @ Paper Fury says:

    I couldn’t agree more! GAH, I’m so furious at that Fierce Reads tweet. It’s undermining and it’s really insulting and it just outlines this whole incorrect idea like, as you said, that you can’t kick butt in a dress. SO WRONG. And I love all the other dress-wearing-badass girls you’ve listed there! I’d add in Blue from The Raven Boys who wore dresses!! And most of the girls in the Lunar Chronicles did seriously epic stuff while wearing a dress. SO YEAH. I 100% agree with your post *nods* And it also bothers me that femininity is being sort of…sneered at here? Like you can’t be “cool” and feminine? Gah… I, for one, will absolutely definitely be buying the UK cover.

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    • Alex @ Fiery Reads says:

      I CAN’T BELIEVE I FORGOT BLUE *facepalm* She’s probably my favorite out of the bunch tbh, I just LOVE The Raven Boys!. Fierce Reads just recently announced that they’re releasing the red dress cover for the hardback…but their reasoning was because they said people “wanted their hardbacks to all match.” And while I do like my books to match, that was not the main reason why the book community was so up in arms about it. Urgh, it’s all just so insulting. Anyways, thank you so so much for taking the time to comment on this post!! I’m actually in love with your blog and I look up to you a lot so it means a lot that you read and commented on this post 🙂

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  6. Lindsay Brambles says:

    One suspects this might be more about money than anything else. Publishing being a business, publishers will do whatever they can to boost the sales of books, and there can be no question that covers can help in that regard. A good, standout cover will often pique the interests of readers; it is, after all, often the first impression a reader gets of a book. (And as most of us know, first impressions are often important.)

    In the case of the Winner’s books, the publisher may have felt that the contents were not being accurately reflected by the original covers; that, in fact, those covers were perhaps too easily interpreted to suggest a predominately romantic slant to the stories that was at risk of turning away some of the very readers who would actually enjoy these stories. This is just speculation, of course, but publishers don’t generally go to the expense of a major cover redesign midstream unless they’ve been given cause to believe it’s justified.

    Given the reaction to the changes, it would appear that in this case the publisher may have completely misread the audience for these books. Or worse, still, has taken for granted the already established fan base, assuming that those readers will continue to purchase the books regardless of what the publisher does – thus allowing the publisher to court new readers (and in this case, one imagines that these would be readers of the books whose covers are now mimicked by the reworked versions of the Winner’s series).

    Personally, from a purely artistic perspective, the original covers are (in my opinion) superior. Although I’m male, I think I would tend to take a second look at those covers over the rather generic-looking reworks. There is nothing subtle about the latter, nor is there anything particularly interesting or original about them (as I see it). They certainly don’t intrigue me. And, of course, as you have pointed out, the manner in which they have been foisted upon the readership sends all the wrong messages. Unfortunately, this happens all too frequently in today’s society.

    I have seen indication that some people seem to be blaming the author for these changes, which shows a poor understanding of the publishing industry. Speaking from personal experience (having recently had a novel published) I can attest to the fact that writers don’t generally have much say when it comes to how their books are presented to the reading public. Now, I happen to love the cover of my book, but if I hadn’t it would have made no difference. Decisions on matter like these are strictly the purview of the publisher.

    It’s troubling to see that a handful of readers have declared that they won’t buy the next book in the Winner’s series because of the cover change, thus punishing the writer for something beyond her control. Moreover, as much as I sympathize with the desire among readers for cover continuity, I can’t imagine not reading a book simply because I didn’t like the cover. It’s the content that counts, after all.

    In closing, I might mention that I have a niece who reads some YA and I can guarantee that she would likely pass on the Winner’s books as published in the original covers, but she might be more inclined to look at them in their new guises. She’s a young engineer and into cosplay (Black Canary, Black Widow) and not much into dresses (unless they have something to do with Star Trek or are printed to resemble the Tardis from Doctor Who). It may very well be that it’s this sort of audience the publisher of the Winner’s books is seeking to attract with the cover redesign, believing that they can do so without risk of completely alienating current fans.

    When it all comes down to, however, perhaps had the publisher simply switched the covers without making an announcement about it (and one in which they appear to have put foot firmly in mouth) they’d not have generated so much controversy. But they chose (I suspect inadvertently) to make this about societal perceptions of women when it should merely have been about marketing strategies. Had they been more circumspect, readers might have been dismayed by the change, but they also might not have been so outraged by it. This was definitely a mistake on the publisher’s part – unless, of course, you consider that we’re now all talking about it, which provides the books with more exposure and may have in fact brought in new readers (which is definitely good for the writer).

    The silver lining in all this is that it’s generating healthy and needed debate about issues that are important to women, and that can never be a bad thing.

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    • Alex @ Fiery Reads says:

      Oh, I definitely agree sales and money had a LOT to do with why they changed the covers. What bothers me is that they erased the main character’s charaicterization and tried to make her look like a “warrior girl” when it’s even written out in the text that she doesn’t want to be a soldier like her father wants her to be. Personally, I would never not buy this book just because of the cover change–I love the author so much that I couldn’t do that to her!

      Fierce Reads just recently “re-revealed” the cover and said that they’re going to put the red dress cover on the hardback, which pleases me, but they didn’t say anything about their deleted, hurtful tweet, which really bothers me. I know the whole issue is over with, but it’s still stings a little, you know? Anyways, thank you so much for taking the time to write this very in-depth comment! I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you put so much thought into this! 🙂

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      • Lindsay Brambles says:

        I fully sympathize with what you are driving at with regard to the new covers failing to accurately reflect that nature of the main character. Unfortunately, book covers are often poor representations of content, and more often than not are meant to seduce rather than illuminate. In some cases they can be suitably intriguing without straying from the author’s intentions, and for me those are the covers that work best. Indeed, that’s what I like about the cover Switch Press did for my book (which, I should point out, features a young woman who happens to on occasion wear skirts and dresses, including during some of the action scenes in the book).

        I have to say that I have really enjoyed seeing the passion with which you have addressed this issue, because as you have made clear, it’s about more than just the cover. It does, in fact, strike at an issue that’s very important to women, and the patronizing manner in which the publisher initially went about the cover change showed a failure to be sympathetic to that issue. That they had retreated (at least somewhat) is a credit to you and those like you who made you opinions on the matter public. Which just goes to show how powerful the written word can be, and how one should never stay silent on those issues one is passionate about. The world has been changed for the better more often by words, than it has ever been changed by guns and armies.

        Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for this and I hope to see more of its like from you in the future. Happy reading (and writing), and all the best in this coming year!

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  7. Laura says:

    Awesome post! I hadn’t actually seen these covers (and I haven’t read this series) but I totally take your point. Wearing a dress doesn’t automatically mean you can’t be tough – people can totally have different sides to their personality. I’m completely the opposite – I’m a total tomboy and can’t remember the last time I wore a dress, but I’m literally the least tough person ever!

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  8. Maia Moore says:

    I really agree with everything you’ve said here. I haven’t read the books yet but didn’t miss the uproar around the cover change. I think Celaena is the best example of being a badass in a dress, and I hate the idea that if you’re a warrior you can’t wear a dress, or have to be dressed in ‘manish’ clothes. I think the thing that annoys me the most is the idea that young/teenage girls are getting the message that you can be tough and look ‘badass’ or you can wear a dress and look girly, as if a combination is impossible.

    Great post, I found this really interesting 🙂

    Like

    • Alex @ Fiery Reads says:

      Thank you! ❤ Celaena is my favorite example of a badass girl with a dress too, she's an absolutely amazing character 🙂 She's my favorite part of the Throne of Glass series. Have you read all of the books so far?

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  9. Becca and Books says:

    THIS. This exactly my problem with the cover change. Girls can kick ass in a dress! And even if Kestrel isn’t the most badass character out there, so what? She’s smart, clever, and cunning. Being badass isn’t the most important thing to be.
    The funny thing is, publishers usually change covers to get the most publicity for the book. This cover change was certainly got the book plenty of publicity!

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