Fantasy Novels and Female Posing–Probably Not What You Think

I know this isn’t anything new, but when I walk up and down the science fiction and fantasy section of most bookstores, the covers tend to fall into one of two categories. On the one hand, you see covers with muscle-bound men, holding guns or swords. On the other hand, you usually see women, also holding a weapon, but posing in interesting ways. This is particularly true of urban fantasy, where you will see a woman, often in tight-fitting leather, often revealing a bit of skin (usually tattooed), posing in unnatural, yet somewhat sexy poses. If you don’t know what I mean, check out this post by fantasy author Jim C Hines where he replicates these poses with hilarious results. Here’s my favorite:

Jim C. Hines, Night Myst

To me, it seems like publishers are taking a tip from comics, whose heroines often wear next to nothing and pose in a sexy way. For the most part, this is to catch the eye of male, adolescent readers. It makes sense. Action + sexy women = sales. It’s a formula that’s used in comics and action movies–really anything to get the male, age 15-35 audience. But why would fantasy publishers do it?

By using an image of a woman who is both strong and overtly sexy, I wonder if publishers are trying to have it both ways–ultimately costing them readers. Here’s what I mean. If a guy sees the book–he sees the sexuality. Does he pick up the book? My guess is no; he reaches for the book with the solider on the front. As much as he likes the sexy woman on the cover, he wants to identify with the protagonist, so he chooses the one with the male lead. Besides, there is likely to be some sex in his book too. Are the poses a way to catch the attention of female readers. Show a female protagonist, and and a female reader might buy the book. She may prefer a female protagonist, but what about the sexuality? Sure, she might want to identify with a woman who is both strong and sexy, but what about when the cover pushes the sexuality to a ridiculous degree? Might the overt sexuality cause a negative reaction? I mean, by objectifying the woman on the cover, doesn’t this make her seem less strong, less serious? Or is urban fantasy considered a less-than-serious genre, so the covers play into that mindset?

This is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Many covers look the same. Yet publishers have huge marketing departments, so why do we continue to see cover after cover that looks the same? Do these covers test well? Is it a question of just following the herd? What am I missing? Will the posing of Jim Hines call any attention to how silly these covers are? What do you think?