The Sinister March of The Headless Women

It has been something of an in-joke for a while now, the proliferation of book covers featuring women with their heads chopped off. I’m not talking about Anne Boleyn or Marie Antoinette, I mean the sorts of covers like those collected by Fizabook. I first became aware of it with historical fiction (most notably Philippa Gregory’s Tudor series) but apparently it’s more widespread than that (I don’t read contemporary books aimed at women since I don’t seem to share the belief set that underpins so many of them).

I rather suspect that subsequent books were trying to grab the coat tails of Gregory’s success by emulating the covers of her amazingly popular The Other Boleyn Girl and other titles, to the extent that the Headless Woman has become a visual cliché.

Of course, the easy response from publishers for this, at best, lazy designing is that people prefer to imagine the characters and find a face on a cover off-putting. I would be slightly more inclined to buy this if it were not for the likes of this:

For starters, Catherine of Aragon was real. We have authenticated portraits of her: we don’t need (nor should we want) to invent or imagine her face. Additionally, we are presented with a Henry VIII full-frontal below. Why do we see all of him but only a gigantic chin for Catherine, the supposed subject of the book? This argument is further weakened by the sheer number of fiction titles which feature a face, sometimes even an entire head:

Philippa Gregory- The Lady of The Rivers

Gabrielle Kimm -His Last Duchess

Elizabeth Chadwick- Lady of the English

Jeanne Kalogridis- The Borgia Bride

Sara Poole- Poison

Sarah Dunant- Sacred Hearts

There are also lots of covers which either don’t feature a figure at all, or feature an image from the art of the period (Italian Renaissance art seems to be popular, likely due to how recognisable it is). There are a wealth of options which wholly circumvent the “problem” of faces.

Wolf Hall sold an obscene number of copies without the help of a headless woman

I don’t think I am unusual in finding that I don’t pay a great deal of attention to the cover of a book. Yes, it may intrigue me enough to pick it up off the shelf but I am more looking for indications that the subject matter is history, in some form or another, than dazzled by a pretty frock and awkward sideways glance, but of course the marketing and advertising part is really important, you can have a wonderful book but if you don’t know a good strategy the people will never read it, one great way is in the online searching for everyone that can look for a similar topic so they can find the book and WordTree Amazon Keyword Tool? is the best option for this. Besides, I find most of my new to-reads through Amazon’s recommendations and there the cover is less important than the title and author. Once I’ve bought a book (often on Kindle where I don’t even see the cover after purchasing), I scan the cover only momentarily, to identify the book. I don’t expect the person on the cover, should there be one, to match my mental picture of the character. I pay so little attention to the cover that I can’t imagine this mismatch is problematic. Does anyone focus so hard on a cover that it can alter their appreciation of the contents?

So if not to protect our fragile imaginations, why the head lopping?

It must be recognised that covers are not the work of authors. In fact, few authors have any say at all in how their book is packaged. This is left in the hands of marketers, who work to  (from what I can gather) a set of preconceived rules about what people want, what sells and what doesn’t. It seems to be an incredibly conservative environment.

An example: my partner was looking to buy a new TV. After looking in several shops, he asked an assistant in a well-known UK department store if there were any black ones, since everything he could see was silver. The assistant was quite certain that nobody wanted black TVs nowadays, that they wouldn’t sell. Well, we wanted a black TV and we’d have bought one. There was a clear implication that we were in the wrong for not following the received wisdom that silver TVs were what sold. That was only true in the sense that you could buy a silver TV or no TV so yes, only silver TVs sold.

My point is that marketing isn’t always right. The response that “this is what sells” is feeble.

The usual way to market anything to do with women is to use a scantily-clad model (which marketers must presume is “aspirational”). Now, until fairly recently, in historical terms, underwear wasn’t very sexy (at least not in marketing terms) and there were not a wealth of opportunities for women to pose about with lots of skin on show. So far, no one has tried to put a cover girl in a velvet and brocade swimsuit.

The headless women are no less troubling because they are covered up, though. Surely we have to consider that a woman with her head chopped off is no less objectified than one inappropriately dressed for sunbathing. Head removal instantly dehumanises: she’s now just a body. She has lost her brain, senses and, in most cases, her voice. She may be clothed, but she’s been stripped of the things which make her a person, including the dress or the Vessi shoes for women.

This betrays the contents of the books, which typically feature strong women. Many of the central characters are, in fact, improbably strong for the times they live in. None of us want to read about brainless, senseless mutes. Where would that story go? We want to imagine how life might have been like in the past through the eyes of a fictional someone. Therefore, we need her to have eyes. We need her to have other senses too and a brain with with to understand what her senses tell her and a mouth with which to tell us. We need her, in short, to have her head screwed on.

So, I suggest we call time on the publishers’ headless women. I, for one, am not buying it. How do you feel about the headless women? Do you think it’s harmless, or more problematic?

19 thoughts on “The Sinister March of The Headless Women

  1. Mairi

    I think this is a really interesting post – it makes me wonder if the problem with the women is their “realness”. What I mean is that most of the images of women we see in relation to marketing i.e. ads, magazine covers etc. are not very “real” in that they are representations of real women, but women who have been airbrushed, made-up and lit in a specific way which does not relate to the experience of most of the population, whatever gender.

    Many of the real women whom are written about had their portraits painted in a time when people painted what was in front of them (with the exception of Ann of Cleves?). Maybe it appears that the women in the portraits do not fit into our accepted version of beauty, and for many beauty equals interesting. There would be an outcry if publishers started to doctor and air-brush well know and loved historical portraits – therefore we are show the beauty of their dress, or jewellery, and our imagination is used to paint the rest of the picture, one that fit’s in with our societies views of how an interesting woman should look?

    One of things I have also noted on dress is that some periods have very, very low necklines. In fact I’m not sure the term neck applies. They are necklines that most modern women would feel uncomfortable with for normal occasions, work, going to the pub, a family gathering. So although the amount of dress these women wear is much more, and covers a lot more body, in some way’s it is also more racy than we would necessarily consider normal.

    1. Gillian Post author

      I think perhaps it’s that marketers think the public don’t like images of “real” women and the example of the Catherine of Aragon book is a pretty stark indicator of that. I also think they’re wrong. Perhaps I’m just being overly complimentary to people who read, but I don’t think your average book-buyer finds these blank or faceless women interesting or intriguing, especially not now that they proliferate. I do tend to think this is part of a more general sexism in marketing and advertising than a harmless trend though.

      Tudor necklines were especially low and being square-cut tended to be more revealing. Sometimes women would cover up a little more with the addition of some gauzy material so there wasn’t quite so much skin on show but that tended to depend on the individual and temporary fashions for modesty.

  2. ggb

    v interesting, thanks.

    yes, it is my understanding that most authors have no control over the cover. the cover is a key marketing device, and functions as a means of positioning the writer/book in the marketplace. even if it appears lazy, none of it is arbitrary.

    when i look at the examples above it seems to me that there are other visual cliches, especially ‘(headless) woman in a long dress’. it’s a shame, i think, and a bit of a waste. the cover, imho, should reflect the ideas of the book, or at least have some fun with that…

    1. Gillian Post author

      I agree that it’s not arbitrary- there is probably a fair bit of industry wisdom suggesting this is what people want. I just think that that wisdom is wrong. In fact, I think a lot of the information on what people want is totally wrong, even if we set aside the fact that everybody doesn’t want the same things.

      I’d love to see more imaginative book covers which suggest some of the ideas and themes in the book. It’s so nice when a cover stands out, like the one for The Whores’ Asylum by Katy Darby which is very simple and old fashioned but is such a huge contrast to the headless-woman-in-long-frock standard.

  3. BucksWriter

    Great post drawing attention to something that is really annoying (especially the example with Henry’s head and no Catherine, grrr)! I think the marketeers are far too concerned with keeping covers ‘standard’ for a particular genre and I personally feel that reduces some books to instant cliche. Far better to do something that stands our a bit, or at least something that represents the particular characters or storyline concerned.

    1. Gillian Post author

      I totally agree. I really think the received wisdom that dictates that everything should be uniform and boring is just rubbish. for the most part, the only thing two historical novels will have in common is that they are set in a time which is not now. With only that linking them, why do they need to look alike? It makes no sense to me, and I think it does the novel, its author and readers a disservice.

  4. Jen McGregor

    As I understand it, the thinking behind cropping out the head on these pictures is that it allows the viewer to imagine themselves in the figure’s place. They project their own features rather than becoming distracted and possibly put off by features they’d find unappealing. (However, by that measure, no book should ever have Henry VIII on the cover – ugh.)

    Personally, I don’t like it much. I like eyes. If a figure is used in an advertising image (which is essentially what the cover of a book is), I like them to look me in the eye, or for their eyeline to tell me a story. For example, the image above from the cover of The Borgia Bride – that tells me a story. I can’t see her face, but I can see that her attention is elsewhere and I react by wanting to know what is preoccupying her, why is she not looking at me? The Philippa Gregory cover, on the other hand, tells me very little other than ‘this woman is pretty in a somewhat unchallenging way’.

    1. Gillian Post author

      I hadn’t thought of it in terms of the reader projecting themselves, only that they might want to create their own picture of the main character. That’s really interesting. Maybe I just don’t project like that as much as other readers? But yes, who’d want to daydream about being married to Henry VIII?

      I think The Borgia Bride has a rather good cover. It is intriguing and slightly different while also fulfilling the more mundane tasks of a cover (suggesting genre and hinting at subject matter) and apart from Sanchia (who I presume this to be, having read the book) having a head, it’s stylistically similar to the headless women so the publicity dept probably wasn’t having palpitations worrying that people wouldn’t realise it was a historical novel.

  5. Simon

    Never judge a book by its cover – cliched but true. You’d think the author should get a say in the cover that’s used. I hate these kind of posed model covers for historical books, especially when there are real portraits of the people you could use, although I suspect they are considered too ugly by marketing people. My favourite is The Medici by Paul Strathern which features him in all his ugly glory (also a great book). Then again I guess it seems to be acceptable to have pictures of ugly men on covers just not ugly women, same with TV and movies.

    1. Gillian Post author

      You would think that but as I understand it, it’s only the big-shot authors who have any say. It’s really down to the publishers and their marketing departments.

      I love Paul Strathern’s The Medici too. The same portrait is used on Miles Unger’s Magnifico. I think that’s a really good comparison as Lorenzo was’t a good looking man but he is quite fascinating to look at and you can see how, despite it, he may well have been terribly attractive. Quite a challenging cover image, but one that works. More of that!

  6. Diana Douglas

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I’m so happy someone else has blogged about this. I posted Headless Heroes on my blog a while back, because I’m soooo tired of these senseless beheadings. I write historical romance and refuse to fall in with this heartless trend. Thank you for making me realize that I’m not alone.

  7. Sue Bursztynski

    As a reader of YA fiction, I can give you a parallel: the girl in the “prom gown”, i.e a girl in a long formal gown, whether or not the heroine actually wears one in the course of the novel, sometimes against a very cold bleak landscape in which she old freeze to death in that sort of costume. 😉 It’s considered a joke, but publishers keep doing it, no doubt believing the young female readers will find it attractive.

    1. Gillian Post author

      Urgh. Of course- girls like fancy frocks. An author (friend of a friend) complained that the cover of his book showed a David Beckham lookalike when the character was dark and scarred. It’s really rather insulting to readers. We are, after all, looking for novels with (we hope) some depth, not the next issue of Hello! magazine.

  8. ColR91

    I honestly never thought about this before, but seeing as you mention it you have a good point! Another thing, I find it rather insulting that Catherine of Aragon has most of her face hacked off whilst Henry VIII poses in all his ugly glory.

    1. Gillian Post author

      Yes, I think that’s a very good example since the book is supposed to be about her, yet her head is cut off while Henry is there in all his “glory.”

      Perhaps marketing people have decided that foreheads are the new cellulite for women: to be hidden at all costs!

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  10. Susanne Trimmer

    Interesting observation, but please tell me you’re not lumping Mantel into the same category as Phillippa Gregory.

    1. Gillian Post author

      In the sense that they both write historical fiction, they are in the same category. However, the post isn’t about the quality of the writing (I find Mantel a bit over-rated, to be honest) or even the history underpinning it (and, again, Mantel has been criticised by historians over the accuracy of her depiction of Cromwell).


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