White Privilege in YA Book Covers, Characters and Film Adaptations

Much of racism has been encountered, acknowledged and criticized in music, movies and television programs. Media racism studies such as these has been extensive, but one area that many people do not realize is also institutionally racist is Book Covers and Fiction. In literature, especially Young Adult/Teen Fiction literature, there are hardly any characters who are people of color (POC), let alone function as the main protagonist of a fantastical story. In fact, publishers understand and recommend authors to feature white models on their book covers, citing that featuring a person of color/ethnic model would decrease sales. This is a prime example of valuing whiteness, white privilege over people of color, and also is exemplary of the fact that whiteness is so insidiously invisible, so “normal” that one cannot help but imagine characters (even if they are written as POC from the author) as nothing but white!

What is sad about this predicament is that when fans of a book series imagine the author’s characters, they automatically imagine them as “white,” and any attempts at creating explicit ethnic descriptions are completely lost, or, featuring any non-white, person of color/ethnic characters can decrease interest and sales. Fans’ propensity to imagine characters as “white” is reaffirming white privilege and its “invisibility.”

A fantastic example is YA author Cassandra Clare’s fictional character, Magnus Bane in her “The Mortal Instruments” series and “Clockwork Angel.” Magnus is of half-Indonesian and half-Dutch descent, but recent events have revealed that many fans of the book series were shocked to learn Magnus’ Asian heritage, and instead had explicitly imagined him as a White Male Character even after extensive, forthright attempts to describe Magnus as an Asian character written throughout all her books by Clare. Fans subsequently revealed their shock after learning the casting of Taiwanese actor Godfrey Gao as Magnus Bane in the upcoming film adaptation of “City of Bones”:

These are examples of how insidious “whiteness” is, how pervasive it is in the minds of individuals everywhere.

Perhaps what is more concerning is how institutionalized white privilege is through book covers. Clare cites how a large portion of a book’s market success is dependent on your book cover:

If booksellers don’t like your cover, they can choose to not carry the book, effectively sinking the book. There is enormous crushing pressure to produce a cover that big booksellers will think is marketable.”

I have a friend who insisted that her biracial main character be portrayed by a biracial girl on the cover of her book and was told after it came out and had disappointing sales: ‘Well you did insist on that model for the cover.’”

It is disappointing to know that biracial models is considered unattractive to booksellers as well as to individuals of regular society. It shows the institutionalized forms of racism and white privilege in book covers, if an author does not have a white model on a cover, booksellers will not choose to sell the book, and even if they do, the general society will not buy it and/or be interested in it.