November 2006

Heather Smith


Judging a Book by Its Cover: Gender Trouble

In the immortal words of Patti Smith, the androgynous rock god cum Michigan housewife cum androgynous rock god, "Frankly, being any gender is a drag."

Yeah Patti -- in every sense of the word "drag." People (and seahorses and clownfish) have mucked about with gender since gender was invented but things really began to get interesting in the 1920s when Edgar Allan and Edward Doisy first isolated estrogen from pig ovaries. Testosterone was isolated about 15 years later (from a bull this time), but very few people had a sense of the full implications such discoveries would have for the American publishing industry.

Then, in 1952, a blond bombshell sauntered off a plane from Copenhagen and into a blitzkrieg of flashbulbs. America was fascinated -- at the time, the cultural zeitgeist approved of nothing more than it approved of technological innovation and women who looked like Joan Crawford. Never mind that all the innovation in question actually took place in Denmark -- Christine (formerly George) Jorgensen came to embody American pluck and can-do spirit.

Christine's autobiography was the first American transgender biography, but over the next forty years, multitudes have followed, either because transitioning from one gender to another is a circumstance that involves a great deal of literary thought and circumspection, or because trans people are subjected to so many questions that it just gets simpler to write a book about it and tell your friends to read it. The result is as many biographies as there are colors in the gender rainbow, stars in the gender milky way, and kittens in the gender basket. How will the uninitiated, busy shopper be able to tell which transgender autobiography to buy for their mother, their rabbi, or the proprietor of their local soda fountain this upcoming holiday season? By paying attention to subtle cues in cover design, of course.

Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography by Christine Jorgensen, Susan Stryker (introduction)
Cleis Press
ISBN: 1573441007
The cover of this reprint edition has pulled back like a camera pan from the original cover. Instead of the dewy, Technicolor "I'm ready for my close-up, Mister DeMille" style headshots used in earlier editions, we get a cover made up to look like the tabloids that first broke the news of Jorgensen's transformation. A block of thick black text blares, "In 1952, She Was a Scandal!" next to a photo of a slightly anxious Jorgensen surrounded by scrambling paparazzi. It's a good way to sell a book that is, at this point, a historical document. This is obviously the book to buy for the graduate student in media studies in your household, or for any aficionados of Photoplay magazine.

Conundrum by Jan Morris
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 1590171896

Book designers are fond of a particular shade that wavers between "eggshell" and "beige." It's the sort of color model homes are decorated in, and the intent is the same: to spell out I Am Classy. The space where an image would normally go is replaced by two sentences:  "I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life." So, not only classy, but literary. This is the transgender autobiography of choice for any of your friends who currently smoke pipes, and formerly attended boarding school.

She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan
ISBN: 0767914295
Cover Design: Honi Werner

This is so clearly the book to get your mom. For one, it looks like a Dove ad. Or any number of ladies-book-club-endorsed books. That clean white background, that skinny, but not-too-skinny midriff, that particular shade of cranberry that runs in a stripe along the bottom, it all spells one thing: M-O-M. Or A-U-N-T-I-E, come to think of it. And the cover does not lie -- this is primarily a book about relationships. It has a lot of emotional Sturm und Drang, and Marriage and Parenting Issues, and tender heartwarming moments, with minimal statements like "my tracheal shave was scheduled for Thursday."

Just Add Hormones: An Insider's Guide to the Transsexual Experience by Matt Kailey
Beacon Press
ISBN: 0807079596
Cover Design: Bob Kosturko

So many things about this book cover are just bizarre -- from the baby announcement color scheme to dolphin-like pink lady, to the tiny blue man holding his breath and sinking to the bottom of the Erlenmeyer flask like a lead balloon. This cover is really out to spell it all out for you. Woman + chemical exposure = man. This is the memoir to give to all your friends out there who are expecting babies -- just tell them that the clerk in the bookstore told you that it was all about prenatal nutrition.

The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal and Social Transformation from Female to Male by Max Wolf Valerio
Seal Press
ISBN: 1580051731
Cover Design: Gia Giasullo, Studio eg

Again with the pink and blue, which is interesting because the two colors have undergone their own identity shift. At the beginning of the century, baby boys were dressed in pink with the idea that pink was more manly and energetic. Girls were dressed in blue because it was associated with docility and the Virgin Mary. The shades of blue and pink for The Testosterone Files are much more intense, as befits both the sideways, combative stare of the author photo, and the lurid, punk rock tone of the narrative. This is the transgender memoir of choice to purchase for precocious teenage cousins everywhere, and not just because the word "Files" in the title makes it seem like there might be a car chase at some point.