I recently read a book called The Undertaker’s Daughter. It is the memoir of a woman, Kate Mayfield, whose father was indeed an undertaker. She grew up in a ‘funeral home’, as they call them in the States, and was thought of for a long time as the daughter of the undertaker and not much else. Her exposure to death and the business of funerals at such a young age had a huge impact on her and played a significant role in some of her most formative experiences – so, it justifiably makes sense that she should call her memoir The Undertaker’s Daughter, as that was what she was for a long time. The memoir also only covers her time living with her family, before she grew up and became Other Things. (I also really enjoyed it, it’s a fantastic book – review soon)
But it is still another book called The Something’s Daughter. I’ve noticed a lot of these recently. Kate Mosse’s new book is called The Taxidermist’s Daughter. A quick GoodReads search throws up a huge list of similarly named books. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter; The Bonesetter’s Daughter; The Hangman’s Daughter; The General’s Daughter; Pandora’s Daughter; and that’s just from page one. There are 785 pages of books with ‘Daughter’ in the title. Granted they aren’t all the same format, but they all have the daughter as the subject. And this takes all agency away from that girl or woman. She is defined by someone else (a parent but not always a man) and her relationship to that person. It is instantly infantilising, whether that daughter is an adult or not. Defining a girl by her parentage is something we no longer do (generally) in the modern Western world – but here we are doing it on our book covers.
My problem with this trend is that is that it is incredibly limiting. Like Kate Mayfield, all women are daughters but they are also many other things. I am a daughter. When I think of myself that way I feel loved and happy, but I also feel very young and childlike (like how you revert to your childhood role when you’re alone with your family). I am a daughter, but I am also a sister and a cousin, a girlfriend and a friend; and a woman, an adult. I think the only time I was defined by my parents it was when I was too young to make my own decisions or know who I was.
Authors and publishers can call their books whatever they want, of course, but things catch on and become popular, and whatever sells is reproduced. The Something’s Daughter is a book trend like any other, but there seems to be a lot of it about at the moment. A lot more than any book entitled The Something’s Son. I searched for ‘son’ on GoodReads and got back a lot more pages of results (1066), but judging by the first few pages this is partly because ‘son’ is also part of a lot of other words, like ‘song’. While there appear to be lots of male characters defined as a son here, not so many are defined in connection to what their parent is. For example, instead of The Something’s Son, it looks like Son of Something is more common, which adds agency to the son, or Son with an adjective, like Prodigal or Seventh. Not quite the same as the daughter books. And certainly not such a noticeable trend. Wonder why that is.
It’s like the trend for faceless women on book covers. They drive me insane. Is she just lips and boobs and shoulders? Where are her eyes? I think the back of a woman’s head must be one of the most common images of a woman used on book covers. We get faceless men too, but not nearly as many. Another trend is books called The Girl Who… or The Girl With… which pretty much started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and hasn’t gone away. Again, a girl being arbitrarily defined by something about her that crucially isn’t who she actually is. Lisbeth Salander is a lot of other things besides being a girl with a tattoo, a girl who played with fire, or who kicked the hornet’s nest. No one is just one thing, and titles like this over-simplify complex characters – most of whom happen to be women. Simplifying women makes them easy to understand and label, pigeonholes them into being just one facet of their personality. The problem with this is that when a woman is simplified, she is reduced, she loses agency and power, and she is contained. She is not allowed to expand and explore, to express and change. The complexity of the self is also reduced in these book titles (for both men and women).
For me at least, this highlights the problem of naming a book after a character. Using their name as the title makes sense, but picking one attribute of theirs as the title just reduces it to a movie poster. I appreciate that sometimes these titles are appropriate, but there are simply too many of them that are gendered – calling a book The Something isn’t nearly as problematic. It leaves things open to interpretation and reduces the significance of the person’s gender in defining who they are. So I hope that all these Daughter and Girl titles have had their day, along with the faceless women on the covers. They often put me off at first glance, though of course a lot of them are excellent books and are worth reading. But the importance of covers and titles should never be underestimated, and we need modernity and originality more than ever these days. So let’s see it!