In The Frame: John Holmes' Iconic Cover for The Female Eunuch

The cover art for Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch is world famous. I want to work out why it's so good, and how the original has led to so many great interpretations. Let's meet the legendary torso...

illustration of a woman's torso hung from a wooden rod like a garment

[John Holmes, cover art for The Female Eunuch]

Writer Monica Dux called this book's cover "a work of art that has in itself become iconic," and it's an undeniably recognizable design. Created by British artist John Holmes, the Female Eunuch is represented as a woman's torso that has been separated from the rest of the body. On my own cover it's been stylized and given a graphic kick, with over-simplified detail that renders the figure like a cut-out paper doll from a magazine. In the original it's a beautiful oil painting with detail and warm flesh tones. Either way, she's meant to represent what we have become (though it's worth mentioning, of course, that the torso is thin and white, typical choices when an artist is looking to represent the "every woman" but not actually representative of every woman). When she is swapped for another design, the book just doesn't pack the same punch. American audiences have been presented with several recent covers that step away from Holmes' imagery, with Farrar Straus and Giroux choosing a laddered pair of tights (which I feel is, like the hosiery, quite flimsy and not very substantial) and Harper Collins opting for a photograph of a thin woman with a box on her head and a white triangle to neatly cover all her distinctive features. Neither of these are worthy updates—they don't feel half as powerful as the lumpen torso. They also seem like attempts to link The Female Eunuch to fashion—with nods to artistic photo shoots in both cases—which falls a little flat in a book that so eloquently discusses the objectification of women.

Eunuch cover illustrated with text on the torso Eunuch cover in black and white Eunuch cover with the laddered tights mentioned earlier Eunuch cover with the thin white woman wearing a box on her head mentioned earlier

[The Female Eunuch artwork versions, L-R: Harper Perennial cover (UK), Flamingo Modern Classics (UK), Farrar Straus & Giroux (USA), Harper Collins (USA)]

Since Holmes' original image has passed into the book cover hall of fame, there have been several reinterpretations that pay tribute to his work. If you buy a copy of Germaine Greer's text in the UK then you'll normally have something that refers to that same blank torso. The fame and the interconnection between the image and the book title were surprising to John Holmes, who didn't realize that his piece would become so recognizable. His first cover suggestion involved Germaine's image with conflicting male and female genitalia, but this was felt to be too confrontational and graphic. I'm also glad that they removed Germaine's identity from the cover art, because this book isn't an autobiography: It's about a whole movement and the behavior of society, so it shouldn't just be based on what the author looks like. Having Germaine's portrait staring back at you could be a little daunting if you're sitting on the fence about The Female Eunuch, and it would be such a shame to put people off when they're curious to learn more. Holmes and the publishers made the right decision with this artwork.

illustration of a corset breaking into pieces

[John Holmes, Breaking Away]

This wasn't a token gesture by John Holmes to appear interested in female issues: Several of his paintings deal with the idea of woman's emancipation and the importance of females as figures in their own right, instead of being mere titillation. "Breaking Away" is another artwork that can speak to women, with its image of a corset being broken into tiny pieces as if it were a shattering shell. The repressive nature of the corset is being destroyed, but without the unnecessary addition of a body wearing it (which would be distracting and would possibly attract attention for the wrong reasons). "Breaking Away" is about casting off the objects and systems that keep us down, and rejecting them in favor of the space to breathe, which is represented by the vast blue sky in the background. It's also a painting that might seem violent if a body was included, with the bursting and breaking action becoming almost like an explosion or a harmful act. Here it just feels like a natural conclusion to spending far too long in an uncomfortable and unhelpful corset.

representation of the cover of the female eunuch made out of shreds of material in a glass frame

[Georgia Russell, The Female Eunuch, 2008]

The Scottish artist Georgia Russell's take on The Female Eunuch was to rip it to shreds, but as part of her large body of work that involves cutting into books and making new pieces from them. We're given the torso from Holmes' image, but it's made from actual sections of the text. This means that the very words Greer wrote have taken on the visual symbol she chose. It's a visceral act to destroy the book in order to elevate its status, and it feels crude at first, but also powerful. Although there's nothing to indicate that Russell directly identifies with the books she re-makes, she must have chosen them for a reason. It's such a deliberate act and she's featured other ground-breaking classics such as Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. In the light of choosing Darwin to sit alongside Greer, The Female Eunuch feels more like The Origin of Second-Wave Feminism: It's acknowledging the pioneering message.

I'll also be interested to see how this cover evolves in the future; will we ever see a Female Eunuch who is non-white or disabled or has love handles? Will we see one that has a boyish frame and no hips to speak of? I know that cover art, just like other forms of marketing, is driven by trends and by what people buy into, so it will be fascinating to see how the iconic dangling torso progresses. Whatever it becomes, it will still be an important text for feminists (and non-feminists) to actually peer past the veneer of the media's public projection of women and learn about the reality.

Bitch Media publishes the award-winning quarterly magazine, Bitch:Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Pitch in to support feminist media: Subscribe today

Subscribe to Bitch


Comments

5 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I don't get why my slim hips

I don't get why my slim hips should make my frame at all 'boyish'... why would you tell me that? is this really how you propose to include me, by calling me masculine?

Its Funny...

Its funny because I find a lot of these posts, and peoples response to most posts, to be more condescending and judgemental than most of the things I encounter in my daily life. Hence, I stopped subscribing and going on the site as often as I used to. And I am sure some self righteous person will put me down for this also, but its what I expect from this site. Way to claim to be open minded and pc when really you just make people feel like even more alienated and awkward.

Sorry - perhaps 'boyish hips' was the wrong term to use

In response to cvn, I didn't mean to offend anyone with the term 'boyish hips'. It's used quite heavily here in the UK as a non-offensive description, both in fashion terms and in terms of walking into a shop and buying clothes, and as my background is in fashion journalism and also retail then I tend to fall back on this kind of terminology without realising. I certainly didn't mean to make it sound so blunt.

I have friends of all different body types and several of them have less than prominent hips, but I'd never thought to question whether our description of them was hurtful (they also call their own hips 'boyish', but obviously that's their personal word rather than something that everyone would be comfortable with).

I hope this turn of phrase wasn't too off-putting for you, and I apologise again.

Polly Allen

John Holmes, 1935-2011

Polly , I have just read your piece about John Holmes and wonder if you could make contact by email please. Thank you J.H

John Holmes, 1935-2011

Polly , I have just read your piece about John Holmes and wonder if you could make contact by email please. Thank you J.H