What are Women Doing on Dime Novel Covers?

Nineteenth-Century readers poured over Dime Novels, Penny Dreadfuls, and other cheap magazines.  With most great novels of the period appearing serially in illustrated publications, vast amounts of people were used to reading with pictures.  And there’s nothing more appealing to vast amounts of people than cheap fiction!  Who can look at something like this cover from a January issue of Frank Leslie’s Boy’s and Girl’s Weekly and NOT feel a tinge of excitement (ok, don’t answer that — but I love it!).  (image, btw from the excellent Stanford Dime Novels Collection–browse and you shall be rewarded).  It’s a completely unsupported hunch, but I wonder if this doesn’t also have a lot to say about melodramatic acting in the period.  I am particularly drawn to the wide open eyes, the looks of horror, exaggerated body language, and, of course, deadly snake, part constrictor/part viper).


When I was rushing to find this image to print for a class, I came across the website’s page to browse their extensive collection by type of image.  It was quick work to find “Animals-Snake” (of which there were 33) to find what I was looking for, which made me wonder what other kinds of patterns were afoot among their extensive collection, which includes more than 8,000 images.

In learning how to visualize data, I’ve started crunching the numbers of their image categories to look for what trends we can find in popular fiction of the time, based on the site’s extensive efforts at categorization.
Out of a total of 2,365 images, here is a quick graph showing what actions women are doing in the collection’s dime novel covers (Click to enlarge):


The obvious numbers jump out first: women are depicted most often (in descending order) as: observing, frightened, being rescued by men, and socializing with men.  If there’s any doubt that by and large this selection of publications is gender normative, it’s obvious that women tend to either be represented  in situations that require male protection.  However, the smaller categories are fascinating on further analysis.  Women are often bearing weapons, attacking men, directing others, menacing others, etc.  Perhaps while they are passive at the margins, there is evidence to suggest that readers had a definite appetite for depictions of women in a variety of active (and deadly) actions?


Also of interest to me is the difference in how women and how girls are depicted in the data.  Here, girls follow similar overall patterns in that they observe and are frightened, but they also seem to quite frequently be depicted abducting children!



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