Vanquishing the Literary Male Gaze

| Friday, May 10, 2013

Today's Tune: Short Skirt, Long Jacket

This is a post I've tried to write on and off several times, but I keep holding back because I know posts like this one occasionally garner some backlash. But tonight I decided I was going to go for it. I'll just include this disclaimer: if you read this and feel that it doesn't apply to you, than it doesn't apply to you. This isn't a blanket statement, and there are people for whom it won't apply. I know that, you know that. This is general commentary, not personalized attack. So let's just keep that in mind, cool? Cool!

Anyway, let's talk about the male gaze in fiction. Particularly fiction aimed at young women.

What do I mean when I talk about the "male gaze?" I mean the inherent tendency to view lady characters as sexual vessels, collections of body parts, or generally focusing on visuals of female bodies and beauty standards, particularly with an aim toward sexual objectification. We've all seen this sort of thing in novels.

"His eyes started at her crimson toenails, perfectly peeking through her strappy velvet sandals. Her legs were lean, smooth, fit; her hips ample and perfect for resting hands on. Plump breasts strained against the silk of her dress, her milky white bosom spilling over the top, begging to be nuzzled. And those lips. Full, slick, red. He could imagine that mouth on his, that tongue on his neck, his chest, his..."

You get the idea.

That was a blatant (but sadly not unimaginable) example. It assumes that anyone reading this novel is interested in the male protagonist's thoughts only and will immediately sexualize any stereotypically desirable female character until she's reduced to the parts that can be used for sexual pleasure. Her thoughts are often unimportant, her desires and goals non-existent, unless that desire and goal is to give the protagonist the most awesomest of awesome pleasure. You can imagine reading this in a real crime novel, or a noir, or an action thriller.

But much like the general public's view of Sexism with a capital "S" and Racism with a capital "R," it's only real or a problem if it's this blatant. This is easily recognizable, easy to pick at and call out as an example of "doing it wrong."

Here's the problem: this sort of dehumanizing male gaze is still present in novels where lady characters are fleshed out and interesting people. It's still present in novels where a woman or girl is the viewpoint character. I like to joke that I can almost always tell when a female character has been written by a man because of how he describes her, or how she describes other women or herself if she's the POV character. Which is not to say some men don't write incredible and realistic female characters -- they do it all the time. But there are a few indicators that always make me shake my head and go, "A dude clearly wrote this."

What are those indicators? The male gaze is there. Female characters are described in a way that draws attention to their body parts; their lips, or breasts, or legs. There's less attention paid to their dialogue or personality, or even the clothing they wear and their signature habits. Excuses are made to slip in nipple tweaks, butt grabs, or other touches, with consent or not. The narrative assumes that the reader is more interested in the sexual availability and attractiveness of the ladies than anything else about them.

This is especially jarring and obvious when the viewpoint character is a girl or woman. They'll look at themselves in the mirror and lovingly describe their perfect lips, their round breasts, their ample thighs (or, alternatively, lament how these parts aren't good enough). There's no connection between the body and the mind. It's not about how they use and live with these parts, what this body means to them and the history of growing into it. It's just about what everything looks like and if it would be suitably attractive to someone who wants to have sex with them.

They do this to other women in the narrative, as well. Their best friend isn't described in terms of memories or relationships, but in height and measurements. A canonically heterosexual girl or woman will notice other women's sexualized figures, or the way their neck curves in the light, or the desirability of their mouth. It's not unheard of for women to notice the bodies of other women (that happens all the time), but not like this.

But what of queer women? I can hear people asking. Don't women who are attracted to women think like that? I can't speak for those women, but in my experience with having lady friends who are into ladies, that's not really the way it works. Yes, they absolutely do think of women sexually and notice bodies in a sexual light. But it's not just about parts and how they can best enjoy sex with those parts. Women can relate to being attached to their body, to seeing the person inside the body. They know what it feels like for your body to be viewed as something that isn't yours. Every lady knows that feeling. It's a different mindset.

(Obviously there are instances in which this is untrue and a woman could objectify another woman. But knowing the multitude of ladies in my life, this is generally speaking not the way we function. If we do, it's often due to internalized patriarchy and beauty standards.)

Well, what about all those YA novels where the guys are just hot pieces of ass? I hear from the back. And to this point, I say read it again. Sure, there are novels where male love interests are described in terms of abs and rugged jawlines, which is more patriarchy at work dictating what "real men" should look like, by the way. However, those men are rarely (if ever) inactive in the narrative, or their thoughts and opinions dismissed or given less "screentime." Their bodies may be lovingly described, but so are their words and minds. Because in the eyes of women AND men, men are complete people, not collections of body parts for sexing up their lady. Stereotypically (racist) Latino Pool Boy Toys aside (why racist? Because rich white ladies are using young brown men in their employ and it's treated as a joke, that's why).

This is something I always notice because I can't not notice it. This is something that has happened to me in real life since I was maybe 11 or 12 years old. Certainly after I grew breasts at 13. It's one more thing that stands out to me in the way men, even well-meaning men, misinterpret what it means to be female. That the way we view the world is inherently different, not because of VENUS and MARS or anything, but because we live in a world that disconnects us from our body parts and sexual selves for the benefit of someone else. And when this is what's being written for young women, they'll just get that much more reinforcement that this is the way the world works.

When male characters look at female characters and see lips but not words, breasts but not hearts, and sex organs but not brains, it reflects what women go through every day. It reminds us that we are ultimately sex objects, that our goals and desires are always second to the men in our lives. And sometimes it takes someone calling it out for what it is to make a guy step back and go, "Shit, I didn't even realize I was doing that. I didn't even think about it."

And I am not in any way saying that people should avoid describing physicality or sexual attraction. You can say that your characters look pretty! Your characters can have sexy thoughts about the way someone's mouth moves! That's cool! The uncool part comes in when the focus is on the mouth alone. When desiring someone sexually becomes only about you and never about them.

As always, research and speaking to the people you're trying to represent is key. Don't just assume you understand how other people think and roll with it. Really try to understand they way they view the world.

Also, please never again use terms like "heaving breasts" or "supple buttocks" unless you're writing erotica, okay?

These are my thoughts. What are yours?


{ Joshua A. Spotts } at: May 10, 2013 at 7:57 AM said...

You have some very good points here. I questioned myself whether I have been guilty of "male gaze." I do not believe so, but when I go back through my novel for this final time I intend to keep an eye out for it.
I know that, for myself, as a male author, I try to use my female side characters as motivators to the male characters to do better things. And it is the female character's often times strong, though subtle, words and influence that motivate my male characters. I believe this is true in real life as well. I, personally, have been stopped from a mistake or chosen a better path because of the words of a woman.
In regard to the sexual objectification of women in YA fiction, I concur with your points. I have seen the objectification from a female character's eyes where she wants her "hunk of a man" to do things to her. I have seen objectification from a male perspective as well. It is a sad thing, but not one, I think, that every author falls prey to.
Good post!

{ Phire } at: May 10, 2013 at 10:10 AM said...

This, absolutely. I see this a lot in art, too...there's a very specific way of illustrating women that almost always has a male artist behind the pen. The obsession with body parts is part of it: there are just a few too many highlights on the lips and the chest, the curves are just a little bit too rounded, etc. But there's also a very specific way of posing - I'm not necessarily talking about the backbreaking impossible comic book poses, though those exist, too - but the stances are just a little bit more artificial, a little bit less like they're real people who have been caught in the middle of their lives and drawn.

If you look at portrait illustrations of women by women, the focus is often elsewhere - the eyes, the expression, the hair, or the body language. The art is more frequently stylized and caricatured, rather than a "realistic" hypersexy illustration. I don't think it's a coincidence that the kind of super-simple, expression-focused depiction of women we see in certain very popular comics (Hark a Vagrant, Hyperbole and a Half, etc) come from female illustrators.

Note: it's important to distinguish between "You can tell the gender of an artist/writer by their work" and "There are these specific markers used in depicting women that almost always skew male". I usually don't think about the gender of the art or the writing I come across, but if I notice it enough to make a judgment call, I'm very rarely wrong. It's exasperating and eye-rolly in art, and it makes me want to not continue reading something if it's too obvious and out of place.

In conclusion, you are smart and I agree with you. /drops mic, walks off-stage

{ JeffO } at: May 10, 2013 at 11:01 AM said...

Very thought-provoking post, as always. And, as always, it makes my brain explode when I try to craft a decent response.

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: May 10, 2013 at 7:30 PM said...

"Sure, there are novels where male love interests are described in terms of abs and rugged jawlines, which is more patriarchy at work dictating what "real men" should look like, by the way."

Such a good point! And an important post overall, Steph.

Hm, it's okay for the characters to be motivated by each other... however, it should go both ways, and the female characters should have goals of their own (however big or small). Just our two cents!

{ Sarah Hipple } at: May 11, 2013 at 3:42 PM said...

These articles always make me a bit sad. Because they remind me that, yes, improvements still need to be made. (Although I do think things are headed in the right direction.)

And this post coincides nicely with Maureen Johnson's post about girl vs. boy book covers. She said that a lot of female authors get the girlier/flufflier packaging, while male authors get the more serious covers. Not always true, of course, but there are definite examples. I think YA is one of the worse offenders of marketing female authors to a girly/female audience (that's just my opinion, though).

It is definitely something to keep in mind.

{ Joshua A. Spotts } at: May 14, 2013 at 5:19 PM said...

Rest assured, one of my main female characters does have a very definite goal...and it is a plot changer. Thanks for your response.

{ Sprunty } at: May 16, 2013 at 6:58 PM said...

Fantastic article. Your posts make people think. Is there a better compliment?

{ TojumiOluwa Adegboyega } at: May 31, 2013 at 8:29 AM said...

Amazing post! You absolutely hit the nail on the head with how women are objectified in a lot of YA lit.

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